. Science in fiction (2). The role of “devices” in SF, and a readers’ quiz on the cloaking device.

Comments on my previous blog made the excellent point that science fiction should not be about “stuff”, but that nevertheless, “stuff” should contribute to the plot in some way. I would now like to take this a bit further, and consider some well-known TV programs, specifically “Star Trek” and “Blake’s Seven”. These are  two classics, and before I go further, I must emphasize that I really enjoyed these, and I regard the reason they are classics is because they had good script writers, and good actors who could show character. But let me consider whether “stuff” is relevant to the plots, and to do that, I ask, could the story, with a change of “stuff”, fit some other genre?

 Space ships get between stars/planets while weapons like phasers were simply weapons. At this point, the stories could be simply pirate stories and while the “stuff” made the settings, it did not critically alter the story.  Teleportation was more interesting. The reason for that was that the programs were of forty-five minutes duration, and getting to the surface of a planet in a shuttle, then concealing the shuttle is both time-consuming and repetitive. In such a short time, you do not wish to waste ten minutes boring the audience in the same way every episode. Warp speed had no function whatsoever, other than to return to a place and meet the same people.

 More interesting was the Klingon “cloaking device”. The cloaking device is one of the oldest devices in literature, but the question is, what is to be done with it? Star Trek did not seem to know what to do with it. Klingon ships could appear from nowhere, but they had to appear to do anything. It could have involved plots to steal this technology, but I do not recall that being done, and in much later series when there was peace, the cloaking device seems to have been forgotten. Don’t get me wrong. Star Trek was somewhat unique in its early days by having some of its scripts written by well-established guest authors, and generally the scripts were of high quality, which suggests that stories that critically depend on “stuff” are somewhat hard to write. Authors can dream up these wonderful magic devices, but they still have to do something with them, and that is harder.

 Now, a little question for readers. Can you think of a famous story involving a cloaking device that underpins a plot involving abuse of power, pride, wishing for what you should not have, and the curse of chattering women? If so, let us know and award yourself an imaginary chocolate fish. The one I am thinking of is extremely well-known, although probably very few have actually read it, which is something of a pity. I shall leave this question open for a while to give readers a chance.