A few weeks ago, I spoke to a student reporter from UW about Norwescon, reading habits, and how my own reading habits have changed as I aged and as the pandemic hit. While the conversation was a lot longer than the one quote that made it in, at least I wasn’t cut completely, and got a mention of Norwescon in front of UW students — so mission accomplished, I say!

Escaping through the pages:

Science fiction, dystopia’s similar but more optimistic counterpart, is also seeing an increase in popularity during the pandemic, much to the excitement of seasoned fans everywhere. 

Every year, Seattle hosts the Pacific Northwest’s regional science fiction and fantasy convention Norwescon. Michael Hanscom, longtime convention attendee, volunteer, and secretary of this year’s virtual event, has been turning to the familiar, curiosity-driven world of “Star Trek” since the beginning of quarantine in order to cope with reality.

“This is not always quality sci-fi; this is absolutely escapism,” Hanscom said, gesturing to his bookshelves filled with “Star Trek” paraphernalia during our Zoom interview. “I think 80% of my reading last year was ‘Star Trek’ novels because I couldn’t concentrate on anything more weighty than that. With everything going on and being locked down at home, I needed that escapism. I needed to get away.”

So in last week’s Star Trek: Discovery, the ship got a major upgrade (in just three weeks). What we’ve seen so far includes programmable matter bridge and spore drive interfaces, detached nacelles, and even (though not yet seen on screen) holodecks.

Discovery 1031-A

Today I noticed one thing in the new promo pic (embedded above) that I hadn’t noticed while watching the episode: apparently the four corridors connecting the saucer’s inner section to its outer ring have been removed. Here’s a top view of the original design for comparison.

Discovery 1031

This seems like a really odd design decision to me. Before, while getting from the inner to outer sections may not have been super convenient if on foot and not using a turbolift (especially given the size difference between the Disco and any non-Abramsverse version of the Enterprise…and geez, I hadn’t realized just how huge all the Disco ships were), at least if it needed to be done they wouldn’t have had to go more than a quarter of the way around the gap. And there must be times when a turbolift isn’t practical — for instance, moving material, supplies, machinery, or other such things too large to fit in a turbolift around the ship.

I guess it all relies on everyone using those fancy new site-to-site personal transporters embedded in the new badges. But what if they’re not wearing a badge (taken off, fallen off, forcibly removed, etc.)? What if something goes wrong and the transporter system isn’t working properly (which, I know, never happens in Star Trek, but allow it for the sake of argument)? Now the only way to get from the inner ring to the outer ring is to take the primary corridor at the back of the inner ring towards the body of the ship, and then go around the outer ring to your destination. I just hope they don’t have to go from a point on the front of the inner ring to the front of the outer ring! Heck, now I wonder how hard it would be to estimate just how far that distance actually is….

Anyway. It looks cool, sure. But there are practicality considerations.

In a similar vein, how is maintenance done on those fancy new detached nacelles? In our first glimpse, it looked like they can be attached to the body of the ship, and were in the process of detaching in the shot, but what if something goes wrong while they’re detached?

One of the things I absolutely loved about Star Trek when I was a kid, and part of what has always fascinated me about it, was how real everything felt. Even fantastical elements, like the warp drive or transporters, always felt like there could be real, logical science behind them. And obviously, I’m not the only one who was drawn to this part of Trek, as I wouldn’t have all these Star Trek technical manuals and blueprints on my shelves if there weren’t enough of a market for them to get them published in the first place.

Trek Manuals and Blueprints

But so much of modern Trek (both Abramsverse and Discovery) seems to fall into the hand-wavey, might as well be magic, “because it looks cool” school of thought that breaks my suspension of disbelief.

Programmable matter I’m fine with — I want to know more about it, sure, but so far, I’m cool with how they’ve presented it. Detached nacelles (and other ship parts) could really use some serious work on defining what makes them desirable, possible, and accounting for practical considerations. We’ve seen lots of equipment, from space suits to prisoner anonymity hoods to asteroid-catching gravity platforms that just seem to fold open and create matter out of nothing — how is that explained? Where are all these fold-away pieces being stored when they’re not in use? Specifically regarding the asteroid-catching gravity platform, how do you get that much matter and mass into a suitcase that a human can carry around when it’s not in use?

And sure, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“, and sure, we’ve jumped another 900-some years into the future, and yes, we’ve just been introduced to these things, so there’s still plenty of time to develop the technobabble to justify them (or write scenes and scripts that deal with the situations outlined above). And, of course, these are modern shows, and I in no way expect them to be slavishly beholden to the set designs and special effects of the 1960s or 1980s.

But for me, at least, they’re really dancing on the line of believable technology vs. magic. And going too far towards magic is very likely to break a fundamental part of what has defined Trek for me for my entire life.