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Jay Lake
Date: 2012-05-14 05:19
Subject: [process] Slamming the doors on your spaceship
Security: Public
Tags:child, conventions, process, writing
I have this whole theory about the non-normative nature of the science fiction genre and its transformational narratives. Luckily for you, I'm not going to talk about that in this blog post. Not much, at any rate. (Ask me some other time.) A somewhat more plain-English way of articulating one of the key concepts behind that theory is to say that most of us read science fiction to experience something meaningfully different than what we find in our everyday lives.

One of the signature fillips in the original Star Trek was the doors on the starship Enterprise. It's hard to remember this now, but when Star Trek went on the air in 1966, those automatic doors we're all so used to at every grocery store and whatnot basically didn't exist. The bridge doors sliding open and shut with a "schmuck" sound behind Shatner's every entrance were very, very strange. Different. A simple signifier of a bold, new world. (We saw an attempt to recapture that sensibility in Deep Space Nine with those weird rolling cogwheel doors.)


In a similar vein, a very common narrative trope in science fiction is that future spaceship operations will have their roots in naval tradition. So, for example, almost all spaceship or starship crews seem to follow naval or merchant marine ranks. Ships have "hatches" instead of "doors", "decks" instead of "floors", which is often reflected in science fiction usage. Less often but still common are usages such as "overhead" for "ceiling", "bulkhead" for "wall" and "passageway" for "hallway" or "corridor". This is both part of how we've been trained to think about spaceships in our narratives, and part of making things in the narrative feel just a little different, an echo of the frisson we got from the original Star Trek's bridge design.

Lately I've been doing a fair amount of workshop critique reading for various events, and as happens anytime one reads a number of manuscripts, certain coincidental trends emerge. In this case, it's writers setting stories on space stations or spaceships where the interior fittings are described with common architectural terminology. This bothers me vaguely based on my lifelong training as a genre reader, as well as the sensibilities I've evolved as a genre writer these past two decades and more.

I really can argue this both ways quite readily. Part of the challenge of making the unfamiliar feel real in fiction is leaving in enough bits of naturalistic reality that the reader can follow along with the adjustments in reality that the story offers. (Oddly, [info]the_child and I were discussing precisely this point a day or two ago in a slightly different context.) This is the source of that piece of genre writerly folk wisdom that says you get to do one impossible thing for free in your story. If you change everything at once, the story becomes incomprehensible.

In other words, having people on spaceships live in rooms and open doors and walk down halls and stare at the ceilings keeps the reader from being distracted by wondering what the hell an "overhead" is, when that's not the point of the story. At the same time, people who live in rooms and open doors and walk down halls and stare at the ceilings may as well be hanging around in my house. It doesn't feel different.

And different is what science fiction is all about.

Still, I can forgive this in pursuit of the story. Every writer has their own vision of how the narrative should flow. Every writer's vision evolves.

But I really, truly draw the line at slamming the doors on your spaceship. That whole concept is so predicated on contemporary Western interior design, and echoes strongly of teen tantrums and relationship spats. It makes all the sense in the world in a romance novel taking place in a naturalistic contemporary setting for the protagonist to slam a door. That's an emotional signifier and a familiar action. But damn it, I want my spaceship doors to go "schmuck", or dilate, or hiss gently into the walls, or dematerialize, or at the least clang ponderously. I don't want them to be slammed.

There's a fine line between the familiar and the banal. For good science fiction to work, you really need to keep on the right side of it. Otherwise you're missing the whole point of the genre, methinks.

Do the doors slam on your spaceship?

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Jim Hetley
User: jhetley
Date: 2012-05-14 12:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Minor point -- "electric eye" automatic doors existed back in the 1950s, were invented in the 1930s. I used to play with waving my hand in front of the photocells.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-05-14 13:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's what I get for believing what I read on the Internet... Hah!
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User: goulo
Date: 2012-05-14 15:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm pretty sure I have childhood memories of automatically opening doors in grocery stores from the late sixties. (But activated by stepping on a pad, not by an electric eye.)
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User: mmegaera
Date: 2012-05-14 21:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Seconding goulo on this one.
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User: ulfhirtha
Date: 2012-05-14 14:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Do the doors slam on your spaceship?"

Not usually. especially in the near-future, when ship design looks a lot like a submarine and functionality/survivability is paramount & surplus space/weight a luxury. Somehow I think some writers today could benefit from a heavy dose of Arthur Clarke on how to make the story work AND do the setting properly. That "different" feeling is indeed crucial. There should also be a reason *why* this story is happening on a spaceship, in a way it wouldn't in any other setting. (unless that is supposed to be the point...otherwise regular tale that happens to be on the Space Ark or whatever, and humans can leave Earth behind but not themselves or some such)

I also wonder how much such nautical/military trappings made more sense to an era where millions had just been in WWII and being increasingly removed from that has dulled our own familiarity with it. Here I look at original Star Trek - from the era of WWII vets & PT 109 and the cusp of Vietnam, vs the recent JJ Abrams film or parts of the new BSG (punch out your XO & not wind up in the brig? really?) and how each violation of expectations from the setting can pull the audience out of the story.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2012-05-14 17:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I also wonder how much such nautical/military trappings made more sense to an era where millions had just been in WWII and being increasingly removed from that has dulled our own familiarity with it.

Honestly, so long as we go on talking about space ships, I think nautical terminology is going to continue to make sense. The more arcane bits, maybe not -- I'm not familiar with "overhead" for "ceiling" -- but decks, hatches, etc, yes. Those are familiar enough to the general populace that I don't expect them to stop being the space-based default any time soon.
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User: desperance
Date: 2012-05-14 14:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I had actually met my first automatic door before I saw my first Star Trek episode at the end of the '60s. But what I've always loved about spaceship doors - in Star Trek, yes, but more conspicuously in Babylon 5 - is that they're telepathic. They always know when someone's actually intending to leave, or when they're going to stop, turn around, toss a final bitter comment into the scene before finally departing. The doors never open until they really mean it.
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User: voidampersand
Date: 2012-05-14 15:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Be careful when you slam that hatch; it's meant to be airtight.
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User: etcet
Date: 2012-05-14 15:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, I expect they will, especially when rogue non-humans are closing them abruptly out or pique or animosity.
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User: bemused_leftist
Date: 2012-05-14 16:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, slammable doors are like the skillets hanging on the wall in the Serenity space-, er, ship. Protected by the magic of trope.

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They Didn't Ask Me: zoe-barnes-spacesuit
User: dr_phil_physics
Date: 2012-05-14 16:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting question.

I'm not sure anyone's ever slammed a hatch or door on my 29th century starships. The heavier hatches are designed to contain blasts and are balanced and countersprung. I imagine them as being dampered so they engage, seal and lock down smoothly.

Some slide open -- often these are the double and triple airlock doors between major sections and the use of sliding doors minimizes the space required in the corridor and recognizes that blasts can come from either direction. The downside is that those sliding doors have to slide into a pocket and in battle, there are alignment issues and jamming.

I remember in one near term SF novel that someone described the difference between a US and a Soviet hatch as one being a precision device making a perfect seal, which cane disrupted by any damage or foreign body, versus a rigid hatch with lots of play, O-rings and dogs to tighten them down, even if the alignment has been damaged.

Dr. Phil
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User: lindadee
Date: 2012-05-14 17:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I remember grocery stores opening automatically in the sixties. But I had a friend whose grandfather was an architect. He designed an apartment building in Riverdale, New York (a wealthy part of the Bronx) where the lobby doors opened that way. Whenever I went there, I felt I was living in teh future (but not just because of those doors). It was a beautiful apartment building.)

Edited at 2012-05-14 05:10 pm (UTC)
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Thom Marrion
User: xnbach
Date: 2012-05-14 19:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Doors only slam on spaceships if they came from Planet Claire (and that is only because those intersteller vessels are really just retrofitted Plymouth Sattelites)
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User: mmegaera
Date: 2012-05-14 21:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Admittedly, I'm not a typical SF reader (I came to it from the romance side when someone shoved Miles Vorkosigan into my hands), but I read SF for character, pretty much full stop.

Of course, that's what I read all fiction for...
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2012-05-15 03:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think almost everyone reads for character, ultimately, whether or not they are consciously aware of that.
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Lizzy Blythe-Shannon
User: lizzyshannon
Date: 2012-05-15 03:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
ROFL - I never realized the doors said, "Schmuck," to Shatner... how funny. :-)

You got wonderfully different in Calamity of So Long a Life, btw. ;-)
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