Invisible Force Fields In Science Fiction

By Dr. Roger Sabin

In the world of physics, the term ‘force field’ has several specific definitions – exactly the definitions that the IFFE team are seeking to clarify and expand. In science fiction, however, ‘force field’ has tended to mean an invisible wall of resistance, commonly a protective shield. As such, it has taken on connotations drawn from martial arts – its special characteristic is that it can soak up the energy of an attacking foe and repel it back on itself. In this way, bullets, death rays and other dangers have their kinetic energy dissipated and neutralised. It’s an attractive idea, and invisible force fields have had a way of re-asserting themselves as a serious element of SF storytelling in pulp magazines, comics, novels, film and TV shows.

In the 1920s-40s, the heyday of pulp magazine publishing, the invisible force field was a staple. The greatest pulp ‘space opera’ writer, E.E. Doc Smith, used them both in his The Skylark of Space series (which debuted in the classic pulp Amazing Stories) and Lensmen series (better known as a series of novels). These expansive futuristic romps, in which gadgets are constantly countered by bigger and better gadgets, the force fields under attack glow different colours of the spectrum, becoming visible in the process, until they reach violet and black and collapse. Smith’s contribution to this particular aspect of SF mythology should therefore not be underrated.

The idea was then taken up by other aspects of the pop arts in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Comic books, for example, were an offshoot of the pulp publishing business in the US and shared many of their themes. In the adventure genre that came to dominate, the superhero story, force fields became a common device to thwart super-villains. Superman was able to use his alien powers to manufacture fields in a variety of ways, while in The Fantastic Four, the most special power of the ‘Invisible Girl’, aside from the ability to turn herself and other objects invisible, was specifically that of being able to control invisible force fields. (In some stories, this was ‘explained’ in terms of stemming from hyperspace, giving her an almost limitless supply of energy.)

The force field concept was also adopted by the cinema in the period, most successfully in Forbidden Planet (1956). In this SF reworking of Shakespeare’s Tempest, space travellers visit a planet ruled by a Prospero figure (played by Walter Pidgeon) and his obedient robot. A force field is used to keep out a monster from the Id – a psychic abomination that feeds on fears and desires (in a twist on the Tempest story, Pidgeon must die because he does not know himself and is therefore a danger to others). The film has been interpreted as exposing one of the main preoccupations of 1950s American cinema: its fear and dislike of intellectuals. It was one of the most influential SF movies of its era.

Meanwhile, the concept was evolving. A new spin came in 1953, when Charles Harness’ novel Flight into Yesterday managed to yoke together the SF and Fantasy genres. In the story, set in a technologically advanced society, the efficacy of a force field is in direct proportion to the momentum of the object it resists. Thus, the only kind of weapon that can circumvent such a shield is a sword – where the momentum would be relatively small. This conceit allowed Harness to introduce swordplay and to pull in Fantasy elements from the worlds of JRR Tolkien and Robert E.Howard, making for a swashbuckling, retro-futurist yarn – an idea that would be much-imitated. [1]

By the mid-1960s, therefore, the notion of the invisible force field was well and truly entrenched in SF lore. [2] In 1967, the genre took another ‘great leap forward’ with the screening on TV of the first episode of Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry’s series was revolutionary for a number of reasons – not least for allowing women into the previously men-only SF club (it’s estimated that fifty per cent of Star Trek viewers were female). Force fields were part of the mix, featuring in the pilot episode, and along with phasers, tractor beams and cloaking devices established an almost plausible world of imaginary science.

But how plausible? In 1997, scientist Lawrence M. Krauss set out to answer this question in his entertainingly controversial The Physics of Star Trek (Flamingo). Taking as his starting point a critical discussion of the Newtonian laws of physics, he explores invisible force fields in terms of the warping of space. Thus, ‘If spacetime becomes strongly curved in front of the Enterprise, then any light ray – or phaser beam – will be deflected away from the ship. This is doubtless the principle behind deflector shields. Indeed, we are told that the deflector shields operate by “coherent graviton emission”. Since gravitons are by definition particles that transmit the force of gravity, then “coherent graviton emission” is nothing other than the creation of a coherent gravitational field… precisely what curves space! So the Star Trek writers have at least settled upon the right language.’ [3]

Here then, we have, perhaps for the first time, an attempt at a scientific explanation for a particular kind of SF force field. By the time of subsequent series of Star Trek, notably ‘Next Generation’ in the 1990s, the links with ‘real physics’ were being made much more apparent. ‘Data’ became a vehicle for discussing theories around cyborgism; ‘warp drive’ was debated in terms of the possibilities offered by wormholes; and in one episode Professor Stephen Hawking makes a guest appearance. Was SF getting too serious? The Krauss book was followed by others exploring the scientific basis for SF tropes in various movies (notably the Alien quartet and Blade Runner) and in superhero comics.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of SF-meets-real-science in recent years has been the Matrix trilogy of movies (1999-2003) – and once again, invisible force fields are a theme. Drawing on advances in computer technology in the 1990s, and especially the expansion of the Internet and developments in Virtual Reality, the films offer an essentially moral vision. Namely, that the reality that forms the lives of millions of human beings is not real. The world that seems concrete to most people is in fact a computer-generated simulation. But only a few know it – and it’s their job, led by mysterious computer hacker ‘Neo’ (Keanu Reeves) to expose the truth.

Thus, in one sense, everything in the Matrix’s fake world is held together by an ‘invisible force field’. It is a simulation, but a simulation in which people have little choice but to believe - an idea that had previously been best expressed in William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, in which he defined cyberspace as ‘a consensual hallucination’. [4] Only when Neo and his cohorts find ways to control their actions within the Matrix do we begin to see its constructedness – as bullets are tracked through space in slo-mo, and characters crash through ‘solid’ walls. Thus, the invisible becomes visible, and the force field is breached. [5] In this way it becomes a metaphor for not only Christian and Buddhist teachings, but also Marxist ideas involving ‘false consciousness’.

The notion of the Invisible force field is constantly being re-invented for new generations of SF fans, as a plot device and as a metaphor, and each new advance in ‘real science’ brings forth a fresh conceptualisation. In this sense, SF always tells us more about the present than the future. But at the same time, today’s science fiction is often tomorrow’s science fact - which brings us neatly back to the purpose of the ‘Invisible Force Field Experiments’.

So long as there are pioneers like those involved with I.F.F.E. who are prepared to risk so much in the pursuit of knowledge, so the concept can be illuminated and evolve. And that’s an ambition we should all salute.

So long as there are pioneers like those involved with I.F.F.E. who prepared to risk so much in the pursuit of knowledge, so the concept can be illuminated and evolve. And that’s an ambition we should all salute

[1] Other books were important in finessing the idea. In particular, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction notes Robert Sheckley’s Early Model (1956), which ‘tells of a force field so efficient that it renders its wearer almost incapable of carrying out any action at all that might conceivably endanger him’ (p.438) and Poul Anderson’s Shield (1963), in which the eponymous device can re-charge itself. John Clute and Peter Nicholl The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, paperback edition, Orbit, 1999.

[2] The 1960s and 70s were also notable for the way in which the counter-culture tuned in to SF ideas. ‘Space rock’ came to characterise certain bands: for example, Hawkwind wrote songs about force fields of various kinds, and even toured with Michael Moorcock. (Drugs were also part of the mix: the April 2004 edition of Mojo magazine relates the amusing story of Daevid Allen, singer with Gong, who was prevented from joining the rest of the band on stage for a gig in Paris because, he said, ‘a force field, like a mattress’ prevented him from doing so.) [3] Lawrence Krauss, The Physics of Star Trek, Flamingo, UK, 1997, p.57. [4] William Gibson, Neuromancer, HarperCollins, UK, 1984, pp.10-11. [5] In The Animatrix (2003), a collection of several animated short films, some of the back-story for the Matrix trilogy is explained, and this idea of an invisible force field is explored more fully. In one story, children are seen enjoying the act of levitating and floating in suspended animation, due to a glitch in the computer programme.