Sci-fi Spacesuits: Protecting the Wearer from the Perils of Space

Space is incredibly inhospitable to life. It is a near-perfect vacuum, lacking air, pressure, and warmth. It is full of radiation that can poison us, light that can blind and burn us, and a darkness that can disorient us. If any hazardous chemicals such as rocket fuel have gotten loose, they need to be kept safely away. There are few of the ordinary spatial clues and tools that humans use to orient and control their position. There are free-floating debris that range from to bullet-like micrometeorites to gas and rock planets that can pull us toward them to smash into their surface or burn in their atmospheres. There are astronomical bodies such as stars and black holes that can boil us or crush us into a singularity. And perhaps most terrifyingly, there is the very real possibility of drifting off into the expanse of space to asphyxiate, starve (though biology will be covered in another post), freeze, and/or go mad.

The survey shows that sci-fi has addressed most of these perils at one time or another.

Alien (1976): Kane’s visor is melted by a facehugger’s acid.

Interfaces

Despite the acknowledgment of all of these problems, the survey reveals only two interfaces related to spacesuit protection.

Battlestar Galactica (2004) handled radiation exposure with simple, chemical output device. As CAG Lee Adama explains in “The Passage,” the badge, worn on the outside of the flight suit, slowly turns black with radiation exposure. When the badge turns completely black, a pilot is removed from duty for radiation treatment.

This is something of a stretch because it has little to do with the spacesuit itself, and is strictly an output device. (Nothing that proper interaction requires human input and state changes.) The badge is not permanently attached to the suit, and used inside a spaceship while wearing a flight suit. The flight suit is meant to act as a very short term extravehicular mobility unit (EMU), but is not a spacesuit in the strict sense.

The other protection related interface is from 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Dr. Dave Bowman begins an extravehicular activity to inspect seemingly-faulty communications component AE-35, we see him touch one of the buttons on his left forearm panel. Moments later his visor changes from being transparent to being dark and protective.

We should expect to see few interfaces, but still…

As a quick and hopefully obvious critique, Bowman’s function shouldn’t have an interface. It should be automatic (not even agentive), since events can happen much faster than human response times. And, now that we’ve said that part out loud, maybe it’s true that protection features of a suit should all be automatic. Interfaces to pre-emptively switch them on or, for exceptional reasons, manually turn them off, should be the rarity.

But it would be cool to see more protective features appear in sci-fi spacesuits. An onboard AI detects an incoming micrometeorite storm. Does the HUD show much time is left? What are the wearer’s options? Can she work through scenarios of action? Can she merely speak which course of action she wants the suit to take? If a wearer is kicked free of the spaceship, the suit should have a homing feature. Think Doctor Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, but for astronauts.

As always, if you know of other examples not in the survey, please put them in the comments.

Spacesuits in Sci-fi

“Why cannot we walk outside [the spaceship] like the meteor? Why cannot we launch into space through the scuttle? What enjoyment it would be to feel oneself thus suspended in ether, more favored than the birds who must use their wings to keep themselves up!”

—The astronaut Michel Ardan in Round the Moon by Jules Verne (1870)

When we were close to publication on Make It So, we wound up being way over the maximum page count for a Rosenfeld Media book. We really wanted to keep the components and topics sections, and that meant we had to cut the section on things. Spacesuits was one of the chapters I drafted about things. I am representing that chapter here on the blog. n.b. This was written ten years ago in 2011. There are almost certainly other more recent films and television shows that can serve as examples. If you, the reader, notice any…well, that‘s what the comments section is for.

Sci-fi doesn’t have to take place in interplanetary space, but a heck of a lot of it does. In fact, the first screen-based science fiction film is all about a trip to the moon.

La Voyage Dans La Lune (1904): The professors suit up for their voyage to the moon by donning conical caps, neck ruffles, and dark robes.

Most of the time, traveling in this dangerous locale happens inside spaceships, but occasionally a character must travel out bodily into the void of space. Humans—and pretty much everything (no not them) we would recognize as life—can not survive there for very long at all. Fortunately, the same conceits that sci-fi adopts to get characters into space can help them survive once they’re there.

Establishing terms

An environmental suit is any that helps the wearer survive in an inhospitable environment. Environment suits first began with underwater suits, and later high-altitude suits. For space travel, pressure suits are to be worn during the most dangerous times, i.e. liftoff and landing, when an accident may suddenly decompress a spacecraft. A spacesuit is an environmental suit designed specifically for survival in outer space. NASA refers to spacesuits as Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMUs. Individuals who wear the spacesuits are known as spacewalkers. The additional equipment that helps a spacewalker move around space in a controlled manner is the Manned Mobility Unit, or MMU.

Additionally, though many other agencies around the world participate in the design and engineering of  spacesuits, there is no convenient way to reference them and their efforts as a group, so Aerospace Community is used as a shorthand. This also helps to acknowledge that my research and interviews were primarily with sources primarily from NASA.

The design of the spacesuit is an ongoing and complicated affair. To speak of “the spacesuit” as if it were a single object ignores the vast number of iterations and changes made to the suits between each cycle of engineering, testing, and deployment, must less between different agencies working on their own designs. So, for those wondering, I’m using the Russian Orlan spacesuit currently being used in the International Space Station and shuttle missions as the default design when speaking about modern spacesuits.

Spacesuit Orlan-MKS at MAKS-2013(air show) (fragment) CC BY-SA 4.0

What the thing’s got to do

A spacesuit, whether in sci-fi or the real world, has to do three things.

  1. It has to protect the wearer from the perils of interplanetary space.
  2. It has to accommodate the wearer’s ongoing biological needs.
  3. Since space is so dangerous, the suit and tools must help the wearer accomplish their extravehicular tasks efficiently and get them back to safer environs as quickly as possible.

Each of these categories of functions, and the related interfaces, are discussed in following posts.

The Fritzes 2021 Winners

The Fritzes award honors the best interfaces in a full-length motion picture in the past year. Interfaces play a special role in our movie-going experience, and are a craft all their own that does not otherwise receive focused recognition. Awards are given for Best Believable, Best Narrative, Audience Choice, and Best Interfaces (overall.) A group of critics and creators were consulted to watch the nominated films, compare their merits, and cast votes.

As we all know 2020 was a strange year—being the first big year of the COVID pandemic—and cinema was greatly affected. The number of sci-fi films was low, and the amount of interfaces in those films often smallish compared to prior years. But that does not mean they were not without quality, and here I’m happy to celebrate the excellent work of the candidates and the winners.

Best Believable

These movies’ interfaces adhere to solid HCI principles and believable interactions. They engage us in the story world by being convincing. The nominees for Best Believable are Minor PremiseProject Power, and Proximity.

The winner of the Best Believable award for 2021 is Project Power.

Project Power

Project Power’s novum is a speculative street drug called Power, that can either explode you, or give you temporary superpowers that are derived from animals’ abilities. Frank Shaver is a policeman who is a user, who has befriended his young dealer, Robin. Art, an ex-soldier who goes by the name Major, teams up with Shaver and Robin, to work their way through the Power dealer network, to stop distribution and find Major’s daughter Tracy, who plays a key role in the whole thing. On the way they learn that Power was created by a private defense contractor, Teleios, that is using New Orleans like a Tuskegee-like testing ground, and work to bring it down.

The interfaces we see belong to Teleios, and tell a story of surveillance, control, social justice, and cutting-edge genetic engineering. While being cool and reserved, the interfaces are believable and help engage us in its psychotic scheme. It’s a Netflix original, so you can catch the movie there.


Best Narrative

These movies’ interfaces blow us away with wonderful visuals and the richness of their future vision. They engross us in the story world by being spectacular. The nominees for Best Narrative are Love and Monsters, Underwater, and World of Tomorrrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime.

The winner of the Best Narrative award for 2021 is World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime.

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime

In a far and bleakly dystopian future, David Prime is alone in his spaceship, when he discovers a hidden memory from a future lover named Emily 9, that sets him off on a trek to retrieve memories from his multiple, future, cloned selves. The instructions that he needs to follow are all from a technology 400 years in the future, the size of which require that he offload increasingly more and more important “cognitive apps.” David’s glitchy, intrusive-ad-infested head-mounted viewscreen interface tells of a world where genetic engineering is a schlock product “HOLOGRAMS THAT YELL AT YOU! (HOTT WILD DISCRETE PARTYLOVE),” human minds are little more than extended smartphones, time travel is used mostly for murder, and human experience is wholly mediated. See it on Vimeo.


Audience Choice

All of the movies nominated for other awards were presented for an Audience Choice award. Across social media, the readership was invited to vote for their favorite, and the results tallied. The winner of the Audience Choice award for 2021 is LX 2048.

LX 2048

Adam Bird is dealing with a broken family, a wrecked world, a failing career, and on top of it all, a diagnosis of heart failure. To get a new heart that can be transplanted from a clone, he must approach his estranged wife Reena and ask her to request her Insurance Spouse ahead of his death. She agrees to it but bitterly arranges a virtual assassination for Adam before getting accidentally killed herself. When his clone shows up at his door he must face off against a better version of himself. It’s a dense thriller that goes to ask: What if your dream lover prefers a dream version of you? What if humanity was only a chrysalis?

The interfaces are simple and often subtle, but tell of a high-tech world trapped by virtual escapism, the complications of technological personhood, and the threat that our creations will obviate us. You can watch LX 2048 on many streaming services.


Best Interfaces

The movies nominated for Best Interfaces manage the extraordinary challenge of being believable and helping to paint a picture of the world of the story. They advance the state of the art in telling stories with speculative technology. The nominees for Best Narrative are ArchiveLX 2048, and The Midnight Sky.

The winner of the Best Interfaces award for 2021 is Archive.

Archive

George is an engineer reactivating a remote, mothballed industrial facility for a corporation called ARM. George is using the facility’s assets to work on general artificial intelligence and a robot housing that would be indistinguishable from human. He is camping on a technology called Archive, which offers its clients interactions with a virtual simulation of deceased persons for up to 200 hours, while the archive lasts. But he’s hiding both how far he’s gotten with his work, and that he’s not building just any human, but specifically that of Jules, his deceased wife. He and his 3 prototypes must try to reactive the facility, keep the corporation in the dark, keep a tech gang called the Otaku at bay, and deal with the dark interpersonal strife of the prototypes—with the resources and time he has left.

The interfaces are striking in their high-contrast palette, tight grid, and bold typography. The interface style extends throughout the costumes, the sets, and props. The interfaces tell of a setting that is lonely, corporatist, and isolated, and hides a dark secret at the center of it all. You can see Archive on several streaming services.


Congratulations to all the candidates and the winners. That you for helping advance the art and craft of speculative interfaces in cinema.

The Fritzes 2021: Audience Choice Voting

The form to cast your vote for Audience Choice is at the bottom of this post.

On or around 25 April 2021, scifiinterfaces.com is announcing awards for interfaces in a 2020 science fiction film. An “Audience Choice” will also be announced, and determined by the results of the poll, below. All films eligible for other awards are nominees for the Audience Choice award. Which one had the interfaces that you just loved the best? You should see the movies in full, but you can see trailers for each of the nominees, presented in alphabetical order, below. Voting will be open until 24 April 2021 at 23:59, Pacific Time.

Archive

Love and Monsters

LX 2048

The Midnight Sky

Minor Premise

Project Power

Proximity

Underwater

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime


Of those movies, which do you think had the best over all interfaces? Cast your vote below. To avoid flagrant ballot stuffing, you must have a google account and be logged in to that account to cast your vote.

Voting will be open until 24 April 2021 at 23:59, Pacific Time.

Please share this post on your social media to get the vote out! Thanks!

Sci-fi Interfaces Q&A with Perception Studio

First, congratulations to Perception Studio for the excellent work on Black Panther! Readers can see Perception’s own write up about the interfaces on their website. (Note that the reviewers only looked at this after the reviews were complete, to ensure we were looking at end-result, not intent. Also all images in this post were lifted from that page, with permission, unless otherwise noted.)

John LePore of Perception Studio reached out to me when we began to publish the reviews, asking if he could shed light on anything. So I asked if he would be up for an email interview when the reviews were complete. This post is all that wonderful shed light.

What exactly did Perception do for the film?

John: Perception was brought aboard early in the process for the specific purpose of consulting on potential areas of interest in science and technology. A brief consulting sprint evolved into 18 months of collaboration that included conceptual development and prototyping of various technologies for use in multiple sequences and scenarios. The most central of these elements was the conceptualization and development of the vibranium sand interfaces throughout the film. Some of this work was used as design guidelines for various vfx houses while other elements were incorporated directly into the final shots by Perception. In addition to the various technologies, Perception worked closely on two special sequences in the film—the opening ‘history of Wakanda’ prologue, and the main-on-end title sequence, both of which were based on the technological paradigm of vibranium sand.

What were some of the unique challenges for Black Panther?

John: We encountered various challenges on Black Panther, both conceptual and technical. An inspiring challenge was the need to design the most advanced technology in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while conceptualizing something that had zero influence from any existing technologies. There were lots of challenges around dynamic sand, and even difficulty rendering when a surge in the crypto market made GPU’s scarce to come by!

One of the things that struck me about Black Panther is the ubiquity of (what appear to be) brain-computer interfaces. How was it working with speculative tech that seemed so magical?

John: From the very start, it was very important to us that all of the technology we conceptualized was grounded in logic, and had a pathway to feasibility. We worked hard to hold ourselves to these constraints, and looked for every opportunity to include signals for the audience (sometimes nuanced, sometimes obvious) as to how these technologies worked. At the same time, we know the film will never stop dead in its tracks to explain technology paradigm #6. In fact, one of our biggest concerns was that any of the tech would appear to be ‘made of magic’.

Chris: Ooh, now I want to know what some of the nuanced signals were!

John: One of the key nuances that made it from rough tests to the final film was that the vibranium Sand ‘bounces’ to life with a pulse. This is best seen in the tactical table in the Royal Talon at the start of the film. The ‘bounce’ was intended to be a rhythmic cue to the idea of ultrasonic soundwaves triggering the levitating sand.

Similarly, you can find cymatic patterns in numerous effects in the film.

Did you know going in that you’d be creating something that would be so important to black lives?

John: Sometimes on a film, it is often hard to imagine how it will be received. On Black Panther, all the signals were clear that the film would be deeply important. From our early peeks at concept art of Wakanda, to witnessing the way Marvel Studios supported Ryan Coogler’s vision. The whole time working on the film the anticipation kept growing, and at the core of the buzz was an incredibly strong black fandom. Late in our process, the hype was still increasing—It was becoming obvious that Black Panther could be the biggest Marvel film to date. I remember working on the title sequence one night, a couple months before release, and Ryan played (over speakerphone) the song that would accompany the sequence. We were bugging out— “Holy shit that’s Kendrick!”… it was just another sign that this film would be truly special, and deeply dedicated to an under-served audience.

How did working on the film affect the studio?

John: For us it’s been one of our proudest moments— it combined everything we love in terms of exciting concept development, aesthetic innovation and ambitious technical execution. The project is a key trophy in our portfolio, and I revisit it regularly when presenting at conferences or attracting new clients, and I’m deeply proud that it continues to resonate. 

Where did you look for inspiration when designing?

John: When we started, the brief was simple: Best tech, most unique tech, and centered around vibranium. With a nearly open canvas, the element of vibranium (only seen previously as Captain America’s shield) sent us pursuing vibration and sound as a starting point. We looked deeply into cymatic patterns and other sound-based phenomena like echo-location. About a year prior, we were working with an automotive supplier on a technology that used ultrasonic soundwaves to create ‘mid-air haptics’… tech that lets you feel things that aren’t really there. We then discovered that the University at Tokyo was doing experiments with the same hardware to levitate styrofoam particles with limited movement. Our theory was that with the capabilities of vibranium, this effect could levitate and translate millions of particles simultaneously.

Beyond technical and scientific phenomenon, there was tremendous inspiration to be taken from African culture in general. From textile patterns, to colors of specific spices and more, there were many elements that influenced our process.  

What thing about working on the film do you think most people in audiences would be surprised by?

John: I think the average audience member would be surprised by how much time and effort goes into these pieces of the film. There are so many details that are considered and developed, without explicitly figuring into the plot of the film. We consider ourselves fortunate that film after film Marvel Studios pushes to develop these ideas that in other films are simply ‘set dressing’.

Chris: Lastly, I like finishing interviews with these questions.

What, in your opinion, makes for a great fictional user interface?

John: I love it when you are presented with innovative tech in a film and just by seeing it you can understand the deeper implications. Having just enough information to make assumptions about how it works, why it works, and what it means to a culture or society. If you can invite this kind of curiosity, and reward this fascination, the audience gets a satisfying gift. And if these elements pull me in, I will almost certainly get ‘lost’ in a film…in the best way. 

What’s your favorite sci-fi interface that someone else designed? (and why)

John: I always loved two that stood out to me for the exact reasons mentioned above.

One is Westworld’s tablet-based Dialog Tree system. It’s not the most radical UI design etc, but it means SO much to the story in that moment, and immediately conveys a complicated concept effortlessly to the viewer.

from Westworld Season 01 Episode 06, “The Adversary”

Another see-it-and-it-makes-sense tech concept is the live-tracked projection camera system from Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. It’s so clever, so physical, and you understand exactly how it works (and how it fails!). When I saw this in the theatre, I turned to my wife and whispered, “You see, the camera is moving to match the persp…” and she glared at me and said “I get it! Everybody gets it!” The clever execution of the gadget and scene made me, the viewer, feel smarter than I actually was!

from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

What’s next for the studio?

The Perception team is continuing to work hard in our two similar paths of exploration— film and real-world tech. This year we have seen our work appear in Marvel’s streaming shows, with more to come. We’ve also been quite busy in the technology space, working on next-generation products from technology platforms to exciting automobiles. The past year has been busy and full of changes, but no matter how we work, we continue to be fascinated and inspired by the future ahead.

Fritzes 2021 nominees

I’m glad I started the Fritzes in 2019, because in 2020 the movie industry was reeling from the haymaker that was COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2. Without the money of butts in cinema seats, many studios postponed production and releases. So the number of films to consider is notably smaller than in decades beforehand. But this also gave us the opportunity to consider films that are less blockbuster, more small and focused.

Following are the candidates for the 2021 Fritz awards, recognizing excellence in cinema sci-fi interfaces across the prior year.

Best Believable

These movies’ interfaces adhere to solid HCI principles and believable interactions. They engage us in the story world by being convincing. The nominees for Best Believable are Minor Premise, Project Power, and Proximity.

Best Narrative

These movies’ interfaces blow us away with wonderful visuals and the richness of their future vision. They engross us in the story world by being spectacular. The nominees for Best Narrative are Love and Monsters, Underwater, and World of Tomorrrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime.

Best Interfaces

The movies nominated for Best Interfaces manage the extraordinary challenge of being believable and helping to paint a picture of the world of the story. They advance the state of the art in telling stories with speculative technology. The nominees for Best Narrative are Archive, LX 2048, and The Midnight Sky.

Audience choice

All of the movies nominated for other awards will be presented for an Audience Choice award. Watch this space for when the ballot is open. In the meantime, if like me you want to see all the candidates so you can be elated or outraged at results, start watching now.

Awards will be announced near the end of April, probably.

Report Card: Black Panther (2018)

Read all the Black Panther posts in chronological order.

Black Panther’s financial success is hard to ignore. From the Wikipedia page:

Black Panther grossed $700.1 million in the United States and Canada, and $646.9 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $1.347 billion. It became the highest-grossing solo superhero film, the third-highest-grossing film of the MCU and superhero film overall, the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time, and the highest-grossing film by a black director. It is the fifth MCU film and 33rd overall to surpass $1 billion, and the second-highest-grossing film of 2018. Deadline Hollywood estimated the net profit of the film to be $476.8 million, accounting for production budgets, P&A, talent participations and other costs, with box office grosses and ancillary revenues from home media, placing it second on their list of 2018’s “Most Valuable Blockbusters”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Panther_(film)

It was also a critical success (96% Tomotometer anyone?) as well as a fan…well, “favorite” seems too small a word. Here, let me let clinical psychologist, researcher and trusted media expert Erlanger Turner speak to this.

Many have wondered why Black Panther means so much to the black community and why schools, churches and organizations have come to the theaters with so much excitement. The answer is that the movie brings a moment of positivity to a group of people often not the centerpiece of Hollywood movies… [Racial and ethnic socialization] helps to strengthen identity and helps reduce the likelihood on internalizing negative stereotypes about one’s ethnic group.

Erlanger Turner, assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Houston–Downtown

People—myself included—just love this movie. As is my usual caveat, though, this site reviews not the film, but the interfaces that appear in the film, and specifically, across three aspects.

Sci: B (3 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

This category (and Interfaces, I’ll be repeating myself later) is complicated because Wakanda is the most technologically-advanced culture on Earth as far as the MCU goes. So who’s to say what’s believable when you have general artificial intelligence, nanobots, brain interfaces, and technology barely distinguishable from magic? But this sort of challenge is what I signed up for, so…pressing on.

The interfaces are mostly internally consistent and believable within their (admittedly large) scope of nova.

There are plenty of weird wtf moments, though. Why do remote piloting interfaces routinely drop their users onto their tailbones? Why are the interfaces sometimes photo-real and sometimes sandpaper? Why does the Black Panther suit glow with a Here-I-Am light? Why have a recovery room in the middle of a functioning laboratory? Why have a control where thrusting one way is a throttle and the other fires weapons?

Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Here’s where Black Panther really shines. The wearable technology tells of a society build around keeping its advancement secret. The glowing tech gives clues as to what’s happening where. The kimoyo beads help describe a culture that—even if it is trapped in a might-makes-right and isolationist belief system—is still marvelous and equitable. The tech helps tell a wholly believable story that this is the most technologically advanced society on MCU Earth 616.

Interfaces: B (3 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

As I mentioned above, this is an especially tough determination given the presence of nanobots, AGI, and brain interfaces. All these things confound usual heuristic approaches.

It even made me make this Simpsons-riff animated gif, which I expect I’ll be using increasingly in the future. In this metaphor I am Frink.

But they do not make it impossible. The suit and Talon provide gorgeous displays. (As does the med table, even if its interaction model has issues.) The claws, the capes, and the sonic overload incorporate well-designed gestures. Griot (the unnamed AI) must be doing an awful lot of the heavy lifting, but as a model of AI is one that appears increasingly in the MCU, where the AI is the thing in the background that lets the heroes be heroes (which I’m starting to tag as sidekick AI).

All that said, we still see the same stoic guru mistakes in the sand table that seem to plague sci-fi. In the med station we see a red-thing-bad oversimplicity, mismatched gestures-to-effects, and a display that pulls attention away from a patient, which keeps it from an A grade.

Final Grade A- (10 of 12), Blockbuster.

It was an unfortunately poignant time to have been writing these reviews. I started them because of the unconscionable murders of Breonna Taylor and George Flloyd—in the long line of unconscionable black deaths at the hands of police—and, knowing the pandemic was going to slow posting frequency, would keep these issues alive at least on this forum long after the initial public fury has died down.

But across the posts, Raysean White was killed. Cops around the nation responded with inappropriate force. Chadwick Boseman died of cancer. Ruth Bader Ginsberg died, exposing one of the most blatant hypocrisies of the GOP and tilting the Supreme Court tragically toward the conservative. The U.S. ousted its racist-in-chief and Democrats took control of the Senate for the first time since 2011, despite a coordinated attempt by the GOP to suppress votes while peddling the lie that the election was stolen (for which lawmakers involved have yet to suffer any consequences).

It hasn’t ended. Just yesterday began the trial of the officer who murdered George Floyd. It’s going to take about a month just to hear the main arguments. The country will be watching.

Meanwhile Georgia just passed new laws that are so restrictive journalists are calling it the new Jim Crow. This is part of a larger conservative push to disenfranchise Democrats and voters of color in particular. We have a long way to go, but even though this wraps the Black Panther reviews, our work bending the arc of the moral universe is ongoing. Science fiction is about imagining other worlds so we can make this one better.

Black Panther II is currently scheduled to come out July 8, 2022.

Wakanda forever.

Vibranium-based Cape Shields

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is penned by Lonny Brooks. Be sure and read his introduction post if you missed it when it was published.

The Black Panther film represents one of the most ubiquitous statements of Afrofuturist fashion and fashionable digital wearables to celebrate the Africana and Black imagination. The wearable criteria under Director Ryan Cooglar’s lead and that of the formidable talent of costume designer Ruth E. Carter took into account African tribal symbolism. The adinkra symbol, for “cooperation,” emblazoned across W’Kabi’s (played by Daniel Kaluuya) blanket embodies the role of the Border tribe where they lived in a small village tucked into the mountainous borderlands of Wakanda, disguised as farmers and hunters.

Beautiful interaction

Chris’ blog looks at the interactions with speculative technology, and here the interactions are marvelously subtle. They do not have buttons or levers, which might give away their true nature. To activate them, a user does what would come naturally, which is to hold the fabric before them, like a shield. (There might be a mental command as well, but of course we can’t perceive that.) The shield-like gesture activates the shield technology. It’s quick. It fits the material of the technology. You barely even have to be trained to use it. We never see the use case for when a wearer is incapacitated and can’t lift the cape into position, but there’s enough evidence in the rest of the film to expect it might act like Dr. Strange’s cape and activate its shield automatically.

But, for me, the Capes are more powerful not as models of interaction, but for what they symbolize.

The Dual Role of the Capes

The role of the Border Tribe is to create the illusion of agrarian ruggedness as a deception for outsiders that only tells of a placid, developing nation rather than the secret technologically advanced splendor of Wakanda’s lands. The Border Tribe is the keeper of Wakanda’s cloaking technology that hides the vast utopian advancement of Wakandan advantage. 

The Border Tribe’s role is built into the fabric of their illustrious and enviably fashionable capes. The adinkra symbol of cooperation embedded into the cape reveals, by the final scenes of the Black Panther film, how the Border Tribe defenders wield their capes into a force field wall of energy to repel enemies. 

Ironically we only see them at their most effective when Wakanda is undergoing a civil war between those loyal to Kilmonger who is determined to avenge his father’s murder and his own erasure from Wakandan collective memory, and those supporting King T’Challa. Whereas each Black Panther King has selected to keep Wakanda’s presence hidden literally under the cooperative shields of the Border Tribe, Kilmonger—an Oakland native and a potential heir to Wakandan monarchy—was orphaned and left in the U.S. 

If this sounds familiar, consider the film as a grand allusion to the millions of Africans kidnapped and ripped from their tribal lineages and taken across the Atlantic as slaves. Their cultural heritage was purposefully erased, languages and tribal customs, memories lost to the colonial thirst for their unpaid and forced labor. 

Kilmonger represents the Black Diaspora, former descendants of African homelands similarly deprived of their birthrights. Kilmonger wants the Black Diaspora to rise up in global rebellion with the assistance of Wakandan technical superiority. In opposition, King T’Challa aspires for a less vengeful solution. He wantsWakanda to come out to the world, and lead by example. We can empathize with both. T’Challa’s plan is fueled by virtue. Kilmonger’s is fueled by justice—redeploy these shields to protect Black people against the onslaught of ongoing police and state violence. 

W. E. B. Du Bois in 1918
(image in the public domain)

Double Consciousness and the Big Metaphor

The cape shields powered by the precious secret meteorite called Vibranium embodies what the scholar W.E.B. Dubois referred to as a double consciousness, where members of the Black Diaspora inhabit two selves.

  1. Their own identity as individuals
  2. The external perception of themselves as a members of an oppressed people incessantly facing potential erasure and brutality.

The cape shields and their cloaking technology cover the secret utopic algorithms that power Wakanda, while playing on the petty stereotypes of African nations as less-advanced collectives. 

The final battle scene symbolizes this grand debate—between Kilmonger’s claims on Wakanda and assertion of Africana power, and King T’Challa’s more cooperative and, indeed, compliant approach working with the CIA. Recall that in its subterfuge and cloaking tactics, the CIA has undermined and toppled numerous freely-elected African and Latin American governments for decades. In this final showdown, we see W’Kabi’s cloaked soldiers run down the hill towards King T’Challa and stop to raise their shields cooperatively into defensive formation to prevent King T’Challa’s advance. King T’Challa jumps over the shields and the force of his movement causes the soldier’s shields to bounce away while simultaneously revealing their potent energy. 

The flowing blue capes of the Border Tribe are deceptively enticing, while holding the key to Wakanda’s survival as metaphors for cloaking their entire civilization from being attacked, plundered, and erased. Wakanda and these capes represent an alternative history: What if African peoples had not experienced colonization or undergone the brutal Middle Passage to the Americas? What if the prosperous Black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma had developed cape shield technology to defend themselves against a genocidal white mob in 1921? Or if the Black Panther Party had harnessed the power of invisible cloaking technology as part of their black beret ensemble? 

Gallery Images: World Building with the Afrofuturist Podcast—Afro-Rithms From The Future game, Neuehouse, Hollywood, May 22, 2019 [Co-Game Designers, Eli Kosminsky and Lonny Avi Brooks, Afro-Rithms Librarian; Co-Game Designer and Seer Ahmed Best]

In the forecasting imagination game, Afro-Rithms From The Future, and the game event we played in 2019 in Los Angeles based on the future universe we created, we generated the question:

What would be an article of fashion that would give you more Black Feminist leadership and more social justice?

One participant responded with: “I was thinking of the notion of the invisibility cloak but also to have it be reversed. It could make you invisible and also more visible, amplifying what you normally” have as strengths and recognizing their value. Or as another player, states “what about a bodysuit that protects you from any kind of harm” or as the game facilitator adds “how about a bodysuit that repels emotional damage?!” In our final analysis, the cape shields have steadfastly protected Wakanda against the emotional trauma of colonization and partial erasure.

In this way the cape shields guard against emotional damage as well. Imagine how it might feel to wear a fashionable cloak that displays images of your ancestral, ethnic, and gender memories reminding you of your inherent lovability as multi-dimensional human being—and that can technologically protect you and those you love as well.


Black Lives Matter

Chris: Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that support black lives. 

To thank Lonny for his guest post, I offered to donate money in his name to the charity of his choice. He has selected Museum of Children’s Arts in Oakland. The mission of MOCHA is to ensure that the arts are a fundamental part of our community and to create opportunities for all children to experience the arts to develop creativity, promote a sense of belonging, and to realize their potential. 

And, since it’s important to show the receipts, the receipt:

Thank you, Lonny, for helping to celebrate Black Panther and your continued excellent work in speculative futures and Afrofuturism. Wakanda forever!

Challenge Ritual

Wakanda is a monarchy of sorts. Though rulership is passed down like a regular monarchy, the authority of the monarch can be overthrown by combat. We see this ritual twice in Black Panther. The first is when T’Challa is called to take the throne after his father T’Chaka’s death at the hands of the mind-controlled Winter Solider. The second is when Killmonger challenges T’Challa’s legitimacy.

Though this blog often focuses on interaction with technology, in this case we’ll be looking at one minor interaction with technology (the spillways) but moreover the ritual interaction as a group.

The accession ritual

For this major cultural event, many Wakandans from different tribes travel to the arena by barge on a river. En route they are dancing, playing music, and laughing. When they approach the waterfall, the Dora Milaje and other warriors pound the butt of their spears on their barge’s deck. This creates a physical wave that travels through the water to sensors. These sensors cause mechanical spillways to open, routing water through rock, revealing the combat arena that normally sits under the waterfall.

Citizens disembark on the shores and walk to the arena. They take positions on small ledges surrounding the arena, with highest-ranking members of each tribe getting “front row seats.”

T’Challa arrives in the Talon, stepping out onto the arena. An officiant named Zuri addresses the crowd, explaining what is happening. He explains he is giving T’Challa a draught that will drain him of his Black Panther superpowers. Then he calls on each of four tribes, asking if they wish to challenge T’Challa’s accession. Each in turn declines. But then the Jibari tribe arrives and does challenge. T’Challa dons a panther mask, M’Baku dons a gorilla mask, and they fight. During the fight, members of each tribe’s military keep a tight ring around the combatants, holding spears inward toward them. It’s a tough battle, but T’Challa defeats M’Baku. M’Baku, it is important to note, taps out rather than fight to the death.

For winning, Zuri bestows a panther-tooth necklace onto T’Challa. Having been confirmed as king, T’Challa is taken to a ritual cave where his Black Panther powers are restored by imbibing a draught of the Heart-Shaped Herb. He is then buried in loose sand as he visits the ancestral plane to talk with ancestors and his father. When he awakes, he sits up, throwing the sand off of him, and the ritual is complete.

Killmonger’s challenge

Erik Killmonger arrives in the kingdom and invokes his blood right (as T’Chaka’s nephew) to challenge T’Challa’s legitimacy. T’Challa accepts the challenge. For this ritual, only a handful of others are present. As before, Zuni strips T’Challa of his powers.

Before battling T’Challa, Killmonger stabs and kills Zuni, after which the ritual combat just…continues(?). (Seriously, shouldn’t the Dora Milaje arrested him at just this moment? They had the numbers.) Killmonger wins the fight and throws T’Challa over the waterfall. He claims victory and he becomes the new tyrant-in-chief.

The designed ritual

Ritual can be a laden and woo-woo concept. But we don’t need to leave our careful, skeptical worldview behind to understand and critique it. We just need to think of it like any system, which we optimize for the set of effects we want. (Though if you’re really into the idea of ritual design, there are a few groups focused on it.)

In the case of Black Panther, the ritual serves several purposes.

  • It gathers the community together to witness the accession. (“What do you mean you challenge the monarch’s authority? You were there. We all saw you.”)
  • It ensures members of the society are accountable. (“You had the chance to challenge, and either didn’t or lost.”)
  • It tests the successor’s fighting ability.
  • At the end it confirms the transfer of power and reifies the new social structure.

An important feature of communal rituals is the demarcation of the ritual space, that increases the sense of meaning of the actions. In Black Panther, this is done by the communal journey to the waterfall and activating the spillways that reveal the arena. Travel and the revealed arena are great choices for reinforcing the specialness of the occasion. We only come here for this.

The use of sound as an activation signal means every hearing person is aware of the transition, even if they cannot see the Dora Milaje from where they are on their barge.

The arena itself will win neither OSHA nor accessibility awards. Those are thin wet shelves that people are standing on, facing a far drop where they would fall onto others, making them fall…and no railing. Also where are the stairs? It seems pretty ableist to require climbing and standing for the duration. But it’s dramatic for sure.

The arrival of the crown prince is a bit lopsided. Everyone else comes from the river and climbs down rocks, but he gets to fly up in a royal spaceship and walk out like a rock star. It asserts that the crown is really his, and potential challengers riff-raff upstarts. This might be the intent, but it seems at odds with the notion of a fair call to challengers. So inconsistent messaging both about the point of the ritual and the Wakandan brand promise.

Removing the power of the heart-shaped herb before any challengers are declared is a good, subtle design feature. If it only happened after a challenger was declared, it would seem like it was about that challenger. As if they were causing the hero to be diminished. But stripping him of the power first signals, ritually, that it’s not about any particular challenger, but about a fair chance to challenge.

Having warriors ring the combatants adds some dramatic pressure, but it would actually hide the combat from many observers (especially the most important observers on the front row). And with cliffs on one side and a waterfall on the other, there are natural boundaries to ensure neither combatant can withdraw far. But it also ensures that any cheating can be seen by first-hand witnesses in close proximity, so maybe the audience sightlines are less important than that. Yes, Wakanda is the MCU’s most technologically advanced nation, so there would be ways around it, but this ritual feels like it has roots that extend into the past long before the technology.

Might Makes Right?

The other thing that I cannot let go of (and here we must, as we often do, journey afield of technology) is that this ritual is built on might makes right. In what way does a person’s fighting skill prove they have the chops to be a good and wise ruler? I mean, yes, in feudalist times, crowning a proven warrior might cow potential usurpers and result in greater governmental stability, but given all the rest of Wakanda’s progressive utopia, this seems troubling. Might-makes-right is one of the things that representative democracy and democratic republics are meant to correct. Who should have authority over the people? Not the fighter, nor the spoiled child of the prior leader, nor the unctuous priest, nor the game-fixing moneybags, nor the elders. Democracy is the daring notion that all people should have a fundamental say in how they are governed.

Admittedly, it is narratively simpler to be able to point to a person and say, “That one’s the monarch because they fought best.” And that illustrates a problem.

Narratively simple (and that’s the problem)

Narrative simplicity fits humans. We like simple stories and dislike what is hard to understand. Combat is narratively simple. Panther-man beat gorilla-man, so he’s now boss. (Even if its rituals are, as in this case, strikingly beautiful.)

Turning back again to democracy and representative democracy for comparison, they are broad abstractions. Its tenets are hard to understand. Consider: Self-determination and consent of the governed rather than a monarch. The balance of power across three co-equal branches of government. Carefully-crafted and critical limits to power. How to encourage democracy while reining in the tyranny of the majority. A core structuring document that is imperfect and slowly, slowly malleable. The failings of the first-past-the-post system. Deliberate deliberativeness. What the two party system tends towards.

Even if our elections are panther-person vs gorilla-person, we don’t put candidates in a ring and let them duke it out with fists. We valorize a combat of ideas, of competing notions about what would do more good for civilization and arguably the planet. Ideally, the best ideas about governance win this combat.

Familiarity and comfort with democratic abstractions do not come naturally. It takes liberal education (“liberal” here as in “broadly serving work, citizenship, and life” rather than “not conservative”), a pervasive sense of civic duty, and nurturance of civic virtue. The last several decades of politics, and our ongoing fight against American strong fascism seems to me to be partly about discomfort and unfamiliarity with these abstractions. Simply put, we lost them, not the least of which reason is they’re hard to think about. Fascism and might-makes-right are so much easier to understand. They are more cinegenic. But we should be very wary of this lure. I want to encourage everyone to be wary of this aspect of Black Panther. It is to me the most troubling thing about a speculative culture that is otherwise just phenomenal.

In the first movie Wakanda collectively learned the costs of isolationism. Maybe in the sequel they’ll learn about the limits of might-makes-right.


Anti-Racism Resources

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives. Today I’m sharing anti-racism resources. Because it’s not enough to believe black lives matter. We must fight racism.

The first is, of course, Ibram Kendi’s New York Times #1 bestseller book that is all about the topic, How to be an Anti-Racist. His site also has a discussion guide and links to the book in multiple languages.

portuguese.jpg

If you’re the reading sort (and you’re on my word-heavy blog, after all) Kayti Christian has compiled this list of 21 books about anti racism.

The second is the Smithsonian Institution’s page about anti-racism. It lays out the core issues, and addresses both the personal and interpersonal things to do, as well as thought exercises and recommended actions. Something to read while your book is en route.

Implicit Bias and Structural Racism
“Implicit Bias and Structural Racialization,” By Kathleen Osta & Hugh Vasquez, National Equity Project.

The third is less polished than these other resources, but I love Carlisa Johnson’s stages of white identity development, which moves people through greater and greater engagement, including activities and next steps for each phase.

Contact → Disintegration → Reintegration → Pseudo-independence → Immersion → Autonomy.

The last is the NPR science podcast Shortwave episode about anti-racism in science education, where hosts Emily Kwong, Madeline K. Sofia, and Rebecca Ramirez interview anti-racist educators Letimicia Fears, Gretchen Kraig-Turner, and Viji Sathy. I’ve recently become enamored of this podcast and was glad to come across this episode while working on this post.

And while we’re in NPR’s territory, here are four tips from Eric Deggans, Putting In The Work To Be Anti-Racist. Here are the four headers to pique your interest to read (or listen) to more.

  1. Accept that we’ve all been raised in a society that elevates white culture over others. Being anti-racist will mean first challenging those notions inside yourself.
  2. Learn the history of racism and anti-racism, especially in America, to educate yourself about the complexities of the issues you’ll be confronting.
  3. Seek out films and TV shows which will challenge your notions of race and culture and dive in deeply, learning to see anti-racism in new ways.
  4. Find local organizations involved in anti-racism efforts – preferably led by people of color – and help uplift their voices and ideas.

Panther Glove Guns

As I rule I don’t review lethal weapons on scifiinterfaces.com. The Panther Glove Guns appear to be remote-bludgeoning beams, so this kind of sneaks by. Also, I’ll confess in advance that there’s not a lot that affords critique.

We first see the glove guns in the 3D printer output with the kimoyo beads for Agent Ross and the Dora Milaje outfit for Nakia. They are thick weapons that fit over Shuri’s hands and wrists. I imagine they would be very useful to block blades and even disarm an opponent in melee combat, but we don’t see them in use this way.

The next time we see them, Shuri is activating them. (Though we don’t see how) The panther heads thrust forward, their mouths open wide, and the “neck” glows a hot blue. When the door before her opens, she immediately raises them at the guards (who are loyal to usurper Killmonger) and fires.

A light-blue beam shoots out of the mouths of the weapons, knocking the guards off the platform. Interestingly, one guard is lifted up and thrown to his 4-o-clock. The other is lifted up and thrown to his 7-o-clock. It’s not clear how Shuri instructs the weapons to have different and particular knock-down effects. But we’ve seen all over Black Panther that brain-computer interfaces (BCI) are a thing, so it’s diegetically possible she’s simply imagining where she wants them to be thrown, and then pulling a trigger or clenching her fist around a rod or just thinking “BAM!” to activate. The force-bolt strikes them right where they need to so that, like a billiard ball, they get knocked in the desired direction. As with all(?) brain-computer interfaces, there is not an interaction to critique.

After she dispatches the two guards, still wearing the gloves, she throws a control bead onto the Talon. The scene is fast and blurry, but it’s unclear how she holds and releases the bead from the glove. Was it in the panther’s jaw the whole time? Could be another BCI, of course. She just thought about where she wanted it, flung her arm, and let the AI decide when to release it for perfect targeting. The Talon is large and she doesn’t seem to need a great deal of accuracy with the bead, but for more precise operations, the AI targeting would make more sense than, say, letting the panther heads disintegrate on command so she would have freedom of her hands. 

Later, after Killmonger dispatches the Dora Milaje, Shuri and Nakia confront him by themselves. Nakia gets in a few good hits, but is thrown from the walkway. Shuri throws some more bolts his way though he doesn’t appear to even notice. I note that the panther gloves would be very difficult to aim since there’s no continuous beam providing feedback, and she doesn’t have a gun sight to help her. So, again—and I’m sorry because it feels like cheating—I have to fall back to an AI assist here. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. 

Then Shuri switches from one blast at a time to a continuous beam. It seems to be working, as Killmonger kneels from the onslaught.

This is working! How can I eff it up?

But then for some reason she—with a projectile weapon that is actively subduing the enemy and keeping her safe at a distance—decides to close ranks, allowing Killmonger to knock the glove guns with a spear tip, thereby free himself, and destroy the gloves with a clutch of his Panther claws. I mean, I get she was furious, but I expected better tactics from the chief nerd of Wakanda. Thereafter, they spark when she tries to fire them. So ends this print of the Panther Guns.

As with all combat gear, it looks cool for it to glow, but we don’t want coolness to help an enemy target the weapon. So if it was possible to suppress the glow, that would be advisable. It might be glowing just for the intimidation factor, but for a projectile weapon that seems strange.

The panther head shapes remind an opponent that she is royalty (note no other Wakandan combatants have ranged weapons) and fighting in Bast’s name, which I suppose if you’re in the business of theocratic warfare is fine, I guess.

It’s worked so well in the past. More on this aspect later.

So, if you buy the brain-computer interface interpretation, AI targeting assist, and theocratic design, these are fine, with the cinegenic exception of the attention-drawing glow.


Black History Matters

Each post in the Black Panther review is followed by actions that you can take to support black lives.

When The Watchmen series opened with the Tulsa Race Massacre, many people were shocked to learn that this event was not fiction, reminding us just how much of black history is erased and whitewashed for the comfort of white supremacy (and fuck that). Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, and it’s a good opportunity to look back and (re)learn of the heroic figures and stories of both terror and triumph that fill black struggles to have their citizenship and lives fully recognized.

Library of Congress, American National Red Cross Photograph Collection

There are lots of events across the month. The African American History Month site is a collaboration of several government organizations (and it feels so much safer to share such a thing now that the explicitly racist administration is out of office and facing a second impeachment):

  • The Library of Congress
  • National Archives and Records Administration
  • National Endowment for the Humanities
  • National Gallery of Art
  • National Park Service
  • Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The site, https://www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/, has a number of resources, including images, video, and calendar of events for you.

Today we can take a moment to remember and honor the Greensboro Four.

On this day, February 1, 1960: Through careful planning and enlisting the help of a local white businessman named Ralph Johns, four Black college students—Ezell A. Blair, Jr., Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, David L. Richmond—sat down at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats.

Police arrived on the scene, but were unable to take action due to the lack of provocation. By that time, Ralph Johns had already alerted the local media, who had arrived in full force to cover the events on television. The Greensboro Four stayed put until the store closed, then returned the next day with more students from local colleges.

Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South.

A last bit of amazing news to share today is that Black Lives Matter has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize! The movement was co-founded by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, got a major boost with the outrage following and has grown to a global movement working to improve the lives of the entire black diaspora. May it win!