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.