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The Fiction Of Science Fiction

By | July 10, 2001

      by Gerry Oberst

      Part of the “fiction” in science fiction is the apparent ease with which advanced civilizations, or even the near future of our own civilization, can regulate the placement of satellites and use of frequencies.

      Science fiction fans rarely come across the problems of registering satellite orbital slots, obtaining spectrum for the enormous number of devices that are routinely used, or the activities of international, (much less interplanetary), bodies allocating spectrum.

      It is not that science fiction has not referred to satellites. As early as 1869, Edward Everett Hale, who was better known as the author of The Man Without a Country, wrote about an artificial satellite accidentally launched into space.

      In other early works, Russian school teacher Konstatin Tsiolkovsky wrote a 1920 novel about an international space station with a multinational crew, as well as other fiction about space travel. U.S. author George Smith wrote a series of stories in 1942-45 about an inhabited communications satellite. And noted scientist and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke is widely credited with inventing the notion of the geostationary communications satellite, in his nonfiction article for Wireless World in October 1945. (As Clarke himself has acknowledged, however, the idea of satellites in geosynchronous orbit arose even earlier, around 1929 in the work of Slovenian engineer Herman Potocnic, who also wrote science fiction under the alias of Herman Noordung.)

      Recent writing has assumed massive communication networks with the kind of multimedia broadband spectrum use that real world companies are struggling with today. For example, the “cyberpunk” school of writing is premised on near-future societies with extraordinary, high-density information systems. But there is never a word on how that data is shoehorned into frequencies without interference and how infrastructure providers, including satellite operators, got access to the frequencies so blithely used. Some of the dynamics they assume are fascinating, such as taking advantage of time delays due to satellite relays, but authors Gibson, Sterling and others assume that a brain-and-microchip interface and spectrum allocations have been worked out offstage through some unnamed mechanisms or government structures.

      A major failure of coordination activities shows up in the satire of recently deceased Douglas Adams. A central event in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the demolition of earth by the construction of a hyperspace bypass.

      On the non-satirical side, the impact of law and government is widely recognized in science fiction. For instance, one law review article noted that many episodes of Star Trek involved international or interstellar disputes, including “rules of treaty interpretation, state succession, diplomatic relations and immunities, international dispute resolution, membership in international organizations, law of the sea concepts, [and] international environmental law….”

      Nevertheless, it remains hard to find in any of this writing or programming any political body similar to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) or national spectrum regulators. It would seem that in the future, there are no problems of “paper satellites,” of disputes over access to spectrum, even to standards for the vast number of fancy radio devices routinely used. It has been said that the communications devices in Star Trek were early models for cell phones today, but no one is fighting for spectrum access in any episodes.

      One finds a deep and abiding distaste for bureaucracy in much science fiction, which perhaps rules out any recognition of spectrum regulation. Many science fiction stories either belittled bureaucrats in general or assumed some high-minded and efficient United Nations of the future that apparently has avoided the functional problems we see today. (Robert Heinlein perhaps embodied both trends.) By contrast, dystopias routinely have sinister governmental structures (for example Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Gilliam’s darkly pessimistic film Brazil), but those structures do not include the FCC or other communications regulators.

      Curiously, it is again Star Trek that might best reflect the current international system for regulating orbital locations and spectrum use. The legal system reflected in the program’s 24th century view has been described as “marked by informality, mutual good faith, and the desire to settle disputes rightly–not merely to one’s own advantage.” This view of government is also reflected in the first Article of the ITU Constitution, which sets basic purposes of the ITU, starting from the goal to maintain and extend international cooperation between all members for “the improvement and rational use of telecommunications of all kinds.”

      The ITU has no mandatory dispute settlement or means of enforcement. It is based on cooperation, collaboration, and good faith–which do not always seem to work. It might be difficult to make these problems the topic of interesting or imaginative fiction. But if all the future scenarios of science fiction writing assume that problems of spectrum availability and satellite orbital locations have been solved, then perhaps we might ask for some guidance on how to get to that paradise.

      Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Brussels office of the Hogan & Hartson law firm. His email address is

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