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on August 23, 2003
Writing books about "The [Something] of Star Trek" seems to have become something of a fad ever since Lawrence Krauss's wonderful "The Physics of Star Trek," whether that "Something" be biology, philosophy, religion, or, in this case, computers. This book becomes tiresome, or at least off-topic, largely because there is a dearth of primary-source material on the computers of Star Trek, meaning that there is unfortunately little for the authors (who are computer scientists) to analyze scientifically. Specifically, the authors' primary sources consist of a scant smattering of material from the television shows and movies and the "Star Trek: The Next Generation--Technical Manual." To quote the book, "The technical manual devotes only five pages to the Enterprise computer. Based on its vague and sketchy description, we've inferred [a] general design." In other words, the book is based largely on assumptions and inferences, some of which are rather nonsensical. For example, in reference to the Star Trek memory storage unit known as a "kiloquad," the book says, "it's easy enough to deduce...that a kiloquad equals 1,000 quadrillion bytes." The only "evidence" given to support this conclusion is that "kilo-" means 1,000 and that "Checking a dictionary reveals that the only numerical term involving quad is quadrillion." This kind of speculation would be mildly interesting if only a paragraph were devoted to it, but instead, the authors assume throughout the remainder of the book that this is the definition of a kiloquad, and analyze the plausibility of data storage space on this extremely tenuous basis. This is after quoting the following wise excerpt from the "Star Trek Encyclopedia:" "The reason the term was invented was specifically to avoid describing the data capacity of Star Trek's computers in 20th century terms." This is one of countless examples. Much of the book seems to consist of the authors making unconvincing inferences, repeating themselves when they run out of source material, and making occasional (and unsuccessful) forays into philosophy and physics. The book is interesting when it makes a real point, but has too much filler material. There simply isn't enough source material for a 200-page book of this sort to be successful.
on February 21, 2003
The authors had to decide what the balance would be between computer science content and Star Trek content. Unfortunately, they erred on the side of too many overlong explanations of computer science, which the reader must wade through to get to those too-sparse nuggets of insight about Star Trek. For example, the Borg get only six pages, and the Holodeck gets eight pages (including several pages of programming code!).
The writers are at their best when explaining how each Star Trek series is a commentary on the era in which it was written. For instance, there are several episodes where Kirk rants that computers can never replace people - a very 1960s sentiment - whereas in the more recent series, the Borg represent our fears that technology will lead to loss of individuality. More analysis along these lines would have improved the book, rather making it a primer on programming.
Perhaps it's impossible to ever make sense of computers in Star Trek, since so much of it is technological nonsense (e.g., food replicators). Nevertheless, there was a missed opportunity here to speculate more deeply on the role of information technology in the world of Star Trek as compared to its role in current society.