Standard Gear

There will be standard "Doc" Smith items like binoculars, anti-nuclear flash goggles (if you have to observe an atomic space battle, or be exposed to blinding laser beams. The US Air Force is developing anti-laser contact lenses), highly accurate wrist and pocket chronometer (for astrogation observations), and a service sidearm. Don't forget your atomic pen.

If the ship has no artificial gravity, you might need some magnetic boots.


Within a block of the spaceport dozens of surplus stores catered to spacers. The end of the War had dumped millions of tons of surplus gear on the market, and the shops had sprung up overnight. Ideal places for a spacer to outfit himself cheaply. Torwald headed toward the most reputable-looking of these establishments.

"First," Torwald said, "something to stash it all in." The proprietor brought a spacebag in the glossy gray-black favored by the Navy toward the end of the War. Torwald's own bag was the more traditional dark blue.

Torwald rubbed his palms together. "Now, some protective gear." He was enjoying this, and Kelly was delighted with the amassing of the specialized equipment of his new trade. They went to a section where protective clothing was hung from racks or mounted on stands, everything from antipersonnel-missile-resistant vests to suits of articulated plates made from hardened ceramic fiber. Torwald picked out a one-piece coverall of armor cloth.

"Is that for stopping bullets?" Kelly asked.

"Well, partly. But, you'll be going places where thorns and fangs and stickers and stingers and the like are deadlier than any bullet. That's what the armor cloth is for, mainly. Do you have a knife?" Kelly took one out of his pocket: a spring-blade model, cheaply produced. "Get rid of it. That's only useful for sticking people. I'll find you a better one." He checked the display case at the front of the shop, finally choosing a heavy-bladed sheath knife and a small folding pocket model with several tools in the handle besides the knife blade. "These'll do just about anything. Besides which, if necessary, you can always stick people with them."

Then Torwald selected cold-weather gear, a wrist chrono and calculator, work gloves, clothing—all the necessities for a spacer's bag. Last of all, Torwald took Kelly to the rear of the shop, where the footwear was kept. They rummaged around for a few minutes while Torwald gave him a running lecture on the virtues of good boots.

"You might not think so, kid, but boots are more important than any other item of a spacer's equipment. That's because you never know when you may be set afoot, or in what terrain, or in what climate." Kelly didn't like the sound of the expression "set afoot."

"Besides," Torwald continued, "a spacer has very little to do with space, any more than a sailor has with water. It's just something to get across to reach the planets, where the jobs are. And on the ground, you need boots. Aha, jackpot!" With that exclamation, he pulled a pair of boots from a bin. "Genuine pre-War unissued Space Marine boots!"

"How can you tell they're pre-War?" Kelly asked, sorting through the bin to find a pair that fit. Torwald turned a boot sole-up.

"See those little threaded holes? That's where they used to screw in the magnetic plates. They haven't used those plates in fifty years, but the Navy required that the mounts be left there in case of equipment failures. When the War came along, they dropped that reg, and a lot of quality, to cut costs. These boots will last you a lifetime."

At the entrance of the shop, Kelly caught sight of himself in a full-length mirror. He saw himself as he had always dreamed, wearing a spacer's coverall and boots. The coverall hung slack from his thin frame, and the effect was that of a boy dressed up to look like a spacer. He still didn't feel like one. Then Kelly noticed Torwald reflected over his shoulder in the mirror, grinning at his self-absorption.

"One thing," Michelle chimed in, "Kelly, take this," , she tossed him a flat metal box, about five centimeters on a side, with a metal chain. "Wear that around your neck at all times from now on. Those are your tracetabs. They contain all the trace elements your body needs. There are about three thousand tabs in that box (8.2 years). If we go on xeno-rations, you'll need them."

Kelly seemed puzzled.

"There are about a thousand planets," Sims explained, "that supply native food edible by humans. On maybe half a dozen of them, all the trace elements necessary for human survival are present in the food."

"If the soil and atmosphere are comparable to Earth's," Michelle continued, "native flora and fauna may give you all the protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins you need, but trace elements can be hard to come by. You'll die just as dead from lack of magnesium, phosphorous, or any number of other elements as from lack of water. If you get stranded on a xenoworld, that box can be your lifeline. Always keep it filled."

From SPACE ANGEL by John Maddox Roberts (1979)

Computers and Communicators

(ed note: much of this section was originally written around 1998 or so. Sections that are crossed out like this are bits that have become obsolete since 1998.)

Additional equipment will include a MOTE IN GOD'S EYE pocket computer, er, ah, Palm PDA smart phone (with a wireless wifi connection to the ship's computer network, if any) and one of those FORBIDDEN PLANET radio-TV communicators.

I cannot believe that the 1969 1974 1994 1999 2001 2005 vintage Star Trek communicators still don't have a video camera, as do the gadgets in the 1956 FORBIDDEN PLANET. How else can you tell if the "all clear" message from your landing party is due to a report given by a sweating crewmember with a Klingon sonic disrupter inserted up their nose? They had TV communicators in Space:1999 for cryin' out loud. Not to mention the VueComms from Johnny Quest).

There is a scene in FORBIDDEN PLANET where the captain and landing party gets a scheduled check-in call from the ship. As per standard operating procedure, the captain acknowledges the call, then turns on the video camera and pans around to prove that he is not speaking under duress.

The pocket computer also appears in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's IMPERIAL EARTH under the name "MiniSec", which I presume is short for "Miniature Secretary".

In the THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE (1974), the pocket computer was also a communicator. When I wrote the previous sentence, before the iPhone had been invented, I was making a shrewd non-obvious observation about converging technologies. But since then, smart phones have become commonplace items. They are basically communicators which are also pocket computers. Since I wrote that previous sentence, smartphones have transformed into pocket computers which has the secondary feature of also being a communicator. As with the old general purpose desktop and laptop computers, they are more defined by their currently installed software and apps than by the fact they are computers.

In Space:1999, the commlocks were video communicators which also acted as electronic keys to open doors. Currently in the real world several companies are trying to make smart phones into credit cards, which is much the same thing.

Of course, the future is today. Pictured below is the Handspring Treo Apple iPhone, which is a pocket-computer/cell-phone combination. It is also a digital camera. I can picture a special vest pocket on officer's uniforms for such a device, with the camera facing outwards, and a built-in cloth sleeve to route the earphone wire up the shoulder and into the ear Bluetooth earphone.

And no science fiction story I am aware of predicted that the main use of smart phones would be, not to talk to people, but to run the zillions of "apps" that do a few usefull and lots of useless functions.

Another interesting feature of the Handspring line was the late lamented "Springboard" expansion slot. This functioned much like the USB port on your computer, the one with the bewildering plethora of gadgets to plug in. So take your Treo, plug in the sensor module, and suddenly you have a Tricorder. There would be modules for geological survey, medical diagnostics, language translation, electronic multimeter, oscilloscope, reference textbooks on a card, various expert systems, and GPS navigation (which would revert to "dead reckoning" if you were stuck on an unexplored planet with no GPS satellites and your survey ship left orbit).

(Since I wrote the prior crossed out sections, things have changed. You do not need reference textbooks if you have a link to the ship's subset of the internet. And you do not need a GPS module since practically all smart phones come with one as standard equipment)

For planetary explorers, a very useful function would be a dynamic map, with a indicator showing your current location and other important locales (like where your scoutship is). A GPS app in other words. However, you cannot use a GPS locator unless the scoutship has placed a GPS satellite constellation in orbit. And already mapped the planet from orbit so it can download the map into your smart phone. Without a GPS satellite, the app can only do dead reckoning (which gradually gets more and more inaccurate as the errors compound).

Planetary explorers would also find useful a weather forcasting app. Which would require the scoutship to orbit a weather satellite.

A camera (still and video) with automatic uploading of images to the scoutship is also valuable in a planetary survey. Especially if the interesting animal the scout crewperson just photographed turns around and eats the scout. The last image might be the interior of the animal's esophagus but at least the warning will reach the ship.

Also useful for scouts is a link to the scoutship's database. If they were on a civilized planet the scouts would just surf Google, Wikipedia, and maybe Yelp; but on an unexplored world the only available parts of the internet are those you bring along with you.

I'm sure if you look over lists of modern-day apps for smartphones, you will get ideas about ones that will be useful for planetary explorers.

Explorer smartphones will have to be MIL-SPEC (i.e., practically indestructible). Dropping your phone and breaking the glass screen can be fatal, it is too vital for a scout's survival. It will have to be rugged enough to hammer a nail with no damage, and capable of surviving a trip through a large animal's digestive tract (so the other scouts can at least get an idea of what sort of creature ate their fellow crewmember).


      It would have been easy to believe that they were the only two people in the world, yet they could not be more than five kilometres from the village. They had certainly ridden much farther than that, but the narrow cycle track had been designed to take the most picturesque route, which also turned out to be the longest. Although Loren could locate himself in an instant from the position-finder in his comset, he did not bother. It was amusing to pretend to be lost. (this was hot stuff in 1986, but nowadays any smartphone has a GPS chip and access to Google Maps)

     Mirissa would have been happier if he had left the comset behind.
     ‘Why must you carry that thing?” she had said, pointing to the control-studded band on his left forearm. ‘It’s nice to get away from people sometimes.’
     ‘I agree, but ship’s regs are very strict. If Captain Bey wanted me in a hurry and I didn’t answer —‘
     ‘Well — what would he do? Put you in irons?’
     ‘I’d prefer that to the lecture I’d undoubtedly get. Anyway, I’ve switched to sleep mode. If Shipcom overrides that, it will be a real emergency — and I’d certainly want to be in touch.’

     Like almost all Terrans for more than a thousand years, Loren would have been far happier without his clothes than without his comset. Earth’s history was replete with horror stories of careless or reckless individuals who had died — often within metres of safety — because they could not reach the red EMERGENCY button.

From SONGS OF DISTANCE EARTH by Arthur C. Clarke (1986)

Working inside the International Space Station is sometimes like assembling complex furniture but with the tools and paper instructions continually floating out of reach. Astronauts also face situations unforeseen by the instructions. Communication delays with ground control to troubleshoot these occasions mean even more valuable time is lost. Now, ‘mobiPV’ is looking to help. 

Developed by ESA, this ‘mobile procedure viewer’ uses software on an android smartphone that allows astronauts to perform manual tasks hands-free while connecting them in real time to mission control via video, voice and text.

In addition to the smartphone strapped to their wrist, astronauts are equipped with a head-mounted camera, an audio headset, and a tablet as an alternate display option. 

When problems arise, the astronaut can switch on the camera to capture the situation and immediately receive expert feedback from Earth.

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen first tried out mobiPV during NASA’s underwater space simulation in September 2014, and during his mission to the Space Station in September 2015.

Those trials led to fewer cables and a major software redesign to allow multiple ground stations to link to the astronauts. The software was improved again following a July 2016 test by ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer during NASA’s latest aquatic venture. 

With the prospect of saving a significant amount of time, mobiPV will become a standard part of the Space Station. ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli will be next to try it out during his mission later this year, after which ESA can offer it to all Station partners.

As with all technology, it will be continually updated based on feedback. Its developers are already looking to add augmented reality headsets for a richer and more efficient experience. 

Space is by no means mobiPV’s final frontier. It needs only an Internet connection and is adaptable to different procedures and environments, making it a lower-cost and easy way of connecting ground controllers to remote teams. Subsea, military and other industries can benefit from the time and cost saved by mobiPV – though there is no word yet on a household version helping with those sets of flatpack furniture. 

Info Pad


     What they want is something that can go with them all the time, and that will function as an extended memory and as a way to capture their ideas. Specifically, they need to capture notes, sketches, and documents; work with databases; and look up information instantly. They need a brain extender, a true information appliance.
     I call it an info pad. That's the product I want someone to build.
     It's larger than a handheld and smaller than a tablet PC. About the size and thickness of a steno pad. It has a touch-sensitive screen on the front, and very few buttons.

(ed note: see illustration above)

     What the product does

     First and foremost, ink. You write on the screen and it captures your notes and drawings. It's as much like writing on a pad of paper as possible, because the thing you're replacing is the paper notepad or journal that students and knowledge workers carry with them all the time.
     When I say "ink" I mean literally ink – put pixels exactly where the user touches the pen. Tablet PC converts pen strokes to quadratic b-splines, which is mathspeak for curved lines. That process subtly changes the letter forms, smoothing and altering them. It uses a lot of computing power (meaning it needs a faster processor and bigger batteries), and it seems to introduce a slight delay to the interface. You feel like you're using the stylus to push lines around on the screen rather than just writing and forgetting about the computer. I know some people like it, but I found it maddening.
     One of the most important features of the info pad is something it doesn't do: handwriting recognition. Most of the note-taking devices that companies have tried to make over the years, from Newton to Tablet PC, make on-screen handwriting recognition a marquee feature. Your handwriting turns into printed text. That's a logical feature to pursue if you're an engineer; character recognition is an elegant way to bridge the gap between human and computer. It frees us from the tyranny of the keyboard.
     The only problem is, it doesn't work.
     Or maybe a better way to put it would be, it almost works. It's just good enough to get people to try it, creating the expectation that it'll be as foolproof as using a keyboard. But then a few words get garbled, you start going back and trying to correct things, and suddenly you're spending more time managing the device than doing your work.
     This is deadly. It's also unnecessary. The purpose of our device is to let you capture your own ideas and information, so you can refer back to it later. In this context, character recognition is useless. You can read your own handwriting. Just capture ink, do a great job of making that effortless, and punt the rest. You may not get written up in Scientific American, but you'll sell a heck of a lot more product.
     Okay, so now we're writing on the screen. We've replaced two incredibly useful and inexpensive tools, pen and paper, with something more expensive and less flexible. What's the benefit? A couple of things.
     First, our device is an endless notebook. You can keep all your notes in it. Forever. For your entire life. This won't seem like a big deal to a 20 year old, but after you've been in business for a while, there comes a time when you remember a meeting you had a year ago when you heard something brilliant and relevant to the issue at hand. You know you wrote it down, but you also know it's in an old notebook that you filled up and stored in the garage somewhere. Forget about finding it – you might as well have never taken the notes in the first place.
     If you have an info pad, that need never happen again. We'll compress and store all your notes, permanently.
     What's more, we're going to sync the device to your calendar and address book. So it'll know when and where you took the notes, and if the meeting had an attendee list you'll know who was there as well. You can then use all this information to look up old notes.
     This mimics the way people remember things, through associations. You'll remember that the meeting was at a particular conference, or that someone specific was in the room, or that it was the same month as your trip to Mexico. With notes that are cross-referenced with your calendar and contacts, you can browse just the ones that you took at that time, or with that person, or in that location. You may have to look through a few pages, but we should be able to narrow the search enough that it'll be pretty easy to find what you need.
     I said earlier that we won't use handwriting recognition in the device, but I exaggerated. There is one useful task for handwriting recognition in an info pad: indexing. In the background, without pointing it out to the user, the info pad will attempt to recognize the user's notes, in order to build an index to them. The recognized text will never be shown to the user, so we don't have to worry about how many words are misspelled. Recognition that's only 80% or 90% effective is useless for writing a memo, but good enough to create a fantastic index.
     The killer app in an info pad isn't the note-taking, it's the lookup and indexing functions. This produces one simple benefit for a user: If you write something down in an info pad, you'll never forget it again.
     I don't know about you, but in my information-overloaded life, that would be golden.

     The personal archive. The other primary task of an info pad is storing and displaying documents and databases. People in information-heavy jobs typically have documents, files, or reports that they may need to refer to during the day. We'll make it easy for the user to identify those documents, whether they're on the user's PC or on the Internet, and then we'll keep them synced so the user always has the latest version.
     This archive of documents can be quite rich if the user wants it to be. Storage capacity on mobile devices has been growing explosively. We're kind of blase about that, maybe because storage capacity is even higher on PCs. But even a few gigs of storage can hold an amazing amount of information. For example, one gigabyte could hold the uncompressed text from about 2,800 novels. With compression, you could easily double that, if not a lot more. So we're talking the text of at least 5,000 novels, which is one a week for every week of your life if you live to be 96. That's more text than most people will read in their lives.
     What would our information-hungry, memory-extending user do with all that storage? I'm not sure, but one thing I'd do is carry an archive of all my e-mails. Every e-mail I've ever sent. Incoming and outgoing, personal and business. Not the enclosures (they're too large), but the text. It would be great to be able to also capture snapshots of Web articles that I want to refer back to in the future. Make all of this indexed and searchable just like the notes. So this is another part of my life where I'll never forget anything.

     Sketching. I do think we should put basic sketching functionality in the info pad, though. It may not a Moleskine replacement in version one, but it should let users create simple sketches and drawings easily. That's a part of note-taking.

     Size. 9" high, 6" wide, 1" thick (23cm x 15cm x 2.5cm). If you can make it thinner, all the better. The info pad does not fit in your pocket; it goes in your bag or on your desk. Basically, it lives wherever your paper notebook lives today.
     Weight. The weight of a thick paperback book – 16 ounces or less (450 grams). This would be far too much for a phone or handheld, but this is a different device. You won't be holding it up to your face.
     Screen. High resolution grayscale, very high contrast ratio, touch sensitive. Color is optional – color screens generally have larger pixels and lower contrast ratios, making them harder to read. I think some people are going to disagree about color, but it's not essential to note-taking or document reading. (Think about it – how many of us carry colored pens or pencils so we can take notes in color?)
     The ideal screen technology would be the e-ink displays being used in Sony's and Philips' new e-book products. I've seen e-ink technology in person, and it's stunning – the whites are very white, and the blacks are pretty darned black. It looks like a photocopied sheet of paper. It's very hard to see in photographs how much better the screens look; you have to see them in person. To me, as an old-time printing guy, they were breathtaking.
     Unfortunately, e-ink screens have a huge drawback – latency. They work by physically driving tiny black particles to the front or back of a white liquid. This takes a lot more time than flipping on and off a liquid crystal pixel.
     This is very visible in Sony's e-book reader – when you flip the page, it visibly turns all black, then all white, then draws the new page. It's like the flicker you get from a bad video edit, and just as annoying. This is acceptable in an e-book, where the pages don't change often. But it eliminates the possibility of doing anything interactive, like drawing or writing.
     When I was investigating the info pad idea last summer, I talked to someone deeply involved in e-ink technology. The sad message was that it'll be at least two more product generations before they can flip pixels fast enough for effective note-taking – and that will happen only if some potential customer pushes them to do it. Right now the push is for other features -- the biggest demand for e-ink displays right now is for advertising signs that can be changed when needed, and high latency is acceptable there.
     So for version one of the info pad, I think our first choice is a very high-resolution, high-contrast grayscale LCD screen. I've seen some beautiful ones in Japan, so I know they exist.
     Battery life. It needs to run all day with heavy usage (assume eight hours of meetings or classes). That's one of the reasons I specified the thickness at one inch. I think the customer would accept a little more thickness to get a device that can run all day long.
     Slots. One SD, one PCMCIA. The SD slot is for adding extra memory. This lets our base device be less expensive. The PCMCIA slot is for a cellular wireless card, if the user wants it. It would add a lot of cost to build a cellular radio into the info pad, and more to the point we'd then have to create separate devices for separate network standards, and sell through the carriers. Been there, done that, want none of it.
     Built-in wireless. Mandatory: Bluetooth. Not so much to talk to other devices, but for syncing with the user's PC. Cradles are a pain in the butt for a manufacturer. They're inevitably expensive, and the connector is subject to all sorts of breakage and other problems. Instead we ship the device with Bluetooth built in, and a small USB Bluetooth dongle that the user can attach to his or her PC. Then we can buy a nice cheap standardized power supply that plugs into the info pad.
     Optional: WiFi. If we can afford it, we should have WiFi built into the device, just so no one complains about it being missing. But keep in mind that this is a note-taking appliance, not a PC. WiFi isn't essential to the core operation of the device.
     Camera. Built-in one megapixel camera. The lens is on the back or front edge of the info pad. Why build in a camera? Because it helps with note-taking – you can take pictures of notes on a whiteboard, and you can take pictures of pages in a book or magazine. No more time wasted jotting down things from a whiteboard, or copying quotes out of a book for a research paper.
     Built in applications. Note-taker, document viewer, calendar, contacts, to-do, calculator, search. That's it.



A Tricorder is one of the many iconic gizmos created for the original Star Trek TV show that have captured the imagination of science fiction fans. When exploring an alien planet, Captain Kirk will have a phaser weapon, Doctor McCoy will have his medikit, but Mr. Spock will always have his trusty tricorder. Because science.

A tricorder is a multifunction hand-held device used for sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording data. The word "tricorder" is an abbreviation of the device's full name, the "TRI-function reCORDER", referring to the device's primary functions; Sensing, Computing and Recording.

In other words, it is a smart phone with a sensor array and lots of RAM. As with all smart phones it will have lots of apps.

However, nowadays everything is all about The Cloud. When you record something, you don't store it locally in your device's RAM, you upload it to the Cloud. Which means nowadays Mr. Spock would be carrying around a Triloader, not a Tricorder.

Well, maybe not. For space explorers on a newly-discovered planet the only available cloud server is probably on the spacecraft they arrived in. Which means no uploading if the tricorder in question is out of contact range or if the spacecraft has exploded or something. There are some advantages to local data storage. Cloud computing seems more suited for the more civilized places in the galaxy, while tricorders have many applications in the more uncivilized areas.

Sensor Array

Like all smart phones, the tricorder will have a still/video camera, and a microphone.

Other sensors could include:

Tricorder sensor arrays might incorporate sensors used by spacecraft remote-sensing suites:


An international team of researchers has developed a proof of concept for a working hand-held chemical scanner. In their paper published in the journal Nano Letters, the team describes their ideas and their belief that they will have a working model within five years and a device for sale within 10.

Science fiction has featured characters wielding hand-held chemical scanning devices for years, but in the real world, that has hardly been the case—mass spectrometers and MRI machines are big and bulky, and not likely to be carted into the field for on-the-spot testing. But that may change over the next few years as the researchers with this new effort describe plans for a scanner small enough to be carried in the hand—a diamond-based quantum device that borrows technology from atomic clocks and gravitational wave detectors.

To create their device, they are looking at ways to take advantage of the development of nanomechanical sensors and quantum nanosensors—they describe the mass spectrometry part of their device as making use of the mass changes that occur when a molecule attaches to a diamond defect. Creating the rest of the device, they report, involves surveying current devices and then looking at ways of miniaturizing them to the point that they can be included on one or a small number of chips.

To that end, they have outlined principles for implementing nanomechanical sensing using nanospin-mechanical sensors in such a device and have also been assessing the potential for mass spectrometry and force microscopy in an extremely small space, compared to those that exist today. Such a device, they suggest, could be easily commercialized. They are now at the stage of building a prototype.

The team describes their future device as a tool for use by people in laboratories who do not have the funds to buy today's bulky machines. They suggest it could also prove useful to environmental researchers in the field. The device would have biosecurity applications and as a chemical scanner that could be used by doctors to perform tests on patients in their comfort of their office. It would provide analytical power at the nanoscale, they claim, in ways that have never been seen before.

(ed note: from paper Nanomechanical sensing using spins in diamond)


Now Stanford electrical engineers have taken the latest step toward developing such a device through experiments detailed in Applied Physics Letters and presented at the International Ultrasonics Symposium in Taipei, Taiwan.

The work, led by Assistant Professor Amin Arbabian and Research Professor Pierre Khuri-Yakub, grows out of research designed to detect buried plastic explosives, but the researchers said the technology could also provide a new way to detect early stage cancers.

The careful manipulation of two scientific principles drives both the military and medical applications of the Stanford work.

First, all materials expand and contract when stimulated with electromagnetic energy, such as light or microwaves. Second, this expansion and contraction produces ultrasound waves that travel to the surface and can be detected remotely.

The basic principle of this interaction was first revealed in 1880 when Alexander Graham Bell was experimenting with wireless transmission of sound via light beams. Bell used light to make sound emanate from a receiver made of carbon black, which replicated a musical tone.

The Stanford engineers built on the principles demonstrated in Bell's experiment to develop a device to "hear" hidden objects.

Proof of principle

The new work was spurred by a challenge posed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), best known for sponsoring the studies that led to the Internet. DARPA sought to develop a system to detect plastic explosives buried underground – improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – that are currently invisible to metal detectors. The task included one important caveat: The detection device could not touch the surface in question, so as not to trigger an explosion.

All materials expand and contract when heated, but not at identical rates. Ground, especially muddy ground soaked with water, absorbs more heat than plastic.

In a potential battlefield application, the microwaves would heat the suspect area, causing the muddy ground to expand and thus squeeze the plastic. Pulsing the microwaves would generate a series of ultrasound pressure waves that could be detected and interpreted to disclose the presence of buried plastic explosives.

Sound waves propagate differently in solids than air, with a drastic transmission loss occurring when sound jumps from the solid to air. That's why, for instance, ultrasound images of babies in utero must be taken through direct contact with the skin.

The Stanford team accommodated for this loss by building capacitive micromachined ultrasonic transducers, or CMUTs, that can specifically discern the weaker ultrasound signals that jumped from the solid, through the air, to the detector.

"What makes the tricorder the Holy Grail of detection devices is that the instrument never touches the subject," Arbabian said. "All the measurements are made though the air, and that's where we've made the biggest strides."

Solving the technical challenges of detecting ultrasound after it left the ground gave the Stanford researchers the experience to take aim at their ultimate goal – using the device in medical applications without touching the skin.

Touchless ultrasound

Arbabian's team then used brief microwave pulses to heat a flesh-like material that had been implanted with a sample "target." Holding the device from about a foot away, the material was heated by a mere thousandth of a degree, well within safety limits.

Yet even that slight heating caused the material to expand and contract – which, in turn, created ultrasound waves that the Stanford team was able to detect to disclose the location of the target, all without touching the "flesh," just like the Star Trek tricorder.

Real-world Tricorders

There are numerous toys and props that simulate a Star Trek tricorder (in its many incarnations in the various Trek TV shows). But the state of the art has advanced enough that many people are attempting to make actual functional instruments. Companies are permitted to call such devices a "tricorder" because Gene Roddenberry's contract included a clause allowing any company able to create functioning technology to use the name.

In 1996 Vital Technologies Corporation sold a device they called the "Official Star-Trek Tricorder Mark 1". They managed to market about 10,000 of them before going bankrupt. The unit had an "Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Meter", "Two-Mode Weather Station" (thermometer and barometer), "Colorimeter" (no wavelength given), "Light meter", and "Stardate Clock and Timer" (a clock and timer).

In 2008 the biotech firm QuantuMDx released details of their handheld DNA lab Q-POC for developing countries, which could diagnose a variety of illnesses with one drop of the patient's blood and only 15 minutes analysis time. In their 2014 crowdfunding camapaign they solicited names for the device, naturally everybody suggested "Tricorder."

In 2008 researchers from Georgia Tech announced their portable hand-held multi-spectral imaging device, and the next day several tech blogs were calling the device a "Tricorder".

In 2009 engineers developed an ultrasound scanner that connects to a smartphone via usb port. The phone acts as the display screen.

As far back as 2009 NASA had been looking into creating sensors that would plug into an iPhone to make a tricorder-like instrument. The prototype sensor module was only able to detect and identify low concentrations of airborne ammonia, chlorine gas and methane; but hey, it's a start.

In 2011 the X Prize Foundation announced with Qualcomm Incorporated the Tricorder X Prize. The constest is to develop a medical mobile device that can diagnose patients as well as or better than a panel of board certified physicians. There is a a US$7 million Grand Prize, US$2 million Second Prize, and US$1 million Third Prize. The winning entry must be an automatic non-invasive health diagnostics packaged into a single portable device that weighs no more than 2.3 kg, able to diagnose over a dozen medical conditions, including whooping cough, hypertension, mononucleosis, shingles, melanoma, HIV, and osteoporosis. There are currently about ten finalists.

In 2012, Dr. Peter Jansen announced having developed an open-source handheld mobile computing device modeled after the design of the tricorder. His early designs can be found here, the current project (Arducorder Mini tricorder) can be found here.

Dr. Jansen's science tricorder mark 2 has sensors to measure atmospheric temperature, humidity and pressure; magnetometer, colorimeter, non-contact IR thermometer, ambient light level, GPS position, ultrasonic distance measurement, accelerometer, and gyroscope intertial measurement.

Dr. Jansen's Arducorder Mini tricorder has sensors for atmospheric temperature, humidity and pressure; a multi-gas sensor (carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ethanol, hydrogen, ammonia, methane, propane, and iso-butane), 3-axis magnetometer, ambient light level, x-ray and gamma-ray detector, low-res thermal camera, polarimeter, ultraviolet detector, spectrometer, 3-axis accelerometer, and a microphone. It can also stream the data over wifi to an online server.

I want one. And so does RocketCat.

AntiRadiation Gear

If the spacecraft is atomic powered, radiation dosimeters will be a standard part of a rocketeer's uniform. This monitors the crewperson's exposure to radiation from nuclear rocket engines, nuclear power generators, and exploding nuclear warheads. The ship's doctor, medical corpsman, or radiation officer will be in charge of recording the readings and referring the crewperson for medical attention if their cumulative dose climbs too high.

The crew may or may not wear another dosimeter optimized to measure exposure to galactic cosmic rays and solar proton storms.


(ed note: Johnny Dahlquist is a member of the Patrol. He is part of the personnel of the lunar nuclear bomb base. One fine day he learns that a coup d’etat is happening. The commander has been murdered, and colonel Towers is taking over the place. Towers' plan is to become the ruler of the world, with the threat of nuclear bombardment. Johnny ain't gonna let his little girl grow up under a totalitarian dictatorship. Johnny manages to get into the bomb room, and has about fifteen minutes to sabotage all the bombs.)

      Or they could drill a hole, let out the air, and open, the door without wrecking the lock. Or Towers might even have a new airlock built outside the old. Not likely, Johnny thought; a coup d’etat depended on speed. Towers was almost sure to take the quickest way — blasting. And Lopez was probably calling the Base right now. Fifteen minutes for Towers to suit up and get here, maybe a short dicker — then whoosh! the party is over.
     Fifteen minutes — In fifteen minutes the bombs might fall back into the hands of the conspirators; in fifteen minutes he must make the bombs unusable.
     An atom bomb is just two or more pieces of fissionable metal, such as plutonium. Separated, they are no more explosive than a pound of butter; slapped together, they explode. The complications lie in the gadgets and circuits and gun used to slap them together in the exact way and at the exact time and place required.
     These circuits, the bomb’s “brain,” are easily destroyed — but the bomb itself is hard to destroy because of its very simplicity. Johnny decided to smash the “brains” — and quickly!
     The only tools at hand were simple ones used in handling the bombs. Aside from a Geiger counter, the speaker on the walkie-talkie circuit, a television rig to the base, and the bombs themselves, the room was bare. A bomb to be worked on was taken elsewhere — not through fear of explosion, but to reduce radiation exposure for personnel. The radioactive material in a bomb is buried in a “tamper” — in these bombs, gold. Gold stops alpha, beta, and much of the deadly gamma radiation — but not neutrons.
     The slippery, poisonous neutrons which plutonium gives off had to escape, or a chain reaction — explosion! — would result. The room was bathed in an invisible, almost undetectable rain of neutrons. The place was unhealthy; regulations called for staying in it as short a time as possible.
     The Geiger counter clicked off the “background” radiation, cosmic rays, the trace of radioactivity in the Moon’s crust, and secondary radioactivity set up all through the room by neutrons. Free neutrons have the nasty trait of infecting what they strike, making it radioactive, whether it be concrete wall or human body. In time the room would have to be abandoned.
     Dahlquist twisted a knob on the Geiger counter; the instrument stopped clicking. He had used a suppressor circuit to cut out noise of “background” radiation at the level then present. It reminded him uncomfortably of the danger of staying here. He took out the radiation exposure film all radiation personnel carry; it was a direct-response type and had been fresh when he arrived. The most sensitive end was faintly darkened already. Half way down the film a red line crossed it. Theoretically, if the wearer was exposed to enough radioactivity in a week to darken the film to that line, he was, as Johnny reminded himself, a “dead duck”.

From THE LONG WATCH by Robert Heinlein (1948)

Potassium Iodide tablets would also be valuable. If the reactor core is breached, the mildly radioactive fuel and the intensely radioactive fission fragments will be released into the atmosphere. While none of the fission fragment elements are particularly healthy, Iodine-131 is particularly nasty, since one's thyroid gland does its best to soak up iodine, radioactive or not. Thyroid cancer or a hoarse voice from thyroid surgery might be common among atomic rocket old-timers. The instant the reactor breach alarm sounds, whip out your potassium iodide tablets and swallow one.

The StemRad corporation manufactures personal protective equipment (PPE) for ionizing radiation. In July 2015 it was announced that StemRad would be partnering with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to develop personal radiation protection for astronauts.

A lead-lined suit with enough Tenth Value Thickness multiples to protect a crewperson would be so massive that they couldn't move. In a gravity field or under acceleration they would lie helpless on the ground like an upside down turtle. In freefall they would spend lots of time and muscle to get up to speed. Then they discover the hard way it takes just as much time and muscle to brake to a halt as they fail to stop from smashing into a bulkhead.

StemRad figures if you cannot stop the radiation, the next best thing is to allow the poor person's body regenerate the damage (before they die). The human tissue which does this best is the bone marrow, which unfortunately very radiation sensitive. So where is the largest concentration of bone marrow? Why, the hip bone of course (a fact well known to anybody who has donated bone marrow).

Therefore the StemRad 360 Gamma antiradiation vest only protects the hips.

According to StemRad's data sheets, the StemRad 360 Gamma can increase the LD50 dosage from 4 Grays to 10 Grays. An increase factor of 2.5 is nothing to sneeze at. To further reduce the mass of the vest the protective material varies in thickness to account for pelvic bone marrow depth and the natural attunation properties of human tissue.


"And the googles. I admit that every spaceship officer I've ever seen wears them but I've never seen them used for anything except as sunglasses. Care to explain?"

"The goggles and binoculars form part of the traditional uniform," Larry answered. "The goggles come from the First Jovian War when they were used as eye protection from atomic explosions and laser radiation. The originals had a semi-opaque liquid driven between the lenses by an explosive charge when a certain intensity or type of light hit a sensor on them. The modern ones use a high speed, reversible, light intensity limiting effect; phototropism it's called. Of course neither item is required unless you're using direct viewports."

From NEW LENSMAN by William Ellern

Nick Derington mentions that goggles are used on the International Space Station to protect the eyes from debris floating in free fall. You do NOT want metal shaving getting into your eyes. This hazard was discovered by the original Salyut and Mir cosmonauts, the hard way.

On ISS, safety goggles are nominally worn when crews enter new modules that have just arrived on orbit (in which fans have not yet been turned on the draw particulate into the filters).

Wrist Gear


In his novel Space Angel, John Maddox Roberts suggests that the crew of an interstellar spacecraft would carry "tracetabs". These are dietary supplement pills, containing all the trace elements required for health. If one finds oneself marooned on an alien planet, the local food might be missing vital elements. Tracetabs are kept in a tin on a chain around one's neck, and contain about three thousand tabs.

"One thing," Michelle chimed in, "Kelly, take this," , she tossed him a flat metal box, about five centimeters on a side, with a metal chain. "Wear that around your neck at all times from now on. Those are your tracetabs. They contain all the trace elements your body needs. There are about three thousand tabs in that box (8.2 years). If we go on xeno-rations, you'll need them."

Kelly seemed puzzled.

"There are about a thousand planets," Sims explained, "that supply native food edible by humans. On maybe half a dozen of them, all the trace elements necessary for human survival are present in the food."

"If the soil and atmosphere are comparable to Earth's," Michelle continued, "native flora and fauna may give you all the protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins you need, but trace elements can be hard to come by. You'll die just as dead from lack of magnesium, phosphorous, or any number of other elements as from lack of water. If you get stranded on a xenoworld, that box can be your lifeline. Always keep it filled."

From SPACE ANGEL by John Maddox Roberts (1979)

In free fall the rocketeers may also use a "broomstick" to move around.

If you want to brainstorm some ideas for specialized equipment, you may want to look over some of the gear carried by Batman. Or James Bond.

But you must resign yourself to the fact that when you are writing a science fiction novel. No matter how up-to-date you try to make the gadgets and equipment, in forty years it will all seem as quaint as those 1950's SF novels full of slide rules and people smoking cigarettes.

Nonstandard Gear

Surveillance Drone

Back last century, "Snooper" were all the rage in science fiction. Nowadays they are yet another science fiction prediction that have become reality, in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles used in an aerial surveillance role.

Naturally some of the science fictional devices are still a bit more fancy, with stuff like antigravity.


The screen which he was watching at the moment, however, was not connected with an underground pickup.

It was linked with a pickup in the bottom of a basketball-sized sphere driven by a small inertial engine that held the sphere hovering in the air above the game sanctuary on the northern tip of Manhattan Island.

In the screen, he had an aerial view of the grassy, rocky mounds where the earth hid the shattered and partially melted ruins of long-collapsed buildings.

From ANYTHING YOU CAN DO... by Randall Garrett (1962)

      He indicated one of the hard laboratory chairs. “Do sit down, I asked you in because you have a fly on your sleeve.” He caught it deftly. “I’m interested in insects.”
     “I should have thought,” Gaynor said carefully, “that you had enough on your mind without worrying about insects.” He sighed. “There was a time when nothing could get through the insect barriers, but maintenance is third-rate now. What was it—a common house fly?”
     “That depends on the word common, doesn’t it?” He inserted it skilfully into a viewer and pressed a switch. “This takes a little time to warm up but…” He made a number of adjustments and squinted through the eye-pieces. “Ah, as I suspected—look.”
     Gaynor leaned forward. The view—probably a product of Duncan’s superior technology—was like a pair of binoculars sunk into a square, black box. Through the eyepieces a lighted screen revealed both external and internal structure of the tiny insect—only it wasn’t an insect.
     Gaynor felt a curious, unbelieving numbness. Clearly visible in the screen was the tiny solar motor and an incredibly complicated drive mechanism for the wings. Behind the compound faceted eyes were the complete circuits for a comprehensive tele-recording unit.
     Gaynor found himself sweating. No one on this planet to his knowledge could construct micro-devices of such precision.
     “Where the hell did it come from?”
     “That I shall have to find out. It will need a little care. There’s a minute container beside the motor with a detectable reaction, possible hydro-nuclear or solar energy matter.” Duncan shook his head thoughtfully. “It’s not big enough to be lethal—but one’s fingers are also valuable.”
     “I still don’t know how you propose to find out where it came from.” Gaynor was trying to sound casual.
     “Well, obviously, it isn’t radio-controlled or it would be detectable. It is, therefore, comprehensively programmed, so all I need are the programme tapes. I can then interpret the electronic symbols and trace backwards.”
     “That sounds a full-time job.”
     “It will take some little time. The only way to deal with a micro device effectively is to construct and programme another micro device to take it to pieces.”
     “How long will that take?”
     “With what I have to work with here, about three days.”

     Duncan smiled. “Some time ago I found a somewhat dubious insect on your coat-sleeve. I back-tracked the programme tapes to a thumb-size vehicle, rocket-type, forty miles beyond the city limits.” He laughed. “Little fleas have smaller fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em … In short, our insect took back a passenger which it brought here.”

From THE PRODIGAL SUN by Philip E. High (1964)

(ed note: on the Junkyard Planet, our heroes are prospecting the abandoned Third Force High Command, a based buried in a mesa.)

      Toward midafternoon, the tunnel in the canyon was cleared. It had been vitrified solid; the scanners reported that it was plugged for ten feet. A contragravity tank let down in front of it, with a solenoid jackhammer mounted where the gun should have been, and began pounding, running a hole in for a blast shot. There were more explosions topside.
     When it was clear, they sent a snooper in first. It was a robot, looking slightly like a short-tailed tadpole, six feet long by three feet at the thickest. It transmitted a view of the tunnel as it went slowly in; the air, it found, was breathable, and there were no harmful radiations or other dangers. According to the plans, there should be a big room at the other end, slightly curved, a hundred feet wide by a hundred on either side of the tunnel entrance. The robot entered this, and in its headlight they could see reconnaissance-cars, and contragravity tanks with 90-mm guns. It swerved slightly to the left, and then the screen stopped receiving, the telemetered instruments went dead and the robot's signal stopped.

     "Tom," Rodney Maxwell said, "you keep the crowd back. Klem, stay with the screens; I'll transmit to you. I'm going in to see what's wrong."
     Half a mile ahead, at the other end of the tunnel, they could see a flicker of light that grew brighter as they advanced. The snooper still had its light on and was moving about. Once they caught a momentary signal from it. As Rodney Maxwell piloted the jeep, Conn kept talking to Klem Zareff, outside. Then they were at the end of the tunnel and entering the room ahead; it was full of vehicles, like the one on the bottom level at Tenth Army HQ. As soon as they were inside, Klem Zareff's voice in the radio stopped, as though the set had been shot out.
     "Klem! What's wrong? We aren't getting you," his father was saying.
     The snooper was drifting aimlessly about, avoiding the parked vehicles (the snooper floats using antigravity). Conn used the manual control to set it down and deactivate it, then got out and went to examine it.

     "Take the jeep over to the tunnel entrance," he told his father. "Move out into the tunnel a few feet; relay from me to Klem."
     The jeep moved over. A moment later his father cried, "He's getting me; I'm getting him. What's the matter with the radio in here? The snooper's all right, isn't it?"
     It was. Conn reactivated it and put it up above the tops of the vehicles.

     "Sure. We just can't transmit out."
     "But only half a mile of rock; that set's good for more than that. It'll transmit clear through Snagtooth."
     "It won't transmit through collapsium." (technobabble armor made out of condensed matter. Electron shells of the atoms are collapsed upon nulcei, the atoms in actual contact. Won't allow any electromagnetic radiation to pass, and can widthstand nuclear explosions. Total handwavium.)
     His father swore disgustedly, repeating it to Zareff outside. Conn could hear the old soldier, in the radio, make a similar remark. They should have all expected that, in the first place. If the Third Force High Command was expecting to sit out a nuclear bombardment in this place, they'd armor it against anything.

(ed note: now our heroes are trying to penetrate an abandoned space port that is being used as a base by air pirates. While the good-guy military force assaults the surface installations, Conn and the infiltration team are sneaking in using underground tunnels. They send a snooper ahead in case the tunnels are booby-trapped)

     They sent a snooper in first; it picked up faint radiation leakage from inactive power units of overhead lights, and nothing else. The tunnel stretched ahead of it, empty, and dark beyond its infrared vision. After it had gone a mile without triggering anything, the jeep followed Anse Dawes piloting and Conn at the snooper controls watching what it transmitted back. The two lorries followed, loaded with men and equipment, and another jeep brought up the rear. They had cut screen-and-radio communication with the outside; they weren't even using inter-vehicle communication.
     At length, the snooper emerged into a big cavern, swinging slowly to scan it. The walls and ceiling were rough and irregular; it was natural instead of excavated. Only the floor had been leveled smooth. There were a lot of things in it, machinery and vehicles, all battered and in poor condition, dusty and cobwebbed: the spaceport junkheap. A passage, still large enough for one of the gunboats, led deeper into the mountain toward the crater. They sent the snooper in and, after a while, followed.
     Beyond was another passage, almost as wide as the Mall in Litchfield; even the Lester Dawes could have negotiated it. According to the plans, it ran straight out to the ship docks and the open crater beyond. Anse turned the jeep into a side passage, and Conn recalled the snooper and sent it ahead. On the plan, it led to another natural cavern, half its width shown as level with the entrance. The other half was a pit, marked as sixty feet deep; above this and just under the ceiling, several passages branched out in different directions.
     The snooper reported visible light ahead; fluoroelectric light from one of the upper passages, and firelight from the pit. The air-analyzer reported woodsmoke and a faint odor of burning oil. He sent the snooper ahead, tilting it to look down into the pit (where they find prisoners taken captive by the pirates. Our heroes free the prisoners and give them guns).

     "Let's look these robots over," he said. "Find about half a dozen we can load with blasting explosive and send ahead of us on contragravity." (even common janitor robots have built-in antigravity)
     They found several—an electric-light servicer, a couple of wall-and-window washers, a serving-robot that looked as if it had come from a restaurant, and an all-purpose robo-janitor. In the passage outside, they began loading the lorries with bricks of ionite and packages of cataclysmite, packing all the scrap-iron and other junk around the explosives that they could.

     He lifted the jeep and started off; the lorry, and the scows and the other lorry followed; the snooper and the bomb-robots went ahead like a pack of hunting dogs. They went through great chambers, dark and silent and bulking with dusty machines. They came to a place even the snooper couldn't enter, choked to the ceiling with dead vegetation, hydroponic seed-plants that had been left untended to grow wild and die.
     "You're the officer in command, Conn," his father told him (over the radio). "Your decision. How soon can you attack? We're almost through to the crater."
     "There's a vertical shaft right above us, and a lot of noise at the top. We'll send up a couple of bomb-robots to clear things at the shaft-head and follow with everything we have."
     "We'd better send Gumshoe Gus up, first," Sylvie suggested.
     "You handle him. Take a quick look around, and then pull him back. We'll need him later." It was the first time he'd ever caught himself calling a robot "him," instead of "it." He thought for a second, and added: "Give your father and Mr. Vibart the controls for the two window-washers; you handle the snooper."
     He gave more instructions: Yves Jacquemont to turn his bomb-robot right, Vibart to turn his left; the two lorries to follow the jeep up the shaft, the scows to follow. Then he leaned back and looked at the screens that had been rigged under the top of the jeep. A circle of light appeared in one, growing larger and brighter as the snooper approached the top of the shaft; two more came on as the bomb-robots followed.
     "All right; follow me," he said into the inter-vehicle radio, and started the jeep slowly up the shaft.

     The snooper popped out of the shaft, onto a gallery that had been cut into the solid rock, fifty feet high and a hundred and fifty across, with a low parapet on the outside and the mile-deep crater beyond. There were a few grounded aircars and lorries in sight, and a medium airboat rested a hundred or so feet on the right of the shaft-opening. Fifteen or twenty men were clustered around it, with a lifter loaded with ammunition. They looked like any crowd of farm-tramps. Suddenly, one of them saw the snooper, gave a yell, and fired at it with a rifle. Sylvie pulled it back into the shaft; her father and the chief engineer sent the two bomb-robots up onto the gallery. The right-hand robot sped at the airboat; the last thing Conn saw in its screen was a face, bearded and villainous and contorted with fright, looking out the pilot's window of the airboat. Then it went dead, and there was a roar from above. On the other side, several men were firing straight at the pickup of the other robot; it went dead, too, and there was a second explosion.
     The gallery, when the jeep emerged onto it, was empty except for casualties, a few still alive. The side of the airboat was caved in; the lifter-load of ammunition had gone up with the bomb.

From JUNKYARD PLANET by H. Beam Piper (1961)

It was some five days later that, seated comfortably in the quarters that had been assigned to Spencer, rooms carved from living rock and carefully and artistically decorated with friezes, Carlisle and Spencer were disturbed, nay, even startled, to see a black object the size and general shape of a football come floating gently into the room, turn a cold and unwinking glass eye on them, and say in a slightly cracked voice: "If you two asteroids with planetary ambitions will arise and follow me down the corridor, I can show you where men of brains are laboring." (voice is of the football's inventor, Aarn from Jupiter Colony)

Then it fell silent It stared at them for some seconds as they sat in stupified amazement, then turned leisurely about and started out of the door. Its cracked voice commented only that: "Two such frog-mouthed, ant-brained, instinct-controlled, undernourished runts weren't worth the trouble, anyway."

"Well, I'll be a hyperbolic-orbited asteroid. That grease glob from Jupiter has a new idea." With which Spencer tore out of the door and down the corridor after the fast-vanishing black ostrich egg. Carlisle was on his heels as the soft black of the device all but hid it in the slight gloom of the corridor leading to Aarn's quarters.

Aarn was seated grinning before a television board of a new and complex type. "Rather clever thing, isn't it?" asked Aarn and the egg at the same time.

"Which of you should I answer?" asked Spencer sarcastically. "That egg up there looks more intelligent. I thought it was a bomb getting ready to blow up when the blamed thing floated in there."

"Yes—we are thinking of that idea, and Anto Rayl, here, has already turned the plans of this device over to his government, and they are making a number of them. Present idea is that after a Shal torpedo has breeched the walls of the ship, these can sail in and start operating on the internal structure as directed.

"This particular model is the new-type spy ship. It consists of miniature—very miniature—space-ship drive of the momentum-wave type (reactionless drive), two small but powerful aggie (antigravity) power coils, a radio-control apparatus, and a small radio-sending apparatus connected with a television device of the usual sort—but smaller size. Rather crude. Not a good lining on the screen, but you can see enough, and the ears are quite effective. The whole report is sent back continuously on two short-wave beams.

"As I said, Anto Rayl has turned the plans over to the government, and they are making about ten an hour now. They plan to increase the production to about fifty an hour; and equip all ships with them. The Sunbeam is assigned to special duty—with seven full-fledged momentum-drive, antigravity-powered battleships and twenty of the new cruisers. Our duty is to patrol and investigate, by any means possible, the doings of Teff-el (the enemy aliens). The battleships and cruisers are to protect us."

Aarn went back to work. Anto Rayl and several other Magyans were in the control room of the Sunbeam with him as he sent out his little "egg-boat," as the investigators had been called, and attempted to land it on Teff-el safely. He met with difficulties as usual, and cursed the Tefflan ship heartily. Teff-el was nearly a million miles away, which meant his control of the little machine was extremely poor, since the light-speed messages that controlled it took several precious seconds for the round trip. He had to move it slowly, exploring carefully before him. Already the little ship was nearer Teff-el than any Magyan had ever been.

The egg-boats, as made in quantity, were egg-shaped, and about eight inches in greatest dimension. They contamed no apparatus for the projection of speech, as no attempts would be made to attract attention—decidedly the opposite. Since they were black, Aarn had carefully chosen to send them in from the day side of Teff-el; they were therefore black against black space.

The present egg-boat was within about fifty miles of the surface of the planet when Aarn had been forced, by the lightning swoop of the Tefflan heavy cruiser, to move rapidly to other regions and had moved out of the little investigator's beam. He'd picked it up again, to find the thing was headed for a body of water, and though he'd sent a reversing message, he feared he was too late.

"Blast that restriction on the speed of light! I can't get anywhere this way," he grumbled. "I'll have to send another one now, and every time one of those things is spotted by a Tefflan, it will mean another three hours' work."

"Why not lower a whole collection at once?" suggested Anto Rayl

"Why—that might be possible—they'd have to respond to two wave lengths—a master wave, that they all obeyed, and a key wave, that they reacted to individually, but it might be done."

The investigator shot rapidly ahead now, in clear day light, high in the sky. There were ships up here—ships that scurried busily across the sky between cities. There was a great deal of anxious activity, and the furnaces that stood above ground, alone of Tefflan city structures, were evidently working hard. A great opening in the ground, into which ships of all sizes were constantly sinking while others rose from it, betrayed the entrance to Cantak.

The investigator crept forward at a speed of some two feet per second, till it was directly over the great bore. Then Aarn let it drift across.

By far the most common vessels were huge. The next was. The little investigator caught by it, lodged in a crack under its great, stubby wing, and carried down, cushioned by its antigravity field. Aarn gave a stop signal and knew the little machine would remain in place unless heavily jarred in landing.

The ship it clung to descended, landing in the midst of a great terminal, a bustle of Tefflan activity. With a sudden swoop, the investigator detached itself, shot straight up into the air, and disappeared in the black roof of the great cavern before the startled Tefflans could guess what had happened.

Laborers, common Tefflans, they paid no further attention, and went on with their work. And all that day, behind doors, hidden in great vessels, in small vases and among bushes in parks, the investigator listened and watched and sought. It crept out when the lights were turned down for the rest period, and slunk into important public buildings, buildings that had no window glass in this great cavern where there was no weather, save that which they made themselves. Through ventilation tubes, through doors, through transoms, the investigator went, seeking records, secrets—

Never before had Magyans (the good guys) had so perfect an opportunity to learn every secret of Teff-el.

From THE MIGHTIEST MACHINE by John W. Campbell jr. (1934)

Lie Detector

A lie detector is a jolly science fiction gadget which often comes in handy. I say "science fiction" because they don't exist in the real world. This is because that hoary old lie detector called the "polygraph" is utterly worthless. In science fiction, the concept dates back at least as far as G K Chesterton's 1913 story "The Mistake of the Machine".

And obviously a working lie detector cannot detect a lie uttered by a person who truly believes the lie is truth. Because as far as the person is concerned it isn't a lie at all. It is also sometimes possible for people to circumvent the lie detector by telling literal but misleading truths (example: "The Best Policy" by Randall Garrett).

A related concept is truth compeller (interfering with the subject's ability to deceive). And in the real world so-called Truth Serums have not been proven to be more reliable than a placebo.


In one huge room, ballroom or concertroom or something, there were prisoners herded, and men from the Nemesis were setting up polyencaphalographic veridicators, sturdy chairs with wires and adjustable helmets and translucent globes mounted over them. A couple of Morland's men were hustling a People's Watchman to one and strapping him into a chair.

"You know what this is, don't you?" one of them was saying. "This is a veridicator. That globe'll light blue; the moment you try to lie to us, it'll turn red. And the moment it turns red, I'm going to hammer your teeth down your throat with the butt of this pistol."

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1962)

     "Why, thank you, Mr. Stenson." He shook hands with the old master instrument maker. "If you could make me a pocket veridicator, to use on some of these people who claim they saw them, it would be a big help."
     "Well, I do make rather small portable veridicators for the constabulary, but I think what you need is an instrument for detection of psychopaths, and that's slightly beyond science at present."

     Piet Dumont, the Mallorysport chief of police, might have been a good cop once, but for as long as Gus Brannhard had known him, he had been what he was now--an empty shell of unsupported arrogance, with a sagging waistline and a puffy face that tried to look tough and only succeeded in looking unpleasant. He was sitting in a seat that looked like an old fashioned electric chair, or like one of those instruments of torture to which beauty-shop customers submit themselves. There was a bright conical helmet on his head, and electrodes had been clamped to various portions of his anatomy. On the wall behind him was a circular screen which ought to have been a calm turquoise blue, but which was flickering from dark blue through violet to mauve. That was simple nervous tension and guilt and anger at the humiliation of being subjected to veridicated interrogation. Now and then there would be a stabbing flicker of bright red as he toyed mentally with some deliberate misstatement of fact.

     "You know, yourself, that the Fuzzies didn't hurt that girl," Brannhard told him.
     "I don't know anything of the kind," the police chief retorted. "All I know's what was reported to me."
     That had started out a bright red; gradually it faded into purple. Evidently Piet Dumont was adopting a rules-of-evidence definition of truth.
     "Who told you about it?"
     "Luther Woller. Detective lieutenant on duty at the time."
     The veridicator agreed that that was the truth and not much of anything but the truth.
     "But you know that what really happened was that Lurkin beat the girl himself, and Woller persuaded them both to say the Fuzzies did it," Max Fane said.
     "I don't know anything of the kind!" Dumont almost yelled. The screen blazed red. "All I know's what they told me; nobody said anything else." Red and blue, juggling in a typical quibbling pattern. "As far as I know, it was the Fuzzies done it."
     "Now, Piet," Fane told him patiently. "You've used this same veridicator here often enough to know you can't get away with lying on it. Woller's making you the patsy for this, and you know that, too. Isn't it true, now, that to the best of your knowledge and belief those Fuzzies never touched that girl, and it wasn't till Woller talked to Lurkin and his daughter at headquarters that anybody even mentioned Fuzzies?"
     The screen darkened to midnight blue, and then, slowly, it lightened.
     "Yeah, that's true," Dumont admitted. He avoided their eyes, and his voice was surly.

     When the deputy marshal touched his shoulder and spoke to him, he didn't think, at first, that his legs would support him. It seemed miles, with all the staring faces on either side of him. Somehow, he reached the chair and sat down, and they fitted the helmet over his head and attached the electrodes. They used to make a witness take some kind of an oath to tell the truth. They didn't any more. They didn't need to.

     As soon as the veridicator was on, he looked up at the big screen behind the three judges; the globe above his head was a glaring red. There was a titter of laughter. Nobody in the Courtroom knew better than he what was happening. He had screens in his laboratory that broke it all down into individual patterns—the steady pulsing waves from the cortex, the alpha and beta waves; beta-aleph and beta-beth and beta-gimel and beta-daleth. The thalamic waves. He thought of all of them, and of the electromagnetic events which accompanied brain activity. As he did, the red faded and the globe became blue. He was no longer suppressing statements and substituting other statements he knew to be false. If he could keep it that way. But, sooner or later, he knew, he wouldn't be able to.

From LITTLE FUZZY by H. Beam Piper (1962)

(ed note: in the novel, it turns out that Terra is actually a ten-thousand year old long-lost colony of The Fourth Imperium. The imperials are trying to unify Terra before the dreaded Achuultani genocide fleet arrives and nukes Terra into a smooth radioactive glassy sphere. The nation of China is reluctant to join, but instead of China being put under direction of an Imperial, it is instead assigned to Chinese grand marshal Tsien. Who uses Imperial lie-detector technology to great effect when putting down the local guerrillas.)

In a sense, Hatcher's injuries had been very much to their advantage. If any other member of the chiefs of staff was his equal in every way, it was Tsien. They were very different; Tsien lacked Hatcher's ease with people and the flair which made exquisitely choreographed operations seem effortless, but he was tireless, analytical, eternally self-possessed, and as inexorable as a Juggernaut yet flexibly pragmatic. He'd streamlined their organization, moved their construction and training schedules ahead by almost a month, and—most importantly of all—stamped out the abortive guerrilla war in Asia with a ruthlessness Hatcher himself probably could not have displayed.

Horus had been more than a little horrified at the way Tsien went about it. He hadn’t worried about taking armed resisters prisoner, and those he'd taken had been summarily court-martialed and executed usually within twenty-four hours. His reaction teams had been everywhere, filling Horus with the fear that Hatcher had made a rare and terrible error in recommending him as his replacement. There'd been an elemental implacability about the huge Chinese, one that made Horus wonder if he even cared who was innocent and who guilty.

Yet he'd made himself wait, and time had proved the wisdom of his decision. Ruthless and implacable, yes, and also a man tormented by shame; Tsien had been those things, for it had been his officers who had betrayed their trust. But he'd been just as ruthlessly just. Every individual caught in his nets had been sorted out under an Imperial lie detector, and the innocent were freed as quickly as they had been apprehended. Nor had he permitted any unnecessary brutality to taint his actions or those of his men.

Even more importantly, perhaps, he was no "Westerner" punishing patriots who had struck back against occupation but their own commander-in-chief, acting with the full support of Party and government, and no one reputation, and the fact that he had been selected to replace the wounded Hatcher, had done more to cement Asian support of the new government and military than anything else ever could have.

Within two weeks, all attacks had ended. Within a month, there was no more guerrilla movement. Every one of its leaders had been apprehended and executed; none were imprisoned.

Nor had the chilling message been lost upon the rest of the world. Horus had agonized over the brutal suppression of the African riots, but Tsien's lesson had gone home. There was still unrest, but the world's news channels had carried live coverage of the trials and executions, and outbursts of open violence had ended almost overnight.


     “Yes, Colonel?” Ann Chang’s amplified voice filled the room (from the speakerphone). “What can we do for you?”
     “We need a full shipping schedule as soon as possible,” Falkenberg said. “All space traffic from now through the end of the year.”
     “Of—of course, Colonel. But you know not all traffic is scheduled—”
     “Yes, of course,” Falkenberg said impatiently.

     Captain Rottermill frowned and reached under the table for his briefcase.

     “I’ll send you a copy of everything we have at the moment. If you’ll wait just a moment. It’ll take a few minutes to search the files.”
     Rottermill set his briefcase on the table in front of him and lifted out a small plastic box. He pressed a switch on it and placed it facing Falkenberg’s speakerphone.
     “We can wait,” Falkenberg said. He glanced at Rottermill and raised one eyebrow. Rottermill nodded curtly.
     “Colonel, the computers are doing odd things with the data base,” Ann Chang said. “Let—let me call you back, please.”

     Falkenberg glanced at Rottermill. The intelligence officer nodded again. “Very well,” Falkenberg said. “We really do need that schedule. We’ll wait for your call.”
     “Thank you, Colonel,” Ann Chang said. “It’ll be just a few minutes. I appreciate your patience—”
     “Not at all. Goodbye.” Falkenberg punched the off button, looked to make sure the connection was broken, and looked back to Rottermill. “Well?”
     Rottermill turned the Voice Stress Analyzer so that Falkenberg could see the readout. A line of X’s reached far into the red zone. “Colonel, she’s scared stiff.”
     “What put you onto her?” Ian Frazer asked.
     Rottermill shrugged. “Do enough interrogations and you get a feel for it. Mind you, this isn’t certain. That damn scrambler could affect the patterns. But I’ll bet dinner for a week that woman’s hiding something. Three days’ dinners it’s something to do with shipping schedules.”
     Jeremy Savage laughed. “Rottermill, I doubt anyone will take your bets no matter how you dress them up. I certainly won’t.”

From PRINCE OF MERCENARIES by Jerry Pournelle (1989)

(ed note: the Stainless Steel Rat has infiltrated an enemy base, disguised as an officer named Vaska. Suddenly the base's security officer wants to question all the officers under a lie detector.)

     “You officers, the few among you who were sober enough that is, may have heard an explosion and seen a cloud of smoke while you were on the way here. This explosion was caused by an individual who entered this base and is still undetected in our midst. We know nothing about him, but suspect that he is an offworld spy…”
     This drew a gasp and a murmur as might be expected and the gray man waited a moment until he continued.
     “We are making an intensive search for this individual. Since you gentlemen were in the immediate vicinity I am going to talk to you one at a time to find out what you might know. I also may discover … which one of you is the missing spy.”
     This last shaft exacted only a shocked silence. Now that he had everyone in the right mental condition for cross-examining the gray man began calling officers forward one at a time. I was doubly grateful for the foresight that had dropped me off the truck onto the side of my head.

     It was no accident that I was the third man called forward. On what grounds? General resemblance in build to the offworld spy Pas Ratunkowy? My delayed arrival at Glupost? The bandage? Some basis of suspicion must have existed. I dragged forward with slow speed just as the others had done. I saluted and he pointed to the chair next to the desk.
     “Why don’t you hold this while we talk,” he said in a reasonable voice, passing over the silver egg of a polygraph transmitter.
     The real Vaska would not have recognized it, so I didn’t. I just looked at it with slight interest—as though I did not know it was transmitting vital information to the lie detector before him—and clutched it in my hand. My thoughts were not as calm.
     I’m caught! He has me! He knows who I am and is just toying with me!
     He looked deep into my bloodshot eyes and I detected a slight curl of distaste to his mouth.
     “You have had quite a night of it. Lieutenant Hulja,” he said quietly, his eyes on the sheaf of papers—and on the lie detector readout as well.
     “Yes sir, you know … having a few last drinks with the boys.” That was what I said aloud. What I thought was ‘They will shoot me, dead, right through the heart!’ and I could visualize that vital organ spouting my life’s blood into the dirt.
     “I see you recently had your rank reduced—and where are your fuses, Pas Ratunkowy?”
     Am I tired … wish I was in the sack I thought.
     “Fuses, sir?” I blinked my red orbs and reached to scratch my head and touched the bandage and thought better of it. His eyes glared into mine, gray eyes almost the color of his uniform, and for a moment I caught the strength and anger behind his quiet manners.
     “And your head wound—where did you get that? Our offworld spy was struck on the side of the head.”
     “I fell, sir, someone must have pushed me. Out of the truck. The soldiers bandaged it, ask them …”
     “I already have. Drunk and falling down and a disgrace to the officer corps. Get away and clean yourself up, you disgust me. Next man.”
     I climbed unsteadily to my feet, not looking into the steady glare of those cold eyes, and stared off as though I had forgotten the device in my hand, then turned back and dropped it on his desk, but he was bent over the papers and ignoring me. I could see a faint scar under the thin hair of his balding crown. I left.

     Fooling a polygraph takes skill, practice and training. All of which I had. It can only be done in certain circumstances and this one had been ideal. A sudden interview without normalizing tests being run on the subject. Therefore I began the interview in a near panic—before any questions had been asked. All of this must have peaked nicely on his graph. I was afraid. Of him, of something, anything. But when he had asked the loaded question meant to uncover a spy—the question I knew was coming—I had relaxed and the readout had shown this. The question was a meaningless one to anyone but the offworlder. Once he saw this the interview was over, he had plenty more to do.

From THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT'S REVENGE by Harry Harrison (1970)

The whole thing was connected, of course, with their top-secret psionic machines. There was one of those—a supposedly very advanced type of mind-reader, as a matter of fact—about which she could get detailed first-hand information without going farther than the Bank of Rienne. And she might learn something from that which would fill in the picture for her.

The machine was used by Transcluster Finance, the giant central bank which regulated the activities of major financial houses on more than half the Federation’s worlds, and wielded more actual power than any dozen planetary governments. In the field of financial ethics, Transcluster made and enforced its own laws. Huge sums of money were frequently at stake in disputes among its associates, and machines of presumably more than human incorruptibility and accuracy were therefore employed to help settle conflicting charges and claims.

Two members of the Bank of Rienne’s legal staff who specialized in ethics hearings were pleased to learn of Telzey’s scholarly interest in their subject. They explained the proceedings in which the psionic Verifier was involved at considerable length. In operation, the giant telepath could draw any information pertinent to a hearing from a human mind within minutes. A participant who wished to submit his statements to verification was left alone in a heavily shielded chamber. He sensed nothing, but his mind became for a time a part of the machine’s circuits. He was then released from the chamber, and the Verifier reported what it had found to the adjudicators of the hearing. The report was accepted as absolute evidence; it could not be questioned.

Rienne’s attorneys felt that the introduction of psionic verification had in fact brought about a noticeable improvement in ethical standards throughout Transcluster’s vast finance web. Of course it was possible to circumvent the machines. No one was obliged to make use of them; and in most cases, they were instructed to investigate only specific details of thought and memory indicated to them to confirm a particular claim. This sometimes resulted in a hearing decision going to the side which most skillfully presented the evidence in its favor for verification, rather than to the one which happened to be in the right. A Verifier was, after all, a machine and ignored whatever was not covered by its instructions, even when the mind it was scanning contained additional information with a direct and obvious bearing on the case. This had been so invariably demonstrated in practice that no reasonable person could retain the slightest qualms on the point. To further reassure those who might otherwise hesitate to permit a mind-reading machine to come into contact with them, all records of a hearing were erased from the Verifier’s memory as soon as the case was closed.

And that, Telzey thought, did in a way fill in the picture. There was no evidence that Transcluster’s Verifiers operated in the way they were assumed to be operating—except that for fifteen years, through innumerable hearings, they had consistently presented the appearance of being able to operate in no other manner. But the descriptions she’d been given indicated they were vaster and presumably far more complex instruments than the Customs machine at the Orado City space terminal; and from that machine—supposedly no telepath at all—an imperceptible psionic finger had flicked out, as she passed, to plant a knot of compulsive suggestions in her mind.

So what were the Verifiers doing?

From UNDERCURRENTS by James Schmitz (1964)

(ed note: Bigoted old bitty Mrs. Donahue wants to stir up trouble for the owner of the Star Beast, so she is lying her ass off telling falsehoods in court.)

     "Mrs. Donahue, tell us what happened."
     She sniffed. " Well! I was lying down, trying to snatch a few minutes rest; I have so many responsibilities, clubs and charitable committees and things.
     Greenberg was watching the truth meter over her head. The needle wobble restlessly, but did not kick over into the red enough to set off the warning buzzer.
     "When suddenly I was overcome with a nameless dread."
     The needle swung far into the red, a ruby light flashed and the buzzer gave out a loud rude noise. Somebody started to giggle. Greenberg said hastily, "Order in the court."

From THE STAR BEAST by Robert Heinlein (1954)

      Kelly stopped at a plain gray door, rapped once, then took Holden inside a small compartment with a table and two uncomfortable-looking chairs. A dark-haired man was setting up a recorder. He waved one hand vaguely in the direction of a chair. Holden sat. The chair was even less comfortable than it looked.
     “You can go, Mr. Kelly," the man Holden assumed was Lopez said. Kelly left and closed the door.
     When Lopez had finished, he sat down across the table from Holden and reached out one hand. Holden shook it.
     “I’m Lieutenant Lopez. Kelly probably told you that. I work for naval intelligence, which he almost certainly didn’t tell you. My job isn’t secret, but they train jarheads to be tight-lipped."

     Lopez reached into his pocket, took out a small packet of white lozenges, and popped one into his mouth. He didn't offer one to Holden. Lopez's pupils contracted to tiny points as he sucked the lozenge. Focus drugs. He’d be watching every tic of Holden's face during questioning. Tough to lie to.

     “First Lieutenant James R. Holden, of Montana," he said. It wasn’t a question.
     “Yes, sir," Holden said anyway.
     “Seven years in the UNN, last posting on the destroyer Zhang Fei."
     “That’s me."
     “Your file says you were busted out for assaulting a superior officer," Lopez said. “That’s pretty cliché, Holden. You punched the old man? Seriously?"
     “No. I missed. Broke my hand on a bulkhead."
     “How’d that happen?"
     “He was quicker than I expected," Holden replied.
     “Why'd you try?"
     “I was projecting my self-loathing onto him. It’s just a stroke of luck that I actually wound up hurting the right person," Holden said.

     “Sounds like you've thought about it some since then," Lopez said, his pinprick pupils never moving from Holden's face. “Therapy?”
     “Lots of time to think on the Canterbury," Holden replied.
     Lopez ignored the obvious opening and said, “What did you come up with, during all that thinking?"
     “The Coalition has been stepping on the necks of the people out here for over a hundred years now. I didn’t like being the boot."
     “An OPA sympathizer, then?" Lopez said, his expression not changing at all.
     “No. I didn’t switch sides. I stopped playing. I didn't renounce my citizenship. I like Montana. I’m out here because I like flying, and only a Belter rust trap like the Canterbury will hire me."
     Lopez smiled for the first time. “You’re an exceedingly honest man, Mr. Holden."

     “Why did you claim that a Martian military vessel destroyed your ship? "
     “I didn’t. I explained all that in the broadcast. It had technology only available to inner planet fleets, and I found a piece of MCRN hardware in the device that tricked us into stopping."
     “We’ll want to see that."
     “You’re welcome to it."
     “Your file says you were the only child of a family co-op," Lopez said, acting as though they’d never stopped talking about Holden’s past.
     “Yes, five fathers, three mothers."
     “So many parents for only one child," Lopez said, slowly unwrapping another lozenge. The Martians had lots of space for traditional families.
     “The tax break for eight adults only having one child allowed them to own twenty-two acres of decent farmland. There are over thirty billion people on Earth. Twenty-two acres is a national park," Holden said. “Also, the DNA mix is legit. They aren’t parents in name only."
     “How did they decide who carried you? "
     “Mother Elise had the widest hips."

     Lopez popped the second lozenge into his mouth and sucked on it a few moments. Before he could speak again, the deck shook. The video recorder jiggled on its arm.
     “Torpedo launches? " Holden said. “Guess those Belt ships didn’t change course."
     “Any thoughts about that, Mr. Holden? "
     “Just that you seem pretty willing to kill Belt ships."
     “You’ve put us in a position where we can’t afford to seem weak. After your accusations, there are a lot of people who don’t think much of us."
     Holden shrugged. If the man was watching for guilt or remorse from Holden, he was out of luck. The Belt ships had known what they were going toward. They hadn’t turned away. But still, something bothered him.
     “They might hate your living guts," Holden said. “But it’s hard to find enough suicidal people to crew six ships. Maybe they think they can outrun torpedoes."
     Lopez didn’t move, his whole body preternaturally still with the focus drugs pouring through him.
     “We—" Lopez began, and the general quarters Klaxon sounded. It was deafening in the small metal compartment.
     “Holy s**t, did they shoot back?" Holden asked.
     Lopez shook himself, like a man waking up from a daydream.

(The Expanse Executive producer Mark Fergus said: It’s a focus pill. It heightens the senses to the point of being able to hear your subject’s heart-beat and discern the micro-twitches in their face and eyes, indicating whether they are lying or telling the truth. The focus pill is lifted straight from the novel.)

From LEVIATHAN WAKES by "James S.A. Corey" (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) 2011.
First novel of The Expanse

"I see." Djana sat a while longer, thinking her way forward. At last she looked up and said: "But I'll be honest, I'm scared. I know damn well I'm being watched, ever since I agreed to do this job, and Leon might take it into his head to give me a narcoquiz. You know?"

"This has also been provided for." Rax pointed. "Behind yonder door is a hypnoprobe with amnesiagenic attachments. I am expert in its use. If you agree to help us for the compensation mentioned, you will be shown the rendezvous coordinates and memorize them. Thereafter your recollection of this night will be driven from your consciousness."

"What?" It was as if a hand closed around Djana's heart. She sagged back into her chair. The cigarette dropped from cold fingers.

"Have no fears," the goblin said. "Do not confuse this with zombie-making. There will be no implanted compulsions, unless you count a posthypnotic suggestion making you want to explore Flandry's mind and persuade him to show you how to operate the boat. You will simply awaken tomorrow in a somewhat disorganized state, which will soon pass except that you cannot remember what happened after you arrived here. The suggestion will indicate a night involving drugs, and the money in your purse will indicate the night was not wasted. I doubt you will worry long about the matter, especially since you are soon heading into space."

"I—well—I don't touch the heavy drugs, Rax—"

"Perhaps your client spiked a drink. To continue: Your latent memories will be buried past the reach of any mere narcoquiz. Two alternative situations will restimulate them. One will be an interview where Flandry has told Ammon Wayland is worthless. The other will be his telling you, on the scene, that it is valuable. In either case, full knowledge will return to your awareness and you can take appropriate action."

Djana shook her head. "I've seen … brain-channeled … brain-burned—no," she choked. Every detail in the room, a checkerboard pattern on a lounger, a moving wrinkle on Rax's face, the panels of the inner door, stood before her with nightmare sharpness. "No. I won't."

"I do not speak of slave conditioning," the other said. "That would make you too inflexible. Besides, it takes longer than the hour or so we dare spend. I speak of a voluntary bargain with us which includes your submitting to a harmless cue-recall amnesia."

Djana rose. The knees shook beneath her. "You, you, you could make a mistake. No. I'm going. Let me out." She reached into her purse.

She was too late. The slugthrower had appeared. She stared down its muzzle. "If you do not cooperate tonight," Rax told her, "you are dead. Therefore, why not give yourself a chance to win a million credits? They can buy you liberation from what you are."

From A CIRCUS OF HELLS by Poul Anderson (1970)

(ed note: Trader Lathan Denvers is captured by General Bel Riose and put into a cell with another prisoner Ducem Barr the Siwennian patrician.)

      The trader thrust out a lower lip and nodded his head slowly. He slipped off the flat-linked bracelet that hugged his fight wrist and held it out. “What do you think of that?” He wore the mate to it on his left.
     The Siwennian took the ornament. He responded slowly to the trader’s gesture and put it on. The odd tingling at the wrist passed away quickly.
     Devers’ voice changed at once. “Right, doc, you’ve got the action now. Just speak casually. If this room is wired, they won’t get a thing. That’s a Field Distorter you’ve got there; genuine Mallow design. Sells for twenty-five credits on any world from here to the outer rim. You get it free. Hold your lips still when you talk and take it easy. You’ve got to get the trick of it.”…

     The general threw away his shredded, never-lit cigarette, lit another, and shrugged. “Well, it is beside the immediate point, this lack of first-class tech-men. Except that I might have made more progress with my prisoner were my Psychic Probe in proper order.”
     The secretary’s eyebrows lifted. “You have a Probe?”
     “An old one. A superannuated one which fails me the one time I needed it. I set it up during the prisoner’s sleep, and received nothing. So much for the Probe. I have tried it on my own men and the reaction is quite proper, but again there is not one among my staff of tech-men who can tell me why it fails upon the prisoner. Ducem Barr, who is a theoretician of parts, though no mechanic, says the psychic structure of the prisoner may be unaffected by the Probe since from childhood he has been subjected to alien environments and neural stimuli. I don’t know. But he may yet be useful. I save him in that hope.”

(ed note: of course the General's psychic probe is working properly, the Field Distorter prevents it from operating.)

     There was no answer. He continued, “And there will be more direct evidence. I have brought with me the Psychic Probe. It failed once before, but contact with the enemy is a liberal education.”
     His voice was smoothly threatening and Devers felt the gun thrust hard in his midriff — the general’s gun, hitherto in its holster.
     The general said quietly, “You will remove your wristband and any other metal ornament you wear and give them to me. Slowly! Atomic fields can be distorted, you see, and Psychic Probes might probe only into static. That’s right…I’ll take it.”
     Riose stepped behind his desk, with his blast-gun held ready. He said to Barr, “You too, patrician. Your wristband condemns you. You have been helpful earlier, however, and I am not vindictive, but I shall judge the fate of your behostaged family by the results of the Psychic Probe.”

From FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE by Isaac Asimov (1952)

"We'll get anything we want out of you," Conn told him. "You know what a mind-probe is? You should; your accomplices used one on my father's secretary. She's a hopeless imbecile now. You'll be, too, when we're through with you. But before then, you'll have given us everything you know."

Kelton began to protest. "Conn, you can't do a thing like that!"

"A mind-probe is utterly illegal; why, it's a capital offense!" Ledue exclaimed. "Conn I forbid you..."

"Judge, don't make me call those guards and have you removed," Conn said.

From JUNKYARD PLANET by H. Beam Piper (1963)

      "Have I asked whether or not you wanted it? As for the rest of you—we Klingons have a reputation for ruthlessness. You will find that it is deserved. Should one Klingon soldier be killed here, a thousand Organians will die. I will have order, is that clear?"
     "Commander," Ayelborne said, "I assure you we will cause you no trouble."
     "No. I am sure you will not. Baroner (Captain Kirk's cover identity), come with me."
     "What about Mr. Spock?"
     "Why are you concerned?"
     "He's my friend."
     "You have poor taste in friends. He will be examined. If he is lying, he will die. If he is telling the truth, well, he will find that business has taken a turn for the worse. Guards, remove him."
     The guards, covering Spock with their weapons, gestured him out the door; Spock went meekly.

     Kor only grinned. At the same time, the door opened and Spock was thrust inside, followed by a Klingon lieutenant. To Kirk's enormous relief, his first officer looked perfectly normal.
     "Well, lieutenant?"
     "He is what he claims to be, Commander," the lieutenant said. "A Vulcan trader named Spock. And he really is trading in the other kind of trillium, the vegetable kind; it seems it has value here."
     "Nothing else?"
     "The usual apprehension. His main concern seems to be how he will carry on his business under our occupation. His mind is so undisciplined that he could hold nothing back."
     "All right. Baroner, would you like to try our little truth-finder?"
     "I don't even understand it."
     "It's a mind-sifter," Kor said, "or a mind-ripper, depending on how much force is used. If necessary, we can empty a man's mind as if opening a spigot. Of course, what's left is more vegetable than human."
     "You're proud of it?" Kirk said.
     "All war weapons are unpleasant," Kor said. "Otherwise they would be useless."
     "Mr. Spock, are you sure you're all right?"
     "Perfectly, Baroner. However, it was a remarkable sensation."

     Once in the street, Kirk glanced about quickly. Nobody was within earshot, or seemed to be following them. He said quietly to Spock:"That mind-sifter of theirs must not be quite the terror they think it is."
     "I advise you not to underestimate it, Captain," Spock said. "I was able to resist it, partly with a little Vulcan discipline, partly by misdirection. But on the next higher setting, I am sure I would have been unable to protect myself."
     "And I wouldn't last even that long."

From ERRAND OF MERCY by James Blish (1968)
novalization of the Star Trek TV episode

Unconsciously her hand strayed to the dollar-sized shaved spot on her skull, where she’d been braindipped. The hair was starting to grow back, and it itched. They had told her that removing the tiny sample of cortical tissue for chemical monitoring during questioning—a they took less than a cubic millimeter—couldn’t possibly harm her. She’d hardly felt the prick of the dialytrode needle as it penetrated her scalp. But all the same, she hadn’t felt the same since her arrest. It was more than a little scary to be locked up in a tiny room for a week while those dreadful men shouted at you and asked you questions and made all sorts of terrible accusations just to see how you’d react. They’d even told her that Dr. Ruiz had confessed that she had helped him sell information about the Cygnus Object to the Chinese! She knew that couldn’t be true. And then, when they couldn’t shake her, all the questions about who she’d talked to since the sighting. All of them had been checked out, including her ailing grandmother on Earth. Finally, when they were grudgingly satisfied, all the warnings—threats, really—about not discussing her work with anybody—not even her coworkers at Farside. She hadn’t been allowed her six-month Earth furlough, and even a pass to Mare Imbrium was hardly worth it any more, with the government hassle.

From THE JUPITER THEFT by Donald Moffitt (1977)

(ed note: Prince Zarth Arn of the Mid-Galactic Empire lives two hundred thousand years in the future. He gets bored, and uses a device of his own invention to temporarily trade bodies with John Gordon of 1945. Gordon has fun in the far future, pretending to be Prince Arn. Unfortunatly he is captured by the dastardly Shorr Kan, who wants to rule the galaxy. Kan needs Prince Arn's secret of the ultimate weapon — the Distruptor. Since the real Prince is 200,000 years in the past the joke is on Kan.)

      Shorr Kan dismissed Durk Undis and the guards, and quickly greeted Gordon.
     “You've slept, rested? That's good. Now tell me what you've decided.”
     Gordon shrugged. “There was no decision to make. I can't give you the secret of the Disruptor.”
     Shorr Kan's strong face changed slightly in expression, and he spoke after a pause.
     “I see. I might have expected it. Old mental habits, old traditions—even intelligence can't conquer them, sometimes.”

     His eyes narrowed slightly. “Now listen, Zarth. I told you yesterday that was an unpleasant alternative if you refused. I didn't go into details because I wanted to gain your willing cooperation.
     “But now you force me to be explicit. So let me assure you first of one thing. I am going to have the Disruptor secret from you, whether you give it willingly or not.”
     “Torture, then?” sneered Gordon. “That is what I expected.”
     Shorr Kan made a disgusted gesture. “Faugh, I don't use torture. It's clumsy and undependable, and alienates even your own followers. No, I have quite another method in mind.”

     He gestured to the older of the two nervous-looking men nearby. “Land Allar there, is one of our finest psycho-scientists. Some years ago he devised a certain apparatus which I've been forced to utilize several times.
     “It's a brain-scanner. It literally reads the brain, by scanning the neurones, plotting the synaptic connections, and translating that physical set-up into the knowledge, memories and information possessed by that particular brain. With it, before this night is over, I can have the Disruptor secret right out of your brain.”
     “That,” said John Gordon steadily, “is a rather unclever bluff.”
     Shorr Kan shook his dark head. “I assure you it is not. I can prove it to you it you want me to. Otherwise, you must take my word that the scanner will take everything from your brain.”
     He went on, “The trouble is that the impact of the scanning rays on the brain for hour after hour in time breaks down the synaptic connections it scans. The subject emerges from the process a mindless idiot. That is what will happen to you if we use it on you.”

     The hair bristled on Gordon's neck. He had not a doubt now that Shorr Kan was speaking the truth. If nothing else, the pale, sick faces of the two scientists proved his assertion.
     Weird, fantastic, nightmarishly horrible—yet wholly possible to this latter-day science. An instrument that mechanically read the mind, and in reading wrecked it.
     “I don't want to use it on you, I repeated.
     Shorr Kan was saying earnestly. “For as I told you, you'd be extremely valuable to me as a puppet emperor after the galaxy is conquered. But if you persist in refusing to tell that secret, I simply have no choice.”
     John Gordon felt an insane desire to laugh. This was all too ironic.
     “You've got everything so nicely calculated,” he: told Shorr Kan. “But again, you find yourself defeated by pure chance.”
     “Just what do you mean?” asked the League ruler, with dangerous softness.
     I mean that I can't tell you the secret of the Disruptor because I don't know it.”
     Shorr Kan looked impatient. “That is a rather childish evasion. Everyone knows that as son of the emperor you would be told all about the Disruptor.”
     Gordon nodded. “Quite true. But I happen not to be the emperor's son. I'm a different man entirely.”
     Shorr Kan shrugged. “We are gaining nothing by all this. Go ahead.”

     The last words were addressed to the two scientists. At that moment Gordon savagely leaped for Shorr Kan's throat!
     He never reached it. One of the scientists had a glass paralyzer ready, and swiftly jabbed it at the back of his neck.
     Gordon sank, shocked and stunned. Only dimly, he felt them lifting him onto the metal table. Through his dimming vision, Shorr Kan's hard face and cool black eyes looked down.
     “Your last chance, Zarth. Make but a signal and you can still avoid this fate.”
     Gordon felt the hopelessness of it all, even as his raging anger made him glare up at the League commander.
     The paralyzer touched him again. This shock was like a physical blow. He just sensed the two scientists busy with the massive metal cone above his head, and then darkness claimed him.

     GORDON came slowly to awareness of a throbbing headache. All the devil's trip-hammers seemed to be pounding inside his skull, and he felt a sickening nausea.
     A cool glass was held to his lips, and a voice spoke insistently in his ear.
     “Drink this.”
     Gordon managed to gulp down a pungent liquid. Presently his nausea lessened and his head began to ache less violently.

     He lay for a little time before he finally ventured to open his eyes. He still lay on the table, but the metal cone and the complicated apparatus were not now in sight.
     Over him was bending the anxious face of one of the two Cloud scientists. Then the strong features and brilliant black eyes of Shorr Kan came down in his field of vision.
     “Can you sit up?” asked the scientist. “It will help you recover faster.”
     The man's arm around his shoulders enabled Gordon weakly to slide off the table and into a chair.
     Shorr Kan came and stood in front of him, looking down at him with a queer wonder and interest in his expression.
     He asked, “How do you feel now, John Gordon?”
     Gordon started. He stared back up at the League commander.
     “Then you know?” he husked.
     “Why else do you think we halted the brain-scanning?” Shorr Kan retorted. “If it weren't for that, you'd be a complete mental wreck by now.”

From THE STAR KINGS by Edmond Hamilton (1949)

      "Somehow we've got to make the prisoners talk. The question is—how? If they talk they're dead before we can extract any information. Tests suggest that if we remove the device embedded in their skulls they will also die—what the hell can we do?"
     Keisler's brow creased in broken lines. "Seems as if—no, wait a minute—what was the name—Polter?—Pollard?" He pressed a section of his desk. "Hello, get me the Encyc department—yes, right, call me back."
     He lit a cigar and puffed until a section of the desk lit redly. "Hello, is that—oh, it is you, Leparn; good. Listen this one is just up your street. I am trying to trace the American scientist who perfected the electronic-interrogator. Date of birth would be pre-machine and around 2010. I think the name was Polling but I'm not sure."
     Leparn made vague tongue-clicking noises, then he said: "Pollard, I think—no, certain, Andrew Pollard. Give me ten minutes to do some digging; I think we have a complete biography somewhere."
     He called back in seven minutes. "We have it, a complete biography plus blueprints and specifications—'

     Keisler said: "Perfect, thank you." He turned to Osterly. "Our friends are going to talk without saying a word."
     "I don't follow you."
     "Then, my friend, you must listen. Around two thousand and forty a U.S. electronic genius perfected a device called the electronic interrogator. This piece of machinery was, in truth, a lie-detector which went far beyond anything conceived or constructed on these lines before. To put it briefly, It did not need a verbal answer but was capable of interpreting emotional reactions. Therefore, all that was required was the suspect to be linked with the machine and asked questions. It made no difference whether the questions were answered or ignored, the emotional responses were the same and the machine recorded them. After the interrogation the tape was removed and inserted into a G-type police computer which was capable of interpreting the session."

     "Let me give you an example; let us assume the suspect guilty of murder. The question, therefore, might be, 'Did you kill John Smith?" Whether the suspect answered that question or not is immaterial; the point is, when he heard it, his emotional responses would be the same and the machine would pick them up."
     "Again, with careful and prolonged questioning, not only the exact date and time could be arrived at but the method employed. It meant of course, long and precise interrogation with prepared questions but the results were exact."
     "Once more to quote an example, the questions might be: 'Did you strangle him, shoot him, stab him, poison him, etc.? Was it in the morning, afternoon, evening? Did you kill him for gain, for revenge, jealousy, or acting on instructions?"
     "When the recorded tape gets to the computer, all the negative answers are already deleted so we'd get something like this." Keisler drew a note pad towards him and began to write. After a minute or so he pushed it across the desk."
     Osterly turned it around and read it.

     Question: Did you kill John Smith?
     Answer: Yes.

     Question: By what method?
     Answer: Strangulation.

     Question: When?
     Answer: Saturday evening, May 10th.

     Question: Why?
     Answer: Jealousy.

     Osterly returned the pad to the desk with a hand that shook slightly. "My God, if this works we've got 'em; they'll sing a beautiful song without knowing it. We can find out if they're human or not, where they come from, what they intend to do."
     "Don't jump ahead of yourself," said Keisler, quickly. "To arrive at precise questions like that would take about ten hours solid interrogation with prepared questions."
     "Could you build the interrogator?"
     "We have the specifications; I've no doubt the techs could put one together in a day or so."

     One of the screens lit and a voice said: "Interrogation completed, sir. About to feed data to the computers."
     "Hold it until I get there." He punched a stud. "Brogue, come up here and take over. Call me if anything breaks."
     By the time he arrived in the computer section they had fed in the data, but they waited until the door closed behind Osterly before they pressed the activating stud.
     There was a purring sound; the squat bulk of the old-fashioned computer made muffled chuckling sounds and began to exhale typed paper.

     Question: What is your name?
     Answer: Marley.

     Question: Why do you call yourself Royce?
     Answer: I changed my name to conceal my identity.

     Osterly wondered briefly just how many questions had been asked to arrive at the two simple answers.

     Question: Why did you wish to conceal your identity?
     Answer: It was a prepared policy.

     Question: Did all the Immunes adopt it?
     Answer: Yes.

     Question: How old are you?
     Answer: Two hundred and eighteen.

     Question: How old do you hope to be?
     Answer: Around three thousand.

     Question: How did this come about?
     Answer: I underwent special treatment.

     Question: Who performed this treatment?
     Answer: Some doctors—I do not know their names.

     Question: Are you human?
     Answer: Yes, I am human, a superior human.

     Question: Are all Immunes superior humans?
     Answer: Yes.

     Question: The Immunes are also an organization?
     Answer: Yes.

     Question: For world domination?
     Answer: They have world domination.

     Question: You have a government?
     Answer: A directorate.

     Question: With a leader?
     Answer: Yes.

     Question: What is his name?
     Answer: He is anonymous—we are all anonymous.

     Question : Is there anyone above the leader?
     Answer: Yes, the Supreme.

     Question: This is another Immune?
     Answer: I do not know—I do not think so.

     Question: It is human?
     Answer: I do not know—I do not think so.

     Question: It is alien?
     Answer: I do not know.

     Question: Can you describe it?
     Answer: No, I have never seen it.

     Question: What does it do?
     Answer: It is the source of power.

     Suddenly the paper stopped with a few printed words: Data concluded; negative responses three thousand, five hundred and seventy-five.
     "My God!" said someone in a shocked voice. "No wonder they took so damn long."

     Osterly, however, was more concerned with the answers and they made him sweat. The Immunes were an organization—numbers unknown—of supermen. An organization which had got the world under its thumb and virtually imprisoned almost without effort. This same organization was now rapidly reducing the population with the same cynical lack of effort—peddling dream-machines and callously manipulating the frightened and hard-pressed survivors. The Immies could afford to take their time, they were, by normal standards, virtually immortal.
     What worried Osterly was the unknown—who, or what, was the Supreme? Clearly there was no religious significance; the Supreme, therefore, was what?
     He suppressed a shudder—something distinctly unpleasant Something which had given a group of normal people powers above the norm. An entity which had taught them advanced surgery, handed them—presumably in return for something—incredible strength and near immortality. And, as if these weren't enough, provided them with the most diabolical method of conquest it was possible to conceive.
     Presumably the application of this same weapon had its source there also—the dream-machine was nothing more than a home self-destruction unit.

     He paused in his thoughts, frowning, vague understanding filtering slowly through his mind. There was no perfect weapon, no weapon yet devised which could not be turned against its creator. That was why the Immies wanted to get rid of the Susceptible/resistants as quickly as possible. Maybe they had been useful in the early days as objects of study but now they were a menace; better get rid of them before they learned too much.
     Gilliad already had; he had demonstrated successfully that the cutting sword had two edges. If he ever got around to wielding it with skill—God, they couldn't afford to let him— could they?—nor could the Supreme, whatever it was.

     He crossed the room and made a brief call. "Room six? Change the questioning; drop the personal; concentrate on priorities. I want an exact or approximate figure of living Immunes and I want every scrap of data available on the Supreme: whereabouts, nature, origin, everything. Pass that on to the Interrogation room and let them draw up a new set of questions. This is an emergency, so press it hard."

From REALITY FORBIDDEN by Philip E. High (1967)

Speed Learning

This is some sort of science fictional technique where a person learns some skill or knowledge in a half hour or so. It generally takes the form of putting on a headset, lying in a bed, going to sleep (or being drugged), and having the knowledge electronically engraved into your memory. It is commonly used to learn a new language, but sometimes more complicated knowledge can be acquired. It is sometimes called hypnopædia, or hypnopedia.

Common limitations include:

  • The user is not aware of the new knowledge unless they go rooting around in their memory.
  • The user has learned facts, but they need standard drills to be able to use the facts. For instance, you can learn about trigonometry, but you cannot use it without conventional math training
  • It can be used for brainwashing or deep indoctrination

It remained to Ralph, however, to perfect the Hypnobioscope, which transmitted words direct to the sleeping brain, in such a manner that everything could be remembered in detail the next morning. This was made possible by having the impulses act directly and steadily on the brain.

For thousands of years humanity had wasted half of its life during sleep — the negative life.

From RALPH 124C41+ by Hugo Gernsback (1911)

While the child was asleep, a broadcast programme from London suddenly started to come through; and the next morning, to the astonishment of his crash and crash (the more daring of the boys ventured to grin at one another), Little Reuben woke up repeating word for word a long lecture by that curious old writer ("one of the very few whose works have been permitted to come down to us"), George Bernard Shaw, who was speaking, according to a well-authenticated tradition, about his own genius. To Little Reuben's wink and snigger, this lecture was, of course, perfectly incomprehensible and, imagining that their child had suddenly gone mad, they sent for a doctor. He, fortunately, understood English, recognized the discourse as that which Shaw had broadcasted the previous evening, realized the significance of what had happened, and sent a letter to the medical press about it. "The principle of sleep-teaching, or hypnopædia, had been discovered." The D.H.C. made an impressive pause. The principle had been discovered; but many, many years were to elapse before that principle was usefully applied.

     A small boy asleep on his right side, […]. Through a round grating in the side of a box a voice speaks softly.
     "The Nile is the longest river in Africa and the second in length of all the rivers of the globe. Although falling short of the length of the Mississippi-Missouri, the Nile is at the head of all rivers as regards the length of its basin, which extends through 35 degrees of latitude …"

     At breakfast the next morning, "Tommy," someone says, "do you know which is the longest river in Africa?" A shaking of the head. "But don't you remember something that begins: The Nile is the …"

     "The - Nile - is - the - longest - river - in - Africa - and - the - second - in - length - of - all - the - rivers - of - the - globe …" The words come rushing out. "Although - falling - short - of …"

     "Well now, which is the longest river in Africa?"

     The eyes are blank. "I don't know."

(ed note: The point being that while Tommy had perfect recall of the sentence, he had no idea what the sentence meant. Which made the educational value questionable, but made it a nifty tool for brain-washing and indoctrination of future citizens.)

From BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley (1932)

      “You’re going to Sinopol with Baldur. Procurement. Requires a complete cosmetic,” Freyda announced one morning as I entered the Training Rooms.
     “Sinopol?” I’d never heard of the place.
     “Hunters of Faffnir, high-tech, a million back. Get a briefing from Assignment and a full language implant. I mean full, with complete fluency. Then report to cosmetics. You two leave tomorrow.”
     I got the picture. I was the porter for the heavy technological gadgets. Could be interesting even for a coolie. I buttoned my lip and marched over to Assignments, where Heimdall motioned me to an end-console with, a single abrupt gesture.
     After I had the briefing tapes firmly in mind, Heimdall shoved me out the archway toward Linguistics. There was I laid out under the Gubserian language tank to absorb a complete dosage of Faffnirian.
     The language tank is an experience in itself. When I tottered to my feet after an afternoon of high-speed implantation, I muttered my thanks in gibberish—gibberish to anyone in the Tower. It would have meant “thank you … I think” to a Hunter of Faffnir.
     Recalling the elaborate code duello of the Hunters, I belatedly noted that the doubt in my voice would have earned an immediate challenge from any full-fledged Hunter in Sinopol, but the young Guard tech, Ordonna, just smiled. She was used to the disorientation.

From THE FIRES OF PARATIME by L. E. Modesitt (1982)

      Fronn—that was a world unknown to Kana. But the answer to his ignorance was easy to find. He made his way through the corridors to a quiet room with a row of booths lining one wall. At the back of the chamber was a control board with banks of buttons. He pressed the proper combination of those and waited for the record-pak.
     The roll of wire was a very thin one. Not much known of Fronn. He ducked into the nearest booth, inserted the wire in the machine there, and put aside his helmet to adjust the impression band on his temples. A second later he drifted off to sleep, the information in the pak being fed to his memory cells.
     It was a quarter of an hour later when he roused. So that was Fronn—not a particularly inviting world. And the pak had only sketched in meager details. But he now possessed all the knowledge the archives listed.
     Kana sighed ruefully—that climate meant a tour in the pressure chamber during the voyage. The assignment officer had not mentioned that. Pressure chamber and water acclimation both. Serve him right for not asking more questions before he signed. He only hoped that he wasn’t going to be sick for the whole trip.

     But Trig Hansu was a member of neither group. Instead he sat cross-legged on a mat pad, a portable reader before him, watching the projection of a pak.
     Curious, Kana edged between the gamesters to see the tiny screen. He caught sight of a fraction of landscape, dark, gloomy, across which burden-bearing creatures moved from left to right. Hansu spoke without turning his head.
     “If you’re so curious, greenie, squat.”
     Feeling as hot as a thruster tube Kana would have melted away but Hansu pushed the machine to the right in real invitation.
     “Our future.” He jerked a thumb at the unwinding scene as the recruit dropped to his knees to watch. “That’s a pak view of Fronn.”
     The marchers on the Fronnian plain were quadrupeds, their stilt legs seemingly only skin drawn tightly over bone. Packs rested on either side of their ridged spines and knobby growths fringed their ungainly necks and made horn excrescences on their skulls.
     “Caravan of guen,” Kana identified. “That must be the west coastal plains.”
     Hansu pressed a stud on the base of the reader and the screen blanked out. “You asked for indoctrination on Fronn?
     “From the archives, sir.
     “The enthusiasms of the young have their points.”

From STAR GUARD by Andre Norton (1955)

      What was that old experiment they told us about in high school biology? Take a flatworm and teach it how to swim through a maze. Then mash it up and feed it to a stupid flatworm, and lo! the stupid flatworm would be able to swim the maze, too.
     I had a bad taste of major general in my mouth.
     Actually, I supposed they had refined the techniques since my high school days. With time dilation, that was about 450 years for research and development.
     At Stargate, my orders said, I was to undergo "indoctrination and education" prior to taking command of my very own Strike Force. Which was what they still called a company.
     For my education on Stargate, they didn't mince up major generals and serve them to me with hollandaise. They didn't feed me anything except glucose for three weeks. Glucose and electricity.
     They shaved every hair off my body, gave me a shot that turned me into a dishrag, attached dozens of electrodes to my head and body, immersed me in a tank of oxygenated fluorocarbon, and hooked me up to an ALSC. That's an "accelerated life situation computer." It kept me busy.
     I guess it took the machine about ten minutes to review everything I had learned previously about the martial (excuse the expression) arts. Then it started in on the new stuff.
     I learned the best way to use every weapon from a rock to a nova bomb. Not just intellectually; that's what all those electrodes were for. Cybernetically-controlled negative feedback kinesthesia; I felt the weapons in my hands and watched my performance with them. And did it over and over until I did it right. The illusion of reality was total. I used a spear-thrower with a band of Masai warriors on a village raid, and when I looked down at my body it was long and black. I relearned épeé from a cruel-looking man in foppish clothes, in an eighteenth-century French courtyard. I sat quietly in a tree with a Sharps rifle and sniped at blue-uniformed men as they crawled across a muddy field toward Vicksburg. In three weeks I killed several regiments of electronic ghosts. It seemed more like a year to me, but the ALSC does strange things to your sense of time.
     Learning to use useless exotic weapons was only a small part of the training. In fact, it was the relaxing part. Because when I wasn't in kinesthesia, the machine kept my body totally inert and zapped my brain with four millennia's worth of military facts and theories. And I couldn't forget any of it! Not while I was in the tank.
     Want to know who Scipio Aemilianus was? I don't. Bright light of the Third Punic War. War is the province of danger and therefore courage above all things is the first quality of a warrior, von Clausewitz maintained. And I'll never forget the poetry of "the advance party minus normally moves in a column formation with the platoon headquarters leading, followed by a laser squad, the heavy weapons squad, and the remaining laser squad; the column relies on observation for its flank security except when the terrain and visibility dictate the need for small security detachments to the flanks, in which case the advance party commander will detail one platoon sergeant…" and so on. That's from Strike Force Command Small Unit Leader's Handbook, as if you could call something a handbook when it takes up two whole microfiche cards, 2,000 pages.
     If you want to become a thoroughly eclectic expert in a subject that repels you, join UNEF and sign up for officer training.

From THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman (1975)

      “That’s the first strange word you’ve used since I woke up. In fact-hasn’t the language changed at all? You don’t even have an accent.”
     “Part of my profession. I learned your speech through RNA training, many years ago. You’ll learn your trade the same way if you get that far. You’ll be amazed how fast you learn with RNA shots to help you along. But you’d better be right about liking your privacy, Corbell, and about liking to travel, too.”
     Pierce and the guard guided Corbell to a comfortable armchair facing a wide curved screen. They put padded earphones on him. They set a plastic bottle of clear fluid on a shelf over his head. Corbell noticed a clear plastic tube tipped with a hypodermic needle.
     Pierce missed the sarcasm. “You’ll have one meal each day-after learning period and exercise.” He inserted the needle into a vein in Corbell’s arm. He covered the wound with a blob of what might have been Silly Putty.
     “Learn now,” said Pierce. “This knob controls speed. The volume is set for your hearing. You may replay any section once. Don’t worry about your arm; you can’t pull the tube loose.”
     “There’s something I wanted to ask you, only I couldn’t remember the word. What’s a rammer?”
     “Starship pilot.”

     Now his life depended on his “rammer” career. He never doubted it. That was what kept Corbell in front of the screen with the earphones on his head for fourteen hours that first day. He was afraid he might be tested.
     He didn’t understand all he was supposed to learn. But he was not tested, either.
     The second day he began to get interested. By the third day he was fascinated. Things he had never understood—relativity and magnetic theory and abstract mathematics—he now grasped intuitively. It was marvelous!
     The RNA was most effective. Corbell stopped wondering about Pierce’s dispassionately possessive attitude. He began to think of himself as property being programmed for a purpose.
     And he learned. He skimmed microtaped texts as if they were already familiar. The process was heady. He became convinced that he could rebuild a seeder ramship with his bare hands, given the parts. He had loved figures all his life, but abstract math had been beyond him until now. Field theory, monopole field equations, circuitry design. When to suspect the presence of a gravitational point source how to locate it, use it, avoid it.
     The teaching chair was his life. The rest of his time-exercise, dinner, sleep-seemed vague, uninteresting.

     Pierce regarded him in some amusement. “You really don’t know much about your own time, do you?”
     “Come on, I was an architect. What would I know about astrophysics? We didn’t have your learning techniques.” Which reminded him of something. “Pierce, you said you learned English with RNA injections. Where does the RNA come from?”
     Pierce smiled and walked away.

(ed note: the RNA came from other people who were ground up into mush and had the RNA extracted.

A year after this story was written the Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction was discovered. Using Reverse transcriptase you can turn one strand of DNA or RNA into a whole vat full without needing to grind up entire people. This made possible DNA profiling, the technique the TV show CSI is so fond of.)

     He could see the reasoning. He would be gone for several centuries. Why should the State teach him anything at all about today’s technology, customs, politics? There would be trouble enough when he came back,if he-come to that, who had taught him to call the government the State? How had he come to think of the State as all-powerful? He knew nothing of its power and extent.
     It must be the RNA training. With data came attitudes below the conscious level, where he couldn’t get at them.
     That made his skin crawl. They were changing him around again!
     Sure, why shouldn’t the State trust him with a seeder ramship? They were feeding him State-oriented patriotism through a silver needle!

From A WORLD OUT OF TIME by Larry Niven (1976)

      “That’s some help, but not much. You’re in for a shock, son. We don’t have classrooms and fixed courses. Except for laboratory work and group drills, you study alone. It’s pleasant to sit in a class daydreaming while the teacher questions somebody else, but we haven’t got time for that. There is too much ground to cover. Take the outer languages alone—have you ever studied under hypnosis?
     “Why, no, sir.”
     “We’ll start you on it at once. When you leave here, go to the Psycho Instruction Department and ask for a first hypno in Beginning Venerian. What’s the matter?”
     “Well… Sir, is it absolutely necessary to study under hypnosis?”
     “Definitely. Everything that can possibly be studied under hypno you will have to learn that way in order to leave time for the really important subjects.”

     Matt nodded. “I see. Like astrogation.”
     “No, no, no! Not astrogation. A ten-year-old child could learn to pilot a spaceship if he had the talent for mathematics. That is kindergarten stuff, Dodson. The arts of space and warfare are the least part of your education. I know, from your tests, that you can soak up the math and physical sciences and technologies. Much more important is the world around you, the planets and their inhabitants—extraterrestrial biology, history, cultures, psychology, law and institutions, treaties and conventions, planetary ecologies, system ecology, interplanetary economics, applications of extraterritorialism, comparative religious customs, law of space, to mention a few.”
     Matt was looking bug-eyed. “My gosh! How long does it take to learn all those things?”
     “You’ll still be studying the day you retire. But even those subjects are not your education; they are simply raw materials. Your real job is to learn how to think—and that means you must study several other subjects: epistemology, scientific methodology, semantics, structures of languages, patterns of ethics and morals, varieties of logics, motivational psychology, and so on. This school is based on the idea that a man who can think correctly will automatically behave morally—or what we call ‘morally'. Come, now, let’s make up the list of spools you’ll need.”

     It was a long list. Matt was surprised and pleased to find that some story spools had been included. He pointed to an item that puzzled him—An Introduction to Lunar Archeology. “I don’t see why I should study that—the Patrol doesn’t deal with Selenites; they’ve been dead for millions of years.”
     “Keeps your mind loosened up. I might just as well have stuck in modern French music. A Patrol officer shouldn’t limit his horizons to just the things he is sure to need. I'm marking the items I want you to study first, then you beat it around to the library and draw out those spools, then over to Psycho for your first hypno. In about a week, when you’ve absorbed this first group, come back and see me.”
     “You mean you expect me to study all the spools I’m taking out today in one week?” Matt looked at the list in amazement.
     “That’s right. In your off hours, that is—you’ll be busy with drills and lab a lot. Come back next week and we’ll boost the dose. Now get going.”
     “But—Aye aye, sir!”

     Matt located the Psycho Instruction Department and was presently ushered into a small room by a bored hypno technician wearing the uniform of the staff services of the Space Marines. “Stretch out in that chair,” he was told. “Rest your head back. This is your first treatment?” Matt admitted that it was.
     “You’ll like it. Some guys come in here just for the rest—they already know more than they ought to. What course was it you said you wanted?”
     “Beginning Venerian.”
     The technician spoke briefly to a pick-up located on his desk. “Funny thing—about a month ago an oldster was in here for a brush up in electronics. The library thought I said ‘colonics’ and now he’s loaded up with a lot of medical knowledge he’ll never use. Lemme have your left arm.” The technician irradiated a patch on his forearm and injected the drug. “Now just lay back and follow the bouncing light. Take it easy … relax … relax … and … close … your … eyes … and … relax … you’re … getting—”

     Someone was standing in front of him, holding a hypodermic pressure injector “That’s all. You’ve had the antidote.”
     “Huh?” said Matt. “Wazzat?”
     “Sit still a couple of minutes and then you can go.”
     “Didn’t it take?”
     “Didn’t what take? I don’t know what you were being exposed to; I just came on duty.”

     Matt went back to his room feeling rather depressed. He had been a little afraid of hypnosis, but to find that he apparently did not react to the method was worse yet. He wondered whether or not he could ever keep up with his studies if he were forced to study everything, outer languages as well, by conventional methods.
     Nothing to do but to go back and see Lieutenant Wong about it—tomorrow, he decided.
     Oscar was alone in the suite and was busy trying to place a hook in the wall of a common room. A framed picture was leaning against the chair on which he stood. “Hello, Oscar.”
     “Howdy, Matt.” Oscar turned his head as he spoke; the drill he was using slipped and he skinned a knuckle. He started to curse in strange, lisping speech. “May maledictions pursue this nameless thing to the uttermost depths of world slime!”
     Matt clucked disapprovingly. “Curb thy voice, thou impious fish.”
     Oscar looked up in amazement. “Matt—I didn’t know you knew any Venerian.”
     Matt’s mouth sagged open. He closed it, then opened it to speak “Well, I’ll be a—Neither did I!”

From SPACE CADET by Robert Heinlein (1948)

      The accelerated schooling to which the City Fathers had remanded Chris did not at first seem physically strenuous at all. In fact it seemed initially to be no more demanding than sleeping all day might be. (This to Chris was a Utopian notion; he had never had the opportunity to try sleeping as a career, and so had no idea how intolerably exhausting it is.

     The "schoolroom" was a large, gray, featureless chamber devoid of blackboard or desk; its only furniture consisted of a number of couches scattered about the floor. Nor were there any teachers; the only adults present were called monitors, and their duties appeared to be partly those of an -usher, and partly those of a nurse, but none pertinent to teaching in any sense of the term Chris had ever encountered. They conducted you to your couch and helped you to fit over your head a bright metal helmet which had inside it what seemed to be hundreds of tiny,extremely sharp points which bit into your scalp just enough to make you nervous, but without enough pressure to break the skin. Once this gadget, which was called a toposcope, was adjusted to their satisfaction, the monitors left, and the room began to fill with the gray gas.
     The gas was like a fog, except that it was dry and faintly aromatic, smelling rather like the dried leaves of mountain laurel that Chris had liked to add sparingly to rabbit stews. But like a thick fog, it made it impossible to see the rest of the room until the session was over, when it was sucked out with a subdued roar of blowers.

     Thus Chris could never decide whether or not he actually slept while class was in session. The teaching technique, to be sure, was called hypnopaedia, an ancient word from still more ancient Greek roots which when translated literally meant "sleep-teaching." And, to be sure, it filled your head with strange voices and strange visions which were remarkably like dreams. Chris also suspected that the gray gas not only cut off his vision, but also his other senses; otherwise he should surely have heard such random sounds as the coughing of other students, the movements of the monitors, the whir of the ventilators, the occasional deep sounds of the city's drivers, and even the beating of his own heart; but none of these came through, or if they did, he did not afterwards have any memory of them. Yet the end result of all this was almost surely not true sleep, but simply a divorcing of his mind from every possible bodily distraction which might have come between him and his fullest attention to the visions and voices which were poured directly into his mind through the shining helmet of the toposcope.

     It was easy to understand why no such distraction could be tolerated, for the torrent of facts that came from the memory cells of the City Fathers into the prickly helmet was overwhelming and merciless. More than once, Chris saw ex-Scrantonites, all of them older than he was, being supported by monitors out of the classroom at the end of a session in a state closely resembling the kind of epileptic fit called "petit mal" — nor were they ever allowed back on their couches again. He himself left the sessions in a curious state of wobbly, washed-out detachment which became more and more marked every day, despite the tumbler of restorative drink which was the standard antidote for the gray gas: a feeling of weakness which no amount of sleep seemed to make up for.
     The drink tasted funny, furthermore, and besides, it made him sneeze. But on the day after he had refused it for the first time, the memory banks decanted a double dose of projective Riemannian geometry, and he awoke to find four monitors holding him down on the couch during the last throes of a classical Jacksonian seizure.
     His education nearly stopped right there. Luckily, he had the sense to admit that he had skipped drinking the anticonvulsant drug the day before; and the records of the patterns of electrical activity of his brain which the toposcope had been taking continued to adjudge him a good risk. He was allowed back into the hall—and after that he was no longer in any doubt that learning can be harder physical labor than heaving a shovel.
     The voices and the visions resumed swarming gleefully inside his aching head.

     Chris's schooling left him very little time to explore it. Not all of his education was machine education, either, for, as he slowly realized, no one really leans anything through hypnopaedia; machine teaching at its best enables the student to accumulate nothing better than facts; it does not show how to tie them together, let alone how to do something with them. To train the intelligence—not just the memory—a real human tutor is required.
     The one assigned to Chris, a stocky, fierce, white-haired woman named Dr. Helena Braziller, was far and away the best teacher Chris had ever encountered in his life—and far and away the worst taskmaster. ,The City Fathers wore him out only by taxing his memory; whereas Dr. Braziller made him work.

“The fundamental equation of the Blackett-Dirac scholium reads as follows:

P = BG½U / 2C

where P is magnetic moment, U is angular momentum, C and G have their usual values, and B is a constant with the value 0.25 approximately. A first transform of this identity gives:

G = (2PC / BU)2

which is the usual shorthand form of the primary spindizzy equation, called the Locke Derivation. Blackett, Dirac and Locke all assumed that it would hold true for large bodies, such as gas-giant planets and suns. Show on the blackboard by dimensional analysis why this assumption is invalid.”

     As far as Chris was concerned, the answer could have been much more simply arrived at; Dr. Braziller could just have told him that tHis relationship between gravitation and the spin of a body applied only to electrons and other submicroscopic objects, and disappeared, for all practical purposes, in the world of the macrocosm; but that was not her way. Had she only told him that, it would have come into his mind as a fact like any other fact—for instance, like the facts that the memory cells of the City Fathers were constantly pouring into his ears and eyes—but by her lights he would not have understood it. She wanted him to repeat not only the original reasoning of Blackest, Dirac and Locke, but to see for himself, not just because she told him so, where they had gone astray, and hence why a natural law which had first been proposed in the gas-lit, almost prehistoric year of 1891, and was precisely formulated as the Lande Factor in 1940, nevertheless failed to lift so much as a grain of sand off the Earth until the year 2019.

     "But Dr. Braziller, why isn't it enough to see that they made a mistake? We know that now. Why repeat it?"
     "Because that's what all these great men have labored toward: so that you could do it right, yourself. Up until about the thirteenth century, nobody in the world except a few dedicated scholars could do long division; then Fibonacci introduced the Arabic numbers to the West. Now, any idiot can do what it took a great mind to do in those days. Are you going to complain that because Fibonacci found a better way to do long division, you shouldn't be required to learn why it's better? Or that because a great inventor like Locke didn't understand dimensional analysis, you should be allowed to be just as ignorant, after all these years? They spent their lives making things simple for you that were enormously difficult for them and until you understand the difficulties, you can't possibly understand the simplifications. Go back to the blackboard and try again."

     "Okay. Now if it had been me, I would have just stopped the boat right there, and gotten out, and told the cops what I'd heard. Let them drag it out of the guys you'd locked up. You know how the City Fathers cram all that junk into our heads in class—well, they can take stuff out the same way. Dad says it's darned unpleasant for the victim, but they get it."

     Like many of the things Piggy said, fully 80 per cent of this speech meant nothing to Chris. In self-defense, he could do nothing but answer the question. "You know all this better than I do. But the laws do say pretty clearly that a man has to be good for something before he's allowed to become a citizen and be started on the drug treatments. Let's see; there are supposed to be three ways to go about it; and I ought to have them straight, because I just had them put into my head a few days ago."
     He concentrated a moment. He had discovered a useful trick for dredging up the information which had been implanted in his mind from the memory cells: If he half closed his eyes and imagined the gray gas, in a moment he would begin to feel, at least in retrospect, the same somnolence under which the original facts had been imparted, and they would come back in very much the same words. It worked equally well this time; almost at once, he heard his own voice sayihg, in a curious monotone imitation of the City Fathers...

     The odor diminished gradually, carried off by what little breeze there was. After a while Estelle cautiously put two thumbs into the wound she had made and broke the melon open. Nothing else happened; the odor was now tolerable, and then abruptly became both barely detectable and overpoweringly mouth-watering. Estelle handed him half. He bit into the crisp white pulp more deeply than fie had intended. The result made him close his eyes; it tasted like quick-frozen music.

     They finished it in reverent silence and, wiping their mouths on their chitons, lay back. After a while, Estelle said: "I wish we could talk to them better."
     "Miramon can talk to us well enough," Web said somnolently. "He didn't have to learn our language the hard way, either. They do it here by machine, like we used to do it when we were Okies. I wish we still did it that way."
     "Hypnopaedia?" Estelle said. "But I thought that was all dead and done for. You didn't really learn anything that way; just facts."
     "That's right, just facts. It didn't teach you to relate. For that you have to have a tutor. But it was good for learning things like 1 × 1 = 10, or the tables in the back of the book, or the 850 words you most need to know in a new language. It used to take only five hundred hours to cram all that stuff into you, by EEG feedback, flicker, oral repetition, and I don't know what all else—and the whole time, you were under hypnosis."
     "It sounds too easy," Estelle said sleepily.
     "The easy parts of things ought to be easy," Web said. "What's the point of having to learn them by rote? That takes too much time. You know yourself that something you can learn in ten repetitions, or five, it takes some kids thirty repetitions to learn. So you have to sit around through twenty or twenty-five repetitions that you don't need. If there's anything I hate about school, it's drill-all that time wasted that you could actually be doing something with."

     "We could sign up for it here," Web said abruptly.
     "For what? Hypnopaedia? Your grandmother wouldn't let us."
     Web turned around and sat up, plucking a long hollow blade of the bamboo-like grass and sinking his grinding teeth thoughtfully into the woody butt end. "But she isn't here," he said.
     "No, but she will be," Estelle said. "And she's a school officer on the New Earth. I used to hear her fighting about it with my father when I was a child. She used to tell him he was out of his mind. She would say, "Why do kids need all this calculus and history now? What good is it to somebody who's going to have to go out and hoe a virgin planet?'. She used to make poor Dad stutter something awful."

From CITIES IN FLIGHT by James Blish (1956)

      In the meantime the slave had taken several pieces of apparatus from a cabinet in the room and had placed them in his belt. Stopping only to observe for a few moments a small instrument which he clamped upon the head of the dead man, he rapidly led the way back to the room they had left and set to work upon the instrument he had constructed while the others had been asleep. He connected it, in an intricate system of wiring, with the pieces of apparatus he had just recovered.
     "That's a complex job of wiring," said DuQuesne admiringly. "I've seen several intricate pieces of apparatus myself, but he has so many circuits there that I'm lost. It would take an hour to figure out the lines and connections alone."

     Straightening abruptly, the slave clamped several electrodes upon his temples and motioned to Seaton and the others, speaking to Dorothy as he did so.
     "He wants us to let him put those things on our heads," she translated. "Shall we let him, Dick?"
     "Yes," he replied without hesitation. "I've got a real hunch that he's our friend, and I'm not sure of Nalboon. He doesn't act right."
     "I think so, too," agreed the girl, and Crane added:
     "I can't say that I relish the idea, but since I know that you are a good poker player, Dick, I am willing to follow your hunch. How about you, DuQuesne?"
     "Not I," declared that worthy, emphatically. "Nobody wires me up to anything I can't understand, and that machine is too deep for me."

     Margaret elected to follow Crane's example, and, impressed by the need for haste evident in the slave's bearing, the four walked up to the machine without further talk. The electrodes were clamped into place quickly and the slave pressed a lever. Instantly the four visitors felt that they had a complete understanding of the languages and customs of both Mardonale, the nation in which they now were, and of Kondal, to which nation the slaves belonged, the only two civilized nations upon Osnome. While the look of amazement at this method of receiving instruction was still upon their faces, the slave--or rather, as they now knew him, Dunark, the Kofedix or Crown Prince of the great nation of Kondal—began to disconnect the wires. He cut out the wires leading to the two girls and to Crane, and was reaching for Seaton's, when there was a blinding flash, a crackling sound, the heavy smoke of burning metal and insulation, and both Dunark and Seaton fell to the floor.

     Before Crane could reach them, however, they were upon their feet and the stranger said in his own tongue, now understood by every one but DuQuesne:
     "This machine is a mechanical educator, a thing entirely new, in our world at least. Although I have been working on it for a long time, it is still in a very crude form. I did not like to use it in its present state of development, but it was necessary in order to warn you of what Nalboon is going to do to you, and to convince you that the best way of saving your lives would save our lives as well. The machine worked perfectly until something, I don't know what, went wrong. Instead of stopping, as it should have done, at teaching your party to speak our languages, it short-circuited us two completely, so that every convolution in each of our brains has been imprinted upon the brain of the other. It was the sudden formation of all the new convolutions that rendered us unconscious. I can only apologize for the break-down, and assure you that my intentions were of the best."

(ed note: Important point to note, person A gets to control what part of their knowledge is transferred to person B. Usually.)

     "You needn't apologize," returned Seaton. "That was a wonderful performance, and we're both gainers, anyway, aren't we? It has taken us all our lives to learn what little we know, and now we each have the benefit of two lifetimes, spent upon different worlds! I must admit, though, that I have a whole lot of knowledge that I don't know how to use."
     "I am glad you take it that way," returned the other warmly, "for I am infinitely the better off for the exchange. The knowledge I imparted was nothing, compared to that which I received. But time presses—I must tell you our situation…"

From THE SKYLARK OF SPACE by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1928)

      "What a horrible, terrible, frightful world!" exclaimed Sitar, her eyes widening as she thought of her first experience with our earth. "Much as I love you, I shall never dare try to visit you again. I have never been able to understand why you Terrestrials wear what you call 'clothes,' nor why you are so terribly, brutally strong. Now I really know—I will feel the utterly cold and savage embrace of that awful earth of yours as long as I live!"
     "Oh, it's not so bad, Sitar." Seaton, who was shaking both of Dunark's hands vigorously, assured her over his shoulder. "All depends on where you were raised. We like it that way, and Osnome gives us the pip. But you poor fish," turning again to Dunark, "with all my brains inside your skull, you should have known what you were letting yourself in for."
     "That's true, after a fashion," Dunark admitted, "but your brain told me that Washington was hot. If I'd have thought to recalculate your actual Fahrenheit degrees into our loro … but that figures only forty-seven and, while very cold, we could have endured it—wait a minute, I'm getting it. You have what you call 'seasons.' This, then, must be your 'winter.' Right?"
     "Right the first time. That's the way your brain works behind my pan, too. I could figure anything out all right after it happened, but hardly ever beforehand—so I guess I can't blame you much, at that."

     "Well, that puts me out of a job. What to do? Don't want to study, like you. Can't crochet, like Peg. Darned if I'll sit cross-legged on a pillow and eat candy, like that Titian blonde over there on the floor. I know what—I'll build me a mechanical educator and teach Shiro to talk English instead of that mess of language he indulges in. How'd that be, Mart?"
     A few days after the bar had been reversed Seaton announced that the mechanical educator was complete, and brought it into the control room.
     In appearance it was not unlike a large radio set, but it was infinitely more complex. It possessed numerous tubes, kino-lamps, and photo-electric cells, as well as many coils of peculiar design—there were dozens of dials and knobs, and a multiple set of head-harnesses.

     "How can a thing like that possibly work as it does?" asked Crane. "I know that it does work, but I could scarcely believe it, even after it had educated me."
     "That is nothing like the one Dunark used, Dick," objected Dorothy. "How come?"
     "I'll answer you first, Dot. This is an improved model—it has quite a few gadgets of my own in it. Now, Mart, as to how it works—it isn't so funny after you understand it—it's a lot like radio in that respect. It operates on a band of frequencies lying between the longest light and heat waves and the shortest radio waves. This thing here is the generator of those waves and a very heavy power amplifier. The headsets are stereoscopic transmitters, taking or receiving a three-dimensional view. Nearly all matter is transparent to those waves; for instance bones, hair, and so on. However, cerebin, a cerebroside peculiar to the thinking structure of the brain, is opaque to them. Dunark, not knowing chemistry, didn't know why the educator worked or what it worked on—he found out by experiment that it did work; just as we found out about electricity. This three-dimensional model, or view, or whatever you want to call it, is converted into electricity in the headsets, and the resulting modulated wave goes back to the educator. There it is heterodyned with another wave—this second frequency was found after thousands of trials and is, I believe, the exact frequency existing in the optic nerves themselves—and sent to the receiving headset. Modulated as it is, and producing a three-dimensional picture, after rectification in the receiver, it reproduces exactly what has been 'viewed,' if due allowance has been made for the size and configuration of the different brains involved in the transfer. You remember a sort of flash—a sensation of seeing something—when the educator worked on you? Well, you did see it, just as though it had been transmitted to the brain by the optic nerve, but everything came at once, so the impression of sight was confused. The result in the brain, however, was clear and permanent. The only drawback is that you haven't the visual memory of what you have learned, and that sometimes makes it hard to use your knowledge. You don't know whether you know anything about a certain subject or not until after you go digging around in your brain looking for it."

     "I see," said Crane, and Dorothy, the irrepressible, put in: "Just as clear as so much mud. What are the improvements you added to the original design?"
     "Well, you see, I had a big advantage in knowing that cerebrin was the substance involved, and with that knowledge I could carry matters considerably farther than Dunark could in his original model. I can transfer the thoughts of somebody else to a third party or to a record. Dunark's machine couldn't work against resistance—if the subject wasn't willing to give up his thoughts he couldn't get them. This one can take them away by force. In fact, by increasing plate and grid voltages in the amplifier, I can pretty nearly burn out a man's brain. Yesterday, I was playing with it, transferring a section of my own brain to a magnetized tape—for a permanent record, you know—and found out that above certain rather low voltages it becomes a form of torture that would make the best efforts of the old Inquisition seem like a petting party."

     "Did you succeed in the transfer?" Crane was intensely interested.
     "Sure. Push the button for Shiro, and we'll start something."
     "Put your head against this screen," he directed when Shiro had come in, smiling and bowing as usual. "I've got to caliper your brains to do a good job."
     The calipering done, he adjusted various dials and clamped the electrodes over his own head and over the heads of Crane and Shiro.
     "Want to learn Japanese while we're at it, Mart? I'm going to."
     "Yes, please. I tried to learn it while I was in Japan, but it was altogether too difficult to be worth while."
     Seaton threw in a switch, opened it, depressed two more, opened them, and threw off the power.
     "All set," he reported crisply, and barked a series of explosive syllables at Shiro, ending upon a rising note.
     "Yes, sir," answered the Japanese. "You speak Nipponese as though you had never spoken any other tongue. I am very grateful to you, sir, that I may now discard my dictionary."
     "How about you two girls—anything you want to learn in a hurry?"
     "Not me!" declared Dorothy emphatically. "That machine is too darn weird to suit me. Besides, if I knew as much about science as you do, we'd probably fight about it."

(ed note: a monsterously huge highly-advanced alien battleship appears and tries to annihilate our heroes. Seaton manages to defeat it by using a trick, and they capture an alien crew member.)

     “So you have taken a captive?” asked Margaret. “What are you going to do with him?”
     “I’m going to drag him in here and read his mind. He’s one of the officers of that ship, I believe, and I’m going to find out how to build one exactly like it. Our Skylark is now as obsolete as a 1910 flivver, and I’m going to make us a later model. How about it, Mart, don’t we want something really up-to-date if we’re going to keep on space-hopping?”
     “We certainly do. Those denizens seem to be particularly venomous, and we will not be safe unless we have the most powerful and most efficient space-ship possible. However, that fellow may be dangerous, even now—in fact, it is practically certain that he is “
     “You chirped it, ace. I’d rather touch a pound of dry nitrogen iodide. I’ve got him spread-eagled (with attractor and repulsor beams) so that he can’t destroy his brain until after we’ve read it, though, so there’s no particular hurry ‘bout him. We’ll leave him out there for a while, to waste his sweetness on the desert air.”

     "I have been thinking that very thing," Crane spoke gravely, and Dunark nodded agreement. "Any race capable of developing such a vessel as this would almost certainly have developed systems of communication in proportion."
     "That's the way I doped it out—and that's why I'm going to read his mind, if I have to burn out his brain to do it. We've got to know how far away from home he is, whether he has turned in any report about us, and all about it. Also, I'm going to get the plans, power, and armament of their most modern ships, if he knows them, so that your gang, Dunark, can build us one like them; because the next boat that tackles us will be warned and we won't be able to take it by surprise. We won't stand a chance in the Skylark. With a ship like theirs, however, we can run—or we can fight, if we have to. Any other ideas, fellows?"

     As neither Crane nor Dunark had any other suggestions to offer, Seaton brought out the mechanical educator, watching the creature's eyes narrowly. As he placed one headset over that motionless head the captive sneered in pure contempt, but when the case was opened and the array of tubes and transformers was revealed, that expression disappeared; and when he added a super-power stage by cutting in a heavy-duty transformer and a five-kilowatt transmitting tube, Seaton thought that he saw an instantaneously suppressed flicker of doubt or fear.
     "That headset thing was child's play to him, but he doesn't like the looks of this other stuff at all. I don't blame him a bit—I wouldn't like to be on the receiving end of this hook-up myself. I'm going to put him on the recorder and on the visualizer," Seaton continued as he connected spools of wire and tape, lamps, and lenses in an intricate system and donned a headset. "I'd hate to have much of that brain in my own skull—afraid I'd bite myself. I'm just going to look on, and when I see anything I want, I'll grab it and put it into my own brain. I'm starting off easy, not using the big tube."

     He closed several switches, lights flashed, and the wires and tapes began to feed through the magnets.
     "Well, I've got his language, folks, he seemed to want me to have it. It's got a lot of stuff in it that I can't understand yet, though, so guess I'll give him some English."
     He changed several connections and the captive spoke, in a profoundly deep bass voice.
     "You may as well discontinue your attempt, for you will gain no information from me. That machine of yours was out of date with us thousands of years ago."
     "Save your breath or talk sense," said Seaton, coldly. "I gave you English so that you can give me the information I want. You already know what it is. When you get ready to talk, say so, or throw it on the screen of your own accord. If you don't, I'll put on enough voltage to burn your brain out. Remember, I can read your dead brain as well as though it were alive, but I want your thoughts, as well as your knowledge, and I'm going to have them. If you give them voluntarily, I will tinker up a lifeboat that you can navigate back to your own world and let you go; if you resist I intend getting them anyway and you shall not leave this vessel alive. You may take your choice."
     "You are childish, and that machine is impotent against my will. I could have defied it a hundred years ago, when I was barely a grown man. Know you, American, that we supermen of the Fenachrone are as far above any of the other and lesser breeds of beings who spawn in their millions in their countless myriads of races upon the numberless planets of the Universe as you are above the inert metal from which this, your ship, was built. The Universe is ours, and in due course we shall take it—just as in due course I shall take this vessel. Do your worst; I shall not speak." The creature's eyes flamed, hurling a wave of hypnotic command through Seaton's eyes and deep into his brain. Seaton's very senses reeled for an instant under the impact of that awful mental force; but after a short, intensely bitter struggle he threw off the spell.

     "That was close, fellow, but you didn't quite ring the bell," he said grimly, staring directly into those unholy eyes. "I may rate pretty low mentally, but I can't be hypnotized into turning you loose. Also I can give you cards and spades in certain other lines which I am about to demonstrate. Being superman didn't keep the rest of your men from going out in my ray, and being a superman isn't going to save your brain. I am not depending upon my intellectual or mental force—I've got an ace in the hole in the shape of five thousand volts to apply to the most delicate centers of your brain. Start giving me what I want, and start quick, or I'll tear it out of you."
     The giant did not answer, merely glared defiance and bitter hate.

     "Take it, then!" Seaton snapped, and cut in the super-power stage and began turning dials and knobs, exploring that strange mind for the particular area in which he was most interested. He soon found it, and cut in the visualizer—the stereographic device, in parallel with Seaton's own brain recorder, which projected a three-dimensional picture into the "viewing-area" or dark space of the cabinet. Crane and Dunark, tense and silent, looked on in strained suspense as, minute after minute, the silent battle of wills raged. Upon one side was a horrible and gigantic brain, of undreamed of power; upon the other side a strong man, fighting for all that life holds dear, wielding against that monstrous and frightful brain a weapon wrought of high-tension electricity, applied with all the skill that earthly and Osnomian science could devise.
     Seaton crouched over the amplifier, his jaw set and every muscle taut, his eyes leaping from one meter to another, his right hand slowly turning up the potentiometer which was driving more and ever more of the searing, torturing output of his super-power tube into that stubborn brain. The captive was standing utterly rigid, eyes closed, every sense and faculty mustered to resist that cruelly penetrant attack upon the very innermost recesses of his mind. Crane and Dunark scarcely breathed as the three-dimensional picture in the visualizer varied from a blank to the hazy outlines of a giant space-cruiser. It faded out as the unknown exerted himself to withstand that poignant inquisition, only to come back in, clearer than before, as Seaton advanced the potentiometer still farther. Finally, flesh and blood could no longer resist that lethal probe and the picture became sharp and clear. It showed the captain—for he was no less an officer than the commander of the vessel—at a great council table, seated, together with many other officers, upon very low, enormously strong metal stools. They were receiving orders from their Emperor; orders plainly understood by Crane and the Osnomian alike, for thought needs no translation.

     At this point Seaton made the captain take them all over the ship. They noted its construction, its power-plant, its controls—every minute detail of structure, operation, and maintenance was taken from the captain's mind and was both recorded and visualized.
     He threaded new spools into the machine, and for three hours, mile after mile of tape sped between the magnets as Seaton explored every recess of that monstrous, yet stupendous brain.

From SKYLARK THREE by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1930)

Engineering Tools

In the Tom Corbett novels, Astro may work in his power deck stripped to the waist with a tool belt loaded with wrenches, but in reality it is more likely that he'll be wearing a HazMat suit. All that radiation, you know.

What sort of tools will the engineers carry? I hate to put a damper on things, but chances are a space wrench will look pretty much like the wrench in your garage. The major exception will be tools designed to be used in free fall (the NASA-speak jargon is "EVA tool"). If you are floating in microgravity, using a conventional screwdriver on a conventional screw will just cause your entire body to spin around the screw axis instead of tightening the blasted thing. Even more ordinary tools need some modification. All liquid lubricant has to be replaced with dry (since most liquid lubricants boil away in vacuum). They will have to be thermally insulated from the temperature extremes encountered in the space environment. Tether points are needed to help prevent the blasted things from floating away. And serial numbers will be needed to keep track of what tools are where.

Having said all that, far be it from me to prevent you from imagining all sorts of weird science-fictional tools.

In the handwaving science fantasy category, the Second, Third, Fourth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor Who always carried his trusty multipurpose sonic screwdriver. In the Star Trek episode Assignment: Earth, the mysterious agent Gary Seven is armed with a tool called a "servo." While the sonic screwdriver and the servo are very similar devices, they made their first appearances on TV only 13 days apart. This is not a case of plagarism, it is more "great minds work alike." In any event, unlike the sonic screwdrdiver, the servo is more than a tool. It is also a communication device and a weapon (with both a "stun" and a "kill" setting). Which means Gary Seven will be real upset if his servo is lost or stolen, in an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket sort of way.

The 23rd Century scientist Varian from The Fantastic Journey used his sonic energizer as a universal tool (focusing his thoughts into the "sonic manipulation of matter"). Varian's sonic energizer looks suspiciously like the tuning fork tool used by Rem the android in the TV series Logan's Run.

More realistically there was also a "multitool" in the David Drake novel Rolling Hot. It was sort of a combination electric drill/ultrasonic cleaner/screwdriver/socket wrench.

But when you get right down to it, most tools fall into one of two categories. They cut one thing into two or they join two things into one. They subtract or add (the ancient alchemists called it "Solve et coagula", or analysis and synthesis. Which is written on the arms of the Sabbatic Goat in the famous illustration by Eliphas Levi).

Cutting tools include knives, chisels, lathes, saws, planers, and sanders. Also included under cutting tools are CNC milling machines and Laser Cutters.

Joining tools include hammer and nails, screwdriver and screws, soldering gun and solder, socket wrench and bolts, arc welders, and glue. Also included under joining tools is solid freeform fabrication for rapid prototyping.

Taken to an extreme, the ultimate cutting tool would be capable of separating a piece of material along a line one atom thick, with a customizable cutting head. In his Known Space novels, Larry Niven invented the "variable sword". This was a handle that extruded a "monofilament wire" one molecule thick, stiffened by a force field. It would cut anything except fabric woven from monofilament or a General Products hull. Imagine a variable sword where one could alter the wire into any shape one wanted.

An even better trick is a tool with a dynamic shape. A controller box would contain the blueprint of the desired shape. Place it next to the block of material and let the box locate itself relative to the block. Plug the cutter into the control box. Now as you wave the cutter through the block, the box will dynamically alter the blade so it automatically cuts the block according to the blueprint.

Similarly, the ultimate joining tool would induce two objects to form atomic bonds where ever they touched. Call it an "atomic bonder". It would be a nice touch if the bonder could reverse the process, causing two joined objects to separate if required. Currently the closest thing we have to that is ultrasonic welding, and that has some severe limitations.

In the modern world, the joke is that you can fix anything using gaffer's tape or WD-40 lubricant spray. The Duct Tape Guys said "Two rules get you through life: If it's stuck and it's not supposed to be, WD-40 it. If it's not stuck and it's supposed to be, duct tape it". Or as @tenbus_uk said "Stop things move as shouldn't, make things move as wouldn't".

You may laugh, but in actuality, every single NASA manned mission starting with the Gemini series has carried a roll of duck tape. This paid off in 1970 when a roll of duct tape helped save the astronaut's lives during the Apollo 13 disaster.

Robert Merrill points out that there are other classes of tools: Diagnostic, Measuring, and Supportive. Diagnostic examples include multimeters and automobile engine timing lights. Measuring include rulers and calipers. Supportive include car jacks and clamps. He also points out that different types of tools are required by different types of workers. Damage Control Teams, Repair Squads, Maintance Crews, Refitters, Installers, and Artificers (never know what you're going to need built on a deep space mission).

Magnetic Wrench, Star Trek "That Which Survives" (1969).

Mentally Controlled Tools

These are tools that are controlled simply by thinking at them. Crude versions require electrodes surgically implanted in the brain, advanced versions can remotely read the user's thoughts with no surgery required.

In James White's collection Major Operation, the continent-sized strata creatures of the planet Meatball create silver tools that can be molded into various shapes by a user simply visualizing the desired shape and thinking it at the tool. The interesting thing is that more than one entity can control a given tool. If a strata creature forms the tool into a dagger-like shape and hurls it at you, save your skin by frantically thinking the tool into some kind of blunt object.

In the movie Forbidden Planet is featured a titanic forerunner installation called the Krell Machine. When the machine was activated, any Krell citizen could mentally control it to wish for anything they wanted. The machine woudl then use the power of 9,200 thermonuclear reactors to make it happen. At that point the Krell learned the hard way about the Monsters from the ID problem. The entire race was exterminated overnight.

In Daniel Galouye's Lords of the Psychon the alien invaders use ring-shaped generators to create clouds of mysterious "psychon plasma". The plasma can be formed into any shape the user can imagine and utilized as a universal tool. Unfortunately the Monsters from the ID problem will allow ones subconscious to instantly form it into nightmare shapes drawn from the foul depths of your personality. Generally the subconsciously controled plasma won't harm you, just seriously harm your mental stability.

The problem can be fixed by undergoing psychoanalysis, to purge all the crap out of your subconsious. The nightmarish shapes formed by the psychon plasma can accelearate the process. However, it is very important to have such psychoanalysis rooms to be widely spaced apart. Otherwise your psychon plasma may not be controlled by you, but instead by a person in an adjacent room. And psychon plasma subconsciously controlled by somebody else can easily kill you.


     Biron looked it over slowly. “And you build gadgets here? What kind of gadgets?”
     “Well, special sounding devices to spy out the Tyrannian spy beams in a brand-new way. Nothing they can detect. That’s how I found out about you, when the first word came through from Aratap. And I have other amusing trinkets. My visi-sonor, for instance. Do you like music?”
     “Some kinds.”
     “Good. I invented an instrument, only I don’t know if you can properly call it music.” A shelf of book films slid out and aside at a touch. “This is not really much of a hiding place, but nobody takes me seriously, so they don’t look. Amusing, don’t you think? But I forget, you’re the unamused one.”

     It was a clumsy, boxlike affair, with that singular lack of gloss and polish that marks the homemade object. One side of it was studded with little gleaming knobs. He put it down with that side upward.
     “It isn’t pretty,” Gillbret said, “but who in Time cares? Put the lights out. No, no! No switches or contacts. Just wish the lights were out. Wish hard! Decide you want them out.
     And the lights dimmed, with the exception of the faint pearly luster of the ceiling that made them two ghostly faces in the dark. Gillbret laughed lightly at Biron’s exclamation.

     “Just one of the tricks of my visi-sonor. It’s keyed to the mind like personal capsules are (message capsules that can only be opened by their intended recipient). Do you know what I mean?”
     “No, I don’t, if you want a plain answer.”
     “Well,” he said, “look at it this way. The electric field of your brain cells sets up an induced one in the instrument. Mathematically, it’s fairly simple, but as far as I know, no one has ever jammed all the necessary circuits into a box this size before. Usually, it takes a five-story generating plant to do it. It works the other way too. I can close circuits here and impress them directly upon your brain, so that you’ll see and hear without any intervention of eyes and ears. Watch!”

From THE STARS, LIKE DUST by Isaac Asimov (1951)

(ed note: the good ship Descartes from the Galactic Survey lands on the planet Meatball. It is covered by huge flat creatures the size of continents. The ship comes under attack from … something, so they retreat. Lieutenant Harrison is injured, so they swing by the intergalactic Sector General Hospital.

Unknown to them, one of the strata creatures is intelligent. It has weird "tools." These are objects the size of baseballs that can be transformed into any shape just by thinking at them.

One of the tools was clinging to Harrison's space suit but nobody noticed. After decontamination, a nurse came by looking for a medical tool, and the thought-tool promply transformed into the desired medical tool. The unwitting nurse picked up the thought-tool thinking it was the item they were looking for.

A series of odd incidents happen, as the thought-tool keeps responding to the thinking of everybody around it. Dr. Mannon almost inadvertently kills a patient during surgery because he doesn't understand that the thing he is holding is not a scalpel, but instead an alien tool that alters its shape as he thinks about the operation.

Finally Dr. Conway realizes what is going on.

The hospital sends an expedition to planet Meatball because these thought-tools will revolutionize surgery, and they want to trade for some.)

INVADER (1966)

      After the operation they had all wanted to question Harrison about Meatball, but before they could do so Conway had first to explain what had happened again to the Lieutenant.
     “…And while we still have no idea what they look like,” Conway was saying, “we do know that they are highly intelligent and in their own fashion technically advanced. By that I mean they fashion and use tools…

     “Indeed yes,” said Mannon dryly, and the thing (thought-tool) in his hand became a metallic sphere, a miniature bust of Beethoven and a set of Tralthan dentures. Since it had become certain that the Hudlar (the surgical patient) would be another one of Mannon’s successes rather than a failure he had begun to regain his sense of humor.

     …But the tool-making stage must have followed a long way after the development of the philosophical sciences,” Conway went on. “The imagination boggles at the conditions in which they evolved. These tools are not designed for manual use, the natives may not possess hands as we know them. But they have minds…

     Under the mental control of its owner the “tool” had cut a way into Descartes beside Harrison’s station, but during the sudden takeoff it had been unable to get back and a new source of mental control, the Lieutenant, had unwittingly taken over. It had become the foothold which Harrison had needed so badly, only to give under his weight because it had not really been part of the ship’s structure. When the attachments of Harrison’s suit had been sterilized in the same room as the surgical instruments and when a nurse had come looking for a certain instrument for the theater, it again became what was wanted.
     From then on there was confusion over instrument counts and falling scalpels which did not cut and sprayers which behaved oddly indeed, and Mannon had used a knife which had followed his mind instead of his hands, with near-fatal results for the patient. But the second time it happened Mannon knew that he was holding a small, unspecialized, all purpose tool which was subject to mental as well as manual control, and some of the shapes he had made it take and the things he had made it do would make Conway remember that operation for the rest of his life.

     …This…gadget…is probably of great value to its owner,” Conway finished seriously. “By rights we should return it. But we need it here, many more of them if possible! Your people have got to make contact and set up trade relations. There’s bound to be something we have or can do that they want…
     “I’d give my right arm for one,” said Mannon, then added, grinning, “My right leg, anyway.”
     The Lieutenant returned his smile. He said, “As I remember the place, Doctor, there was no shortage of raw meat.”
     O’Mara, who had been unusually silent until then, said very seriously, “Normally I am not a covetous man. But consider the things this hospital could do with just ten of those things, or even five. We have one and, if we were doing the right thing, we would put it back where we found it—obviously a tool like this is of enormous value. This means that we will have to buy or conduct some form of trade for them, and to do this we must first learn to communicate with their owners.”
     He looked at each of them in turn, then went on sardonically. “One hesitates to mention such sordid commercial matters to pure-minded, dedicated medical men like yourselves, but I must do so to explain why, when Descartes eventually makes contact with the beings who use the tools, I want Conway and whoever else he may select to investigate the medical situation on Meatball.


     The scout ship broke off the maneuver and roared into a landing behind them. By then the ground was already beginning to sag.
     Suddenly they (thought-tools under control of the strata beast) appeared.
     Two large, flat metal disks embedded vertically in the ground, one about twenty feet in front of them and the other the same distance behind. As they watched each disk contracted suddenly into a shapeless blob of metal which crawled a few feet to the side and then suddenly became a large, razor-edged disk again, cutting a deep incision in the ground. The disks had each cut more than a quarter circle around them and the ground was sagging rapidly inside the incisions before Conway realized what was happening.
     “Think cubes at them!” he yelled. “Think something blunt! Harrison!” (the exploration team crew can over-ride the control over the thought-tools, if they think hard enough at them)
     “Lock’s open. Come running.”

     But they could not run without taking their eyes and minds off the disks, and if they did that they could not run fast enough to clear the circular incision which was being made around them. Instead they sidled toward the scout ship, willing every inch of the way that the disks become cubes or spheres or horseshoes—anything but the great, circular scalpels which something had made them become.
     At Sector General Conway had watched his colleague Mannon perform incredible feats of surgery, using one of these thought-controlled tools, an all-purpose surgical instrument which became anything he wanted it to be instantly. Now two of the things were crawling and twisting like metallic nightmares as they tried to shape them one way and something else—which was their owner and as such had more expertise—tried to shape them another. It was a very one-sided struggle but they did, just barely, manage to hamper their opponent’s thinking enough to allow them to get clear before the circular plug of “skin” containing the drilling rig and other odds and ends of equipment dropped from sight.


     They were three semicircular disks of metal which seemed to flicker into and out of existence on the area of ground covered by the long morning shadow of the scout ship. Harrison stepped up the magnification of his scanners, which showed that the objects did not so much appear and disappear as shrink rhythmically into tiny metal blobs a few inches across, then expand again into flat, circular blades which knifed through the surface. There they lay flat for a few seconds among the shadowed eye plants, then suddenly the discs became shallow inverted bowls. The change was so abrupt that they bounced several yards into the air to land about twenty feet away. The process was repeated every few seconds, with one disc bouncing rapidly toward the distant tip of their shadow, the second zig-zagging to chart its width and the third heading directly for the ship.
     The third disk was still coming at them in five-yard leaps along the center of their shadow. He had never before seen them display such mobility and coordination, even though he knew that they were capable of taking any shape their operators’ thought at them, and that the complexity of the shape and the speed of the change were controlled solely by the speed and clarity of thought of the user’s mind.

     “Lieutenant Harrison has a point, Doctor,” said Murchison suddenly. “The early reports say that the tools were used to undercut grounded ships so that they would fall inside the strata creature, presumably for closer examination at its leisure. On those occasions they tried to undercut the object’s shadow, using the shaded eye plants as a guide to size and position. But now, to use your own analogy, they seem to have learned how to tell the itch from the object causing it.”
     A loud clang reverberated along the hull, signaling the arrival of the first tool. Immediately the other two turned and headed after the first, and one after the other they bounced high into the air, higher even than the control position, to arch over and crash against the hull. The damage scanners showed them strike, cling for a few seconds while they spread over hull projections like thin, metallic pancakes, then fall away. An instant later they were clanging and clinging against a different section of hull. But a few seconds later they stopped clinging because, just before making contact, they grew needle points which scored bright, deep scratches in the plating.
     “They must be blind,” said Conway excitedly. “The tools must be an extension of the creature’s sense of touch, used to augment the information supplied by the plants. They are feeling us for size and shape and consistency.”
     “Before they discover that we have a soft center,” said Harrison firmly, “I suggest that we make a tactical withdrawal, or even get the hell out.

     Conway nodded. While Harrison played silent tunes on his control panels he explained that the tools were controllable by human minds up to a distance of about twenty feet and that beyond this distance the tool users had control. He told her to think blunt shapes at them as soon as they came into range, any shape so long as it did not have points or cutting edges.
     “No, wait,” he said as a better idea struck him. “Think wide and flat at them, with an aerofoil section and some kind of vertical projection for stabilization and guidance. Hold the shape while it is falling and glide it as far away from the ship as possible. With luck it will need three or four jumps to get back.”
     Their first attempt was not a success, although the shape which finally stuck the ship was too blunt and convoluted to do serious damage. But they concentrated hard on the next one, holding it to a triangle shape only a fraction of an inch thick and with a wide central fin. Murchison held the overall shape while Conway thought-warped the trailing edges and stabilizer so that it performed a balanced vertical bank just outside the direct-vision panel and headed away from the ship in a long, flat glide.
     The glide continued long after it passed beyond their range of influence, banking and wobbling a little, then cutting a short swathe through the eye plants before touching down.

     “Doctor, I could kiss you…” she began. (actually, she is already married to him)
     “I know you like playing with girls and model airplanes, Doctor,” Harrison broke in dryly, “but we lift in twenty seconds. Straps.”

     “It held that shape right to the end,” Conway said, beginning to worry for some reason. “Could it have been learning from us, experimenting perhaps?”
     He stopped. The tool melted, flowed into the inverted bowl shape and bounced high into the air. As it began to fall back it changed into glider configuration, picking up speed as it fell, then leveled out a few feet above the surface and came sweeping toward them. The leading edges of its wings were like razors. Its two companions were also aloft in glider form, slicing the air toward them from the other side of the ship.


     They hit their acceleration couches just as the three fast-gliding tools struck the hull, by accident or design, cutting off two of the external vision pickups. The one which was still operating showed a three-foot gash torn in the thin plating with a glider embedded in the tear, changing shape, stretching and widening it. Probably it was a good thing that they could not see what the other two were doing.
     Through the gash in the plating Conway could see brightly colored plumbing and cable runs which were also being pushed apart by the tool. Then that screen went dead as well just as takeoff boost rammed him deep into the couch.
     “Doctor, check the stern for stowaways,” said Harrison harshly as the initial acceleration began to taper off. “If you find any, think safe shapes at them—something which won’t scramble anymore of my wiring. Quickly.”

     Suddenly there was a silvery blur of motion on the ground beside the pump housing and a corpsman hopped a few yards on one foot before falling to the ground. His boot with his other foot still in it lay on its side where he had been standing and the tool, no longer silvery, was already cutting its way beneath the blood-splashed surface.
     “Tool attacks are increasing in frequency and strength,” said Garoth in Translated. “They are also displaying considerable initiative. Your idea of clearing an area around the feeding installations of all eye plants so that the tools would have to operate blind, and would have to bounce around feeling for targets, worked only for a short time, Doctor. They devised a new trick, that of sliding along a few inches below the surface, blind, of course, then suddenly extruding a point or a cutting blade and stabbing or swinging with it before retreating under the surface again. If we can’t see them, mental control is impossible, and guarding every working corpsman with another carrying a metal detector has not worked very well so far—it has simply given the tool a better chance of hitting someone.

     “And just recently,” Garoth concluded, “there are indications of the tools linking up into five- , six- and in one case ten-unit combinations. The corpsman who reported this died a few seconds later before he was able to finish his report. The condition of his vehicle later supports this theory, however.”
     Conway nodded grimly and said, “Thank you, Doctor. But now I’m afraid that you’ll have to withstand air attacks as well. On the way here we taught the patient how gliders work, and it learned fast…” He went onto describe the incident, adding the latest pathological findings and their deductions and theories on the nature of their patient. As a result the meeting quickly became a debate and was degenerating into a bitter argument before he had to pull rank and get his human and e-t doctors back to a state of clinical detachment.

From MAJOR OPERATION by James White (1966)

Jo Blocks

As a side note, there are sets of industrial equipment called "Johansson blocks" or "Gauge blocks". They are high-precision unit blocks used to calibrate measuring equipment. When a set of Jo-blocks are created, each block face is lapped to a flatness of about 11 millionths of an inch. As a consequence, the blocks can be induced to cling together by molecular attraction. A light thin oil is applied to exclude air, the blocks are slid together, and a surprisingly strong bond is created. This is called "Wringing-in" or "Jo Blocking."

Mallow had swung the steel sheet onto the two supports with a careless heave. He had taken the instrument held out to him by Twer and was gripping the leather handle inside its leaden sheath.

"The instrument," he said, "is dangerous, but so is a buzz saw. You just have to keep your fingers away."

And as he spoke, he drew the muzzle-slit swiftly down the length of the steel sheet, which quietly and instantly fell in two.

There was a unanimous jump, and Mallow laughed. He picked up one of the halves and propped it against his knee, "You can adjust the cutting-length accurately to a hundredth of an inch, and a two-inch sheet will slit down the middle as easily as this thing did. If you've got the thickness exactly judged, you can place steel on a wooden table, and split the metal without scratching the wood."

And at each phrase, the nuclear shear moved and a gouged chunk of steel flew across the room.

"That," he said, "is whittling - with steel."

He passed back the shear. "Or else you have the plane. Do you want to decrease the thickness of a sheet, smooth out an irregularity, remove corrosion? Watch!"

Thin, transparent foil flew off the other half of the original sheet in six-inch swaths, then eight-inch, then twelve.

"Or drills? It's all the same principle."

They were crowded around now. It might have been a sleight-of-hand show, a comer magician, a vaudeville act made into high-pressure salesmanship. Commdor Asper fingered scraps of steel. High officials of the government tiptoed over each other's shoulders, and whispered, while Mallow punched clean, beautiful round holes through an inch of hard steel at every touch of his nuclear drill.

"Just one more demonstration. Bring two short lengths of pipe, somebody."

An Honorable Chamberlain of something-or-other sprang to obedience in the general excitement and thought-absorption, and stained his hands like any laborer.

Mallow stood them upright and shaved the ends off with a single stroke of the shear, and then joined the pipes, fresh cut to fresh cut.

And there was a single pipe! The new ends, with even atomic irregularities missing, formed one piece upon joining.

Mallow talked through and around his thoughts, "Test that pipe! It's one piece. Not perfect; naturally, the joining shouldn't be done by hand."

From FOUNDATION by Issac Asimov (1951)


What sort of space clothing will a rocketeer of the Solar Guard wear? Interplanetary rogue Northwest Smith always wore gray faded spacer's leathers and a heat-ray gun but a Guardsman will be more practical. Their uniform will be lightweight, to save on mass. No spandex, please.

The clothing might be treated with anti-microbial agents to make them odour resistant, since designing a microgravity clothes washer is a challenge NASA has not yet conquered. On the ISS, clothing is worn and re-worn without washing until they get too stinky. Then they are put on the next cargo supply ship to burn up in re-entry. Actually, in microgravity, clothing does not actually touch the wearer's body as much as it does under Terra's gravity.

Uniforms will not have skirts or kilts for previously mentioned reasons. The uniform might even be designed to function as an emergency space suit (though it is difficult to design such a suit which is also comfortable enough to be worn all day).

NASA ISS astronauts wear clothes with lots of pockets and strips of velcro, as a handy place to carry gear.

The formerly retired postmen were waiting in the hall, in a space cleared from last night’s maildrop. They all wore uniforms, although since no two uniforms were exactly alike they were not, in fact, uniform and therefore not technically uniforms.

From GOING POSTAL by Terry Pratchett (2004)

Warning: spoilers for RENEGADE by Joel Shepherd

Lisbeth appeared beside the chair, also clasping some coffee. She didn’t make a face as she sipped, Erik noted. Phoenix coffee was far below the quality of what she was used to. “Where are we?” she asked, peering at the command screens.

A few of the officers up and down the bridge aisle glanced at her. Rows of faces in their chairs, pale in the wash of display light, amidst the humming of ventilation and the ever-present rumble and thump of the cylinder rotation. Most were only strapped in loosely, not expecting immediate trouble.

Erik looked at his sister. Her hair was pinned up and tied at the back… too long for crew, but acceptable for a spacefaring civvie. She wore a plain spacer jumpsuit with pockets and webbing straps. Life support pouch, medical kit, harness hooks. Standard spacer gear. Regs said anyone not wearing it would be confined to quarters.

“If you’re going to stand there,” Erik told her, “then take hold.” Lisbeth blinked at him. “That’s what we call it — ‘take hold’. It means brace, grab something, never stand unsecured.”

From RENEGADE by Joel Shepherd (2015)

(ed note: the protagonists are dealing with humanoid aliens whose galactic empire collapsed about twelve thousand years ago. But you can still bump into them if you fool around with time machines. The aliens have very versatile uniforms)

      The package contained a much folded article of fabric, compressed and sealed in a transparent bag which he fumbled twice before he succeeded in releasing its fastening. Ross shook out a garment of material such as he had never seen before. Its sheen and satin-smooth surface suggested metal, but its stuff was as supple as fine silk. Color rippled across it with every twist and turn he gave to the length—dark blue fading to pale violet, accented with wavering streaks of vivid and startling green.

     Ross experimented with a row of small, brilliant-green studs which made a transverse line from the right shoulder to the left hip, and they came apart. As he climbed into the suit the stuff modeled to his body in a tight but perfect fit. Across the shoulders were bands of green to match the studs, and the stockinglike tights were soled with a thick substance which formed a cushion for his feet.

     He pressed the studs together, felt them lock, and then stood smoothing that strange, beautiful fabric, unable to account for either it or his surroundings.

     Ross understood. By rights, his thigh should also have been scorched where the flame had hit, yet he felt no pain. Now as the tribesman examined him for a burn, he could not see even the faintest discoloration of the strange fabric. He remembered how the aliens had strolled unconcerned through the burning village. As the suit had insulated him against the cold of the ice, it seemed that it had also protected him against the fire, for which he was duly thankful. His escape from injury was a puzzle to the tribesman, who, failing to find any trace of burn on him, left Ross alone and went to sit well away from his prisoner as if he feared him.

     Fire—there was something about fire—if he could only remember! Ross stumbled and nearly fell across one leg of the dead horse they were propping into place. Then he remembered that tongue of flame in the meadow grass which had burned the horse but not the rider. His hands and his head would have no protection, but the rest of his body was covered with the flame-resistant fabric of the alien suit. Could he do it? There was such a slight chance, and they were already pushing him onto the mound, his hands tied. Ennar stooped, and bound his ankles, securing him to the brush.

     A tongue of yellow-red flame licked up at him. Ross hardly dared to breathe as it wreathed about his foot, his hide fetters smoldering. The insulation of the suit did not cut all the heat, but it allowed him to stay put for the few seconds he needed to make his escape spectacular.

     The flame had eaten through his foot bonds, and yet the burning sensation on his feet and legs was no greater than it would have been from the direct rays of a bright summer sun. Ross moistened his lips with his tongue. The impact of heat on his hands and face was different. He leaned down, held his wrists to the flame, taking in stoical silence the burns which freed him.

     Then, as the fire curled up so that he seemed to stand in a frame of writhing red banners, Ross leaped through that curtain, protecting his bowed head with his arms as best he could. But to the onlookers it seemed he passed unhurt through the heart of a roaring fire.

     Keeping his footing, he stood facing that part of the tribal ring directly before him. A cry rose and a blazing torch flew through the air and struck his hip. Although he felt the force of the blow, the burning bits of the head merely slid down his thigh and leg, leaving no mark on the smooth blue fabric.


     Now the wizard capered before him, shaking his rattle to make a deafening din. Ross struck out, slapping the sorcerer out of his path. He stooped to pick up the smoldering brand which had been thrown at him. Whirling it about his head, though every movement was torture to his scorched hands, he set it flaming once more. Holding it in front of him as a weapon, he stalked directly at the men and women before him.

     The torch was a poor enough defense against spears and axes, but Ross did not care—he put into this last gamble all the determination he could summon. Nor did he realize what a figure he presented to the tribesmen. A man who had crossed a curtain of fire without apparent hurt, who appeared to bathe in tongues of flame without harm, and who now called upon fire in turn as a weapon, was no man but a demon!

     When the bubbles ebbed and Travis stepped out of the cubby, he was met by a changed Ross. The latter was just hitching up over his broad shoulders the upper part of a tight, blue-green suit. It clung to his body, modeling every muscle as he moved. Made all in one piece, its feet were soled with a thick sponge that cushioned each step. Ross picked another bundle of blue-green from the floor and tossed it to the Apache.

     “Compliments of the house,” he said. “I certainly never thought I’d want to wear one of these again.”

     “Their uniforms?” Travis remembered the dead pilot. “What is this—silk?” He rubbed his hand over the sleek surface of a fabric he could not identify and was attracted by the play of color—blue, green, lavender—rippling from one shade to another as the material moved.

     “Yes. It has its good points, all right—insulated against cold and heat, for one thing. For another, it can be traced.”

     Travis paused, his arm half through the right sleeve. “Traced?”

     “Well, I was trailed over about fifty miles of pretty rugged territory because I was wearing one like this. And they tried to get at me mentally, too, when I had it on. Went to sleep one night and woke up heading right back to the boys who wanted to collect me.”

     Travis stared, but it was plain Ross meant every word he said. Then the Apache glanced down again at the silky stuff he was wearing, with an impulse to strip it off. Yet Murdock in spite of his story, was fastening the studs which ran from one shoulder to the other hip of his own garment.

     “If we were in their time, I wouldn’t touch this with a fifty-foot pole,” Ross continued, smiling wryly. “But, seeing as how we are some thousands of years removed from the rightful owners, I’ll take the chance. As I said, these suits do have some points in their favor.”

     Travis snapped his own studs together. The material felt good, smooth, a little warm, almost as soothing as the foam bubbles which had scoured and energized his tired body. He was willing to chance wearing the uniform. It was infinitely better than the hide garment he had discarded.

     “Helmets fastened?” His voice boomed hollowly inside the sphere now resting on Travis’ shoulders and secured by a close-fitting harness. Ashe had discovered those and had tested them, preparing for this time when they might dare a foray into the unknown. The bubble was equipped with no cumbersome oxygen tanks. It worked on no principle Renfry was able to discover, but the aliens had used these and the humans must trust to their efficiency now.

     They went armed, strapping on the belts supporting the aliens’ weapons. And they issued into a merciless sunlight, as threatening with its white brilliance as the flames of the night before.

     Ashe shielded his eyes with his hand. “Try wearing the helmets,” he ordered. “They might just cut some of the glare.”

     He was right. When they fastened down the bubbles, the material cut that daylight so that their eyes were unaffected.

     “We do it this way.” Ashe, the veteran explorer, took over with decisive authority. “You stay here, Renfry—up at the door. Any sign the ship is coming to life again and you fire—on maximum.”

     A bolt of the force spewed from the narrow muzzle of the alien weapon would produce crackling blue fire which should be visible for miles. They were not sure of the range of the helmet coms, but they could be certain of the effectiveness of a force bolt as a warning.

From TIME TRADERS by Andre Norton (1958)

Care and Feeding of Space Fleet Crew in the Diesel Age

Let's talk about uniforms. Uniforms have several functions beyond keeping your backside from sticking to the furniture (though that may be the most important!)

Uniforms allow you to recognize a member of the service.

Uniforms provide some measure of protection.

Uniforms provide pockets.

Space Fleet uniforms are made of nonflammable material. The basic uniform onboard ship consists of a light blue coverall with green piping down the legs and boots (either high boots or ankle height). Sleeveless and legless green overalls are often worn over this.

The Space Fleet is fairly easy going regarding uniforms onboard ships and in transit. Small personal touches are allowed. In addition while the uniforms are designated male or fem crew are welcome to wear whichever version is more comfortable to them.

The basic uniform consists of a blue coverall and boots. The boots have ankle and shin reinforcements. The protection is not only good for  using a lifter belt, it is helpful in low gravity maneuvering. Crew sometimes try 'stunts' to traverse several decks under low gravity levels and forget that while their weight is reduced their mass is the same and they can build up a good head of steam. Already ankle and leg injuries are down 40% in the Fleet with the use of this foot wear.

Unfortunately wrist and arm injuries are up 40%. The fleet is looking into wrist and elbow guards.

As you can see the uniforms have pockets. The pockets seal closed for zero gravity situations.

Branch is indicated by the collar and cuffs. The Space Fleet generally does not bother with rank insignia aboard ships. Rank badges are reserved for dress uniforms. Anyone transferring ships is advised to learn the hierarchy quickly.

The blue collars and cuffs mark these crew as Engineering. The Engineer on the left is further differentiated by the yellow tag on her collar and yellow striping in her hairband as dealing with airlocks and extravehicular activity.

The crew have hair at the maximum length allowed by regulations. This is for ease in donning spacesuits. Hair bands and scrunchies are required. If gravity goes out or a ship moves suddenly a crew might get hair whipping in their eyes during a crucial moment.

Engineers almost always wear specialized boots with reinforced steel toes just in case someone drops something heavy.

As a further note, most crew are allowed jewelry such as rings and chokers. Engineers are not due to safety concerns. electrocution and getting your necklace caught in machinery is never fashionable.

Officers have a white collar and cuffs. these officers have added over tunics to their basic uniform. this is pretty common. Engineering does not usually do this because the tunic gets in the way when crawling through machinery. The officer on the right is outfitted for a landing party with a compressor mask and eyescreen used for missions on Mars or a desert area. He's also wearing lifter breaches, similar to riding breaches with extra leg room for making jumps. The fem version of the tunic opens in the back and the make version on the side. Both tunics have straps running under the legs and arms that a lifter belt attaches to. They also have supplemental pockets. The officer on the left is wearing jewelry to give an idea of acceptable ornaments.

Some crew wear lifter belts onboard their ship to transit decks fairly quickly. Other just prefer wearing the tunics because the basic uniform feels like pajamas.

Billed cps are not used in the Fleet in general. Crew using billed caps have to turn the bills around to ascend ladders for safety reasons, the crew all carry goggles for eye protection and it's too easy to catch the bill on machinery in the engineering sections. Also if anything a space helmet can go over a sift cap in an emergency. You don't need to take it off.

Deckhands are designated with red collars and cuffs. They are usually relatively new to the Fleet and low ranking, Deckhands are extra crew carried in case personnel are incapacitated. Their major function is to handle damage control and first aid. When they aren't doing that they could be performing maintenance, swabbing decks or assisting personnel in almost any task. They also double as ship's troops. In some cases personnel remain deckhands after several years or for their whole career because they prefer the constantly changing duties. Highly experienced hands of this sort are prized.

This deckhand is wearing goggles with light enhancing lenses (like the engineers). Not everyone puts up with the added weight of the light enhancement gear and most goggles are not equipped.Almost everyone wears goggles onboard ship or has them handy. For one thing, low gravity plays hell with vision over long term exposure engorging and warping eyes. The goggles have an electro massage feature that alleviates this. Crew operating in the machine shop or laboratory may be exposed to metal filings or other contaminants and the goggles provide protection as well. Finally in the event of a micrometeor strike or combat it is possible for the inner hull to be breeched. Most breaches are a few centimeters across and will take several minutes (at least) for pressure to drop dangerously but winds from these hull can whip debris into eyes and blind unprotected crew at crucial moments.

Medical branch is designated by green collars and cuffs. This doctor replaced the over tunic with a smock and the lifter foot wear with comfortable ship shoes. She is clearly happy with a more sedentary set of duties.

Gunners are designated with yellow collars and cuffs. They also will wear their over tunics and lifter belts on duty. This is because reloads for the big guns can weigh over 100 kilos and lifter belts help enormously with reloading. Gunners are often the most adept crew at changing the lift settings on their belts to let them tote heavy loads. Sometimes they even use the winches set up for that purpose.

Warships seldom carry troops. They are simply not designed to move people in large numbers and the Fleet usually commandeers civilian liners or sleeper freighters for large troop movements. Special Forces are the exception to this. Special forces operate in small teams of two to five operatives. They are part of the Fleet by necessity, troops have to pitch in with the regular crew on a flight. In general they operate as deckhands, performing maintenance and aiding more skilled crew. Some Spectfor members wear mission badges on their caps. Others believe mission badges are bad luck or tempting fate. Badges record numbers in the same fashion as Roman numerals (| = X, / = V and o =I). Those officer has completed 16 missions (|/o = XVI). The uniform's tunic contains some armor, not enough to matter against modern weapons but able to stop clubs or a knife thrust.

In general uniforms are simply ignored unless you need a character sketch. You might consider using the gear worn when assessing saves. Perhaps using your lift belt to drop down the length of the ship is a dicey idea but you rightfully point out that you're wearing those lovely boots and deserve a +1. perhaps later you're trying to be stealthy and you hard soled reinforced boots give you a -1. In general things should even out and again the uniform pictures I posted are just for color, to develop a look for my world. though you might get into an argument with your CO over those mission badges you clipped to your cap.

Flight Suits

My father was in the USAF, and I found his old flight suits to be very comfortable and practical. The many zippered pockets were quite useful. Though when I attended science fiction conventions with my cosplaying friends, this turned out to be a liability. Cosplay costumes seldom included pockets, so I wound up being the pack mule for everybody else.

The pockets were useful, but practical. They shut with zippers so things could not fall out, especially if you are spinning in mid-air. They were also positioned so to avoid the straps on one's parachute and the belts holding you into the aircraft seats. I trust you see how this could also be applied to spacecraft crew uniforms.

The center zipper has tabs at both ends, which allows the bottom tab to act as a fly. This allows the user to urinate without unzipping the entire front. But only if the user has male genitalia or a freefall toilet with a urine funnel. Torchships are capable of prolonged periods of multi-gee burns, so the acceleration couches may well be designed with built in urine funnels aka "relief tubes". You cannot get up and walk to the head if the ship is pulling five gees.

If the user has to defecate they are S.O.L. out of luck, whatever their gender. You almost have to take the entire flight suit off. As a side note, since one cannot remove one's spacesuit in vacuum without dying, defecation in a space suit is handled with either diapers or something more complicated.

There was one interesting pocket that would puzzle a civilian. A narrow one located on the left inner thigh. It held a special switch-blade knife, with a curved hooked blade (MC-1 survival knife).

You see, when you use a parachute to escape a plummeting aircraft, the chute will get you down to the ground without you becoming a large blood-colored splat. But if there is any wind when you land, the chute can easily drag you to death. The curved blade was to quickly cut the chute canopy lines to prevent that unhappy fate. The blade deployed by pushing the switch-blade button on the knife because time is of the essence. And the knife was held in that special pocket, perfectly positioned to be quickly grabbed.

There is also a convenient grommet hole on that pocket used to attach the knife to the suit by nylon cord lanyard. Could be the difference between life and death in case you drop the knife.

But I knew about that pocket because I was an air-force brat. I often saw that orange-handled knife when my father suited up to go to work. As well as his dragon helmet.

Science fiction authors may find it entertaining to think up what sort of similar equipment is regularly carried by the spaceship crew in the novel.


A flight suit is a full body garment, worn while flying aircraft such as military airplanes, gliders and helicopters. These suits are generally made to keep the wearer warm, as well as being practical (plenty of pockets), and durable (including fire retardant). Its appearance is usually similar to a jumpsuit. A military flight suit may also show rank insignia. It is sometimes used as a combat uniform in close quarters battle or visit, board, search, and seizure situations, for its practicality.


As aviation developed in unheated open cockpits, the need for warm clothing quickly became apparent, as did the need for multiple pockets with closures of buttons, snaps, or zippers to prevent loss of articles during maneuvers. Various types of flight jackets and pants coverings were developed and, during World War I, leather two-piece outfits were common among pilots to ward off the chill caused by propwash and the cold of low-oxygen high-altitude flying. Leather quickly became the preferred material due to its durability and the protection it offered against flying debris such as insect strikes during climb-outs and landings, and oil thrown off by the simple rotary and inline motors of the time. Australian aviator Frederick Sidney Cotton's experience with high level and low-temperature flying led Cotton in 1917 to develop the revolutionary new "Sidcot" suit, a flying suit which solved the problem pilots had in keeping warm in the cockpit. This flying suit, with improvements, was widely used by the RAF until the 1950s.

By the time World War II started in earnest, electrically heated suits were introduced by Lion Apparel in conjunction with General Electric for patrol and bomber crews who routinely operated at high altitudes above 30,000 feet, where air temperatures could get so cold that flesh could freeze instantly to any metal it touched. As enclosed and pressurized cabins came into operation, the necessity of bulky leather and shearling jackets and pants began to fade. For example, pilots, navigators, and bombardiers of a B-17 operating in Europe in 1944 comfortably wore their officer's uniforms under an A-2 flight jacket, due to the enclosed and heated cabin; but the waist gunners needed electrically heated suits, as they fired their guns through open window gunports. When the B-29 Superfortress was introduced in the fight against Japan, along with remote-controlled coordinated gun turrets, the fully pressurized crew cabin made bulky flight gear obsolete.

Where bomber pilots could wear their service uniforms as flight gear, fighter pilots needed a uniform that functioned in the tight confines of the typical fighter plane cockpit. The AN-S-31 flight suit was developed for the US Army Air Corps and featured two button-down breast pockets and two button-down shin pockets that could be accessed from the sitting position. The US Navy used a slightly different model that featured slanted pockets with zippers. The material used was either wool or tight-weave cotton for wind resistance and fire protection.

The need for short-duration fire protection was demonstrated early during that war. As technology advanced, the fire-protective flight suit, helmets, goggles, masks, gloves and footwear were designed and used. The footwear often could be cut to appear like civilian shoes in the country where the crew member would land if shot down.

Flak jackets were also developed to give bomber crews some protection from flying shrapnel, though these increased the overall weight of the airplane and reduced the effective bombload that could be carried.

With the era of jet flight and improved focus on safety; however, fully fire-retardant materials were required. It was also simpler to make a one-piece suit when it would potentially have to fit over existing clothing or various types of under-garments.

Also, with the coming of jet flight came the development of the G-suit, a special kind of flight suit (worn alone or in combination with a traditional flight suit) that protected the wearer from the physical stress of acceleration by compressing the body to keep blood from pooling in the legs. As the pilot executed high-G combat maneuvers, his blood would literally be pulled from his head and shift downwards into his lower body, starving the brain of oxygen and causing a blackout. The G-suit was designed to allow some retention of blood in the pilot's head, allowing him to execute high-G turns for sustained periods of time.

In the 1950s and 1960s, even more specialized suits needed to be developed for high-altitude survelliance (such as with the U-2 and SR-71 aircraft) and space flight. These would include full pressurization, and would be the precursor to today's space suits.

Current standards

The current flight suit that is standard for most air forces and navies is made of Nomex, a fabric made from spun aramid that is lightweight and fire-resistant. The flame-retardant capabilities of this material make it ideal for protecting aviators in case of a fire. The suit is often green or desert tan in color, with multiple pockets for specific pieces of gear (such as a clear plastic pocket on the thigh intended to house a map of the aircraft's planned flight path), but color, style, and cut vary greatly from country to country. The current model flight suit for the US military is the CWU 27/P and is available in sage green and desert tan. Commercial flight suits for civilian flying are also available, and are frequently used by helicopter crew (including non-pilots such as flight engineers and nurses), aerobatic pilots, and others who desire a practical "uniform".

Members of the United States Marine Corps wore flight suits during most vehicle patrols and ground combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, because their standard camouflage utilities were not flame-resistant. Flight suits have now been phased out among ground personnel with the introduction of the Flame Resistant Organizational Gear, or "FROG" suit, which resembles the standard camouflage utilities.

Space flight

NASA astronauts have worn one-piece flight suits when in training or on flights in their NASA T-38s. The current flight suit worn by astronauts is royal blue, made of Nomex. The now-common "shirt-sleeve environment" of the orbiting Space Shuttle and International Space Station has resulted in much more casual attire during spaceflight, such as shorts and polo shirts.

In the pre-Challenger era, shuttle crews wore light blue flight suits and an altitude helmet during launch/reentry. Apollo crews wore white 2-piece beta cloth uniforms during non-essential activities and the full A7L pressure suit during launch, TLI, lunar ascent/descent, and EVAs. Mercury and Gemini crews wore their pressure suits for the duration of the mission, with the exception of Gemini 7.

Pilots and flight crews use several colors of flight suit. NASA crews, for example, wear blue flight suits as a sort of functional dress uniform during training. The orange suits that they wear during launch and re-entry/landing are designed for high visibility, should there be an emergency recovery. White suits are worn during space walks to control temperature. NASA non-astronaut flight crew at Langley Research Center wear blue, and crew at the Dryden Flight Research Center wear either green or desert tan, and all newer suits issued are desert tan.

From the Wikipedia entry for FLIGHT SUIT

When military pilots are flying a plane, what is the advantage of flight suits or coveralls compared to wearing traditional pants and a top?

Flight suit advantages:

  • Multiple pockets
    • Each pocket located so as to be accessible when strapped into the seat/parachute/survival vest
    • Each pocket with zipper opening/closing, of size large enough to accommodate needed items
    • Pen/pencil pocket on outside of upper arm, with zip compartment for small flashlight
  • Front zipper extends from neck to crotch, with zipper pulls top and bottom. Bottom pull allows use of relief tube while strapped into the seat
  • Fire-resistant Nomex material
  • One-piece design prevents wind from destroying, damaging or removing clothing during bail-out
by Jim Gordon (2013)


Winged hats used to be all the rage, but in our current fashion climate, they look rather silly.

Color Coding

A few SF universes color code their uniforms.

SPACE: 1999
FlameMain Mission
YellowService Section
Red on WhiteCOMBAT: Gunnery, Commandos, Fighter Pilots
Green on WhiteNAVIGATION: Navigation, Radar
Blue on WhiteENGINEERING: various Engineers, excluding Engine Room personnel
Red-Orange on WhiteENGINEERING: Engine Room personnel
Black on YellowLIVING GROUP and COMMUNICATIONS GROUP: living arrangement officers and communication techs
Yellow on BlackBlack Tiger Fighter Pilots
Black on WhiteCommunication techs and Physics officers
Yellow on WhiteFighter Pilot Maintenance
Blue-Grey on BlueTorpedo Boat Pilots
Green-GoldCommand: Captain, Helmsmen, Navigation
RedOperations: Engineers and Security
BlueSciences: Medical and Science


In the old days operation officers wore red, command officers wore gold. And women wore less.

Lieutenant Jadzia Dax, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he's a spaceman.

It is a logical necessity. His profession makes him feel like boss of all creation; when he sets foot dirtside he is slumming among the peasants. As for his sartorial inelegance, a man who is in uniform nine tenths of the time and is more used to deep space than to civilization can hardly be expected to know how to dress properly. He is a sucker for the alleged tailors who swarm around every spaceport peddling "ground outfits."

But I kept my opinion to myself and bought him a drink with my last half-Imperial, considering it an investment, spacemen being the way they are about money. "Hot jets!" I said as we touched glasses. He gave me a quick glance.

That was my initial mistake in dealing with Dak Broadbent. Instead of answering, "Clear space!" or, "Safe grounding!" as he should have, he looked me over and said softly, "A nice sentiment, but to the wrong man. I've never been out."

But my vocal cords lived their own life, wild and free. "Don't give me that, shipmate," I replied. "If you're a ground hog, I'm Mayor of Tycho City. I'll wager you've done more drinking on Mars," I added, noticing the cautious way he lifted his glass, a dead giveaway of low-gravity habits, "than you've ever done on Earth."

"I'll show you," I said. "I'll walk to the door like a ground hog and come back the way you walk. Watch." I did so, making the trip back in a slightly exaggerated version of his walk to allow for his untrained eye — feet sliding softly along the floor as if it were deck plates, weight carried forward and balanced from the hips, hands a trifle forward and clear of the body, ready to grasp.

There are a dozen other details which can't be set down in words; the point is you have to be a spaceman when you do it, with a spaceman's alert body and unconscious balance — you have to live it. A city man blunders along on smooth floors all his life, steady floors with Earth-normal gravity, and will trip over a cigarette paper, like as not. Not so a spaceman.

From DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein (1956)


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