Wednesday, April 10, 2019

BlackStar: Old School Black Holes

Today is a big day in astrophysics.  The first-ever image of a black hole has been released.
The black hole is 500 million trillion km away, or 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 km or 52,850,042 Light Years.



When that light left the black hole's event horizon the Earth looked like this:


Just some perspective, plus I love those maps.

Much like magic, black holes have "suffered" due to the expansion of science.  What do I mean by that?

For much of the 20th Century, the black hole of science fiction was monstrous, mysterious, even evil thing.  A star that ate everything that came to close including light and time.  It's not hard to see why there were some sci-fi authors who categorized them as monsters.
In fact, this one is a monster. It is 40 billion km across and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun. For reference, the Earth has a diameter of 12,756 km and the Sun has a diameter of  1.392 million km.  That dwarfs the Sun more than our sun dwarfs the Earth.

In fiction black holes lead to other universes, often evil ones. Or sending people to different parts of the universe in defiance of any laws of relativity.  Indeed they were the ultimate "MacGuffin" to break all sorts of laws of reality.

BlackStar, as a game concept, really owes a lot to these older ideas of black holes in more than just name.

In truth, the ideas for BlackStar got their very first start for me in the 1979 Disney movie The Black Hole.  I remember seeing this at the 67 Drive-In in my old home town.  The movie is full of ideas that characterize what I want BlackStar to do and be even before I add the Lovecraftian bits.  We have a crew exploring space. There is a psychic crew member. We have an evil mad scientist in his old castle spaceship surrounded by mindless servants and evil strongman; it's practically gothic horror.  Even the tag line is horror, "A Journey That Begins Where Everything Ends".



Another black hole sci-fi/horror movie that was a big, if not one of the biggest, influence on BlackStar is 1997's Event Horizon.

In Event Horizon, we have a black hole, in this case, an artificially created one (like what we see in the Romulan Warbirds) that power the ship.  The mystery, and horror, of the Event Horizon, is where was the ship the entire time it's been missing.  We learn that the black hole has taken the crew into a hellscape not dissimilar to what we saw at the end of The Black Hole.  Claire Weir's, Dr. Weir's (Sam Neill) dead wife, tells us "I have such wondrous things to show you" brings to mind Pinhead's "We have such sights to show you" from the Hellraiser movies.  Indeed they can be assumed to be the same sights.



In both cases breaking the laws of physics, in both cases trying to move faster than light, opens you up to the consequences of breaking the Laws of Creation. The black hole becomes the proverbial gate to Hell.  Abandon all Hope Ye Who Enter Here.

This is made even more explicit in the Doctor Who episodes "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit" from 2006.  In this, the scientific portrayal of black holes is contrasted with the classic sci-fi portrayals.  In Doctor Who black holes are a means of travel. Gallifrey and every TARDIS is powered by "The Eye of Harmony" a captured black hole created by the Timelord Stellar Engineer Omega. It has as much horror as the engine in a Tesla sedan. Neat yes, but not horrible.

The Satan Pit turns this on its head.  Here the black hole "just eats" according to the Doctor. The black hole is The Pit, the jail that the devil can't escape from.  It is the Christian Hell or the Abyss.
Consequently, the episodes have been compared to "Event Horizon" and "Alien" by critics.


So that leaves me at today.  What can black holes do to inspire horror?
Much like "anti-matter" gave way to "dark matter" in the minds of the creatives, black holes have been largerly replaced by "Wormholes".   But even a wormhole is still sci-fi shorthand for "short cuts in FTL travel".  Sure they can be like "gates" but the fear is diluted.

I think where I am going to go with all of this is take a page from Event Horizon and make the drive of the new Mystic class ships be the problem.  They were designed to move faster than light, the heralded Warp-13 drives, but the real purpose is to open rifts in space-time to allow these horrors to come through.  Both sci-fi horrors and cosmic horrors.

Black Holes, like the God of the Gaps, has had its mystical notions removed for the more appropriate scientific ones.  As someone that originally studied to be an astrophysicist, this is a great thing.  But as someone who loves horror and sci-fi adventure, I feel like I have lost something.

Maybe Dark Matter and Dark Energy can be my new mysterious thing! In any case it needs to be frightening.  They say "in space, no one can hear you scream", but I also want "in space, no one wants to hear you yawn".

And this song was on my mind while working on this post.



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