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On the Demo in Science Fiction

by Kevin Hamilton

In an early sequence of This Island Earth (1955) we see our film's hero successfully pass a test - a test of assembling an alien machine which will allow him a first contact experience with an extraterrestrial. As in old amateur radio practice, he orders the parts in the mail from a catalog, then assembles them to address the beyond. As in many like sequences of expert console operation in sf, we're led into the scene through a third party, then allowed to witness the performance.

Much Science Fiction faces a particular bind in the depiction of computing. If background computing lends the story credence only through its visual obscurity, many of the foreground narratives of these films depend on computing for key plot turns. As Science Fiction helps keep certain computing technologies esoteric, it also must selectively explain or reveal their functions in order for stories to progress. This is often done with great care and explicit detail. Scifi orders human relationships to computing machines as either rightfully limited and subject, or selectively instrumental and proscriptive. The latter is accomplished through what we'll call the "Demo," borrowing a term from Computer Science.

Building the Interocitor

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Here we see our film's hero successfully passing a test - a test of assembling an alien machine which will allow him a first contact experience with an extraterrestrial.

from This Island Earth (1955)
Creator: Joseph M. Newman
Distributor: Universal
Posted by Kevin Hamilton
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