Friday, November 13, 2015


Science fiction writers are in the business of predicting the future. It must be no surprise to the best of them—William Gibson writing about cybernetics, perhaps, or Ursula LeGuin about the fluidity of sexual relationships—when some of their predictions come true right before their eyes.

I must admit I never expected it to happen to me, though. My grasp of current science and technology is tenuous at best. In my writing, they support the story in a purely functional way. If I need something to make the story go, I make it up and try to align it with what I know of the rules of STEM.

The exoskeleton leg brace as I envisioned it (Fortis detail).
So it was with a little device I invented for a STAR TREK fanfic novella called Children of Haole published with Orion Press back in the mid-1990’s. In the story, Enterprise captain James T. Kirk injures his knee—badly—but, of course, must return to action much sooner than Doctor McCoy would like. So McCoy slaps a powered brace on the leg, essentially a light robotic exoskeleton that will take the weight of the body as Kirk moves. As far as I knew, nothing like this existed at the time, though massive exoskeletal robots had certainly been envisioned in other SF settings.

Now this week I’m watching a marvelous series called BREAKTHROUGH on the National Geographic channel. The episode “More Than Human” hosted by Paul Giamatti, dealt with how technology is extending the capability of the human body. And what do I see but my little exoskeleton brace come to life! In the real world the invention is the Lockheed Martin Fortis Exoskelton and extends the reach of both arms and legs, allowing the user to hold heavy equipment for long hours, to scramble over rough terrain or to lift big loads. 

According to Trish Aelker, exoskeleton technology program manager at Lockheed Martin, the device could have many applications in industry or emergency services. On the show, one man demonstrated using the exoskeleton (it should have a cooler name, like “XOS” or something) to use the extremely heavy “Jaws of Life” to open a crushed car door in seconds. It could also go a long way toward reducing the physical disparities between male and female workers, EMTs or soldiers in the field.

Or, I don’t know, it could be used to help a starship captain with an injured knee slog through a swamp to rescue a damsel in distress. (Well, she wasn’t exactly a damsel, and she wasn’t exactly in distress—you’d have to read the book.)

As for further predictions—it would be really cool if my “jump nodes” system of interstellar travel worked out within my lifetime. But only if the part about the bad-guy aliens using the nodes to abduct us wasn’t true. Let’s just say all that is totally fiction, okay? It’s too scary to contemplate, otherwise.

Cheers, Donna

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