Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Deflector Shields

This post (and many this month) will be a little shorter than my usual fare, as I'm devoting an increasing amount of time to preparation for my trip to Odyssey Writing Workshop. Speaking of which, I still have a few spots left for guest bloggers while I'm gone, so take a look at that link if you're interested. Sadly, this will likely be the last Speculative Fiction Tropes entry until I get back.

Deflector shields are not only one of the oldest tropes in sci-fi, but they've become synonymous with space opera. The use of energy-based shielding can get a story around a number of problems that arise in a setting with lots of space travel, from the danger of micrometeoroids penetrating the hull of the ship to the harsh radiation of space that might otherwise cook the crew. In addition, if your ship's combat defense systems are primarily dependent on these shields, you have a dramatic element already built-in when it comes time for a little ship to ship warfare. This is something that every incarnation of Star Trek has taken great advantage of over the years. Everyone say it with me now: "Raise shields!"

Now, this is the part of the article where I usually look as far back into history and mythology as I can to find the roots and early examples of the trope under discussion. And I know what you're thinking. "You'd have to be stretching on this one, Alden. This trope is about as pure a product of modern genre fiction as you can possibly get. There couldn't have been any deflector shields in the epics of yore."

And if that is what you're thinking, I find your lack of faith disturbing. Clearly, you've underestimated my nerdry. And more importantly, you've clearly never heard of Svalinn. In Norse mythology, Svalinn was the magical shield that stood between Sol and the nine worlds, protecting them from the destructive rays of the sun. According to Grímnismál, of the Poetic Edda, were it not for Svalinn, "mountains and sea would be set in flames." Of course, it's hard to read those ancient descriptions of Svalinn without drawing a connection to Earth's magnetic field and ozone layer, which protect us from solar wind and ultraviolet radiation, respectively. In many ways, these components of the atmosphere are Earth's personal deflector shield, and we'd all be toast without them. So thanks, Svalinn. 

It's difficult to point out the earliest use of the trope in modern fiction, however. Many early authors of science fiction used concepts similar to the deflector shield, from Isaac Asimov to E.E. "Doc" Smith. But the first use may have been a novel called The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson. In this classic sci-fi/horror tale about a future in which the sun has gone dark (written at a time when we knew far less about the lifespan of stars), Hodgson describes a great pyramid called The Last Redoubt. The enormous city is surrounded by an "air clog"—a circle of energy that protects it from the unspeakable creatures lurking in the darkness outside.

Regardless of who made it there first, deflector shields have become one of the most common tropes at work in science fiction. And considering we're doing our damnedest to make this trope a reality, I don't think we've heard the last of it anytime soon.

Recommended Reading:
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein

Recommended Viewing:
Star Trek
Star Wars
Independence Day

Recommended Gaming:
FTL: Faster Than Light
Mass Effect


  1. Shields in my space opera!
    I think just the idea of a force field around us, protecting us, is a very basic desire. It taps into things like faith, that there is something or someone protecting us from the world.

    1. That's a great point, Alex. I've heard the terms "raising shields" and "lowering shields" applied to defensive psychological posture as well. There's definitely some basic human connection there.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Force field are awesome! I had no idea they could be traced back that far. I shouldn't be surprised as it's said that everything's been done before. Even the notion of super advanced technology goes back quite a bit, I imagine. Can't believe this is the last trope or a while. I'll look forward to their return.

  3. Awww I'm gonna miss your tropes, JW! But I do hope you have the BEST time ever!!!

  4. The coolest one in your list was from Dune since it showed the greatest weakness to any shield: patience.

  5. [I find it funny that practically all scientific developments that lead to sci-fi becoming reality come from either plasma physics, electronics or quantum physics, and not from any of the ultra-glorified theoretical branches that "represent" modern science to the laymen. *cough*]

    Now to deflector shields. They're awesome, of course! And frankly, if we talk (or write) about humans colonizing space, there's really no way around the "deflector" shield or its variants, whether for space travel or colonization of hostile worlds.

    I have used something very much like a deflector shield in my story. It's a dome generated over a colony-city which protects it from the radiation of the parent star and keeps the temperature inside even and human-friendly. Though the science involved in generating it is not particularly explained in my WIP (I'm not writing hard sci-fi after all), I imagined it as a "coat" of super-dense plasma kept in a highly energized state by a number of gigantic Tokamak generators and suspended in its own magnetic field. Nothing goes through it, the city inside has its own ecosystem, separate from the rest of the planet. See how much I love shields? :P

    Great post, btw, even if it's shorter. :)


Thanks for reading!