Friday, March 23, 2012

On Star Trek Bashing

Star Trek bashing is, of course, an old pastime among science fiction connoisseurs. Some of this is a genuine response to the artistic limitations of the show. (A significant part of the writing of the original series has not aged well, and its successors also have their clunky bits – while no one can dispute that the genre's cutting edge had already moved beyond it in 1966.) Some of this is likely a reaction to the highly publicized excesses of some of its fans (like the study of the Klingon language). And some of this is the inevitable snobbery toward a franchise which has enjoyed such enormous commercial success as to be almost synonymous with the science fiction genre in the minds of "mundanes" (except for Star Wars, nothing else is comparable), making the limitations, and the fan excesses, all the more galling for those anxious about science fiction's image.

However, much of this has simply been a denigration (often overt, though rarely plain-spoken) of the show's humanism and "utopianism" – the last, a highly loaded and often misused term. Indeed, it might be more useful to discuss the show's setting less in terms of utopianism than what literary critic Patrick Parrinder described as the "scientific world-view," which held the world to be on a self-destructive course, and called for a new order not for the sake of some "fuzzy-minded" ideal, but as humanity's best (and perhaps only) shot at survival. H.G. Wells, a crucial formulator of this view, saw the combination of the nation-state system, the capitalist system and the irrationalities of nationalism and religion in an age of industrialized production and industrialized warfare as exactly that kind of dangerous situation, and called for the establishment of a world government, a socialist economy, and a rationalistic culture in their place.

Wells dramatized his argument in novels like The War in the Air, The World Set Free, and The Shape of Things to Come. In those works he depicted the decadence of the old order, its horrific collapse (predictions of which were, to some extent, validated by the Depression and the world wars), and the building of the new and different order that followed (which in our history did not proceed along the lines hoped for by the proponents of this view). Star Trek is set fairly far along in the history of such a new age, the series depicting a future in which some sort of global (indeed, interstellar) governance, a more humane economics (never labeled socialist, but at the very least post-capitalist), and a more rationalistic and tolerant conception of life has long since trumped the superstition, small-mindedness and bigotry of the past.

Of course the last four decades – this age of unreason, identity politics, ideologically convenient pseudo-science and neoliberal economics – have been a grave disappointment for those espousing such visions, who might well feel that instead of the Federation of Planets, we are turning into a frightening hybrid of the Ferengi and the Cardassians. Yet, the problems that gave rise to the scientific world-view continue to hang over our heads. Indeed, some of them have proven worse than Wells imagined (real-world nuclear arsenals have far more potential to destroy civilization than what he portrayed in The World Set Free), while the list of problems has actually lengthened since his day (as Wells certainly did not anticipate anything like anthropogenic climate change). And there has certainly been a scarcity of alternative ideas for dealing with them, "optimism" (another loaded, misused word) now seeming to consist mainly of dismissing or shrugging off very real problems, or a "faith" that a technical fix will conveniently appear, and conveniently be implemented in some market-friendly way – the techno-libertarianism that has been discredited time and time again. (Think, for instance, of what the first decade of the twenty-first century was expected to look like at the height of the tech bubble.) This leaves just despair on the part of those who regard something better than the present muddle as not merely an ideal but a necessity, gloating on the part of those who never had anything but contempt for their ideas, and the outlook of the "bright-sided" – hardly a healthy state of affairs.

The state of this particular subgenre of science fiction is just a symptom of the problem, not the disease itself, but the more I consider the situation the more it seems to me that not only is there still room for a vision like the one Star Trek presented, but that its presence would be a worthwhile thing, and perhaps even vital. Certainly the genre is richer for the emergence of shows with very different outlooks, like Lexx and Firefly – but we are far past the point at which the original Star Trek's approach can really seem stifling to would-be producers of science fiction television and film. If anything, with Battlestar Galactica now the template for TV space opera, it is humanism, and the hope of a better tomorrow – or even human survival – that is in danger of being stifled (all as the "dark and gritty" approach seems increasingly trite).

Where such drama is concerned, the trick is to make that humanism seem credible. The Star Trek franchise's last two television incarnations (Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise) didn't quite pull off that feat, and J.J. Abrams' cinematic reboot didn't even try. Indeed, it seems to me that in their own ways, other, more recent writers have made better use of the basic principle, like Iain M. Banks in his Culture novels, or Ken MacLeod's Fall Revolution novels (particularly The Stone Canal and The Cassini Division). Of course, well-known as they are to readers of recent science fiction, they have reached a much more limited audience than the multimedia Star Trek franchise, and neither is a likely bet for a Hollywood production – but they do demonstrate what remains possible, all as the need for alternatives to continued wallowing in our age's low and still falling expectations grows only more pressing.

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