Proposed Reading List for 2017

Given what’s been happening, it seems appropriate to curate a list of dystopian reading. The books listed here are dystopias – I’ve omitted post-apocalyptic fiction because that’s a separate genre with its own concerns. I’ll create a separate list of my favorite post-apocalyptic novels in another post.

Fiction

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. (1985).

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl. (2010).

Bradbury, Ray. Farenheit 451. (1950).

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. (1971).

Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Talents. (1998).

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games (trilogy). (2008-10)

Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. (1980).

Delaney, Samuel. Dhalgren. (1975).

Delaney, Samuel. Trouble on Triton. (1976)

Dick, Phillip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).

Dick, Phillip K. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. (1974)

Dick, Phillip K. The Man in the High Castle. (1962).

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from a Dead House. (1862).

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. (1986).

Golding, William. The Lord of the Flies. (1954).

Hall, Sarah. Daughters of the North. (2008).

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. (1931).

Ishiguro, Kashuo. Never Let Me Go. (2006).

Kornher Stace, Nicole. Archivist Wasp(2015).

Le Guin, Ursula. The Lathe of Heaven. (1971).

Lewis, C.S. That Hideous Strength. (1945).

Lewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. (1935).

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. (1993).

Moore, Alan and David Lloyd. V for Vendetta. (1988).

Orwell, George. 1984. (1949).

Rand, Ayn. Anthem. (1937).

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. (1992).

Wells, H.G. The Time Machine. (1895).

Zamyatin, Yvgeny. We. (1924).

Non-fiction

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. (1991)

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism(1951).

Hetherington, Marc J. and Jonathan D. Weiler. Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics(2009).

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World Revisited. (1958).

Stenner, Karen. The Authoritarian Dynamic. (2005).

Fictional librarian profile: Mike Hanlon from It (Stephen King)

Mike Hanlon is a character from Stephen King’s IT, which takes place in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. Mike has spent most of his life in Derry. One summer, when he was a child, there were a number of murders. It was the summer that he became part of a group of seven friends–the “Losers Club”–who discovered a terrible monster was behind the murders. Mike’s father owned many old photos of the town and was interested in the history of it, and this piqued Mike’s interest.

As an adult, Mike is Derry’s librarian. He is the only member of the Losers who has stayed in Derry, and this means that he never forgot the events of that summer thirty years ago. (Some magic is at work that puts a sort of fog on the memories of those who leave, as well as adults, generally.)  Mike spends many years researching the real history of Derry and writes it down in a volume that is eventually locked in the library vault. The rest of the town is complicit with Pennywise in the killings; there seems to be a kind of spell on the town and they would rather look the other way than help. Mike, however, sees the truth and doesn’t succumb to the spell. He writes down all of the atrocities, and he tries to tell the police, but they don’t want to see the truth. When he started looking into the history of Derry, he asked one of the former librarians which history was the best one and is told that none of them is any good, but is put on the trail of some books and folklorists. He figures out the real history of Derry isn’t in the books, isn’t in anything public, but is found more in the journals of residents. Mike is the one who figures out that It has a thirty-year cycle, and that Derry has a higher incidence of violence than other towns its size by large numbers. When the killings begin again, thirty years after the Losers wounded It, Mike is the one who summons his friends back to Derry for a final confrontation.

Mike is both the seeker and keeper of information in this novel, which is the essence of what a librarian does. He tries, as an adult, to share that information with the police and help them to see what is happening, but they are under the spell that makes the town and its people complacent and won’t listen. This is an issue the King explores in many of his novels. Here, the librarian can only point folks to information; he can’t affect what they do with it. That’s certainly true for real librarians; we can help people find information, but we can’t make conclusions for them.

Library as Place in IT

Even before Mike becomes the town librarian, the library was an important place in the novel in some ways. For Ben Hanscomb, it is a place of safety from the rest of the town, especially Henry Bowers and his gang of thugs. He loves the atmosphere of the library and imagining the lives of the people in all of the books. The glass corridor between the adult library and the children’s library later inspires him (when he is an adult architect) to construct a building much like it. It is in the library where Ben writes the poem to Beverly. In one of his first run-ins with Bowers, it is the thought of his lost books that infuriate him to the point that he fights back against Bowers. It is one of the only places in town where Ben feels happy, and his library card was one of his most important possessions. When Ben goes back to the library to meet the rest of his friends, he has some nostalgia and gets a library card, but also has a run-in with Pennywise.

As the book moves close to the confrontation between the Losers Club and Pennywise, the kids do more and more research in the library, looking both into the history of the town and into various bits of folklore and legends from around the world. When the Losers Club returns to Derry as adults, they again meet in the library to talk about their plan to kill It.

Random musing about the made-for-TV film from the 1990s

Did anyone else notice connections to The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in here? The BtVS connection is easy: Seth Green plays the young Richie Tozier. Funny thing is that Richie is afraid of werewolves and Green goes on to play the werewolf Oz in BtVS. William B. Davis (Cigarette Smoking Man) plays the high school principal in IT. Also here is Megan Leitch (Samanta Mulder) who works in the Derry Library. I love connections like this. I also find it amusing that IT is connected up to The X-Files since Pennywise turns out to be a space alien of some kind (yeah, that was one of the places the story went off the rails for me; I was actually glad the movie didn’t go there).

TNG Rewatch: Code of Honor (Season 1, Episode 4)

Episode summary at Memory Alpha.

Themes and Discussion

The Ligonians are also isolationist and distrustful of outsiders. They use their own transporters to beam aboard the Enterprise. This won’t be the first time the crew encounters an isolationist or xenophobic species. Some parts of our own political spectrum lean more towards isolationism, and I think Star Trek knows that and wants us to have a conversation about that over the course of the series. The Prime Directive has some part to play in that conversation; I’ll address some of that here, and some of it in a later, longer post.

The Ligonians value honor and respect above all else and have a rigidly ritualistic culture. They are a male-dominated culture, but it is the women who hold the land and money, so there is a small reversal there.

I can’t talk about the episode without talking about race a bit. The culture presented here is referred to as being influenced by ancient Chinese culture, but it seems clear that it also draws influence from African cultures, too. Not to mention the fact that this species seems to be made up only of people of color. It’s more than a little bothersome that they are dressed in a somewhat provincial way and portrayed as backwards. That looks racist to me. However, a tiny bit of that is mitigated by the fact that they outsmart the Enterprise crew initially by taking Tasha, but that’s not enough to offset the negative stuff.

Here, the crew is also faced with a common Trek theme: weighing the lives of the many versus the lives of the few or the one. Just based on my past viewings of the episodes, I’d have to say that it is this scenario where the crew pushes against the Prime Directive the most often. The crew values the lives of individuals, but they are also often trying to help a group of people.  

A lot of this episode also centers around cultural misunderstanding, and how the Prime Directive comes into play when this happens. For those who don’t know, the Prime Directive is Starfleet’s policy of non-interference. Basically, they are not allowed to take sides in conflicts or politics; they can’t give their technology to a species that isn’t technologically on the same level; and they are to respect the cultures and laws of other species. Here, Picard relies heavily on his crew for background information about what the correct response to the Ligonians is, based on the research they have done on Ligonian culture. He wishes to respects their customs and laws, but he is also faced with the kidnapping and possible death of one of his officers. This leads to an innovative solution (giving Yar’s opponent the antidote to the poison after allowing the ritual fight to play out as Ligonian custom demands) that perhaps satisfies both the Prime Directive and Ligonian custom.

In the last rewatch, I looked at the issue of relationships in Starfleet and that is brought up again here. She is attracted to the Ligonian who captures her (she admits this), but she says that a relationship with him is impossible because she is a career Starfleet officer. Later, after her opponent is brought back to life and revealed to the Ligonians, Yar is asked if she wants the Ligonions who took her. She turns down the offer, remarking that there would be complications. What sort of complications, I wonder? Long-distance relationship complications? Keeping a man on the ship with her complications? It is never specified, but I suspect it has to do with this unspoken code of singleness that Starfleet seems to have.

Technology/interfaces

Most of the episode is focused on people and not technology so much. The Ligonians are pretty interested in the holodeck and its use for tactical training, so they are given a demonstration by Yar. When Yar creates a virtual opponent, one of the Ligonians exclaims “You can create a person without a soul!” Yar explains that the holographic fighter is merely an embodiment of a computer program and not a real person. I don’t know about anyone else, but this was one of the moments where I cringed. Did the Ligonians really need to be told what a hologram is? They are advanced enough for the Federation to make contact with them, and they have a transporter, so a hologram shouldn’t be beyond their comprehension. However, the episode seems to want to portray the Ligonians as antiquated–their mode of dress, their heavy reliance on rituals, their belief in spirituality (the series is told from a humanist point of view and is almost always suspicious of religion of any variety, portraying it as backwards) are all used as evidence for this.

Information seeking behavior

Though Riker, Troi, and Data conduct much background research on the culture of the Ligonians, it isn’t clear how they search for the information or where–presumably in the ship’s computer. I’m actually curious if they split up the research areas and searched individually, or if they all collaborated in the search process (much like Riker does with Data in “The Naked Now”). Sometimes having more than one point of view about how to conduct a search can take the search in many fruitful directions. My former boss and I would often bounce ideas off each other when we received a research request, and I always found that helpful; she inevitably thought about an issue in a different way than I did, so we found a good assortment of sources between the two of us. In other episodes of TNG, we see the crew using this kind of collaborative approach.

In the later portion of the episode, we see Picard telling Data and Geordi to gather information about Ligonian armaments: “especially important is an analysis of combat capabilities.” Geordi asks for more information, and Picard tells him to look at the cutting edges of the weapons wherever applicable and to analyse durability, composition, and weaknesses in material. Data asks if they should look with any particular point of view. Yar’s use of the weapons in combat is the perspective that Picard has them consider. Picard should have been giving Data the search instructions in the last episode. He clearly has a specific information need and clearly formulated query.   

Side note: I assume that a large amount of information gathering is happening by using the ship’s computer. How often are the ship’s databanks updated? Is there something like Windows Updates in the future that pushes information to the ships of the fleet over subspace? Do they get updates from the computers of starbases or other ships? How does the transfer and updating of information happen? It would be useful to know how current the data is on the ship at any given time.

Use of weapons/force by Starfleet/Federation

A lot of force is used in this episode, though only some of it is used by the Enterprise. In the initial encounter with the Ligonians, they are to hand over the vaccine. As one of the Ligonians brings it to Picard, Yar insists on inspecting it, but the Ligonian tries to move around her. She grabs his arm and flips him to the ground. So, the Enterprise is the initial aggressor in the encounter.

After the Ligonians kidnap Yar, Picard orders the firing of photon torpedoes to detonate above the surface as a display of firepower to try to convince the Ligonians to give her back. This doesn’t work.

The Ligonians give the Enterprise a way to get both the vaccine and Yar–a fight between Yar and Lutan’s first wife. The fight is to be to the death. Yar fights and wounds her opponent with the weapon coated in poision, but she doesn’t allow the woman to die. Instead, they are beamed to the Enterprise so she can be treated.

Assorted musings

I had forgotten how much advising Troi does in these first few episodes. I don’t think she’s the voice that a decision hinges on, but she does advise Picard on policy issues, not just what others are feeling. While she was pretty emotional in the first episode, she’s been a pretty good advisor in episodes 3 and 4. I have the sense that her role, going forward, is more as a lie detector than an advisor, but I’ll be interested to see if I’m proven wrong about that.

The colors of the ship’s decor are so 1990s. The tan and mauve and dusty blue. There are office chairs in my workplace from the same time period in that color scheme. In many ways, the show transcends its time period. In others, it is very dated. I don’t think there is a way to avoid this; it is extremely hard to get outside one’s own historical moment, especially when you are projecting into the future.

And the shiny clothes. Shiny == the future. Or, if you are Wesley, frumpy and uncomfortable sweaters == the future.

We get the first instance of Data and Geordi exchanging some humor. It is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So, just based on the costumes that the Ligonians are wearing here, I have to wonder if a more ridiculous costume is supposed to be equivalent with a less advanced species/race. When we meet the Ferengi in the next episode, some of this is happening, but as I am thinking about the species I can remember, the ones with the worst costumes do stick out as being the most backwards (technologically and/or culturally). I’m curious to see if this bears out over the series. Clothing is used as a signifier in our culture, so it is plausible–and perhaps inevitable–that it becomes one in this future world. 

TNG Rewatch: The Naked Now (Season 1, Episode 3)

Episode summary at Memory Alpha.

Themes and Discussion

The major themes in this episode are temptation, lack of control, self-inhibition, and intimacy. Something that is becoming more clear is the crew is still a bit regimented. They don’t know how to be easy with each other, trust each other, or have a little fun. This is probably more emblematic of the newness of the show and the ship, but there’s something here that speaks to a particular ethos that seems endemic in Starfleet. Starfleet is not a fun organization; in fact, in several episodes throughout the series and the movies, we are shown that Starfleet is a humorless and often clueless bureaucracy that is not always to be trusted or followed.

Even though Starfleet is an exploration outfit, it is still a lot like the military. And, like the military, fraternization does not appear to be encouraged. The crew is already, then, in the awkward position of having families on board, but having the officers living mostly celibately. But the officers form their own family among themselves. It’s almost as if they do it despite Starfleet’s inherent coldness.

Looking at the apparent stiffness of Starfleet and the contrast between that and the very public displays of affection and lack of inhibition in this episode makes me think about the Victorians. Stay with me. Victorian cultural norms were a bit prudish about sex, sexuality, and lack of inhibition. However, read Victorian literature and you’ll see lots of bottled up sexual frustration and pushing against those norms. This TNG episode is functioning on a similar level. We see that the crew does have needs and desires that are not necessarily being met. This isn’t only sexual. Consider Wesley Crusher’s need to be accepted and his desire to be a part of the crew. Or Geordi’s desire to see with real eyes. All of these are brought to the surface by the intoxicant.

I find it interesting that it is the women who are acting overtly sexually aggressive in the episode. That could be seen as a reversal of traditional gender roles (only brought to the fore by intoxication). Or it could be a variation on the misguided idea that women are all sluts. In any case, I find it problematic that only the women become sexualized here and not the men. One would think that Riker would be out prowling the halls with Tasha (and maybe he would have if the full intoxication had been allowed to set in). In large part, these advances by the ship’s main women characters (Yar, Troi, and Crusher) are not welcomed by most of the male characters. In later episodes, we also see a discomfort with female sexuality: almost any episode featuring Lwaxana Troi shows this, but several others. We’ll revisit this as we come to those episodes.

Technology/interfaces

In this episode, we get a better view of the tricorders used in TNG; however, they are reasonably useless in this episode as they do not pick up any unusual readings of the intoxicating substance. We also get a better view of sickbay.

We also see Wesley’s science project: a small-scale tractor beam. When he is showing this off to La Forge, he also shows off a voice simulator he has created. It simulates Picard’s voice giving orders. Wesley has created this so that he can pretend that he is on the Bridge. So, this is Wesley’s version of fan fiction. He ends up playing out the fantasy of taking over the ship by using that voice simulator to get key members of the Engineering staff to leave. He then uses his tractor beam as a repulsor and effectively locks everyone out of an important area of Engineering. And then he gets to save the ship once he’s sobered up by using the same technique he used to reverse his small tractor beam, and he shows up the Chief Engineer. Wesley saving the ship and outsmarting the adults is going to happen a few more times in the series before the writers adjust his character to be a little less “Gary Stu” (the male analog to the “Mary Sue” fan fiction trope.)

Information seeking behavior

A search query of the ship’s computer gets some prominence in this episode and is worth looking at. Riker approaches Data on the Bridge and asks him for help finding computer information about “someone taking a shower in their clothes.” Riker states that he remembered reading something that contained this information. Data starts with this very vague information and searches for some time. Later, we come back to Riker and Data and Data asks if Riker has any other information, but Riker initially tells him that he does not. Data’s use of the word “historical” reminds Riker that he had been reading a history of ships named Enterprise. Data focuses the search on “Enterprise history, aberrant behavior, medical cross reference.” These criteria allow them to find the information about the incidents in TOS’ “The Naked Time” and a lead for an antidote.

As a librarian, I had to chuckle at this search request. This is the kind of request I would get on a fairly regular basis at work. Folks always seem to think that such a request is quick and easy, when, in fact, they often take a long time. I am pleased that Riker and Data seem to know that such a vague query would take a long time. However, I wish Data would have conducted a better reference interview on Riker during the initial request; he would have saved time if he had pressed Riker initially about where such a thing was read. Data may have been able to narrow the search field down to Enterprise history within the first minutes of the search rather than spending valuable time looking for a needle in a haystack.

Use of weapons/force by Starfleet/Federation

No uses of force in the episode.

Assorted Musings

Troi calls Riker “Bill” in Engineering. She is the only one who calls him this, and it is used as a sign of their past intimacy, but the nickname only shows up in the first season. The rest of the series, she calls him “Will” like everyone else.

 

 

TNG Rewatch: Encounter at Farpoint (Season 1, Episode 1)

Introduction

For a while, I’ve been meaning to go through and not only rewatch all of the TNG episodes, but to write about each of them. Doing so will allow me to examine the overarching themes that develop over the course of the series, and how all of those are in dialog with each other.

I don’t plan on recapping each episode super thoroughly; by now, most people have (or should have) seen the episodes since TNG is almost (gulp) 30 years old [if you haven’t watched this series, stop now and go binge watch them on Netflix]. For very detailed episode summaries, I’d advise going over to Memory Alpha and reading what the fine folks there have written. Here’s the episode summary for “Encounter at Farpoint.”

Themes and Discussion

This first episode sets up the notion that humanity has changed for the better and is more than a “savage child race.” Star Trek holds the notion that we can change and that we will. Having the crew “tested” in the opening episode is a way of saying to the audience, “here’s why humans are pretty terrible now, and why we’ll get worse, but then we’ll get better, and this crew is here to show all of you what is possible for all of us.” The idea that we can, as a society, rise above violence is a critical part of Star Trek’s underlying ideology.

In this particular series, Picard differentiates himself from Kirk immediately by being a thinking man, not a fighting man. His goals are to assess and understand the situation and try to find a peaceful or diplomatic way out, not fight his way out.

Even though Picard tells Riker that he’s not a family man, this episode is, in many ways, centered around the notion of family and loved ones. In this episode, we see or explore the relationships of the Crushers, Riker and Troi, and that of the two space entities the Enterprise reunites. This theme is fitting, as the rest of the series revisits it again and again; it is arguably one of the series’ most important themes. Picard may not think of himself as a family man, but he is the man around whom the crew build a family, and that family is their most important one. Perhaps that is a comment on the families you build versus the families you are born into.

You will notice as we go through the series that none of the main crew members are married or have a family (with the exception of Beverly, who has Wesley, and later, Worf, who will have Alexander), despite living on a ship supposedly full of families. Many of the senior officers have various relationships, but most of those only last an episode (Riker and Troi are the exception, and they are on-again-off-again). Did you ever notice that the beds in the crew quarters of the senior officers are just large enough for one person? And many of the families introduced throughout the series are single-parent families, where one of the parents has died. Let’s look at that some more in future episodes and see how this tracks throughout the show.

 Information seeking behavior

When I was doing research in grad school for this paper and others, I found that there was not a lot of literature on the representation of information seeking in literature or popular culture, so part of this exercise is to chronicle that behavior in TNG here.

Most of the information seeking in this episode comes out of direct sensory experience rather than looking for information in the computer. Geordi uses his enhanced vision to examine the walls of Farpoint station. Troi uses her empathic abilities to sense the entities. Riker and Picard question Zorn directly.

Technology/interfaces

We get a first view of many features of this new Enterprise: the transporters, the sleek touch interfaces, Gerodi’s VISOR, and the voice controlled computer. The most impressive is the holodeck (and this one gets the most screen time), which converts energy into matter much the same way the transporters and replicators do. We also get the first view of the saucer separation, which is only used two other times in the series (“Arsenal of Freedom” and “The Best of Both Worlds” part 2) and once in the movies (Generations). 

Use of weapons/force by Starfleet/Federation

Something I’ve been thinking about tracking for a while in Star Trek is the actual use of force. The Federation can easily be read as imperialistic (a flip side of the Borg, really, but that’s a long post for another time), so I’ve been interested in seeing how this plays out in terms of use of force. This is an issue that we are more attuned to now, especially in light of the many instances of the overuse of force by police, so I’m curious how TNG’s portrayal of force might appear to a modern audience.

Uses of weapons/force in this episode:

  1. Torres goes for his phaser when Q initially comes aboard, but Q freezes him before he can use it.
  2. Picard fires photon torpedoes at the Q entity when it is pursuing the ship, but as a way of distracting them and allowing the saucer section to continue to Farpoint.
  3. Riker and Data use phasers to release Zorn from the entity.
  4. Picard has the phasers rigged to send an energy beam to the entity on the planet.

What’s interesting here is that Torres apparently carries a phaser around everywhere. That doesn’t seem like standard procedure, especially when not even the chief of security carries a weapon on board.

The other uses of weapons in this episode by the Enterprise crew are pretty benign in nature; in the last case, the use is subverting the weapon to turn it into aid.

Assorted Musings

Although Picard later tells the story of “a young lieutenant commander I recruited as a first officer,” (in “The Best of Both Worlds” part 1) we hear in this episode that Riker has been assigned to the Enterprise and Picard seems to know little about him.

In the marketplace on the station, Crusher tells the Bandi merchant that she’d like to buy the entire bolt of fabric, to send it to the ship, and “charge it to Dr. Crusher.” As Starfleet and the Federation do not use currency, this seems out of place. In other episodes later on–and in First Contact–we are often told about how the drive for money is ancient and a bit unseemly.

Troi tells Groppler Zorn that she is only half Betazoid and that her “father was a Starfleet officer.” Um, that’s not a species or a race; that’s a job title. He couldn’t have been a Betazoid Starfleet officer? Are we to assume that Starfleet = human? Even though Star Trek is anthropocentric, this still seems a bit heavy-handed.

In this first episode, Conn and Ops are in different places. Here, Conn is to the captain’s left and Ops to the right. In later episodes, Conn is on the right and Ops on the left.

When Picard is on the battle bridge, he sends a signal of surrender with “no terms or conditions.” In one of the few other scenes on the battle bridge, in “Best of Both Worlds,” Riker and Locutus discuss surrender and terms.

Boy, is everyone jumping out of their seats in this episode.

It’s very interesting to me that a show that eschews religion begins and ends with an omnipotent being (alpha and omega, anyone?). Q starts the Enterprise D on its journeys and is with them at the end of the series. He shows up in 8 episodes (well, 10, if you count each half of the premier and finale as separate episodes), with an average of 25 episodes between appearances. Most of the time, Q is there to be the show’s Loki and cause trouble. Other times, he changes the trajectory of the show: testing the crew at Farpoint, bringing the ship in contact with the Borg, and helping Picard with the anomaly at the end of the series.

Inspired by science fiction and fantasy – article roundup

Even though science fiction can be predictive, its greatest power is that of inspiration. Fantasy has the power to inspire, too. And, truly, all stories have the potential to set fire to the imagination. Below I’ve collected some links to various articles, academic and popular, about science fiction and fantasy stories that have inspired people.

Fantasy

Vedantam, Shankar. “Does Reading Harry Potter Have an Effect on Your Behvior?” NPR, 1 May 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

“New research suggests that school kids who read and identify with Harry Potter display more positive attitudes toward people from disadvantaged groups.”

Ulaby, Neda. “Harry Potter: Boy Wizard … And Real-World Activist?” NPR, 18 Nov. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

“Stories like Avatar and the Harry Potter series might seem like unlikely starting points for civic engagement, but they speak a global language, and they stir something in people.”

 Science Fiction

Gunn, Eileen. “How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future.” Smithsonian.com, May 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

“But the task of science fiction is not to predict the future. Rather, it contemplates possible futures. Writers may find the future appealing precisely because it can’t be known, a black box where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native,” says the renowned novelist and poet Ursula K. Le Guin. “The future is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in,” she tells Smithsonian, “a means of thinking about reality, a method.””

Purdy, Patrick. “From Science Fiction to Science Fact: How Design Can Influence the Future.” User Experience Magazine 13(2). Web 12 Mar. 2016.

“Gene Roddenberry could never have imagined that a prop from his TV show would change the world, but that’s exactly what happened when he introduced the communicator on the first episode of Star Trek in 1966. Just six short years later, in 1973, Martin Cooper made the first public cell phone call from a handheld device. Afterward he acknowledged that Star Trek had inspired him to develop the technology.”

Bassett, Caroline, Ed Steinmueller, and George Voss. Better Made Up: The Mutual Influence of Science Fiction and Innovation (No. 13/07). NESTA Working Paper, 2013.

Why society needs science fiction.” The Star Garden. 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

“Science fiction is important for at least three reasons. Firstly, by considering worlds that are logically possible, science fiction can be used to explore our place in the universe and consider fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the mind…Secondly, science fiction can inspire more people to become scientists…Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, science fiction is the only genre that depicts how society could function differently.”

Kahn, Laura H. “The science fiction effect.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 6 Feb. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

“[I]f the scientific community wants to engage and inform the public, science fiction is an excellent strategy. Stories captivate people, they survive the test of time, and they become part of the popular culture. So, if any scientists with a creative-writing affinity want to captivate the public and inspire the next generation to pursue careers in science and technology, perhaps they should put pen to paper and start writing. The world needs more stories with scientist-heroes, not more scientist-villains.”

Cheatham, Dennis. “The Power of Science Fiction: exploring sci-fi’s relationship to real-world innovation.” Design Research Theory, Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Hon, Adrian. “Science fiction isn’t just fantasy: it changes lives and can change Britain.” The Telegraph, 20 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

“But what is it that inspires young people to have a love of discovering how the world works, and how to make new things based on those rules? The Apollo missions were hugely influential for a whole generation of children, but what inspired the Apollo engineers in the first place?”

Sydell, Laura. “Sci-Fi Inspires Engineers to Build Our Future.” NPR, 21 Aug. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

“Search engines, virtual worlds, the Internet — ever get the feeling you’re living in a science fiction fantasy? Well indeed you are. For more than a century, inventors have been driven to create what sci-fi writers have boldly imagined before.”

Milburn, Colin. “Modifiable Futures: Science Fiction at the Bench.” Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society. 101 (2010): 560-569.

“Science fiction remains an alien dimension of the history of science. Historical and literary studies of science have become increasingly attentive to various “literary technologies” in scientific practice, the metaphorical features of scientific discourse, and the impact of popular science writing on the social development of scientific knowledge. But the function of science fiction and even literature as such in the history of scientific and technological innovation has often been obscured, misconstrued, or repudiated owing to conventional notions of authorship, influence, and the organic unity of texts. The better to address those close encounters where scientific practice makes use of speculative fiction, this essay proposes that we instead analyze such exchanges as processes of appropriation, remixing, and modification.”

Sterling, Bruce. “Science Influenced by Science Fiction.” Wired. 22 Sep. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

A Review of Katrina Boyd’s “Cyborgs in Utopia: The Problem of Radical Difference in Star Trek: The Next Generation”

 

In this piece, Boyd argues that Star Trek: The Next Generation, in its efforts to portray a multicultural equality-based society, in fact undermines the notions of equality and otherness because of its inherent 19th century humanistic philosophy.  Boyd writes that because ST:TNG is enamored of the 19th century, it also unconsciously literalizes some of the negative aspects of that culture – “conquest, colonialism, class distinction, racial discrimination, and exploitation” (99) – in its efforts to create a harmonized utopia.  The largest threat to such a reality is the Borg since they are the antithesis of a humanistic vision.  Boyd criticizes ST:TNG for redefining the problem of the Borg rather than addressing the radical difference that the Borg represent.

Boyd bases her claim of ST:TNG’s 19th century ideological construct heavily on one episode – “Time’s Arrow” – and a handful of examples of 19th c. references throughout the series.  She also demonstrates the relativity between the 19th century’s concept of perfection and utopia and ST:TNG’s concept of them, writing that “[t]he possibility of free will and agency is stressed above and beyond social, economic, political, and psychological forces” (101) and “it is because TNG holds up the law of progress as an observable natural phenomenon that movement toward the ideal of a harmonious utopia is possible” (103).  Boyd cites Comte’s three-part model of 19th century ideas of progress as valid in the Star Trek universe as well, using this as the basis of her claim that ST:TNG promotes humans as the only beings who strive for all three types of  progress, and this is why “TNG never truly considers radical difference” (105).  

Of Comte’s three types of progress – Practical, Theoretical, and Moral – Moral is identified as the most important.  Feeling is the essential part of moral progress.  All of the races that the Enterprise encounters are judged, according to Boyd, by their balance of the types of progress.  She gives examples of the Klingons being too emotional, the Vulcans being too rational, and Q having no moral base for his actions (105).  This brings to mind the critical issue of cultural relativism.  Judith Barad, in The Ethics of Star Trek, discusses this issue at length.  While ST:TNG supports a cultural relativist point of view in many cases, it also purports a universal code of conduct (i.e. Federation ideology) by which other cultures are judged.  Just as the writers of Star Trek cannot get outside their own historical/ideological moment, neither can the Federation get outside of its own.  

One of the other topics emphasized by Boyd is the question of what a utopia is and how that definition shapes ST:TNG’s journey towards it.  The 19th century view of utopia as “the belief in the human capacity for improvement and perfection” is that which Boyd attributes to ST:TNG (100).  This 19th century idea is based on learning and a type of coffeehouse culture that isn’t contingent on technology as it would be in a 20th century model of utopia/dystopia.  Costanza cites four models of utopian/dystopian futures, all of which are dependent on a “faith in technological progress” (Chaires and Chilton, 247).  What Boyd fails to recognize is that ST:TNG fits into both 19th and 20th c. models of ‘harmonious utopias.’  The crucial piece in 20th c. utopias/dystopias is the discussion about the cost of such a society that isn’t present in 19th c. ideas.  In the TNG episode “Justice,” we see that their perfect society comes at the cost of having to live under a system of absolute law; the people of the Federation are not willing to pay this price.  A similar discussion of utopia arises in the episode “The Masterpiece Society,” in which everyone is genetically engineered to be perfect.  Again, the Federation is not willing to sacrifice their own diversity – which reflects their individuality – for the sake of utopia.  Utopia in both of these instances is seen as a stagnation, a permanent status, whereas Boyd argues (quoting Matthew Arnold) that, “[n]ot a having and a resting, but a growing and becoming is the character of perfection as culture conceives it” (100).  This statement reflects ST:TNG’s belief in a social evolutionism that would see the evolution of man’s physical form as well as his ethical form.

The analysis of the evolution of ethical forms becomes problematic when we take into consideration Boyd’s observation about ST:TNG’s absorption of the negative aspects of 19th century humanism.  The crew on the Enterprise is acting in accordance with a set of ethics and are thus moral beings, but this can be said of other beings that they encounter.  We gather from Boyd’s thesis that the Federation seems to think that it has the monopoly on wanting to improve the standard of life for all beings.  This is also what the Borg want; Locutus tells the Enterprise crew, “we wish to improve the quality of life for all beings” (“The Best of Both Worlds, Part II,” 1991).  The question that Boyd fails to raise here is “are the Borg moral beings?”  They follow their own system of beliefs, and this system is consistent with the same 19th c. concept of a utopia that Boyd outlines.  Even though the Borg are antithetical to everything that the Federation stands for, they are following the same line of reasoning through different means.  The Federation certainly would not want this pointed out, but their rhetoric about the Borg and the threat of the Borg is much like the rhetoric that countless nations and persons in power have used against each other, ethnic minorities, or religious minorities that threatened their own view of the world.

Boyd’s article raises many astute observations about ST:TNG and some of its 19th century tendencies.  However, she has not completely explored the influence of other times and traditions on ST:TNG.  While ST:TNG does embody many 19th century ideas, it is to the 20th century what the novel was to the 18th century; it is a product of an emerging electronic/visual culture just as the novel was the product of the emerging print culture.  She also makes some general conclusions about the 24th century that are never fully evidenced.  For example, she claims that Starfleet Academy “requir[es] the study of Latin and ancient philosophies” (97).  It is never actually stated in the series that these are requirements; in a conversation between Picard and Wesley Crusher in the episode “Samaritan Snare,” there is a clear indication that Latin and ancient philosophies are, in fact, not requirements:

P: There is no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.

W: But William James won’t be on my Starfleet exams.

P: The important things never will be.

(“Samaritan Snare,” 1989)

There is certainly the 19th century attitude about the importance of the classics and the humanities, but this is up to individual choice.

One of the most interesting moments in Boyd’s analysis comes when she states:

Though each crew member possesses “unique” attributes, these only help in creating a “whole” crew that always works in harmony to attain continuous technological and moral progress.  The ease of “consensus” appears to be the product of the logic of the situation, rather than the process of hegemony (105).

This description of the crew sounds eerily like the Borg; they also strive for the consensus of the collective mind.  This is an interesting parallel that Boyd does not explore.  She mentions previously how the Federation doesn’t force other cultures to join it, but uses subtle forms of coercion to make other cultures perceive that its point of view is the most correct.  In effect, they assimilate other cultures into their own.  This is, indeed, what the Borg are doing, but they use a more aggressive, emotionless, individual-less approach.  As Thomas Richards discusses at length in his book, The Meaning of Star Trek, the Borg are the most threatening enemy of the Federation because they represent an assault on the sense of self and individuality so prized in ST:TNG.  I would further that analysis by saying that the Borg are so feared because they are a dark reflection of what the Federation already is, and what it could be in danger of becoming if it were to lose sight of its ‘humanity.’  The fact that the Borg Queen tells Picard, “We were once like you – flawed, organic,” (First Contact, 1996) emphasizes the validity of the dark parallel.  This is one of the ways that ST:TNG projects beyond the narrow confines of 19th century humanistic ideals.  

Another point that is virtually ignored by Boyd is that, while the Federation is crusading about essentially trying to homogenize the universe, ST:TNG also illuminates the dangers of becoming too single-minded in such a purpose.  There are countless examples of ‘utopian,’ homogenized cultures that Starfleet cringes at, most notably in episodes such as “Justice” and “The Masterpiece Society.”  Yes, these cultures give Starfleet the opportunity to demonstrate why its way is the best (in the cultural imperialism that Boyd emphasizes), but they also make Starfleet question itself and maintain perspective on its own practices.

References

 

Boyd,  Katrina G. “Cyborgs in Utopia: The Problem of Racial Difference in Star Trek: The Next Generation.” In Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek. Eds. Taylor Harrison, Sarah Projansky, Kent A. Ono, and Elyce Rae Helford. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.