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.

 

 

card catalog

Science fiction and fantasy databases

The following are some of my favorite databases of science fiction and fantasy. For this post, I’m sticking to broad databases; there are many, many wikis and other databases for specific ‘verses (like Star Trek).

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database from Texas A&M University covers history, criticism, commentary, fan writings, and some reviews. It is essentially a giant, searchable index that will provide you a citation to an article. I found it a good place to start when researching librarians in science fiction and fantasy.  Be sure to check out the scope note to see what’s covered.

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database has been around since the dawn of the Internet and contains catalog records for works of science fiction and fantasy. Works covered include novels, short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, chapbooks, and collections. The database also has an extensive amount of information about awards.

Speaking of awards, there’s also the Science Fiction Awards Database, which is an extension of the Locus Index to Science Fiction Awards.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. This began as a print volume and evolved into a CD-ROM and then a website. Here’s a note about the content of the encyclopedia.

And, of course, there’s IMDb that you can use to look up movies and television.

Selected Studies of Star Trek

Star Trek turns 50 this year, so what better way to celebrate then to dig into some critical analysis of it? A lot of academic and popular commentaries have been published on the topic, so I’m rounding up some of them here. This is by no means a comprehensive list – more of a taste of the kinds of material out there.

The Star Trek universe is enormous, so, for the purposes of this post, I have some limitations on what I will cover here. This post is focused on secondary sources about Star Trek and its influence on cultural, social, and scientific issues; this includes documents that span a range of subject areas from law to feminism, and would be appropriate for college students to use for a class paper or for personal interest.

What is not covered in this post: fan fiction, research on Star Trek or other fandoms (that’s a whole other post), Star Trek novels, information about the cast and crew of any of the series, conventions, tributes, photo books, collectibles, and games. Much of this isn’t considered part of the canon, and it is much less likely (aside from the study of fandom) to be of wider interest.

There are a couple of resources that have already collected extensive bibliographic information on scholarly studies of Star Trek:

Geraghty, L. (2002). Reading on the frontier: A Star Trek bibliography. Extrapolation, 43(3), 288-313. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.3828/extr.2002.43.3.06

While this bibliography is not annotated and is almost 15 years old, there are still hundreds of sources cited here. Geraghty has also been so thorough as to add chapters that come from books that may not deal exclusively with Star Trek, and also articles that may only touch on Star Trek peripherally. The bibliography is broken down by type of source: books, articles, and dissertations. Anyone wishing to do further research on Star Trek would be well served by looking at this document.

Robey, S. (2012, August). The complete Starfleet Library: Analysis and criticism [website]. https://web.archive.org/web/20120819210734/http://www.well.com/~sjroby/lcars/critindex.html

This is defunct now, and mostly contained information related to Star Trek novels, but the page linked above does have a list of critical works on Star Trek. The list is not in any apparent order, but there are many entries and it is a little more current than Geraghty’s bibliography. The entries for each work are not in any approved publication format like APA, but the contents of the book are listed, as well as basic information about the book (name of author, title, how many pages).

I’ve grouped the entries into three topic areas – Humanities, Law and Politics, and Science.

Abbreviations used: TOS=”The Original Series”; TAS=”The Animated Series”; THNG=”The Next Generation; “DS9=”Deep Space Nine”; VGR=”Voyager”; ENT=”Enterprise”; MOV=”Star Trek movies”

Humanities

ethicsBarad, J. & Robertson, E. (2001). The Ethics of Star Trek. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR, MOV
Subjects covered: Ethics, philosophy, morality, cultural relativism, Christianity, duty, responsibility

This book explores the ethical context of Star Trek. It examines Star Trek in contrast to classical thought, Christianity, and the concepts of duty. The authors—one a professor with a Ph.D. in philosophy and the other a pop culture specialist—examine whether the ethical principles remain the same across all series, how those principles relate to the issues we face in reality, and what philosophers such as Aristotle may have thought of some of the conflicts in Star Trek. In addition to more general analysis looking at trends across the series, the author also frequently examines the ethical issues presented in particular episodes.

This is just one of many books on Star Trek that are designed for a general audience more than a scholarly audience, but that does not mean it is short on breadth and depth of content. The book clearly chooses to forego dense scholarship in favor of reaching a wider audience. Concepts in ethics and philosophy are clearly explained. Also, the authors do not automatically assume the readers are intimately familiar with every single detail of the Star Trek universe; they take the time to give enough background that even newcomers to Star Trek will be able to follow the discussion.

musicBarham, J.  (2008).  Scoring incredible futures: Science-fiction screen music, and “postmodern” as romantic epiphany.   The Musical Quarterly, 91(3-4), 240-274.doi:10.1093/musqtl/gdp001
Series covered: VGR
Subjects covered: Music, romanticism

The author of this article is a lecturer in music at the University of Surrey, and he is also an expert on Mahler’s works having written a book of scholarship on Mahler. This article examines the use and representation of music in science fiction, with an emphasis and utopian and dystopian science fiction. A large part of this article discusses music from science fiction shows and films that are outside the Star Trek corpus. Nonetheless, it is unique in that it seems to be the only article written on any of Star Trek’s musical choices and what those might mean. The series that is focused on in this article is VGR, specifically an episode in which the music of Mahler is used. What is particularly interesting is that the music used in VGR is seen as a compelling take on the 19th century musical ethos. As it is noted in other works represented in this bibliography, Star Trek (especially TNG) hews closely to 19th century humanism, so examination of this article may complement those other works well.

philos.jpgEberl, J.T. & Decker, K.S.(Eds.). (2008).  Star Trek and philosophy: The wrath of Kant.  New York, NY: Open Court.
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR, ENT, MOV
Subjects covered: Philosophy, morality, metaphysics, religion, social values

The 18 essays in this collection tackle issues of metaphysics, ethics, culture, logic, epistemology, politics, and language. The essays are grouped into four sections: Major Philosophical Themes, Federation Ethics, Social and Religious Values of the Future, and Metaphysical Conundrums from A to E. The essays in the collection seem to keep in mind that Star Trek has become more than just a television show, and has become a force for change in the way we live our lives. And the point of view of the editors is that Star Trek is a way of preparing us how to think about a variety of ethical issues.

Both of the editors are professors of philosophy. They have also co-edited another volume about philosophy and Star Wars. With the wide variety of topics covered in this collection, students should be able to find one essay to help further their research. Many of these essays would pair well with other essays and books represented in this post.

strategiesFerguson, K.E.  (2002).  This species which is not one: Identity practices in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.   Strategies: Journal of Theory, Culture & Politics, 15(2), 181-195. doi:10.1080/1040213022000013894
Series covered: DS9
Subjects covered: Identity, race

Ferguson examines the issues of sex and gender identities and how those fit within a livable life, as she calls it. She argues that the space station, Deep Space Nine, is a heterotopia, which has the potential to be a disruptive space. The station is home to people who may otherwise be classified as misfits—the odd people out in other settings. She also argues that there are interesting dynamics on the station because of it being located between the known and the unknown—on the border. She proceeds to discuss the Trill, which are beings that are symbiants with other beings. She examines the identity issues that the Trill face. As there are fewer examinations of DS9 than of TOS and TNG, this article is essential for those looking into the deeper meanings and themes in DS9.

geraghtyGeraghty, L.  (2007).  Living with Star Trek: American culture and the Star Trek universe.   New York, NY: I.P. Tauris.
Series covered: DS9
Subjects covered: Culture, social justice, myth

Geraghty is somewhat of an expert in Star Trek. He has made it the subject of much of his academic work, including his dissertation. In this work, he looks at how Star Trek fits into and has affected American culture. He does examine some fan behavior and psychology in this book, but he seems mostly focused on how Star Trek tackles difficult social problems and proposes to fix them. He also explores topics such as the relationship between Star Trek and Puritanism, and how Star Trek employs myth.

Geraghty has clearly dedicated much of his academic life to this topic, and it shows. He has a depth of knowledge that is sometimes lacking in other work about Star Trek. Students will find his work authoritative, useful, and approachable

enter_zonesHarrison, T., Projansky, S., Ono, K.A., & Helford, E.R.  (Eds.). (1996).  Enterprise zones: Critical positions on Star Trek.   Cambridge, MA: Westview Press.
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9
Subjects covered: Gender, race, sexuality, imperialism

This collection contains academic essays on a variety of topics including gender, imperialism, sexuality, humanism, and identity. Unlike other collections of essays, this collection lacks an overarching theme. Some of the articles are very technical, others are more approachable. The collection focuses mostly on TOS and TNG. The authors are not afraid to challenge and probe the inconsistencies they find in the Star Trek universe, but instead they view them as opportunities to examine possible anxieties in the text. Some of the essays seem to reach a little too far to make their conclusions, but students should see those essays as opportunities for article reviews and discussion in their own papers.

religionsKraemer, R.S., Cassidy, W., & Schwartz, S.L. . (2001).  Religions of Star Trek. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press.
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR, MOV
Subjects covered: Religion, myth, ritual, death

All of the authors of this book are professors at various universities where they each teach religion. In the preface, they note that they found Star Trek useful when teaching religious studies courses. Their focus in this book is on the treatment of religion in the television series and movies and not how Star Trek fandom can be viewed as a sort of religion (The next book in this annotated bibliography discusses this topic a bit). The books explores such issues as whether or not God is in the universe, evil, ritual, what happens after death, and the representation of religious figures such as priests and prophets in Star Trek. There are some instances where the authors gloss over a point or misread something, and it is unclear whether this might be because of a lack of intimate knowledge of Star Trek. It is interesting to contrast some of the discussion in this work with the essays in the following work. Taken together, the two books provide a broad range of opinions on religion in Star Trek.

sacredPorter, J.E. & McLaren, D.L. (Eds.).  (1999).  Star Trek and sacred ground: Explorations of Star Trek, religoin, and American culture.  State University of New York Press.
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR, MOV
Subjects covered: Religion, culture, myth, ritual, fandom

This book looks at many aspects of religion in Star Trek, including how fandom can be seen as a religious activity itself. Other topics covered in this collection include the biblical interpretation of Star Trek, religion and science in Star Trek, New Age spirituality, and sacrifice. This collection came a couple years before Kraemer’s book about Star Trek and religion, and seems to cover more scholarly ground than that book. The variety in this collection will serve students well if they are interested in the portrayal of religion.

Meaning_ST.jpgRichards, T. (1997).  The meaning of Star Trek: An excursion into the myth and marvel of the Star Trek universe.   New York, NY: Doubleday.
Series covered: TOS, TNG
Subjects covered: Myth, culture, social issues

Richards takes the long view in this book that seeks to explore how Star Trek fits into our culture. In the Introduction, he argues that no work has been done to explore this issue. His aim is interpretive rather than descriptive. He examines the larger themes and issues in Star Trek rather than focusing on individual episodes. Richards seeks to analyze Star Trek on its own terms instead of brining other critical theories to bear. The book is broken down into four sections: Contact and Conflict, Character and Identity, Story and Myth, and The Sense of Wonder.

Richards is a former literature professor at Harvard University and a Guggenheim fellow. Even with this highly academic background, he presents a book that is very readable and accessible to people of all levels. For students who are trying to understand the bigger themes of Star Trek, this is a good work to look at.

Law and Politics

lawChaires, R. & Chilton, B. (2003). Star Trek: Visions of law and justice. Dallas, TX: Adios Press.
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR
Subjects covered: Law, legal systems, social justice

This collection of essays examines how law and legal systems are viewed and constructed in the Star Trek universe, as well as how justice is perceived and realized. The collection is heavily focused on social justice issues such as race and equality. The book is organized in three sections—Star Trek and Law, Star Trek and Justice, and Star Trek and the Future. In addition to articles on law and justice, there is an essay on using Star Trek as a teaching tool and one about legal reasoning and information technology.

This collection was put together by two scholars—Chaires has a JD and a Ph.D, and Chilton carries a JD, Ph.D, and an MLS—and all of the contributors are scholars in a variety of fields. As this is the only collection about law in Star Trek, it is a good source when examining this topic. It is also a good book to look at in combination with Barad’s The Ethics of Star Trek.

weldesNeumann, I.B.  (2001). “Grab a phaser, ambassador”: Diplomacy in Star Trek.   Millenium – Journal of International Studies, 30(3), 603-624. doi: 10.1177/03058298010300031501
Series covered: VGR
Subjects covered: Foreign relations, diplomacy, Prime Directive

Neumann examines the nexus between the kind of diplomacy portrayed in Star Trek to the kind practiced in America. Neumann argues that sometimes we must examine “re-presentations” of the world because some issues do not present directly. Star Trek is such a re-presentation. Neumann spends several pages discussing how Star Trek was produced, largely in service of the argument that it is valid to examine Star Trek critically. He then discusses the historical representations of diplomacy in America, from Benjamin Franklin to the United Nations. Neumann looks at how the Prime Directive is used as part of Starfleet’s diplomacy, and argues that the Borg are post-diplomatic. This is one of the most detailed explorations of diplomacy in Star Trek and would be particularly useful to students.

ualrPeltz, R.J. (2003). On a wagon train to Afghanisan: Limitations on Star Trek’s prime directive. University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, 25, 635-664. Retrieved from http://ualr.edu/lawreview/
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR
Subjects covered: Foreign relations, diplomacy, non-interference, Prime Directive

Pelz examines one of Star Trek’s core principles—the Prime Directive, which is a policy of non-interference. Pelz argues that the Prime Directive is not only a creation that was influenced by the Vietnam conflict in the real world, but how the Prime Directive has also influenced real impact in our culture. He also discusses how it evolved from something inviolable to more of a complicated best hope or aspiration. Pelz notes that the Prime Directive comes out of a world that is very utopian in nature and that the principle shouldn’t prevent U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

The author is an Associate Professor of Law at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Many of the articles on law, politics, and foreign relations that relate to Star Trek deal with its relation to Vietnam or Clinton-era diplomacy; this is the only one that looks at the Prime Directive in context with the modern conflicts in the Middle East.

Science

bioAndreadis, A. (1999).  To seek out new life: The biology of Star Trek.   New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR
Subjects covered: Biology, exobiology, sociology, psychology

This book examines Star Trek’s approach to human and non-human biology and other issues such as whether some of the medical technology is possible. Andreadis does not restrict herself strictly to biology and life science, but discusses the social and psychological implications for the discovery of alien life and the meaning of interacting with it. She also looks at the issue of artificial life—both androids like Data (TNG) and life on the holodeck.

Andreadis is a researcher and biologist who is currently a professor of Cell Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Her area of research is abnormal brain development. She is also involved in the 100 Year Starship Study, which is backed by DARPA, and has the goal of developing a model for investment into the variety of disciplines that would need to be involved to make long-distance space travel a reality.

nasaBatchelor, D.A.  (2009, May 5).  The science of Star Trek.  NASA website.  Retrieved from http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/star_trek.html
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR, ENT
Subjects covered: Technology, warp drive, transporters, replicators, androids, aliens

This article on NASA’s website goes over some of the technology in Star Trek and whether or not it is plausible. Batchelor covers technologies such as androids, transporters, aliens, and phasers. Batchelor notes that even though Star Trek stretches science or gets it wrong sometimes, the show is still important because it inspires many people to go into science. He also notes that the shows are more faithful to science than other science fiction. Interestingly, NASA has recently teamed up with Tor Books (a major science fiction publisher) to create works of science fiction inspired by NASA.

The article would be useful to students who are interested in the scientific aspects of Star Trek. Even though there are many books that have been written on the topic, this article gives the point of view of a NASA physicist—someone who is involved in the scientific exploration of space. This article would be good to examine in contrast with Kaku’s book.

Chyka, P.A. & Banner, W. (1999). The history of poisoning in the future: Lessons from Star Trek. Journal of Toxicology — Clinical Toxicology, 37(6), 793-799.  doi:10.1081/CLT-100102459
Series covered: TOS, TNG, ENT
Subjects covered: Medicine, toxicology

Chyka and Banner have a unique approach to TOS in this article. They examine the circumstance of poisoning in the 79 episodes of TOS to see what lessons might be learned from the future. They found 28 episodes dealt with poisoning in one manner or another. There is a comprehensive chart that shows the circumstances and toxin type, as well as the episode title, scenario, and year (of the future) of the occurrence. They conclude the poisonings reflect the state of society as it is now, but they also believe that toxicologists can learn a few things from studying the future.

This was a paper that was presented at the Toxicological History Society, North American Congress of Clinical Toxicology Annual Meeting in 1998. Chyka is a medical doctor who works at the University of Tennessee, and Banner is also a medical doctor and toxicologist. Students interested in the field of medicine and how it is portrayed in Star Trek will probably find this article interesting.

lit_medHughes, J.J. & Lantos, J.D. (2001). Medical ethics through the Star Trek lens. Literature and Medicine, 20(1), 26-38. doi:10.1353/lm.2001.0004
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VGR
Subjects covered: Medicine, ethics, technology

Hughes and Lantos discuss the issues presented in Star Trek that are related to medical ethics. They specifically discuss how they have used the TNG episode “Ethics” to get first-year medical students talking about ethical issues. The article spends a lot of time on this episode, but also looks at some issues on DS9 and VGR. In addition to examining the ethical dilemmas, the authors note that Star Trek makes a great teaching tool because it serves as a parable. This article pairs nicely with Judith Barad’s book about the ethics of Star Trek because medical ethics aren’t discussed in depth in that volume.

This article comes out of a respected scholarly journal, Literature and Medicine, which is the official journal of the Institute for Medical Humanities. The journal explores interdisciplinary connections between humanities and medicine. Hughes is a sociologist and bioethicist, and Lantos has an MD and is also concerned with bioethics.

kakuKaku, M. (2011).  Physics of the future: How science will shape human destiny and our daily lives by the year 2100.  New York, NY: Doubleday.
Series covered: TOS, TNG, DS9, VOY, MOV
Subjects covered: Physics, warp technology, quantum mechanics, social impact of technology

Although this book is not specifically about Star Trek, as some other works are, Kaku still explores many of the technologies that are to be found in the Star Trek series. What he does that others do not (at least, not in as much depth) is explore the social and ethical consequences and issues that may come with new technologies. He is interested as much in the effect on humanity as the inner workings of any new gadget. How we deal with the challenges that come along with rapidly developing technology will help define our direction as a species. This is also something that Star Trek is concerned with.

Kaku is one of the originators of string field theory and is a professor of physics. This book will be of interest to any student who is interested in more than just the whiz-bang technology. This work would fit well in a discussion in either the humanities and social science fields, as well as discussions coming from the scientific area.

metalWeiss, D.  (2009). Foundries: The final frontier the next thousand years of casting technology.  International Journal of Metalcasting, 3(3), 7-11.  Retrieved from http://www.metalcastingjournal.com/
Series covered: TOS, TNG
Subjects covered: Metallurgy, foundries, material science

This article explores the possibilities of materials science in the near future. Weiss notes that the starship Enterprise was built in the 2130s, which is not all that far away. In his discussion, he gives a brief history of metalcasting then considers some materials that are featured in some science fiction. Weiss relies on Kaku’s classifications of “impossibilities” to frame his discussion of the future of materials science. Weiss includes a nice graphic on the relative importance of materials over time that shows which materials were used and relied on the most over the years. He also discusses what needs to happen for significant advances in metalcasting to occur.

Weiss is Vice President of Sales and Engineering at Eck Industries, Inc. He is also part of the 100 Year Starship Study, which is backed by DARPA, and has the goal of developing a model for investment into the variety of disciplines that would need to be involved to make long-distance space travel a reality.

 

 

 

Representations of Libraries and Librarians in Popular Culture, Particularly Science Fiction and Fantasy

[Note – this is a very slightly modified version of a paper I did in grad school]

Introduction

The field of library science has long been concerned about its image.  Articles about the image of librarians, how these stereotypes evolved, and why, have been around since Melvil Dewey’s time (McReynolds, 1985).  There is something unshakable about the stereotypes of the spinster librarian, the library as inhospitable place, the librarian as guard rather than shepherd to information, and the general sternness of librarians.  One place these stereotypes originate is in the representation of libraries and librarians in popular culture—films, television, stories, novels, and more.   Even though these representations have been written about somewhat extensively, some genres have been largely ignored—the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

Examining all fictional portrayals of libraries and librarians is worthy and useful because it is the equivalent of taking the cultural pulse on the topic. But the science fiction and fantasy genres present a different set of opportunities for scholarship.  First, a working definition of each of these genres is needed.  Fantasy typically deals with the supernatural—things like magic, ghosts, vampires, and dragons—while science fiction is much more technology centered.  Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, defined the genres this way: “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible” (as quoted in McClean, 2007, para. 7).  While all stories are, to some extent, reflective of our hopes, dreams, and fears, the genres of science fiction and fantasy de-contextualize humanity in ways that both excite our imaginations and allow for fresh examination of some of humanity’s greatest challenges.  Complicated and emotional issues such as discrimination, biomedical ethics, and war can be viewed once-removed from our present.

These genres have great power, and this is something that is being recognized and talked about outside the science fiction and fantasy community.  In an article in The Guardian, McLean (2007) noted “…never before have the TV shows involved seemed so resonant or indeed so influential.  Science fiction has never been more now, fantasy never more real” (para. 4).  And never has it been so popular.  In a Box Office Mojo list (2016) for highest all-time grossing films worldwide, 37 of the top 50 grossing films are science fiction or fantasy films.[1]   Of those 37, there are 32 films that have been made since 2000.  In 2004, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King became the first fantasy film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (“Academy awards,” n.d.).  And two science fiction films—Avatar and District 9—were nominated for Best Picture in 2009 (“Academy awards,” n.d.).  The 21st century is looking to be a new golden age for science fiction and fantasy.

This rise in popularity and valuation is not only happening in film, but also in literature.  Fassler (2011) recently wrote about the insurgence of genre into literary fiction.  One of the reasons for this, he notes, is that “our day-to-day lives are becoming more science fictional” (para. 17) with all of the rapid advances in technology.  Also, stories that are mythic do not go out of style, and much genre fiction has a mythic quality.

What does this mean for libraries and librarians?  The increasing popularity of these genres means library and information science professionals should be interested in how they are portrayed in them.  The existing literature on the topic of libraries and librarians in science fiction and fantasy thus far shows that the negative stereotypes have spilled over into these genres in many cases.  However, this area of research is severely underdeveloped, and there are many texts that have not been sufficiently analyzed or analyzed at all.  Also, since these genres are often aspirational, progressive, and forward-looking, they should be places of new possibility for libraries and librarians, as well.   Along that line, there is predictive value in these genres.  If science fiction can presage the cellular phone, hydrogen bomb, and tablet computer technology, then it might also have something to say about future technology in libraries.  The bottom line is that library and information professionals should not ignore these genres; as Pierce (2004) pointed out, just because something is fictional—and fantastic—does not mean it isn’t an accurate representation of human behavior.

Literature Review

One of the first articles to address the nexus between library and information science and science fiction was Frederick Pohl’s address to the Delaware Valley Chapter of the American Documentation Institute (ADI), which appeared in American Documentation in 1965.  Pohl, a science fiction writer, told this group that science fiction could provide inspiration for the design of better information retrieval procedures.  He said that science fiction was sometimes accurate in the prediction of new technology, and even though specific schematics weren’t provided by the writers, the ideological basis for the technology was.  Although this article was written more than 40 years ago, that statement is still true.   It is quite clear that the inspiration for modern cell phones and tablet computers came from the Star Trek corpus.  Even Apple’s new Siri search function for the iPhone 4S is eerily like the voice-activated computer on the starship Enterprise (Pohl even suggested to the ADI that library computers be programmed to volunteer information that is similar to what the user is searching for, which is quite like what Siri does).  But Pohl seems to be the only person who has tried to forge a link between science fiction’s predictive and inspirational powers and library and information professionals.

Marcia Myers and Deborah Core (1998) came the closest to Pohl in attempting to show science fiction’s potential influence on the field.  In their article, they stated that positive portrayals of librarians and libraries in science fiction could generate interest in the field.  And they appear to be the only scholars who have discussed this particular angle.  Many anecdotes can be found from scientists claiming that science fiction inspired them to take the career path they did.  In fact, NASA recently partnered with Tor-Forge Books (a major publisher of science fiction) to create books to inspire interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Alexander, 2011).  Libraries and librarians ought to be curious about a similar partnership relative to libraries.  This is exactly the sort of thing that Myers and Core hoped for in their article.

This article is seemingly an outgrowth of Myers’ (1998) concurrent work on the portrayal of librarians in science fiction and fantasy.  In that work, there was not discussion about positive representations potentially bringing new people to the profession (though, she did mention that her work could be used by recruiters, but that is the only mention).  Instead, Myers merely examined whether or not portrayals were positive or negative, what role gender may have played in those portrayals, and if there was a correlation between the portrayal and the time period in which the story was published.

While Myers (1998) was focused on the positive/negative binary, Hayes (2010) looked a little deeper into the images of librarians.  His focus was on the representations of libraries and librarians in 19th century utopian fiction, and centered heavily on Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888).  Hayes compared the expectations of the fictional libraries with the real expectations people had of libraries in that time period.  He found that the libraries in utopia were very different than the libraries in real life—they were easier to access (they were open 24 hours a day in Looking Backward) and comfortable. He also discussed how novels are a reflection of the culture out of which they arose, so even when they are science fictional and forward-looking, they are telling us something about the present.  This is an insightful line of inquiry.  Writers cannot escape their own historical and cultural moments, so while science fiction novels may be a type of futures research they are also historical artifacts.

Griffen (1987) also looked at science fiction as a sort of futures research.  She sorted science fiction libraries into four categories:  the roboticized library, the rehumanized library, the post-apocalyptic library, and the mental high tech library.  Within the article, she used a framework borrowed from Willis Harman to explore the roles of libraries in science fictional futures, which dealt with our assumptions about the possible, the probable, and the desirable.  Griffen took a more holistic view of library and information science, addressing not only librarians and libraries, but universal access, end-user control, archival preservation, information overload, and the library as an integrated part of the community.  This approach resulted in a meaningful analysis of how science fiction can be helpful to librarians who are planning for the future.  Griffen, at the end of the article, suggested an exercise for librarians—to consider his or her assumptions about the future of libraries and to then evaluate which of those may be possible at all and, finally, to decide what comports with the librarian’s values and desires for the future.  Taken together with Pohl (1965) and Myers and Core (1998), this article shows there is a cumulative argument for further examination of libraries and librarians in science fiction and fantasy.

One perspective not explored anywhere else is Pierce’s (2004) discussion of the representation of information seeking behavior in three works of fantasy.  Pierce pointed out that there is not much, if any, scholarship on how information seeking behaviors are portrayed in fiction.  She argued that libraries were essential to fantasy fiction, so this genre was a good place for scholarship.  Pierce refuted earlier research by Gross (1995, 2000) by claiming that the young adults in Harry Potter are not disengaged, but highly motivated to find information.  Like Tancheva (2005), Pierce also discussed the work of the Radfords (1997 and 2001) and how the portrayal of the libraries in the fantasy fiction she examined mirrored what the Radfords theorized.  This portrayal of libraries as imposing, church-like places certainly influenced the information seeking behaviors of the characters Pierce examined.

Another point of view is that ofTim Blackmore (2004) who examined the fictional Librarian program in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), as well as the novel’s treatment of the gap between those who have information and those who do not.  Even though the novel is about a society that is heavily dependent on technology, Blackmore argued that human and technology needed to work together to avert a crisis.  Neither the Librarian program nor Hiro, the protagonist, could have triumphed alone.  Blackmore also argued that the Librarian program helps people become better people.  So it does not matter whether or not the Librarian is portrayed positively or that the Librarian is part of a completely digital library, but that the Librarian had a humanizing effect and was a partner to humans.  Blackmore specifically analyzed the meaning of the Librarian.

This is exactly the kind of approach that Tancheva (2005) pushed for.  She wrote that more analyses need to be done which take into account context, culture, and genre because meaning is fluid not fixed.  She cited the works of McReynolds (1985) and Radford and Radford (1997 and 2001) as examples of the sort of theoretical analysis she advocated for.  Tancheva proposed that the library was a cultural sign “which represents and constitutes a discourse” (p. 533).  She also cited the kind of work that was not advancing the understanding of how librarians are represented—DeCandido (1999) was among this list of people “sometimes stretching a point in their zeal” (Tancheva, 2005, p. 531).

As to DeCandido’s (1999) article, it was an enthusiastic discussion of the role of Rupert Giles, the school librarian, in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She made the argument that even though Giles carried some of the typically “negative” attributes of a librarian, he overcame them and subverted those stereotypes.  Cullen (2000) strongly disagreed with this analysis, and claimed exactly the opposite—that the character of Giles was a very negative portrayal and oversimplified.  Neither article provided extensive analysis nor did they address what the library signified in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

David Oberhelman (2008) wrote about libraries in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.  He was interested in how libraries were related to the cultural memory of that world and also the transition in that world from a culture of orality to one of literacy.  Tolkien’s portrayal of libraries in Middle-earth closely parallels the development of libraries in ancient history, Oberhelman claimed.  He went on to discuss how the Fourth Age in Middle-earth looked to be very different from the other ages with regard to libraries, as the collections of materials were transitioning from being held in the great libraries of the dominant civilizations to being collected in the personal libraries of the Hobbits.  Since there is a shift from print to digital in our own age, there are lessons to be learned by examining the transitions of earlier civilizations.  Many works of science fiction take place after this shift has taken place, so they do not bear witness in the same way as Tolkien’s work.  Libraries may not be a main focus of Tolkien’s work, but his characters are very interested in the telling of stories and the transmitting of those stories.  They have a great concern for the cultural memory.

A transition that our society has long feared—apocalypse—is something that Spencer (1991) examined in her work.  She was interested in oral and literate culture in two works of science fiction.  Though she did not speak specifically about libraries, she explored the idea of how knowledge was stored and accessed in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (1959).   She was also interested in how these societies rebuilt the store of knowledge after its destruction.  We live in a dangerous world in which weapons technology gets better all the time; it is conceivable that there might someday be large-scale destruction of both property and people, and with them knowledge.  As Griffen (1987) advocated, a periodic examination of what is possible and probable can assist us plan for such events.

Discussion and Conclusion

As has been stated, there has not been much scholarship done with regard to the representations of libraries and librarians.  It should be noted that much of the work that has been done has been published in trade journals such as American Libraries.  This in itself is evidence that there is a need for more academic work in this area.  In the scholarship that does exist, there are a variety of issues explored, but there is still no theoretical underpinning, as Tancheva noted in 2005.  She proposed how such theories could be started, but did not delve into the endeavor herself.  This sort of analysis needs to be done for science fiction and fantasy if for nothing else than to compare the representations in these genres to other representations in popular culture.  If there is a significant difference, then the theoretical underpinnings should be explored.  Even if further exploration of this topic finds that librarians are grossly underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy, then that should be examined.  The Radfords (1997 and 2001) make extensive use of the concept of Foucauldian discourse in their work.  By relocating librarians and libraries (both literally and figuratively) do science fiction and fantasy effectively change the discourse and other dynamics?  What could this mean for the image of the profession?  These are just some questions for future scholarship.

Since most of the work in this area takes on different topics, it is difficult to comment about consensus.  There is a consensus, certainly, that the field is worthy of continued scholarship and that there are stereotypes of libraries and librarians.  Tancheva (2005) and Cullen (2000) both suggested that it is sometimes librarians themselves who are perpetuating the stereotypes they seek to get out from under.   Also, in this body of work, there is little said about possible course of action to change how libraries and librarians are portrayed in these genres.

Efforts should be made not to be too restrictive when analyzing science fiction and fantasy.  Myers (1998) adhered to a strict interpretation of what a library or librarian was in the works she examined.  As a result, she excluded some works that were included in other analyses—notably Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Because science fiction and fantasy are speculative in nature, direct corollaries of elements in our world may not be present.  Instead, there may be an extrapolated version of a library or librarian.  For a broader and more complete view, we must be willing to examine information behavior, cultural memory, information technology, and the places where all or any of these intersect.

We should even examine science fictional aspects of other popular culture mediums.  For instance, the character of Penelope Garcia in the CBS television show Criminal Minds does not have the title of librarian, but she acts as a super reference librarian to the investigative team.  This, in itself, is not science fictional, but the search technology certainly is.  Anyone who has worked reference knows that information that seems like it should be easy to cross reference can take days of tedious research, not the lightning-quick speed of Ms. Garcia.  There is a supposed “CSI effect” in the field of criminal justice, wherein it is theorized that juries may be coming to have unrealistic expectations of forensic science because of the television show.  That television show is also a drama with some very science fictional technology.  Is there a “Garcia effect,” then, in regards to reference?  This is a question worth exploring.

In terms of scholarship regarding libraries in science fiction, there is a notable omission—there does not seem to be any scholarship about information professionals in Star Trek.  Star Trek is arguably the most culturally significant set of science fiction stories ever.  Like many fictional futures, Star Trek does not have a human librarian, but the society it portrays is very information dependent.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation there is the LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System) which is the programming interface of the Enterprise computer that acts as a librarian.  Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, could also be viewed as a sort of librarian.  Not only are there the Enterprise computer and Data to consider, there are the Borg (cybernetic beings).  These beings access information completely differently because they are a collective mind; there are no individuals.  Collective intelligence is a vibrant field of study these days.  We may not be a collective like the Borg, but we are plugged in more now than at any other time.  While there is still a digital divide, and there are many places in the world where technology is not as omnipresent, the people who are connected are connected in increasingly interdependent ways.  If the Borg are a possible future for humanity, then this would represent a completely new paradigm of information seeking.  What would information professionals look like in a more collective and connected environment?

While there is no scholarship on libraries and information professionals in Star Trek, there is discussion going on regarding those issues.  In Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, a class is taught by Professor Anthony Rotolo called “Star Trek and the Information Age” (Rotolo, n.d.).  Perhaps some of these students will be inspired to contribute some scholarship of their own to this field.

Exploration of the library in Buffy the Vampire Slayer also gets short shrift.  DeCandido (1999) and Cullen (2000) argue over whether or not the portrayal of Giles is positive, but completely ignore the library as place.  Even after the school is burned down, the library continues as an entity, but in a slightly different guise.  Giles opens up a magic shop called The Magic Box.  It is here that he now houses the books, but also all of the magical supplies.  It is the library repurposed.  It is still a place of information, primarily, but it has changed to meet different needs.  This is reflective of what libraries have been going through in order to remain relevant—repurposing of space for computers and cafes to entice users who have different expectations.

Fantasy libraries are explored much less often than science fiction libraries.  There are several works out there with significant portrayals of libraries or librarians that could be examined—Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004), The Magicians (2009) and The Magician King (2011) by Lev Grossman, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and “In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages (2006).  Also, the Harry Potter series would be served well by further analysis of the library and librarians in those books.

Even though there is a whole discourse out there about the stereotypes of libraries and librarians, perhaps it’s time that we look at the issue through a new lens.  Science fiction and fantasy are popular and increasingly respected genres that have the power to explore humanity’s thorniest issues in ways that make them more accessible.  These genres are just the lenses we need in order to get new perspective on ourselves and our profession.  There is much work yet to be done, but all we need to do is be brave enough to boldly go there.

References

Academy awards best picture genre biases. (n.d.). Filmsite. Retrieved from http://www.filmsite.org/bestpics2.html

Alexander, S. (2011, August 22). NASA and Tor-Forge Books partner in themed science fiction works [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/aug/HQ_11-273_NASA_TORFORGE_Books_Partner.html

All-time worldwide box office (2016, February). Box Office Mojo. Retrieved from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/domestic.htm

Blackmore, T. (2004, November). Agent of civility: The librarian in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education, 4(4), 1-10. doi: 10.3138/sim.4.4.001

Cullen, J. (2000). Rupert Giles, the professional-image slayer. American Libraries, 31(5), 42. Retrieved from http://www.americanlibrariesmagazine.org

DeCandido, G.A. (1999). Bibliographic good vs. evil in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. American Libraries, 30(8), 44-47. Retrieved from http://www.americanlibrariesmagazine.org

Fassler, J. (2011, October 18). How zombies and superheroes conquered highbrow fiction. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com

Griffen, A. M. (1987). Images of libraries in science fiction. Library Journal, 112(14), 1373. Retrieved from http://www.libraryjournal.com/

Hayes, K. J. (2010). The public library in utopia. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 45(3), 333-349. doi:10.1353/lac.2010.0004

McLean, G. (2007, June 26). The new sci-fi. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk

McReynolds, R. (1985). A heritage dismissed. Library Journal, 110(18), 25-31. Retrieved from http://www.libraryjournal.com/

Myers, M.J. (1998). Images of librarians in science fiction and fantasy: Including an annotated list. ERIC ED 420 314.

Myers, M.J., & Core, D.L. (1998). Librarianship in science fiction. Kentucky Libraries, 62(2), 10-12. Retrieved from http://www.klaonline.org/index.cfm

Oberhelman, D. (2008). A brief history of libraries in Middle-earth: Manuscript and book repositories in Tolkien’s Legendarium. In J.B. Himes (Ed.), Truths breathed through silver: The Inklings’ moral and mythopoeic legacy (pp. 81-92). Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Pierce, J.B. (2004, June). What’s Harry Potter doing in the library? Depiction of young adult information seeking behavior in contemporary fantasy fiction. In P. Moore et al. (Eds.), From Aesop to e-book: The story goes on…IASL Reports, 2004: Selected Papers from the 33rd annual conference of the International Association of School Librarianship (pp. 73-82).  Retrieved from http://ir.uiowa.edu/slis_pubs/3/

Pohl, F. (1965, April). Information science-fiction or fact?, American Documentation, 16(2), 101-104. Retrieved from http://www.asis.org/

Radford, G.P. and Radford, M.L. (2001). Libraries, librarians, and the discourse of fear. The Library Quarterly, 71(3), 299-329.

Radford, M.L. and Radford, G.P. (1997). Power, knowledge, and fear: Feminism, Foucault, and the stereotype of the female librarian. Library Quarterly, 67(3), 250-266.

Rotolo, A. (n.d.). Star trek class [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://rotolo.syr.edu/trek/

Spencer, S. (1991). The post-apocalyptic library: Oral and literate culture in Fahrenheit 451 and A Canticle for Leibowitz. Extrapolation (Kent State University Press), 32(4), 331-342. Retrieved from http://extrapolation.utb.edu/

Tancheva, K. (2005). Recasting the debate: The sign of the library in popular culture. Libraries & Culture, 40(4), 530-546. doi:10.1353/lac.2005.0079

[1] This number was obtained using IMDb’s classification of the movies on the list.  Of the remaining 13 films not categorized by IMDb as science fiction or fantasy, 5 are animated films involving talking animals and toys; these could arguably also be fantasy, but were not counted as such here.

 

photo of books

Hello and welcome

photo of booksI spend a lot of time thinking about science fiction, information science, and writing. I always wish that I spent more time writing about these things, as writing helps me organize my thoughts and learn more about a topic. This blog is my way of giving myself permission to explore the topics I love.

Some of the things I love and will probably post about: Star Trek, The X-Files, and any number of other stories I follow; fictional librarians and libraries; discussions about the genre boundaries of fiction; and maybe even an occasional book review.

Because I’m a librarian, I also love databases, so I hope to share some of my favorite resources on here, as well.

If anyone out there wants to follow along, welcome.