The Displaced Utopia

The idealistic notion of star exploration and discovering “new life and new civilizations” crumbled when the world grew up. For so long the Americas cried for true peace as the Cold War remained an invisible weight on our lives. This naiveté yearning [sic] to grow beyond hatred spawned a generation and more yearning for hope.

- M. J. Moores, Why Star Trek Won’t Make it to the 23rd Century via SF Signal

The notion that Star Trek represents some kind of "naive" idealism has been cropping up a lot recently. This is the first time I've seen it displayed prominently on a major blog, and I would like to address it, especially as it will give me a chance to elaborate on my own conceptions of science fiction, or what literary theorists would call sf. As I've been discovering of late, I am more aligned with them than anyone else.

In 1979, a literary critic named Darko Suvin wrote Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, and in doing so kicked off all serious academic investigation of science fiction as an art form (dubbed "sf" to distinguish a work of serious literary merit from pulp, "science fiction").

Suvin argued that sf was as eligible to be literature as other genres, and worthy of critical investigation based on the presence of a novum. In Suvin's words, "...SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional 'novum' (novelty, innovation) validated by cognitive logic" (Suvin, p. 63). In other words, while a science fiction novel may merely entertain or titillate, an sf novel presents the reader with an altered world, one in which the alterations cause the reader to consider new ideas, perspectives, or world views. And those new ideas of sf, offered up since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, have been entirely focused around the fate of our society amidst the ceaseless march of technology and science. In other words, sf is primarily about utopian idealism, or at least how not to blow ourselves to kingdom come as we become ever more technologically powerful.

In light of all this, one might consider a story about a spaceship that ferries humans from one planet to another so that they might rape and pillage their enemies, and probably decide that it is "science fiction". However, in 1960's America, a story about a spaceship that ferries an ethnically diverse yet socially functional group of humans from one planet to another so that they might learn and discover not just more about aliens, but more about themselves, and who would only use force as a means of self-defense, never as a means of conquering or pillaging–this was sf, even if it was on television, and even if had to be supplemented heavily with baser content to appeal to the masses.

I find it incredibly infuriating when Star Trek's achievements are referred to as "naive." If our modern world needs help interpreting terrorism, as Moores suggests in her article, they might try looking to Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 3 Episode 12 "The High Ground," which offers an incredibly nuanced and sophisticated view on terrorism, one I would argue would be nearly impossible to popularize if produced in our current social climate.

Star Trek: The Next Generation kept the series' integrity largely alive, with beautifully rendered sf stories, such as "Who Watches the Watchers" and "The Inner Light." But as the franchise strayed into the Voyager and especially Deep Space Nine series, the stories did not become "more real," as Moores suggests, but rather, the Paramount leadership discovered that they could make significantly more money by ditching the sf content and offering up science fiction, and even eventually, science fiction's veneer.

The vast majority of Deep Space Nine from the fourth season onward consists of mundane drama that is science fictional only by virtue of its setting and props. The fact that the action is set on a space station and that some of the characters are aliens is unrelated to many stories' plots, and subtext disappears from the series entirely. The later Deep Space Nine stories not only fail to pass Suvin's test of sf, since there is nothing cognitively estranging about them, but they also fail to constitute science fiction in the pulp sense, which would demand at least some level of scientific rigor to the changed world. Instead we are presented with stories about noble warriors, star-crossed lovers, evil empires, and everything else under the sun, and while such stories might be functional drama and have certainly got the trappings of science fiction, they are decidedly nothing of science fiction in substance.

In the end, the most depressing element of all this is that the questions at the very core of sf, questions that Suvin's novum is expertly equipped to help us explore, are being cast aside and forgotten. Questions such as: Who are we as human beings at our best? How do we relate to our world and to each other? What is society, and how should different human societies optimally interact? These are questions our modern world needs addressed more urgently than ever, and even as we know we are developing deeper and deeper yearnings to explore them, we placate ourselves with ever more vapid and insipid entertainments.

A science fiction television show once challenged a deeply racist culture to believe that people of varying skin color and ethnic background could travel the stars together and leave not just their planet but their galaxy a little better than they found it.

Now we are bombarded by a media full of base entertainments, most of which reinforce the status quo, and give us canned, convenient answers to the prejudices and injustices of our day. Some might call that "practical." Or "realistic." Or more likely just "profitable."

I call it "naive."

Suvin, D. (1979). Metamorphoses of science fiction: On the poetics and history of a literary genre. New Haven: Yale University Press.