Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Trek Rebellion

It was this concern for the future, both the fears and despair over apocalyptic war or ecocastrophe, and the idealism and frenzy to use the tools of science and the insights of the arts to make a better future, that helped to revive Star Trek in the 1970s, just as it had united "freaks" and "geeks" in watching the series in the 60s.

Although this context is seldom if ever presented in histories of Star Trek, it was in fact important to the times. Buckminster Fuller was a well-known figure on U.S. college campuses, and important schools like MIT hosted organizations dedicated to exploring and enacting Fuller's visions. (It was at MIT in fact that I heard and met Buckminster Fuller in the early 1970s.)

There were more than a thousand futures studies courses in North American universities, as well as futurist doctoral programs and futures studies in high schools. More than 200 futurist organizations were headquartered in Washington alone. Gene Roddenberry was invited to speak to many of these groups, and no one who was thinking and writing about current or future topics could have missed what was going on, and what was being written and said.

Everyone was aware of the apocalyptic mood, whether from books and media reports about them and their dire projections, or the movies that tended to focus on catastrophe, partly because it is more easily dramatized, and moving pictures in particular find it easier to evoke a visceral response to horrors, fighting and explosions. In print as well, earth's self-destruction had become such a staple of science fiction stories that it was often just assumed as the background to the story's premise.

But despair is not the favorite condition of healthy humans, especially the young. Hope now became an act of rebellion. The concern for contemporary social issues, of war and social justice and poverty in the midst of overabundance, were considered problems necessary to solve not only for the good of the present, but for the possibilities of the future.

The belief that the future was something that individuals and society needed to think about, and desperately needed to consider when designing present actions---that our conceptual tools had to be applied to making a better future---was a passion for the future that was reflected in the frenzy for Star Trek.

This became even more true as the culture began to forget about the future. Though specific concerns continued, for ecological issues and the nuclear arms race in the 80s, and so on, the future as a subject, as a holistic idea, faded away.

But the problems have not faded (though we might define them differently), and Buckminster Fuller's stark choice still confronts us. . We will have to make things better or we will perish, and quite possibly take much of the life on the planet with us. Star Trek, especially the original series and TNG, constitutes one of the last surviving expressions of the ideals without illusions that keep the passion for the future alive.

(There has, however, been a recent interest in the study of utopias, reflecting perhaps the understanding that utopias don't define themselves as perfect or unchanging. Star Trek never denied the problems or the apocalyptic possibilities, and its future was far from perfect.)

Star Trek succeeded where many of the futurist visions of this period failed, and continue to fail, because of other elements that were part of its process and its expression, as well as its essence. That brings us back to the difference between the World Future Society and the Star Trek conventions. For a key to Star Trek's visions of the future are two other crucial elements: story and soul.

Both are explored next time, right here.

No comments: