Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Gulliver Factor

The third period Asimov identified was dominated by what he called “sociology.” It shifted attention away from technology itself to its effects on people and society. It flourished in the 1950s after the atom bomb and as awareness of environmental damage and anxieties over the possible coming dominance of “thinking machines” permeated all arts and culture.

There is a definite strain of this in Star Trek, especially in the consistent humanizing of technology through the characters’ relationship to the Enterprise, and the explorations of the proper uses of technology. But looked at more broadly, this might include other levels of story that were present in the best science fiction from the beginning—from before there was a sci-fi genre. It’s the level of metaphor and allegory—what might be called the Gulliver Factor.

By 1964 Roddenberry was meeting regularly with Herb Solow to flesh out the Star Trek premise. To reinforce believability, Solow suggested a narrative tactic he remembered from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.” These experiences among fantastic societies no one had ever seen were described matter-of-factly with the vocabulary of a traveler’s report. Because Gulliver talked about them as if they had already happened, it suggested to readers that they should accept these events as having happened. Solow advised they use this approach for Star Trek. Even though the events were to take place in a future inaccessible to the viewer, they could be presented as stories or reports related by a narrator who had already experienced them. This became the subtle tactic of the “Captain’s Log” that began episodes, and also provided useful for exposition and reminding viewers what they’d seen before the commercials.

But Gulliver’s Travels suggested that other possibility. “I recalled that when Jonathan Swift was writing Gulliver’s Travels, he wanted to write satire on his time,” Roddenberry said later. By setting his adventure in Lilliput, “he could talk about insane prime ministers and crooked kings, and all of that…Children could read it as a fairy tale, an adventure, and as they got older they’d recognize it for what it really is. It seemed to me that perhaps if I wanted to talk about sex, religion, politics, make some comments against Vietnam and so on, that if I had similar situations involving these subjects, happening on other planets to little green people, indeed it might get by. And it did.”

This feature of Star Trek’s storytelling---the allegorical or metaphorical dimension—became a major part of its identity. Many years later, when he recalled realizing that he could do what Swift had done, Roddenberry described it as a kind of religious experience.

Of course, contemporary commentaries disguised as science fiction had a pedigree going back to George Orwell and beyond; they’d even been done on television very recently. The Twilight Zone told stories concerning fallout shelters and nuclear holocaust that became the topic of conversations across America the next day, but everything was located in an imaginary realm. Stories on The Outer Limits dealt with Presidential assassination and electronic surveillance.

But the Gulliver difference was in the possibility of a continuing exploration by a central character or set of characters, one of which Roddenberry always intended would be the Enterprise itself. In fact, Solow and GR were so enamoured with the Jonathan Swift model that for a brief moment they were going to rename the series “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Besides the believable universe for telling allegorical tales, Star Trek provided an additional dimension. Building a universe from nothing was a difficult task, but it also was a remarkable opportunity. Perhaps it happened intuitively or incrementally over the years, but eventually Roddenberry saw his chance to embody a vision of a better future. For after all, if you have to build a universe from scratch, why not build one you’d like to live in? Not only would that be satisfying and even edifying on many levels, it might turn out to be the kind of universe that viewers will want to live in, too, at least for sixty minutes a week.

For one thing, envisioning this as a better future simply made sense. Humanity would have to improve itself as well as its technology simply to survive into the future. As some people who thought seriously about the future were already pointing out, a number of serious problems will need to be addressed if humanity was going to continue in the general direction of its development. There would have to be societies capable of supporting these imagined technological developments, which would mean, for instance, avoiding one catastrophic war too many, and dealing with the limitations of environmental resources.

Envisioning a better future was a philosophical task, and one that at least some science fiction had taken on. It was present in Roddenberry’s thinking about the crew of the Enterprise, and it would grow to become another essential and defining characteristic of Star Trek.

Stories are by their nature explorations. Science fiction stories simultaneously explore the future and the present. They use the future and imagined other worlds and beings to reflect on humanity now. In Star Trek, those reflections become purposeful guides to the future: morality plays or simply probes exploring possibilities that suggest how we need to be and to become in order to get to that better future of humanity fulfilled.

The adventure, the possibilities and the unintended effects of science and technology, the particular allegorical and metaphorical possibilities of science fiction storytelling, and the exploration of soul as well as machinery, are all essential to imagining a better future, and all are part of Star Trek’s science fiction storytelling.

In the introduction to his book, Profiles of the Future (which GR read and admired while developing Star Trek), Arthur C. Clarke writes: "…I would now go so far as to claim that only readers or writers of science-fiction are really competent to discuss the possibilities of the future…A critical—the adjective is important—reading of science-fiction is essential training for anyone wishing to look more than ten years ahead. The facts of the future can hardly be imagined ab initio by those who are unfamiliar with the fantasies of the past."

In another essay, Clarke quotes from a 1957 article by Hermann J. Muller, discoverer of the genetic effects of radiation: "If our art…does not explore the relations and contingencies implicit in the greater world into which we are forcing our way, and does not reflect the hopes and fears based on these appraisals, then the art is a dead pretense…But man will not live without art. In a scientific age he will therefore have science fiction."

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