Friday, March 07, 2008

The story continues… Picard, Data, Troi and Yar find themselves in a raucous scene. Before them is a rabble dressed in mismatched rags, people of various races, some looking deformed, dirty and ill-nourished. They seem to be out of the distant past, except for the presence of automatic weapons and a soldier in the same hooded uniform that Q wore to demonstrate the soldier controlled with the use of drugs. It is a rabble gathered for spectacle, and as we soon see, the spectacle they prefer is fighting and bloodshed.

Fighting and bloodshed in fact was common entertainment, not only in the Dark Ages but in more recent centuries, when public hangings were entertainment spectacles. Ironically, the kind of entertainment found on the cable channel Spike—the one showing Next Generation reruns—is often a slightly tamer version.

Now our friends from the 24th century Enterprise hear themselves called “prisoners,” and they are told to stand for the entrance of the judge. Picard orders the others to refuse and remain seated.

“This is not an illusion, or a dream,” Troi warns.

“But these courts belong in the past,” Picard says, still disdainful.

“I don’t understand either,” Troi says. “But this is real.”

Real in the story—but how realistic? The imagery of nuclear apocalypse and the “post-atomic horror” had already become fixed and familiar by the time “Farpoint” was made, and this scene reflects similar portraits in other films and TV shows.

The idea of a landscape of ruin and privation where civilization has reverted to a kind of Dark Ages stage, ruled by violent warlords, goes back at least to the 1936 British movie, Things To Come. That film begins with what looks like a documentary about the London blitz, but at the time it was made it was science-fiction: years before German bombs and then V-1 and V-2 missiles rained down. Years before a European city and its civilians had been bombed at all.

The fictional war in that movie continues for decades, and results in plague and the total breakdown of civilization. (Though atomic bombs aren’t mentioned, the story was by H.G. Wells, who was the first to forecast an atomic war in a 1914 fiction—so far ahead of its time that it was from this novel that the atomic bomb got its name.) In Things to Come, a war lord called the Boss rules the broken town and devastated landscape. (The third part of the movie—the part it’s most famous for—depicts a kind of utopian future.)

This kind of societal breakdown became standard in post-apocalyptic fictions. For example, in The Road Warrior (1981) and its sequel, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), then later in the backstory for the Terminator films, and especially in the 1997 film of “The Postman,” based loosely on David Brin’s 1985 apocalyptic novel.

How “realistic” this might be no one can known, for it depends on how extensive the atomic war is, and on its unknown effects. Jonathan Schell’s famed 1982 book, The Fate of the Earth (based on a series of magazine articles the year before) examined the research on thermonuclear war from the first atomic explosions in 1945 to the arsenals of missiles and hydrogen bombs to 1980, and came to the conclusion that others had before: a major nuclear exchange could destroy human civilization and even result in human extinction.

By such measures, the “Road Warrior” view of the post-atomic landscape was hopelessly optimistic.

However, a war which resulted in more limited use of nuclear weapons might leave some remnants of civilization. This is actually more believable now than it was in 1987, before the fall of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War. Though the remaining 26,000 nuclear bombs possessed by the U.S. and Russia were (and are) still quite enough to end humankind, the world was in a different situation by 1996, when Star Trek: First Contact quantified World War III for the first time in Trek lore. Looking down on the post-World War III Earth of 2063, Commander Will Riker observed, “Most of the major cities were destroyed; only a few governments left. Six hundred million dead.”

Six hundred million is a very large number, but it is not so large as the total casualties possible from the kind of Mutual Assured Destruction thermonuclear exchange that was talked about in the Cold War era. It suggests more limited warfare, perhaps during an ongoing global crisis—for instance, a Climate Crisis.

The notion that industrial pollution was creating atmospheric changes that could change earth’s climate enough to threaten life as we know it on the planet’s surface was just breaking into mainstream consciousness in 1987, though that awareness and concern would grow quickly over the next few years—especially after several very hot summers in the U.S. What was first called “the Greenhouse Effect” (later, global warming and the Climate Crisis) had been a concern of scientists for decades—and once again, of science fiction writers. The playwright Arthur Miller wrote in the 1960s that he heard about it from Arthur C. Clarke.

Today scientists tell us that effects from past greenhouse gas pollution are already being felt, and will probably get worse into the near future. If we continue to pollute our atmosphere in this way, we may well change the climate so severely and irrevocably that human civilization as a whole is threatened, and even life as we know it on our planet.

Today we understand that one of the dangers of even the more limited Climate Crisis is that certain of its effects in some places—droughts and water shortages, food shortages, diseases, land that becomes inundated by rising seawater—could lead to wars. (Among those who believe this are the authors of a Pentagon study.) With so many nations now with nuclear weapons, such wars could escalate, and eventually become global.

Some of the latest information being assessed and put together suggests that the effects of the Climate Crisis could become severe enough in the mid 21st century that warfare could result. The fall of the Soviet Union therefore did not end the possibility of a World War III in which nuclear weapons are used.

No comments: