What It Means To Be Human: Star Trek’s Central Question
In a live stream last spring, British science fiction writer Ian R. MacLeod enumerated “8 problems writing about the future.” As summarized by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, they are:
1. Future not dominated by Western culture and its archaic Western concepts of “futurity”
2. Future subjects of fiction not “people” as we know human beings today
3. Space travel not what we once imagined, and faster-than-light travel flatly impossible
4. Science becoming arcane and ultraspecialized, while the nature of reality may well be beyond any human/scientific comprehension
5. “Alien life forms” likely unrecognizable, may not exist at all, or may be among us already, just not understood as alien
6. Basic technical infrastructure of a future society incomprehensible to us
7. Radical language drift makes future indescribable within present-day literature
8. We may have no future due to human/planetary mass extinction
Some of these problems obviously challenge the premises of the Star Trek universe, but Star Trek does acknowledge some of them, at least in its own way. Besides, Star Trek is really about the present, and how we think about the future. Its function, besides providing us with an inspiring and exciting future worth living in imaginatively, is to suggest what we can do (and be) now to make a better future.
One of these problems that Star Trek takes on is the idea that people will be the same in the future as they are today. One way Star Trek does this, in an almost sneaky and subversive way, is to attack the idea of a fixed human nature, which is an underlying premise of most other science fiction adventure on TV and in the movies—in fact, it’s the principal basis of their drama.
In Star Trek’s 23rd and especially 24th century, humans live by different standards. They still have problems, but they deal with them differently. They have principles, and try to stick to them. They don’t succumb so easily to jealousies and envies, to the darker side of their natures. They support each other.
Star Trek is often attacked for this. Though I suspect the reason often enough is that writers find creating conflict too difficult when soap opera and revenge fantasy emotions are off limits, the usual rationale is that human nature is fixed, and Star Trek’s version of advanced humanity isn’t realistic.
But the premise of the Star Trek universe is partly that humanity is unlikely to be the same in the future as it is in the present. After all, we’re pretty different than people were in the past. Even our historical stories reflect this. Despite the costumes, people in the past talk and act like contemporary people. In shows like Hercules and Xena, that was part of the joke. But just compare versions of Robin Hood made in the 1930s, the 1950s and now, for example. Not to mention Sherlock Holmes. Those Hoods and Holmes are already different from each other. They are probably miles away from what people were really like in historical times.
But even Star Trek doesn’t change people all that much. They aren’t genetically altered, or part machines in the way that some futurists today suggest humans probably will be—if indeed humans survive their artificial intelligence machines. That’s principally because Star Trek stories on TV and in the movies are stories for today’s audiences. The people can’t be so foreign to us, or we won’t understand them, and won’t identify with them.
But there are differences in Star Trek people, and those differences form a core principle of the saga: in order to have a better future, we have to be better people.
Technology alone won’t do it. We have to know what to do with that technology, or it will only aid us in destroying ourselves. The Star Trek series began when humanity was always potentially minutes away from destroying itself and the future with the amazing technology of thermonuclear war. We still face mortal threats that require that we become better. (See MacLeod’s eighth reason.)
Even if we survive with civilization more or less intact into the 23rd century, things are going to be different--and we're very probably going to have to be different, to behave differently, just to get there. But the process doesn't end. So Star Trek’s drama is often about how we deal with that—how we deal with the challenges of the unknown, the undiscovered country of the future.
Some of those challenges are about how do we deal with ourselves. Sometimes Star Trek stories project those problems onto our encounters with aliens. Sometimes they are embedded in what the society of the Enterprise is like, or Starfleet, or the Federation.
One of the basic questions Star Trek asks is: what does it mean to be human? Star Trek stories propose many different answers. Sometimes the question is explored or addressed through human heroes and institutions of the 23rd and 24th centuries. Often through aliens, both allies (like Data and Spock) and enemies. Sometimes through simple behaviors, or heroic struggles, or through science fiction devices (like a mirror universe) that explore the question metaphorically.
So on a blog called Soul of Star Trek, I thought it might be appropriate to address that question, through some of those stories, and more general features about the Star Trek universe.
These observations will be tagged “To be human,” so they can eventually be easily found among the other posts that will come and go here. Anyway, that’s the plan. Stay tuned.