Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Where Trek No Longer Goes?

What will the new Star Trek movie be about?

An article in The Guardian states its premise in its title: "Climate change is so dire we need a new kind of science fiction to make sense of it." Writer Claire L. Evans suggests that it's a need that isn't being sufficiently addressed.

Climate catastrophe is implied in recent science fiction films, but they are mostly dystopian, post-apocalyptic.  The article (originally published online at Creative Times Reports) asserts: "The stories we tell ourselves can help us understand, and maybe even adapt, to this new world. But the dour dystopias and escapist fantasies of our current science fiction diet just won’t do. We need something new: a form of science fiction that tackles the radical changes of our pressing and strange reality."

The article (or more properly, the opinion piece) notes the existence of a subgenre called cli-fi (climate science fiction) but calls for something broader, to be called "Anthropocene fiction," from the term that many scientists propose for the current epoch on Earth dominated and determined by humanity.

The article ignored at least one work that qualifies, although I suppose it can be argued it isn't science fiction (Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in Washington trilogy, which he's updating and condensing for his upcoming Green Earth novel.)

  But the paragraph that caught my eye began: "Sci-fi has always mirrored the time of its writing. The themes of Star Trek – race relations, Cold War fears, American imperialism – were rooted in the politics of the 1960s."

Of course we all know that original series Star Trek stories dealt on some meaningful level with important issues of the time as well as examining implications of the future it portrayed.  This is one of the essential qualities of Star Trek, basic to its identity and its soul.

But the article goes on to discuss issues of subsequent decades, especially environmental issues, without mentioning Star Trek again.  Star Trek, according to this view, is a 1960s phenomenon, period.

Strictly speaking, it's not true. Fans can point to episodes of subsequent series' that dealt with issues of their time. The Next Generation took on many, including terrorism and torture.  It can even be argued that the film Star Trek Into Darkness was basically about the Iraq war, although long after it was mostly over.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had an environmental message for the 1980s: saving the whales is saving us.  But even though I'm sure fans can think of other stories, it does seem to me that Star Trek tended to assume environmental responsibility in the future rather than tell stories about it.

One reason could be the tension between technology and nature, and Star Trek's deep involvement in technology.  But there was one brave story that dealt with technology and metaphorically with one aspect of the climate change challenge.  That was the TNG seventh season episode "Force of Nature."

 Apparently nobody much liked this episode, but in substituting a disastrous effect of warp drive for the disastrous effects of industrial processes on Earth, it pretty courageously got to the nub of the problem for some people--the painful realization of the environmental harm accidentally caused by expanding technology, and the costs--cultural and personal costs--of addressing it.  It's threatening, and more than physically.

Ironically, the writers may have had in mind the issue of damage to the ozone layer rather than global heating, but as it has turned out, threats to the ozone layer from certain chemicals and processes were rather quickly and painlessly dealt with, with international treaties and the cooperation of businesses.  The episode is now more relevant to the larger problems of dealing with global heating and the climate crisis.  And perhaps with that in mind, the story improves.

There was a highly praised episode of TNG that metaphorically dealt with the possible apocalyptic effects of the climate crisis, "The Inner Light."  I make this parallel in my posts on it here.  It suggests the consequences of inaction, of ignoring the issue.  That's especially important in 2015, as the world gathers for what may well be its last chance to forge an international agreement to save the future from ultimate catastrophe.  But even with efforts to deal with the causes of the climate crisis, the planet faces the many effects of past greenhouse gas pollution.

The point suggested by this comment on Star Trek of the 1960s remains.  The climate crisis is the most consequential issue of our time.  It may threaten civilization and life on this planet, including humanity's future--and including the ability to take humans to other worlds.  In any case, it is clearly going to change the lives and occupy the time of generations into the foreseeable future.  If Star Trek were doing now what it did in the 1960s, this profound subject would be unavoidable.

What will the new Star Trek movie be about?

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