Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Trek50: Star Trek and the Future


Star Trek's first season fifty years ago was just the start.  Some of the best- remembered episodes of the original series come from the second and even the third season, and of course, the Star Trek saga itself was only beginning.

But I'll conclude this Trek50 series of posts with a few characteristics of the saga that may bear upon the actual future, both the one that many people now alive will live, and the future of several centuries from now.

As for the premises of the Star Trek universe--namely the human exploration of the stars and their planets, and our adventures involving other species of intelligent humanoids from such planets as well as more exotic forms of intelligent life--our current science has a few encouraging words, but not many.

Regarding the stars and their intelligent life, I outlined some of that science here. There seems some likelihood that if intelligent beings exist on interstellar worlds, they would be vaguely our size--though "between the size of a puppy and a redwood" doesn't suggest the kind of relationships that Star Trek dramatized.  But whether such beings exist at all, and whether we would recognize them, is still not apparent.

The numbers game is also more complicated than supposed in the 1960s.  With the immense number of stars and the now more or less proven fact that many have planets orbiting them, probability suggests there should be many worlds with civilizations enough like ours to make communication possible.  But that doesn't factor the other part of the continuum: time, which is just as vast.  Such civilizations may arise and fall so comparatively quickly, that few coexist.

Could we get to them anyway?  Most scientists continue to say flatly that a spaceship traveling faster than light is impossible.  Can humans even exist on other planets outside our solar system, or for long periods in space?  Again, there's a lot of scientific doubt, especially absent warp drive.

Kim Stanley Robinson deals directly with these issues in his recent novel Aurora.  He is among those writers who doesn't believe warp drive is possible.  Beyond that, his arguments are biological--a field of science that science fiction writers in the past didn't much consider.  Our bodies, which are in a sense clusters of forms of life in delicate balance, were fashioned out of the biology of only one planet: Earth.  And, he insists, they can survive only on that planet, except for relatively short periods away.

So in KSR's universe, humans have spread through the solar system, but they all must return periodically to the Earth to renew their physical beings by exposure to the biology of their body's home planet.  Beyond that, in Aurora the first expedition into interstellar space (a several generation voyage aboard a habitat) discovers a fatal paradox.  If a planet is alive, the indigenous life--such as viruses-- may well be fatal to humans.  If a planet is dead, a human community cannot survive (biologically and psychologically) long enough to terraform it.

"...life is a planetary expression," one voyager concludes, "and can exist only on its home planet."  The only hope would be to find an Earth twin close enough for the voyage to be made, and that's a very unlikely possibility.

Star Trek's technology is beautifully self-consistent, and the entire Star Trek universe really depends on it.  But it also ignores a great many other realities, from the profound (the relativity of time that in its ham-fisted way, the movie Interstellar tried to suggest, which would make relationships among space travelers and planet dwellers bizarre if not impossible)  to the fairly obvious compromises involved in making TV and movies (the similarities of aliens to humans with facial putty, the unique ability of the universal translator to make alien's mouths move in English.)

But in the end none of this matters, because the Star Trek universe is a story universe.  Its background must be consistent, and its foreground wondrous and surprising.  At that it has succeeded beautifully, and through more stories than any other modern saga.

Moreover, it is the stories and what they say that tell us most about the actual future, from tomorrow afternoon to the 24th century.  They suggest what we will need in that future: in our own lives as the present moves forward, and especially to meet the challenges we can see in the future of the next decades.

Most broadly, the Star Trek saga tells us of a future, especially in the next century, in which human civilization is shredded and in some ways shattered.  TNG's "Encounter at Farpoint" especially portrays a grim reversion to ignorance and brutality.

The better future of the 23rd century is born by an immense technological breakthrough but also by new social organization and new attitudes, motivated in part by the desire to reject the failures and brutality of the previous century.

The first part of this timeline is beginning to look as prophetic as anything in Star Trek.  We are now pretty certain that the effects of the climate crisis will challenge civilization, beginning some time in this century and well into the next.  Those challenges may well lead to devastating warfare and societal breakdowns in various parts of the world, perhaps involving most of the planet.

But whatever the challenges turn out to be, people will still live, and live their lives.  How will they best do that?

On Star Trek's 40th anniversary, I outlined seven aspects of the soul of Star Trek that could apply to how we live in the present but most importantly, how to live in the future and help build a better world.

The seventh is "The future is an adventure."  Perhaps the adventure will not at first--or ever--be serving on a starship and exploring the stars.  But it might require engineers to invent and adapt new power systems for communities and cities, or doctors and emergency technicians to deal with complex emergencies happening simultaneously in a number of places, because of disease and injury due to climate crisis-caused catastrophes or conditions.

In this adventure, people will do things that matter, rather than spend their lives in the ultimately tragic pursuit of money (which is #5: Making money is not humanity's prime directive.)

It will be an adventure of that essential Star Trek activity: a group of people working together to solve problems (#6: It takes many hands to make a future.)

 But the basis of that adventure will be the individual contribution and spirit, and the skills of self-examination and self-knowledge (#1: For a better future, we must become better people, and #2: The journey out is the journey in.)

In all these endeavors, there is the essential insight expressed in many ways throughout Star Trek: of looking beyond differences to find what we have in common.  In large, this is the Prime Directive in its meaning as #4: We are not invaders, we are explorers.  

But it operates personally, as many encounters with aliens in Star Trek dramatize. It follows directly from that "voyage in" because we all harbor prejudices we can't admit even to ourselves.  And it follows as well from the "many hands" of common effort.  One of its results is to refrain from reflexive violence and #3 Respect all life.  It results in the ultimate value of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."

Many people in the past 50 years have lived their lives with these ideas in their hearts, derived in part from Star Trek.  When I attended a dinner at one large Star Trek convention with people wearing Star Trek uniforms mixed in with those who weren't, I could feel what the commitment of many of them meant: not just that we're all fans of this story saga, but we believe in these ideals, they mean something to us in our lives.

Through its heroes, Star Trek stories do what many favorite stories of the past have done, but in a particular way: they model virtues like courage, kindness, service, judgment, compassion, foresight, perseverance, audacity, loyalty, honesty, creativity, resilience, responsibility, empathy, civility.  All of those virtues and more will be needed by generations of the future.

The Star Trek saga has contributed in many ways.  One significant way is to provide common stories for people to discuss, debate and gain insights into problems and situations they encounter in real life, personally and as citizens.

Another is to inspire.  This includes the more publicized inspirations to technological innovations, or to particular careers.

But it is both broader and deeper than that.  Star Trek has characteristically used drama--as well as courageously refusing to settle for the usual kinds of dramatic conflict--in order to model a better future.  That to me is its most significant contribution.

"I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?," writes Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue, "if I can answer the prior question, 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?"  For many people around the world, for fifty years and counting, one answer has been Star Trek.  And that's one happy source of hope for the future.

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