The dead end above us

A recent note on Slate about Tom Gauld’s Mooncop discusses Mr Gauld’s vision of life in a decrepit and soon-to-be-abandoned lunar colony as “the residue of an older fantasy,” of the Cold War-era dream of thriving human settlements on other planetary bodies.

No doubt there is an element of this at work in Mr Gauld’s imagination, and in other visions of a future in which settlements and stations in outer space are decaying, forgotten remnants of failed enterprises of expansion. Films such as Moon (2009) and The Martian (2015,) with individual space travelers alone on the surface of alien worlds, play to the image of outer space as a realm of abandonment. Yet such visions were part of science fiction before the end, or even the beginning, of the US-Soviet Space Race. Even the founding text of space travel-themed science fiction, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865,) ends tragically, with its heroes forever separated from the rest of humanity, dying pointlessly in a metal ball orbiting the Moon. A work like Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men (1930) is steeped in an overwhelming sense of decline, introducing one species after another descended from humans, each of which meets extinction in its own way.  

Some of the most prominent science fiction productions of the Cold War days also represent space travel as a dead end. Robert Altman’s film Countdown (1968) depicts a US project to land a man on the Moon. The film ends with a lone astronaut wandering the lunar surface, finding a crashed Soviet space-craft and the corpses of the cosmonauts. The final moments of the film are ambiguous, as the astronaut finds a device that may or may not enable him to escape back to the Earth. The overall sense of loss and futility is the same as that with which Verne’s novel ends. The relationship between the cosmonaut and the planetary being in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) develops the same feeling of isolation and helplessness, though where Altman contrasts the isolation his astronaut suffers on the Moon with the professional camaraderie and relatively satisfactory married life he had enjoyed in his life in Texas, Tarkovsky’s film is openly critical of the Soviet Union as a place where the kind of social isolation his cosmonaut suffers in space is commonplace on Earth.

Arthur Clarke, a novelist strongly influenced by Olaf Stapledon’s work, returned throughout his career to a story set a thousand million years in the future. He turned this story into novels twice, as Against the Fall of Night (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956,) and explored it in many of the unfinished tales published in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001.)  The heart of the story is that humans had once created a vast stellar empire, an empire fragments of which perhaps still existed in some remote corners of space, but that the Earth had been separated from this empire, and its people had forgotten the major points of the empire’s history.  The abandoned empire, the isolated Earth, and the forgotten history of the conquest of space are also the background of a much more famous series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels (1942-1993.)

The two most familiar products of Cold War science fiction are Star Trek (1966-1969) and Star Wars (1977.) The image of outer space as a realm of unkept promises figures in those as well.

The background of Star Wars is a fight, not to claim new territory or develop new settlements, but to restore the liberties of a lost Republic. We meet the hero, a young man unaware of his true parentage and his lofty destiny, in the grubby place of exile which he has grown up regarding as his home. Using battered ships, antique weapons, and a plotline recycled from 1930s movie serials, the good guys score a victory for their nostalgic cause.

While Star Trek is set in the early days of an expanding interstellar federation, in many episodes our heroes encounter the ruins of lost civilizations and other traces of abandoned developments. The initial pilot, “The Cage”(produced in 1964-1965,) shows us the ship’s captain as the prisoner of a species who have retreated underground after a war found millennia before, and while there have lost so completely lost their technological skills that they can no longer “even repair the machines left behind by their ancestors” and are faced with inevitable extinction.

Many other episodes show societies that have declined from extraordinary heights of technological development into primitive conditions, conditions that suggest either control of the population by a computer mistaken for a deity (for example, “Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky,”) impending doom (for example, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?,” “Miri,” and “The Paradise Syndrome,”) or disconnection between intellectual and carnal satisfactions, resulting in a society of casual sadism and implied cannibalism (for example, “The Man Trap,” “Return to Tomorrow,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Turnabout Intruder.”)

Nor does Star Trek present decline and abandonment as things that happen only in alien cultures. We meet such luminaries from the history of the Earth as a former ruler of India (“Space Seed,”) the inventor of faster-than-light travel (“Metamorphosis,”) the god Apollo (“Who Mourns for Adonais?,”) and Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan (“The Savage Curtain,”) all forgotten and imprisoned in the infinite void of deep space.  Our heroes encounter nightmarish doppelganger versions of political entities such as the Roman Empire (“Bread and Circuses,”) the United States of America (“A Piece of the Action” and “The Omega Glory,”) and Nazi Germany (“Patterns of Force,”)  showing that space is a realm in which not only individual humans can become isolated and powerless, but that whole human societies can be cut off, condemned to stagnation and historical irrelevance, by a misconceived response to technological development.

In developing an image of outer space as a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness, this line of science fiction writers from Jules Verne to Tom Gauld may be harking back quite far into literary history. It is often said that Lucian (circa 125-circa 180 CE)’s “True History,” a satirical tale recounting a journey to the Moon, is the first science fiction story. Lucian’s story is itself more than a little reminiscent of two plays by Aristophanes (circa 450 BCE- circa 386 BCE,) The Birds (414 BCE) and Peace (421 BCE.)  In each of those plays, disreputable characters fly to the heavens and pull off unlikely schemes.

Particularly relevant to our discussion is the scene in Peace when Trygaeus, a poor farmer, arrives in the heavens, having flown there on the back of a giant dung-beetle. Trygaeus’ goal is to arrest Zeus and prosecute him in the courts of Athens for having allowed the wars among the Greek states to go on so long that Greece is weakened and in danger of a takeover by the Persian Empire.  Once in the heavens, Trygaeus finds that Zeus and almost all of the other gods have abandoned their usual realm, going off deeper into space in their disgust at the warlike habits of the Greeks.  Only Hermes remains in his usual spot, and he is a degraded figure, so impoverished that that Trygaeus can easily bribe him with a small bag of meat, so powerless that when the god of war and some of his minions come through, Hermes hides from them.  The lower heaven from which the rest of the gods have departed is as much a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness for Hermes as any of the heavenly bodies are for the characters of the gloomier sort of science fiction.

I disagree with David Gerrold

A friend of mine posted a link to some remarks David Gerrold wrote on Facebook on 17 February.  Mr Gerrold is responding to this essay by William Lehman.  I have some reservations about Mr Gerrold’s remarks.

William Lehman has written a screed about how he who controls the mythology of a nation controls the identity of the nation. I’ll agree with that original assertion. But then he uses that as a springboard for a somewhat ill-considered extrapolation that people afflicted with fuzzy-wuzzy thinking have spoiled his precious nuts-and-bolts science fiction.

I think the words “his precious” get us off to a bad start there.  I’d be the last to say that nuts-and-bolts science fiction is the only kind we should have, but it is precious to lots of people other than Mr Lehman, and for good reason.  Any work of art, whether literary art, dramatic art, visual art, whatever, derives much of its power from the way it intrudes itself into your experience of the rest of life,  sort of annexing other aspects of life to itself.  So with a nuts-and-bolts science fiction story, the actual science that is related to the events and setting of that story blends in with it in the reader’s imagination, so that you can’t be quite sure where one ends and the other begins.  Other kinds of science fiction have equally great strengths, and graft themselves onto other parts of the reader’s experiences, but nuts-and-bolts is uniquely strong in that particular area.

SF is not a narrow domain, it’s a smorgasbord.

And if nothing else, science fiction is about sociology — because it’s not just about the engineering, it’s also about who we become when we reinvent our technology. It’s about the continuing evolution of the human culture. Lehman’s essay seems to imply that even after we have jet packs and flying cars, robots and starships, we should still keep our twentieth century “golden age” attitudes. Um, no. The history of the last seventy years isn’t just about computers and smart phones and the internet and electric cars — it’s also about how we as a people have progressed in our attitudes, some good, some not so.

That’s certainly true; the great promise of science fiction is in its ability to help readers visualize whole societies. This always involves a degree of commentary on the society in which the authors are working, though sometimes this commentary can be far down the list of reasons why we like a work of science fiction.  I’d cite my favorite nuts-and-bolts science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke.  Clarke’s social vision was rather horrifying; read his early drafts of Against the Fall of Night/ The City and the Stars and note the patronizing attitude Clarke takes at the Earth-bound characters objections to the plan the men from the Empire bring to demolish the planet.  And of course Childhood’s End also comes to its climax in the demolition of the Earth.  Anyway, Clarke’s geocidal vision not only does not ruin his novels, it doesn’t even stop them being great achievements of their kind, because even works like Against the Fall of Night/ The City and the Stars, which are set so far in the future that there is almost no actual science in them, do lead the imagination back into the real world of science and technology and merge with that world to create an unforgettable artifact in the reader’s imagination.

So … here’s where I kinda pull rank. He points to Star Trek, The Original Series as a catalyst for the engineering students. And to a great degree, he is right. The optical disk happened because two engineers saw “All Our Yesterdays” and wondered how you would store data on a big silver record. Sliding doors and flip phones and tablets and phasers all showed up on Star Trek and certainly there were people wondering how to make those devices.

But where Lehman has completely missed the point is that he uses Star Trek to justify his own beliefs while overlooking the much more important fact that Star Trek, The Original Series wasn’t about the engineering as much as it was about the “Social Justice Warriors Glittery hoo ha” stuff.

I was there. I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned. He went on at length about it in almost every meeting. He wasn’t about technology, he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out. Gene Roddenberry was one of the great Social Justice Warriors. You don’t get to claim him or his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained.

Most of the stories we wrote were about social justice. “The Cloud Minders,” “A Taste Of Armageddon,” “Errand Of Mercy,” “The Apple,” “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” and so many more. We did stories that were about exploring the universe not just because we could build starships, but because we wanted to know who was out there, what was our place in the universe, and what could we learn from the other races out there?

Star Trek was about social justice from day one — the stories were about the human pursuit for a better world, a better way of being, the next step up the ladder of sentience. The stories weren’t about who we were going to fight, but who we were going to make friends with. It wasn’t about defining an enemy — it was about creating a new partnership. That’s why when Next Gen came along, we had a Klingon on the bridge.

Lehman blew it. He missed the point. He uses science fiction — and Star Trek — as a justification for playing a game of “us” v. “them.”

Here’s a clue. When you divide humanity into us and them, you automatically become one of them.

The continuing denigration of women and minorities as “the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” leaves me wondering … are you folks in favor of social injustice?

If you’re against “the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” then we to wonder if you’re in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities?

Because if that’s what you stand for — a return to the days of sexism, racism, misogyny, and discrimination — then you really shouldn’t be pointing to Star Trek as your inspiration. Because that’s not what Star Trek was about. Honest. I was there.

In these closing paragraphs, things get very problematic very quickly.  Mr Gerrold may not know what Mr Lehman is talking about when he uses the phrase “Social Justice Warriors.”  This phrase is not synonymous with “people who advocate for social justice,” still less with “women and minorities.”  It is a sarcastic phrase that refers primarily to internet trolls who try to bully people into silence by accusing them of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, speciesism, and other forms of hatefulness.  Right-wingers are quite fond of the phrase “Social Justice Warrior,” since it focuses attention on ugly behavior perpetrated by people who think of themselves as being on the left, but no one can seriously deny that there are at least as many right-wing trolls online as left-wing ones.  There just isn’t a name that covers all right-wing trolls as a category the way “Social Justice Warrior” covers left-wing trolls.

I’ve read some good pieces about the damage that left-wing trolls, or “Social Justice Warriors” if you must use that phrase, have done to the left.  Michelle Goldberg write a good piece in The Nation a year ago about the success bullies on Twitter have had in poisoning discussion among feminists.  More recently, Jon Ronson admitted in the New York Times Magazine that he had once been been a left-wing online bully, intoxicated with the power to whip up virtual mobs that did real harm to people for offenses real and imagined.  Mr Ronson covers the case of Justine Sacco, who, because of the response to one poorly-phrased joke that she posted on Twitter, lost her job and found that “no one could guarantee her safety” if she were so reckless as to travel.   And Fredrik de Boer wants “a left that can win,” and shows how leftists who busy themselves bullying each other have done as much as any rightist could wish to prevent the formation of alliances that could actually advance social justice.  I’d think that reading any one of those pieces would relieve Mr Gerrold’s concern that we have “to wonder if you’re in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities” if you use the phrase “Social Justice Warrior.”  Though I admit, I try to avoid the phrase, since it does conjure up the same image of a sullen bigot that comes to mind when we hear complaints about “political correctness.”  I understand that, of course.  But if you still think that “Social Justice Warriors” is a code word for “women and minorities,” I’ll have to refer you to Mr de Boer’s piece linked above, where he gives example after example of working-class women and people of color hounded out of university classrooms because they didn’t discuss social issues in the “progressive” language that the richer white students had learned in private schools.

The part where Mr Gerrold discusses Star Trek is troubling in several ways.  First, a work of art always means more than its author intends it to mean.  I think D. H. Lawrence said that, and it is the sort of thing that would have to be true.  Otherwise you’d have to have the artist standing around explaining the work to you every time you encountered it.  So even if Roddenberry were the sole author of Star Trek, and even if Mr Gerrold’s interpretation of Roddenberry’s intent were exhaustive and infallibly true, it would still not follow that “You don’t get to claim… his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained.”  And thank goodness it doesn’t follow; imagine how impoverished the imaginations of those of who support gender-neutral marriage or transgender rights would be if we couldn’t learn from the writings of authors who had never had the opportunity to consider the case for those causes.

Second, Roddenberry was not the sole author of Star Trek, any more than any other single individual can ever be the sole author of a collective endeavor like a television series.  Line producers Gene Coon, John Meredyth Lucas, and Fred Freiberger made tremendous contributions, rewriting every script and overseeing innumerable practicalities in the making of the episodes.  Coon invented huge slabs of the Star Trek mythos; in the third season, after Roddenberry effectively left the show to find a more lucrative way of spending his time, Freiberger was for all intents and purposes the primary creator of the show.  This is all spelled out in marvelous detail, along with documentation and photographs, in Inside Star Trek by Robert Justman and Herbert Solow.  As associate producer, Justman was also one of the leading architects of the show, and as executive in charge of production during the first two seasons, when the show was made by Desilu Studios, Solow also played a key part.  Other major authors would include story editor Dorothy C Fontana, John D. F. Black, and also “nuts-and-bolts” science fiction patron saint Robert A Heinlein, whose story “Space Cadet” NBC bought as the basis of the series.  Indeed, the single episode which Mr Gerrold wrote for Star Trek, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” was very similar Heinlein’s novel The Rolling Stones, which Mr Gerrold had read many years before.  Offered payment for the screen rights to the novel, Mr Heinlein asked only for Mr Gerrold’s autograph on a copy of the script.

And then, of course, there were the writers who were credited with particular scripts or stories, the actors, the composers of music, the set designers, video editors, special effects people, etc, etc.  I bring all of this up to show how implausible it is to say of Gene Roddenberry that Star Trek was “his show” in some simple sense.  To give one obvious example, there were few causes that Gene Roddenberry “disdained” more openly or more vigorously than the Roman Catholic Church, yet John Meredyth Lucas, line producer for much of the second season, was a devout Catholic who became producer of Paulist Productions’ Insight: Stories of Spiritual Conflict in the Twentieth Century. So there’s an example of two of the major authors of the series taking utterly different positions on a big question.

Third, Mr Gerrold raises a question about levels of intentionality when he says, “I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned… he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out.”  I’m sure that’s one of the things Mr Roddenberry envisioned.  But if you read Justman and Solow’s book, it is crystal clear that the number one thing he envisioned was himself having lots of sex with lots of attractive young women.  That makes him a more pardonable figure than he would be were it true that he goal to structure a life around than if he had been “one of the great Social Justice Warriors,” in the sense in which that phrase is actually used.  Further, it suggests that Roddenberry’s politics should be taken with a grain of salt.  I think that goes a long way towards explaining how the pro-Cold War politics of episodes like “A Private Little War” or “The Omega Glory” found their way into a series that was usually so clearly left of center.  The politics Roddenberry really cared about were those built into his interpersonal relationships with women whom he wanted to take to bed, and national or international politics were a means to that end. So to the extent that we think of Roddenberry as the author of Star Trek, and to the extent that author’s intentions inform our interpretation of the show, we will need some kind of critical methodology to separate one of his intentions from another.  Simply saying, “I was there!  He told me so!” is no answer at all- Roddenberry told different people different things for different reasons, not because he was dishonest, but because he was human.  That’s what we all do.

Fourth, and rather awkwardly, there are some, how does one put it, surprising bits in Mr Gerrold’s recollections of his involvement with the original Star Trek.  Mr Gerrold has written extensively and quite informatively about his experience as the author of one teleplay for that series, even publishing a book in 1973 called The Trouble With Tribbles: The Birth, Sale, and Final Production of One Episode.  Mr Gerrold’s references to episodes from all three seasons and to what Gene Roddenberry said in “every meeting” leave one with the impression that Mr Gerrold was a regular member of the staff, behind the scenes on a daily basis from beginning to end.  This is not the impression that one gathers from his book, or from other accounts he gave when Roddenberry, Justman, and others were alive, nor does it jibe with information published elsewhere.  All of that material suggests that his single writing credit is a fair representation of his contribution to the series. Dorothy Fontana and others kept in touch with Mr Gerrold and encouraged him to submit more scripts, but I haven’t seen any indication that he was involved in the show in the way that he here suggests. Just how many meetings were included in the “every meeting” which he and Roddenberry both attended?  I hate to bring this up, but Mr Gerrold is leaning so heavily on the “I was there” in his attempt to shut Mr Lehman down that it is impossible not to point out that the place where he was and the place where a person could learn the information he wants us to think he has are not, in fact, the same place.  Maybe Mr Gerrold is auditioning for Bill O’Reilly‘s job, or Brian Williams‘, but I don’t see these remarks helping him in this fight he’s picked with Mr Lehman.