The Politics of Utopia
For a wide-eye boy growing up on the cusp of the Space Age, rockets and time travel were the stuff that filled daydreams and stoked romanticized possibilities of daunting discovery. Optimism was in vogue in America then and it seemed that even a world spinning beneath the shadow of atomic annihilation could be more than balanced by the energies of an upbeat people who could fly men to the Moon and back. Indeed, that same two-edged sword of technology that could transplant hearts and target ICBMs could also allow us to cultivate those benevolent feelings that come when you are determined to buy the world a Coke -- but only if we could first somehow manage to reconcile our political differences. To accomplish so worthy a goal, a bridge would then be required to span the chasm between Cold War realities and Disney's Tomorrow Land. In service to this noble end, perhaps those great visionaries of science and whimsy could help prime the human imagination for the quantum leap necessary to build both monorails and mutual understanding. Or then, perhaps not.
All well-written science fiction is wrapped up in the human condition; which is to say that it is at its core concerned with the moral/political. By having at the center of its art the moral "ought," it is rhetorically prescriptive in what it affirms or seeks to negate. Sci-Fi, as it stands, cuts all across this continuum; and the only limitations that constrain its authors are their capacities to articulate the good that men are capable of attaining to or the depths to which they might descend. Of the former, Ray Bradbury's "I Sing the Body Electric" is replete with the unvarnished optimism of how a robot grandmother can fill the tragic void in a family's life through inexhaustible service and love. For the latter, one might consider the nightmare revelations of extermination by rogue machines or the solipsistic dream slavery offered by both the Terminator and The Matrix series of films, respectively. Often, humanity's nature is the cause for a deep sociological-psychological introspection, as when we consider Klaatu's scathing assessment of us in The Day the Earth Stood Still or the dark enigmatic "Id" of Walter Pidgeon's psyche that threatens to destroy Leslie Nielsen in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet.
Nevertheless, the future can be a place of great liberation; and the formidable Robert Heinlein's libertarian and some would say libertine philosophy allowed him to stretch the bounds of sexuality and social propriety with Stranger in a Strange Land and I Will Fear No Evil. Indeed, gender bending and communal love went hand in hand with what some might call his neo-fascist sympathies -- particularly the non-PC notion that the obligatory virtues of citizenry must be tied to military service. Similarly, Frank Herbert's Dune novels wove a cosmology of intrigue and religious imagery where the militant spirit of his spice-saturated desert Fremen conformed heavily to the Arab and Muslim zeitgeist. As such, their Messiah fated them to traverse throughout the known Universe to carry out his great jihad: the enigmatic Golden Path.
Science fiction issues its Janus-faced warnings to inform us just how far we should proceed in marching towards our goal of managed temporal paradise; and the consequential effects that it might have upon the soul writ large. Thus, we find that idyllic utopias such as Logan's Run or Brave New World, while initially alluring to our sensibilities, are in fact desiccated dystopias of the soul. And more fully, that men and women of conservative characters and transcendent hopes might just prefer death to a reductionist disenchanted existence that serves only the young and shallow who revel in drugs, recreational sex, and indiscriminate pleasures. Think undergraduate dorm life.
If one were to inquire which Science Fiction vehicle best approximates the essence of liberalism, then "Star Trek: The Next Generation" does so hands down. What began in its first 1960's incarnation as a species of Space Cops eventually morphed into a 90's statement of the Progressive worldview par excellence. Set in the technological wonder that is the Twenty-fourth Century, earth has reconciled her martial differences by tossing aside her claims to retrograde deities and uniting under the glistening banner of Science and Technology. Having learned that an entire galaxy of life forms were populating the cosmos, the myth of Special Creation dissolved away into the paradise of the Universal Homogenous State. With that said, the Earth came to be managed by a United Nations-like entity while the Federation of Planets became likewise a fitting macrocosm of galactic tolerance balanced by a respect for the autonomy of individual worlds -- all guaranteed by the Prime Directive. But in spite of this Milky Way Love fest, there are still plenty of chances to fire fazers and photon torpedoes (once a week) because there are still: Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengis, The Borg; and, depending upon which day of the week, Klingons -- who refuse to make nice. Although war has grown extinct on the pacified Earth, it's still High Noon in the Delta Quadrant -- so keep your shields up, Number One, and engage!
As is the fantasy of all good Progressives, a feel-good socialism holds sway on the socially conscious Enterprise. Everyone is fit and trim with gleaming white teeth: especially the ship's engineer with the air filter over his eyes. In Space Utopia, there is no money and everyone works for the enjoyment of it. In fact, only the Ferengi, an ugly troll-like race of crafty mendacious space Capitalists (who resemble the way Jews were characterized by the authors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,) are interested in filthy lucre. And as in all liberal daydreams, there is no killing of animals for food or any want for anything of substance because Man, the Promethean Savior, has revolutionized economics and extinguished the concept of finite goods and material scarcity. Anything from a roast turkey to a pint of Romulan Ale can be created instantaneously from atoms in their fantastic replicators. Men can then be free to race around the Universe at many times the speed of light in starships that get a billion miles to the gallon and stick their noses in the business of peoples who did just fine without the future's equivalent of NATO. It truly is a brave new world and it all runs as if by magic -- and economic magic is the summum bonum of the liberal mind.
And true to their Progressive roots, the idea of God is but a bitter primitive memory for a savvy people who can create their own computer reality on a holo-deck. Further, such a people need only succumb to death if they are really, really old or are the uncredited actors on an Away Team in the first five minutes of the script. Finally, the idea of God is only referred to in the series disparagingly or as quaint folklore in celebrating a race's treasured diversity. Truth be told, the closest thing the Enterprise comes to dealing with omnipotent, omnipresent beings are those pests of the "Q" Continuum: who are capricious, vain and torment Picard and the Enterprise as playthings of the "gods." And it goes without saying; Science fiction is nothing if it's not about the idea of playing God.
I could not do justice to the genre were I to omit what is to me the greatest triumph of Science fiction: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Based on a story by the master Phillip K. Dick, Blade Runner has just the right balance of technology and decay to make a grim dystopia both arresting and believable. As the earth's science of 2019 has spawned colonization to other worlds, man has progressed in his genetic engineering to a point where biological androids, or Replicants, are superior to their human counterparts. The plot revolves around a band of highly advanced Nexus 7 creations fighting their way back from the colonies (where they served as slaves) to confront their maker for a lifespan longer than the fail-safe four years they were granted. What emerges is perhaps Sci-Fi's greatest treatment on what it means to be human, now that the lines have blurred to the point where even the hired hunter Deckard questions the morality of his trade -- especially upon falling in love with Rachel Tyrell, a stunningly beautiful Nexus 7 with no shelf date.
In the grand crescendo of the film, the hunter who has slain all except the leader, Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty, now becomes the hunted by a being mentally and physically superior to himself. Upon trapping Deckard firmly at his mercy on a dilapidated rooftop in the pouring rain, Batty, going against all form, spares Deckard's life and utters a brief soliloquy that reveals to us both the preciousness and absurdity of his life:
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
Ultimately, as I alluded to in the beginning, all good fiction puts a mirror up allowing us to judge our humanity and existence. We are shown our failings, our strivings, and what we value above all else. We may be the Prodigal Son returning home to ask forgiveness, or in fact, to murder that selfsame father with a crushing kiss. As in all things moral, we may be offered two roads. Orwell's 1984 taught us that mankind's future was a terminal "boot stomping a human face forever" by a government whose power could extinguish even the possibility of love. But to balance it out, Andrew Niccol's Gattaca can hearten us with the message that even genetic engineering's deterministic iron hand is no match for the motivated human spirit. And that, as a much beloved and taciturn Vulcan with his characteristic elevated eye brow would dryly remark, is "Fascinating."