"To Boldly Go With The Force", Mindy Clegg's essay on the politics of popular sci-fi

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/09/28/to-boldly-go-with-the-force.html



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One of the reasons this essay intrigued me was the focus on the political realities of fandom, something I feel is often much overlooked. Having recently been on the Star Trek Cruise, my partner and I had observed the tolerance and general optimism of a lot of the attendees - two attributes strongly attributed to Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, and well elaborated upon in the essay. Did that universe cultivate tolerant optimists? Or did tolerant optimists simply gravitate and unify around a fandom that represented their beliefs already?

To take this idea further: because a lot of episodes or displays of worlds/cultures/societies in sci-fi, for literary purposes, tends towards the depiction of a monoculture - al Romulans are X, all Klingons are Y, all Mandalorians are Z), if sci-fi cultivates beliefs, does such storytelling risk solidifying the beliefs in nationalism or Xenophobia, because people who are culturally, racially, or socially different from us have less in common, not more?


Sci-fi contains multitudes, and successful and unsuccessful kicks at the same can.

I’d say the answer to this question is yes, it does risk solidifying “othering” beliefs. It does this, not all the time, but certainly some of the time.

For a long time people really liked assuming the cause of all the skirmishes with Klingons was due to their “innate and unchangeable belligerent nature”. But many of the same viewers also liked seeing how much of that “nature” was actually socially inculcated in all the stories of Worf dealing with his questioning of his own culture.

I think sci-fi (and fantasy) as a whole, relies on “Your bloodline/physicality decides your social destiny” far too often. It’s used in Star Trek too, but I prefer to think of the many laudable times they thwart that narrative (Worf isn’t a stereotype, Data isn’t an appliance, Rom isn’t a greedlord, etc. etc.). I think (I hope) the degree those storylines are celebrated helps keep the balance against the fewer storylines that essentialize or “other” other cultures or races.


Back in the late 1980s, a cousin asked me about what I was reading, and what I liked to read, and mentioned that he basically only read sci-fi at that point. I asked him why, and he said that it was the only genre where there was ultimately a hopeful sense of the future, in that the author thought there would be worlds out there somewhere, no matter what happened here on Earth.

That’s when I decided to start reading sci-fi.


While I think fans who really want to take that from Star Trek will, I would argue that insofar as any vision with so many cooks can, it’s core message tends toward the opposite, that diversity is an asset, not a liability. At its best, the Federation isn’t, as some Klingons have said, a homo sapiens only club. It’s a hope that different cultures can cooperate to their mutual benefit.

The Dominion is explicitly presented as the anti-Federation, because they want to conquer their way to peace and prosperity, while the Federation seeks to build bridges and limits membership to cultures that want to join and show at least a functional willingness to embrace those multicultural meta-values. I always imagined that at some point in the unwritten future of Star Trek canon, the Klingons join the Federation, and that’s even implied in some of the non-canonical books.

That’s not to say the Federation isn’t without some serious flaws, and there is an argument to be made that they still engage in a form of hegemony. Maybe by the time the Klingons join, they’ve progressed in solving some of those problems. After all, the Federation and Star Trek are fundamentally about trying to better themselves.

Or in the immortal words of Lily Sloane, “You mean you don’t get paid?”


I always imagined that at some point in the unwritten future of Star Trek canon, the Klingons join the Federation, and that’s even implied in some of the non-canonical books.

Well, the Klingons were always supposed to be the Russians, and the TNG and later friendly post-imperial Klingons were written in the Gorby/Yeltsin era. Maybe an update to the canon should involve a new authoritarian Klingon leader, one with roots in the corrupt Imperial regime, and who is trying to undermine the Federation through social media.


some of my favorite moments on TOS were the few rare instances were we see Uhura giving commands to lower ranked crewman. Ironically some of that happened in the alternate universe…


“You’re away from your post, mister!”
eta: @Tuhu: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.


SHAG, baby!


Deep Space Nine , which aired after the end of the Cold War (beginning in 1993), explored the after-effects of colonization, while still promoting the ideal of liberalism as being a meaningful way forward. The last three seasons dealt with an ongoing war that the Federation was fighting against the Dominion and Cardassians. War crimes, violence, terrorism, and culpability for such things were among other weighty issues that the show addressed”

Just rewatched the episode of DS9 where Sisko deliberately poisons a planet to catch one guy. The episode struck me as a commentary on the operations in Somalia, where the US military turned a food-aid mission into an operation to control and capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, with lesser regard for the impact of said operations.

Excellent essay.


"The door to my quarters still rattles when it opens. Would you stop by and see if you can do something about it? Thanks, Bobby. "…

“Crewman, do I know you?”
Man Trap

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I think we Star Trek viewers know that alien races (at least from TNG onwards) don’t represent foreign peoples, but aspects of all humans, or traits that don’t necessarily align with borders. To paraphrase a line from Cracked.com, “Literary fiction is about humans, science fiction is about humanity”. When we see some Trek race act in a detrimental way and then logically come to grief because of it, our (or at least my) reaction isn’t “oh, those people in country x are so stupid”, but more “I should watch out for that kind of thinking in myself”.


That’s one shiny Wookie.


DS9 is a real gem in the Stars Trek. Rewatching it after the Battlestar Galactica reboot was finished gave me new perspective on it. DS9 really is the proto-BSG. You can see Ronald Moore developing that darker more utilitarian style, and exploring the messy moral gray areas much more than TNG did.


I quite liked DS9, but wish they didn’t go down the pew-pew! hole so much those last three seasons.


Great article. I’ve been trying to think of something that I could add to the discussion for a day, and I just can’t.


Wow, thought-provoking piece! I wonder if there will be a follow-up? I think you can dive even deeper into the cultural and political schisms between the two franchises, how they inform their respective fandoms, and why one is more popular than ever (Star Wars) and the other is trying to claw itself back into relevance (Star Trek). The cultural rise of one (and fall of the other) charts a similar and non-coincidental path of that of Superman (Humanist) and Batman (Randian).

Another important dichotomy is that while Roddenberry’s Trek is truly speculative sci-fi, imagining a different, better future, Lucas’ Wars is nostalgic high fantasy reaching into the past. With Star Wars, Lucas was trying to recreate the space operas he loved as a kid (truly a different genre from science-fiction altogether) and part of its relevance and huge success was that it tapped into that nostalgia for his generation, who was reeling from the cultural and social upheaval of the 60s/70s. For me, Star Wars is closer to American Graffiti than THX; a love letter to Saturday morning serials form a simpler time, right down to some of the troubling tropes of those old adventure stories (like putting the female protagonists in sexy danger or repeatedly revisiting the noble savage trope, albeit with aliens).

I love Star Wars, but unlike Star Trek, it never really asks you to think seriously about anything.


Roddenberry was definitely sharing a unique vision of a better social order, but people often forget that the episode and plot structure of the show were his improvements on the foundation of the structure and plot-pacing of the TV westerns that Roddenberry produced before. (The magic was his addition of optimistic cooperation in a setting free of historical constraint.)

That’s true, and repeating what Mindy Clegg’s essay also successfully argued.

Whoa whoa whoa. That may be your experience, but it’s not everyone’s.