The Regrettable Decline of Space Utopias

Why is it only the libertarians who fantasize about space these days?

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Star Trek is one of those TV shows whose basic premise would be horrifying if the show weren’t so utterly committed to its own optimism. Viewed in the abstract, it’s hard to imagine how anybody stays sane on a starship. Star Trek characters are constantly flying blind into some fresh hell. Literally every corner of the universe they visit, Starfleet encounters some fucked-up shit that defies all extant scientific knowledge. Crew members are routinely bodyswapped, brainwashed, possessed by alien lifeforms, or implanted with false memories. Oh, and most crew members bring their entire families on board, so during the ship’s weekly brushes with death, they all get to grapple with the knowledge that their spouse and children will almost certainly be burned alive or suffocated in the vacuum of space. Everyone on that show should be on the verge of complete psychosis, but somehow, they all seem pretty contented with their lives. The characters’ preternatural level of peace with the unknown is probably one of the main reasons why Star Trek is extraordinarily comforting to watch.

Another reason why Star Trek is comforting is that there are no goddamn lawyers in space.

This is not completely true. There are a couple of lawyers in space. But there are no lawyers affiliated with the United Federation of Planets, the big, happy humanitarian alliance of planetary civilizations that are committed to universal peace, cultural interchange, and the accumulation of scientific knowledge. There are a few itinerant JAGs, but there’s no shipboard counsel. There are no legal teams dispatched to scenes of interstellar conflict. When characters find themselves in compromising situations, they never ask if they can speak to an attorney.

This, on the one hand, is completely bonkers. After all, non-Federation planets have all kinds of nutty legal standards, ranging from “guilty until proven innocent” to “automatic death penalty for anybody who accidentally steps on a flowerbed inside the invisible Punishment Zone.” Given the many entirely foreseeable dangers of this approach, you’d think that every starship would have some highly-trained legal wonk on board, ready to deal with these horrifying situations. But nope. It’s implied that the Federation does have lawyers somewhere, and there even is a loose notion that they are important to the effective functioning of the judicial system. In one episode, we learn that during a period of Earth history known as the Post-Atomic Horror (which is scheduled to occur—get ready, guys—in the mid-21st century), all the world’s lawyers were systematically murdered. This is characterized as having been an undesirable development for humanity, so we can infer that the legal profession was subsequently reinstated. But whenever there’s a legal hearing of any kind, Starfleet personnel either A) represent themselves, or B) are represented by a random bridge officer who is deputed to act as counsel.

Now you might say, on the one hand, that we shouldn’t read too much into this. Maybe writing a random lawyer into a storyline was just going to be one more actor cluttering up the set, frittering away the weekly episode budget with dispensable lines. But the complete absence of lawyers across multiple Star Trek seasons, each under different creative direction, each with their own standalone law-centric episodes, is at least a little weird. So is there some other reason why the Federation has no need for lawyers?

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One of the central premises of the Star Trek universe, which is set a couple centuries into the future, is that humanity has evolved—not dramatically beyond all recognition, but nonetheless significantly. After a period of mass calamity on Earth, characterized by nuclear war, genocide, and famine, the remainder of Earth’s global population finally comes to the negotiating table, as it were. A world government is established. Societies are rebuilt. Money is abolished. All basic human needs are provided for. People enter professions, learn trades, and provide services because they find these activities fulfilling, not out of economic necessity. Crime is almost nonexistent; with the elimination of material want, the impetus for most kinds of crime is also eliminated, and it’s implied that psychological dispositions towards violence are somehow detected and rehabilitated in their early stages. The establishment of an egalitarian regime of resource distribution, and the discovery of alien civilizations on other planets, seems to have drawn the human species together and eroded social distinctions. While there are still pockets of institutional corruption, and although humans still sometimes give in to their lesser impulses, people are largely motivated by goodwill. Federation officers in particular have a widespread reputation for honesty, which other civilizations, weirdly, mostly seem to accept at face value.

These characteristics seem to percolate through the Federation legal system. In the courtroom episodes, there are never “gotcha” moments where somebody wins on a technicality or gets tripped up by an arcane legal formulation. Making a common-sense argument, or a soliloquy to general principles of justice, is usually enough to win over an adjudicator. The implication seems to be that in a world where fact-finders are honest, and where parties can make more or less sensible claims in their own defense, the system can afford to be equitable and ad hoc. It’s the ultimate access-to-justice dream where—even better than a lawyer for every client—the law is so reasonable and the judges so fair that every person can represent themselves in court with total confidence, or, at most, bring along a moderately clever friend to help them make their case. In addition, when interacting with other legal systems, the strong presumption of integrity on the part of Federation actors often helps the legal process along.

This all may seem fairly pie-in-the-sky—but could it actually be possible? Could humanity, someday, theoretically, if basic material insecurities were resolved, reach a general state of compassion and reasonability towards one another? Could lawyers, at present a hideous but necessary evil, eventually be rendered obsolete by more humane social attitudes? God, that would be amazing, wouldn’t it?

Of course, the opposing theory of human nature says that our impulse towards selfishness and cruelty is so deeply-rooted, spiritually or biologically, that we can never hope to eliminate it; that at most, we might mitigate it, but that this will never be a durable achievement across cultures or across generations. This theory is quite popular, but we have no idea if it’s true. It certainly seems to be humanity’s default mode, if we make no attempts at self-improvement. But our species hasn’t been around terribly long, in the grand scheme of things, and if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us haven’t exactly been doing our utmost to better the world we live in. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote about Christianity: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and not tried.” The same could easily be said for most schemes of social organization that require some form of moral effort or voluntary material renunciation.

Sadly, utopias are presently out of vogue, as the tedious proliferation of dystopian fiction and disaster films seems to indicate. No genre is safe. Game of Thrones is the dystopian reboot of Lord of the Rings; House of Cards is the dystopian reboot of The West Wing; Black Mirror is the dystopian reboot of The Twilight Zone. The slate of previews at every movie theatre has become an indistinguishably sepia-toned effluence of zombies, terrorists, and burnt-out post-apocalyptic hellscapes. Even supposedly light-hearted superhero movies now devote at least 3.5 hours of their running time to the lavishly-rendered destruction of major metropolises.

There is clearly some deep-seated appeal to these kinds of films; and indeed, it would take a heart of inhuman moral fiber to truly regret the sudden vanishing of New York City, whose existence serves no beneficial purpose for humanity that I’m aware of. But my general feeling is that our fondness for dystopian narratives is a pretty nasty indulgence, especially for those of us who live mostly comfortable lives, far-removed from the visceral realities of human suffering. Watching scenes of destruction from the plush chair of a movie theater, or perhaps on our small laptop screen while curled up in bed, heightens our own immediate sense of safety. It numbs us to the grinding, intermittent, inescapable reality of violence in neglected parts of our world, which unmakes whole generations of human beings with terror and dread.

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Immersing ourselves in narratives where 99% of the characters are totally selfish also engrains a kind of fashionable faux-cynicism that feels worldly, but is in fact simply lazy. I say faux-cynicism because I don’t believe that most people who profess to be pessimists truly believe that humanity is doomed, at least not in their lifetimes, or in their particular geographic purviews: if they did, then watching a film that features the drawn-out annihilation of a familiar American landscape would probably make them crap their pants. But telling yourself that everything is awful, and nothing can be fixed, is a marvelously expedient way to absolve yourself of personal responsibility. There is, happily, nothing about an apocalyptic worldview that obligates you to give up any of the comforts and conveniences that have accrued to you as a consequence of global injustice; and you get to feel superior to all those tender fools who still believe that a kinder world is possible! It’s a very satisfying form of moral escapism. No wonder our corporate tastemakers have been churning this stuff out.

And there’s no doubt that it’s often hard to make utopias seem dramatically sophisticated. Star Trek is renowned, even by those who love it, for being campy as hell. Moral tales in general are too often sugary and insubstantial. They’re suitable for kids, or maybe emotionally-stunted adults, but they’re not something to be taken seriously. We have come to view utopian narratives as inherently hokey, and preachy. But dystopias are, of course, their own form of preaching; they are preaching another hypothesis about humanity, which, due to moody lighting and oblique dialogue, has an entirely undeserved appearance of profundity, and the illusory farsightedness of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

TWO PLEAS FOR THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY

But don’t we all want a world without lawyers? Isn’t that, at least, something that our whole species can agree on? Star Trek tells us that there are two hurdles between us and this great goal: global economic justice, and warp-speed technology. These may take several more centuries to achieve. But here are two things we can all start working on now.

1. Make utopias popular again.

Fictional narratives are a huge factor in shaping our expectations of what is possible. However, as discussed earlier, utopias are hard to write. You have to forfeit a lot of the cheap tricks that writers use to generate dramatic momentum. After all, it’s always easy to create tension when all your characters are self-serving, back-stabbing bastards; less so when your characters mostly get along. (The writers of Star Trek: TNG famously tore their hair out over creator Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that all the main cast had to be friends.) Constructing plots that are based primarily around problem-solving takes a lot of intricate planning. But we’ve seen a thousand narrative iterations of societal collapse: why not write some narratives about societal construction? What would a better world look like, at different stages of its realization—at its inception? Weathering early internal crises? When facing an existential threat? We should put more imagination into thinking about what this could look like, and how to generate emotional investment in the outcome.

Aspirational fiction seems especially important at this moment in our national history, when a significant number of Americans cast a ballot for a candidate they disliked, or were even disturbed by, simply because they wanted something different. There’s always been a gambling madness in the human spirit, a kind of perverse, instinctive itchiness that suddenly makes us willing to court disaster, simply on the off-chance of altering the mundane or miserable parameters of our daily lives. If we could transform some of that madness into a madness of optimism and creativity, rather than boredom, rage, and despair, that could only be a good thing.

2. Don’t let assholes win the space race.

Do you know who’s really excited about interplanetary exploration these days? Silicon Valley tycoons, and white supremacists. Elon Musk wants to set up a creepy private colony on Mars for ultra-rich survivalists who can shell out $200,000 for their spot, and has stated his own intention of dying on Mars. Meanwhile, a fresh-faced crop of racists are convinced that if the U.S. would only give up trying to provide social services and education to its citizens, lily-white geniuses could easily be conquering the galaxy at this very moment. As Richard Spencer (of “Heil Trump” fame) has it:

“[O]ur Faustian destiny to explore the outer universe. That is what we were put on this earth to do. We weren’t put on this earth to be nice to minorities, or to be a multiculti fun nation. Why are we not exploring Jupiter at this moment? Why are we trying to equalize black and white test scores? I think our destiny is in the stars. Why aren’t we trying for the stars?”

These dickheads are trying for the stars! The rest of us therefore need to make sure they don’t get there first. If the likes of Elon Musk and Richard Spencer are humanity’s ambassadors, our entrée into outer space will simply be a high-tech recapitulation of all the moral horrors of our last Age of Exploration. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure Richard Spencer is no astrophysicist, and Elon Musk’s would-be spacecrafts keep exploding on the launchpad. Now is our chance to thwart them!

Space exploration doesn’t have to be a last-ditch effort to save the species after we screw everything up on earth; nor should it be an alternative project to building an egalitarian global society. We still have time to make a better world here, on the planet we do have, before we inflict ourselves on other parts of the universe. Space travel may well have an improving effect on humanity, but we should also make a point of improving ourselves before we head out into the interstellar beyond. Only then will we have earned the privilege to Boldly Go.

Starfleet or bust!

Illustrations by Mike Freiheit