Musings on the state of popular science fiction

Received an email from a good friend on the “new and improved” Star Trek:

I gave this some thought, and perhaps one could say that blowing up Vulcan is a symbolic “fuck you” to the core values of Trek, to wit: “Logic, reason, humanism–fuck these things! Do what feels right regardless of the consequences. Or you’ll get sucked into a black hole.” Vulcan, I think, represented a key component of the Federation’s philosophy, and now they expect us to accept its destruction so they could thrill some casual viewers?

To my mind, the interesting tension in the Trek universe prior to this travesty resulted from Federation principles being tested against competing internal and external forces. However, in Trek: Rebooted land, there’s one hand clapping–it’s all barbarism all the time; there were no discernible Federation principles in the first place. You know, in Star Trek VI, Spock said “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” New version: “Fuck all that shit man, party on the Enterprise!” Logic is apparently a trifle to be jettisoned whenever your adrenaline glands act up.

I think this has become a fairly general problem in what is considered “mainstream” sci-fi — the shows that “ordinary people” would accept. The so-called more real vision of the future espoused by these things can roughly be generalized into “darker, edgier, younger”. Reality, as it seems, must be full of angst, petty problems, and on the occasion, explosions.

A far cry from when the thoughtful visions of TNG garnered mainstream viewers by the millions.

There’s a quote attributed to AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, of the MIT AI Lab:

“General fiction is pretty much about ways that people get into problems and screw their lives up. Science fiction is about everything else.”

The point of science fiction is to imagine what is possible beyond the confining frameworks of everyday reality and drudgery. It is supposed to illustrate what humanity is capable of and what they should aspire toward.

TNG, for example, aimed to explore a post-scarcity human society where the driving force is no longer personal economic gain. Of course it would not be “real”, so much as matter replication and warp drive are also “not real”. An average man of today would have to have to stretch his imagination to understand the motivations of those characters and their society — but that’s precisely the point. If we all spun in place forever, mired in the minutiae of what is (rather than what should and will be), there would never be any progress — only more of the same.

This is also part of a rather annoying trend in popular culture to treat technology as something to be feared, and how curiosity should be punished. How many recent sci-fi successes can be boiled down to: “Don’t research/develop technology X, because it’ll just destroy all humans/blow up the world/nuke us and all of our colonies!”. It is trivially easy to spin a cautionary tale of fear for the new and unknown, to play to the most primitive parts of the human mind — such fearmongering undoubtedly holds TV ratings and sells movie tickets. It takes a true visionary to look into what might be the next step for human progress, and instead of fearing the unknown, embrace it.

The Original Series inspired a generation of young people to become scientists and engineers. The Next Generation taught the value of deliberation, diplomacy, and teamwork, creating a vision of a humanity pulling away from the basest parts of its past — and moving onto bigger and better things. While they are still quite entertaining, they are part of that grand tradition of science fiction, opening the minds of ordinary people and pushing them, if only a little bit, toward exploring “final frontiers”.

What do the latest and leading “sci-fi” do for that vision?