Ikaros

I haven’t spent much time on the blog lately, but it has been a busy summer and fall nonetheless. After moving back to Chicago this year I began searching for a sailboat, its purchase being something I have been planning for several years. I’m really excited to say that, despite the snow covering the ground and the sub-zero temperatures outside, I am a boat owner.

Even before closing I had a list of names. One thing was reasonably certain: the existing name would have to go. That decision is not inconsequential, since renaming a vessel is considered bad luck at best, and suicidal at worst. Considerable tribute, in the form of Champagne, must be paid to Poseidon and the Four Winds in order to rechristen a boat (which will take place in the spring of 2017, if you’re interested.)

I knew from the beginning that my sailboat should pay homage to a great starship from the science fiction canon. As a big Star Trek fan, I gave serious consideration to Defiant from my favorite series Deep Space Nine. Serenity of Firefly fame seemed like a good choice, but it is apparently the most popular name for sailboats, something like naming your daughter Ashley (no offense to all the Ashleys out there.) Names from Iain Banks’ Culture novels also made the short list, Irregular Apocalypse being a favorite. Finally, one of my own story characters, Eloquent Profanity, held on for a long time (to be vetoed by my partner.)

We finally settled on Ikaros, a bastardization of the Japanese interplanetary craft IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun), the first spacecraft to deploy and be propelled by a solar sail. Johannes Kepler proposed the solar sail in a letter to Galileo in 1610, noting that comet tails pointing away from the sun must be reacting to “heavenly particles.” Four centuries later, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully detached IKAROS from the AKATSUKI Venus probe and deployed a 200 square meter sail. Since then it has been sailing toward a point on the far side of the sun.

The IKAROS sail deployed.

The solar sail encompasses many of my interests: the great historical narratives I enjoy, my own recreation, and the science fiction stories I love so much. It seems fitting that a simple idea, four centuries old, could present us with a vision of the future. It is an exciting idea and I look forward to talking with fellow sailors and neighbors in the harbor about what it stands for and how it represents an exciting technology.

However, as I write this I am bracing for ten more inches of snow and a long spell of freezing weather, so I will spend the next few months performing some maintenance projects, enjoying the Strictly Sail show in January, and dreaming of sailing the stars.

Review: Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek by Manu Saadia

More than one iconic science fiction author has observed that the genre’s stories are not about the future, but instead reflect the present day. While cloaked in the trappings of interstellar travel and alien species interrelationships, science fiction themes address important issues facing the reader outside of her fantastic voyage. So it should come as no surprise that Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics — an examination of the underlying economics of Star Trek in the 24th century — is securely grounded in 21st century America and Europe. Using economic principles to explain the franchise’s post-scarcity society, the book makes a strong argument that we only lack the political will, not the wealth, to provide for everyone’s needs. In doing so, Saadia succeeds in translating Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future into a contemporary plan.

Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of 24th-century economy. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the absence of money and the meaning of work when economic security is a basic human right. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the role and limits of technology in achieving Roddenberry’s vision. Interestingly, it is not the technology but the public policy that enables Star Trek to approach its utopian ideal. For the historians of science fiction (like me), there is a fascinating chapter on trekonomics in classic science fiction, illustrating possible sources of influence for Gene Roddenberry. Chapter 8 addresses the role of the Ferengi (the galaxy’s capitalists) in the franchise and the tensions created by the interactions of the two civilizations. The final chapter brings us back to the present day and discusses how close we are to reshaping our economy and realizing trekonomics.

A key point made throughout the book is that the critical ingredient responsible for our advance is not technology but public policy. As our civilization solves each seemingly intractable obstacle to continued growth — food supply, energy consumption, information processing — real costs of commodities plunge toward zero. This creates post-scarcity in parts of the economy, as certain goods require smaller and smaller shares of GDP to produce. It is only capitalism’s choice of distribution that perpetuates shortages and profit. Trekonomics asserts, quite successfully, that we are no farther than a couple of generations away from providing basic sustenance to every human on the planet. From that point, the consequent shifts in behavior could lead to a society that looks very much like Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s.

The book strikes an appropriate balance between the themes of economics, science fiction, and history. There is something for everyone, whether or not you have in-depth knowledge of the subjects prior to reading. I even found my skeptical self persuaded by Saadia’s arguments that limits to growth are not insurmountable, and that we have faced them for centuries and used them to become a wealthier civilization.

Saadia’s passion for progress towards a post-scarcity economy is palpable throughout the book. While some readers may consider this political, I found it genuine and refreshing. It is an optimism that admonishes us to do better, to strive for justice that is within our reach, to cooperate and transcend our primitive individualism. Importantly, it grounds Roddenberry’s vision of the future in our present. Trekonomics illustrates that there are concrete policies that will improve our lives.

Given the late-20th century’s penchant for dystopian futures, Star Trek has stood out against other science fiction franchises. Not only has humanity survived, it has conquered its demons and thrives in a galactic community. Through a communitarian structure and deep sense of civic responsibility, individual freedom is enhanced, not oppressed. All of this is made possible through the fair distribution of essential goods, the removal of want and material status, and the expectation that everyone will achieve their potential (even the mendicant!) Of course there is killer tech, but the core of Roddenberry’s vision is not warp drive, it is social equity. That is the most optimistic theme of Trekonomics, knowing that we already possess the power to turn our civilization toward the ideal.

The Trials of Humanism

I have been a Star Trek fan for most of my life. Although too young to enjoy the original run on network television, I experienced the first syndication in the early 1970s. I plugged my portable reel-to-reel tape recorder into the Aux jack of my black-and-white TV and made audio recordings of each episode. I read the books. I fretted when the series was rotated for other programming.

It should come as no surprise that my current project on the development of American identity in the 20th century has entered orbit around the Star Trek world. Although my writing is limited to the Federation’s Prime Directive, I am indulging myself by watching all of the episodes again, one per day. Yesterday I queued “Elaan of Troyius” and started taking notes.

One caveat for now and ever: I understand that Gene Roddenberry was a committed humanist who championed gender equality, peace, and scientism, but what makes Star Trek an interesting learning experience is the fact that there is so much prejudice, hostility, and ideology in the scriptwriting. We are all products of our time and environment. It is simply not possible to project into the future in more than small increments. Roddenberry’s anchor in the world he sought to leave behind allows us to see the mid-20th century through the eyes of the man trying to transcend it.

The episode opens with the U.S.S. Enterprise in orbit around the planet Elas, waiting to pick up the Dohlman Elaan for transport to nearby Troyius, where she will enter a political marriage to end hostilities between the planets. As Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty enter the turbolift their dialog details the importance and secrecy of the mission. Kirk mentions the strategic location of the system — near the Klingon Empire — while McCoy touches on the mystical qualities of Elasian women. It is impossible to listen to McCoy (often the source of irrational, prejudicial statements) and not be reminded of orientalist writings by British mercantilists describing their travels through India, or descriptions of present Islamic cultures.

Elaan is an entitled, savagely aggressive, petulant leader who holds nothing but disdain for all those around her, including the “Troyian dogs” with whom she must make peace. In short, she is a most unlikable character. While being “acclimated” to Troyian customs, Elaan stabs the Troyian ambassador. Thus the job of “civilizing” the Dohlman falls to Captain Kirk, and we get much fodder for juicy analysis.

There is a lot to unpack in this episode. First, note that the Federation considers this a critical mission: it has assigned its flagship to transport the delegations of two insignificant planets, and we are later informed that a High Commissioner will attend the wedding. Both civilizations are clearly inferior in technology — to the point where the Prime Directive of non-interference might apply — so we must assume that it is the strategic placement of the system that the Federation values. Maintaining stability on the frontier dictates the actions of expanding powers, even if they are benevolent. The Federation is prepared to insert itself into system politics to prevent a vacuum that would be filled by the Klingon Empire.

Next, Elasian society is viewed by all parties to be primitive. Kirk makes this clear to the irascible Elaan in the following exchange:

Kirk: “Enjoy the privileges and prerogatives of being a Dohlman, and be worthy of it. If you don’t want the obligations that go along with the title, then give it up.”
Elaan: “Nobody speaks to me that way.”
Kirk: “That’s another one of your problems: nobody has told you that you’re an uncivilized savage, a vicious child in a woman’s body, an arrogant monster.”

Here we see a logical relationship between the hierarchy of Elas and the hierarchy of the galaxy. In both situations, entitlement and exclusivity are cornerstones to maintaining order. Just as ruling a people carries obligations and requires recognizing protocol, so does belonging to the exclusive club of civilized planets. The rules are clear: if you want to eat in the dining room, then you need to comport yourself.

Today we find this behavior condescending, but is not surprising that it appears in a script from the 1960s. Throughout the first half of the 20th century an expanding United States considered the non-European world to be barbaric and intellectually childlike. Theodore Roosevelt believed both the Cubans and Filipinos to be unable to self-govern after the Spanish-American War without a period of mentoring.[1] “Period” was an indeterminate amount of time that was defined by an élite with economic interests in the territories. Our history is replete with examples of conditional promises unfulfilled while we furthered our economic and geopolitical interests. It is a familiar theme that happens to make good television drama.

Such stories always bring me back to familiar concerns. Foremost is the consideration that cultural imperialism, including the imposition of “civilizing protocols”, is often a violent act that yields social and political upheaval within its target. The United States meddling in Cuba led to decades of instability and corruption ultimately resulting in the ascendancy of Fidel Castro. A similar path of progress can be traced in Iran, following the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh. Today we need only look at Yemen to wonder why the United States exposes itself to so much political risk for the purpose of determining the direction of a strategically unimportant government.

By the end of the episode we discover the value of Elas and the need to solve the “regional” dispute: the planet is brimming with dilithium crystals, a scarce resource of abundant power.[2] Kirk’s epiphany explains why the Klingons want control of the system, but Federation control of the planet is not mentioned. Control of a precious resource justifies colonialism even in the twenty-third century, despite the Prime Directive. That the alternative is domination by the Klingon (re: Soviet) Empire only strengthens the argument for bringing Elasians to the dining table.

“Elaan of Troyius” presents a world — or galaxy — as close to the turmoil of mid-twentieth century Earth as the humanist vision of Roddenberry’s United Federation of Planets. Hierarchy, scarcity, and Orientalism combine to describe a geopolitical dance and clash of civilizations in a remote sector of the quadrant. That is simply good drama.

Notes:

[1] If you want extensive analysis of Roosevelt’s complex racial attitudes, then I highly recommend Gary Gerstle’s American Crucible.
[2] The idea of economic scarcity is also a concept that mid-20th century writers find difficult to discard. Although Roddenberry would later assert, through Picard, that society was no longer driven by scarce resources, dramatic conflicts still relied on this idea.