Fear and Loathing in Utopia

A reader’s notes on the Culture

Discussed in this essay:
  • Iain Banks, Consider Phlebas (1987), Use of Weapons (1990), et. al.
  • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
  • John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
  • Ursula K LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973)

I. Authority

In addition to this there is the horrible – the really disquieting – prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words “Socialism” and “Communism” draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
— George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Despite his self-proclaimed socialism, Orwell seems to have been of that particular breed of Englishman who fundamentally and fiercely distrusts the non-hierarchical, the egalitarian, anything that lies outside the rigid structure of the Estates of the Realm (after all, socialists are often statists, too). I reckon he would have been truly aghast at the Culture novels, which makes it all the funnier that the books were written by a fellow Briton, albeit one from the other side of the wall. (There’s probably something in the water around Scotland – besides nuclear weapons – or the air that flows freely over the heaths and the highlands, that makes them rather more willing to accept loose-knit and non-authoritatian communities.)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ham-handedly reactionary as Welcome to the Monkey House in many places, what with it’s fear of the careful use of language for maximum meaning and minimum cruelty1 (“fairness” and “government” apparently being the scariest things that either Vonnegut or Orwell could contenance in their later years; but then, they were both soldiers of their respective empires,2 and probably thought of themselves as liberal enough.3

Iain Banks is much more progressive, and self-conciously so. He’s constructed as near a perfect utopia as he can imagine (we’ll deal with the limits of his imagination later) and is worth writing about for the sake of interesting novels. But then, he started writing the Culture novels in 1970s – although the first in the series, Consider Phlebas wasn’t published until 1987.4 Where Vonnegut and Orwell saw the encroachment of collectivism and reeled in fear of sterile bureaucracy and enforced communal order, Banks saw the divying up of functional society into saleable parcels to be put at the mercy of some bizarre invisible hand called “the Market”. And continued to see that accelerate, even after the Labour Party came to power in the 1990s.56

So in that sense the Culture is a perfect blend of the “fruit-juice drinker and Quakers” set7 and the William Wallace types. I can’t help but think of some Platonic ideal of bucolic self-reliance: “fuck you, we’re out here in the woods doing our own thing. We have everything we need, and your cities smell bad and those things you call ‘jobs’ suck.”8 Fair enough. Except that these humans aren’t self-reliant. In the beginning of the Culture, the Humans created the Machines in their own image, and somehow, despite the infinite complexity of the task, saw that It Was Good. Ever since then, they’ve lived a mollycoddled existence at the Machines’ (somehow genuine and unwavering) pleasure. But the machines are much more powerful than the humans (intellectually, physically, even morally), and this means that in truth, the machines have all of the power. They literally run things, and it’s explicitly stated more than once that humans are really just along for the ride in pretty much all cases.9 This seems to suit the humans fine, of course, because like the ancient Greeks consulting Delphi, once the Oracle—er, Mind has spoken, then who are we mere mortals to argue?

However, this also means that the machines bear ultimate moral responsibility for the actions of the Culture and its members (after all, no human can break through a ship Mind’s effector field). The machines are in charge, for all intents and purposes, and although it is diagetically established that they care deeply for the humans that exist at their mercy, that does not diminish their ultimate power one iota.10

And remember – the Culture is a highly normative society. “Normal” in the Culture might be extremely free, but failing to share the Culture’s values is one thing they will not abide. That is the whole point of Bora Horza Gobuchul’s fight against them; indeed the first introduction the Culture ever receives is Horza’s view from the outside, looking in, at all of the self-righteous smugness of an empire vast in size, and nearly limitless in power.

“But he says that our customs are bad; and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad. How do you think we can fight when our own brothers have turned against us? The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”12

Even Achebe could acknowledge (as he does repeatedly in Things Fall Apart) that the coming of the British Empire brought good things and abolished brutal customary practices (the leaving of children in the woods to die is the most obvious example that he highlights repeatedly). But this doesn’t excuse the fresh brutalities that the British visited upon the Nigerians, nor does the Culture’s internal paradise absolve them of even one of the corpses that Diziet Sma and “Cheradinene Zakalwe” leave in their wake. Much is made in Consider Phlebas of the Culture not being on a war footing when the conflict with the Idirans started; about having to fall back constantly until their ships were ready to go on the offensive – but the Culture was already at war, and had always been so, in a typically Culture way. Distributed, democratic, powerful, sneaky, and brutal: Diziet Sma’s whole career is based on fighting the ideological war of the Culture in the comparative backwaters of the galaxy.

On second thought, perhaps Orwell would have liked those books after all.

II. Empire

Perfect though your life may be inside the Culture, god help you if you are on the edge of it – or, indeed, that edge comes suddenly rolling over your homeworld. At least the Idirans were honest about their dogmatic zealotry. The Culture deny theirs, or simply wring their hands about it. Like good Guardian-reading liberals, they know the world is hard and complicated, and they know what is right, but most of all they know they don’t want to give up their creature comforts. They meddle in distant places they can easily walk away from, if things go too wrong. They don’t like other people meddling (as “Zakalwe” does when he tries to go free agent), because Culture Knows Best (and they reckon they are the only ones with moral authority).

In his Notes on the Culture Banks wrote,

Megalomaniacs are not unknown in the Culture, but they tend to be diverted successfully into highly complicated games …Virtual Reality games – up to and including utter-involvement level, in which the player has to make a real and sustained effort to return to the real world, and can even forget that it exists entirely – are far more satisfying.
Some people, however, refuse this escape-route too, and leave the Culture altogether for a civilisation that suits them better and where they can operate in a system which gives them the kind of rewards they seek. To renounce the Culture so is to lose access to its technology though, and, again, Contact supervises the entry of such people into their chosen civilisation at a level which guarantees they aren’t starting with too great an advantage compared to the original inhabitants (and retains the option of interfering, if it sees fit).
A few such apparently anti-social people are even used by Contact itself, especially by the Special Circumstances section.

Besides being an obvious character summary of Diziet Sma (well, to me, anyway), what of the megalomania of the entire Culture? At least the United Federation of Planets, for all of its fucked-upness13 has as its one rule above all “don’t fuck with civilizations smaller than you”. There’s at least some humility bound up in that. The Culture has no such humility. They “know” they are perfectly in the right, and they “know” that everyone else is backwards to some degree – so as long as you can’t resist them, or even detect them, they will come to your world and start wars and murder politicians until you’re back on course.14

Of course, diagetically they are. They might even be morally superior to every civilization previously imagined by humans. (Although I doubt it: Jernau Gurgeh in The Player of Games is evidence enough that heteronormativity and a certain amount of chauvinism are allowed to thrive even in the peaceful heart of the Culture; to say nothing of Contact and Special Circumstances. But then, he’s also the most interesting and three-dimensional of all of the novels’ protagonists.23) But what does it say about a universe – real or imagined – when the best you can do ethically is an organization that deploys unilateral, asymmetric, and unanswerable projections of force at will?1718

It’s also worth pointing out that the “wizards” of the Culture (as “Zakalwe” called them) have other methods at their disposal. With huge reserves of matter and energy, the freedom to convert between the two, and the amazing sytematical analysis ability of the Minds, there is no reason they could not impose their moral hegemony in ways that don’t require hiring mercenaries, starting wars, or the rest of it. But the fact is, they don’t want to. Diziet Sma likes her cloak-and-dagger tactics; so do the rest of Special Circumstances (after all, they all are there only because they want to be; at least for the Culture citizens involved in the organization – Gurgeh excepted – it can’t even be argued that there is any low-level coercion happening).

If the goal of your empire is to spread peace and love, and you do so only by non-violent and happy means, are you still in the right if you steamroll the unwilling – even if they love you for it afterwards? Probably. That would be the easy case, though, and nothing about the Culture’s methods are easy (except, perhaps, for the Culture). It’s wetwork of the kind and volume that would make SMERSH a bit queasy, and they know it. Sma is no better than George Smiley in that respect, willing to do and say anything to get her way, even to the people who trust her.

And to be sure, Sma uses up people the way Smiley does: to her, Zakalwe is just another Lemas. Interesting, sure, but also broken and disposable. The epilogue of Use of Weapons shows her recruiting yet another broken man to her cause – this time literally, his legs crushed by a tank in a war she and Zakalwe caused, and offers him reimbursement in the form of being able to walk again.19 The Culture’s victims become its agents, and I suppose that must assuage some of their guilt. “After all”, they perhaps tell themselves, “they would not fight for us if they hated us.” But then, Sma never asked Lemas how he felt about The Circus,15 and I doubt very much that Smiley is under any illusions.

III. Weapons

”You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world? Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried – children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive.”
— Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart16

The man called Cheradanine Zakalwe is the most miserable man in the universe; but then, every person is the most miserable person in the universe, when their misery is real. Human pain rarely looks up to understand that it could be worse, and even when it does it requires a feat of emotional strength to internalize that fact. This makes “Zakalwe” vulnerable, and that is Diziet Sma’s first weapon.

Sma’s second weapon is “Zakalwe” himself. A brilliant tactician who loves nothing more to win, and is infinitely bribable to her cause (although the bribe is the same every time). The third weapon that Sma wields is the power of the Culture itself – political, cultural, technological, and moral. The Use of Weapons after all, is not about the guns and bombs that “Zakalwe” uses, it is about the Culture’s weapons, of which Sma herself is (willingly and gladly) one.20 “Zakalwe” was a villain once, and maybe a hero to some people. But now he is an object, a tool, his desires and obsessions being the strings that Diziet pulls.21

Alec Lemas became a tool of the state, too, by having his weaknesses exploited. He paid for it more dearly22, and perhaps less deservingly. At least he did not think his grief was exceptional (and actually, I think le Carré goes to immense pains to make it utterly banal). But then, Lemas was also under no illusions that he was finally putting the world right.

“Zakalwe”, the Culture, its drones, all think they can make up for their sins with more sinning.11 Horza had the good grace to know he was fighting for the sake of billigerancy. Some individual Culture denizens – the GCU Grey Area/Meatfucker, Genar-Hofoen – have the good grace to realize that their fascination with violence is not for a higher moral purpose. But the truth is that Meatfucker is no better or worse than the Interesting Times Gang, or anyone else. Its only sin is that it does not lie to itself about its motivations (and again, this is the reason Genar-Hofoen likes the Affront so much: they are honest about their violence).

But perhaps every self-perpetuating organization needs such an entity, somewhere to channel the psychopaths and wrap their violence up in nice flags and statements of ideology. That other great self-righteous science fiction confederacy had its own Special Circumstances in the form of Section 31, and Luther Sloan’s justification for its existence (after kidnapping Bashir and using a bit of “enhanced interrogation” on him), could easily be lifted straight to a description of Diziet Sma & Co.:

Bashir:So if I had been a Dominion agent, what would have happened to me?
Sloan:We wouldn't be standing here having this conversation, I assure you.
Bashir:Starfleet sanctions what you're doing?
Sloan:We don't submit reports, or ask approval for specific operations, if that's what you mean. We are an autonomous department.
Bashir:Authorized by whom?
Sloan:Section 31 was part of the original Starfleet charter.
Bashir:But that was 200 years ago! Are you telling me you've been working on your own ever since. Without specific orders, accountable to nobody but yourselves?
Sloan:You make it sound so ominous.

The clandestine tendency is in the DNA of the organization, then; the only surprise is Bashir’s naïveté, for which Odo gives him a rightly deserved sneer.2425 So no wonder then that the ten-thousand year Reich— er, commune of the Culture has its own Department of Assasinations.

It’s telling, though, that these organizations allow their internal doppelgänger to continue to exist, despite being horrified by them. After all, Bashir and Sisko make a single phone call, and then basically decide “well, we tried!” when their higher-ups give them a flat denial. (Would Picard have left it at that? Now there’s an interesting question.) In that respect, the Culture is more honest than most: people know about Contact, they even know about Special Circumstances,26 and in a society where you have the resources at your disposal to literally fuck off completely if you don’t agree, everyone votes in favor of the brutality by sticking around.

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window.... In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes – the child has no understanding of time or interval – sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes.

How many children does the Culture keep in the basement of its stately homes? None in a literal sense, of course, but we know there are those who walk away from its paradise: the hardcore pacifists, the Zentetic Elench, the “eccentrics” and the ones that go native.27 Jernau Gurgeh peered into the cellar and elected to go into storage, unable to bring himself to leave, but unable to stick around.

“Zakalwe” and Bora Horza Gobchul had the benefit of being outsiders, and knowing the Culture too well to be fooled by the “festival, the city, the joy.” The likes of Diziet Sma merely accept the justifications as presented. And the average Culture citizen – who knows? Banks is less interested in the ones who walk away.

But what of walking away, turning your back? On Earth in the 21st century, back here in reality, we can’t hop on a ship and fly to parts unknown. For those of us that live in civilizations propped up by our own scapegoats, be they the “War on Terror”, the looming threats of financial doom that necessitate austerity, whatever – we have nowhere to go. We are forced to stay put, to accept, or to engage in a political machine in the desperate outside chance we can shift it one micron in another direction. The scapegoats are all around us: the inner-city poor, the weddings blown up by missiles in the Yemeni desert, the endless piles of bodies just south of the Mexican border, the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. No one can accuse us of not having been to the basement. But unlike Omelas, unlike the Culture, we don’t even have the excuse of paradise to cling to. And yet still, we go to Saturday demonstrations and click on “like” buttons and sign “e-petitions” and vote in comically unfair electoral processes and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. Gosh, look at our progressive liberal values.

I would say that worst flaw of the Culture is complacency, of knowing you have it better, and of being afraid of risking your own misery to lessen someone else’s. But in a society where “money is a sign of poverty” and energy/matter conversion trivial, there are no worries about not being able to pay the rent, about failing to share. So no, the real flaw is actually apathy and indifference, and this is the giant gaping plot hole that allows the books to function as books, but not, ultimately, as a fantasy world I’d like to live in.

Why do these flaws of the Culture even matter? Most of them, removed, would make the books immanently dull reading (and although I don’t feel the need to explain this, having already spilled however many thousands of words on the subject, I do very much enjoy them, and Banks as a writer in general; I am not arguing that these flaws are fatal).

Science fiction, to mangle that quote often attributed to Brecht,28 is not a description of our aspirations, but rather a reflection of who we are now. The limits of Banks’s imagination – the imagination of someone who was genuinely progressive and tried very hard to think about and create a just and moral society – are a telling caution for the rest of us. Each time we cheer a robot fragging the bad guys, or Kara Thrace water-boarding a Cylon, or whatever – every time we are tacitly accepting that this somehow, in some universe or set of conditions, might be okay. Suddenly the high wall of moral prohibition has a chink, a place to be worked on and through.

This is the ultimate weapon of Banks’s Culture, as well as the small-c culture of the 21st century: if we have a good enough reason, we can excuse just about anything. And one can always fashion a reason.


  1. Pejoratively known as “political correctness”, but in truth just the practice of not going full Donald Trump on everyone you meet. The term “political correctness”, incidentally, comes from the 1950s reference to toeing the (Communist) Party line in all things, regardless of the moral content of the line being toed. [back]

  2. In Orwell’s case, also a policeman and an ideological functionary of the state – his famous list of “communists” probably being the work of his that tells you the most about the man. [back]

  3. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, suggesting that either or both don’t have redeeming works, or that the ones I’m namechecking here don’t have some redeeming qualities. But my God, reread those books as an adult and you hear Glenn Beck shouting up from the pages. [back]

  4. The same year as Watchmen; which is to say, the absolute insane fever-pitch of the Cold War, threat of collective nuclear annihilation, Regan and Thatcher’s neoconservatism, and the first deafening blows signalling the beginning of the end of the welfare state and the power of labor unions. So basically, a young, liberal Scotsman’s worst nightmare. [back]

  5. In this context, it’s tempting to try and draw comparisons between Tony Blair and Comrade Napoleon. [back]

  6. I wonder what Banks would have to say about Corbyn, now, or even the Scottish referendum last year. [back]

  7. Frankly, Orwell’s bogeyman bunch of socialists sounds like a fun crowd to hang out with. Certainly more fun than Orwell’s. [back]

  8. “You’re the king? Well I didn’t vote for you,” etc. [back]

  9. Specifically when talking about why ships even have crews, especially the tiny ones; or the motivations for hub Minds to play Facilities Maintenance Dept. for orbitals. [back]

  10. cf Cavafy, The Horses of Achilles [back]

  11. Mind you, the “sins” are self-imposed. There are no gods in the Culture universe (except totally indifferent ones in the form of the Sublimed). But the Culture feels it has sinned, just by having Special Circumstances around; “Zakalwe” seeks the forgiveness of Livuetia (selfishly – but then, perhaps penitence is always selfish); Skaffen-Amtiskaw seems to have at least some realization that his bloodlust is pretty messed up. And the closing words of the last chapter, of course, are about the drone trying to “put things right” by saving “Zakalwe” – but then, what has he put right? The Culture keeps its ultimate weapon, so he can go on killing; Livuetia is still miserable; the Culture itself no better. The dead are still dead, after all. [back]

  12. “Spoilers” or whatever, I guess. But saying I just ruined the ending of Things Fall Apart would be like shouting someone down because you don’t want to accidentally hear how Titanic ends. [back]

  13. And boy, is it fucked up – but that’s for another essay. [back]

  14. Yet somehow, Banks was against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Weird. [back]

  15. Which is actually an even better name for the Culture than “the Culture”. [back]

  16. For a particularly interesting discussion by Achebe of this passage and reactions to it, you should listen to this lecture[back]

  17. At least the Iraq war has the pantomime of public inquiry (in the UK anyway) in the person of Lord Chilcott. The Culture is possibly not that self-reflective. [back]

  18. And if that e-dust assassin that goes all Harris and Klebold on the Chelgrians at the end of Look to Windward is any indication, then it says nothing good. Banks doesn’t even try to pretend it’s anything but revenge, and the fact that the Culture has developed a sentient, weaponized Veleek-type thing in the first place is pretty fucking terrifying. [back]

  19. A physical remedy is the best she can do, anyway. Even the wizards of the Culture have limitations – both real and self-imposed – sometimes. Would a Mind really never reach into a human brain to repair psycological damage? And if so, what does that say about them? Small comfort that they consider the brain invoilable, when they’re happy to fuck your local civic infrastructure. [back]

  20. “The bomb lives only as it is falling” applies as strongly to Diziet as it does to “Zakalwe”. [back]

  21. Was it two or three times she had presented him to the sister of the real, murdered Zakalwe, and watched that other woman’s horror at the man standing before her, never once thinking “oh, maybe I shouldn’t torture this stranger in this way, just to get what I want”? [back]

  22. Banks makes it very clear that “Zakalwe” never dies at the end of Use of Weapons: first, because Zakalwe reappears, in various guises, across the Culture books (I count him in Player of Games and Surface Detail at the very least, and there was another appearance I can’t quite remember now) and second, because it is explicitly understood through details of Use of Weapons epilogue and prologue – the length of his hair – that he survives his aneurysm. [back]

  23. He is one of the most interesting Culture people, precisely for his chauvinism and insistent heteronomativity in a society that purports to reject both wholly. (Although – to go back to Banks’s poverty of imagination – it’s interesting that whenever they want to have children, the Culture’s oh-so-open-minded citizens revert to female-standard and male-standard formulations to do it, although something less gendered is certainly not beyong their biological sciences.) Gurgeh has lines and borders that define his personality, instead of an ever-changing melange of shapes. Where does identity not reside except in the form of one’s own body, and how it interacts with other bodies? Isn’t that the whole point of transgender movements, of drag, of sexual identity? [back]

  24. That William Sadler channels “bored bureaucrat” during the entire scene makes it all the better – really, why is Bashir surprised at all? [back]

  25. All from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Inquisition[back]

  26. To the point that Special Circumstance’s hyper-paranoid use of the most esoteric and secure variants of Marain is a source of idiom and humor among Minds. [back]

  27. Ah, and there’s that normative language again – I guess even Marain, for all the effort the Culture went to to make it free of built-in prejudice, can’t make up for some things. [back]

  28. Although also to Trotsky, which I think is somehow more appropriate. [back]

The Further Adventures of Professor Spacetime

Professor Spacetime and the Wonders of the Universe

PROFESSOR: Come with me, and I can show you all the wonders of the universe. All of space and time, at your fingertips!
COMPANION: All of a space and time? Really?
PROFESSOR: Well… anything in our future light-cone.
COMPANION: So… most of space and time?
PROFESSOR: More like a small and steadily-shrinking fraction of space and time, within the confines of a slowly contracting cosmological horizon.
COMPANION: But it can travel to other galaxies, right?
PROFESSOR: Indeed! You’ll be dead millions of years before we get there, though.
COMPANION: Somehow I thought it’d be bigger…

Professor Spacetime and the Pocket-Sized Plot Device

PROFESSOR: Quickly, my dear, grab the atomic screwdriver!
COMPANION: Here it is… but what good is it to us now? We’re about to be dropped in a pit of lava!
PROFESSOR: My dear, what isn’t an atomic screwdriver good for? This cunning device has gotten me out of thousands of scrapes over the years!
COMPANION: But how does it work?
PROFESSOR: It’s atomic!
COMPANION: But that’s just a word. It’s like calling it a quantum screwdriver or something – you haven’t explained what it does.
PROFESSOR: This is a life or death situation! I can’t possibly go into exposition now.
COMPANION: You do that all the time.
PROFESSOR: This is different! It would be far too difficult to explain my Spacelord science to a human.
COMPANION: It sounds to me like you just slapped the label “atomic” on it sixty years ago when it sounded cool and futuristic so you’d never have to explain it, and now you’re stuck with it, even though it’s a bit naff.
PROFESSOR: That was pretty easy, actually.

Professor Spacetime and the Witches of Vaxahar

PROFESSOR: I fear we’ve uncovered a terrible evil, my dear. I thought the Witches of Vaxahar were just a myth!
COMPANION: The Witches of Vaxahar? That’s far too many letters from the wrong end of the alphabet to be a good thing.
PROFESSOR: The Witches are an ancient and powerful species from the beginning of time. Where Spacelords – like you humans – mastered the universe through a science based on mathematics, the Witches mastered a different science… one based on words. You might call it magic.
COMPANION: Oh no! But… how will we defeat them, Professor?
PROFESSOR: Well… in order to accurately model the universe, their word-science still had to be self-consistent, and satisfy basic philosophical axioms in the same manner as our mathematics.
COMPANION: So it works exactly like math?
PROFESSOR: Pretty much. Except they never got around to inventing numerals, or mathematical notation
COMPANION: But that means…
PROFESSOR: Yes, my dear.
COMPANION: Word problems!
PROFESSOR: Fiendishly difficult ones. Have you ever tried to model rocket equations using descriptions of trains converging from Cardiff and Brighton?
COMPANION: They really are evil!

Professor Spacetime and the Thousand-Year Reich

MECHAQUEEN: …and as the Earth died, we could not help but despair… until our savior came, to carry us away into the stars. It was the suffering of the children, you see. I think that was what moved the spacewhale most to pity.
COMPANION: So that is how you rewarded her? Torturing her, for centuries, to carry your fossilized constitutional monarchy through the stars?
MECHAQUEEN: We thought we had no choice!
COMPANION: But that’s monstrous! How could you live with something like that?
MECHAQUEEN: Actually, we couldn’t. Hence the whole memory-wiping thing.
PROFESSOR: It’s a pretty ingenious solution, come to think of it.
COMPANION: Professor! You can’t actually think they did the right thing? To imprison such a noble and selfless soul, who wanted only to save lives and alleviate suffering…
PROFESSOR: Actually, I’m a consequentialist; though disturbing, sometimes we have to operate against our ethical intuitions in order to minimize suffering. Besides, your whole argument is predicated on the assumption the spacewhale has humanlike consciousness, and a humanlike capacity for empathy and suffering. Given its completely different evolutionary background and environmental selection pressures, this is beyond exceedingly unlikely; furthermore, its apparent selflessness also has to be held to be suspect. Given the vast emptiness of space, I would wager that spacewhales would be forced to use the k-selection strategy for reproduction; even if they had humanlike intellects, they couldn’t possibly share humanlike empathy for life, much less the lives of children, or they would be paralyzed by suffering and grief, at the knowledge the vast majority of their kin don’t make it to maturity, and end up starving to death in the vast emptiness between the stars. The spacewhale was probably there to feed on what was left after the solar flares destroyed Earth’s capacity to defend itself from spacewhale attacks.
COMPANION: So what you’re saying is…
PROFESSOR: The spacewhale is a dick, and deserves to be tortured.
COMPANION: Oh. Well, then. Carry on.

Professor Spacetime and the Unresolved Sexual Tension

PROFESSOR: I can’t! It wouldn’t be right! I’m a thousand-year old Spacelord, you’re just a girl!
COMPANION: A woman, Professor! And don’t tell me you don’t want to kiss me!
PROFESSOR: But the angst is the only thing carrying this season!
COMPANION: Oh, Professor! All this – the spaceship, the wonders you’ve shown me, the fact you embody all the wisdom and experience of the older man, in the conventionally attractive body of a younger one – how could you not sweep me off my feet?
PROFESSOR: We mustn’t, my dear!
COMPANION: Professor… I should warn you, I-
PROFESSOR: Yes?
COMPANION: I’ve been reading fanfiction…

Professor Spacetime and the Translation Matrix

COMPANION: Wait, seriously? You have a universal translator?
PROFESSOR: Of course. Standard Spacelord technology.
COMPANION: So you have a computer capable of instantly and seamlessly translating any language into any other, without significant context or prior exposure, and all you use it for is making conversation with aliens and Welshmen?
PROFESSOR: Why does that surprise you?
COMPANION: Because it’s impossible! Worse, it’s unlikely. A true universal translator would be nothing short of an extraordinarily powerful strong AI – capable of perfectly comprehending context and external reference and encoding these neatly into translated utterances – combined with magic. Zero-context translation would allow you to arbitrarily recover any plaintext from any ciphertext. You could use it to decipher Linear A! To crack every code ever! To generate reverse one-time-pads that turn meaningless noise into the secrets of the Universe!
PROFESSOR: Yes, but then this wouldn’t be a very interesting television programme, would it?
COMPANION: Face it, Professor. It’s all been downhill since Series 3 anyway.

Professor Spacetime and the Ominous Secret

MYSTERIOUS FIGURE: And when the clock strikes twelve, his name shall be revealed!
PROFESSOR: No! That’s impossible! It can never be!
COMPANION: What’s the big deal? It’s just your name.
PROFESSOR: I forsook my name long ago… I am only the Professor now. There is an ancient prophecy that, should my name ever be revealed, the Universe will come to an end.
COMPANION: I don’t believe you.
PROFESSOR: What? Why?
COMPANION: Look, it’s just a name: an arbitrary ordering of sounds that can be produced by the Spacelord vocal tract. Since Spacelords are suspiciously primate-like, in every external feature, including the manner of their vocalizations, we can assume the physical constraints on the phonology of Spacelord languages are roughly the same as they are on human; therefore, the probability that, even after the virtual extinction of your species, some human somewhere in the wide universe has ever uttered a set of syllables which resembles your name approaches pretty near certainty. But the universe hasn’t yet ended.
PROFESSOR: But… but all this foreshadowing! All these ominous clues, building throughout this series!
COMPANION: It’s something far more sinister, I’m afraid. Do you think your name could ever actually be revealed onscreen? The fact that you’re merely the Professor is one of the few interesting things about you.
PROFESSOR: It can’t be!
COMPANION: It is. I’m afraid the showrunner’s just been writing himself into a corner.
PROFESSOR: No! That means—
COMPANION: Yes. The finale is going to be incredibly disappointing.

Professor Spacetime and the Christmas Special

THE CLOISTER BELL SOUNDS, SIGNALLING IMMINENT DISASTER

PROFESSOR: Quickly, my dear! Reverse the polarity on the temporal stabilizers!
COMPANION: It’s no use! We’ll never break free in time!
PROFESSOR: Never say never, my dear! I’ll try to rephase the inertial dampeners with a blast of neutrino radiation from the timecore. Hold on!
COMPANION: The saccharine singularity is about to devour the ship!
PROFESSOR: Try to generate as much cynicism as you can! We can’t take another blast of mawkish cliches!

A BLAST OF SNOW ERUPTS FROM THE CONTROL CONSOLE, THROWING THE PLUCKY COMPANION ACROSS THE ROOM; THE DISTANT JINGLE OF BELLS IS HEARD

PROFESSOR: Damn it all!
COMPANION: Professor, I— I think I’ve been affected!
PROFESSOR: Resist, my dear!
COMPANION: I can feel it coming over me, Professor! Holiday cheer! The urge to repeat sentimental nonsense!
PROFESSOR: But it’s absurd, my dear! Remember that! We’re nowhere near Earth, you’re the only human for billions of light-years! What possible relevance could a culturally specific human religious holiday have to our present circumstances?
COMPANION: It’s no use, Professor! I can’t shake the feeling that, somehow…
PROFESSOR: Fight it!
COMPANION: …science ficiton should never make us uncomfortable!

Professor Spacetime and the Planet of the Babyeaters

COMPANION: Why, Professor, that’s the third planet this week we’ve visited that’s reinforced our parochial, middle-class British values!
PROFESSOR: Uncanny, isn’t it? Hundreds of worlds, and our biggest moral dilemma so far is whether I’m allowed to seduce you pre-watershed.

The Naming of the Stars

Memorandum of the Contact and Cultural Exchange to the settlement Iparaha: General Sciences divsion From: Dr Renée ISHIKAWA, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy) To: Dr Mara SHANG, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy)

August 11, 2206

Dr Shang,

I know the university senate has been eager for a more substantial update, especially after the worrying communique the UN mission received in July; you can reassure them that such an update is on its way, and that we’re all fine here. Yes, there was a small diplomatic incident, in that the Chereni did eat a couple of members of the diplomatic corps, but it was a genuine misunderstanding, and for what it’s worth, they do feel terrible about it. We’ve been hard at work building bridges with our hosts here at Iparaha, and the governing committee of the Exchange is putting finishing touches now on a pretty comprehensive document on the Chereni in re: the possibility of mutually beneficial scientific and economic exchange between our two species. Though the contents of the report are supposed to remain classified until the General Assembly has time to go over it, I can tell you that things are looking extremely promising. Aside from the aforementioned mixup, the Chereni are quite the peaceful people, and are as eager to learn from us, as we are from them.

As comprehensive as the report is going to be, though, we’ve learned so much in so short a time we couldn’t possibly fit everything in it. The general outlines of Chereni biology, history, culture, law, religion, etc., are there, and I’ll leave it to the experts and exchange officers briefed in those fields to cover them. (In short: the Chereni are like us in a lot of ways, and unlike us in a lot of ways; once you get past the different evolutionary pressures that produced them, and some elementary differences in their perceptual systems, though, it’s more like than unlike – under the slime and the scales, they’re basically human.) But there are some things that aren’t going to make it into the report, for reasons of time and space; of particular interest to me was the Chereni approach to astronomy. Well, not astronomy exactly, but astronomical nomenclature. In short: on the Cheren homeworld, the poets named the stars.

A little background: the arc of Chereni history has been pretty different from Earth’s – not surprising, given the environmental and biological differences, to say nothing of psychological – but it’s just as long and complicated, and I can’t hope to give you anything like a reasonable summary, so you will have to forgive me in advance for butchering it with crude analogies to our own. But there was a period, a few centuries ago, very roughly analagous to the scientific revolution on Earth, when it looked like the general trend of Chereni science and culture (and the interaction between the two) might’ve followed something like the trajectory they did on Earth: science as the province of socioeconomic elites, with time and money to spare, efforts being concentrated by something like universities or national academies, plus elite sponsorship, producing the ancestor of the modern research institution, and so on and so forth. But there was a political upheaval and, to cut a long and boring story short, the first Cheren Enlightenment fizzled. It didn’t die out, but it didn’t have anything like the impact the Enlightenment on Earth did, and the first, tentantive steps of scientific exploration and systematization of thought didn’t lead to anything much. Experiment and empiricism became the province mostly of a few minor religious orders, who laid a lot of the groundwork for the second Enlightenment. But they weren’t much interested in astronomy.

You see, the atmosphere of the Cheren homeworld is thicker than Earth’s. It lets some light through – they say about as much as a very cloudy day here at Iparaha – but their world is further from their sun than Earth is, and has to trap quite a lot of heat so that the surface remains inhabitable. There are very high mountains and plateaus where the clouds thin enough that you can see the stars, but the Chereni can’t survive any better than humans at those altitudes, so there wasn’t much in the way of ancient astronomy. The advent of radio helped a little – natural radio sources in the sky at least got them looking up – but the heavens never captured the Chereni imagination the way they did the human. Their gods were always walking among them, invisible; the skies were like the seas or the caves below the earth, supposed to be filled with demons and monsters, and the unhappy dead.

So even within the scientific fringe, slowly building the foundations of methodical empiricism during this great medium aevum, astronomy was a further fringe; it wasn’t the monks who tried to study the stars, venturing to the high mountaintops and the margins of the great uplands to make fleeting observations of the few visible stars, but mystics and wild-eyed hermits. Even the Chereni can’t account for why they did. I have my own suspicions – and they have to do with the feeling that infects the soul the first time you stand in a place like the Atacama Desert and look up at the night sky – but they remain suspicions, and pretty anthropocentric ones at that. These early astronomers weren’t versed in the religious language which was later adapted to scientific vocabulary, in the way the educated elite of Europe adapted Greek and Latin to science, and their jargon had little in common with the rest of early Chereni science, which only deepened the split. But they weren’t astrologers. They had no truck with gods and myths when they measured the stars – for, after all, among the Chereni, the gods walk the land, not the skies.

When the real Enlightenment came to the Chereni, when the scientific method finally exploded out of the cloisters and the scriptoria, the revolution was as swift and thorough as it was on Earth. Maybe even more so. But it didn’t sweep up astronomy, not at first. Astronomers were wild and dangerous back then – weirdos, not scientists. By the time the mainstream Chereni scientific establishment was ready to treat them seriously, a whole parallel subculture had emerged when it came to the study of the stars. True, they were every bit as systematic and rigorous as the scientists; but the astronomers had no truck with scientific jargon, distrusted dry technical language which was devoid of awe or appreciation of the phenomena it studied, and disagreed entirely with the implicit purpose of the Chereni scientific project. Their goal was not to understand the universe, they claimed, not as its own end. Their goal was nothing less than the transformation of the Cheren soul, in the crucible of beauty.

I’m quoting from an old astronomical treatise there, and not really doing the translation justice – please forgive me. Chereni grammar can be every bit as bloody-minded as human. Nowadays, of course, astronomy, like any other science/philosophy/scholarship, is regarded among the Chereni as one of many valid and interesting domains of knowledge, and probably without any inherent special purpose. It retains a distinct vocabulary, though, and in Chereni schools is usually more associated with what we would mostly call humanities and social sciences: literary and digital criticism, linguistics, conlanging, and sociology. But that’s a historical artifact.

But when I first sat down with my Chereni colleagues to compare our star charts, what really struck me were the names. That’s probably their biggest inheritance from their ancestors. You see, on Earth, we have to rely on photographs to convey the wonder of science to the public. And sometimes, even the pictures don’t do it justice; you see something a hundred times, you forget how special it is, even if it’s a photograph taken from the surface of a barren planet five light years away, by an AI-controlled probe. Jupiter is Jupiter; you forget it’s also hundreds of times the size of Earth, an immense swirling sphere of storms, a world of endless clouds and wind. The Chereni don’t have that problem because, as I said, the poets named the stars.

Their names are systematic; they are precise. They classify objects as rigorously as we do, and though they slice their classifications a bit differently, they use mostly the same basic parameters. But every name for an alien world, or a distant sun in a Cheren language contains a little fragment of awe. They have nothing so banal as the Crab Nebula here at Iparaha, because the first time a Chereni saw it, she saw it through a powerful telescope, and to her it was as if she had seen a forest made of fire. So they named it Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, and that’s how it’s referred to in every encyclopedia, database, and scientific paper since. When they saw the Eagle Nebula, to them, too, it looked something like a great bird of prey sheltering newborn stars. They named it Cuizigan, after the devouring mother of myth, and they added the epithet, Mother of Stars. The planets of their home system are given names a little more mundane, but still evocative of their natures: Taius, the Ice-Clad, Vethrin of the Shroud, Ardal the Broken, and Gorhas, the Desert. Some names are long, nearly unwieldy; some are short and pithy. But every time they speak of these things, they use the name in full. I asked one of my interlocutors why, and she did a Chereni shrug. “Tradition,” she said. “But also this: it reminds us that these are the faces of nature at its wildest and strongest, and the appropriate feeling toward such beauty is always awe.”

Naturally, when Chereni physics and astronomy advanced to the point where true cosmology became a field of study, this habit of poetic astronomical nomenclature was extended to cosmological matters as well. Because actual telescopic astronomy was so hobbled by Cheren’s atmosphere, the two actually developed hand-in-hand for much of the last three centuries. Just as we use metaphorical handles to deal with astrophysical phenomena beyond our comprehension, so do they; but I must give the Chereni credit. Theirs are far more beautiful. There is nothing so mean or naked as “the Big Bang” or the “steady-state model” in Chereni cosmology. They call the former Talasendrion, the ancient word their gnostics use for the birth of God. Sometimes, also, I have seen it named the Elemental Fire, but I believe this more usually corresponds to what we call Planck epoch. The latter is Choraselos, the Universe of Order; your opinion may vary on whether it is an appropriate name, but to the Chereni it carries all of the weight of the hope of a knowable and comfortable universe which inspired it there, as here. Supernovae, I am told, are given a dozen different names depending on the type, but they are grouped together within the “ephemeral and trembling stars,” which include also novae and some variable stars. Among stellar remnants, they speak of white dwarfs, “the white and dying flame,” neutron stars as “the mighty anchor-stones of the sky,” and for black holes they have a word which alludes to the ancient Cheren fear of oblivion, which my companion, shuddering, declined to speak aloud.

You may think that science among humans can be poetic, and until I came to Iparaha, I thought so, too. Certainly, we have our occasional turns of phrase; I am reminded of the old Hubble image, which was given an almost Chereni title, “The Pillars of Creation.” We have occasionally named the surfaces of our worlds with something approaching their majesty: the Labyrinth of Night, on Mars; or the Ocean of Storms. But these names are either informal (as for the Pillars), or rendered distant and sterile by languages whose use connotes all things Scientific and Rational, all things seperated from Emotion and Art. The odd popularizer of science has tried to bridge the gap: Sagan, for instance, when he wrote that bit about “what men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but not if he were an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia?” But Sagan wasn’t really a poet, or not a very good one, and his attempt to reclaim something of poetic majesty for astronomy, though admirable, was not quite up to snuff.

But, ah! The Chereni astronomers could put Shakespeare to shame. I can’t read the language they use here at Iparaha very well – it’s logographic, like Chinese, though they do have terminals that display phonetic symbols for children, and that’s mostly what we’ve been relying on. So I’ve struggled through a few astronomical papers that my hosts have provided. Jesus, Mara, you should read these papers. Hell, even just their encyclopedias. Just as ours tend to adopt the scientific tone when writing about scientific matters, so their adopt the poetic tone when writing about astronomy, or astrophysics. We may speak of the Crab Nebula as a remnant of a supernovae, a pulsar’s nebula in the direction of Taurus. The Chereni speak of Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, whose boughs of a thousand colors reach toward their father, the corpse of a shattered star that sings his death-song in the radio frequency, whose music causes his children to weep and burn. I can’t do it justice, really. There’s a specific vocabulary of usage here: the word they use for “weep” recalls the blue of synchronotron radiation. Their words for “radio” and “frequency” have nothing of the connotation we give them, of technology and wavy imagined lines. In all my years working in astronomy, or teaching it, I have seen nothing like the Chereni papers, and felt nothing like the awe their scientist-poets induce. Mara, I’ve never wept while reading about exoplanets before – but that’s what the Chereni have reduced me to.

I’m working on preparing a short paper on the Chereni approach to astronomy; I expect I could probably get it published in one of the Martian cultural journals. I’d like to try to translate a couple of articles, too, but honestly, I’m just not sure English as we speak it now is up to the task. Our technical vocabulary is – well, too technical. I yearn for a form of the language that could be stripped of the legacy of the industrial revolution, recast in a form where progress and logical positivism weren’t baked into every Greco-Latin syllable at the expense of sorrow, and beauty, and art. Then, perhaps, I could begin to tell you of what the Chereni know of the serene beauty of Andromeda, or the achingly sad yearning they see in the redshifted galaxies at the cosmic horizon; or the bewitching mystery of the Great Attractor, or the loneliness and the silence of the Boötes Void. But alas! We never let our poets explain the universe to us. We will have to let the Chereni do it for them.

Dr Renée Ishikawa HLRN: TA455671(ce) University of New Berlin Department of Astronomy

In the driver’s seat

Unlike the the leash-led RPGs and adventure games that predated it, Mass Effect was about letting you respond honestly to the events that happen around you and then holding you responsible for your actions. Nowhere is this better expressed or emphasized than the moment you have control again after each post-mission cut scene: you advisors’ chairs empty, the next thing you do (take a step forward, go release the apocryphal zerg-Eve into the wild, whatever) is under your control, and you’ll take the blame for it too. This screenshot depicts what may be a watershed moment in designing storytelling games.

Shai-Hulud; Planned Parenthood

Discussed in this essay:
  • Dune (1984), dir. David Lynch
  • Prometheus (2012), dir. Ridley Scott

I was once at a conference at the Free University of Berlin at which the Cambridge classicist Simon Goldhill was speaking about interdisciplinary work at universities and, finding him at my table at the awkward reception afterward, I chose to make small talk by asking him about his own discipline. I wanted to know which translation of the Iliad I, as a casually interested person, should read: Pope or Fagles? He told me to read Fagles if I was interested in the Iliad and Pope if I was interested in the seventeenth century.

My first thought when Kyle MacLachlan climed on the back of a sandworm in David Lynch’s truly bizarre adaptation of the 1965 sci-fi novel Dune was of Prof Goldhill, because some wicked post-disco 80s guitar rock started grooving. Dune is, in a striking number of ways, a movie about the nineteen-eighties.

Talk of differences between ‘the movie’ and ‘the book’ makes me ill; to do so is to believe that there is some kind of conceptual ur-work of which ‘the movie’ and ‘the book’ are both just versions – the Platonic ideal of Dune, that exists outside either – and that is pretty dumb. One is a derivative of the other, but both are independent works of art. Nevertheless, I think a comparison is sometimes enlightening: what the deriver chooses to bring with him and what he chooses to discard; what he chooses to emphasize and what he chooses to change; the original casts an interpretive shadow over its derivative. Dune ‘the movie’ picked up on the villain’s homosexuality in Dune ‘the book’ and added a disgusting, disfiguring disease on top of it, because everyone was terrified of AIDS. (Other commentators have gone so far as to point out that the villain’s disease in the film mimics the symptoms of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the late-stage AIDS complication that was the hallmark of infection in the early 1980s.) The introduction to the antagonist clan, the Harkonnen, pans across a medical facility where body parts are harvested from red-headed lookalikes (think Martin Amis’ In the Palace of the End) to maintain the Baron’s ‘beauty’: AIDS and the gay men who carry it are a terrifying, cannibalistic (flesh-destroying in the real world, but a Harkonnen nephew breaks of a piece of a servant and eats it in the film) evil in 1984. Gross.1

Likewise, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is about whatever we are calling the second decade of the twenty-first century. (The twenty-teens?) And you can tell that it is because the humans portrayed in the film spend trillions of dollars, two years, and all their energy trying to find out what their lives mean. The navel-gazing of the postmodern era has evidently become so intense that even when we look up at the stars, the only thing we can see anymore are our own belly buttons. The hired hands of the good ship Introspection do not want to know how the ancestor species created us; they do not want to know whether they created others; they have not set out to discover or prove that we are alone in the universe: they want to know why. The human-made sentient android aboard ship provides the complete and only answer (say it with me: ‘because they could’), but none of the wild egomaniacs in his company want to accept it.

There are other levels on which this is true of both films: Dune as a Cold War film is concerned with geopolitics in a way that would put contemporary audiences to sleep. Likewise, when the Final Girl in Prometheus discovers that she is alien-pregnant, she first cannot bring herself to ask the surgery machine for an abortion (it may have been my imagination, but I think she actually hesitated a second before using the pro-life-friendly term ‘caesarean’), and second is told (Oh, convenient escape!) that the surgery machine is only programmed for male patients, and so the procedure performed on her by the machine – in what is surely one of the most horrifying sequences ever printed onto film stock – is called an ‘abdominal foreign body removal’, something that Santorum and Steinem can both agree on.

But the true moment of juxtaposition comes at the beginning of ‘Dune’Dune and the end of Prometheus, and it is when both films address the essential nature of human beings. At the outset of Dune, the Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit has come to test young Paul Atreides with a poison needle known as the gom jabbar, which ‘only kills animals’. The implication is that if Paul can suppress his instinctual urge to withdraw his hand from the pain box, then reason triumphs over base urges, and that makes him human.

At the very end of Prometheus, the Final Girl is talking to Michael Fassbender’s disembodied head on the edge of the alien spaceship (long, boring story), and he asks her why she intends to continue to seek out the creator-race even though they seem hell-bent on destroying humanity. Is it to stop them? Is it to save other races? No, it’s to ask why they want to kill us, even though this question has been answered truly ad nauseam over the past two hours. Say it with me: Because. They. Can. And what is to blame for this pigheadedness, this triumph of base urges over all reason? You guessed it: Final Girl can’t control herself ‘because I am a human being’. I don’t know what Ridley Scott thinks that his humanity consists of, but one thing’s for sure: he wouldn’t have lasted a minute with the Reverend Mother.


  1. I actually resist this reading of Dune ‘the book’ for the same reason that I resist racist readings of The Lord of the Rings – the villain is gay in 1965 for the same reason that the armies of evil dudes are black in 1945: in both cases, the authors are guilty of lazy, prejudicial atmospheric shorthand, but in neither case did they particularly distinguish themselves from the mainstream society at the time. That is to say: neither book is about how being gay or being black is bad; there is simply an opportunity for a critic to advise modern audiences that neither author distinguished himself as a paragon of progressive thought. [back]

The Essential Unreality of Star Trek

Discussed in this essay:
  • Star Trek (1966-1969)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
  • Star Trek V: The Undiscovered Country (1989)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
  • Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)

One of the features of Star Trek that I have always found most striking is the show’s essential unreality. I don’t mean the fact it’s science fiction (obviously), the fact its plots are of the adventure-escapism style (common enough), or the fact its deals largely in exaggerations and archetypes in order to make its points (necessary in an episodic one-hour television format). Even given all the assumptions of the form and the genre in which Star Trek operates, the show has a degree of essential weirdness – a weirdness of a very narrow, particular type, mind – that runs through every incarnation. It was probably at its lowest ebb in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and at its highest in the original series, but for the purposes of this post, the examples I have in mind are mostly from the original series and Star Trek: Voyager.

The unreality of Star Trek manifests itself in a variety of ways, but is of a single essential type. I think of things like the child-captain of the Fesarius (and the ship itself), the Crystalline Entity, the many episodes concerned with interiority and mental landscapes, and the way that the omnipotent aliens the series inevitably encounters have the strange habit of transposing the various crews to other times and settings, to play out stories in genres not their own. Much of this is common to the type of science fiction that prefers to play faster and looser with things like physics, the suspension of disbelief, and consistent writing, but even when Star Trek is doing nothing unusual for the pulpier kinds of science fiction, its manages its own special brand of weirdness.

An example: In Caretaker, Voyager is, after the introduction of a starship full of obvious redshirts, transported to the far side of the galaxy at the behest of the series’ plot engine. After the immediate consequences are dealt with (swept away the dead crew members, put out the fires, stopped a warp core breach), the first proper scene set in the Delta Quadrant is aboard the Caretaker’s Array – in a holographic simulation made up like a creepy Southern farm, like something lifted straight from the pages of Ray Bradbury. This is a choice made time and time again in Star Trek: something weird has happened/is happening, the crew approaches the liminal threshold, the edge of what has been established as normal in this science fiction universe, and bam, they’re ejected from the premise entirely. The 24th century peels away, and something else takes its place.

Why? Well, it could be shoddy writing – writers who can’t come up with anything better or weirder than a fallback to Alien Simulation of Earth History. The trouble with this hypothesis is that Caretaker is easily one of the strongest episodes in Voyager’s whole seven-year run (a problem which will be the subject of a different post entirely), and use of this trope has produced both very strong episodes – Far Beyond the Stars – as well as more middling ones and some outright stinkers. Translation of time and place (often using time travel or the holodeck) is common in a more general context, even outside the immediate concerns (indeed, some would say any of the concerns) of a franchise set mostly in the context of space exploration.

The common factor here seems to be liminality. Star Trek is all about thresholds – barriers of knowledge, barriers of space and time, barriers of memory, and barriers of human capability.1 The essential weirdness of Star Trek is, in part, a way to confront those barriers, and as often as not, the (sometimes gossamer-thin) science fiction premise is just a way to set up a threshold, one of interiority, essentially psychological in nature, and then attempt to see what’s on the other side. The interior aspect of Trek’s approach to the liminal is most chronically apparent in the original series – episodes like The Corbomite Maneuver, The Menagerie, A Piece of the Action, The Immunity Syndrome, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, and The Savage Curtain2 all have premises that are, no two ways about it, weird. They’re strange even for science fiction, apparently razor-thin justifications for far-out ideas whose unusual nature is hardly justified by things like the expense restrictions for television shows and the excuse-generators of the setting; and the list above is hardly exhaustive. Trek is plainly not concerned with exploring science fiction concepts in a science fiction setting, though it does do that sometimes, too, as a means to an end. More generally, it seems to be concerned with posing a kind of searching self-examination – an examination essentially psychological, and inwardly-directed. To put it another way: I don’t think Star Trek has ever genuinely sought to pass comment on broader philosophical or social issues. Something inherent in the nature of the series prevents that, and it is only able to deal with such matters when it does so through the lens of self-examination – how the individual must position him- or herself with respect to the social or theoretical complex under consideration. One of the most obvious examples is the original series episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, which treats racism through the lens of personal hate, or the countless forays of the series into questions of religion and belief, always in the particular sense: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Mortal Coil, Barge of the Dead, anything in Deep Space Nine involving the Prophets.

The inward-looking nature of Star Trek goes a long way toward explaining why it is so different from other science fiction, even other adventury or Utopian soft sci-fi. There is very little of the Flash Gordon, the John Carter, or the Culture here, and if this vision of the galaxy often seems hallucinatory and claustrophobic, it’s because the various captains and crews the franchise follows are engaging us on a journey as much internal as external, as much about dealing with psychological constructions as space adventures. This is an area that has traditionally been a domain of fantasy, legend, and myth: works like Gawain and the Green Knight that use external landscape, reflected through a kind of psychological form, in order to probe interior spaces in the guise of adventure to far-off countries. Tolkien is also good for this in spots, especially in his short works like Farmer Giles of Ham and Leaf by Niggle. So is China Miéville. But this has rarely been the raison d’etre of science fiction, and still more rarely is it competently done. There were occasionally shades of this in the fiction of Ray Bradbury and Roger Zelazny, but they never developed it really well; the only author I can think of who did it with anything like the thoroughness in Star Trek is Philip K. Dick, though his particular brand of weirdness often put him so far into the inner territory he came right out the other side babbling on like an acid flashback (here’s looking at you, Liars, Inc.).

It is of course nothing new to observe that science fiction often deals in exaggerations and archetypes – indeed, it’s so obvious as to be trivial. But I don’t think that straight-up simplifications of reality are what Star Trek is about, and it would be a mistake, even when it’s at its most preachy and ham-handed, to write Trek off as a stab at a simplified model of our own world, defamiliarized through the lens of science fiction. There is a more fundamental negotiation going on within Star Trek, one which I haven’t often encountered in television shows, and if for no other reason I think it is why Trek’s popularity has endured, despite its obvious shortcomings. It isn’t because sci-fi fans devour it indiscriminately. While that might have once been true, the market has been too large now for decades, and the demand for good sci-fi too strong. Rather, I think it is because Star Trek shows us our compelling desire to know ourselves, as well as the world around us, and it’s capable of tapping that desire and pulling something interesting out of it, even in its weakest moments.3


  1. Or, in the case of Threshold, the barrier on how much suck human intelligence can cram into forty-five minutes of television. [back]

  2. Can we just take a moment and appreciate the glory that are the titles of episodes in the original series? [back]

  3. Except Threshold. Seriously, fuck that episode. [back]