The economics of the future is somewhat different… The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. — Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: First Contact
I’ve been thinking about the quote above for the last few weeks, ever since I stumbled across the film on IMDb. I think it expresses perfectly my most fervent wishes for the future of capitalism… which are, in essence, that it be peacefully and utterly obliterated and replaced with something more altruistic and less destructive. (You didn’t actually think capitalism was the end of history, did you? Sorry to burst your bubble.) May greed and profit at long last die… and well before the 24th century.
I often wonder whether those who scoff at the science fiction genre understand how frequently it serves to propagate ideas as revolutionary as that one. Is the general public aware, for example, that the first interracial kiss in television history occurred in 1968 during the first Star Trek series, when Captain Kirk planted a hot one on Lieutenant Uhura (admittedly while under the influence of an alien being, mind you — and aside from an innocent peck Sammy Davis, Jr. gave to Nancy Sinatra on Movin’ with Nancy — but still)? Science fiction is often quite revolutionary stuff… most of which has historically only slipped by the censors and book burners because on the surface it seems like it’s all about aliens and spaceships.
For my money, the greatest progenitor of secretly-progressive science fiction stories is Gene Roddenberry, the visionary who created the world of Star Trek in 1966. The original three-year run of the series he created has, over the intervening four-and-a-half decades, spawned an entire fictional universe. The original show was resurrected first as a televised cartoon series, then as a collection of novels and short stories — the publication of which has continued to the present day — then as a series of films. It has since spawned four additional spin-off television series, a number of video games and graphic novels, and the recent re-boot of the film series helmed by J.J. Abrams. The number of Star Trek stories that have been told in all of the previous formats put together must number in the thousands.
Fiction, in this case, is only part of the story; the rest is real-life. Every single year, there are hundreds of Star Trek conferences all over the world. Klingon — an entirely artificial language created for Star Trek — has blossomed into a legitimate language with its own linguists and a fat dictionary; no less than Hamlet has been translated (and performed, as recently as last year) into its guttural grammar. Heck, one of the jurors at the Whitewater trial wore a Star Trek uniform to perform her civil service, citing the influence of the series on her ethics.
I wonder, in all of human history, whether any other collection of stories has been as wildly successful at replicating throughout the mind of the world. All the contenders — the Old Testament chief among them — have several centuries’ worth of a head start. After only forty-plus years, millions upon millions of us are familiar with Star Trek in one or more of its incarnations. How were Aesop’s fables doing, do you think, after that amount of time? How about Grimm’s fairy tales? It’s at least close. Give Star Trek time to play catch up and we’ll do another comparison in, say, 2243.
More important than their broad appeal, I believe, is the coherent vision the Star Trek stories express: one in which humans have found peaceful ways to settle their differences; in which our daily endeavors are motivated by curiosity and compassion; in which we’ve thrived and expanded our presence throughout the galaxy, learning more and more about the nature of existence. It is impossible to underestimate what that vision does for us. What we dream, we can become; the stories we consume shape our minds, the structure of our thoughts. Star Trek shows us the way forward: much more so, I would argue, than (for example) the New Testament, which is hopelessly rooted in and corrupted by the ignorance of the past, for all its lovely poetry. I genuinely believe that at this moment in the evolution of our species, we need Star Trek far more than we need the Bible. (Not that we have to make a choice, of course.)
For all of this, as well as for the great pleasure his work has given me over the years, I praise Gene Roddenberry. I am and will forever be immensely grateful for what he’s given us, and what his inheritors have continued to give us over the years. His stories are all more vital to our survival, now and in the future, than most of us know.