Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Star Trek revisited

One of the formative influences in my childhood was science fiction. Because of my later studies in history and religion, people think I am oriented towards the past, but deep down I am far more interested in the future. Last weekend, I enjoyed watching the latest Star Trek movie together with my teenage son, another early convert to futurism.

The late 1960s, when I was in primary school and already a voracious reader, our parish library stocked a good amount of the output of the science fiction boom. On our first TV set at home, we saw several SF serials, like Orion (German), the Thunderbirds, and of course Star Trek. Fiction mirrored reality, for man was landing on the moon, an event for which my mother woke me up to come and watch it live on TV. Pop singers chimed in too, such as David Bowie with his Space Oddity.

Looking back, I wonder how I could be a devout Catholic and an SF fan at the same time. Religion was totally absent from it. And whenever religion popped up, it was either some imaginary Pagan cult vaguely based on Pharaonic Egypt of Aztec Mexico, or East-Asian religion. Japan was a futuristic country in those days, expected to lead the world in the magic year 2000. In the SF landscape, Christianity and Islam were totally out of the picture.

One character supposed to be a little odd, but who looked totally convincing to me, was Mr. Spock, a native of the planet Vulcan. Then already I found it a little weak that so much was made of his lack of emotions, his solid reliance on "logic". The message was that emotions are what makes us human. Well, three cheers for Vulcanic logic. Emotionalism and lack of self-control have caused a lot of misery in this world. In the new movie, the younger Spock, son of a Vulcan father and a human mother, falls in love and loses his temper. The first is fine with me, the second had better stayed under the Vulcan carpet forever.

Another afterthought on the space age of the late 1960s concerns its political and ideological impact. One of the old certainties of human existence and indeed of life on this planet was the contrast between heaven and earth. Heaven was what you looked up to, earth what you stood on. Science started breaking down this neat contrast by showing that the same laws of motion applied on earth as they do in heaven, or that the same chemical elements found on earth also exist in the stars and planets. In 1969, a man completed this process by setting foot on a celestial body, the moon.

Now, doesn't the wave of anti-authoritarianism characteristic of those years make perfect sense against this background? If the utterly fundamental relation between heaven and earth can change, then why not that between teacher and pupil, between rulers and subjects, between parents and children, between man and woman? A lot of SF literature (I hardly recall specific titles, but this one I do: Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, a vision of utopia centred around a man from Mars adapting to life on earth) explored the sociological and ethical possibilities opened up by the breakthrough to space. In the present wave of conservative rejection of the "May 68" legacy, I would counsel a more positive appreciation for the sense of omnidimensional new possibilities.

The one phenomenon that makes ever less sense is the renewed popularity that the unimaginative ideology of Marx and Lenin then enjoyed, apparently boosted by its political and military successes in less advanced parts of the globe. It didn't fit the space age at all, as also indicated by its subsequent collapse. Its ruthless concept of power was atavistic, dinosauric. Though perhaps "bold", it was not at all the kind of entreprise "where no man has gone before".

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