May 22, 2009

Star Trek, the Chinese and the traditionalism of science fiction

Well, since I’m already a dork I’m going to talk Trek again as Richard’s post brought up a lot of interesting issues, and he started it (again). I’m not hardcore Trekkie, I haven’t even watched all the films, and haven’t read more than one Star Trek novel (Spock’s World, for the record). Nevertheless in my younger days I was an avid consumer of science fiction and so have always taken an interest in Star Trek (though like many fans of science fiction in book form I tend to get irritated with the conflation of SF in TV & film with science fiction as a whole). Over the years of watching the shows on and off, and using the marvelous facilities of the internet, I’ve apparently collected a fair amount of Trek lore which I can divulge to those unfamiliar with the “canon.”

First, Richard’s observation that Vulcans resemble Jews is entirely defensible. Leonard Nimoy is of course Jewish, and his own background bled into the Spock character, who he basically created over time. And most obviously some of the exoteric aspects of Vulcan culture were derived from Judaism through the Nimoy’s input. Additionally Gene Roddenberry, a classic post-World War II liberal, added the Spock character with his visible differences from the other humans in the Enterprise crew to generate storylines which were obvious comments on race relations in the 1960s. The relationship between humanity and the Other in science fiction is going to have to co-opt preexistent motifs, in the West the relationship between Jews and gentiles is going to be clearly one which makes intelligible some interspecies relationships. But I think there’s an even more accurate model of which human culture the Vulcans resemble, and that is the Chinese.

Jews and Judaism as we understand it today can not be understand without the West as a whole because the Jewish nation did not control its own fate until relatively recently with the emergence of Israel. What we term “Orthodox Judaism” is actually a particular Jewish tradition which managed to survive the rise of Christianity, and later Islam, and crystallized into its current form between the year 500 and 1000 AD. Though Spock’s role on the Enterprise deck to add species diversity which could be worked into the plot, the Vulcans live on a world where they control their own destiny and have produced a relatively homogeneous culture. In this way they resemble the Chinese, who developed their own self-understanding as the only civilized people in the known world. Like the Chinese (and the Jews) the Vulcans are obsessed their own history and antiquity (though since their life spans are on the order of 400-500 years their perspective would be a little different from ours), and like the Chinese it seems that their obsession with logic, their customs and traditions, serve to tame their natures and channel their impulses. To me the Vulcan fixation on logic does not resemble Talmudic Judaism as much as it does Confucianism, which if not necessarily logical, fixated on intellectual self-cultivation by an elite who navigated the amoral imperatives of autocratic Legalism and the utopianism of philosophies such as Moism. The Vulcan philosopher Suvak seems to be a Confucian of his age.

Finally onto the general points about the deracinated humans and aliens with a “thick” cultural matrix, I totally agree with Richard. Gene Roddenberry was a liberal atheist who was affected by the modernist ethos of his era (as well as pulp science fiction). The humans in the Star Trek universe reflect that, they are atheists (explicitly acknowledged in some of the later series). The Ferengis are villains who are based on capitalist Yankee traders; capitalism, materialism, etc. are all -isms which humanity has outgrown. On the other hand the aliens seem to have many very human tendencies sociologically. There is a reason that the Bajorans of Deep Space Nine are analogized to the Poles, with their religious sensibility, nationalist self-conception and resentment toward their Cardasian oppressors. One can imagine a simple reason for this: in science fiction the humans can seem quite alien because we still think of them as humans, but aliens have to be imbued with human characteristics to make them compelling. Science fiction is theoretically a genre of radical ideas, but like all narrative it needs to contend with the hardwired aspects of human nature. A good story is a good story, and has to follow its precedents, no matter what shape the protagonist takes.

OK, I think I’ve expended all the nerd capital I have for a bit now….

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