To Boldly Go

By Lynette Kirschner

Spock and Captain Kirk
Spock and Cap­tain Kirk

Okay, I am going to have to out myself here see­ing that it’s the 50th anniver­sary. I am a trekkie! I grew up with Cap­tain Kirk, Spock, and Lt. Uhu­ra. The crew and adven­tures of Star Trek are to blame for my life­long inter­est in sci­ence fic­tion. Well, the moon land­ing is also up there on my list. Why sci­ence fic­tion, you ask?

For me, the trip into the unknown future is always a jour­ney into the psy­che of the zeit­geist. What was the world like then, and what did peo­ple fear, adore, or hope for? That is sci-fi for me. Take Star Trek. Look­ing at the orig­i­nal six­ties series from today’s per­spec­tive makes it seem anti­quat­ed and quaint, but it was cut­ting edge back then. A Russ­ian on the bridge togeth­er with an Amer­i­can? A Black woman on the bridge? The Cold War was cool­ing down, but ani­mos­i­ty was still run­ning high. The Civ­il Rights Act of 1964 had just been passed when Gene Rod­den­ber­ry wrote a sci-fi TV series which, after some changes, even­tu­al­ly end­ed up as Star Trek, first air­ing in 1966. Def­i­nite­ly, this pro­gram pushed the enve­lope of social progress with one of the first inter­ra­cial kiss­es on TV.

Star Trek is also about sci­ence and how tech­nol­o­gy influ­ences soci­ety. For exam­ple, every­one takes slid­ing doors for grant­ed. How­ev­er, it wasn’t until Star Trek that they were invent­ed and then used. A coin­ci­dence you say? After all, it was only a sto­ry. What else did Star Trek come up with? Cell phones — that is why some of the first ones opened up just like the ‘com­mu­ni­ca­tor’ in Star Trek. Then you have PCs, tablets, large screens, wire­less ear pieces, and portable stor­age devices. There is still some debate as to whether the repli­ca­tor, or food syn­the­siz­er as it was called in the orig­i­nal series, is actu­al­ly in use today. Let’s face it: sci­ence fic­tion changes society.

But what about the aca­d­e­m­ic per­spec­tive? Accord­ing to the late Carl Sagan, for­mer Pro­fes­sor of Astron­o­my and Space Sci­ences at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, sci­ence fic­tion is like the ‘chick­en or egg’ ques­tion. Do authors dream it and sci­en­tists invent it? Or is it the sci­en­tif­ic inven­tions that allow an author to dream? Either way, it is about how we per­ceive society.

How and what should our future look like? Sci­ence fic­tion allows uneth­i­cal exper­i­men­ta­tion when look­ing for answers to this ques­tion. For­tu­nate­ly, sci­en­tists can’t release lethal virus­es and ter­ra form plan­ets or estab­lish evil tech­noc­ra­cies and post-apoc­a­lyp­ti­cal gov­ern­ments. How­ev­er, this is done in sci­ence fic­tion, enabling the read­er to see what might hap­pen if these things were actu­al­ly done. As an instruc­tor, sci-fi also gives me an oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage stu­dents’ intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty and help them craft sol­id argu­ments — whether it is about ana­lyz­ing tech­nol­o­gy or society.

So the next time you read sci­ence fic­tion or watch a sci-fi flick, ask your­self what social, polit­i­cal, or eco­log­i­cal ques­tions are being asked and how they are answered. But remem­ber to look at the release date because what was rev­o­lu­tion­ary in the six­ties may be com­mon­place today.

My tips to explore strange new worlds are: Isaac Asimov’s The Fran­chise (1955), Tobias S. Buckell’s Resis­tance (2008), Ursu­la K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Dark­ness (1969), and Pao­lo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009).

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Lynette Kirschn­er is a lec­tur­er at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty with a degree in Ger­man Lan­guage and Lit­er­a­ture. She likes all things strange, dif­fer­ent, and off beat and often lets her stu­dents get geeky in class.