Early this morning China successfully launched the core module of their new space station into Earth orbit. This station is the focus of the entire Chinese manned space program, at least for the near future, and represents the culmination of years of development and planning. Like all modern space stations, the massive installation will be assembled in orbit utilizing multiple launches, but the Chinese government expects the station to be completed by the end of 2022. There is no reason to expect that target can’t be met given their modest plans. Apart from expanding manned access to space, this station represents one more part of the Chinese government’s soft power exercise over the global scientific community.
A nation exercises soft power anytime they use some form of cultural influence on another nation, and this is a form of power that the United States practically invented during the Cold War. One might rightly ask why the United States government allows foreign scientists to conduct research at US government laboratories, and one justification is the exercise of soft power. A more straightforward term might be “good will.” It helps to have scientists on your side because scientists create new technologies and capabilities that governments want to exploit for economic or defense ends. Since the early 20th century the USA has been the go-to nation for scientists. That is a big part of why the US led technological innovation in the last century. The USA has a reputation for being the place where scientific innovation happens. It’s not a guarantee that reputation will continue.
With the launch of their space station, and the expectation that it will be fully operational within two years, China has offered up the opportunity to fly experiments to the international community. In fact, nine international experiments have already been selected to fly on the station through a program run in collaboration with the United Nations. It is no coincidence that China is opening up room on their station for international collaboration now, given that the US-led International Space Station will reach end of life in 2028. This isn’t the only place where China is looking to pick up the slack that America has dropped.
The recent unceremonious collapse of the beloved and iconic Arecibo telescope represented a major loss to radio astronomy. Many international researchers had built their entire careers at Arecibo, and many of these same researchers were left holding the bag when it collapsed. But fear not, astronomers, because China coincidentally announced that they would be opening their newer and larger radio telescope to international cooperation shortly after the collapse. The Chinese government will be granting 10% of the FAST telescope to international collaborators, with the remaining 90% going to Chinese researchers. Competition for that 10% will be fierce, as will attempts to get Chinese colleagues to submit proposals as co-authors to grab some of that 90%. (This is all above board, and is, quite frankly, how this form of soft power functions. You create a system to draw in foreign talent to boost your native talent, which means that you win, but everyone feels like they win something they want.)
China is not guilty of anything that the USA hasn’t been doing for years, namely exercising soft power to attract scientific talent and prestige. If anything, China is acknowledging that they recognize the importance of soft power and want to apply it in the realm of science and technology. When it comes to soft power China is a pro, and they coordinate across multiple efforts to get what they want. China looks to the USA and the way it has led the world for decades, and wants that role for itself, and is doing what it thinks it has to in order to achieve that goal.
Think I’m being paranoid? Allow me to introduce you to panda diplomacy.
I’ve written about how Star Trek struggles to handle the concept of religion, but that doesn’t mean that Star Trek can’t be interpreted through the language of religion. In fact, the greatest messianic figure in all of Trek lore is undoubtedly Zefram Cochrane.
First off, we should establish that Star Trek can be interpreted as a system of mythology, with myth being defined as “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people,” with those “people” being devout Star Trek fans – Trekkies or Trekkers. The idea being that the future-history of Star Trek shows us where our world can go if we put aside our hate; a future of racial integration, and a world without poverty or hunger. An alternative definition of myth is as a synonym for parable, being “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude,” which is a good description of how a lot of fans I grew up with thought about individual episodes of Star Trek.
According to Trek mythology, Zefram Cochrane was the human being that invented warp drive. He accomplished this task in a post-World War III apocalyptic waste, and almost single handed, with only the help of a Black woman that future-history has largely forgotten (which says a lot more than I can unpack here). As the story goes, Cochrane piloted the human race’s first faster-than-light spaceship, which attracted the attention of a passing Vulcan spacecraft. The Vulcans, learning that humans had discovered warp travel, land on Earth to introduce themselves.
These events are shown in the film Star Trek: First Contact, in which the Next Generation crew have to travel back in time to make sure the aforementioned first contact event happens as it is supposed to. Events force the crew to confront Zefram Cochrane and tell him who they are and what he has to do to bring about the human utopia portrayed in the rest of Star Trek lore. But the man they meet does not match up with the historical figure. This is not the visionary scientist they learn about in school. This man is a womanizer and an alcoholic. Cochrane later admits that he never built the ship for the reasons future generations think he did.
"I didn’t build this ship to usher in a new era for humanity… I built this ship so that I could retire to some tropical island filled with naked women. That’s Zefram Cochrane. That’s his vision. This other guy you keep talking about, this historical figure? I never met him. I can’t imagine I ever will."
Cochrane clearly asserts that he is not a saint, and from our perspective he certainly isn’t. But according to the parable of first contact that’s okay, because he hasn’t yet been spiritually transformed.
Star Trek is fairly unique among science fiction stories in that it portrays first contact with an alien race as an almost universally positive societal transformation. A lot of science fiction views first contact as a threat leading to annihilation, drawing parallels to historical “first contacts” between societies on Earth (i.e. Native American Indians and Columbus, or almost any country and the British). Still more science fiction views first contact in more mundane terms, being just another amazing thing that happens to technologically advanced societies that they learn to live with (the television series Babylon 5 comes to mind). First contact is different in Star Trek. At least for humanity, the knowledge that we are not alone in the Universe sparked a spiritual awakening and a golden age. The crew of the Enterprise tell Cochrane that his warp flight will “change everything.”
"It is one of the pivotal moments in human history, doctor! You get to make first contact with an alien race, and after you do, everything begins to change… It unites humanity in a way no one ever thought possible when they realize they’re not alone in the Universe. Poverty, disease, war, they’ll all be gone within the next fifty years. But unless you make that warp flight… none of it will happen."
Warp drive is a transformative technology in Star Trek. It is the point in a species’ technological development where it becomes okay for other alien races to introduce themselves. In the same way that the atom bomb resulted in mass societal change, faster-than-light travel magically unites a species for the common good. As a result, Zefram Cochrane is a messianic figure for the humans of Star Trek. Once a man consumed by hedonism, alcohol, and greed, when he became the first human to shake an alien’s hand he was spiritually transformed. Within him resides all of humanity, because they too will set aside their petty conflicts and stand together to feed the hungry, sooth the poor, and bring about true peace on Earth. They can do this not because of some technological advancement, but simply because they choose to. News of first contact triggers a global spiritual awakening and transforms our species in a few short decades. In a way, this is Star Trek’s origin myth, because through this one event the story world that we watch is made possible.
At least, that’s one way to look at it.
Let’s get something straight before we begin: I am neither pro- or anti-religion. I feel it’s necessary to lay that out at the beginning because there is a natural instinct in our society when reading anything about religion in popular culture to divine through the tea leaves the spiritual orientation of the author. My interest in how religion is discussed in Star Trek (and science fiction in general) is in the undeniable fact that religion is something that a vast number of humans continue to practice in their daily lives and, as such, religion is fair game for science fiction the same way any topic of human society is. Of course, if Star Trek never addressed religion that would be a point in and of itself, but from time to time Star Trek does address the topic of religion in various alien cultures. Since the aliens of Star Trek serve as reflections of contemporary Western society, how Trek approaches religion is a reflection of how the writers view religion. So how does Star Trek view religion?
First we should acknowledge that science fiction generally does a bad job of addressing religion, and science fiction television is a particularly poor venue. Perhaps the most deep reflections on religion in science fiction television come from the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, in which religion featured prominently throughout. I’m a huge fan of that series, and if you’re familiar with the show you might be aware that the final episode was extremely contentious and angered many fans (I’m not one of them). The final episode of Battlestar is the clearest indicator I’ve ever had of whether or not someone is comfortable with the concept of religion in science fiction. Can an atheist accept that God can exist in a work of fiction? In my experience there are a lot of atheist fans of science fiction for which the answer is a clear “no.” Truth is that Star Trek addressing religion at all is going to put the show in a precarious position. Which is why it’s so surprising that the show not only decides to touch on the topic, but so often fumbles it.
There are two episodes of Star Trek that stand out in my mind when thinking about religion. The first is the Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers”. In that episode the Enterprise races to a hidden anthropology research station which is studying a primitive Bronze Age alien race called the Mintakans. The Mintakans are described as “proto-Vulcan” meaning that although they are primitive they are “highly logical” and thus not superstitious. One of the Mintakans witnesses the Enterprise crew beaming away while the hidden observation post is temporarily made visible by a malfunction, which quickly convinces the Mintakans that gods do exist and that Captain Picard is their leader. The episode focuses on Picard’s attempts to undo the damage the Enterprise has inadvertently done to the Mintakan’s culture. At one point Counselor Troi, disguised as a Mintakan, is going to be sacrificed to please The Picard. Troi asks the man about to shoot her if he is certain that her death is what The Picard wants. “That’s the problem in believing in a supernatural being,” she says, “trying to determine what He wants.” This is a fair and true statement, but it is also not the logical trap that it is portrayed as in the episode. The overt statement made in the episode is that by making the naturally logical Mintakans once again believe in gods, the Enterprise has reverted their culture to a less developed state. Secular logic good. Religion bad. Science good. Faith in god bad. In the end Picard convinces the Mintakans that they are actually just technologically advanced aliens from another planet, which is clearly easier to believe than that they are gods, and nowhere near as horrible for their culture. In the end the leader of the Mintakans asks Picard to remember her people, and I couldn’t help but think Picard was wishing that they would all forget about his. Undoubtedly this culture was contaminated by an understanding of aliens from other worlds, which is somehow less problematic than a very natural belief in supernatural beings.
Another standout episode is from Voyager titled “Prophecy”. Seventy years into deep space, Voyager encounters a hundred year old Klingon ship which has been converted into a generation ship by a group of Klingon pilgrims in search of a savior. Their search is based on an ancient scripture, and they have searched for decades for the Klingon messiah. They come to believe that the pregnant B'Elanna Torres is carrying the messiah, and paste together some Nostradamus logic to make the case. This episode intrigued me, as it is a setup to explore some interesting issues between religion and the Federation belief system.
However the episode quickly deteriorates. We learn that the Klingon’s leader posses no faith, and is simply trying to save his people after the destruction of their ship. He wants to settle on a nearby planet, and is willing to use his people’s beliefs to manipulate them into settlement, asking the Voyager crew to assist in the deception. Captain Janeway agrees, and Torres helps the Klingon leader to manipulate the story of her life to fit the sacred scrolls. In the end, stem cells from Torres’s hybrid Klingon-Human fetus heal a disease the Klingon pilgrims have suffered from for decades, thus the messiah has healed their people and they settle on a nearby planet, never to be heard from or discussed again. Religion in this episode is nothing but a flawed belief system that fools adopt, leading their families to suffering and pain, and that can ultimately be used by leaders to exploit the masses. It has to be the single most cynical portrayal of religion in all of Star Trek, and the ease with which the supposedly enlightened Starfleet officers agree to exploit a community’s spiritual beliefs is shocking.
Any discussion of religion in Star Trek has to touch on the whole of Deep Space Nine, whose main character, Captain Benjamin Sisko, is found to be the Emissary of the gods of the Bajoran people. The Bajoran people have just recently exited from a Holocaust at the hands of their nearest celestial neighbors, the Cardassians. The gods of the almost universally adopted Bajoran religion are the Prophets, who scripture says reside in a “Celestial Temple” that is meant to be a physical place. Sisko discovers a stable wormhole near Bajor that is the home of a non-corporeal race of aliens that live outside time, which he quickly realizes to be the Prophets of the Bajoran faith, as they admit to guiding the Bajorans throughout history. The series explores the themes of belief in enigmatic gods and the influence religion can have on a troubled society. Even in this fertile ground most of the storylines that come up portray religion as a system of control (one recurring villain is the Bajoran Pope) or which dismisses the Prophets as nothing more than weird aliens. In numerous episodes Starfleet leadership argues with Sisko about the Prophets, calling them “wormhole aliens” and trying to either distance him from his role as the Emissary, or to get him to exploit his position to convince the Bajorans to join the Federation. Even when faced with the fact of an alien race that lives outside of time which frequently guides the Bajoran race, the Federation citizens criticize the Bajorans for their faith in these same beings. The Prophets never claim to be something they’re not, but still, religion is bad, even when that faith is placed in scientifically verifiable claims.
The ultimate issue is that Star Trek can never bring itself to acknowledge the most basic fact about religion: that religious faith gives many people comfort. This form of spiritual comfort is fundamentally incompatible with the Star Trek ethos because the utopia that the Federation embodies is one of materialistic comfort. Nobody is hungry, there is no poverty, and war is largely unheard of. The body is nourished, leaving only the mind. In the Federation, the mind is nourished by science and the freedom to pursue your worldly desires. But the basic comfort of belief in a higher power, in an ordering force for the Universe… that is absent from this utopia.
There is a closed mindedness that comes from this worldview, because if we embrace an unbending belief that religion is nothing but a cynical system of control for fools, that ignores the appeal of religion for many in modern society. This belief robs us of the opportunity to understand one another. It is a fact that religion has sometimes led to human suffering, but it is a fact that science has as well. Religion, like science, is not inherently good or evil, it is what we do with them that matters. A belief that religion is always bad is a belief that is simply not based on factual evidence, and Star Trek itself would criticize such a belief.
Adrienne LaFrance has a new article on The Atlantic today arguing that Facebook is a doomsday machine. Like, a Doctor Strangelove style doomsday machine. I admit that the metaphor is a bit over the top, but if 2016 did anything to me – and you can be certain that it did a lot to me – it was to make me question the value of social media as a whole. My day-to-day feelings toward social media are as favorable as you might expect from an aspiring writer with a blog. I definitely feel a love for social media since I’ve made so many great friends through it, and some of those friendships have outlasted my more “traditional” friendships by a decade or more. So to say that my relationship status with social media is complicated is a bit of an understatement.
As a result of my musings on science fiction I’ve recently developed a profound hope that the age of social media will be short lived. I dream that one day we’ll talk of social media in the “when I was your age” style of reminiscing reserved for holiday gatherings when it’s just too rude to completely ignore grandpa as he rambles on in his favorite recliner. You may think that social media is too big, too ingrained in our culture to disappear, but I submit that when a substantial segment of active users are questioning its value then the ground is readying for a shift. Former executives of both Google and Facebook have expressed regret over their role in social media corporations. They have said that social media serves as “amplifiers for idiots and crazy people” and are places where “no civil discourse, no cooperation” exist. They are clear to point out that this is “not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.” These are the same people that built these tech juggernauts pointing at their product and advising people not to use it. That’s more than a bit unusual, and as a result I think we should seriously listen to them.
As an avid reader of science fiction I’ve noticed that a surprisingly small amount of stories involve social media. Most often the evolution of smart phone technology is used for texting or encrypted communications, which is undoubtedly a direction that we’re heading. Very few of the stories I’ve read in the last few years have had anything like Facebook or Twitter, and when they do they are a primary focus of the story in order to comment (unfavorably) on the concept of social media; thus is the nature of science fiction at its best.
This general lack of social media in contemporary science fiction stories leads me back to The Nerdwriter’s excellent video on smart phones in blockbuster movies. Obviously, the presence of smart phones and social media are tightly coupled, but in his video (which I highly recommend) he argues that smart phones don’t show up in films whose primary goal is wide spread entertainment appeal because we resent these devices and what they’ve done to us. Similarly, I’d like to believe that speculative fiction authors leave out social media because they aren’t happy with what it has done to us.
Whether or not I’m correct that social media is just a wild phase of the adolescent internet, the article by LaFrance is thought provoking and has a lot of good linked articles for a deeper dive. After reading that maybe give that Nerdwriter video a watch and think for yourself about why smart phones often do nothing but serve as flip phones in blockbuster movies. As for me… I need to put links to this blog post on all my social media.
The Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region is one of the greatest ongoing atrocities in the world. Over one million ethnic Uyghurs have been imprisoned, relocated, and sent to forced labor camps where they make, among other things, Covid-19 masks. The treatment of Uyghurs is an unironic talking point for many Republican senators under the “China Bad” banner. So desperate are they to point at the liberal entertainment industry (under the unending “Liberals Bad” banner), that now Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is a Republican talking point.
The conflict centers around comments Liu made in an expansive and outstanding New Yorker interview from 2019 authored by Jiayang Fan. Normally careful to avoid politics, a few beers (mixed with Southern Comfort) were enough to get him to comment when asked about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. Fan reports that
he trotted out the familiar arguments of government-controlled media: “Would you rather that they be hacking away at bodies at train stations and schools in terrorist attacks? If anything, the government is helping their economy and trying to lift them out of poverty.” The answer duplicated government propaganda so exactly that I couldn’t help asking Liu if he ever thought he might have been brainwashed. “I know what you are thinking,” he told me with weary clarity. “What about individual liberty and freedom of governance?” He sighed, as if exhausted by a debate going on in his head. “But that’s not what Chinese people care about. For ordinary folks, it’s the cost of health care, real-estate prices, their children’s education. Not democracy.”
This quote was enough to make some Republican senators – specifically Marsha Blackburn (Tennessee), Rick Scott (Florida), Kevin Cramer (North Dakota), Thom Tillis (North Carolina), and Martha McSally (Arizona) – foam at the mouth. Hence an angry letter to Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos was written to demand that the CCO explain how Netflix could possibly produce a series adaptation of the international Hugo award winning bestseller. “Does Netflix agree that the Chinese Communist Party’s interment of 1.8 to 3 million Uyghurs in internment or labor camps based on their ethnicity is unacceptable?” the letter asks. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Netflix if they think the thousands of children held at the US-Mexico border under appalling conditions by the US Republican Party is unacceptable?
Fortunately, I’m not the CCO of Netflix, who responded by saying “We do not agree with his comments, which are entirely unrelated to his book or this Netflix show.”
The thing is, Liu’s comments aren’t entirely unrelated to his book. It’s hard to understate Liu’s notoriety in China. The New Yorker interview was conducted while Liu was in Washington D.C. to receive the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation’s Award for Imagination in Service to Society, which could not have been more fitting as Liu is very much China’s Arthur C. Clarke. Liu has received countless honors both in China and abroad, and his international reputation is a source of pride for the Chinese government. He is credited with bringing science fiction into the mainstream in China, with his novella The Wondering Earth adapted into China’s first science fiction blockbuster, becoming the third highest grossing Chinese film in history. In the western world, Clarke was one of the writers that brought science fiction into the mainstream. He was a scientist, inventor, and television host. His most well known books include 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Rendezvous with Rama. The latter contains this gem:
Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of a well-upholstered lady officer through the control cabin.
Now you might dismiss that by saying that it was written in the 1950s. Except it wasn’t written in the 1950s, it was written in 1973 in the middle of Second-wave Feminism, two years after Helen Reddy released “I Am Woman.” I can not, and will not, defend the above quote, but that does not say anything about the quality of the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a phenomenally trippy ride. Despite what Star Trek fans will tell you, science fiction is not the best source of material to build a moral belief system. Science fiction authors hold a funhouse mirror to their society and show us glory or absurdity. Having a black woman on the bridge of the starship Enterprise was a strong vision of equality in 1966, but it is equally interesting to me that the vision the studio was comfortable with was one where that bridge officer’s sole job was to answer the telephone. Notably, the original Star Trek pilot had a white woman (Gene Roddenberry’s future wife) as first officer, but the studio nixed that idea in part because test audiences found her to be “too bossy.”
If you only accept art from people you agree with morally then you will rapidly find yourself robbed of some great art. Lovecraft was a racist. Asimov was a sexual predator. J.K. Rowling is a transphobe. These facts stand next to their literary careers, but don’t – and shouldn’t – overshadow them. Nor should their accomplishments hide these deplorable opinions. Art that you love was created by imperfect human beings. Since nobody is perfect that should not come as a shock to anyone. Art speaks to us each on an individual level, which the authors have little control over. The magic of fiction is that authors place something before us, but what we take away can be much greater than the material given. Words on a page can turn into self realizations of life changing magnitude. The simple existence of a black lady on a spaceship three hundred years in the future became a sign of hope to African American children living through segregation, inspiring them to pursue careers in science. As a young girl, Whoopi Goldberg famously ran to her mother after seeing an episode of Star Trek and exclaimed “Momma! There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!” Whoopi has since been a lifelong fan of all things Trek, which led her to request – and receive – a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Liu’s stories are fascinating, and he is undeniably a great writer. I’ve read The Three-Body Problem and one of his short stories titled Taking Care of God. In the latter, white bearded aliens come to Earth, having created all life as a means to establish an old-folks home for themselves. We are told that this is the normal course of societal evolution, and the “God” civilization is in its twilight. I interpreted the story as a metaphor for the difficulty and sacrifice in having to care for elderly family members, something that is a major aspect of Chinese culture. This cultural need is a great financial burden, as discussed in the story, but it also offers a great opportunity for knowledge and growth – if it is not squandered. Like all great science fiction, Liu’s work is full of cultural metaphor and reflection, but any reflection must come through the eyes of the author. Just as we see Clarke’s opinion of women in the above passage, we see Liu’s interpretation of his own society throughout his works. Fan describes a scene from Liu’s writing which is often marked by unconscionable moral choices.
An episode in the trilogy depicts Earth on the verge of destruction. A scientist named Cheng Xin encounters a gaggle of schoolchildren as she and an assistant prepare to flee the planet. The spaceship can accommodate the weight of only three of the children, and Cheng, who is the trilogy’s closest embodiment of Western liberal values, is paralyzed by the choice before her. Her assistant leaps into action, however, and poses three math problems. The three children who are quickest to answer correctly are ushered on board. Cheng stares at her assistant in horror, but the young woman says, “Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival.”
Is this a criticism or an endorsement of the cold logic of survival? It’s unclear, but it doesn’t have to be clearly one way or another. Put another way, do you read it as a criticism? Maybe you read it as a reflection of the idea that in the face of complete destruction our compassion will evaporate, leaving only cold logic. Liu’s original intention is irrelevant outside of an academic discussion.
Liu has stated that his work is not political. “The whole point is to escape the real world!” he says. Many authors have used that refrain when they face criticism or censorship for their work. I can’t blame Liu for echoing that claim. Maybe he doesn’t think his work is political, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. His writing has elevated him through a system where elevation is fraught with challenges of being born in the right place and to the right people (not unlike the USA). He is living a good life – a dream life – and he wants to keep it that way. Maybe he believes what he said and maybe he doesn’t, but we don’t have to live in the system he lives in.
In a way, maybe he’s right. Like I mentioned, we have camps in the USA that house people our society identifies as Others. Maybe “ordinary folks” don’t really care about that type of thing. Maybe, in the end, neither do Republican senators.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.