Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could be considered controversial if it wasn’t so well loved. Star Trek is so universal in American culture that almost everyone as seen at least some of it, and I’ve found that if people have an opinion at all then they either love or hate DS9. The series can be divisive among Trek fans depending on what it is about Trek that appeals to them.
Set outside the domain of the United Federation of Planets, the space station Deep Space Nine resides in a hostile part of the galaxy. Central to the story is the recently ended conflict between the Bajorans (who own DS9) and the Cardassians. The brutal Cardassian occupation of Bajor lasted several decades and ended shortly before the series begins. Themes of slavery, exploitation, pillage of native resources, capitalism, authoritarianism, and war are central to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Unlike other Trek series, these themes are central to the show in that the characters are constantly surrounded by them, rather than passingly encountering them in “primitive” alien civilizations. At a time in the Trek universe when it is said that there is no poverty, hunger, or war, the Bajorans struggle to feed their own people, and mass hunger is the norm on their world. (Why the Federation doesn’t do more to help is perhaps the topic of another post.)
One particularly good scene comes in the second season episode “The Maquis, Part 2.” The multi-episode story introduces the Maquis, a group of human resistance fighters who oppose the Cardassian government. Due to events established prior in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a group of human colonies exist in Cardassian space. Years later, the human colonists claim they are being killed by the Cardassian government. With Starfleet and the Federation unwilling to intervene at the risk of starting another war with Cardassia, the colonists arm themselves and start the Maquis, named after the World War II French resistance fighters. The situation has direct comparison to the occupation of the West Bank, and parallels can be drawn to anyone that questions the “civilized nature” of those living in the territories.
The scene starts with a conversation between station commander Benjamin Sisko and a Starfleet Admiral. The Admiral doesn’t understand why Sisko can’t just talk to the Maquis. “Open a dialog,” she says. “They’re still Federation citizens, I’m sure they’ll listen to reason.” The Admiral leaves, and Sisko’s Bajoran first officer enters his office, interrupting him screaming to himself.
“Just because a group of people belong to the Federation it does not mean that they are saints!… The trouble is Earth. On Earth there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet headquarters and you see paradise. Well it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise.”
I love this speech as it – and much of the later seasons of DS9 – casts a shadow on one of the core philosophic tenets of all Star Trek, namely that humans are amazing. Star Trek has always portrayed a human utopia, where all humans come together and live in an educated and well cared for world. All creature comforts are met, and as a result there is no crime because everyone has what they need, and are able to earn what they want.
But out here, on the frontier, where basic needs are difficult to meet, where humans go out into new lands to build a home as we have so often done, suffering is waiting for us. On the core worlds of the Federation – Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, etc. – everyone has what they need. Out on the colonies, there aren’t enough omnipotent replicators to provide food and clothing for everyone. Farming is evidently still the most efficient way to get food, and the colonists strive and struggle to work the soil of alien worlds into new Earths. Humans are known throughout the galaxy as they exist in paradise, but take a human out of paradise long enough and these “highly civilized” people of the future look a lot like you and me.
This sentiment is reflected in one of the greatest scenes in Deep Space Nine, from the seventh season episode “The Siege of AR-558,” when the Federation is fighting a grueling war with the Dominion, which is functionally an anti-Federation. The Ferengi Quark tries to open his nephew’s eyes that the human soldiers he idolizes as heroes are not fit to be looked up to.
“Let me tell you something about humans, nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts – deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers – put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time, and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty, and as violent, as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”
Granted, this is little more than a sci-fi technobabble’d up version of the saying “every society is just three meals away from revolution” (often attributed to Vladimir Lenin), but what is remarkable is its inclusion in Star Trek. The sentiment that humans of the 24th century are no farther from barbarism than humans of today is generally antithetical to Trek lore. DS9 takes the stance that humans aren’t better than other races, they’re just a bit better at wanting to care for each other. The people that the aliens of Star Trek picture when they think of humans are those humans that live in paradise, and it’s easy to be a saint in paradise.
In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style.
Tanith Lee is the kind of writer I’ve come across from time to time without ever having read anything by her. In retrospect, I think that’s probably because she mostly wrote fantasy, which is not often my cup of tea. Her career is outstanding though: she was the first woman to win the British Fantasy Award for best novel, nominated for two Nebulas, received 11 nominations – and two wins – for the World Fantasy Award, and was awarded the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Horror, to name just a few! The daughter of two professional dancers, Tanith moved around a lot as a child, but shared a large library with her parents; a library which contained much “weird fiction”, as it was still known in the 1950s. Sharing a love of stories with her parents, Tanith reportedly began writing fiction at the age of nine. After a single year of college she dropped out to hold a number of random jobs before trying her hand as a professional writer. She is credited with nearly 100 novels and over 300 short stories that span genres from fantasy to science fiction to horror. With such a wide span, it was an absolute crapshoot what I was going to get.
Crying in the Rain
Originally published in Other Edens (1987)
Read in The Big Book of Science Fiction
If an author is in The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer) then I find I can’t go wrong picking the featured tale. (I honestly can’t recommend this collection enough.) Crying in the Rain is a quiet and sad tale that could have been set in the peasant lands of mythical times, but instead takes place in the radiated wasteland of a far future city and its surrounding ghettos. The tale centers on a mother selling her oldest and most attractive daughter to a young man in the city, and is told from the perspective of the daughter relating the story to a friend. There is no overt moral judgment here, which is the most upsetting aspect of the story. The world is harsh, life is short (a mere 30 years if you’re lucky and don’t get “canced” by the radiation), and selling your daughter to a good man is the best way to care for your remaining children. That prospect is no idle promise, as the man in question does care not only for the narrator’s siblings but for her dying mother as well. Her life is happy and she in contented as a result of being sold to this man, who showers her with gifts and affection for the first time in her life. This is a truly haunting story that will be with me for some time.
The Sombrus Tower
Originally published in Weird Tales #2 (1980)
Read in Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies (1988)
This reads as a King Arthur style fantasy that I could easily imagine coming across in a contemporary issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A number of noble knights are given ominous forecasts by a witch, and all go out to either confront, or avoid, their destiny. Our protagonist is one of the few who decide to confront his fate, seeking out the “Sombrus Tower” where he is to meet his doom. Excellent macabre creatures and tortured souls meet him along his journey to the tower, and these encounters carry the story from one scene to the next. In the end, the poetic nature of the tale is realized as our protagonist finds himself torn between his original “brave” quest to meet his destiny, and the sense that going in search of death maybe isn’t such a smart idea. The ending is worthy of any psychological horror story, and I won’t spoil it. This was a fun short piece of dark fantasy that I’d recommend to fans of the genre.
The Pandora Heart
Originally published in Don’t Open This Book! (1998)
Read in same
I was skeptical of this story as soon as I started reading it, as it was introduced with a comment that it was commissioned especially for the obscure anthology I was reading it in. That isn’t to say that I haven’t read lots of great stories in original anthologies, it’s just that I’ve not come across many outstanding stories commissioned for themed anthologies. I find that the best stories come from a writer pursuing their idea, rather than handing a writer an idea to pound a story around. This tale is a retelling of the Pandora myth with a few clever twists and turns, but largely it felt like an “unwanted princess in a castle” cookie cutter story meant to fit a theme. Combined with my ambivalence toward fantasy (especially fairy tale fantasy), this one was hard for me to get through.
If an author has published two or three dozen short stories, then you can grab a few and get an idea what they’re doing. When an author has written 300 short stories across multiple genres it is hard to get a handle on almost anything of their style by only reading three stories. I’ve probably read more Isaac Asimov than I have any other author, including stories he wrote across genres, and I can only imagine that for the one Tanith Lee story that I didn’t like there must be a dozen that I’d adore. For that reason I’ll hunt down more of her stories, and likely a few of her books, though I’ll probably focus on science fiction as a rule. That being said, I would recommend Tanith Lee’s works to fans of the fantasy and fairy tale genres.
In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style.
Jerome Bixby will be familiar to fans of Star Trek The Original Series as the scriptwriter (or co-writer) of the episodes "Mirror, Mirror", "Day of the Dove", "Requiem for Methuselah", and "By Any Other Name", all of which are quite good by the standards of the series. Fans of the original Twilight Zone will recognize our first story which was made into the supremely scary “It’s a Good Life” in 1961, and served as one of the segments in the 1983 anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie. Bixby was a prolific editor of science fiction magazines in the early 1950s, having edited Planet Stories, Jungle Stories, and Action Stories almost simultaneously. He co-created the concept of the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, a childhood favorite of mine. He also wrote the screenplay for the excellent 2007 low-budget science fiction film The Man from Earth, which was produced long after his death. Ironically, The Man from Earth stars Star Trek: Enterprise actor John Billingsley, bringing the Star Trek connection right back around. But enough of his resume, let’s see how he writes.
It’s a Good Life
Originally published in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2 (1953)
Read in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One 1929-1964
I’m a huge fan of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and I’ve followed its many reboots closely. What I think few people realize is that Serling’s “secret sauce” consisted of two simple facts about him. First, he respected science fiction and fantasy as a legitimate literary art form. Second, and more elusively for modern filmmakers, he respected a story that worked on the page before it worked on the stage. Many of the best and most iconic Twilight Zone episodes started life up to a decade prior in the science fiction magazines, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “Time Enough at Last”, “Shadow Play”, and too many more to list here. Serling had respect for bringing what was written on the page to the screen with as little compromise as possible. There’s a story that Charles Beaumont told of when he was adapting his short story Perchance to Dream into the episode of the same name. Beaumont had written of a twisted and deformed carnival, and asked Serling if he should change the setting for production. Serling directed him to “write it as you imagined it.” Beaumont was blown away when he arrived on set for filming and saw the nightmarish buildings that set that episode apart from so many others.
This story is appropriate for our discussion of It’s a Good Life because if you’ve seen that episode then there are no surprises in the prose. Serling adapted Bixby’s story almost verbatim, with just a few extra lines and nuances that help translate it to the screen without in any way compromising what Bixby had laid out on the page. As such I found reading the story just a little boring because I’ve seen the episode so many times, but that reflects more favorably on Bixby than anything else; all the brilliance and creepiness of that iconic television episode is due to Bixby’s original story.
Originally published in Space by the Tale (1964)
Read in 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories
If possible, I love to read a flash fiction piece for the Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta, because I think “short short stories” are an underappreciated art form. To convey a complete story in roughly one thousand words is very hard to do, and I find it’s a great judge of a writer’s ability. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to review a 1,000 word short story without giving it away, so apologies because I’m about to spoil this one.
Trace uses the simple setup of a man who gets lost when trying to take a shortcut. He finds himself on the wooded roads on a hill where every path he takes seems to only go further up the hill, even when he turns around to retrace his movements. Eventually his car blows a tire and while on foot he finds the most idyllic clearing with a perfect little house. Approaching, he meets the home’s smiling occupant. Everything is beautifully perfect; the food, the weather, the scenery, the host. The conversation turns philosophical, and the host pontificates that nobody is fully good or even fully evil, that even evil people must occasionally commit acts of decency and kindness. And without it ever being said, we are clearly led to believe that this man, this gracious host, is the Devil himself, taking a brief vacation from the burden of his works. The man has a truly pleasant conversation with the Devil, and when the tow truck arrives to repair his car we are confident that he will be on his way without trouble. There is nothing sinister here, no veiled threat, simply the idea that even evil people must have some bits of good in them, and vice versa. It’s a great little story, and I was awed by the writing skill that seeded the impression in my mind that the host was the Devil without it ever really being said. This is a story to study to determine how that impression was created.
The Holes Around Mars
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1954
Read in Where Do We Go From Here?
This is a classic 1950s “men arrive on another planet in a rocket ship” science fiction story. There is a cute setup revolving around puns, and the final line is definitely a pun, but there is a good deal more to the story than that. The first men on Mars discover a curious series of holes (actually tunnels) about four inches in diameter carved through the martian landscape. These perfectly aligned tunnels are cut through mountains, dunes, and even plants. The bulk of the story revolves around the mystery of how and why these tunnels exist. It’s a fun story, and I won’t give it away, especially since you can read it for yourself on the Internet Archive’s copy of the January 1954 Galaxy, but I will say that the explanation stretches the concept of science fiction so far as to be pure fantasy. Still, I enjoyed this one, though you have to place it firmly in the vintage category. I was about to say that this story couldn’t appear today, but I have read entries in the “men (and women) arrive on another planet in a rocket ship” in recent issues of Analog, so it goes to show you that the classic ideas are still around and people still get mileage from them.
Jerome Bixby was definitely a skilled author and screenwriter, though it’s not hard to see why he’s not more famous today. Unlike his more well known contemporaries, his stories seem to lack staying power. If it weren’t for the Twilight Zone adaptation of It’s a Good Life I’m not sure the story would really stand out in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a classic, but I’m not sure that by itself it would stay in the collective consciousness seventy years later. That being said, I’m interested to read more prose by Bixby, and see what other clever ideas his mind created.
In my readings of science fiction I’ve come across a persistent concept that was very popular in the twentieth century, and that is the future evolution of psychology into a “hard” science. I’ve already said something that is bound to offend lots of people, so let’s take a step back and lower the pitchforks.
The commonly accepted definition of a “hard” science is that it strives to understand the fundamental mechanical workings of the Universe. Some examples are physics, chemistry, geology, and even biology. “Soft” sciences use the scientific method to try to understand more intangible human aspects of the world, such as in psychology, sociology, and some aspects of anthropology. (“Biological anthropology” is much more of a “hard” science.) A more practical definition (and one that will serve us in the present discussion) is that “hard” sciences can make predictions based on established physical laws. For instance, if you stand in your kitchen and drop an apple, physic predicts that the apple will not only fall but that it will do so at a constant acceleration of 9.81 meters per second per second. That is true because you are standing on Earth, which has a known gravitational field per Isaac Newton’s equations (or if you want to get fancy you can use Einstein’s Relativity). Fields like psychology are quite a bit different. Though psychology aims to use statistical methods (i.e. mathematics), it does not truly offer predictions. That is not to say that psychologists can’t make predictions; indeed when people design experiments they often expect it to show a certain result (that’s the hypothesis part of the scientific method). It is more that psychologists tend not to make predictions because their predictions are less grounded in “known laws” than physicists’ predictions are. Of course, once upon a time the field that we would now call physics wasn’t good at making predictions either. That’s because those “known laws” weren’t yet known. Indeed, psychology is at the stage where scientists are trying to uncover “laws of psychology.” Do such laws even exist? Are humans governed solely by complex behavioral laws? The truth is that we don’t know yet, same as physicists didn’t know two thousand years ago how the Sun produced energy. (Basically all the theories back then were indistinguishable from magic because the key physical mechanism of the Sun’s energy production – atomic fusion – was a complete mystery.) Maybe there are laws that govern human behavior, laws that can be written down mathematically the same way we can describe the motion of planets orbiting a star. It’s not hard to understand why such scientific speculation is ripe for sci-fi pickings.
The most prominent science fiction example of psychology as a “hard” science is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which is built upon the fictional concept of psychohistory. The laws of psychohistory state that large enough groups of humans behave in ways that can be predicted by fundamental behavioral laws. How large is “large enough”? Tens of billions. Meaning that Earth today could not be predicted by psychohistory, but the human population of the fully colonized Milky Way galaxy in the time of the Foundation books counts humans in the hundreds of billions, meaning that the motions of the Galactic Empire can be predicted with definable precision. And what future does Harry Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, predict for the galaxy? The complete collapse of the Galactic Empire followed by a 30,000 year brutal dark age. Only by establishing the Foundation can they shorten the dark age to merely 1,000 years. That is the basic premise of the Foundation series, and it is entirely predicated on the idea that psychology can evolve into a “hard” science.
Foundation isn’t alone though, and I’ve encountered numerous examples of this concept in science fiction. Another prominent example is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Though not a central idea, Starship Troopers explores the concept that psychology (or perhaps more appropriately, sociology) has evolved into a mathematical science. Here it is possible to mathematically prove that certain systems of government are better than others, finding mathematical optimizations. Though not a central concept, this imbues the militarist government of Earth with a moral certainty. “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus.” (Tangentially, if you’ve only ever seen the 1997 film then the book is not what you think it is. The book is essentially a philosophical treatise in monologue about militarism, war, obligation, responsibility, and maturity, with two action sequences as bookends. As such, it’s classic Heinlein and worth a read.)
To leave you with one final example. The television series Lie to Me exploits the idea of biological-based psychology. In the show, behavioral psychologist Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) has invented the science of microexpressions to read emotional responses, which he uses to consult with police departments to solve crimes. (Yes, Lie to Me is yet another 1990’s science-based crime drama.) Interestingly, the character of Lightman is based on a real psychologist, professor Paul Ekman, who has actually created the field that Lightman has in the show. Ekman has consulted extensively with the TSA to develop techniques to screen airline passengers, and if the idea of teaching TSA agents to read tiny muscle spasms in people’s faces to infer suspicious behavior sounds dubious that’s because it very much is. We should be skeptical any time a real world discovery sounds like science fiction, but when governments embrace science fiction sounding psychology to identify “threats” we should all run the other way. Perhaps that’s the moral we should take from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as well: “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus. If the math doesn’t work out then you did the math wrong.”
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.
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.