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.
There are so many writers that I can do Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta articles on that it usually doesn’t take much to tip me toward a specific author. The impetus for this article was too good to pass up. Jason Kehe has a recent article on Wired that is making the rounds about how R. A. Lafferty is the best science fiction short story writer that you’ve never heard of. Fun fact: I had heard of him. As Kehe argues, if you come across the name R. A. Lafferty it tends to stick with you, and indeed it did, as I recalled the name from browsing my vintage sci-fi anthologies. But even then I only knew him as one name among many, so after reading Kehe’s article I dug through my collection, using Kehe as a guide, and selected three stories. Each is mentioned at least in passing in Kehe’s article, and each was originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine and is available for free on the Internet Archive! Which means you can join me in the fun this time, if you were so inclined.
Let’s dig in!
Primary Education of the Camiroi
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1966
Read in same
Kehe describes Lafferty’s writing as kind of punch-drunk satirical. I have to say that reading these stories I didn’t get the sense of his writing not making sense, as Kehe implied. I’ve read some 1970s sci-fi that is more about syllable beat than good sentence structure (I’m not a fan, for the most part), but I didn’t get that impression from Lafferty. In fact, I really liked his writing and found it had a nice poetic cadence. I absolutely did experience Lafferty’s timeless satire, especially in this story. I don’t often burst out laughing when reading, but I did during this story. The basic premise if that a group of humans travel to the Camiroi homeworld to observe their system of education at work. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve ever talked with any parents stuck up about how their kids go to the best schools… well, there’s a pretty clear indictment of cultural superiority complexes here. It felt as accurate and timely now as I’m sure it did in 1966. My only real criticism is that about a third of its ten page length is dedicated to a Camiori syllabus, which is little more than a bullet list. It got a bit tedious for me, but I did find some laughs throughout. I chalk that more up to the evolved taste of modern science fiction, as I’m pretty sure it was jabbingly clever in 1966.
Slow Tuesday Night
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, April 1965
Read in same
This is oddity on full display. The sci-fi premise is dispensed with very quickly and in a sentence or two; some achievement blocker in the human brain has been removed in everyone, so now our full brain power is unlocked. Not the most original premise, but read enough science fiction and original premises are extremely rare; the trick is what an author does with it. Lafferty uses “unleashed human intellect” to describe a world where every night is an opportunity to live a lifetime. Fortunes are made and lost in minutes. A homeless man becomes the richest man on Earth seven times in a single night. The storytelling is factual and unemotional, which heightens the satire to an expert level. I consider satire the highest form of comedy, and science fiction the highest form of fiction (it’s my blog and I’m entitled to my opinions), so this story was stand out for me.
Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1967
Read in same
Kehe calls this one of Lafferty’s best, so of course I ended the trifecta with it. Again a satire, here I did start to see a bit of the confusing side of Lafferty’s writing, particularly in the climax. Essentially a protracted joke about the “smartest people on Earth” trying to alter history and watch it change before their eyes, only failing to realize that changing history changes their history as well. Kind of a “time travel for dummies” idiot plot, but rendered in a satirical way so as to be fun, not frustrating. (For more on idiot plots see my article on Damon Knight, which I admit is not a flattering statement.)
One thing that struck me about all three of these R. A. Lafferty stories is just how short they were – around ten pages each. He clearly realized his own talent at the short story form, and by my accounts he was a master at it. Kehe is right, it really is a tragedy that more science fiction readers aren’t familiar with Lafferty, and I’ll definitely be reading every one of his short stories that I can get my hands on. Kehe’s article seems timed to coincide with the release last month of Tor’s The Best of R. A. Lafferty which features a list of introductions that reads as a who’s who of not only sci-fi but Western culture: Neil Gaiman, John Scalzi, Harlan Ellison, and Patton Oswalt, to name a few. (I can see Patton Oswalt totally loving Lafferty, the style fits.) So here’s my plug. Read the above stories for free, and if you liked them, consider picking up that new Tor book. Despite having quite a few Lafferty stories randomly sprinkled through my collection I’m strongly considering ordering it at my local book store. There’s something nice about a curated collection.
My selection of Kate Wilhelm for this column is something of a companion piece, as I’d just recently read my first three stories by her husband, Damon Knight. After not liking Knight’s work I wasn’t sure how his wife would fair (in my experience husband and wife writers tend to converge to the same style) but I was pleasantly surprised by Wilhelm’s offerings.
Kate Wilhelm, apart from having a fifty year writing career, is perhaps best known to science fiction writers as the co-founder (along with Damon Knight) of the Clarion Writers Workshop which has produced many of the world’s leading science fiction writers of the last few decades. Something you might notice about our three stories is that they all appeared in the original science fiction anthology series Orbit. This made me a little weary at first, as Orbit was edited by Damon Knight, so there’s clearly some back patting going on. That fear was not justified as these are all top quality, even by today’s standards.
Baby, You Were Great
Originally published in Orbit 2
Read in The Future is Female
This story was reprinted in several anthologies I own, and that’s generally an indicator that it is among the author’s best, so what better place to start?
One of the many definitions of science fiction floating around is that the genre explores mankind’s relationship to technology. This story takes that view quite literally, exploring man’s – and through what is done to them, women’s – relationship to technology to a logical peak. The story opens with an audition where two men are trying to find a woman who will react in a suitably emotional manner to being raped. (Suitably emotional because some women simply shut down, not feeling what was going on, which is not what they are after.) Believe it or not, from there the story gets even darker. Predicated on a technology that allows for the recording and broadcasting of emotional responses, the most successful television show in the world is a Truman Show like experience where a particular woman is subjected to various emotional highs and lows. I don’t want to give more away, as I went into this one cold and was deeply shaken by it, but if you have the chance to read this one definitely do so. It’s not an entirely comfortable or enjoyable ride, but it’s an exemplary story.
It’s no surprise that this story was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1968, which led me to wonder what it lost to. The culprit was Samuel R. Delany’s Aye, and Gomorrah… which sounds like a perfect candidate for a future edition of this column.
Originally published in Orbit 3
Read in same
Having been robbed of the Nebula the year before, Wilhelm took the prize home in 1969 for this short story. I have to admit with substantial embarrassment that I didn’t really understand this story. As a testament to her writing, I don’t think it was bad, and I did enjoy reading it, but I wasn’t able to pull all the strings together in my head. It does give off a heavy Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Flowers for Algernon vibe, which I enjoyed a lot and I suspect are part of why it got the Nebula. This story did succeed in cementing in my mind a perception of Wilhelm’s fiction as visceral. Her writing bleeds emotion that touched raw nerves within me.
April Fool’s Day Forever
Originally published in Orbit 7
Read in same
This one was a random selection based on the title, and though I’m not sure what I was expecting it definitely wasn’t this. A long and meandering story (definitely novella length), April Fool’s Day Forever takes its time to get where it’s going, but the journey is enjoyable. Once revealed, the plot is intriguing, and the slow roll of the story makes it all the more natural it the way it comes out. For that reason I’m not even going to tell you what the plot is, just that in the end I was left shaken once again by Wilhelm’s raw emotional undercurrents.
There’s lots of reasons to read science fiction, but my love of sci-fi comes from its ability to hold a funhouse mirror to society and show us the best and worst parts of ourselves. Often when that is done the writing lacks emotion. Kate Wilhelm succeeds in showing us the absolute worst parts of ourselves in stories steeped in science fiction tradition, while still managing to make us feel something. As a closing, I found this delightful short clip of an interview where she talks about selling her first short story. I have to say that the technical skill of her writing is definitely high craft, so her statement that “I can do that” rings true across time.
Big news! My first ever short story sale is now available for purchase. You can get the Winter 2021 issue of The Colored Lens, which contains my short story Travelers’ Crossing, via Amazon Kindle for $4.99. If you happen to have Kindle Unlimited then you can read it for free! (But maybe make a donation to The Colored Lens if you like it?) At over 130 pages it’s a hell of a bargain! Since this is a small press magazine they rely mostly on social media and word of mouth for promotion, so I’d greatly appreciate sharing the link to the Amazon page (or even to this blog post) to help spread the word.
This publication is a big deal for me since I’ve been writing science fiction off and on since high school with the goal of selling to a magazine, so it’s not a stretch to say that I’ve been working towards this for decades. This feels like the first step on my literary journey.
I hate to give away much about my short stories, but if you’re wondering what this one is about it’s a time travel story (my favorite sci-fi subgenre) that showcases my affinity for using science fiction to try to say something about society. It also features one of my favorite concepts: moral ambiguity. I think Travelers’ Crossing is one of the best things I’ve ever written, and it was the first story I wrote where I felt things really clicked. One of those “lean back from the keyboard with a sense of satisfaction” moments.
I hope you enjoy the story, and thanks for supporting me by buying the magazine and/or sharing this blog post!
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.