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.
If I’m being honest, I’m not a huge fan of photography as an art form. I’m not saying that it’s not an art form, I’m just saying that for the most part it’s not for me. One strong exception is photomicrography, or the art of taking photographs of insanely tiny things, generally through a microscope. One of the best outlets for this work is the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition which announced its 2020 winners a few months ago.
These microscale photographs capture images of our world beyond our natural perception. A fly’s head becomes a nuanced structure of ridges, hairs, and texture that you could almost reach out and touch. An image of a beetle’s leg can be used to illustrate convergent evolution with a crab’s leg. Your mind can be blown by the size of the scales of a butterfly’s wing, or, like me, you can simply marvel at the size of hairs on a fuzzy beetle.
Astronomy asks us to look up and marvel at the immense scale of the Universe that dwarfs our everyday lives. Microscopy asks us to look down, and see the beauty of an entirely different universe all around us.
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.
Ever since I moved into my first apartment I’ve always had a place at home to work. Sometimes it was a desk, but more often it was just a comfortable chair where I could use a laptop for hours on end, usually to write. My present employer had a liberal telework policy even before Covid-19, so I requested the opportunity to have a scheduled work-from-home day once every two weeks. I’ve been doing that level of teleworking for the last four years, and when I would mention it to coworkers they would remark that they couldn’t work from home. “There are just too many distractions,” they would tell me. As you might expect, those same coworkers have not been faring too well these last three months. Other coworkers had told me that they didn’t have a place to work at home. Though several of them have since made spaces, some have just committed to working at the kitchen table. Some haven’t had a choice, as the work-from-home pandemic has resulted in a shortage in office furniture as demand has skyrocketed, but also as raw materials (i.e. plastic) are diverted to PPE production.
The pandemic is nowhere near ending, so the white collar masses are unlikely to return to business spaces anytime soon. Some are arguing that maybe we shouldn’t – or won’t want to – return to the office in pre-pandemic numbers. Now that mass telework has been forced on employers, some are seeing benefit and opportunity, especially the massive social media companies that other corporations tend to watch. Facebook announced in July that within the next ten years they expect half of their employees to be on permanent telework. In May, Twitter said that many employees could work from home “forever.” Back in late July, one month after New York City officials gave the green light for employees to return to work, more than 90% of Manhattan office workers were choosing to continue to work from home.
I have a number of friends with jobs that saw them predominantly, or entirely, teleworking in the years leading up to the pandemic. That percentage of the work force had been growing steadily, but post-pandemic many are expecting that we will have jumped years ahead in the trend. This change has the potential to be transformative. I have a few coworkers that had never worked from home and quickly came to love it. My wife professes to enjoy seeing me more, and having complete control of my environment has helped lessen the frequency of my migraines.
If we don’t have to go to the office, how many of us will choose to? If, say, 20% of the white collar workers in rent-bloated cities choose full-time telework, why wouldn’t they move out of the city to get more space for less elsewhere? Since the majority of Democratic voters are concentrated in cities, what would a mass office exodus do to political demographics? Many of our housing decisions are based on where we work. If work will allow us to live hundreds of miles away, then how will we choose where to live? Some would undoubtedly still choose cities, but there is a difference between living in a city of half a million inhabitants and living in a metropolis with eight million other people.
Science fiction writer and editor Frederik Pohl is attributed with saying, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” The earliest written appearance of this concept seems to be a 1953 essay by Isaac Asimov where he said “It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem. The former is really only an extrapolation of the railroad. The latter is something completely novel and unexpected.” (Yes, I can connect almost anything to Asimov. He wrote so much, and about so many things, that it’s not that hard.) Science fiction predicted the rise of computers, but famously underestimated their impact. Interestingly, Clifford Simak, my favorite science fiction writer, did predict the death of the city, not through telework but through another dystopian motivation. In the short story “City,” which constitutes the opening chapter of his likewise titled novel, the protagonist argues with the few remaining residents of his city:
"The city failed," he said, "and it is well it failed. Instead of sitting here in mourning above its broken body you should rise to your feet and shout your thanks it failed.
American cities may become deserted. Not because they are easy targets for nuclear weapons, but because they are easy targets for viruses. Some countries can’t afford to disperse; they need cities to house their populations. The United States has two and a half times the population of Japan, but twenty-four times the surface area. We could space out, lessen the spread of infectious diseases that are only going to get more prevalent, and fundamentally change the way we live and work as a society.
Then again, if Simak had one flaw it was his unwavering belief that the best life – maybe the only life worth living – was the country life. I don’t roll that way. I lived that life for a few years and didn’t care for it. Cities won’t die as Simak hoped, but they could definitely stand to be less densely packed. If you can choose to live in a megalopolis or a moderate sized city, why choose the megalopolis when rent is three and a half times as much, especially if you can make the same money?
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.