Sometimes, Melissa and I are completely lazy. We’ll curl up on the bed with wine and pretzels and set out her old brick of a laptop, and we’ll watch Star Trek: The Next Generation. I grew up on the adventures of Picard and Data and Worf and Geordi and Deanna Troi, and Next Generation came to her at a pivotal turn in her life. Hey, what the hell, this month I sold four TVs in one day, served as Central Coast’s representative to Pacific Yearly Meeting, and threw an excellent chanty-sing/seafood boil. Sometimes I need to slip into the warm waters of Next Generation, and so does she.
There’s a lot about Next Generation that’s dated: the Romulans’ giant “eighties business suit” uniforms, the therapist on the command staff, the inexplicable cardio class that Troi and Dr. Crusher do in the hallway.
You thought I was joking.
A lot of people claim the show’s “simplicity” or “naivete” date it, but I like the theatrical writing and setting, and when it works (“Measure of a Man,” “The Inner Light,” “The First Duty,” “The Drumhead,” “Chain of Command,” “Darmok,” “Family,” “Ship in a Bottle,” “Lower Decks,” “Remember Me”) it works amazingly well. The theatricality worked for Twilight Zone, both Outer Limits, and the original series. It works here.
But still, there is a certain something about Next Generation that pins it directly to the 1990s. And I think what that is is its liberalism.
No, I don’t mean Captain Picard confiscating all the guns while delivering abortions to illegal Bajoran immigrants, I mean the “liberal world order” in international relations theory. As Foreign Policy puts it,
“Once upon a time — that is, back in the 1990s — a lot of smart and serious people believed liberal political orders were the wave of the future and would inevitably encompass most of the globe. The United States and its democratic allies had defeated fascism and then communism, supposedly leaving humankind at ‘the end of history.’”
Mr. Walt goes on to describe some of the ways liberals themselves destroyed this dream, how the product was oversold…
“We were told that if dictators kept falling and more states held free elections, defended free speech, implemented the rule of law, and adopted competitive markets, and joined the EU and/or NATO, then a vast “zone of peace” would be created, prosperity would spread, and any lingering political disagreements would be easily addressed within the framework of a liberal order.”
How liberals underestimated tribal instincts…
“[P]ost-Cold War liberals underestimated the role of nationalism and other forms of local identity, including sectarianism, ethnicity, tribal bonds, and the like. They assumed that such atavistic attachments would gradually die out, be confined to apolitical, cultural expressions, or be adroitly balanced and managed within well-designed democratic institutions.”
And, finally, how the snake is already within our midst.
“Most important of all, liberal societies are in trouble today because they are vulnerable to being hijacked by groups or individuals who take advantage of the very freedoms upon which liberal societies are based. […] [L]eaders or movements whose commitment to liberal principles is at best skin-deep can take advantage of the principles of open society and use it to rally a popular following. And there is nothing about a democratic order that ensures such efforts will invariably fail.”
The Federation of Picard’s age is a benevolent European Union writ large, forging treaties and securing rule of law and sternly warning Cardassians that if Bajorans are not allowed their planet and their ways, there will be Hell to pay. Worf practices his bat’leth, but his Klingon heritage never gets in the way of his dedication to the Federation and its principles of universal freedom and liberty. The biggest issue Ro Laren has is her earring and what my old man would call “being seriously in need of an attitude adjustment.” “Conspiracy” aside, the Federation does not suffer from demogagues or Vulcan sovereigntists. Picard never need worry that some twenty-fourth century Le Pen will take power in Paris.
Next Generation is absolutely steeped in the post-Cold War liberalism Walt describes. It is a liberal future, in more ways than just your one friend on Facebook smugly pointing out that Picard’s a socialist. That vision of international relations, of the future, died a thousand deaths in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and its repercussions, counter-repercussions, vendettas and countervendettas. We saw a chilly realist world creeping in, exemplified in science fiction by Battlestar Galactica on television and the monotonous march of apocalypses in print. And, as much as I long for the Federation, I recognize that Worf might one day feel more Klingon than Starfleet officer, that Ro Laren could betray even Picard if she felt it would free her people, that the Federation treaties that Picard arranges give millions or even billions the short end of the stick.
If the world does unite, it will not look like the EU writ large that Next Generation envisioned.
But that’s no reason to despair. That’s reason to build new futures.
The other thing I’ve done this month is write and submit a story to Ecopunk. Before June 15, I didn’t even know it existed, or Sunvault or such a thing as solarpunk. These are people who look to the last solid decade of apocalypse, and tell it to go to Hell. These are people who dream of a brighter future – a future of decentralized solar cells, of mighty windjammers built from the husks of oil tankers, of curling green cities and the gastronomical delight of all the undiscovered sea vegetables which will grace our plates. They reject the smug, Silicon Valley utopianism of transhumanist and Singulatarian(TM) visions. Ecopunk cries out for stories of solutions to global problems: the mired bureaucracy and fracturing of liberal orders, bold human responses to climate change, hatred and division leading to violence and destruction.
And visions like this. No joke, dear God that’s beautiful and I want to live there.
Why –punk? Because these are the first literary SF authors and editors in seemingly ten years that realize that, in a time of despair, hope itself is a subversive act.
I wrote a story of an Indian auntie in the ghost town of Surat, which will slide beneath the advancing waves in the next century. She uses biorock technology, that I first read about in the Kids’ Whole Future Catalog, tapping into the neighborhood solar system to feed power to the iron bones and chicken wire strung beneath the placid waves of the expanded Cambay Gulf. And, slowly, they turn chalk-white before bursting into color, corals expanding and breathing on the ruins of sunken Surat. They clean the waters and draw in fish, and are beautiful enough for a rich farmer from Uttar Pradesh to look upon the city’s bones and weep tears of joy. Ladli brings artha and kama into the world, and thereby fulfills dharma and touches moksha.
“The City Sunk, the City Risen.” What can be more solarpunk than that?
And to think, I was worried that the drumbeat of apocalypse and singularity had withered my ability to imagine possible futures.
Last night, Melissa told me a dream she had, years ago, of a Japanese house in the woods, but the walls were not paper – they were made of leaf. Last week, this happened. I saw cities of chalk from greenhouse gasses, an Eastern pagoda planted of eight intertwined laurels, roving city-farms of coral that graze their schools of fish where the weather is fine and the markets ready, a fissure in solarpunk thought that rejects the city for the village and kibbutz, the crows sitting around telling epic poetry, and a moon-viewing platform behind the living green paper that makes the moon an emerald in a darkened sky. Not quite the Doctor’s “worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea is asleep, and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song,” but still, something fresh and new on the surface of the Earth after sixteen years of Apocalypse or Singularity – a human future, a living future, free of the tragic liberal trappings of “The EU Writ Large.”
Who knows? We might see Ro Laren there, brokering a Bajoran peace and bringing fresh water to the refugees. We might see Worf leading a delegation of emigre Klingons. We might even see Jean-Luc Picard there, raising Atlantis or preaching Life and the best of his vineyard to the stars and planets beyond.