Trekonomics or How Star Trek is the Embodiment of Wut? – By Amanda S. Green
A month or so ago when I asked for recommendations for my next series of review posts, TRX offered to send me a copy of Trekonomics by Manu Saadia. I didn’t take him up on it right away but, after a bit, my curiosity got the better of me. When he once again offered to send the book, I agreed. Last week, I sat down and started reading. While the book has let me walk down memory lane, remembering different episodes of the various incarnations of the Star Trek franchise, it has also been a hoot and probably not in the way the author imagined.
As you can tell from the title, the book is about the economics of Star Trek. Now Saadia does make it clear about midway into the first chapter that the book isn’t about Star Trek: Enterprise. You see, the humans and their society and economy were just too, well, human.
Saadia, you see, looks at the worlds of Star Trek as a Utopia. In some ways, Saadia is right. At least from an economic standpoint. Think about it. How many folks in Star Trek, whether we are talking the original series, the Next Generation, etc., do you remember really working because they had to work? How about using anything resembling money? (I seem to remember one scene where they were gambling and using something to stand in for money or poker chips but I might be misremembering.)
There’s more and we’ll be discussing it over the next couple of weeks as we go through the book.
In the Forward, Brad DeLong sets the tone for the rest of the book. In writing about the 50 years (now 52 years) of Star Trek, he said, “Star Trek has woven itself into our sociocultural DNA. It provides a set of powerful, striking, and beneficial ideas that help us here in our civilization think better.” (pg. xi) Now, that statement is a bit awkward – or at least it seemed that way to me. Basically, DeLong believes Star Trek helps us think better and believe life can be better than it is now.
He goes on to state that the Prime Directive (No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.) in the original series was a to process our “misadventures” in Vietnam. I don’t know about that. There is a paper by H. Bruce Franklin that appears in Science Fiction Studies (#62 = Volume 21, Part 1 = March 1994) that states there were four episodes reflecting that theme. Whether Roddenberry truly meant for such motivations to be ascribed to his episodes or not, I don’t know. That’s for future research. However, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me to find it true. Nor does such motivation do anything but play into the belief that the series helps us believe there can be a better life.
The question is what sort of life and is it truly better? Whether you look at it from an economic point of view or sociological, that’s the one question that really matters.
Before we look at that, let’s look at what the book says Roddenberry’s motivations were.
In the Forward, DeLong says Roddenberry wanted to tell stories “that would be the dreamwork for a better future.” Okay, nothing wrong with that. A lot of writers and storytellers do that. He wanted to tell stories of a “progressive humanity”. Oookay. What does he mean by that? DeLong doesn’t say, at least not outright, but we can infer what he means as he goes along. You see, according to DeLong, Roddenberry also wanted a future where the government was “smart enough” not to get involved in future Vietnams, where people didn’t have to worry about “leaky roofs and food shortages”, where racial prejudice was “silly and stupid”. Roddenberry wanted a world where it wasn’t unusual for a woman to be at least a first officer (if you read the Forward, you will see DeLong leaves a little wiggle room for Roddenberry not having a female captain. It seems the oh-so-progressive Roddenberry wasn’t quite as progressive as DeLong would have us believe).
Here is the money quote in my opinion, and for several reasons: Roddenberry wanted a future in “which everyone—even the disposable Red Shirts—was an officer, a trained and well-educated professional treated with dignity and respect by her peers and superiors.”
Let’s take a moment and consider that statement. Everyone is an officer. Uh, what about the enlisted personnel necessary to do the dirty work? Oh, wait, I get it. In this progressive and enlightened world, there is no dirty work. Things like cleaning the sludge out of the water and air processors is now all automated. No one has to get their hands dirty. Everyone makes decisions and the computers and automated systems will carry them out. Riiiiight.
Everyone is trained and well-educated.
Hmm, am I starting to see a pattern here?
Maybe I’m a cynic, but this is starting to sound an awful lot like the socialist utopia of Marx and Engels. The state will give you all you need to be a productive and happy citizen. You want to be an officer? Well, comrade, all you have to do is sign here. We will train you and you will serve the State. Oh, we will have to test you and you will do the job we tell you to. But you will be happy and you will treat everyone with respect just as they will treat you.
But what about little things like ego and a competitive spirit?
Don’t worry. It seems that those who go into Star Fleet, especially those who take command, are the outliers. They don’t really fit into the utopian society we didn’t get to see all that much of on-screen, especially in the original series.
You see, according to DeLong, Roddenberry lets us wonder what it would be like to “have a society of abundance, of logic and reason, and of inclusion.” How he could write that with a straight face, as if Roddenberry was the first science fiction author to ever really put that notion out there, is beyond me. We’ve had this notion for as long as humanity has walked the Earth. Star Trek wasn’t the first and it certainly won’t be the last.
What Star Trek did, however, was appear at a time when the public’s viewing habits were changing. Most homes now had televisions. Many had or were in the process of transitioning from black and white to color. The other major science fiction TV show at the time was Lost in Space. It premiered, if I remember correctly, the season before Star Trek. By the time the original series hit the air, Lost in Space had transitioned from a black and white show that was grittier and darker than the color episodes would prove to be. The Original Series, on the other hand, wasn’t about a family lost and trying to survive but about man’s continuing exploration of space – something that also intrigued the country at the time.
1966 was the year when NASA first successfully docked two space vehicles. Surveyor I landed on the Moon and began transmitting images back to Earth. 1966 is also the year the Soviets made their first successful lunar orbit. This, as well as Vietnam, was the background of Star Trek and why many American watched the show. It allowed us to see a future where the sky wasn’t a limit. With the reality of the NASA space program playing out on the news, Star Trek and so much of what we had seen in science fiction before, was no longer an impossibility. The future was within our grasp.
Or so we thought.
And what does all this have to do with economics and Star Trek? Not much and yet a great deal. DeLong sets out some excellent points about what was going on in the country, even if he forgets things like NASA. In doing so, he also points out one of the problems I always had with the so-called economy of the Star Trek universe. There really wasn’t one, at least not that we saw often on-screen. Why? Saadia begins delving into that in the Introduction and we’ll jump into it more fully next week. But here are a few of the “money” quotes, so to speak.
“We owe a lot to Star Trek. It has had a tremendous impact in the real world. It has made it a better place.”
“The world of Star Trek is an economic utopia.”
“In Trek’s universe, most if not all of the real-world conditions that drive economic behaviors essentially disappear. In Star Trek, currency has become obsolete as a medium of exchange. Labor cannot be distinguished from leisure. Universal abundance of almost all goods has made the pursuit of wealth irrelevant. Superstition, crime, poverty, and illness have been eradicated. For all intents and purposes, the United Federation of Planets is a paradise.”
“What really matters, and what makes Star Trek uniquely utopian, is the social distribution of these impressive technologies.” Here the author is speaking of, among other things, the replicators.
“[T]he compulsion to work to the compulsion to work to ensure one’s survival has simply vanished.” Again, the reason is because free robotic helpers has made human labor obsolete.
There’s more, so much more, and we’ll discuss it next week. But what does all this sound like? A government that makes sure you have everything you want. No currency. Everyone has an education and a job. Oh, there’s no mention of universal healthcare, but it is there. Never doubt it.
Are you starting to hear Bernie on the campaign trail? Or maybe Hillary? Or maybe, just maybe, you are remembering sections from the writings of Marx and Engels or perhaps even Lenin himself?
Remember, too, that despite all this pretty language about what a Utopia, economic or otherwise, that the Star Trek universe might represent, it had a nasty underbelly. How often, during the original series, did Kirk and company violate the Prime Directive? If their progressive government was so progressive and so confident in its utopian ideals, why wasn’t Kirk disciplined? If nothing else, the ever-logical Spock should have removed him from command and placed him under house arrest to face charges.
But no. None of that happened. To the best of my recollection, there was only one time when Kirk was removed from command and it was all a ruse. (Again, I might be wrong here.)
Like most utopias, they are only as good as each and every citizen’s desire and ability to completely comply. If you have outliers, they either have to conform or they have to leave. So what does the Federation do? It sends them off into space in a quasi-military fashion and gives them ships with weaponry that can destroy on a grand scale. Am I missing something or is that not quite as utopian as the authors would have us believe?
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed Star Trek in almost all its iterations. I am looking forward to finishing the book and discussing it here. I will warn you. There may be snark. Why? Because it’s who I am. If you can’t laugh at some of the institutions of your childhood, what can you laugh at?