Thinking ahead

Modern Times

"We were making the future and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making." H G Wells, When the Sleeper Wakes, 1899

Star Trek: Insurrection is the ninth cinematic outing for what is arguably science fiction's most successful formulation. Yet the enormous popularity of Star Trek's expanding fictional universe cannot, it seems, simply be explained by either its escapism or its spectacular distractions.

In keeping with science fiction's tendency toward peculiar hybrids, the world view offered by all of Star Trek's incarnations centres around a curiously liberal militarism which, contradictions aside, allows for an inexhaustible catalogue of acute moral dilemmas and digitally rendered destruction. Gestated during a period of cold war trepidation and unprecedented technological innovation, Star Trek presented a canvas on which to sketch the fears of the age and, perhaps more importantly, the hope of surviving it.

That the series still serves much the same function is testament to the enduring poignancy and appeal of its optimistic premise: that all is not yet lost. Its universe may reflect and extend contemporary fears with cybernetic hives and spatial anomalies, but its dramatic significance ultimately derives from reminding us of expansive frontiers and heroic possibilities.

Inevitably for a franchise spanning four decades of space-faring, Star Trek has evolved a uniquely elaborate array of fictional hardware and technical jargon, much of it now part of our own cultural mythology. Spin-off merchandising reached new heights of surrealism in 1991, with the publication of an official, 200-page technical manual detailing the innumerable systems and specifications of the Starship Enterprise. The notion of science fiction as a blueprint or inspirational sketch pad of future possibilities had been noted and clearly underlined.

The freedom to extrapolate, exaggerate and invert the familiar may help to explain science fiction's history of prescience. Edwin Abbott's hypergeometrical satire Flatland, originally published in 1884, remains one of the most popular mathematical texts to be published. Spanning more than a century of reprints, this unlikely clergyman's morality tale has featured in the thinking of Oscar Wilde, Victorian spiritualists and a filing clerk named Albert Einstein. Flatland also gave the beatniks their unhip and archetypal "square". It remains recommended reading for students of theoretical physics.

H G Wells' "land iron-clad" featured in his ambitious 1901 essay "Anticipations" and famously predated the British army's deployment of tanks on the western front in 1916. The same essay predicted the strategic importance of aerial warfare (albeit conducted using balloons) along with the development of telescopic sights and automatic weapons. Regarding the cultural impact of the car, Wells prophesied: "There will be conspicuous advertisements by the roadside; there will be traffic jams as motor vehicles replace pedestrians . . . By the year 2000, London will extend to Wales . . . " Mercifully, not all of Wells' predictions have yet materialised.

Science fiction has also informed less tangible concerns. During the early years of this century, the rise of the "scientific romance" stirred an unprecedented popular consideration of future political and social possibilities, helping to shape the ambitions of both capitalists and bolsheviks. In 1959, the novelist and philosopher Arthur Koestler voiced his fears for the future, warning of how the social extension of Darwinian ideas would dull the qualitative, visionary and moral senses. He feared the emergence of a purely quantitative world view, driven entirely by commercial imperatives, in which human consciousness would count as no more than a tragicomic curio in a meaningless universe. The stark, survivalist ethos of ends justifying means outlined in Koestler's Sleepwalkers has largely come to pass.

Now, as corporate biotechnology raises questions hitherto unthinkable, the role of science fiction as an intellectual "rehearsal space" appears more pertinent than ever. The moral preoccupations of Dostoevsky and Dickens may warrant continual attention, but the daunting legal, ethical and philosophical issues being raised by our latest technologies demand solutions without precedent in the literature that previously informed our cultural norms. The prospect of human cloning, as autonomous individuals or surgical spare parts, requires the urgent development of new definitions and legal safeguards if we are to retain fundamental distinctions between "person" and "property".

The flexible perimeters of science fiction seem eminently well-equipped to frame such debates and address the possibilities (and improbabilities) of our own increasingly alien environment. Genetic patents, climatic change and post- mortem impregnation may once have been confined to the fictional scenarios of J G Ballard or William Burroughs, but the unthinkable and the impossible are becoming facts of life. With the stakes so high and so much to be done, we may need the motivation of Star Trek's bolder, brighter future.

"Star Trek: Insurrection" (12) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour