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

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis