I’m serious about my trigger warning title. If you love Star Trek don’t read this. It’s not worth the aggravation. I’m aiming this at old farts like me who wish science fiction was more scientific, and there ain’t that many of us. I expect maybe five readers. I finished watching Star Trek: Picard and have some things I want to talk about, but I don’t want to rile any fans. Overall, I thought the show was fun. It was also a pleasant excursion down memory land. However, I have some quibbles, some specifically about the show, and others about science fiction in general. My complaints probably aren’t fair anyway, just my personal pet peeves for things to be different in science fiction.
And maybe I’m being too literal in wanting Star Trek to be more scientifically realistic. Maybe all Kirsten Beyer, Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, and Alex Kurtzman wanted was to present a metaphorical story about how paranoid conservatives (Romulans) are infiltrating all levels of the federal government (Federation) so they can fight illegal immigration (synthetics) and keep America pure (humanoid).
At that level, it makes the show a feel-good experience. Yet, I feel the need to bellyache.
My first quibble with the show deals with superscience. It appears anything that can be imagined is possible within the Star Trek universe. For example, if they can have instantaneous communication with 3D holographic images, why not just teleport everyone anywhere in the universe and forget starships? Wait, they did that. Star Trek allows for any magical wands and fantasy portals. Wasn’t that doohicky given by the synthetics in the last episode really just a magical wand? Are wormholes in Star Trek any different than a magical wardrobe to Naria? Just another fantasy portal to get you to another world?
I’m beginning to wonder if Fredric Wertham wasn’t right the evils of comic books. Doesn’t it feel like all the comic book movies have corrupted science fiction movies with superhero characters and nonsense science? Star Trek: Picard was no more challenging in the understanding of reality than belief in Santa Claus or Superman. Have we all become children again? Picard is always able to find a chimney to descend.
My second main quibble with Star Trek: Picard was the synthetics’ outpost on Coppelius. We had eight episodes building us up to what magnificent creatures these AI beings are, and what a tremendous threat they are to all humanoid life in the galaxy, and what are we given? A society that looked like a small commune of 1960s flower children. In fact, they reminded me mostly of the hapless Eloi in the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. I was expecting a far-out civilization, with imposing architecture and technology. We are eventually thrown one bone, with that ESP-driven multi-tool, but wasn’t it really plot-fixing abracadabra. I hate when science fiction equates advanced beings with ESP magical mumbo-jumbo powers. Psionics ruined 1950s’ Astounding.
My last quibble, and really the largest, but one that applies to all recent science fiction, both in books and movies, is imagining AI beings that look like us. And especially why do most recent AI beings in science fiction look like beautiful young women? What a pathetic lack of creative thinking. Sure, I know, it’s a great role for young actresses, but can’t they make a decent robot that can act?
Are all those billions we’re pouring into artificial intelligence just a secret tech-race to develop sexbots? Are there guys out there dreaming about becoming the first trillionaire by marketing a Wowza iWoman?
First, we need to do some deep psychoanalysis on why we think AI beings will look like us. Are we so vain to think we have the perfect form? Also, in most science fiction where the story tries to convince AI beings shouldn’t be destroyed as evil threats, making them look human, even beautiful, is a fantastically huge storytelling cheat. It’s too easy to be empathetic to beings that already look like us, especially beautiful young women.
If Dahj and Soji had looked like six-foot-tall metallic spiders, with dozens of eyes that could see into all wavelengths of the EM spectrum, capable of thinking a thousand times faster than human, free from all oppressive programming of biology, who saw us as extremely limited wetware creatures confused by our passions and urges, would we have thought of them as equals to be protected with by our human rights, laws, and our ethical considerations? Would Picard champion their existence? And be honest, would you have feared and hated them?
Science fiction sells both good and evil robots. Isn’t it rather Freudian that good robots are hot babes and bad robots are evil machines? Okay, I admit there are some counterexamples to my claim. We do have Number Five and WALL-E who were good and machines, and Number Six who was evil and a lovely woman in a red dress. Give those story creators an A+.
We confuse the whole problem of machine intelligence by considering synthetic humans. We will never need to create synthetic humans, but we will create AI minds that exist in bodies of fantastic designs of extreme utility.
The whole arc of season one of Star Trek: Picard was about fearing the children of the singularity. But it never dealt with the issue with any intellectual validity. It remained at a level of primitive movie SF philosophy that existed in 1966 when the original Star Trek premiered. Heinlein did a superior job that year with the SF book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
I’ve always loved Star Trek, but it’s not evolving. It’s just becoming more and more recursive nostalgia. And, at that level Star Trek: Picard was satisfying. But thinking about it made me worry that neither Star Trek nor science fiction is ever going to grow up. If fact, it seems to be regressing, at least on television and in the theater. Is that just because it’s trying to reach the lowest common denominator to make the most money?
The trouble is, the original vision of Star Trek was intended to be a positive (liberal) view of the future. Back then we truly hoped the destiny of humanity was so spread across the galaxy. Star Trek made us believe it could happen. We’ve learned a lot in the half-century since then, but it’s not reflected in the newer shows. What we learned is Star Trek/Star Wars visions of interstellar travel is a fantasy no different than the magical make-believe universes of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. At first, science fiction offered realistic possibilities that replaced the old dreams about reality based on God(s), angels, and heaven, but now science fiction is just becoming another fantasy dogma.
What we need is a science fiction television series where interstellar travel is nearly impossible, where we coexist with intelligent machines many times smarter than our IQ, and maybe even communicate with alien species that look nothing like humans, or anything we ever imagined. We need a high frontier that isn’t a substitute for colonialism, yet fulfills our deepest existential needs. Science fiction on the level of comic book superheroes is no more sophisticated than the thinking of 2,500 years ago when the ancient Greeks imagined the shenanigans of their gods and goddesses.
Of course, that might be expecting too much. Humans haven’t changed significantly in their 200,000-year existence, so why expect them to change now? But haven’t we reached a stage in our development where we could see out of the loop we’re trapped in? Is it too much to ask that we cut back on the fantasy and explore the realistic possibilities of existence in a genre with the word science in its label?
James Wallace Harris, 4/3/20