Star Trek would have you believe that, one day, Earth will become a virtual utopia. War, famine, and poverty will be eliminated. Advanced civilizations will come and help humanity solve its problems, and even explore the very stars themselves. Humanity, through a United Federation of Planets will encounter new species, societies, and ways of living. And while there will initially be conflict and fear, it will ultimately give way to tolerance, peace, and love.
Personally, I don’t find this realistic. Strip away the technology and science, even accepting the caveat that somehow unlimited resources and energy can be had, and you still have human beings that still feel greed, possess hubris, and fear what they don’t understand. And that is how we treat our own fellow human beings. I think that, if anything, our interactions with each other and other species would be a lot more like the scenario set in the universe of Babylon 5: where there are differences of opinion, internecine and squabbling politics, sanctions, and warfare but a degree of acceptance and understanding among individuals. But that is assuming that human nature will remain the same. Certainly, the anonymous reader that wrote a letter deriding the lesbian relationship between a Vulcan and Klingon in David Mack’s Star Trek novel Harbinger reflects some current human traits all too well.
It can be disheartening to consider that such bigotry exists — and has done so for some time — in speculative fiction and geek fandom. Even David Mack, in his epic open letter rebuttal of this reader’s email, admits that diversity is not nearly as represented in the Star Trek television series as it could have been. And even if the writer of the email to Mack wasn’t a hardcore Trekkie, this is not an original sentiment in whatever might constitute itself as geek culture or the various fandoms that make up some kind of community. I don’t think it is too much of a revelation to state that Star Trek — or speculative fiction itself — and fandoms can be problematic with regards to gender and cultural diversity.
But there is more to this. There always is. I think what really stands out at me is the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series. Part of the reason I bring this up is because of the image that Katharine Trendacosta uses in her i09 article Star Trek Writer’s Defense of Diversity in Sci-Fi Is Damn Near Perfect. It depicts the episode “Rejoined” where Jadzia Dax encounters Lenara Kahn. In fact, both women are Trill hosts for their respective symbionts: whom had been married. I was either in the latter stages of elementary or in the middle of high school when I first saw this episode, and I didn’t understand it.
It wasn’t that I didn’t understand why Dax had feelings for Kahn. I assumed, then, that she was just experiencing echoes of emotion from her symbiont’s last host. Naively, I was more confused as to how she could even pursue a relationship with her even though the symbiont no longer had a male host and if disrupting the rules of their society was worth the trouble. I will even admit that, at the time, it made me uncomfortable. In retrospect, many adults seemed to feel the same way, or so Star Trek producers believed. Years later, of course, I realize that the Trill philosophy of wanting to prevent symbionts from “limiting their experiences by relationships from their previous lives” was another way of stating that people were uncomfortable with two pansexual beings — who both happened to be women this time around — from continuing and having new experiences with their relationship. You can say that it was the nineties and that we weren’t “quite there yet” (and we still aren’t in a lot of ways), but when I look back at that episode and even my own naivete and ignorance, I feel a kind of righteous anger that they couldn’t pursue that relationship further.
There are many other instances of how Star Trek poorly handled their depictions of gender and ethnic diversity, but there is one other story line that particularly got to me: though not, again, until recent years. There was a story arc between Miles O’Brien, his wife Keiko, and the Bajoran Major Kira Nerys embodied best by the episode “Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places.” Due to a potentially lethal accident, the O’Briens’ unborn son had to be transferred into Kira’s womb. During this episode, Kira moves in with the O’Briens so that they can take care of her in the meantime. Miles and Kira end up spending a lot of time together, which Keiko actively supports. Their family dynamic changes during this time and Miles and Kira actually end up developing feelings for each other. Nothing comes of this, however, and after she carries the child to term Kira leaves the O’Briens.
I definitely remember being distinctly uncomfortable with this arrangement at the time: seeing the two characters bordering on cheating. Certainly, while life happens in chaotic ways, their situation was no time to develop a relationship. But now I can’t help but feel that there were a few possibilities in how that relationship could have turned out. While the resonance feels more like something Robert A. Heinlein would create as opposed to Gene Roddenberry or other like-minded writers, it would have been fascinating to see a polyamorous or non-monogamous relationship dynamic form from that particular episode: another kind of diversity and representation in a futuristic series priding itself on philosophical and human progress.
Even so David Mack, in his own open letter, states that “those of us who write the licensed Trek fiction continue to do our best to depict a more progressive, enlightened, open, and harmonious future, not just for humanity but for all sentient beings.” And maybe it was these words, along with seeing Dax and Kahn again, that reminded me that although the writers of Star Trek couldn’t be too radical, they pushed the envelope of diversity as far as they thought they could: particularly in Deep Space Nine.
It’s funny. When I think about it, Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 both aired more or less during the same time period. Perhaps that’s why I mentioned both programs in the context of this article. Maybe it reminds me of how different I am from the child and adolescent I used to be. But I also learned something new. David Mack, in his rebuttal to his anonymous reader over the accusation of “remoulding the Vulcan persona to suit himself,” quotes the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. It even has its own symbol worn by many Vulcans: including Spock himself. Whether or not Gene Roddenberry created the symbol to sell merchandise is kind of irrelevant but it reminds me of something else. I realized that even if that utopian ideal is unrealistic and will never happen, it is something to strive for. That sense of hope and wonder in the form of sheer possibility and diversity is what Star Trek is, and what it should ultimately be about.
This is what speculative fiction and geekdom should be about: what it should be the vanguard for.
David Mack, in not only being unashamed of the lesbian relationship between his two characters but even supporting and rejoicing in it, states that he will continue to support diversity in his writing. When you look at current fandom and some of its displeasure over other changes or recent iterations in franchises such as a Black Captain America, Thor now being a woman, and a female lead in a Spider-Man film you begin to realize something else. Not only is diversity important in representing various people in the franchises that they love, but it is utterly integral in keeping those worlds fresh and alive: keeping them changing. Closed mindsets will be maintained and never challenged. No one will care about stories that never change or make them feel a part of them.
Without diversity, without change, genres and mediums will die.
It is my hope that writers such as David Mack continue to travel these places and bring us along on the ride: to make a place where a story is judged by the quality of its writing and interactions and not solely by an idea that hasn’t been fully fleshed out, or reactionary responses.
To boldly go where no one has gone before, or to go to where other people go and you don’t. Frankly, if this is a journey that doesn’t suit you, then you shouldn’t come for the ride. As for me, I want to see where these explorations will take me.