Saturday 16 November 2013

Clean no longer

"How's the collar, princess?"

The writer Michael Lind once used an analogy of Star Trek versus Star Wars as a way of highlighting the modern exaltation of barbarism in America. In Lind's view, Star Trek represented scientific achievement and rationalism, while Star Wars represented degenerative regression and romantic medievalism.

American science fiction once saw the future with optimism and hope. A future of technological advances and inclusive government. A future where, perhaps, some planetary Federation (a multi-ethnic America enlarged, basically) might send starships out on five year missions of peaceful exploration, rather than for conquest or profit. An enlightened future. A nice future.

It wasn't just science fiction that saw it this way. It was America itself, freed from the shackles of the evil empire (Great Britain) and the corrupt manipulative ways of the Old World. America embraced the Enlightenment values of Liberty, Social Development and Individual Rights, and it emerged from WW2 as number one in the world. Not an empire, like those awful European colonialists and their despotic monarchies, but a Great Force For Good, championing rights, liberty and happiness - the very values still touted by the Humanist movement today, which is to the Enlightenment what the Knights Templar once were to Christendom.

America was an Enlightenment regime. And science fiction, with its emphasis on science and progressiveness, was an Enlightenment, Humanist genre. At its core, anyway. This is why the hardcore SF cadre bemoan the 'sci-fi' proclivity with exploding spaceships. It's not enlightened. Or literary - which is to say, not aligned with serious bourgeois, enlightened values. It's also why Michael Lind hated Star Wars.

But America was not the only Enlightenment regime. The other one was the Soviet Union, and they too wanted to use science and reason to better the affairs of Man. Indeed, it was explicit in their literature. They sought to rationally plan society and engineer better, more rational citizens. America sought to change the world through revolutionary democracy. The USSR sought to do the same through revolutionary socialism. Two different ways of arriving at the same Enlightenment goals.

There remain many who still pine for the Soviet version - or at least the idealised version - but the game was up for the Soviet dream after Stalin's death. The admission of his crimes soured hopes of a Utopia and, in spite of the ongoing Cold War, it was only a matter of time before the Enlightenment dream was seen as deeply naive.

America's moment of disillusionment came soon after, with the Vietnam war. The idea that a rational regime, created through revolution with the aim of transforming humanity, could end up committing the same crimes against humanity that the old European empires were guilty of, was a heavy blow to the hope of intellectuals. It was the beginning of a long decline that would eventually see the USSR collapse and the USA vilified as the evil empire it once sought to make obsolete.

Progressives used to laud America. Now they bemoan it.

To Michael Lind, Star Trek was the hope we should have stuck with, while Star Wars was a return to pre-enlightenment horrors like monarchy, slavery and elite knightly orders. Star Trek was clean. Star Wars was dirty.

But Star Wars was more popular by far. What did this say about cinema audiences, and the population at large? And what does this say about science fiction itself?

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