Tradition and liberty in science fiction and fantasy: Part One – The “selective” nature of today’s world
By Mark Wegierski
Many persons today, especially in the most advanced societies of the West, consider the current-day period as postmodern, post-historical, etc. It can generally be accepted that we are living in the period of so-called "late modernity."
Would it be possible to identify some fundamental characteristics of this period of late modernity?
First of all, it is clearly an age of hyper-extremities. On the one hand, the twentieth century has seen at some moments the attempted extermination of entire nations or social groups, carried out in an almost nonchalant way, which have to a large extent been ignored or minimized by the most "enlightened" Western intellectuals, apart from such occurrences which manifestly fit into these intellectuals' preconceived ideological grids. On the other hand, these very same people have often seen merely the objective enforcement of law, the punishment of duly-convicted criminals, as symptomatic of "extreme oppression." The 1990s and the dawn of the twenty-first century have not departed from these burgeoning extremities. When, on the one hand, the "human rights" of various thugs are so scrupulously guarded, on the other, persons who express opinions considered politically-incorrect or “insensitive” are often subject to great opprobrium. It can be noted that in Canada and the United States today, freedom of speech is sometimes absolute, and sometimes absolutely non-existent. In the same way, the governments in Canada and the United States appear as sometimes all-powerful, and sometimes as completely powerless -- a curious state of what could be called "hypertrophy." It can be generally said that we are living -- in the words of the ancient Chinese curse -- in the "most interesting of times."
The second fundamental aspect of late modern Western societies is the highly selective nature of the shaping of the belief-system and personality, or even of the self, of the so-called individual. The word "selective" can be used in three main senses.
First of all, in the Western countries, certain easily-recognizable opinions and beliefs are imposed to a large extent by the intermeshed systems of mass-media, mass-education, and consumptionism. This represents a high degree of selectivity in regard to other possible models or worldviews.
Secondly, there is occurring, especially in the West, but also in the entire world, the attenuation and dissolution of so-called rooted particularities, i.e., of nation/tribe, religion, family, and traditional gender roles -- into the global pop-culture (of American -- or rather "bicoastal" -- origins).
The third aspect of "selectivity" is the fact that it is relatively difficult for anyone to live in the "bounded horizons" of their rooted particularity, and there occurs therefore, a process of reconstruction of identity as a kind of "art of selection." It can be noted, for example, that the process of immigration alone, of the mixing of nationalities and ethnicities, in itself creates problems for the maintenance of "bounded horizons." Even for persons who cherish authentic roots, life invariably takes on the feel of a "pastiche." The creation of one's personality or even self today seems to invariably be an "art of selection." It can also be noted that shifting from role to role, depending on whom one is with at a given time, is to a far greater extent possible today, than in earlier societies.
The third fundamental aspect of late modernity is the fact that the societies which are ostensibly the most individualist, are actually differentiated into a large number of less or more authentic collective identifications. Apart from those rooted particularities, which are respectively cherished by traditionalists everywhere around the world, there have arisen a whole series of new identifications. There are, for example, those identities explicitly connected with the new social movements of the 1960s (feminists and multifarious minorities). There are the so-called consumptionist tribes, based on fashion fetishes and the current music genres, which for many younger persons constitutes virtually their entire identity (e.g., punkers, gangsta-rappers, etc.). It can further be noted that virtual cults arise around some genre fiction, e.g., science fiction, or around television programs, e.g. , Star Trek, or even around hobby-type activities, e.g., role-playing games based on the fantasy literary genre, especially Dungeons & Dragons.
For all too many persons, identifications with fictional mass-media constructs (such as Star Trek) take on a far greater meaning than attachments to historically-existing nations and religions. A television show which first aired in 1966 (which, until then, was just an idea in the producer's head) has grown to command a greater allegiance in the hearts and minds and ways of life of its followers than many "actual" (the word must now be used advisedly) religions or nations which have existed for hundreds or even thousands of years. The passion of this attachment, the memorization of every episode down to the last word, the attendance of conventions which strengthen the faith, etc., by vast legions of fans and devotees strikes one as, at least, an over-concentration of time and effort. The message of the original Star Trek may be summarized as unvarnished liberal American cultural imperialism, and that of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, as virtually unrelenting political-correctness – although Deep Space Nine did actually introduce some ambiguities into the liberal triumphalism of Star Trek. The new Star Trek series, Enterprise, which premiered in September 2001, seemed somewhat less politically-correct, probably because it was set about a 150 years before the original Star Trek series, in the Star Trek “future-history” chronology. Pro-traditionalist ideas in Star Trek -- if they are not to be seen as manifest parodies -- can only be somewhat imperfectly expressed through certain "dissident" identifications, as with alien races such as the Klingons, Romulans, or Bajorans -- or, possibly, with some select races and societies that have appeared less frequently, or in only one or two episodes. It is also a curious irony that, in the Star Trek future, the Vulcans have emphatically preserved their traditions, while providing inspiration for the Federation that is devoted to "universal values." One can also perhaps valorize certain aspects of the original series (e.g., that the human crewmembers' various national identities are more pronounced; or the greater degree of the then-permissible masculinity and martial virtues; or the more psychologically solid "core" of the show -- i.e., Kirk-Spock-McCoy), in contradistinction to its successors. The far less physically ugly Klingons -- as portrayed in the 1960s series -- also seem in some ways to be more appealing.
Attempts to create a television science-fiction series apart from Star Trek have not been particularly successful. Babylon 5 is probably the best of the lot -- and also somewhat less politically-correct -- but there are also such rather less successful attempts as Space: Above and Beyond (which features long-haired, slovenly-looking Space Marines), SeaQuest DSV, Earth Two, Time Trax, Space Rangers, and an especially politically unsubtle pilot-episode, called (as far as the author can remember) Space Command, which put "Nazis in space," in the form of the breakaway human planet of Cynosura (virtually all of whose ship-crews were white males, dressed in faux-SS uniforms), fighting a multiracial "Democratic Republic of Earth", where, apart from the thoroughly multicultural, co-ed crews, nearly all of the senior leaders were persons of color. Furthermore, one was asked to accept the premise that a few space cadets in a weaker ship, could fight off five comparable enemy ships, staffed by battle-hardened veterans -- the usual American propaganda of a few inexperienced "good guys" holding the "right" ideas, triumphing over numerous villains representing illiberal "evil".
This program was somewhat reminiscent of V, which showed the arrival on Earth, in the current-day period, of an alien race, 99% of whom looked like attractive Europeans, smartly-uniformed, disciplined, and with high-level military technology -- who turned out to be vicious intelligent reptiles in disguise, who simply wanted to make a meal out of humankind. This brought to the surface certain liberal prejudices, i.e., the demonizing and dehumanization of that which, at least on the surface, could be identified with a generalized “right-wing.”
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.