Octavia Butler and the Journey Toward Utopia in the New Star Trek Discovery Series

By Joseph Orosco (August 10, 2017)

Lots of people are noticing that our pop culture seems obsessed with apocalyptic and dystopia themes lately. Father of cyberpunk William Gibson thinks our narrative vision of the future is shrinking because we are focused on the end of the world tales. Brianna Rennix is concerned that the only people that seem to hold onto the dream of exploring space are right libertarians. In particular, she thinks we live at a time in which the picture of humanity as represented in something like Star Trek appears hokey and unduly optimistic. Hollywood actor and producer Seth MacFarland says he is fed up with the single-minded fascination with dystopia and his new TV sci fi space series intentionally harkens back to the old optimism of Star Trek from the 1960s.

This past year, the Anarres Project hosted a series to mark the 50th anniversary of the network premiere of Star Trek: The Original Series. One of the events was called Star Trek and Black Lives Matter. We hosted a viewing of of one of my favorite episodes from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Far Beyond the Stars”  in which Captain Sisko imagines himself living as a science fiction writer in the 1950s United States. The episode depicts the subtle bigotry, institutional racism, and state violence faced by Blacks in this era in a way that highlights the progress of racial justice into the 23rd century. What is most striking about this episode–that came out almost 20 years ago–is that it dramatically crests with the police execution of a young Black man in a manner that is reminiscent of the all the shootings that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Watching that episode today demonstrates how some things have not changed in terms of racial progress—and why the future of Star Trek seems so distant.

During the discussion of the episode, one African American woman said that while she liked Star Trek a lot, she thought it was less inspiring than a lot of current science fiction. The future of humanity it portrayed was great, but it was so removed from our present that it seemed almost irrelevant or impossible to attain. I asked her what she did like and she responded that she felt Octavia Butler’s work, especially The Parable of the Sower, was much more appropriate to our world today.

Butler’s Sower series is interesting because it is set in a dystopian near future with societal collapse, not unlike something you see in current zombie stories such as The Walking Dead. But the story here is about a group driven by the hopeful vision of humanity travelling and extending to the stars–Earthseed. They are surrounded by death and danger, betrayal and isolation. Yet, what is inspiring in Butler’s universe is how the communities deal with these challenges and how the vision of Earthseed creates a kind of solidarity that can be experienced through such hope. Ultimately, it’s a story of how to cope and overcome dystopia with a rich sense of humanity and how take the steps toward utopia.

This current mood is why I think it makes sense that the new Star Trek: Discovery series to premiere later this Fall is one that is set in the timeline before Star Trek: The Original Series. Fans have been criticizing the choice to have a series in the early 23rd century, a decade before Kirk and Spock; these fans want to see the future after the 24th century in the timeline established by the series Star Trek: Voyager.

But we are in a dystopian and skeptical era.  We’ve seen what humanity is like at its best already, exploring the farthest reaches of space and holding onto its best ethical principles–that’s what Star Trek Voyager was all about. We want a more Butlerian Star Trek now. What we crave is now is more guidance through adversity; we want to know how we get to the post-scarcity utopia represented by the Federation and Star Fleet.  Mary Wiseman, an actor in the new series really captures this craving in her comments about Star Trek Discovery at this year’s San Diego Comic Con:


“’Star Trek’ is so idealist because it could feel like the end of the world right now, America feels extremely divided. People can’t hear each other people can’t have compassion for each other… What ‘Star Trek’ [asks is], ‘What qualities are we going to have to have, and what ways are we going to have to think to move forward to a better future? Not just survive in a dystopian one.’ And I think those qualities are compassion, openheartedness, open-mindedness, respect for difference, teamwork, rigor, strength.”

That is, we need sci-fi to assist us in reflecting on the hard challenges we face as human beings, what is it that we have to overcome about ourselves, in order to arrive at a world in which the need for a Black Lives Matter movement is unnecessary or unthinkable.

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