Book Reviews - Other Books about Star Trek

Star Trek and Real ScienceStar Trek and Its Cultural Impact

 

Star Trek and Real Science

The Physics of Star Trek

Although the title suggests otherwise, this is not really a book about Star Trek. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist, quotes Star Trek, but his further explanations largely neglect what can be seen in the series and, rather than that, strictly adhere to the laws of real physics. This alone is no criticism. We need popular books about physics (and this is a good one), but the title just doesn't suit it.

A typical chapter begins with examples from the series, but subsequently it becomes like a general analysis of science (and) fiction where one could easily replace "Enterprise" with "Star Destroyer" or any other starship from any other sci-fi universe. In the chapter on warp propulsion, for instance, Krauss discusses a general theory of FTL travel without even once mentioning the term "subspace" which is actually the key to Star Trek's warp drive, even if it is a purely fictional concept. The same happens in his reflections on the transporter. He assumes that a human being should be reduced to bits, although we know that Star Trek's transporter transmits the very matter of an object or person. Agreed, from the viewpoint of actual physics Krauss is right, and I would wish that he gave certain Trek authors a few repetitional lessons in physics. Anyway, I don't understand why he calls a book with rather few Trek-specific content and much more real world physics The Physics of Star Trek and not "The Physics of Science Fiction". I usually don't like to speculate, but maybe because the book sells better with "Star Trek" in the title, or does he intend to disillusion or even convert die-hard Trek fans? Well, I rather go with a positive explanation that Star Trek just covers all facets of fictional science and technology, so it was the obvious choice.

Speaking of disillusions, this book will have several for those fans who firmly believe that it just needs a bit of research until we get warp or only impulse drive or a transporter to work. Krauss makes very clear how much fuel it would take to accelerate a starship to "only" 0.5c and decelerate again (6561 times the ship's mass!), and what a resolution would be required to beam up a person's atoms from a planet surface (that of a lens as wide as the distance to the planet!). As I said, I think the book isn't supposed to spoil our fun of Star Trek, and I hope it won't have this effect on anyone. So if we keep in mind that Krauss is just talking about general concepts and not about how the technology works in Star Trek, this is a very good lecture for all who like Star Trek and all who like to know more about the limits of physics.

Lawrence M. Krauss, Stephen Hawking (introduction), The Physics of Star Trek, Harperperennial Library, 1996.
ISBN: 0060977108

 

Star Trek and Its Cultural Impact

Future Perfect

"This means something!" Star Trek has succeeded to keep people being interested in it for more than 30 years. So there must be more to it than just pure entertainment. This is the setup for Jeff Greenwald's "Future Perfect", an attempt to explain what is behind people's fascination with Star Trek. So he travels around the world to meet with people and talk to them about the influence Star Trek has on their lives.

Greenwald's initial theory of Trek awakening a collective human yearning to get out into space and explore the final frontier in earnest is proven wrong by the interviewed people. Star Trek instead appears to be a deep and maybe eternal need for something to believe in - something that makes sense. At this point the question Greenwald is asking has changed without him noticing. The question is no longer "what is it?" but "why is it?"- it has become questioning the movens. Greenwald's search for the definition of Star Trek therefore requires a different method to deal with than the chosen one of collecting impressions. Even his description of Trek being a contemporary myth still misses the point, because myth and enlightenment are bound together in a dialectic way (since even the myth is enlightening in it trying to explain what's behind things while enlightenment itself has become mythological to the non-expert). As a form of literature Star Trek has to be regarded as and treated by means of literature. Star Trek makes sense. Sense does not mean to control reality by establishing a mutual understanding what has to be regarded as such at a certain point (that's happening every day and quite trivial regarded from a philosophical point of view). Sense is closely related to surely knowing what really is. If there's one thing characterizing the modern times best, than it's the absence of sense apriori. Sense has to be found or to be set, and this underlines the above question: that's the difference between controlling reality (which is always possible defining things at a given time) and knowing reality (which may be impossible).

Concerning the production of reality the techniques used to control the terms and conditions of its production process are leading to the media involved. Greenwald needs media theory to get closer to his subject but he decides to do without it. Interesting questions are touched but left unanswered. Assumed there is a strong correlation between history and corresponding forms of art making use of media competence, Star Trek could be described as the contemporary modern art it is: reflecting the social state and evolution process of mankind, dealing with contemporary problems but presenting an optimistic solution instead of showing Armageddon. Seeing Star Trek as a visual form of a literary genre would explain why it can not be just black and white like a fairy tale, why time and continuity are so important and how they are achieved. Without media theory acquiring a growing understanding for his subject and linking the different impressions contributed by different people from different cultures is not possible. Things keep being fragmented.

This is the biggest drawback in an very amusing and entertaining book: lacking competence for media it stays anecdotal and does not lead to an understanding what makes Star Trek so desirable besides that it's presenting an optimistic an peaceful outlook to the future without being an utopian idea neglecting life in all is aspects.

So if you are involved in the show and already knowing at least the basics Greenwald's book is very enjoyable reading, but if you're new to it and keen on being told what's Star Trek all about you certainly will be disappointed because the book can not keep its promise to tell the whole truth about the longing called Star Trek.

(Thorsten)

Jeff Greenwald, Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth, Penguin Books, 1998.
ISBN: 0140277986

 

Boarding the Enterprise

This book is a multi-faceted collection of essays dealing with the original Star Trek. It combines personal accounts of people working for the show with a look at Star Trek as a media phenomenon, complemented with more or less serious scientific analyses of the fictional technology. The content is so diverse that Boarding the Enterprise deserves to be summarized chapter by chapter.

In the introduction, award-winning science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer who acts as the book's editor emphasizes Star Trek's impact on our pop culture. David Gerrold, the other editor and TOS and TAS writer, carries on with a perspicuous analysis of Star Trek's position in the world of media, the role of its fans and how science fiction is different and has to be different from other literary genres. One of Gerrold's key points, that Star Trek, in his view, often doesn't go further than just showing an innovation without consequences, remains debatable though. Norman Spinrad who wrote "The Doomsday Machine" adds considerations how Star Trek could be established in a world where sci-fi was still seeking its place. His homage to Spock as a completely new type of TV drama character is especially intriguing. D.C. Fontana of "Journey to Babel" fame (among other notable episodes she wrote) remembers her time as part of the staff and particularly how Gene Roddenberry worked out not just the basic framework of the show but also cared about seemingly minor details. Also, everyone joining his team had to prepare to become the victim of one of his notorious practical jokes. In the following essay Allen Steele looks at the show from an author's perspective.

My three favorite essays are those of cultural theorist Eric Greene, author Michael A. Burstein and philosopher Lyle Zynda. Eric Greene goes into great detail linking the original Star Trek to the ongoing Vietnam War. His theory is that while the Federation is quite obviously modeled after the USA in the Cold War era, Kirk embodies John F. Kennedy who always sought peace but was determined to fight for freedom just like the equally vigorous 23rd century starship captain. Overall, in Green's view Star Trek represented rather the official government policy than the counter-culture which was cropping up in the late 60s. He picks out many examples of the classic "cultural intervention" cliché of TOS where, with a couple of notable exceptions, the freedom-oriented position prevails. Although in some cases he may have over-interpreted statements and observations from the series, it is a thought-provoking read. Michael A. Burstein looks at how religion is presented in Star Trek. He comes to the conclusion that the absence of anything religious that would be commonplace in our world (and definitely was in the 1960s) clearly promotes a secular society. Even Edith Keeler, a church social worker of the 1930s, doesn't mention God once in her address to the homeless! While this anti-religious attitude may be attributed to Gene Roddenberry's decided atheism, Burstein takes into consideration that it reflects a general tendency in science fiction and in the American society just as well. "Who am I" is the title of Lyle Zynda's essay which asks the question whether a human "essence" or "soul" in an android body could still be one and the same person - or someone reassembled using the transporter, for that matter. He devises two models, one in which identity requires the presence of a body or soul and one in which it is defined through a pattern that can be duplicated. Zynda examines several occurrences and comes to the conclusion that the evidence is very contradictory.

On the more light-hearted side (at least so I hope because otherwise it would be defamatory!) writer Don DeBrandt explains why Vulcans are not as logical as they claim to be. Sci-fi author Lawrence Watt-Evans comes up with the weird(?) theory that the 23rd century human society must be based on strictly Darwinian principles, as there could be no other explanation for the lack of very basic safety systems on the otherwise cutting-edge starship USS Enterprise. Robert A. Metzger, in his role as a sci-fi author and scientist, contributes a homage to Scotty - in his view the most important crew member and the only one to know how to create custom Kirks for specific missions and to revive him in the transporter each time the captain is killed on a mission. Praise for Star Trek's role in promoting science, even if it is cheesy at times, comes from astronomer David DeGraff, while author Adam Roberts surmises that sci-fi has become more interesting than the real thing, ultimately killing the space race. Fanfic author Melissa Dickinson explains and justifies why especially female fans irrespective of their sexual orientation come up with slash fiction, and she quotes romantic aspects as the most important reasons - although it is my impression that in many cases it may be the mere sexual desire. Paul Levinson, another award-winning writer, points out how Star Trek taught Paramount and the networks a lesson when it flourished in syndication seemingly against the rules of the television industry. Writer Howard Weinstein concludes the colorful mix of essays with the statement that Star Trek was always about "being better". It is only sad that some of the articles implicitly and this final one explicitly presuppose that Star Trek has degraded in its later incarnations which is simply not true.

Although its general tone is light-hearted and at times ironical, Boarding the Enterprise is anything but superficial for the most part. Several of the essays are at least entertaining, even though their statements are not really new to fans. In other chapters the book tackles philosophical questions and raises sometimes controversial issues. I for one don't read non-fictional books to agree with everything, and here is a nice opportunity to form or change an opinion on a number of things. But most importantly, Boarding the Enterprise is an affectionate contribution to Star Trek's 40th anniversary. Written by knowledgeable fans, it stays true to the series and does not digress like some other non-fiction books with "Star Trek" in the title.

Edited by David Gerrold, Robert J. Sawyer, with Leah Wilson, Boarding the Enterprise - Transporters, Tribbles and the Vulcan Death Grip in Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, Benbella Books, 2006.
ISBN: 1932100873

 

Fan Phenomena: Star Trek

This book is an anthology on the Star Trek fandom, and part of a series that is concerned with Star Wars, Doctor Who, Batman and other fan cultures in a similar fashion. Being a more or less scholarly approach to the cultural phenomenon of Star Trek, Fan Phenomena: Star Trek is written for cultural scientists, sociologists and other researchers in my view, rather than for the fans of the franchise.

The introduction by Bruce E. Drushel provides an overview of the Star Trek fan culture and of the topics that are covered in the book. Most notably it points out that the Star Trek fandom is anything but a monolithic and secluded culture. People around the world become fans irrespective of their age, sex, race or religion, and they establish many links with mainstream culture. These considerations will form the backdrop of the following essays.

Chapter 1 by Elizabeth Thomas is titled "Live Long and Prosper: How Fans Made Star Trek a Cultural Phenomenon". The chapter recounts how letter writing campaigns, fan clubs and conventions not only provided the fans with a powerful voice, but created a form of attachment to the franchise that Gene Roddenberry never would have hoped for. The focus of this chapter is on the first three decades of Trek fandom, and so it acknowledges the development of the online fandom in just one paragraph. In this regard it is unfortunate that the author gets essential facts wrong in this paragraph, because TrekWeb.com is neither officially endorsed by Paramount as she alleges, nor does Paramount exclusively own all Star Trek properties.

The next essay, "Not Your Daddy's Star Trek: Rebooting a Franchise and Rewriting a Fandom" by Catherine Coker, is concerned with the impact that the 2009 reboot movie by JJ Abrams has on the Star Trek fandom, and on fan fiction in particular. The author points out that the redefinition of the characters and of their universe imposes challenges on the writers of fan fiction. After the introductory notes on the Abrams movie she explains how fan works always used to link themselves to the official Trek series and movies. Most of the rest of the essay, however, boils down to the specific question how slash stories may work in the new universe. This is where the author loses me, because like 99% of all fans I simply don't care for slash fiction, which in my view is an overrated by-product that has little to do with the actual idea of Star Trek. I am sorry, but I can't take an essay seriously that mentions worries about how Uhura interrupts a "canonical K/S subtext", instead of addressing relevant quality and continuity issues of the Abramsverse.

In Chapter 3, "A Utopia Denied: Star Trek and its Queer Fans", Bruce E. Drushel summarizes the decade-long efforts of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer fans to get acknowledged in canonical Star Trek in some fashion. David Gerrold's "Blood and Fire", featuring a gay couple, was considered for TNG's first season, but never made it to the screen. After many debates with LGBT(Q) fans, Gene Roddenberry said he would show gay crew members on TNG, but this promise remained unfulfilled after his death in 1991. Drushel tells us how Star Trek repeatedly tackled LGBTQ issues in the form of allegories, such as in TNG: "The Outcast" (sexual discrimination) or ENT: "Stigma" (AIDS). But he also quotes LGBTQ activists who would prefer direct references to same-sex relationships over allegories. The essay then switches to George Takei and Zachary Quinto coming out in real life. Drushel closes with considerations (or rather speculation) about cast members that could have been gay, namely Garak, Q and Kivas Fajo -- fortunately without putting them into a slash fiction context!

Chapter 4, "Trek in the Park: Live Performance and Star Trek Culture" by Michael Boynton, is an interesting read, although or just because it is an event of only regional impact (in the Portland area, USA). The author reckons that the main draw of the live performance is the subject of Star Trek, although the audience is not primarily composed of recognizable Trekkies. Boynton analyzes the way that Star Trek is being presented as a live performance in a park, as well as the interaction of the actors with the audience. Comparing "Star Trek in the Park" to something like "Shakespeare in the Park", he sees that the alleged "low culture" of Star Trek is being elevated through this form of presentation. Although it manages to maintain a certain academic distance to the subject, this essay is written so affectionately that I am sad I don't have the opportunity to attend the festival!

The next essay, "Assimilate This! Computer-Mediated Communication and Star Trek Fan Culture" by Kimberly L. Kulovitz, is a sociological study, and as such more scholarly than most of the rest of the book. The study is based on the hyperpersonal model of computer-mediated communication (CMC), a theory that acknowledges advantages of CMC over personal face-to-face communication. One example is that a message meant to start a romantic relationship with a coworker can be prepared more thoroughly in a CMC channel. The author investigates the communication in two forum threads, one from startrek.com and one from trekbbs.com, where she identifies individuals who exaggerate their membership in a certain fan category, as well as groups setting themselves apart. On of the key questions with regard to the hyperpersonal model, however, can't be definitely answered according to the author: Could the same kind of discussions take place in face-to-face communication just as well?

Chapter 6 is titled "Lost in Orbit: Satellite Star Trek Fans". Bianca Spriggs, a longtime fan herself, has interviewed six other individuals that can be described as "satellite fans", meaning devotees who are every bit as knowledgeable as the authors of fan fiction or YouTube videos, only less visible in the community. The result is a broad range of impressions and opinions, but with the common pattern that these people do much more than simply watch the show, even though it ultimately doesn't rule their lives.

Chapter 7, "Star Trek Fans as Parody: Fans Mocking Other Fans" by Paul Booth, is the perhaps most interesting one in the book. The author points out how specifically Star Trek fans bear the brunt of prejudices against fans of science fiction. He examines how fans are being mocked in two films, "Galaxy Quest" (1999) and "Fanboys" (2009). In "Fanboys" the Star Wars fans are being portrayed as obsessive, but they are outclassed by a group of "Trekkies". In a similar fashion, "Galaxy Quest" features a boy who is an ardent fan of the old TV series of the same name, while the aliens in the movie, the Thermians, are totally hyperreal, meaning that they can't distinguish at all between TV and reality. The author concludes that the depiction of fans in the two movies is insidious, because it invites fans to dissociate themselves from the extreme forms of fandom, thereby only reinforcing the stigma.

In the next chapter, "Lieutenant Sulu's Facebook: 'Professor' Takei and the Social Networking Classroom", Nathan Thompson and Kenneth Huynh investigate the activity on George Takei's Facebook page. The veteran actor frequently posts memes in the form of funny pictures but also clear political statements on gay rights, as well as on racial discrimination. Takei doesn't receive only positive feedback. In fact, some visitors complain that he goes over the top with name-calling when he criticizes what he sees as bigotry. The authors of the article see Takei's Facebook page as a big classroom, and Takei as a professor who ultimately wants to reach everyone with his "lesson", and not only those who would agree with him anyway.

The final chapter is titled "The Borg: Fan Pariah or Cultural Pillar?". Here Charles Evans Jones, Jr asks the question whether the Borg are really the embodiment of evil. He describes the Borg Collective as governed by moderate-act consequentialism, meaning that they always choose the alternative that produces the best results. He quotes a number of fans who vote against hunting down the Borg, or who appreciate the idea of achieving perfection by linking together individuals. Charles Evans Jones investigates the episode TNG: "I, Borg", in which Hugh was separated from the Collective and regained his individuality. While this example demonstrates that the Collective consists of more than mindless drones and that it may not be right to kill all of them, it doesn't really address the question what the driving force of the Borg Collective is. I could name half a dozen Borg episodes that may have illustrated the author's theory better.

As already mentioned in my introductory note, fans are not the target readers of Fan Phenomena: Star Trek. However, as a fan I enjoyed most of the articles, although some of them are rather academic and may not have been meant to be entertaining in the first place. For me, reading this book with its overall respectful and sometimes affectionate external view of the fandom was a pleasant departure from the usual way I look at Star Trek and at myself as a fan.

Edited by Bruce E. Drushel, Fan Phenomena: Star Trek, Intellect Books, 2013.
ISBN-13: 9781783201006

 


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