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Who tends to Captain Picard’s bromeliads?


Michael Miles of the LARB writes about popular science fiction, its optimism and post-scarcity societies that know no hunger nor poverty. He ponders an important question: in these classless sci-fi societies, who exactly takes care of Captain Picard’s bromeliads? Who picks up the service labor slack? Automata? Here’s an excerpt of Miles on Star Trek writer Gene Roddenberry’s potential blind eye toward support labor.

Science fiction embraces a multitude of philosophies reflecting the different time periods and cultures from which it originates. One of these philosophies — liberal humanism — allows authors to envision a rational, empirical, and typically secular future centered on the agency of humans who have matured and achieved a harmonious (if not peaceful) coexistence. As an alternative to dystopian futures that emphasize strife and anarchy, liberal humanist visions eliminate class and ignorance to describe a communal society. Given present day conditions of aggression, resource scarcity, inequality, and religious conflict, these visions of the future are compelling to readers. Asserting that humanity will solve what seem like intractable problems using technology and reason provides a message of hope for the present. However, embracing liberal humanism does not dictate that visions of the future will resemble each other, nor that achieving a harmonious society will occur without consequences. Three popular authors from the late-20th century — Stanislaw Lem, Gene Roddenberry, and Iain M. Banks — have each created imagined societies founded on liberal humanism. Their diverse national origins as inhabitants of Poland, the United States, and Scotland influence their imagined futures. Each of their societies grant individual agency while relying on a rational community. Want has been eliminated, and individuals are free to achieve self-actualization. Beyond these broad characteristics, however, there are profound distinctions in how each author allows his characters to gain knowledge, channel aggression, remain passionate, and engage with society. These distinctions raise the question of whether liberal humanism, in its different flavors, can be effective in providing a future in which individual agency coexists with plenty and achievement.

Although each author has created a considerable catalog of work, I would like to restrict this essay to a few representative examples. Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars describes the repatriation of Hal Bregg, an interstellar astronaut who returns from a mission 130 Earth-years after its launch. Because of the laws of relativity, he has only aged 10 years. Iain Banks wrote at least seven novels about The Culture, a mature galactic civilization that is humanoid and a proxy for our civilization. The examples in this essay originate from his second novel, Player of Games. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise is perhaps the most optimistic vision of humanity. For a variety of reasons, I will focus on the second series, The Next Generation.

Each of the three civilizations under analysis are characterized as post-scarcity economies: Fundamental needs such as food, shelter, and education are provided to everyone as a basic right. Society is classless, and if people engage in labor it is for the purpose of personal enrichment. Captain Picard summarizes Roddenberry’s vision at the end of the first season in the episode “The Neutral Zone.” Talking with a 20th-century human revived after 400 years in cryogenic stasis, he explains: “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things.’ We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.” All that remains is to improve oneself and better humanity.

It may seem like an easy path to take, but adopting the assumption of post-scarcity places a burden on the author, because new economic rules must be created to explain the distribution of goods and services. Capitalism, with its reliance on poverty, is unacceptable. As the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham once stated, “as labour is the source of all wealth, so poverty is of labour. Banish poverty, you banish wealth.” In these post-scarcity societies, labor is more fundamental than wealth, so in order to eliminate poverty, the authors need to find a substitute for labor. In other words, if resources are abundant and easily distributed to members, then the only thing missing is a way to determine who completes the mundane tasks that allow the rest of us to achieve our potential.

Although tracing the intricacies of future economies is not the purpose of this essay, it is useful to highlight certain economic imaginings within each setting. Only Lem and Banks rely upon automata (e.g., drones, robots) to supply labor. The Culture utilizes drones, while Lem’s Earth has created a labor class of robots that remain largely separate from humans. Setting aside moral questions, the use of automata makes sense, allowing for the removal of economic class in human society and the pursuit of self-actualization for individuals. Automata remove the distinctions inherent in employment that support arbitrary hierarchies and prevent individuals from moving freely throughout society.

The standout among the three is Roddenberry’s Star Trek. While watching Picard brood in his quarters during the episode “Lessons,” I pondered the question, “Who tends to Captain Picard’s bromeliads?” The glaring lack of automata in Roddenberry’s Federation demands an examination of how class and hierarchy are eliminated within Star Trek. We don’t have to assert that Roddenberry’s future is any less egalitarian than the others, but this omission exerts pressure to substitute a form of economic specialization. An episode like “Lower Decks” in season 7 not only rests upon the organizational hierarchy of the ship, but also includes a civilian character who waits tables in the lounge. Perhaps Roddenberry’s message is to emphasize the dignity of human labor, or perhaps the show simply did not have the production budget to create robots, but the lack of automata makes clear that support labor is quietly accepted. After all, it is hard to visualize a society where people reach the pinnacle of knowledge and command a starship when they are burdened with tasks like sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms. For this reason, I believe it is fair to criticize Roddenberry for a willful blind eye to the hierarchy of Starfleet and the consequences of economic specialization.

Identifying the motivation to strive in a post-scarcity society is one of the distinct characteristics of Lem, Banks, and Roddenberry. Like the system of labor, self-actualization demands considerable thought from the writer in order to provide plausible balance. While some suspension of belief is to be expected in science fiction, compelling narratives are underpinned by human tensions that we all recognize and internalize. It is acceptable to skip the explanation of faster-than-light travel, but stories become nonsensical when character behavior is inexplicable. That character behavior must perpetuate the future that provides an environment tailored to liberal humanism. As Captain Picard explains to Lily in Star Trek: First Contact, “We work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity.” The question then becomes, “how and why?”


If we’re talking about plants on the Enterprise, this article is a good primer:

I have asked myself the exact question you do. I’m curious when I see that the ship is carpeted but always spotless, and after every hull-torquing encounter with a spatial anomaly how it always returns to whatever perfect operational condition I imagine is demanded by a vessel that travels faster than light. There is never a visible act of maintenance. Like with the plants, I’m sure filling in all these kinds of technical details was beyond the budget of the show or interest of the viewers, but as with the warp technology, my mind can always fill in some details if it wants or else be satisfied by a surface explanation. I can imagine self-cleaning, bacteria-impregnated fabrics or macrophagic nanoprobes circulating thru the environment. Maybe the plants are genetically modified to be super-hardy, or maybe they’re just fake. There isn’t even sunlight in deep space. Regardless, the way Gene Roddenberry leaps to utopia without great explanation becomes unsatisfying if you watch the show enough.

I think the best we get in this regard is replicator technology, coupled with star trek’s endless, safe energy via antimatter. All products and goods in the star trek universe can exist as information and be physicalized on command. With the replicator as the ultimate technology of exchange, there is no hidden labor or exploitation involved, nor is there any longer a gap between the conception of a product and its fulfillment, between information and matter. By extension this is also true of holodeck technology. Gene Roddenberry never really got to see the full impact of the internet so he gets a hall pass here, but in a canon where information can literally be exchanged at speeds faster than light (and then immediately physicalized), wouldn’t it have been interesting to see how insane casual life would be for people with access to these techs? How quickly fashion, consumer trends, and cuisine would evolve/abstract? What people would do in a room that could simulate any environment and satisfy any urge? Instead we’re saddled with comically ubiquitous jumpsuits, romps through film noir scenarios on the holodeck, and pot roast for dinner. Did utopia kill the imagination?

As with the issue of watering plants, we can further fault Roddenberry for not really exploring the requirements and implications of these interesting technologies. But honestly, I don’t think that was the most important part about something like star trek. I am fine with accepting that the plants stay watered and the ship stays clean and that I don’t understand how the technology of warp drive because all of that just foregrounds the discussions where star trek can actually be interesting in a timeframe of one hour. At its very best, TNG used a futuristic setting to explore very earthly, sometimes too familiar ideological conflicts and exchanges while simultaneously capturing how uncanny non-human encounters could be… which often offered us a dark mirror into how strange our own ways are. Think of the android, Commander Data, whose ongoing goal to perfectly emulate (or experience?) humanness fuels endless awkward situations where his friends and crew must provide him with candid explanations of why customs and etiquette exist. Or the planet that the Enterprise visits, where the native culture dazzles the humans with their utopia, only to reveal that the cost of such perfection is having the death penalty for even the most pedestrian crime.

In serialized sci-fi like star trek— even though it developed a rich canon over time and actually had a large budget at $1.3 million per episode— I think questions of how and why aren’t as interesting as what happens. And TNG did a particularly good job of imagining that “what.”