The contrast between Star Trek’s Prime Directive and the actions of the futurists in retrofuturism promises to fuel a number of topics here. The topic came from responses to a chapter I posted to our local novel writing group. A discussion on the history and ethics of interactions between cultures has ensued. Then a weighty online site published a relevant article today (see link). I have permission to quote one of our participants; hopefully, the others will agree to continue the thread anonymously in a future blog. First, the thread from a chapter of The Wildcat’s Burden (to be released this fall) that started the discussion.
About the politics of Gisel and her male companions. The whole novel casts her in a new situation of authority where she is obliged to make decisions she hates. It’s a different situation than her earlier career when as a junior officer she obeyed orders — or conveniently lost the ones she didn’t like. I don’t see how the Iskanders can build a modern world without initiating the progression to a host of modern problems that we haven’t solved — and think that’s the direction the theme has to go.
Her father wants to replace the coal and steam infrastructure with electrical technology as soon as possible, with a mixture of fusion energy and renewables, but it’s clear that other nations will not understand the importance of doing this. I have kept the Iskanders from developing oil deposits, but the coal-poor Empire would almost certainly develop the Romanian, Iranian, North African, and Saudi oil fields (all within the Empire) rather than import all their fuel coal from northern Europe. I also agree that once the aviation genie is let out of the bottle there seems no way to prevent bombing campaigns.
Unless, of course, the Iskanders are going to build superior weapons to police the rest of the world, but that’s a scenario I have yet to explore. Is it clear in retrofuturist fiction that the creators of the advances are morally obligated to produce the super-national governance to control abuses of their teachings? Is that even possible? What do you think?
The first answer from Merilyn –
In reply to your questions in the last paragraph, I’ve been a long time fan of the various incarnations of Star Trek with its “Prime Directive,” which I’ve copied and pasted below:
As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes the introduction of superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.
Of course, in the series, exceptions are always made – though always with the very best of intentions!
I think any members of an advanced civilization finding themselves on a more primitive world cannot help but have an influence and affect a change. (Would I give up books because their presence might contaminate a world I’ve brought them to?) Is there an obligation to do so? I’d like to think the “advanced” civilization would try not to repeat the errors made on their own world and the “good guys” in fiction should make an effort to do so. The “bad guys” don’t care. However, regardless of what anyone does, the world they have come to has its own very complex history. culture, economics….all of which will be affected by any introduced “advances” – and the results are probably difficult to predict. In his three books Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson explores these questions, though on a world without any inhabitants. I think good writers will make us ask those kinds of questions, which you do.
My response to this was somewhat less reserved – I suppose the difference between retrofuturist fiction and Star Trek is a good point at which to start. The key element of retrofuturism is the intrusion of a future element into an earlier culture, with the starting assumption that the arc of interference itself is the theme and the dynamic of the story. The degree and nature of the ‘contamination’ is the specimen on the slide.
I must admit I’ve never been a fan of Star Trek. Living in a continent that was stolen from its owners, (and having been born and raised in a country that lived by taking advantage of others and distorting the paths of their cultural evolution) as did Roddenberry, I find the Prime Directive to be sanctimonious drivel. The two-faced posturing used as entertainment by Hollywood is the same hypocrisy that has crippled the United Nations from its inception. If there are two dissimilar cultures in contact, both will attempt to use the other – one more successfully, one less. Justice lies somewhere in the middle, but the interaction is always dynamic and the mid point continually changes.
I will admit to viewing the good intentions of the Iskanders with a large dose of cynicism, since every disaster probably stems from good intentions. I also admit that my antipathy to authoritarian structures and individuals colours the plots. I think, though, that much of Gisel’s appeal comes from her flouting of authority, which is why I wanted to look at her reactions in this novel when she became one of the authority figures. As the author of the Iskanders’ efforts at penalty-free and victim-free development I must admit to a degree of sympathy for Henrik Matah – trying to reach Utopia without the necessary visits to the dark satanic mills along the road.
A second respondent offered a number of observations that expand the discussion – including notes on the way that modern governments treat pre-existing cultures within their societies. I hope she will expand on this in a further discussion. A third, also a Star Trek fan, weighed in with observations that the prime Directive was generally broken in every episode. And then Tom Dispatch weighed in with another article on the Prime Directive and the actual behaviour of “Starship Ameriprise”. http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175051/william_astore_affirming_our_prime_directive