Science Fiction Studies

#97 = Volume 32, Part 3 = November 2005

Joan Gordon

Ad Astra Per Aspera

De Witt Douglas Kilgore. Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2003. 294 pp. $55 hc.; $19.95 pbk.

In the last few years, the black presence in sf has become stronger, no longer dominated solely by Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler and perhaps Steven Barnes. With Nalo Hopkinson’s success and with Sheree R. Thomas’s two Dark Matter anthologies (2000 and 2004, rev. in SFS 28.1 and 31.3), it has become apparent that the number of black sf writers is increasing. Criticism lags behind, however, with only a slim volume by Sandra Grayson, Visions of the Third Millennium: Black Science Fiction Novelists Write the Future (2003; rev. in SFS 32.2) and a number of articles paving the way. In spite of the title Astrofuturism, which gestures toward Afrofuturism, and despite the mention of race in the subtitle, Kilgore’s book is not about black sf writers, nor is it a study of race in sf, although it will be a useful tool to examine those two subjects. Instead, it focuses on popular science writing and sf as they deal with the subject of race while constructing utopian futures in their treatment of space flight. Kilgore uses a version of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idea of paranoid and reparative readings as part of the protocol for handling his materials, resulting in a fair, thorough, and sometimes liberating view of works it might be easier to dismiss, or to feel guilty for remembering with a fondness that implicates us in racism. He manages this without letting us, or the works in question, off the hook.

After a very clear Introduction, the book alternates chapters on popular science writing with chapters on sf. The first two chapters deal with popular science writing from the 1930s to the 1950s. The third and fourth chapters treat Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. The fifth chapter addresses the more social or “domestic” agenda of popular science writing of the 1960s and 1970s. Ben Bova is the focus of the sixth chapter, and a concluding chapter pulls things together.

In the Introduction, subtitled “The Wonderful Dream,” Kilgore defines his subject:

Astrofuturism forecasts an escape from terrestrial history. Its roots lie in the nineteenth-century Euro-American preoccupation with imperial expansion and utopian speculation, which it recasts in the elsewhere and elsewhen of outer space.... [I]t is also the space of utopian desire. Astrofuturist speculation on space-based exploration, exploitation, and colonization is capacious enough to contain imperialist, capitalist ambitions and utopian, socialist hopes. (1)

Kilgore sees writing about space exploration, both in fact and fiction, as being “distinguished by its close connections to engineering projects funded by the government and the military” and as sharing a number of dramatic conventions: “characters that embody the future of humanity; the historical, political, literary, and scientific knowledges that those characters represent; the environments they craft, explore, or occupy; and the machines/instruments they create, control, and deploy” (2). Science writing is, then, “deeply implicated in debates on race, class, and gender; inequities thought to represent the chief impediments to the perfection of democratic society” (4-5). Kilgore concludes his introduction with a discussion of Homer H. Hickam, Jr., a NASA aerospace engineer who rose from a coal-mining family in West Virginia and whose story was told in his autobiography, Rocket Boys (1998) and in a film based on the book, October Sky (1999). He also discusses George Takei, the Japanese-American actor who played Sulu in the original Star Trek series (1966-1969) and, more briefly, Nichelle Nichols, also of Star Trek, and Mae C. Jemison, the first black woman in space. As he says of Hickam’s autobiography, Rocket Boys (1998), “[o]ptimistic and critical readings ... are equally true. Since life is lived in that duality, it would be cynical to deny how creatively people make do with what they have, particularly as they rearticulate pedagogical narratives of the status quo into subversive vehicles of their utopian longings” (21). However narrow the visions of the dominant culture (and of the writers of science fact and fiction), for these people, and for Kilgore himself, astrofuturism provides “a language of aspiration” (16). This pattern of critical (or “paranoid,” as Sedgwick would say) and optimistic (or “reparative”) readings will be repeated throughout the book as Kilgore treats both fiction and non-fiction.

Chapter one begins Kilgore’s examination of the contrary motions of space exploration in British, but to a greater extent, American culture—both exclusionary and democratic, conformist and subversive, imperialist and socialist. In “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: David Lasser and the First Conquest of Space,” Kilgore looks at the amateur rocket societies of the 1920s and 1930s, what he calls “first-generation astrofuturism” (32), and the career of David Lasser, who represented the utopian and socialist vision of astrofuturism. As an editor for Hugo Gernsback’s Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories in 1929, he saw science fact and fiction as closely connected, each requiring both scientific plausibility and “heroic invention” (34). By 1930 he was president of the American Interplanetary Society, whose aim was to promote space travel. Later, as president of the Workers Alliance of America, he became involved in political change, focusing on the needs of workers across racial boundaries. In his book of popular science, The Conquest of Space (1931), Lasser presents his version of the astrofuturist dream: “Lasser identifies national and racial antagonism as the central impediment to a glorious global unity. The conquest of space will increase civilized knowledge and unite the human race” (38-39). Lasser attempted to make connections with the rocketry pioneer, Robert H. Goddard, but Goddard avoided any close association as he sought funds for his own research. Kilgore says, “[t]he exchange between Lasser and Goddard exposes the tensions between science and fiction that have always attended the astrofuturist pursuit of the wonderful dream. The serious tone [of Lasser’s The Conquest of Space] ... could not mask the enthusiastic, utopian, and, as a consequence, radical nature” of his ideas (43). In later years, after the Depression dragged on and World War II began, Lasser left the WAA and became active in New Deal projects, although in spite of his repudiation of communism, “[T]he political atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s discouraged any visible link between Lasser’s liberal progressivism and the military-industrial complex” (47).

If Lasser belongs to democratic, subversive socialism, the subject of the next chapter belongs to its opposite. “An Empire in Space: Europe and America as Science Fact” describes the career of Wernher von Braun, the German developer of the V-2 rocket in Germany and later in the US Kilgore makes clear the connection between Nazi totalitarianism and American ambitions: “the record of rocket team complicity in Nazi war crimes was adroitly covered up by the US Army and the War Department to avoid the public outcry that would have resulted” (50) if the connection between the new American rocket scientists and their Nazi past had been made. Proceeding through the 1950s, this chapter emphasizes von Braun’s (and the American rocket program’s) moral ambiguity. He points out “the irony inherent in [the program’s] formulation of space futures: in order to achieve the benefits that they expected from the space frontier—more wealth, freedom, and democracy for the individual—the world would have to be organized and its masses mobilized as never before” (51) in order to finance and build the project. Furthermore, as Carl Sagan pointed out, central to von Braun was the “dread ambiguity” that “[t]he modern rocket, which [von Braun] pioneered, will prove to be either the means of mass annihilation through a global thermonuclear war or the means that will carry us to the planets and the stars” (qtd. Kilgore 56). And yet von Braun became a scientist-celebrity throughout the 1950s in America, helping shape the vision of the future in Disneyland and becoming “an ambassador for the space program” (59). Von Braun’s success must “be attributed to the positive value assigned to whiteness in the middle of the last century.” He became a model “for American youth because he was an educated and cultured European and was not racially other” (60). At the same time, Kilgore acknowledges von Braun’s efforts to promote civil rights in Huntsville, Alabama, where he worked. Kilgore goes on to look at von Braun’s own writing, including a novel called The Mars Project (1952) and the popular science essay “Prelude to Space“ (1952), and goes on to make the valuable point that science fact and science fiction are in a feedback loop, with sf learning its science from popular science writing, which, in turn, uses science fiction conventions to explain and illustrate its science.

Kilgore then turns to the science writing of Willy Ley, another German rocket scientist, but one who fled the Nazis. In contrast to von Braun, Ley allied himself with the amateur rocket societies and the science-fiction community, writing for Astounding Science Fiction, becoming science editor for Galaxy Science Fiction in 1952, and writing many books, including his own novel The Conquest of Space (1950) with the artistic collaboration of Chesley Bonestell. Ley’s book, unlike Lesser’s, made a big splash: the atom bomb, which was associated with rocketry, had made rocket science, and by association science fiction, more respectable. In Ley’s work, and in general, “the astrofuturist consensus formed around progressive science and technology, territorial expansion, and a tacit acknowledgment of a social order that placed Europe and white America at the pinnacle of racial and nationalist hierarchies” (78). Ley also valorizes big science and the conquest of nature. In other words, “[r]ather than presenting alternatives ... the space future of the 1950s and 1960s was to be a realm in which the contemporary status quo would find infinite room for expansion” (78).

Chapter three, “Building a Space Frontier: Robert A. Heinlein and the American Tradition,” engages sf literature from the same angle that the previous chapters engage popular science writing. That is, Kilgore looks at Heinlein’s work as a cultural artifact revelatory of attitudes toward space exploration and toward race, gender, and class. Heinlein is his first example of an astrofuturist sf writer for whom “[o]ur ability to control and manipulate the natural world through technoscience is the central assumption” (83). Kilgore describes Heinlein’s work as “sociomilitary,” envisioning “a social order based on an idealized notion of military service” (84). By seeing Heinlein’s work in this way, Kilgore sheds light on its most disturbing aspect for contemporary readers:

The equality between men that the sociomilitary form imposes from the top down is one sign of the tension between control and freedom that structures Heinlein’s narratives. The gender politics of his work are another sign: because of his reliance on the sociomilitary form, Heinlein has difficulty allowing equal places for men and women in his future. (85)

The sociomilitary form also divides the world into the military ruling elite and the undisciplined and ignorant masses. Kilgore has more of great interest to say about how Heinlein deals with issues of bias and stratification in his examination of Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), The Star Beast (1954), Space Cadet (1948), and other novels of space exploration. He says that for Heinlein, “racism is a peculiar attitude that can be overcome with the right environmental stimuli[,] ... defin[ing] intolerance as an historical human problem that can be left behind without a serious accounting” (101). Sexism, too, is seen as an individual rather than institutional flaw, although it is less easily ignored: “The masculine can remain undisturbed if women are allowed to assimilate into it and if cultural assumptions about romance and reproduction are suspended or ignored.” If that is impossible, then women in Heinlein’s narratives “represent a difference disruptive to the efficient operation of any professional environment or mission” (107). The required tolerance of his ideal society “must be imposed and maintained from the top down by a scientifically and technically trained elite” (102).

Kilgore broadens his discussion to point out the ways in which these attitudes toward race, gender, and class reflect American attitudes. Specifically, he sees in Heinlein’s future histories “valorization of social and physical sciences and ... devaluation of religious authority echo[ing] the rising prestige of technoscience after the Second World War.” Heinlein uses space exploration to extend America’s vision of manifest destiny “for endless economic expansion.” Kilgore cites parallels between Heinlein’s plots and major events in American history: “[a]s a result the social, political, economic, and cultural past is mirrored in the future, rendering that future recognizable as a smooth and unsurprising extension of the familar” (89). Heinlein’s future extends capitalism and rugged individualism into an expansionist dream that undercuts its own “egalitarian individualism” (95).

As in his discussion of Heinlein, Kilgore gives Arthur C. Clarke his due without letting him off the hook in the following chapter, “Will There Always Be an England? Arthur C. Clarke’s New Eden.” Kilgore sees Clarke’s writing career, both in popular science and sf, as an outgrowth of his early involvement with the British Interplanetary Society. He notes that Clarke spans “the entire length of the space-flight movement,” from the early amateur rocket societies of the 1930s to the space race of the 1950s and 1960s to its continuing development as a post-cold-war project. But Clarke’s future belongs to civilians rather than a military elite, and it emphasizes internationalism and biological evolution rather than capitalism and individualism. In Clarke’s earlier work, such as Prelude to Space (1951), civilization’s evolution is contingent upon the conquest of space, and “human history [is] the expression of a biological imperative toward perfection” (115). Imbedded in Clarke’s optimistic internationalism and dream of perfection is what Kilgore identifies as “imperialism without empire” (119), dominated by British and American culture and language. “[H]is progressive history defends the possibility of imperial benevolence on the grounds that it readies subject peoples for self-government and equality with ‘advanced’ cultures” in bloodless conquests (118).

In later work, Clarke “exchanges his early, optimistic evolutionism for a troubled recognition of race-based inequities as the principal impediment to a human apotheosis” (127). Using Rendezvous With Rama (1973), Rama II (1989), and The Garden of Rama (1991)—the last two are collaborations with Gentry Lee—Kilgore outlines a falling away of optimism as the technological advancement of Raman civilization is associated with a new caste system of real and artificial classes, and as “humankind is prevented from achieving paradise by its history and its biology, its genetically and environmentally determined identification with terrestrial models of hierarchy and identity” (143). Clarke and Lee “replace the failed technological utopianism of the past with a biological utopianism that calls for the erasure of difference through miscegenation” (138). Only through a great leveling, in a social future that divides cultures into progressive (good) and primitive (bad), does their vision permit “harmony on the space frontier” (149). Kilgore is obviously stacking the deck here, as he limits his discussion of Clarke to the rama novels, reminding us that this is not a book about science fiction but about how we look at space exploration in fact and fiction.

The fifth chapter, “The Domestication of Space: Gerard K. O’Neill’s Suburban Diaspora,” marks out what Kilgore calls the second generation of astrofuturists. He sees the first generation—von Braun, Ley, Heinlein, and presumably, though with some qualifications, Clarke—as imagining a future that “would reinforce a familiar status quo with new wealth and provide it with an eternal frontier for expansion” (150). The new generation is more concerned with social change, with solving social problems through the conquest of space. While during the space race, spaceflight was enthusiastically funded by big government, now domestic issues were more pressing, so that “the core of astrofuturism moved out of the halls of policy and back into the popular culture and literature of science fiction.... The futurists of the second generation tend to be academic scientists and popular writers of science fiction and popular science rather than engineers in government service” (151). Furthermore, Kilgore sees the astrofuturists as polarizing into conservative and liberal forces (rather like American politics), with the left imagining space as “the site of utopian experimentation” and the right imagining it as an arena for the continuation of middle-class American social values (153). Gerard O’Neill’s idea of space colonization seems to be the answer to problems of population growth and resource exhaustion, but Kilgore examines O’Neill’s project for the humanization of space and finds that his emphasis on “escape rather than struggle for reform” results in a “space future [in which] the heterogeneity of the whole is assured by the homogeneity of the parts,” with myriad separate monocultures each segregated from the others. He goes on to parallel convincingly O’Neill’s vision of space colonization to the white flight from urban centers to the suburbs that was occurring in the 1970s when O’Neill wrote The High Frontier (1978) and its 1981 sequel, 2082: A Hopeful View of the Human Future. Kilgore doesn’t find the sequel hopeful at all, instead finding “a catastrophic tension between an unmarked whiteness representing technological modernity and a marked blackness (racial/cultural others) representing the atavistic survival of preindustrial culture as tourist trophy or exotic spectacle” (176-77).

In the sixth chapter, “Ben Bova: Race, Nation, and Renewal on the High Frontier,” Kilgore describes Bova’s movement from working within the structure of the space program in the 1960s, to writing popular science and science fiction and editing Analog and Omni in the 1970s, to becoming a lobbyist for space flight in the 1980s. He sees Bova as rejecting imperialist narratives for an emphasis on “pluralistic inclusion,” “secular salvation rather than greedy acquisition” as a motive for space flight, and the use of space-based technology as a cure for social ills (187). Kilgore then looks at Bova’s non-fiction book The High Road (1983), in which he introduces the Prometheans, people who use technology to improve social conditions, in contrast to communitarian and environmentalist Luddites and the Establishment. Bova’s novels Millennium (1976) and Kinsman (1979) also illustrate this idea that “the space frontier is to be the site of political, social, and economic renewal” (202), although, as with Heinlein, space provides a way to escape rather than solve earth-bound racial inequities. Bova’s later Mars (1992) and Return to Mars (1999) employ a half-white, half-Navajo character to explore a more integrated vision. On the one hand, these novels “imagine that various indigenous peoples ... might stand as the defenders of science is to reverse the hierarchy of knower and known, ruler and ruled” (220). On the other, Bova allows the Navajo to “perform the role that people of color often undertake in liberal systems: atoning for the sins of their conquerors by succeeding within the systems established by conquest” (221). Here we see both restorative (or optimistic) and paranoid (or critical) readings of Bova’s work. Indeed, this balance has been present throughout the book.

“On Mars and Other Heterotopias: A Conclusion” uses the career of Neil de Grasse Tyson, a black astrophysicist who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium, along with novels by Allen M. Steele, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Kim Stanley Robinson, to illustrate the third stage of astrofuturism: “astrofuturist writers of the last two decades have pursued postmodern futures that grapple with the claims of peoples whose role as active participants in the advance of human knowledge has been routinely devalued or ignored” (226). By imagining “a more participatory culture of science,” they can envision “a greater spectrum of possible futures” (227). Allen Steele’s working-class futures build their space conquest from the bottom up rather than from the top down, while McIntire imagines such a multi-gendered and -raced society that social and political consensus must arise out of “reasoned argument, common interest, and emotional commitment,” since there are no racial, sexual, or class bases for consensus (233). Robinson uses “the Mars of his imagination [as] a test site for the innovations required to solve the social and physical problems of our native planet rather than as an escape from them” (234). Robinson in particular becomes the hero of the book: “[h]is futures are not the gift of a single privileged people or messiah but emerge from a cacophony of voices that never quite resolve into a single, harmonious choir” (235). That cacophony is, for Kilgore, the sound of formerly silenced voices speaking up at last. Kilgore’s inspiring, if rushed, conclusion is that the astrofuturists “exemplify our ability to imagine just social orders using the materials at hand, seizing help from unexpected quarters. It is through this kind of imaginative work that we develop the tools we need to change the future” (238).

I like this book very much. Its subject matter, its historical and descriptive approach, and its even-handed view of the race, gender, and class assumptions of his subjects make for an illuminating journey with a rigorous but compassionate guide. Importantly, Kilgore demonstrates not only how to read non-fiction with the same analytic eye as one reads fiction, but also how to read all texts without the cultural filter of whiteness as the default perceptual mode, a lesson vital for the overwhelming majority of sf critics, at least for now. It leaves some questions that I hope Kilgore and other scholars will address. What, for instance, has astrofuturism to offer black sf writers? Delany and Butler both look to the stars and find toil and enslavement, opportunity and aspiration. Are black sf writers somehow more likely to avoid the narratives of conquest—the conquest of imperialism, the conquest of domestication, the conquest of incorporation into the mainstream—outlined in this book, based on their history? How do non-white writers of science fiction treat space exploration? Are there significant differences? Let Astrofuturism inspire other scholars through hard work to the stars.


Grayson, Sandra. Visions of the Third Millennium: Black Science Fiction Novelists Write the Future. Trenton, NJ: Africa World, 2003.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003.

Thomas, Sheree R., ed. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. New York: Warner/Aspect, 2000.

_____. Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. New York: Warner/Aspect, 2004.

Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.

Escaping Star Trek

Alan N. Shapiro. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Avinus. 2004. 369 pp. $37.50.

Shapiro’s study of Star Trek is one of the most original works of sf-theory since Scott Bukatman’s Terminal Identity (1993). But first, this message from your curmudgeon....

The Star Trek “Problem.” I’ve never succumbed to the attractions of Star Trek. I’m old enough to have watched the Kirk-Spock series in its original run. In my college days, many markets showed reruns in the slot immediately before the Cronkite news, and I stood there when the same draft-anxious audience for both filled the common rooms to capacity. I have seen every episode of all the series except Enterprise (2001-05), watched the movies, even read a few of the franchise novels. Yet I probably can’t retell a single story. For someone obsessed with sf’s romantic promise to deliver the sublime, Star Trek was weak stuff, a lukewarm liberal version of socialist realism, a cardboard community with problems about as intense as learning to tolerate other folks’ funny accents. If Star Wars is expulsive sci-fi run amock, Star Trek is the retentive counterpart —the elder brother making sure that everyone flies right and behaves correctly. Cheap, risk-averse, sentimental, politically complacent, campy … and those lousy f/x!

It’s a good thing I did not bet with my heart, since it’s obvious now that Star Trek’s place in the history of the genre is a commanding one. If Brian Stableford is right that television has become the defining medium of sf’s third generation, then no other text can compare with Star Trek—it is, as so many of its fans claim, an origin, a point where sf is born again. Again and again, we see evidence of its influence. In NASA/TREK (1997) Constance Penley details how NASA consciously appropriated Star Trek imagery and ambience to sell the space program, and how most of its astronauts and engineers were inspired by it. There are bookshelves of testimonies about the effect Star Trek has had in creating an imaginary space for difference—Oliver Sacks even notes the kinship autistics feel with Commander Data. Its motifs and phrases have become ubiquitous in everyday discourse.

And yet … if it’s so defining, why has there been so little interesting critical writing about it? For years at SFS, the editors dreaded receiving manuscripts about Star Trek; they were with few exceptions intellectually naïve and fannish. Even when the critiques became more sophisticated, they remained snugly inside the myth. Writers might take exception to the way women were represented, or the lack of gay characters, or the racial and ethnic stereotypes—but always with a touch of the fan’s wish to make the myth better, to change the object of desire to meet the critic’s cultural-political needs. Most Star Trek criticism even now remains unusually respectful of the fan base. Reviewers of books on the series often note that their writers seem to feel that the show somehow transcends the sf genre, as if its effect on the real world elevates it out of the context of literary and cinematic tradition. Pamela Sargent, who wrote a couple of Star Trek novels herself, worried that the fans’ cultish investment shows up in their inability to treat it as fiction; and their unfamiliarity with more rigorous sf makes it difficult for them to judge in any critical way the shows’ many intellectual shortcuts.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that I need to learn a different set of values if I’m going to understand what Star Trek means for sf. It’s indisputable that fan culture is having a great influence on sf criticism—and with the Net, it’s possible that we may enter a third generation not only of sf texts, but of sf critique as well. Star Trek set the standard for a number of important television series that have had enormous influence on everyday culture in the US. These are not texts that can be owned by coteries, or deciphered by professional critics. They affect such a large public that they may not be “opposable.” Where does one stand outside the myth? Old School critical tools cannot be entirely appropriate for artifacts that are co-created as commodities by the capitalist entertainment industry and by devotees unfazed by the formulas and compromises of commercial television.

Star Trek is in many ways an artifact of performance art, and the values of its audience reflect the value of performance for them. They participate in the display, co-create the texts, act out the roles, learn the languages, express their opinions to their communities, and always maintain respect. These are democratic values; each takes according to his ability, each responds according to her need. It is utopian practice for sure. But for folks outside the myth, the dogged bourgeois moralizing of the series seems to last for a lesson or a session at most, and then blends into the surrounding noise. To keep the imperatives alive, it seems one must wear the uniform to work, or keen in Klingon.

I have tried to wait it out—after all, Star Trek series will not always be on the tube. But that won’t work either. The text may disappear, but its spectral traces will remain. Besides, it’s surely just a matter of time before materialist critiques from outside the myth begin to appear, taking up questions Daniel Bernardi once identified as major gaps in Star Trek scholarship: “the process and history of its syndication contracts, how it was marketed, how it was positioned in the programming schedule, the commercials that it sponsored, or the authorial and institutional ideologies informing its making“(263), as well as broader questions about the changing public and media contexts in which viewers—causal or ardent —have consumed the different series, now contrasting them, now connecting them into what currently goes by the name of “the myth.”

Star Trek and The New Real. Alan Shapiro is having none of it. Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance is an audacious, eccentric, supremely confident set of readings, claiming the rights of fan commentary, media analysis, literary criticism, and postmodernist theory, synthesized by sheer intellectual bravado and critical passion. It’s an excessive passion, to be sure—the book opens with the claim that Star Trek has been misunderstood by its previous commentators, who treat it as the coherent myth of an intensely desired future world made concrete in its hyperreal virtuality. This concreteness is paradoxically intensified by commentaries that incessantly test the shows’ ideas against established knowledge (the various “Sciences” and “Philosophies” of Star Trek, like Lawrence Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek [1995] or Richard Hanley’s The Metaphysics of Star Trek [1997]). Though often acknowledging that the ideas are entirely fanciful, the writers also validate them by reverently entertaining them. In this way, Shapiro argues, the “science of Star Trek” has helped to create a culture of self-enclosing hyperreality, which is no longer able to distinguish science from sf.

For Shapiro, previous approaches eliminate in advance “the possibility that Star Trek is a lively innovator of a ‘new real,’” a “creator of a reality-shaping ‘science fiction’ that formatively influences culture, ideas, technologies, and even ‘hard sciences’ like physics” (8). Shapiro draws on Virilio, Deleuze-Guattari, Haraway, Hayles, and Arthur Kroker for his critical strategies, but his governing concepts are Baudrillard’s simulation, seduction, and symbolic exchange. Star Trek is a privileged text, in Shapiro’s eyes, because it demonstrates how the technoscientific and entertainment systems strive together to absorb literary fictions—the individual Star Trek stories whose power is in their imaginative challenge and open-endedness—into simulations.

Shapiro poses three questions on which the argument of Technologies of Disappearance is based:

What is the role of the ‘Star Trek culture industry’ in elaborating ‘the fully coherent universe’? What is the nature of the original creativity of the seminal Star Trek stories that the ‘finished mythology’ is built on? What is the fan’s subjective experience as a viewer then eventual ‘reteller’ of a specific Star Trek story or episode that especially touches or moves her, and which is such a vital piece of the making of a ‘consummate myth’ or forceful fiction? (10; bolded emphasis in original).

The first question Shapiro answers, not through production history but in terms of simulation and virtuality. The media-universe and its “recombinant myth” are seen not as an industry, but as the post-productive system of universally diffused and self-reinforcing virtuality that conceives of value and meaning as perpetually shifting, floating, and recombining within the system. Yet this system of simulation depends also on seduction (the difference which always precedes and exceeds the drive for simulation). In the individual stories—Star Trek’s science fiction per se—Shapiro locates profound philosophical challenges that resist being assimilated into the media mythology. In this way, Shapiro builds up a sophisticated contest between existentially estranging science fiction and recuperative sci-fi that Roddenberry’s and Paramount’s Grand Narrative attempts to smooth over.

As for the fan’s subjective experience, here, too, Shapiro’s answer is unexpected. Shapiro has nothing to say about Star Trek fan communities in Technologies of Disappearance, or about fan communities in general. The Fan, c’est lui. Shapiro grants himself the fan’s right to say what he thinks, without seeking the favors of the authorities, because his love for the episodes gives him intimate knowledge of them. Many readers will nonetheless find him a peculiar fan indeed, who expresses this love through complex postmodern theory.

Art and The Glitch. The decisive aspect of the regime of simulation is, for Shapiro, the principle of “sameness in difference.” The system incessantly produces effects that appear to differ from each other in significant ways, but are actually merely variant tokens in a limitless system of circulating signs. This illusion of difference prevents in advance any need to address the self-reinforcing and self-convincing nature of the regime. A good example is Star Trek’s representation of aliens. Justified as a cost-cutting measure, the restriction of difference to facial bumps actually reinforces the sense that all species are based on the same operational genetic meta-model. The panspermia eventually proposed by Roddenberry as a theoretical justification for all this brainy bipedalism is merely an alibi for panhumanism. It is extremely rare for Star Trek’s protagonists to engage radically alien beings that decisively change them. Rare, but necessary—Shapiro maintains—both because the system requires them to reinforce itself, and because good sf stories need them. (Shapiro finds fault with identity-theory-based Star Trek criticism for the same reason: by focusing on the simulated differences of race and gender as they’re conceived in contemporary criticism, critics do not notice how the hyperreal mythologizing suppresses true difference.)

The Star Trek “myth” strives to maximize this sameness-in-difference in as many ways as possible. But it can only go so far, because it is based on fictions whose most important function is the “defense of the real“—through confrontation with an Other that cannot be assimilated into a closed system of meanings. Fiction—and art in general—has a surprising ally in this:

Art can ally itself with “the defense of the real” through its emphasis on secrets, and the dramaturgy of illusion. Technologies partake of the ruse of irony, surprise and accidents that protect the real from its demise in a fully-realised and dis-illusioned hyper-real. (18; emphasis in original)

The notion of technology’s “inherent accident” is drawn from Virilio, who has argued that unexpected breakdowns of operational control are both the sources of new technologies and the brakes on technologies’ runaway speed. Shapiro takes this notion in another direction. For him, the inherent accident is a “technological trope” (the glitch, we might call it, a term Shapiro doesn’t use), a figure through which technological systems collude in the breakdown of simulation, and allow the non-operational “real” to be revealed—in the same way that art breaks down the hyperreal by emphasizing its own illusoriness. Star Trek is a central text in this “defense of the real“ in a doubled way: it is built on stories that emphasize the inherent ambiguities and ambivalence of art, and these stories are often about technologies that are also ambivalent, simultaneously constructors of virtual realities, and prone to liberating glitches. The doubled meanings are captured by the term “technologies of disappearance.”

Shapiro gives “disappearance” three meanings: First, there are the technologies of literal disappearance. These are the Holodeck, where people disappear from their own physical reality; the Transporter, where people disappear from their locations; warp-drive and managed wormholes, in which people disappear from their physical spacetime; time-portals, through which people disappear from their own ages; the Universal Translator, through which people disappear from their local languages; and so on. These technologies of literal displacement figure the actual technologies of virtuality at the turn of the twenty-first century, which “clearly entail the ‘leaving behind’ of corporeal existence to enter an alternate reality, such as an android body or an online VR-environment” (20).

Secondly, there are technologies through which human subjectivity disappears “into organ-substituting imaging apparatuses of television, cinema, VR and realtime communications” (20). Such prosthetic systems transform the sense of reality from one of fixed laws to a game of models, whose rules can be altered at will. In these technologies, the experienced world disappears into simulation.

Finally, there is an affirmative sense: the détournement through which technological objects and subjects are freed from their determined niches.

Disappearance is a strategy of feeling, resistance, and transformation that turns aside the intended primary uses of technology and unpacks their alternative and creative “secondary effects.” It seeks alliances with the technological object that is striving through defiance and wily moves to achieve its own objecthood. I must first disappear from myself, sojourn with singularities and recognize the “radical other,” to have some chance to ultimately reach an indirect “liberatory” opening into subjecthood. (21; bolded emphasis in original)

The base concepts are, clearly, a mixed lot. In addition to combining Baudrillard with Virilio (not a terribly difficult thing to do), Shapiro here uses Haraway’s cyborg discourse, turning technologies into “wily“ agents and radical Others ambivalently linked to humans in a quest for liberation from technoscientific determination. And underlying all is the unstated Critical Theory premise that art is able to liberate consciousness from the enchantments of the capitalist culture industry. That these ideas seem to fit naturally together is a testament to Shapiro’s ambition and originality.

In each chapter of Technologies of Disappearance, Shapiro takes up one of the central technologies that generate stories in the different Star Trek series: The Holodeck, the Transporter, the Universal Translator, Time Portals, managed wormholes, warp drive, and the three phases of cyborg identity: the cyborg Spock, the android Data, and the “Becoming Borg/becoming human” Seven-of-Nine. In each case, Shapiro discusses both sides of the technologies’ inherent ambivalence: the way simulation leads to a sense of seamless, ostensibly utopian operational control over space, time, and identity; and the ways stories hinge on the limits of those technologies. Each technology is an engine for the sci-fi expression of technoscientific wish-fulfillment and its “coherent mythology,“ and also its opposite, science-fictional resistance to virtuality and the closure of possibility. Shapiro then reads these entangled dualities as allegories of the contested twenty-first century conscience of technoculture. His favored strategy for breaking the shell of the hyperreal sci-fi myth is reversal. Just as reversal in Baudrillard’s notion of symbolic exchange destabilizes the system of abstract universal equivalence, Shapiro’s reversal of the obvious meanings of selected Star Trek episodes destabilizes the received interpretations of the Star Trek myth.

The individual chapters approach each of these alliances of fiction and technology on its own terms. Shapiro carefully retells exemplary episodes, explicating them through excursions that demonstrate the way they reflect (and sometimes influence) technoculture’s fascination with virtuality. (The distribution of his chosen episodes breaks down to: eleven from ST: The Original Series [1966-69], seven from ST: The Next Generation [1987-94], one from Deep Space 9 [1993-99], five from ST: Voyager [1995-2001], and one film, First Contact [1996].)

In the chapters on Star Trek’s technologies of VR (including the Talosian VR-culture of the two pilot episodes, the Holodeck, and the simulation wars of ST: TOS ’s “A Taste of Armageddon” [1967]) Shapiro discusses the complex attitude of television culture toward virtual reality, the ambivalent use of avatars liberated into existence by Holodeck glitches to both recuperate and undermine humanist ideology, and in a brilliant parallel reading, the kinship of “A Taste of Armageddon” with Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1995).

The chapters on technologies of spacetime manipulation—the transporter, time portals, wormholes and warp-drive—take up the vexed matter of the Star Trekking of science.”

In The Character of Physical Law (1965), Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman prophesied that a “degeneration of ideas” would take place in the hard sciences after the completion of an era in which the fundamental laws of nature had been discovered and catalogued.... Philosophers posing as trained physicists, Feynman believed, would appear on the scene to produce endlessly varied rhetorical flourishes passed off as rigorous science. “Exotic theories” about the workability of time travel are currently furiously debated in serious theoretical physics journals. About fifteen new scholarly papers a year are published on the subject. It is an illustration of the ongoing fast-paced mutations of the laws of physics. These transformations are dictated by the science fiction culture that is leading physicists around by the nose. (203)

Wormhole-management theory, traced by Shapiro to Kip Thorne’s “science fiction media consultant gig” (205) of providing plausibility for the wormhole in Sagan’s Contact (1985), has become a respectable field of physical inquiry, even though it requires extravagantly implausible “exotic theories” and “exotic matter” to be applicable to mesocosmic beings such as us. Warp-speed theory fascinates some physicists, even though it requires “designer universes” and energy-budgets on a galactic scale. Teleportation may have a more scientific basis, at least as the “entanglement theory” of Amir Aczel has been interpreted and hyped. But here, too, the extension of the behavior of photons to human scale is more a matter of wish-fulfillment than plausible science. In each case, Shapiro interprets the science as driven by the desire to overcome radical physical Others: the human element of time, mesocosmic location, physical limits, and death. Science becomes increasingly concerned with what is not impossible, rather than the actual laws and limits of the world. The cosmos as game-universe extends from sf to actual research.

Shapiro’s chapter on The Universal Translator is one of the best recent discussions on language in sf, and also the clearest exposition of the difference between simulation and symbolic exchange. The conflict is set up by pitting two stories of the Translator’s failures (“Arena” [1967] from TOS and “Darmok” [1991] from TNG) against the phenomenon of the Klingon Language. Shapiro goes on a long way around to explore the Kantian assumptions and hegemonic intentions of the Translator—a device constructed precisely to remove everything that is alien from Others’ local languages. The route leads to a brilliant, if downright pixilated speculation that the artificial Klingon language is a model for a simulation-language destined to replace the Global English that dominates contemporary communications. Against this emptied-out linguistic culture Shapiro poses the moment in “Darmok” when Picard finds the Universal Translator incapable of dealing with the Tamarians’ language. For theirs is a language that refers only to their own historical-cultural archetypes (a Star Trek version of the Xemahoa-B of Ian Watson’s The Embedding [1975]?); and Picard establishes dialogue only when he also invokes “human” archetypes, like Gilgamesh. The argument is witty and masterful. Even so, it’s hard to accept as sf two such implausible cultures. How would the Talosians, whose language is a chain of ritual gestures to archaic legends, ever develop the science needed for spaceships? For that matter, how did the Klingons, whose language and culture seems to consist of little more than dueling, brawling, and food fights, come upon scientific abstraction sufficient for cloaking devices, tractor beams, and warp drive?

It is in the chapters on the central cyborgs that Shapiro develops his most consistent argument against the conventional wisdom of the Star Trek mediaverse. He identifies each of the major liminal characters with its appropriate wave of cybernetic thought, as formulated by Hayles in How We Became Posthuman (1999). Spock represents the first, Wienerian wave, reflecting NASA’s dream of a cyborg-astronaut: “an organism rethought as a technological device” (228). Yet Spock’s hybrid species-identity gives him a privileged perspective for understanding Others. It is he who understands that the “Evil Kirk” of “The Enemy Within” (1966) is a necessary part of Kirk’s identity; it is he who recognizes the Horta’s subjectivity in “The Devil in the Dark” (1967). Data embodies the second-order cyborg, in which “the original begins to imitate, and be seduced by, that which he created as an imitation of himself” (258). Data’s perpetual desire to become identical with the human, and his perpetual failure to do so (which preserves his character as both less and more than human), is Shapiro’s exemplary case of seduction. Finally, Voyager’s Seven-of-Nine stands for the third-wave cyborg, an “ambivalent boundary-crosser” (297) who refuses to view her separation from the Borg as an unambiguous good. Reading her as the model for Haraway’s resistant cyborg, Shapiro adds the flourish of describing her as a literalized deleuze-guattarian Body without Organs. In the Star Trek myth, each cyborg strengthens the reality of human identity, the not-cyborg condition, which is used as the norm both diegetically and extra-diegetically; in the same move, each cyborg actively examines—and ultimately honors—its own internal abysses, as the human protagonists cannot.

Technologies of Disappearance is a very exciting book—especially so for readers who are interested in the difference between fiction and simulation, between the freedom of the imaginary which does not coerce commitment and the compulsion of consensus and administered “realities.” Shapiro is an erudite and idiosyncratic writer. His written text is literally all over the place (and sometimes nowhere: there are few citations, references often go unidentified, and it’s sometimes hard to tell whether a quotation refers to someone else’s ideas or his own). He expects a good deal of respect for the Star Trek series, a more than passing understanding of computer-programming protocols, and considerable familiarity with poststructuralist and cyborg theory. Some of his points, shorn of their theoretical language, appear surprisingly conservative. His tirades against virtuality and the “Star Trekked science” of warp-drive physics and wormholes come perilously close to an attack on scientific-philosophical speculation per se. And there’s more than a little romantic tinge to his reverence for the “charisma” of the art of fiction.

The relationships among the book’s many ideas are not always clear. The provenance of the hyperreal myth-creation system, for one, seems sometimes to come from the inherent momentum of certain technological systems (as it does for Virilio and Hayles), sometimes from the imperialist pact of technoscience and capitalism (as it does for Haraway), sometimes from a form of dark historical fate (as in Baudrillard), and sometimes from the capitalist culture industry (as for Neo-Marxist critical theorists). But this is not much of a flaw in criticism this expansive. Each of these theory-motives, Shapiro warns us, may ultimately be an example of the simulation regime’s sameness-in-difference. In tune with the peculiar fan-centeredness that Shapiro insists on in his introduction, it may be best to see the simulation as the emanation of a collective desire to escape the real, to disappear from the limited world that technoculture continually promises to demolish. Yet with that disappearance comes also a surprising evacuation of the self—a self-disappearance—and a return to a reality that is not administered, through the literary imagination’s (i.e., science fiction’s) self-avowed illusions.

Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance is an immensely valuable contribution to sf-theory that, until quite recently, seemed doomed to obscurity. Published in Berlin by Avinus, it is now available in the US and Canada via Amazon. A North American imprint may also be in the works.


Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995.

Bernardi, Daniel. “Forgotten Zones.” SFS 24:2 (July 1997): 261-64.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1993.

Hanley, Richard. The Metaphysics of Star Trek. New York: Basic, 1997.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Krauss, Lawrence M. The Physics of Star Trek. New York: Basic, 1995.

Penley, Constance. NASA/TREK. Popular Science and Sex in America. London: Verso, 1997.

Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Sagan, Carl. Contact. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Sargent, Pamela. “A Sci-Fi Case History.” SFS 24:2 (July 1997): 256-61.

Stableford, Brian. “The Third Generation of Genre Science Fiction.” SFS 23:3 (November 1996): 321-30.

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