With the sad little white men known as the “Sad Puppies” shitting all over the Hugo awards, diversity in science fiction has been a hot topic of late. And it likely will continue to be a conversation, in literature. But right now I want to talk about another medium, and a body of science fiction that has definitively transformed the cultural landscape for the better. Because it was diverse.
I want to talk about Star Trek, a TV show, several movies, and a long string of spin-off books. Because my friend died, and it’s what they loved.
I’ve written about my love of Star Trek before. But I don’t know that I’ve explained how important it has been in my life. Star Trek was the show that my brother, my dad, and I gathered around to watch most nights growing up (and sometimes mom joined in, too). We predominantly watched Star Trek: Next Generation, but we weren’t choosy and have dabbled in all of them. We didn’t always watch them in order, but that wasn’t important. I can’t even tell you which of the movies I’ve seen, except to say “yes.” I had a crush on Wesley as an awkward teenager, because he was a smart awkward teenager about the same time I was just awkward, so he seemed to have a lot to aspire to.
My parents were the type who didn’t allow us to watch anything they deemed “inappropriate,” and heavily favored those they viewed as “educational.” And Star Trek absolutely fit that bill (lucky for me). I probably didn’t learn that much about actual science, but I learned a great deal about philosophy, about friendship and familial relationships, about hope. And I most certainly learned about acceptance.
Of course we all know it was Star Trek that braved to blast through the color barrier on TV, with the first interracial kiss. But more than that, Star Trek taught that anyone could be accepted. You could have weird spoon indentations on your head, or a tendency to fight at a moment’s notice, or the ability to read emotions and strange marriage rituals, but it wouldn’t matter: Starfleet would find a place for you. You were respected for who and what you were. It may not have always been logical or the easiest choice, but it was Captain Picard’s (and later, Captain Janway’s) prevailing approach. To learn. To welcome those who are friendly and demilitarize or avoid those who aren’t.
I can’t have been the only one who learned tolerance from Star Trek. I know it has inspired others. It inspired my friend, who I first met the first week of college; they performed Hamlet‘s “To Be or Not To Be” speech… in Klingon. They made an impression–not necessarily flattering, but certainly brave and owning their geek pride. And I could respect that.
I’m using the pronoun “they” because, though in college my friend presented as male, some time a few years later they decided/realized they preferred the pronoun “they/their.” They identified not as male, but as “genderfluid.”
Yet again my friend stunned me a bit. I mean, that is a tough thing to wrap your head around, for sure. But I hadn’t been in close touch with this friend for years, and even so they felt the need to reach out, to share this very intimate part of their life, with me. I was touched, and felt guilty for having been so far out of touch. I admired them their brave eccentricity, their self-acceptance, their newfound sense of confidence, of self.
I think Star Trek had a lot to do with that. See, in Star Trek, no one would blink twice at this kind of switch, about the idea that gender is not fixed or biologically determined. Sure, what else is new? We’ve got these furry things that reproduce like mad, let’s go deal with them. The captain’s banging a green alien again, what else is new? We’ve got solar systems to explore, who cares about a stupid pronoun?!
My friend loved Star Trek. I mean, they were fluent in Klingon, of course they loved it! But I can’t help but think, now, that one of the big appeals for them must have been that acceptance of diversity. That dream of a future utopia wherein poverty has been eliminated, where disease can be cured by a flashy light, and where people can be who they are…whoever and whatever that may be.
My friend passed away very suddenly last week. I never got the opportunity to tell them how brave they were. But they reminded me of something important, even now: that diversity in science fiction is absolutely not a bad thing. It’s a beautiful thing. It is perhaps the best thing about science fiction, that we can create safe spaces in which we can explore the possibilities of a bright future.
I hope my friend has found their Nexus.