Star Trek’s reactionary take on human enhancement

I’ve commented a couple on Twitter that reading transhumanist fiction makes Star Trek look reactionary. (As reactionary as Lord of the Rings, I think I may have once said.) This last time, James Croft asked that I blog about this, so here I am blogging about it.

Star Trek’s greatest villains are, almost without exception, the products of human (or whatever-the-original-species-was) enhancement. For example Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, universally regarded as the best Trek movie, has as its villain Khan Noonien Singh. (I’ve just discovered that Khan is also, as I’d previously suspected, the villain of J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness, which releases in the US at midnight tonight.)

Khan’s backstory lies in the Trek ‘verse’s alternate history of the 20th century. During the 1990s, Khan was one of a group of genetically-enhanced dictators who took over much of Earth (Khan’s share was a quarter of the Earth’s surface) and were then deposed in the “Eugenics Wars.” Khan and some of his fellow supermen escaped aboard a ship where they cryogenically froze themselves to be later revived by (and torment) Kirk in the 23rd century.

The Eugenics Wars provide the explanation for why, in spite of extraordinary advancements in every other area, human genetic engineering is nowhere to be seen in the Trek ‘verse. (At least in the first two series; more on that later.) Apparently, the experience of the Eugenics Wars was so awful that it led humanity to keep human genetic enhancement illegal for centuries.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, of course, we get the Borg, cyborgs from the other side of the galaxy who exist as part of a single collective consciousness which they continually seek to forcibly add other species to. And then, in Deep Space Nine, we get the Dominion, an empire composed of three main species, at least two of them enhanced.

At the top of the Dominion are the shape-shifting “Changelings” or “Founders.” Beneath them are the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar, who the Founders genetically engineered to make them better slaves. In the case of the Jem’Hadar, they were engineered to be addicted to the drug ketracel-white, making it easier for the Founders to control them. It’s briefly hinted that the Founders’ shape-shifting ability was itself the product of the Founders enhancing themselves.

(On the exceptions: Matt Yglesias’ list of greatest Trek villains has the godlike Q at the top, though I’ve always been puzzled by people who classify Q as a villain: if Q were really a villain, the Enterprise would be destroyed so fast there’d be no story. See here for an in-depth attempt to figure out how the heck to classify Q. The number two entry on Ygleasias’ list, the Cardassian leader Gul Dukat, is however a more plausible example of a great non-enhanced Trek villain.)

The one place where Trek treats enhancement as unproblematic is in the character of Geordi LaForge, the Next Gen chief engineer who was born blind but given the ability to see through a cybernetic VISOR that had some distinct advantages over normal human sight. But it seems unlikely that the Trek ‘verse would look kindly on giving a VISOR to a character who wasn’t blind.

Other enhanced heroes have a distinct Token Heroic Orc flavor to them. If Changelings count as enhanced we have Odo, the Changeling raised by Bajorans. And of course there’s Seven of Nine, Voyager’s de-borgified Borg. The most telling example, however, is DS9’s Julian Bashir, revealed mid-series to have been given illegal genetic enhancements by his parents when he was a child.

After Bashir’s enhanced status revealed we meet several other such illegally-enhanced 24th century humans; it turns out that Bashir is unique in not having been rendered a social cripple by the process. The other enhancees also become convinced that their superior intelligence allows them to know the Federation is doomed in its war against the Dominion. They decide the best thing for the Federation would be to lose quickly; therefore they conspire to betray the Federation to the Dominion. The message is clear: while Bashir may have turned out okay, the Federation is wise to keep genetic enhancement illegal.

In short, according to Star Trek human enhancement will lead to nothing good: egotistical supermen think they can take over the world (or at least betray their species for its own good), loss of individuality and free will, and engineered slave races. Exceptions can exist, but they are forever doomed to remain exceptions.

It’s worth seeing what’s going on here: the writers are convinced something is yucky, but rather than trying to mount any kind of argument against it, they just show it almost always having horrible consequences regardless of whether those consequences are necessary or even particularly likely. Obvious solutions to the problems portrayed (like “try to replicate whatever went right with Bashir’s enhancements”) are never even considered. See TVTropes articles on Space Whale Aesop and Fantastic Aesop; the current borderline-feasibility of human enhancement makes the case likewise borderline between the two tropes.

Star Trek is, strangely, much kinder to purely artificial beings, notably Next Gen’s Lieutenant Commander Data and Voyager’s The Doctor. The implications of Data and the Doctor are never fully explored; in Data’s case, this is justified by the fact that the colony where Data was created was attacked by the Crystalline Entity shortly after Data’s creation, putting a halt to his creator’s research, while Voyager simply doesn’t think very hard about the problem. Still, moral condemnation of Data and the Doctor is absent.

And yet… a central part of both characters’ arcs is their quest to become more human. Becoming more human is good; so perhaps the thought behind all of Trek’s anti-enhancement animus is that enhancement is seen as becoming less human. The obvious counterpoint is that it seems like enhancement could be used to give us more of what we value as humans; no reason is ever given for why we couldn’t work out the bugs in enhanced intelligence and avoid getting Khan.

Since James asked for recommendations for transhumanist fiction, I’d start with Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (mentioned in this post), about a world whose inhabitants haven’t stopped being human just because they’ve abolished death and scarcity. The transhuman technologies in Doctorow’s later novel Rapture of the Nerds, co-written with Charles Stross, o even further, though we’re introduced to them slowly because the story is told from the perspective a character who starts out a firm “rejectionist” in regards to such technologies.

Stross’ earlier novel Accelerando is less optimistic; a little after midway through the novel things have happened that lead one character to suggest that “the destiny of intelligent tool-using life was to be a stepping-stone in the evolution of corporate instruments,” but this is presented as a matter of cleverly worked-out unintended consequences and the heroes manage to use many transhuman technologies without problem.

All three novels are available as free downloads at the links provided. Some of the short fiction on the authors’ websites also explores transhumanist themes.

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