[This is a conversation between Una McCormack and Manu Saadia, facilitated by Strange Horizons editor Gautam Bhatia. The conversation was conducted over a collaborative Google Document in May, 2023. It takes forward Strange Horizons' ongoing engagement with the theme of extractivism in SF, which began with the special issue on extractivism in September 2022, and continued with Jenna Hanchey's essay on Tade Thompson in the January 2023 issue and Shinjini Dey's essay in the April 2023 issue.]
Gautam Bhatia: Star Trek's United Federation of Planets is perhaps one of the most well-known science-fictional examples of a post-scarcity society, where individuals are no longer subjected to the “mute compulsion” of capitalist social relations. One of the questions that has often been asked about the workings of post-scarcity societies is the question of the material resources which support abundance: how are these resources produced? In Star Trek, there are technological fixes, such as the replicator, that perhaps address some of these questions. But there remains the lingering question of whether the post-scarcity society of the Federation effectively outsources the question of production: in other words, the extractivism that sustains contemporary capitalism also sustains post-scarcity societies (because the resources have to come from somewhere, and they have to be mined and extracted), only it’s moved off-stage and invisiblised. To what extent do you think Star Trek (in its various iterations) deals with the issue of extractivism?
Manu Saadia: My slightly off-beat interpretation of all this: in Trek, the replicator is a theoretical construct. It is the proverbial Santa Claus machine, the pivotal metaphor, the fictional device that allows everything—including avoiding uncomfortable issues of extractivism, exploitation, colonialism and the like. The replicator really appears in The Next Generation [“TNG”]. It’s not really there in The Original Series (nor in the movies that feature Shatner and the gang). The replicator is a metaphor for technological supremacy. It solves, albeit fictionally, what Keynes called “the economic problem”—the distribution of scarce resources.
The important thing about the replicator is that it is a political choice. The Ferengis in Deep Space Nine [“DS9”] also use the replicator, but as an instrument to extract even more profits from workers and customers alike. They treat it as the ultimate tool of capitalist exploitation: you can make and sell goods at essentially zero cost.
Una McCormack: The whole point of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor is to strip-mine the planet. Could all of this have been prevented by the Federation handing over half-a-dozen industrial replicators to the Cardassians? “There you go, lads, no need to stay on Bajor now.” Creatively, you have to start doing things like positing that the replicator requires massive amounts of power, etc. etc. In which case I guess it’s stopped doing what replicators are supposed to do, textually speaking.
GB: And I suppose that positing that would take us back into the questions of political economy (where does the power come from, is it mined, is it extracted, etc.), which Manu said the replicator is meant to help us avoid.
MS: Oooh that’s right—but also, the Cardassians do have the replicator: the whole DS9 station is a Cardassian-built outpost (an ore transformation facility). It’s a running gag on DS9, where poor Miles O’Brien has to constantly wrestle with pesky Cardassian technology! So the Cardassians have replicators and they strip mine colonies. Now that’s interesting. It does demonstrate that using the replicator as a public good is a political choice. At some point the Federation decided to make everything more or less free, to treat most things as public goods, freely available to everyone. The replicator stands in for the end-point of techno-scientific progress. It produces everything for free, on demand, on the spot, with the most minimal of human labour or input. Some decide to make it available to everyone. Others (the Ferengis, but also the Cardassians) decide to use it for profit, to further capitalist exploitation.
So in a way, Star Trek is not interested in extractivism per se, because it is a Swiftian tale about what the world would be like if extraction (of resources, of labour) was no longer an issue.
At the same time, I sense that Star Trek taken in its entirety is a story and a show at war with itself. After the first three or four seasons of The Next Generation, writers and producers began to rein in and neuter that initial Swiftian élan.
GB: In a certain sense, reminiscent of the original position in John Rawls’s theory—it plays a role as a heuristic device for telling us how human beings would act given certain premises, without speaking to how convincing those premises are in the first place.
UMc: I think that tension is very clear in Voyager, a show which repeatedly puts forward episodes showing what they could do with the format, but never really commits to any of them. Using the holodeck must be a massive drain on resources. They needed an Emergency Psychotherapy Hologram (or else an HR-mandated mindfulness programme).
MS: On a related note, I have screencaps of Chabon discussing the Picard show, where he states that post-scarcity and all that, thanks but no thanks. And it’s perfectly understandable: Utopia is boring. It doesn’t make for good drama or good TV. It’s thoroughly unrelatable, we can’t see echoes of our struggles and of our travails in perfectly moral people who are perfectly happy and satiated. Show writers hated the parameters set forth by Roddenberry in the TNG bible. You were consigned to the freak-of-the-week format and/or the occasional time paradox mind-fuck. TNG was a workplace drama in space, but without work and without real drama. It’s hell to write, especially if you have to produce 24 episodes per season.
UMc: This is perhaps what Chabon was getting at: that this kind of storytelling won’t wash in the 2010s/2020s. The first season of Picard is about what happens when Utopia comes under strain; what happens when the best man that Utopia produces (Jean-Luc Picard) loses faith in that society (think Shevek, in The Dispossessed). The crew surrounding him in that first season are all broken or expelled in some way (structurally, the newer shows are completely different as well, of course: ten episode arcs against those exhausting twenty-four episode seasons. That’s always going to lead to a different kind of storytelling too.)
Intrinsic to S1 of Picard are many interesting questions about logistics, labour, mass production, etc. The Romulan relief mission collapses because there is a ban on the use of synthetic life (synths), who are providing the labour force to produce the huge number of starships needed to be able to carry the huge number of people requiring evacuation. Which raises the question: what are they all doing that can’t be done by replicator? What other industrial processes can’t be done by replication?
(FWIW, in my novel The Last Best Hope, I suggested that some part of the process was so delicate that in effect it had to be crafted rather than machined—but they needed industrial-scale output.)
MS: All of Trek since those first seasons of TNG is a long struggle to unwind and rollback the initial post-scarcity fable: you see it in DS9 but also Voyager, where scarcity comes back with a vengeance because they have to ration everything and even get a cook on board (the widely loathed Neelix). The subsequent show is set in a time before the replicator, while the others, more recent ones, find increasingly convoluted ways to avoid engaging with Roddenberry’s fantastical vision. The replicator, all that it stands for, is a black hole. You have to bring back scarcity and struggle, because otherwise you have no drama and no show. After all, this is an industry, this is show business, the spectacle, not a graduate seminar on Marcuse and Ernst Bloch.
GB: I never thought of Neelix as a response to scarcity, but now that you’ve said it, I can’t unthink it!
UMc: Some of the most memorable episodes, like “The Measure of a Man,” are of course exactly like a graduate seminar (which I mean in an entirely positive way, because what is nicer than a graduate seminar?) But that’s not easy to (ahem) replicate every week, as anyone who has ever had to teach weekly graduate seminars can tell you. Try doing that, ChatGPT.
MS: For TNG, Roddenberry had no studio or network oversight. He could do whatever he wanted to do because he had found a way to sidestep the usual ideological gatekeepers, thanks to first-run syndication. It was kind of a unique moment in the television business, and he took full advantage of it. By now it’s over: we live in the age of intellectual property mining. Something as politically radical as early, straight-to-syndication TNG will never again see the light of day in mass entertainment.
UMc: Andor. That show is so extraordinary I had to write an essay about it.
But I’m not sure I agree entirely with your characterisation of TOS being produced in a free-wheeling environment, btw. We’re well into the 1960s and Roddenberry was at the mercy of the advertisers as much as anyone. But he certainly took full advantage of whatever freedom he could find. I think we shouldn’t forget how important having such a diverse cast on screen was.
MS: That is the other thing: Utopia is fundamentally unpopular, at odds with the world, against it. It’s a rupture, a declaration of war. Otherwise it’s not Utopia, merely science-fiction.
UMc: Unpack that for me, will you? I’m one of those people that thinks Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is probably her most interesting and absorbing book.
MS: Zing! A conversation for another day, but science fiction as a genre arose in part to discipline Utopian socialism. It’s Bellamy and H.G. Wells against William Morris: the “scientific socialists” against the “utopian socialists.”
GB: Let's talk about Discovery a bit. In Star Trek: Discovery, we get a hint of what might happen if the reserves of dilithium, which powers interstellar space-flight, are exhausted: rapid social collapse. To what extent is the Federation a genuine post-scarcity society if its existence seems to depend so much on a mineral—and therefore, by extension—on extractivism?
MS: That particular question deserves further unpacking. On the one hand you have the narrative/dramatic decisions of the Star Trek producers and writers, who have all the rights to tweak the parameters of their fictional world. They’re tasked to build it for the enjoyment of the show’s consumers. They have bosses and corporate owners and they must deliver excitement and entertainment in order to conform to market demands. Show business is an industry and a capitalist commercial enterprise (funnily enough, in the case of a so-called “franchise” like Star Trek, the business consists mainly in mining value from an intellectual property, or dare I say, extract). So that’s one side of the question: how do you tell stories set in a post-scarcity society from within a position in an industry that is notoriously cutthroat and capitalist? On this, Una has an insider’s knowledge of the proverbial reactor core. I’m very, very curious.
UMc: This is the moment when we should probably mention the ongoing WGA strike.
As for how I tell stories: perhaps the books are sufficiently distant from the core that I have a certain amount of liberty. When the show was off-air I wrote books stuffed with Cardassian anarchists or species who didn’t use gendered pronouns and flew in knitted spaceships or put Garak into a tense three-way relationship with two doctors.
To be honest, I’ve written pretty much whatever I wanted. The chief constraints were because I was part of a wider extended universe and working alongside other book writers. And of course the extended universe “lit-verse” or “beta canon” ended when the show came back on air (I still had one more Cardassian book in me).
On “the Burn”: yes, this resolves a narrative issue. What major event would collapse the Federation? What mechanisms make interstellar governance possible? What might make it all fall apart? (These questions are obviously analogous to Brexit, and perhaps the polarisation of US politics.)
My Discovery novel Wonderlands looks at this in more depth. It’s set at the start of S3: on screen we see that Burnham has a year living in the post-Burn universe, and the book explores that through her Federation eyes. She also receives a journal kept by a Federation councillor before, during, and after the Burn. This let me explore what we thought, when we were discussing the book, would be the necessary structural flaws in the Federation that meant that when the Burn came, it burned so hard. (It might come as no surprise to learn I was writing this book during lockdown, watching governments choose very different pandemic responses.) With political will, more of the Federation might have held together. Instead, the book suggests that there was already a shift towards … I don’t know, Fedexit.
So we can see clearly that, narratively, the Burn is doing precisely the opposite of what you describe the replicator as doing, Manu. It is the imaginative black box that represents the political decisions not to hold together. Dramatically, then, the show becomes about reconstitution. So much of contemporary Star Trek is about looking at what happens to Utopia when it comes under strain. (Also Peanut Hamper and the owl-guy.)
GB: I think “utopia-under-strain” is a great way of thinking about Season Three of Discovery.
MS: The other side of the question is beyond the confines of the Star Trek universe itself, but in a way is tied to the boundaries we set ourselves from within the world we all live in and share. Frederic Jameson famously quipped that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism (that quip is hilarious and comes from an NLR piece on … Rem Koolhas, it’s so, so random). In other words, can you imagine a post-capitalist, post-scarcity, socialist society that does not rely on some form of extraction or another? Is it even possible in the real world?
UMc: I get the feeling lots of people are trying!
(Have you read Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered? She’s a good writer.)
GB: Kingsolver, and perhaps Becky Chambers’s Monk and Robot series with its non-extractive half-earth socialism. These books invite us to engage in a fundamental perspective-shift.
MS: That’s because people often throw their hands in the air and reckon that you need the prod of profit and the incentive structures of private property to get anything done and to accrue society’s overall wealth. There is a tacit admission that this, the entire capitalist market apparatus, is the only way, and furthermore, that it is natural. We have largely conceded the point and naturalized what is at heart a historically contingent social arrangement. It’s ideology in its purest and most distilled form and it puts blinders on all of us because we all need to make a living and our work is alienated. This is the world that is given to us at birth. This is our milieu, this is what we grow up with, this is our education, our taste, our relationships. It’s the social totality that determines the material conditions of our existence. Ideology is the people’s opium because everybody in nineteenth century England ate opium from poppies in order to dull the pain of living (that’s the oft-ignored origin of Marx’s joke). No wonder then that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
UMc: In the UK right now it feels like we’re living through some sort of endgame of this: the hollowing out and collapse of public institutions, the open corruption of the governing class (take a look at Private Eye’s reporting of the sell-off of land in the Teeside Freeport), the paralysis of the opposition party. The race is on to get this government out before there’s nothing left … but there’s nothing coming from the other party to suggest an alternative.
MS: The yoke of ideology is hard to shake, even if there are countless examples of non-extractive practices staring us in the face. I’m not even talking about the historical record or you know, scholarly anthropological research!
UMc: Have you read Graeber and Wengrew’s The Dawn of Everything? That book rewired my brain. In fact, that essay about Andor I mentioned is also largely my response to TDoE.
GB: The Dawn of Everything is a great book for showing that it has not always been like this, and therefore, need not always be like this (utopia might be closer than we think!).
MS: Well, right from our world, take for instance Polynesian fish traps: these are shallow-waters stone structures laid down around lagoon passes. The fish gallivant in these sort of stone corridors. When the tide turns they remain and are easily trapped. Polynesians have built these for hundreds of years; the fish catch belongs to the community because the community maintains the stone structure. It’s the opposite of extractive, industrial fishing, and it has all sorts of benefits—not only to humans but to fish populations. The fish traps are what’s called “public goods” in economic parlance: everybody can avail themselves of their services without impinging on anyone else, and nobody can bar you from using the fish trap, you do not have to pay someone to use them. In the case of the Polynesian fish traps, they are public goods by dint of tradition and community conventions. Now take a look around you, there are many similar human-made public goods in your everyday life. Roads and bridges are public goods (unless it’s a privatised toll road). The GPS you use to navigate these roads is also a public good. Wikipedia is a public good. In many countries healthcare is a public good. So there are many basic infrastructures and systems that are in fact public goods and therefore exist outside the sphere of for-profit, capitalist market exchanges. So it’s not in fact that complicated to imagine a world where the scope and reach of public goods would be vastly expanded to cover the necessities of the good life. Everything is pretty much already there. It’s precisely what Star Trek did, especially in Next Generation.
GB: This reminds me of Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons, which is full of real-world examples of this kind, and a conscious response to the “tragedy of the commons” trope.
UMc: I used to tell my undergraduates that not only did I get my university fees paid, I also received a grant that covered living costs. And that my older siblings were able to claim unemployment benefit during university holidays. Blew their minds. Next question to them: why aren’t things set up so that you can have this? What’s going on there?
MS: All that being said, a socialist society, one where the means of production are publicly-owned, is not by definition non-extractive.
UMc: You’re absolutely right on that score!
GB: That is, in a certain sense, the challenge that faced the first set of Pink Tide governments in Latin America at the turn of the century, documented in books such as Resource Radicals, A Revolution in Fragments, and Planetary Mine, summed up by phrases such as “resource nationalism.”
MS: That’s where it gets complicated. If you think that Soviet Russia was more respectful of workers or of the environment, I have a trip to the gold mines of Kolyma to sell you. Soviet Russia even attempted to use nukes to mine ore deposits (the experiment was uh, inconclusive). That strain of socialism was as enthralled with controlling and extracting resources from nature as were its capitalist foes. The techno-scientific exploitation of nature was a cornerstone of Soviet ideology, very much the mirror-image of European colonial powers. And that’s not surprising. Both drew on the same philosophical corpus: Bacon, Descartes, the European Enlightenment materialism that regards nature as pure extension, soulless matter to acquire and transform through human ingenuity and human labour. This is the creed of industrial modernity writ large, regardless of whether it’s socialist or capitalist. Nature belongs to humans, nature is humanity’s dominion, fields, geological treasure, animals, and yes, humans as well.
To me, this Promethean understanding of nature, and of our place in it, stands in stark contrast with, for instance, the great sailing civilizations of the Pacific, who nowadays call themselves Pasifika people. They are very well-known to us people of the terra firma. The Pasifika were as good if not better engineers and scientists than their European or Indian or Chinese counterparts, they could sail across the vast ocean better and farther than anyone could. They had invented the crab claw sail around 4,000 BC, which allowed them to tack into the wind. Arabs and Europeans only caught up to them in or around 1400. They had mapped the stars’ movements in order to navigate. Their relationship to nature was fundamentally different from that of industrial modernity. And by the way, the Pacific islands were often portrayed by eighteenth-century European philosophes as idyllic, cornucopian paradises (wrongly of course, but that’s a different story). My point is that here’s a civilization that relied on their knowledge of nature’s endless cycles, the wind, gravity, catching fish but not too much, to achieve an unmatched geographic spread and a cultural longevity on par with other ancient cultures. The same could be said of Australian aborigines, who first arrived on the continent some 50,000 years ago, but then again, like Polynesians, they were almost all killed (on that topic, I strongly recommend Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, a foundational book).
UMc: Yes, that’s a great book. Again, I urge The Dawn of Everything on people!
MS: In a similar vein, Yale anthropologist James C. Scott has written at great lengths about how early States domesticated nomadic humans alongside crops and livestock. To Scott, who is an anarchist, the roots of our extractive relationship to nature, characterised by subordination and social domination, can be traced to the early City-States of the Bible and the Indus valley, Ur and Mohenjo-Daro, and so on. You invent writing and maths to count cows and bushels, to survey your land and your property. So to me that’s a big part of the conundrum. According to Scott, domination of nature is mediated and conditioned upon social domination. The feudal kings, priests, or feudal priest-kings of yore needed to institutionalise social domination. The exploitation of nature and the exploitation of humans are the two faces of the same dialectical coin. You can’t have one without the other and vice versa. And it’s like the chicken and the egg, they in fact appeared at the same time, in the same movement.
GB: Scott’s work—especially The Art of Not Being Governed —is a great shout. It definitely belongs to the same canon (or anti-canon) as The Dawn of Everything. It does what Manu mentions a little earlier on: defamiliarises forms of political economy and State-formation that most of us have internalised as “natural”, and shows us their fundamental contingency.
MS: It would seem that I did stray a bit far from Trek. But not really. Star Trek comes out of industrial modernity and the European Enlightenment. It’s a somewhat sunnier take on the possibilities for human society than most other science-fictional worlds. It is nevertheless fully entrenched in the ideology of Promethean, techno-scientific progress. It presents a world where technology has liberated humans from alienated labour and social domination. In that sense, it posits that we can have techno-scientific domination over nature to the point of terminal abundance and cornucopia, but without techno-scientific social domination. I have very serious doubts about that.
UMc: Pastoral planets in Trek often conceal a hidden horror, don’t they? Particularly in TOS.
GB: When The Expanse series began, a Wall Street Journal review of Leviathan Wakes contrasted it to Star Trek, and noted that the extractive economy at the heart of The Expanse now seemed a more realistic future than Star Trek. What do we make of this analysis? Is the reviewer conflating the fact that extraction is backstage in Star Trek with the assumption that it doesn’t exist at all?
UMc: Yes, I think there’s something to that. Perhaps it’s simply that extraction as a theme is central to The Expanse—which is a story about the scramble for space—in a way that it isn’t to Star Trek. Also, I think The Expanse doesn’t pick a side—or perhaps more accurately, it suggests that people are willing to work across and against national agendas for some common good. Whereas I think the tendency in Star Trek is to show “bad apples” within the Federation and Starfleet, rather than suggest systemic flaws. The most recent season of Picard (SPOILER ALERT!) ultimately draws everyone into the Starfleet fold. Compare this with Jake Sisko telling his dad he doesn’t want to join Starfleet, and Ben Sisko saying, “You do you, buddy.”
MS: It’s been fashionable to oppose Star Trek and The Expanse. Supposedly The Expanse is more “realistic” whereas Trek is the hippie or socialist or liberal wide-eyed optimistic world. The Expanse is the rugged, difficult, Victorian hardscrabble future, but in spaaaaace. It is Dickensian, it is Dickens in the asteroid belt.
UMc: And I love it!
MS: That contrast, as facile as it is, points to a very particular view of humanity. Roughly, you have those who believe in a “human nature” and those who do not. The Expanse caters to those who believe that human motivations and human behaviours are eternal, fixed and transhistorical, that there is such a thing as “human nature” and that we’ve always, at all times and everywhere, been the same and acted the same—and furthermore, that we shall always be the same and act the same. It’s a rather naive, and Catholic, understanding of humanity. Behind it lurks the notion that society itself never changes, which is a lie of convenience we tell ourselves because it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and meanwhile we have to cope with our alienated lives. If anything, by assuming that humans never change, The Expanse is much less realistic than Trek. Besides, “realism” in “hard” sci-fi is a road to nowhere and I don't understand why people keep going back to it—but different debate.
UMc: Yes, don’t get me started on BSG!
One of things that I found most interesting about The Expanse, when I finally got hooked and mainlined in a matter of a month, was how simple the weekly stories are. Almost every episode is basically a countdown. Disguising that is an immensely skilled feat of writing. It also gives the show tremendous narrative propulsion.
MS: At the opposite end you have Star Trek: I read Trek as a narrative and philosophical thought-experiment on how humans would behave under terminally-improved material conditions. To me it's more Swift than Dickens. It lends itself to that sort of reading, to be honest. Trek has a materialistic take on “human nature,” that our actions, our thoughts, indeed our desires, are entirely contingent upon social and material conditions, overdetermined by the organisation of society. Again, it’s not really a stretch, it’s even an observable fact, it’s quite pedestrian, a cliché even: “Let me tell you about Federation Citizens, they are different from you and me…” etc etc …
UMc: DS9 starts the process of radically undercutting this, imho. You couldn’t get Picard’s crisis of faith, or the breakdowns of Raffi, Rios, or Jurati without, e.g. O’Brien’s breakdown, Sisko’s acceptance of his special destiny, Kira’s shift from defensive anger to transformative intimacy, Worf’s widowerhood, Bashir’s reveal and acceptance of himself etc. etc. etc.
You could argue, I suppose, that Trek posits an ideal, perfected, and constant human nature which is waiting to be revealed in all of us. But I get your point.
MS: In my opinion, Star Trek’s thought experiment about cornucopia is itself based upon a massive elision: that society’s technological domination of nature can exist without the social domination of humans by humans. Dilithium and what have you, those who mine the stuff ... completely swept under the rug. But then again Trek does not pretend to offer a systematic Utopia like Saint-Simon or Bellamy. Its goals are more modest, and getting renewed for another season is always one of them (much in the same way that Swift wanted to sell books).
That’s a summary of the usual opposition between Trek and The Expanse. It’s come up very often in discussions with readers and fans of both shows.
GB: This has been an absolutely fantastic discussion, and I wish it could go on forever! I feel like we should get the two of you together on another medium (hint hint: Strange Horizons podcast team!) so that we can just hear you riff off each other in this way; but for now, thank you so much for taking out the time to have this conversation. It’s a particularly fitting conclusion (a temporary conclusion, of course!) to SH’s year-long engagement with extractivism in SF, which began with our special issue in September 2022. Thank you once again!
Works Covered in the Conversation
- Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed.
- Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home.
- Una McCormack, Picard: The Last, Best Hope.
- Una McCormack, Wonderlands.
- Manu Saadia, Trekonomics.
- Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered.
- Becky Chambers, The Monk and the Robot Series.
- Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons.
- David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything
- Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu
- James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed.
- James S.A. Corey, The Expanse Series.
- Theo Riofrancos, Resource Radicals.
- Mark Goodale, A Revolution in Fragments.
- Martin Arboleda, Planetary Mine.
Editor: Gautam Bhatia.
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.