Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance
Alan N. Shapiro
Avinus Verlag, Berlin, 2004, ISBN 3-930064-16-2
Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance (ST:TOD) is an examination of the relationship between the Star Trek television series (including The Next Generation and the films) and the Star Trek industry using the techniques and discourse of modern sociology. It identifies the awkward symbiosis between the two by a succession of subtle inversions: the relentless hyperreality of the Star Trek industry contrasted with the deft exploration of reality and illusion in the Star Trek television series; the industry’s obsession with aliens contrasted with the exploration of humanity contained in the series; above all, the pop science edifice of the industry contrasted with the skepticism towards science exhibited by the series.
However, any discussion of ST:TOD must start with the obscure typography that makes the book an exhausting read. The text is buried beneath a blizzard of inappropriate punctuation. Quotation marks used for emphasis- scare-quotes – disfigure every page, practically every sentence. Bold typeface is used in the same overwhelming quantities with the same perverse result. These devices obscure meaning rather than reveal it.
As if this were not enough, the author feels the need to pepper the text with obscure, gnomic sentiments. These are normally a substitute for real insight which is a pity, because in fact the real insights are there.
As the soul-destroying effect of these failings is cumulative, a single example cannot do more than convey the briefest flavour. With that caveat in mind, this sentence is taken from a discussion on the discovery of warp drive in the late 21st century (p355):
‘Reality’ becomes an image of its own images.
Explanations on a postcard, please. Note that the sentence is not about reality, it is about reality-in-scare-quotes. So we first need to decide what this is, given that it cannot actually be reality. Then, presumably, we will be well placed to determine what reality-in-scare-quotes’s images are and how they correspond to it.
Perhaps these punctuational oddities are intended, a way of distancing the reader from the medium. Unfortunately, their only effect is to almost entirely obscure the message.
ST:TOD’s main thesis is that the Star Trek industry that has grown up around the series is not just a natural continuation; rather it is antithetical to the principles behind the series. The series is a collection of self-contained stories exploring issues of humanity and identity and the struggle to preserve them in the face of scientific and technical advance. The industry has created a parallel Star Trek universe glorifying these scientific and technical advances for its own purposes, which are primarily the sale of Star Trek memorabilia. This universe is perceived as more real than reality by its participants. It is an example of hyperreality (as primarily explored by, for example, Umberto Eco, who is curiously omitted from the otherwise comprehensive bibliography).
The Star Trek industry emphasises the twin pillars of scientific advance: faster-than-light travel (warp drive) and teleportation (the transporter). These are the ‘technologies of disappearance’. But whereas the Star Trek series dwells on the problems caused by these technologies, such as transporter malfunctions, the industry expands the mythology of these technologies to make its universe more real. The irony, of course, is that these technologies are impossible – the paradigm of fiction and not reality. Yet they are used to enhance the Star Trek industry’s hyperreal universe. The industry stresses the transformational nature of technology, whereas the series posits the survival of liberal humanity unchanged in a universe of radical, unpredictable technology.
One suspects that the author is one of those participants who feels that the Star Trek universe is more real than reality. His knowledge of the minutiae of Star Trek episodes is breathtaking; it may almost be pathological. Perhaps the infelicities of style previously mentioned are a result of the book being translated from the original Klingon. The bulk of the book is a comprehensive analysis of episodes from all the various Star Trek series and films. The attention to detail is both commanding and relentless.
The magisterial survey of specific episodes is used to expand and develop the themes of the book. These are listed in the introduction via no fewer than twenty basic principles. Deconstruction of the Star Trek episodes themselves reveals concepts and values that are repeatedly placed in opposition to the Star Trek industry. The industry depends on the series, but constantly subverts it. It is a parasite that kills its host.
ST:TOD stands in a peculiar relationship to its subject matter. It is, clearly, a book about Star Trek. It is, consequently, a part of the industry it is criticising. It is, furthermore, effectively a plea for fewer books about Star Trek. This curious opposition may be self-conscious. It is another example of the warped reflections that the author continually teases out between the industry and the series.