“Star Trek: Discovery” and the Dream of Future Fuels




FOUR EPISODES into the new Star Trek series, Discovery, the crew receives a distress call from Corvan II, a resource-rich planet. A colony of humans is under attack from the Klingons. The victims, dilithium miners, flicker on screen, as miserable as anything we’d read about in Émile Zola’s descriptions of coal mining in Germinal. As dirty and distressed as the faces in a Dorothea Lange photo. Crying babies are so compelling! The Discovery, the closest ship in the fleet, is 90-odd light years away. They’ll never make it in time. But it turns out that the ship is equipped with a brand-new mode of transportation, a spore-based energy system that could, in theory, complete the trip in a few seconds. So, against the advice of his chief scientist, and even though the system may not be ready, the captain gives the order: go! Next, in a stunning display of visual effects, rings surrounding the ship’s saucer begin to rotate as the ship “spore jumps” just in time to drop a few torpedoes on the Klingon Birds-of-Prey. And before we can blink, the Discovery “spore jumps” back to its starting point.

The casual viewer might not make anything particular of this techno-aesthetic scene.

But as everyone knows, Trekkies are anything but casual. On their podcasts, forums, and blogs, they obsessively parse every word, every detail, making cross-references to the other series and movies of the Trek universe. They expect consistency across the whole franchise. Every Trekkie knows that in the original series (which begins 10 years after Discovery) ships are propelled, faster than the speed of light, by “warp drives,” a feat achieved thanks to dilithium crystals that moderate matter-antimatter (fusion) reactions. [1]

Needless to say, the appearance of these spores, as an organic method of propulsion, immediately raised Trekkie eyebrows. As one podcaster explained, “We know, assuming the timeline isn’t screwed up … we know it’s not going to work. We’ve already seen the twenty-fourth century and we know that they don’t have organic warp drives.” (STDP006 podcast: 10/10/2017; Golden Spiral Media.) At this point we don’t know how this apparent contradiction will be resolved. Maybe the spore drives only worked this once and consequently fall into oblivion. In episode five, the “Ripper,” a monster beamed aboard Discovery from a destroyed ship, is released into space. The monster had functioned like a living super computer, communicating spatial coordinates to the spores by some sort of symbiotic means. Michael Burnham, the show’s protagonist, figures out that Ripper is a giant (nuked?) version of an actually existing tiny Earth organism, the tardigrade, which can survive without nourishment for years and exhibits other notable characteristics of resilience. Maybe the best scientific minds will be unable to bio-engineer a new creature capable of withstanding the rigors of spore navigation so the whole enterprise will fall into oblivion. Maybe it will turn out that this tech was developed in an alternative timeline. Maybe the Borg are responsible for upsetting the natural course of things. Maybe it was all a dream. Or, god forbid, perhaps the producers of Discovery don’t care about the kind of consistency demanded by fanboys. Not likely. We’ll just have to wait.

Now I’ve watched my fair share of Star Trek episodes and movies, but I certainly wouldn’t qualify as a Trekkie. I’ve never put on Spock ears or attended a convention and I can’t identify the plots of TOS — the original series — from the titles. I’m someone who is interested in climate change, and recently, in decoupling fuel from energy to help think about forms of radical engagement to achieve rapid decarbonization. I couldn’t resist including an entry for “dilithium” in my book Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), but according to my own criteria, it really shouldn’t be there. “Nuclear,” for instance, is a system of energy, so it doesn’t get its own entry, whereas “uranium” and “plutonium” do. Technically, as I mentioned, warp speed (speed faster than light) is achieved in Federation starships via a matter/antimatter (fusion) reaction. Dilithium crystals serve as a medium to help achieve this, but the actual substance that fuels the reaction is, to be precise, antimatter. I made an exception because the mining of dilithium is such an important and evocative theme throughout various quadrants of the Star Trek universe.

In a way, dilithium is like “hydrogen.” We talk about cars pulling up to filling stations and pumping in hydrogen instead of gasoline, but unlike oil, once removed from the ground and refined, hydrogen doesn’t exist as such, ready to be inserted into a vehicle. It has to be subjected to a process of catalysis before it can create energy to power the engine to turn the wheels. And for now, at least, that process is more likely than not powered by fossil fuels. The same kind of murkiness applies to “electric vehicles.” We can embrace them precisely because we only engage directly with one small element, the compact garage charger. We don’t have to see or think about the vast fossil infrastructure — out of sight, underground, or, “over there,” beyond our immediate perceptual horizon — that still persists at all levels of life while we drive along feeling pleased. The phenomenon of “carbon lock-in” — the idea that our globe is so deeply entangled with oil and coal that no good will gesture on the part of well-meaning individuals will have any significant effect — is hard to swallow. Distinctions between “fuel” and “energy” matter if we’re going to move beyond the kind of green optimistic haze that swirls around “future fuels” in the public sphere. It’s too easy to keep going these days with a vague sense of hope: if we only scale up some new technologies we can keep all the structures and systems we currently enjoy, replacing fossil-based fuels with renewable fuels. Like when you bring up the vast scale of climate change at the dinner table and your relatives say, “But I hear solar and wind prices are coming down and there’s nothing Trump and company can do about that. Coal mining isn’t coming back. So relax and have another glass of wine.”

And by the way, Star Trek apparently takes place in a post–climate change, post–fossil fuel world. “We” must have figured out a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere in order to avoid catastrophe, while also transitioning to “future fuels,” just as we will have overcome poverty, racism, and various other social problems. Note to Star Trek writers: I’m available if you want to hire me to introduce the shift to a post-carbon economy as a future theme about Earth’s past.

In Discovery, mining of dilithium goes on. (Incidentally, given the importance of the besieged outpost, Corvan II, as a source of 40 percent of the Federation’s dilithium supplies, why are there no Federation ships guarding the colony?) And if the whole matter/antimatter warp-drive system will someday be replaced by something greener and more powerful, we are still not there in the future. It’s hard not to hear echoes of our current energy transitions in the plot line.

Trekkies tend to revel in optimism, so they have generally been disturbed by the call by Discovery’s uncharacteristically dark captain, Lorca, to weaponize the spores to help in the war against the Klingons. Poor Lieutenant Stamets, the on-board astro-mycologist (named for an actually existing scholar of fungal remediation). He’s not only lost his colleague/rival on the Glenn, but now he’s reminded, rather bluntly, that his work is the intellectual property of Star Fleet. But aside from the analogy with academia, we might see another one, to the field of nuclear science. Fuels like uranium and plutonium do not harm on their own. “Peaceful atoms,” they could be used for peaceful purposes (energy). But they could also be enriched or inserted into a system that transmutes them for use on warheads. Things could go either way. Spores are, dare I say, rather queer. Stamets and the ship’s doctor are, by the way, the first openly gay couple on Star Trek. They are seen, in episode five, brushing their teeth side-by-side in their quarters, a fairly banal homo-normative scene following Stamets’s reckless and unsanctioned attempt to take over from the tardigrade in the first (and perhaps the last?) intergalactic human-mycelia displacement network.

On a more mundane note, the spores might make us think of the development of biofuels in our current “energy transition,” but without all of the negatives. The Trek spores have no need for other fuels to grow or distill them. They float around in space (the so-called “panspermia” theory) and grow in a magical forest in a gigantic on-board terrarium. There is no need to displace food crops, since food is replicated on board the ship. The spores don’t emit any byproducts, harmful or otherwise. And unlike other forms of fuels, the spores are not used up in combustion. It’s a nice immersive fantasy, not a bad set of images to take us away from all kinds of unbearable realities today.

I wonder: Could the writers of Discovery have read anthropologist Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015)? In the face of massive climate upheaval and other disasters, Tsing embraces the potentially redemptive qualities of fungi, as they continually adapt. Fungi are complex life forms that metabolize plants and coexist in different kinds of ecosystems, performing what she calls symbiopoiesis. They are, like the sparking special effects on the ship, beautiful. Like the World Wide Web, fungi offer infinite possibilities of recombination and new relations in the future. Stamets tells his lover he experienced a whole universe of possibilities when he was hooked up to the drive. Spores flying around the atmosphere (maybe even in outer space?) could configure forms of cosmopolitanism, the happy side of invasive species.

By the time you are reading this piece we’ll all probably know more about the spores on Discovery. Fans of the new series love to speculate. They consume and analyze it week by week, as it is doled out, in close to real time, so it seems appropriate to me to do so here. In comparison, TOS, shown on network television in the late ’60s, had self-enclosed and self-resolving episodes. Serialization is crucial, of course, to 19th-century literature. It’s how kids read the imaginary voyages of Jules Verne. Week by week in the newspaper. And Verne is, for me, the most important writer for thinking and dreaming about possible relations to fuels. So let’s see what happens, but meanwhile, back here on early 21st-century Earth, time to mitigate is slipping away, tipping points are fast approaching. Catastrophic events made much more likely by rising sea levels and warming global average temperatures are pulling apart life as we know it. So it is all the more imperative to ask what is meant by “the future” when one talks of change. Is the future something we project for ourselves on screens? Star Trek offers us a mirror of our better selves. In the future humans are still flawed, and so are those other species that we coexist with in complex relations that bear traces of our own past forms of colonialism, benevolence, communitarianism, exploitation. Overall, though, contact with extraterrestrial beings and places has led to the social and cultural evolution of the human race. The future is bright.

Ultimately we should be wary of thinking about those spore drives as part of a narrative of progress, one that could simply allow us to defer now, in the present, any radical shifts in how we produce and consume energy. This narrative presents a tyranny of common sense that defers new fuels to a future that is just around the corner, but not yet. It governs statements like:

Human history is a record of endless human innovation, most of which has improved the human condition. Who knows what energy sources and technologies of the future may trump the energy benefits of fossil fuels?

This comes from the pen of one Kathleen Hartnett White, in a policy brief titled, “Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case” (2014). White, a former regulator in the Texas oil industry, has just been named by Trump to chair the Council on Environmental Quality. She illustrates her case study for the benefits of fossils with images of poor Americans, including what may be Dorothea Lange’s most iconic image, “Migrant Mother.” How does this image of a desperate mother with her children, displaced dustbowlers in California migrant camp in 1936 help White battle what she calls the false hysteria over climate change? [2] Without fossils, White asserts, we would never have developed beyond subsistence farming. Do we want to go back to this? Of course not — we all agree, right? So for now, let’s enjoy the benefits of carbon-based energy and wait for history to take its course.

It’s with this kind of reasoning in mind that I will wait to see what happens with the new spores on Discovery. I’ll forget the present, for an hour, but I will still be up at night with periodic panic attacks about our future on this warming planet. At least I’ll have the Star Trek podcasts keep me company.

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Karen Pinkus teaches at Cornell University where is currently a Social Science, Humanities, Arts Fellow in Residence at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. She is the author of Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary (University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

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[1] There are several book-length studies of the science of the Star Trek franchise. Lawrence Krauss, The Physics of Star Trek (New York: Basic Books, revised edition 2007) goes into the function and plausibility of warp drive and dilithium in great detail.

[2] The photograph, in the public domain and so available for use in any context, actually has a complex history. Many years later, the subject, Florence Owens Thompson, asserted that she had never spoken to Lange, who apparently embellished her story of the interaction. I doubt that White has thought through the bigger question of the relation of the Dust Bowl to soil depletion, wheat farming, New York bankers, and so on. She’s only reading Lange’s photo with a single signifier: poverty. And that is, for her, so morally bankrupt that it alone should squelch any discussion of moving beyond fossils, beyond business as usual.


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