Who Tends to Captain Picard’s Bromeliads?

SCIENCE FICTION embraces a multitude of philosophies reflecting the different time periods and cultures from which it originates. One of these philosophies — liberal humanism — allows authors to envision a rational, empirical, and typically secular future centered on the agency of humans who have matured and achieved a harmonious (if not peaceful) coexistence. As an alternative to dystopian futures that emphasize strife and anarchy, liberal humanist visions eliminate class and ignorance to describe a communal society. Given present day conditions of aggression, resource scarcity, inequality, and religious conflict, these visions of the future are compelling to readers. Asserting that humanity will solve what seem like intractable problems using technology and reason provides a message of hope for the present. However, embracing liberal humanism does not dictate that visions of the future will resemble each other, nor that achieving a harmonious society will occur without consequences. Three popular authors from the late-20th century — Stanislaw Lem, Gene Roddenberry, and Iain M. Banks — have each created imagined societies founded on liberal humanism. Their diverse national origins as inhabitants of Poland, the United States, and Scotland influence their imagined futures. Each of their societies grant individual agency while relying on a rational community. Want has been eliminated, and individuals are free to achieve self-actualization. Beyond these broad characteristics, however, there are profound distinctions in how each author allows his characters to gain knowledge, channel aggression, remain passionate, and engage with society. These distinctions raise the question of whether liberal humanism, in its different flavors, can be effective in providing a future in which individual agency coexists with plenty and achievement. 

Although each author has created a considerable catalog of work, I would like to restrict this essay to a few representative examples. Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars describes the repatriation of Hal Bregg, an interstellar astronaut who returns from a mission 130 Earth-years after its launch. Because of the laws of relativity, he has only aged 10 years. Iain Banks wrote at least seven novels about The Culture, a mature galactic civilization that is humanoid and a proxy for our civilization. The examples in this essay originate from his second novel, Player of Games. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise is perhaps the most optimistic vision of humanity. For a variety of reasons, I will focus on the second series, The Next Generation.

Each of the three civilizations under analysis are characterized as post-scarcity economies: Fundamental needs such as food, shelter, and education are provided to everyone as a basic right. Society is classless, and if people engage in labor it is for the purpose of personal enrichment. Captain Picard summarizes Roddenberry’s vision at the end of the first season in the episode “The Neutral Zone.” Talking with a 20th-century human revived after 400 years in cryogenic stasis, he explains: “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things.’ We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.” All that remains is to improve oneself and better humanity. 

It may seem like an easy path to take, but adopting the assumption of post-scarcity places a burden on the author, because new economic rules must be created to explain the distribution of goods and services. Capitalism, with its reliance on poverty, is unacceptable. As the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham once stated, “as labour is the source of all wealth, so poverty is of labour. Banish poverty, you banish wealth.” In these post-scarcity societies, labor is more fundamental than wealth, so in order to eliminate poverty, the authors need to find a substitute for labor. In other words, if resources are abundant and easily distributed to members, then the only thing missing is a way to determine who completes the mundane tasks that allow the rest of us to achieve our potential. 

Although tracing the intricacies of future economies is not the purpose of this essay, it is useful to highlight certain economic imaginings within each setting. Only Lem and Banks rely upon automata (e.g., drones, robots) to supply labor. The Culture utilizes drones, while Lem’s Earth has created a labor class of robots that remain largely separate from humans. Setting aside moral questions, the use of automata makes sense, allowing for the removal of economic class in human society and the pursuit of self-actualization for individuals. Automata remove the distinctions inherent in employment that support arbitrary hierarchies and prevent individuals from moving freely throughout society. 

The standout among the three is Roddenberry’s Star Trek. While watching Picard brood in his quarters during the episode “Lessons,” I pondered the question, “Who tends to Captain Picard’s bromeliads?” The glaring lack of automata in Roddenberry’s Federation demands an examination of how class and hierarchy are eliminated within Star Trek. We don’t have to assert that Roddenberry’s future is any less egalitarian than the others, but this omission exerts pressure to substitute a form of economic specialization. An episode like “Lower Decks” in season 7 not only rests upon the organizational hierarchy of the ship, but also includes a civilian character who waits tables in the lounge. Perhaps Roddenberry’s message is to emphasize the dignity of human labor, or perhaps the show simply did not have the production budget to create robots, but the lack of automata makes clear that support labor is quietly accepted. After all, it is hard to visualize a society where people reach the pinnacle of knowledge and command a starship when they are burdened with tasks like sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms. For this reason, I believe it is fair to criticize Roddenberry for a willful blind eye to the hierarchy of Starfleet and the consequences of economic specialization.

Identifying the motivation to strive in a post-scarcity society is one of the distinct characteristics of Lem, Banks, and Roddenberry. Like the system of labor, self-actualization demands considerable thought from the writer in order to provide plausible balance. While some suspension of belief is to be expected in science fiction, compelling narratives are underpinned by human tensions that we all recognize and internalize. It is acceptable to skip the explanation of faster-than-light travel, but stories become nonsensical when character behavior is inexplicable. That character behavior must perpetuate the future that provides an environment tailored to liberal humanism. As Captain Picard explains to Lily in Star Trek: First Contact, “We work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity.” The question then becomes, “how and why?” 

Recreation and scholarship are popular choices for members of The Culture, although this often takes place at an advanced level. In the second novel of the series, Player of Games, the protagonist Jernau Gurgeh is regarded as one of the greatest champions of strategic games. Not just a player, he is widely published in game theory and strategy. One of his companions, Yay Meristinoux, is apprenticed as a landscape architect for Orbitals, the massive rings that house much of the population (think Larry Niven’s Ringworld). Not content to design rivers and mountains, she wants to pioneer deconstructed landscapes with floating islands. She is essentially designing artificial worlds and sees little resistance to building complex landscapes that defy the laws of physics. Banks makes a number of points in descriptions like this, and it is possible to attribute some of this to his socialist ideology. Not only are opportunities for fulfillment seemingly limitless, but so are the resources required to execute them. Members of The Culture are free to pursue their interests, and the results of those pursuits are shared.

Lem’s vision is similar. As Hal Bregg discovers upon his return to Earth, there is little demand for work. With so many of his needs met for free, he decides to rent a vacation villa and slowly assimilate into society. Like Banks, Lem places each of his characters in a recreation or scholarship pursuit; we meet a doctor, an actress, an engineer, and a student. What Bregg soon discovers during a visit to a robot recycling plant is the “total separation between work and life. All production was automated and took place under the supervision of robots, which were overseen by other robots; there was no longer any place in this realm for people.”

As mentioned previously, enrichment and betterment are the cornerstones of life in the Federation. The origin of the drive towards these is more ambiguous. We can look to Roddenberry’s American perspective and consider it a factor when trying to understand the value of risk and reward in his post-scarcity society. The very notion of Starfleet entails a level of risk not found in the other futures. We all joke about the red shirts getting vaporized during each away mission, which demonstrates the danger that people face and leaves unexplained why they risk death when their needs would be met in other endeavors. All we are offered to satisfy our need for understanding this motivation is that humanity has “evolved” (presumably this is an emotional evolution).

Humanity’s maturation in Star Trek’s universe requires a leap of faith; the infamous Roddenberry’s Box — a set of rules that bound screenwriters — insists that primal drives are no longer recognized. In spite of this, we can certainly identify elements of the frontiersman in Captains Kirk and Sisko, and even though Captain Picard is the consummate diplomat, Commander Riker’s Alaskan origin fits that pattern. This conflict between the American myth of Manifest Destiny and the individual agency of liberal humanism is constantly negotiated in Star Trek. In a conversation between Picard and Ralph Offenhouse in “The Neutral Zone”, the 20th-century businessman rejects the acceptance of peace and plenty: “You’ve got it all wrong. It has never been about possessions; it’s about power.” More than a throw-away sermon line, this is a missed opportunity to address inherent human conflict. The worldview that produced Star Trek is intricately wedded to an inquisitive, somewhat reckless, and brash ideology that constantly collides with notions of evolved humanity.

Achieving a social balance implies a prosperous, relatively peaceful, and safe society. Certainly an abundance of goods addresses some of the social problems we currently experience, but humanity is seething with primitive drives and twisted perceptions that make stabile, rational behavior difficult. Fear, that little bug burrowed deep in our lizard brain, often creates inexplicable chaos that spoils the party. Aggression, something that has been terribly useful in assuring our propagation over the aeons, is not going away anytime soon. As expected, each of the civilizations presented channel aggression in different ways, although Banks and Roddenberry share a common methodology.

The Star Trek franchise adopts a process commonly used by the United States called social imperialism. Similar to economic imperialism, the idea is that metropole countries — those that control production and distribution — implement policies in peripheral countries in order to preserve the well-being of the metropole. During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Central America became the periphery that provided raw materials, exotic foods, and cheap labor to improve lifestyles in the United States. In the present day, globalization policies provide a similar function. For the Federation, constant expansion serves as a way to maintain internal peace and stability. That is not to dismiss the role of exploration, but the Enterprise-D executes a fair number of trade pacts and diplomatic introductions for the benefit of member planets. And there can be no doubt that expansion is an aggressive behavior regardless of motives. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine drives the point home with Captain Sisko’s belief that the Gamma Quadrant must be colonized even at the risk of war with a formidable enemy, The Dominion. Accepting that the Federation is a post-scarcity civilization, as we are told multiple times throughout these two series, then we can only assume that expansion is for political stability, not economic gain. Like steam released from a kettle, political activity on the borders facilitates tranquility at the core.

Iain Banks’s Culture is not dissimilar in its method. Eight hundred years after the Idiran War, The Culture is not militarily aggressive, however every book in the series involves mischief with other, less developed civilizations. These peripheral societies are nearly always manipulated by The Culture’s Special Circumstances group (an interstellar CIA), and in some cases other mature galactic rivals will engage them in a proxy fight. In this way, The Culture actively shapes the galactic “geo-political” landscape without facing consequences that would disturb the stability of their society.

Stanislaw Lem’s Return from the Stars gathers human drives and thoroughly interrogates their characteristics. Upon his return to Earth, Hal Bregg finds himself in an alien culture, one that is repulsed by the explorer and adventurer that he symbolizes. He cannot fathom the cause of the radical change in attitude that has transformed him from hero to pariah. During an exchange with a sympathetic, older doctor, Bregg learns of the betrization process that medically rids Earth’s predators of aggression. Performed during infancy, betrization suppresses aggressive thoughts and dissociates them with pleasurable responses. It has virtually eliminated violence and crime on Earth. But Lem adds the necessary caveat:

Progress never comes free. We’ve rid ourselves of a thousand dangers, conflicts, but for that we had to pay. Society has softened, while you are … you can be hard. Do you understand me?

Betrization has eliminated aggression and allowed people to live in comfort and safety. As Bregg quickly realizes, they are also averse to the quest for knowledge that took him to the stars. Although barely 40 years old, he is facing a future without companionship or even acceptance in society. Lem solves the problem of human aggression with an emotional castration that dampens humanity’s forceful inquisitiveness.

Although the concept of social imperialism is valid and evident in The Federation and The Culture, Stanislaw Lem is the only author of the three who directly addresses the subversion of humanity’s aggression and its consequences. Lem doesn’t have the “luxury” of social imperialism to work with, since humanity is not pushing out toward the stars. Betrization is a technology forcefully applied to every predator on Earth. Ironically, peace is achieved by repeated violations of humanity’s nature, a gross denial of liberty and individualism. 

We have examined the difficulties a visionary faces when crafting a future that is rational, peaceful, and plentiful. As is generally the case, technology is relied upon to overcome many of the problems we currently find intractable. But does the use of technology create conflicts within a liberal humanist framework?

It is a natural inclination to view technology as an unfettered good, something that improves our lives. Of course, given a moment’s reflection, we all realize that is not the case. Technology is a tool, one that we use to fashion our environment in ways that suit us, ways that do not occur naturally. As a system in equilibrium, our environment becomes destabilized whenever we alter it for our own purposes. This may or may not be a good thing, but it does produce a simple choice: We can allow the system to reach a new equilibrium, or we can continue altering it to stay “ahead of the curve.” The former choice defeats the purpose of utilizing technology, while the latter tends to create a never-ending cycle of expending effort to control the disequilibrium.

Empiricism, a cornerstone of liberal humanism, also seeks to manipulate the environment in order to divine knowledge. At its simplest level, empiricism requires the explorer to observe how outcomes are affected when independent variables are changed. Disequilibrium is a precondition for discovery. An advanced civilization that employs technology to better the lives of its members will never achieve stability, save perhaps the stability of always recovering from destabilizing forces. These forces may be as innocuous as growth, providing benefits until there are no longer resources available to feed the system. However, they can also be destructive, as with the case of climate change or nuclear proliferation. Medical advances can lead to secondary problems like geriatric ailments, or something more sinister like biowarfare. At some level, our technological society is in a constant state of flux.

Therefore, it is a legitimate question to ask if the quest for knowledge is a form of aggression, since it forcefully reorders the world. At its core is a rejection of nature at its face value. As Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. has argued, technoscience thrives on conflict to achieve resolution, and is thus inherently expansive. If this is so, is it wise to consider a technologically advanced future a harmonious solution? Such a civilization might last for millennia, as The Culture did, or it might be torn apart by internal imbalances against which it can no longer compensate.

Lem, Roddenberry, and Banks provide us with futures that rely on technology and empiricism to better our lives. To different degrees, they accept that social pressures will prevent humanity from achieving a utopian existence. That we will not achieve harmony, despite what our favorite characters might tell us. Studying these visions as explorers ourselves, we can learn much about the nature of humanity and the pitfalls of moving forward with technology and empiricism. 

While providing a more hopeful alternative to the resource scarcity, violence, and anarchy of dystopian futures, liberal humanism is not free of social challenges. Post-scarcity economies appear to eliminate want and poverty, but their implementation leaves questions. Stanislaw Lem and Iain Banks tackles issues of class and hierarchy through the use of automata, but Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek conveniently ignores these problems. Also remaining in the Federation of the 24th century is the drive to explore and experience mortal danger in a society where needs are already met, while for Banks and Lem the maturation into a post-scarcity society is manifest by the pursuit of scholarly and recreational pursuits. Perhaps the most pointed difference between the three authors is the way they envision the subversion of humanity’s aggression, Roddenberry and Banks through social channels (social imperialism), and Lem through an invasive medical procedure (betrization). These dramatic differences demonstrate the various possibilities in three futures that adhere to a single philosophy.

Although Roddenberry is the only one of the three who explicitly seeks a harmonious society, humanity’s primal nature and its reliance on technology raise the question of whether it can ever achieve a stabile society. Liberal humanism embraces empirical reasoning as a necessity in advancing our understanding of the universe, but that reasoning process is in and of itself reductive and destructive. At the heart of our advancement are the seeds of our possible destruction.


Michael Miles is a former technology consultant with an MA in History who is currently focused on the study of American identity in the late 20th century.