This weekend’s opening of Star Trek: Beyond and last week’s nomination of Donald Trump to the presidency puts an interesting spin on the utopia versus dystopia debate in the speculative fiction universe, at least for this writer. Star Trek and Trump appear unrelated, but they represent threads of American thinking about the future. Do we believe things are getting better or getting worse?
Technically, the words “utopia” and “dystopia” refer to an environment of governance, one positive, the other negative. A better pair of words for understanding the choice are “optimism” and “pessimism.” The original Star Trek series represents the former. After watching Kirk and Spock save the universe, nerds like myself wanted to go on a mission to discover new worlds or make the cool things we saw. The show was a product of its time (Vietnam, civil rights, the Cold War, the War on Poverty), but its premise came out of a core American value: That life could be better, delivered by amazing technology in a society that rejected poverty, racism, and armed conflict once and for all. The show expressed a core tenet of America’s genius: a profound, pervasive optimism.
In his acceptance speech, Trump presented a dark vision of the future matched only by a fire and brimstone preacher. His message: You will perish under the weight of the country’s problems—illegal immigration chief among them—if you do not turn away from your path to destruction. Our problems, he says, are unfixable, except with draconian measures, such as a wall. Otherwise, life will get worse, and ultimately the country, and the world, will fall into an abyss. This expresses a lost faith in the future, a bleak pessimism.
Until now, optimism has won the day through the whole of American history. A belief in the power to build a better future drove European and Asian immigrants (legal and illegal) to America, led farmers and shopkeepers to emigrate west from the original 13 colonies, and inspires today’s scientists and explorers to visit outer space. But a substantial share of the country has given up on this dream, and it wants to retrench, to close and bar the door, to pull the shades and turn off the lights, and arm itself against what’s coming. If it wins the day, we’re one step closer to dystopia. We will have created what we fear the most.