The Big Idea: Una McCormack

On the occasion of The Last Best Hope, the first novel associated with the Star Trek: Picard television series, author Una McCormack muses on Star Trek, the future it imagines, the present we live in today… and how it all comes together.

UNA McCORMACK:

At the end of last year, I visited CERN. Yes, that CERN, of the massive magnets and the Higgs-Boson. I was one of a party that included a bishop and at least one other writer of speculative fiction. We were our own murder mystery in the making. It was a great day, talking to smart people about their visionary work, but the highlight was taking the lift down to see the Complex Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment – one of the two vast particle physics detectors built on the Large Hadron Collider.  We went down, down, underground, and came out to see an incredible monument to human ambition, talent, organisation. The bishop and I looked out across this work and shared the sense of awe and wonder we were both experiencing.

Afterwards, I spent the day in Geneva. I visited the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. On the way home, I was able to travel on my British/EU passport for one of the very last times. I kept thinking about what human beings can achieve when we collaborate on a large scale. Vast secular cathedrals that bring us closer to understanding the fundamentals of our universe. Humanitarian organisations that bring relief and bear witness. International treaties and agreements that, for all the bureaucracy, have contributed to maintaining peace in Europe for the best part of a century. I thought about how much I’d taken these things for granted across my life, and how fragile these institutions all suddenly seemed.

Such things were much on my mind when I sat down to watch the first episode of Star Trek: Picard. In this, I think, we are following the narrative of a man whose story stands at the intersection of great individual talent and wider, social need. A man whose personal qualities – wisdom, compassion, a humanitarian outlook – once formed the backbone of the organisation he served. But now we find him at a time of his life when the values he holds have become no longer congruent with the organisation to which he has been dedicated.

For those of us of a certain vintage, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) offered not only a positive vision of humanity’s future, but one predicated upon collaboration, in which species looked beyond ties of blood and nationhood to find common ground with all forms of life. At the heart of this project was the figure of Captain Jean-Luc Picard: explorer, diplomat, scholar, humanist, a man whose chief drivers are curiosity and compassion.

Of course, TNG had its flaws. But in its best episodes, such as ‘The Measure of a Man’, in which the civic rights of the android, Data, are debated, TNG dealt thoughtfully, and committedly, with questions of selfhood, and our obligations to each other. In ‘Darmok’, Picard learns to communicate with an alien species who speak through metaphor, showing the joy of immersion in another culture, and the thrill of meaningful contact with the other. In ‘The Inner Light’, Picard lives an entire different life, as a member of a species long extinct, coming back to his own time to bear witness to the fact that they existed – that they lived and loved, and hoped to be remembered.

In Star Trek: Picard, we are presented with a future where the powers that be are no longer committed to these great ambitions. Starfleet, it seems, withdrew from the great challenge of its age, the humanitarian project to save the Romulan people from the effects of their sun going supernova, making a distinction between ‘lives’ and ‘Romulan lives’. We see a man whose values are no longer shared by the institutions to which he devoted his whole life, and who is struggling with this misalignment.

My British nationality no longer gives me access to my European rights. By a quirk of history, I am able to claim these rights through Irish grandparents. So can my daughter – but my partner cannot. These great endeavours – these great projects of human collaboration and organisation – sometimes we seem to be retrenching. We seem these days to prefer to emphasize what disunites us rather than what might connect us. Science fiction reflects our times back to us – but can also remind us that the future is not yet fixed. And that once upon a time, we dared to dream of futures which were not constructed upon exclusion and exploitation, but which reached outwards in the hope of collaboration, diversity, and mutual aid. Perhaps one day we will learn this trick again.

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Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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9 Comments on “The Big Idea: Una McCormack”

  1. I will be buying this book. Promises may well be prisons, as the Qowat Milat would argue, but I will take that risk here.

    In Canada, at the moment, we are dealing with the consequences of past efforts to prevent and villify inclusiveness. Some of those consequences are playing out via the blockades carried out by our Indigenous relations in protest against the violations of Wet’suwet’en sovereignty meant to serve the construction of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. This is happening at a time when we are trying – some of us more fervently than others, whether in government, industry, or among individuals – to achieve Reconciliation and Restitution for what’s been done to our Indigenous neighbours up to now. Some of us are also worried about the consequences for Canada’s future in the face of the new fascist international coalition that’s been slowly building up (including the Trump and Brexit fronts).

    I, too, still see value in the principles that Picard’s trying to stand for once more in his new televised and video-streamed adventures. And his published adventures, as well…

  2. Perhaps bigness frightens people, or they can’t get their heart around it.

    Here in Canada, “native” went from meaning all indigenous to meaning only Indians, separated out in the department of native and northern affairs. The term “First Nation” also drifted to mean Indian, at the expense of Eskimo. I wonder whether the term “indigenous” will drift. (Even if it doesn’t, I’m sure that in their own kitchens folks call themselves “Indians”)

    Meanwhile for a few decades the Canadian “armed forces” all wore green, with the army being the “land element” under “mobile command.” It wasn’t sustainable. At last, the maritime and air elements went back to their shades of blue, and even the army did not remain green, going to khaki on parade. (Their combat camouflage is now pixilated)

    Someone told me that while most of Britain defines itself against the EU, the outlying parts define themselves against England. Perhaps people can’t get their arms around anything too big. Myself, I make the effort to say “British” as would a companion of Doctor Who.

  3. It seems to my eyes as if Euroskepticism as promoted by Farage, Banks, Johnson et al. is more an English than a British political fashion.

    Still…the Picard story as begun here…is definitely reflective of our times.

  4. I’m an academic based in Ontario and the way we teach it is that ‘Indigenous’ encompasses our First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. Beyond doing my best to listen to and respect what these groups themselves prefer (nothing I’ve read suggests any love for the old colonial-imposed misnomers from the residential-school era, perhaps understandably), I don’t really care about the labels. The idea of our Indigenous population as homogeneous is itself a colonial construction.

  5. I’d like just a bit more on the book – does it follow the new TV show, retell it, or go in different directions? Otherwise, good article! Thanks.

  6. I love what was said here, “For those of us of a certain vintage, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) offered not only a positive vision of humanity’s future, but one predicated upon collaboration, in which species looked beyond ties of blood and nationhood to find common ground with all forms of life.” It’s the main reason I love Star Trek TNG so much… And Jean-Luc Picard. Definitely reading and watching Picard.

  7. I’ve been wondering when the art reacting to the FascIntern era would arrive, and this is a clear example. I’ll have check out ‘Picard’ on TV.

  8. Great post!
    One of the lines that’s always stuck with me from TNG, in terms of it’s applicability to some of the worst that people can do, is the confession, “I killed all Hushnak, everywhere.”

  9. Part of the reason the Brits don’t say “we Europeans,” besides historically saying “the continent,” is that they tend to see the EU as a “trade agreement” rather than a “peace agreement” because, unlike the continent, they have not known enemy boots on the ground.

    I guess that’s fair, since seldom do Canadians say “we North Americans.” (Yes, I know there’s not much difference, but I would never tell them that) I thought of such things because this weekend in Britain there was a TV showing of the movie “X-men Days of Future Past” the one where Logan goes to 1973 The same year Sam Tyler goes to (also shown this weekend) in Life on Mars—highly recommended, far better than the lame U.S. remake.

    In X-men the “villain’s” is idealistic and excited to unite humanity at last, by having mutants as a common enemy.