08 March 2009

Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek, Humanism, and Me

Thinking about my enjoyment of Star Trek and my humanism is a bit of a "chicken and egg" scenario. While I cannot tell you which came first, I can tell you that the two are inextricably connected. I was a misfit as a child, left alone when I was not being harassed by the class bullies. Looking back on those experiences now, I realize how instrumental they were in forging my character: my contempt for abuses of authority, my intense craving for justice, my emotional self-control, and especially my yearning for tolerance and kindness in human affairs. Whenever I was able to watch Star Trek, I could see the kind of world I wanted myself and others to live in: a world where people got along, where they treated one another with respect and tolerance, even if they didn't always agreed. The Starfleet officers in the various shows were always striving forward to improve themselves. In high school, I happened upon an interview with Gene Roddenberry where he spoke of his childhood and I realize that we had similar stories, and that made Star Trek all the more appealing to me. Roddenberry was a humanist, and there is little doubt that his humanism shaped at least the first two shows. Those childhood lessons grew into humanism for me, and now I appreciate Star Trek even more than I used to. Just last night I listened to Inside Star Trek, which contains the interview in which Gene talked about his childhood and the making of Star Trek. Because of my relationship to his ideas and his legacy, I transcribed part of the interview and share it here. Please note that I attempted to convey the pattern in which Roddenberry spoke, hence why some sentences trail off in thought and why there are sentence fragments.

I can talk about things now that would have embarrassed me once. And maybe my story could be helpful to you if you're somehow different from other people, or handicapped. Most of us are, in one way or another. I guess Star Trek had its first beginnings in the fact that as a child, I was different. Handicapped. I had difficulty breathing, eyes that didn't work well in bright sunlight... spindly-legged, weak, uncoordinated. I wasn't a very pretty thing, and I suffered the awful embarrassments that only a child can feel. I don't suppose every writer has to start like that, but -- if I had been the things that I dreamed of being, agile, athletic, admired and popular, I know now that I never would have ended up with as happy a life . I became a reader. Thank God, I became a reader. I lived in a dream world because...it was a helluva lot better world. I was Dr. Doolittle, I was Zane Grey's* Lonely Cowboy...an explorer. Most of it trash, I was an Indian fighter, a fearless soldier...a fighter ace. If you read Peanuts, I was Snoopy. I fought the Red Baron many times.

Certainly, part of Star Trek was written by that boy...dreaming maybe as you do of a better world, in which people would look past our exteriors and see whatever loveliness we had inside us. I remember being about 8 years old in the backyard, sitting in the soap carton, pretending it was a great vessel of some kind -- and the bold, strong person hidden inside of me, he was the captain. I remember that it was an enclosed vessel, because I had a second soap carton pulled down over my head. After sitting there for several hours, still encased in soap cartons, I heard the concerned voices of my parents speculating whether my illness had led to brain damage. Ah, how lovely all our daughters are inside. How fearless, all our sons -- if only we could see it. I remember helping my father clean the garage. Actually, he was cleaning. I was facing the firing squad. The bullets caught me, spun me to the ground, and as I lay there bravely dying, I looked up to see my father watching me with pity on his face, assuming I was suffering some new kind of seizure.

Years later, something brought me back to reality: science fiction. Yes, incredible. Science fiction taught me to live in the real world. Thank you, Homer, my ex-convict friend. Thank you for John Carter of Mars. It made your cage more bearable, and it helped rescue me from mine. And thank you, Claude, for that first copy of Astounding Stories magazine. Sorry you didn't reach sixteen, and grow out of your illness as I did. I was lucky -- a miracle of adolescence. My body mended, I actually became stronger than average -- but science fiction saved me from that, too, saved me from the perils of a strong body.

I'd learned by then that reality is incredibly larger, infinitely more exciting than the flesh and blood vehicle that we travel in here. If you read science fiction, the more you read it, the more you realize that you and the universe are part of the same thing. Science still knows practically nothing† about the real nature of matter, energy, dimension, or time -- and even less about those remarkable things called life and thought. But whatever the meaning and purpose of this universe, you are a legitimate part of it. And since you are part of the all-that-is, part of its purpose, there is more to you than just this brief speck of existence. You are just a visitor here in this time and this place -- a traveler through it. What a difference that makes! As a traveler here, it no longer crushes you that this world is not always fair, or orderly, or understandable. Your passport allows you to fix what you can, to love, to refuse to take part in ugliness -- but meanwhile you are delighted that this is such a varied, colorful, exciting place. As a traveler, you're not here to judge, but to experience. You begin to feel a new affection for the life-forms here. You no longer feel threatened that some may be greater, or lesser, than you. It's only important that you've been given this marvelous opportunity to enjoy this trip -- to learn from it, and in my case, to write about it.

Perhaps you know where I'm leading. On a trip like this -- and it is a trip -- its loveliness is not in the sameness of people and things, but in their incredible variety... Eventually this led me to the Star Trek statement IDIC: Infinite Diversity from Infinite Combinations. Thank whatever created us, we are different. Each of us, and everything around us. To the end of time, if it ever does end, no combination will ever come up quite the same. That's quite a travel package. All of this is how Star Trek began, and it's also something of what it is about. I am an alien -- and so are you. And yet, and this is the loveliest thing of all, we are also part of each other and part of everything that is. I don't know if this has a moral or not, unless it's "don't sit inside soap cartons too long -- unless you enjoy traveling."


* I was unable to make out the name Roddenberry said and tried to get as close as I could. I have been unable to find a character or comic strip with the label of "Lonely Cowboy". I would appreciate it if anyone reading is familiar with that label and can tell me the author responsible for it.

** I attempted to type the name as Roddenberry pronounced it. That may be his pronunciation of "Claude".

† This interview was produced in the late seventies or early eighties, judging by the fact that the interviewees kept referring to the product as a "record" and there is no mention at all of the movies or The Next Generation. As such, Roddenberry may have been unaware of advances in physics in the past few decades.


iwant2believexf said...

Hey, it's Odo Ital. I was just searching "Gene Roddenberry Humanism" and this came up- thanks so much for making this post. I laughed when I saw it was you that made it. I really identify with a lot of what he said and am feeling a bit less crazy for my love of science fiction now!

smellincoffee said...

From Ex-Pentecostals? Hiya!

I heard this on an mp3 years ago and loved it -- it's one the reasons I bought the disc it came from, originally. Glad you enjoyed it. I try to keep Roddenberry's gentle idealism close to heart.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is from a vinyl recording from 1976, "Inside Star Trek," reissued on CD. Your footnotes: I believe Roddenberry is referring to Zane Grey's lonely cowboy, a recurring character type, not a specific title. Also, most Americans do pronounce "Claude" as "Clod," so that's most likely the name. Thanks for posting this, I was going to transcribe it myself!

smellincoffee said...

Hello there! Thank for the clarification on Zane Grey. It was my pleasure to transcribe this -- the meaning was and remains so intense that I didn't mind listening to it over and over.