Two Views of Humanity's Future

Late last night, I watched a movie on cable that I hadn't seen in a while - Starship Troopers. Those that know me well know that I'm a sci-fi buff and love movies with space ships, interstellar travel, laser beams and whatnot. I hadn't seen Starship Troopers since it first came out on the big screen, as an adaptation of a book by Robert Heinlein. And it's a bit freaky to see it in a post-9/11, War on Terror world. I think that's because we see things in the movie that show a very different future world than what we might like to see, not just in terms of having a bunch of scary aliens around that want to wipe us out, but in terms of how humanity might respond to a threat to its existence.

In Starship Troopers, we see a future Earth that has embraced many of the tenets of fascism, including two separate classes of people - "citizens" and "civilians" who enjoy different rights and privileges, aptitude tests that essentially determine utility for everybody and determine one's place in the social heirarchy, the idea that certain people are good for only certain things, and the abandonment of many "common good" social principles in the name of survival of the species. It's a scary thing to see, because for me at least, I could see humanity going down that path, especially in response to a threat to its very existence. We're reminded several times during the movie of the reinforcing mechanisms that hold many of these fascist principles intact:

  • There are several times during the movie where people attempt to come to terms with the rigid class structure implemented by the humans. The main character, John Rico, frequently runs into situations where he develops deeper understanding of the notion that his mobile infantry is often nothing but cannon fodder. This includes a scene where he meets up with a friend from his pre-military days who, due to his aptitude, went into military intelligence. This friend sent platoons of soldiers on a mission in which he knew hundreds of thousands of troopers would be slaughtered, but justified his decision by indicating it was something that needed to be done from a strategic standpoint, and saying "I'm in this for the species."
  • Rico has a confrontation with his parents, who don't want him to join the military. During this confrontation, Rico's mother asks him whether citizenship is as important to him as he makes it out to be. "Citizenship" for many is contingent upon military service.
  • There's a running theme in which several characters make the assertion that infantrymen are only good for dying. During the course of the movie, Rico has to come to terms with his status as an infantryman and by the end of the movie, he seems to have accepted his role in life, even if that means enjoying less freedom than others or having to shoulder more of the burden.

The movie also showcases many of the elements that have traditionally supported many real-world fascist political structures in the past, including a propaganda machine, the continual reminder that the political system is necessary to survival, the notion that people should follow the orders of their superiors without question or moral reflection, etc.

It's an especially scary movie to see while the real-world America carries out its War on Terror, because the movie not only showcases fascism, but also humanity's embracing of fascist principles and the justifications behind them. The best works of science fiction show a future vision of humanity that comes across as realistic, and with Starship Troopers, one could easily envision humanity evolving politically and socially along fascist lines out of necessity - and it's quite scary to see that in one's own species.

Contrast that to the comparatively rosy future in the Star Trek universe, where humans have conquered poverty, war among themselves, many diseases and the vast majority of social problems encountered by humanity. Humans have found ways to peacefully exist with their neighbors, by and large, and are the driving force behind two political structures (the United Federation of Planet and Starfleet) that hold equality, self-determination and peaceful co-existence as core principles.

If Starship Troopers shows an evolution toward fascism, then Star Trek shows a human race that has embraced many of the principles of the progressive movement. When I'm done watching a Star Trek movie or TV episode, I often think "Wouldn't it be great if humans could get to that point in their evolution?" When watching Starship Troopers, I think "Wow. Humans have given up on many of the things that make them human, out of pure survival instinct. I sure hope things don't turn out like that..."