"Far Beyond the Stars" and Visionary Fiction
Far Beyond the Stars is a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode about racial oppression and speculative fiction. It illustrates how visionary fiction which imagines settings and situations beyond the kyriarchy snatches hope from the jaws of despair and illuminates paths and means to the end of scarcity.
Speculative fiction includes fantasy and science fiction, but in particular refers to narratives rooted in hypothetical histories; stories about what will happen, or might have happened. Star Trek is a work of speculative fiction. Visionary fiction is a type of speculative fiction characterized as a "literary form that illustrates and demonstrates the process of growth in human consciousness". Much visionary fiction directly confronts the machinery of oppression by evoking situations where people and communities have developed systems beyond it, or where it never came to be at all.
The act of imagining possibilities like these is sacred and incredible. When you feel beset by a cruel eternity, it is a vital act of defiance. Distilling these imaginings into works of art allows us to pool our sense of what is possible, and to imagine even greater futures. Together we find the nature of a brighter day.
In the episode, Captain Sisko experiences visions where he inhabits the life of Benny Russell, a Black author of science fiction in the United States circa the 1950s. He works for a magazine that doesn't want its readers knowing they have a Black man on their writing staff. When the magazine's illustrator distributes images to use as story prompts, Benny notices one that depicts the station Deep Space Nine. Just as Sisko has come to inhabit Benny, Benny experiences visions of Sisko's life; each intrudes upon the other, becoming entangled and often indistinguishable.
Benny writes a story called "Deep Space Nine" about Sisko and the station. The staff find it gripping, even stunning, but the magazine's editor resists the idea of publishing a story with a Black protagonist. They decide that editing the story so that it concludes by explaining that it had been a dream would sufficiently bowdlerize the work for its intended audience, but even so the magazine's publisher decides to pulp that month's entire run to avoid publishing the story. The editor carries out the publisher's will that Benny be fired.
He cries out:
"You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea! Don't you understand, that's ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea! That future, I created it, and it's real! Don't you understand? It is REAL! I created it and IT'S REAL!"
He collapses, and is brought to an ambulance. Inside, he finds a preacher that he has known sitting beside him. Plagued by his visions, Benny asks, "Who am I?" The preacher replies:
"You're the dreamer, and the dream."
Sisko wakes up in the station's infirmary. Only a few minutes have passed since he lost consciousness, but he has spent weeks in Benny's life. Later, speaking privately with his father, Sisko wonders whether his world is "real" or just a work of Benny Russell's imagination.
The idea that his life might be a work of fiction fills Sisko with existential dread. We in the audience know that Sisko is indeed a work of fiction, and for that matter so is Benny. But Benny lives in a time closer to ours than Sisko. White supremacy shapes Benny's life but for Sisko it is distant history, like money and baseball. Benny's story is rejected for the same reason the editor John W. Campbell gave for his rejection of Samuel R. Delany's novel Nova. The police kill Benny's friend and then beat him for interfering. Benny's editor spews fascist drivel still heard today about the "believability" of marginalized people in positions of power, about "the way things are", about the inevitability and the immortality of the kyriarchy's suffocating omnipresence.
Benny composes a story of a future where those things are history. He articulates a society beyond scarcity of virtually all kinds. Even during war, there is no poverty. Capitalism remains only as the religion of an alien civilization. By the time Benny conceives of it, the universe of Star Trek is a setting alive with nuance and pretext, inhabited by people of numerous species striving, aspiring, and struggling amid a fluid political landscape. The inspiration that Benny takes from the setting mirrors how it has impacted fans for decades. Articulating worlds beyond the kyriarchy illuminates paths and distances, galaxies of reflections and possibilities. It spites despair and shouts defiance.
Even so, the works of Star Trek exist in a publishing context similar to Benny's: works can only exist if they can be sold, and the people who can afford to buy are predominantly wealthy white men. Content is edited and censored to minimize risk to sponsors and advertisers, and topics are frequently divorced from a human context to make them less "divisive". As Benny's editor says of his colleague Albert:
Albert's got the right idea. He's not interested in Negroes or whites. He writes about robots.
The pretense of political neutrality that the editor impresses upon robots distinguishes fiction that imagines beyond the machinery of oppression from fiction that simply ignores it. Albert has no trouble getting published. The magazine's white stakeholders are not offended by his stories, but they feel actively threatened by Benny's. His dreams are an affront. In ignoring the kyriarchy, Albert affirms its power, and is rewarded.
Star Trek walks this line by using alien contexts to depersonalize issues, and so variously challenges and affirms oppressive norms. Space war is usually race war. Starfleet maintains a carceral state. Except through allegory, queer people do not exist. Certain classes of people are illegal. It's not hard to find ST:TNG episodes preaching a facile centrism, co-opting post-scarcity to affirm faith in oppressive institutions.
When Benny agrees to change the conclusion of his story to make it a dream, he compromises as so many artists have in order to bring their work to a broader audience. It is important to Benny not merely that the setting exist in his mind, but that as many people as possible know such settings are accessible to them. They can dream too, and oh the things they can dream!
When the preacher says, "You're the dreamer, and the dream," I hear a remark about the relationship between art and artists. Benny has borne the end of oppression in his mind and articulated it in detail; it lives in him, through him, because of him. In holding it close, he brings that world closer. In sharing it, he has made possible even greater worlds. With ferocity and determination, we manifest our dreams every way we can. Together we dream the future into existence.
It's easy to imagine, "What if things only get worse?" Dystopias that depict hopeless futures are a dime a dozen. Even as their heroes resist, the pretext presumes oppression won, and if it ever stops winning, it only does so as the story ends. It is critical that we imagine better days.
Among televised works of science fiction, Star Trek is uniquely positive in its outlook: despite a nuclear holocaust, humanity overcomes the kyriarchy not through particular technologies or circumstances but by confronting that the alternative is annihilation. The replicator doesn't end scarcity. Warp doesn't end racism. Fusion engines don't put down capitalism. They alter the logistics of the distribution of plenty but even now, without any of those technologies, scarcity is already a myth. Grocers throw away what they can't sell but lock their bins to keep out the hungry. Homes lay empty to preserve prices while people freeze to death in the streets. More empty homes than all the people in need of them. More food than we could ever eat. Poverty is constructed and inflicted. Nobody needs to hurt. Nobody needs to starve or freeze or die. At the heart of Star Trek's historiology is the assertion that we can be better to each other than this. So much of the work that composes it comes from an effort to describe how.
Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is science fiction.
"Visionary fiction" is a term we developed to distinguish science fiction that has relevance toward building newer, freer worlds from the mainstream strain of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power.
Benny's story Deep Space Nine is visionary fiction, giving him a faith that, "Things are going to change. They have to." He has seen it. And for his having seen it, it becomes clearer to me.
We believe in the right [Octavia] Butler claimed for each of us -- the right to dream as ourselves, individually and collectively. But we also think it is a responsibility she handed down: are we brave enough to imagine beyond the boundaries of "the real" and then do the hard work of sculpting reality from our dreams?
By placing ourselves into imaginative futures, we spite the institutions that dream we will never see the day, and affirm to one another our inherent worth. It creates space to imagine how we can treat each other outside the pressure of oppression, and how we can disarm its artifacts.
In particular I want to bring attention to one story from this collection: "Hollow" by Mia Mingus, about a prison called "Southing" on an isolated, inhospitable world where an authoritarian Earth sends "UnPerfects", individuals that do not meet a particular eugenic standard. Decades before the story, the prisoners seized Southing and killed the guards. Among the things they did after that, they remodelled the station to accomodate people's varying abilities:
They built new adaptations for their chairs, lifts, canes, crutches, braces, and their UnPerfect bodies, without thought to what was allowed or having to rely on the Perfects to do so. They experimented with their wildest dreams and ideas, making pulleys and slides and inventing new tools. No one could imagine leaving.
The story confronts the construction of disability, and describes what we can do for each other to deconstruct it. Ableism looms over the prison as its original keepers send word that they are returning in force. After the inhabitants are forced to flee, one of their leaders writes to the survivors:
Our history is all we have and the Perfects will work to erase it. Southing was never meant to be, and it must live on, it must never be forgotten. We will return here one day.
"Hollow" and other stories in the collection tend to depict post-disaster settings that shake out a new order of things, but that order still reflects contemporary themes of oppression and resistance. In that way, these worlds are not so distant. The moments they create for living without fear, beyond ableism and racism and homophobia and class, are not so far either. They begin to describe how we can invalidate the kyriarchy for each other moment by moment, interaction by interaction. Visionary fiction flips the script on our oppressors and imagines the day when they are already dead, when it falls to us to defend a world beyond scarcity against the same threats that bore scarcity into being.
(Note: the story "Aftermath" from this collection is by LeVar Burton. I highly recommend it!)
When Benny's editor tells him, "I wish things were different, but they're not," he replies:
Wishing never changed a damn thing.
It's one thing to wish for better days. It's another to dream of them. As Imarisha tells us, we must "do the hard work of sculpting reality from our dreams." Benny's story Deep Space Nine sculpts a dream as a reflection of reality, from the unwavering knowledge that oppression cannot destroy a person's inherent worth. Centuries of institutional racism could not keep Ben Sisko from the captain's chair, nor could decades of Cardassian rule snuff Kira's commitment to Bajoran liberation. When we tell visionary stories, we affirm in ourselves the strength to go on, to find our way out of the darkness, and to cast out the oppressor for all time.