December 19, 2004
The Discreet Charm of the Borg
See below for some trivial context.
Anyone want to hear my little theory of why Berman and Braga replaced the Ferengi with the Borg? Well, you're gonna hear it anyway.
First up I'll admit to accepting his claim that leering pint-sized interplanetary "Yankee traders" simply aren't scary. The Borg really are disturbing; what with the zombie plague references mixed in with that whole absolutely-will-not-stop mojo. So we only really need subtext for amusement's sake.
The usual subtextural theory is that while the Ferengi represent an extreme caricature of capitalism the borg are the ne plus ultra of socialist systems, and a corporate media product like ST:TNG would be much more likely to make villains of the latter and likeable rogues of the former. Amusing enough, but rather obvious and shallow...
Here's mine: Star Trek, like most space opera, is a prime example of the trend in SF described by the label "humanist". Although the characters live in a world where Faster Than Light travel, the electromagnetic transmission of matter, the creation of matter from energy at the touch of a button, are all possible, they are people just like us, largely unchanged by the technology around them. The few cybernetic implants around are medical protheses and those who have them do not regard themselves as enhanced by them - in an early episode (the one where everyone is intoxicated by some alien spore... thingy) Jordy bemoans the fact that he can't see "normally" like other people, even though his visor can detect a wider spectrum of light than average eyes.
The classic example of this belief in both the stability and superiority of natural humanity is Data. Despite his immense intellect, he makes naive errors about the simplest features of human social interactions, needs special hardware to feel emotions and yearns constantly to be a Real Live Boy. Is human personality really that hard to emulate? It's an open question but you'd think Data would be up to it. In the episode where he gets romantically involved with another crew member ("I've written a program just for you.") Spiner has a throwaway line on what he's thinking about. He reels off a long list of the various calculations and thoughts that are simultaneously occupying his positronic brain and it struck me that every time you talk to this guy, you're getting about 5% of his attention while the rest of the brain is thinking about other stuff. Data thinks like that all the time. And yet this was the closest the series ever got to exploring what having a mind like that would be like. Otherwise the usual theme was: no person would really want to be just an android, not even Data.
So - Star Trek is the epitomy of humanist SF: people like us in the future with way cooler toys. Enter the Borg. This society recognises no distinction between the machine and the flesh. It has no interest in culture except as a collection of usable technologies, and the technologies define who the Borg are as much as vice versa. The Borg are all cyphers - they have no human characters (or character development.) And they look like urban goths, with their figure hugging leathers, pale skins and subderma implants. Even the interior of a Borg cube looks like some chaotic neonlit multilevel streetscape.
You know where I'm going with this - the Borg represent everything humanist SF hates about cyberpunk. Stung by the spineless vacuity of their star-trekking SoCal commune, TNG's creators lashed out at what the best in SF were doing away from the Hollywood spotlight and took their revenge in encapsulating every caricaturing whine about Neuromancer and other works in the canon by taking the idea of a society changed in body and mind by the technology it uses into the ugliest, scariest, most unpleasant Bad Guys around. That'll show those hacker punks who laugh that the crew of the Enterprize still use keyboards.
I exaggerate for comic effect - but, ... it bears thinking about...
Note about the above - I originally posted this as a test while in the process of fixing the template and then discovered that people were actually reading it (Memo to self: next time try gibberish). I had to delete the whole thing to remove some test comments (don't get me started about Blogger's in-built comments facility) but it seemed churlish not to restore it, even if it was some recycled flotsam I originally wrote at 3 in the morning and posted on the William Gibson discussion board as a joke. (To be precise: here.) Or perhaps I just like the new title and can't think of another context in which I could make that awful pun.
While the suggestion that the creators of ST:TNG devised the Borg as a deliberate caricature of cyberpunk is mere whimsy, it is true that the common depiction of cybernetic organisms - and, for that matter, artificial intelligence - as a repugnant threat to normal humanity demonstrates an uneasiness with the possibility of a post-human future that sits awkwardly with SF's supposed commitment to open-minded futurism. That point, however, is hardly new so I won't belabour it here.