Monday, March 8, 2010

Heroes and Death, Post-Einstein

Thanks to Cablevision's recent PR war with WABC New York, I got to watch free on demand movies yesterday on Cablevision, and took a break from my routine to watch the latest installment of the Star Trek movies. "The Future Begins."

Time travel is central to the film. A hackneyed idea at this point, for sure. And the film features all the usual chronological confusion as a result. (A palatable parataxis for the sake of the story.)

Something about time travel in this film, however, in combination with another classic Star Trek idea, left me intrigued. The other idea is that of the unbeatable Kobayashi Maru test, which Kirk legendarily hacked at the academy.

The film features a conflict between Kirk and Spock, the designer of the test, over Kirk's cheating. Spock accepts death logically, and the test is meant to show all cadets what that experience is like. (Which is questionable given that everyone knows it's a simulation.)

However, the important point is that Kirk refuses as a matter of principle to ever accept defeat. To the point of "cheating death."

This got me thinking about science fiction heroes post-Einstein.

In the ancient Gilgamesh Epic, Gilgamesh also refuses to accept death. He goes on a quest to find the secret to eternal life, only to be told by Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian version of Noah, that he can never achieve it. Later, shown the secret by the ferryman of the dead, Gilgamesh watches it slip through his hands; stolen by a snake. Presumably, the story reflects the wisdom of accepting death.

Kirk, as a hero and representative of the values of our culture, uses every trick available to him to cheat death. Which includes exploiting the power and paradoxes of relativistic physics.

Ironically, he is aided by an older and wiser version of Spock, himself a time traveler, who has somewhat "lightened up," from his old self. Spock has multiplied himself in fact, to live two lives, via time travel. Logically, it would seem, he could do that again. Which made me wonder if a science fiction story exists using multiple (more than two) versions of people created via time travel.

Maybe I am reading too much into the story. But it interesting to think about the evolution of the hero story in our time; an age in which mastery and possession of nature seems so much within our grasp.

This is not Indiana Jones, for example, who faces and accepts the dominance of forces beyond his comprehension. This hero, Kirk, aided by men of science Spock, McCoy and Scott (a brilliant relativistic physicist) takes heroism in a completely new direction. Still cleverly solving problems, like so many other heroes. But also, exploiting the most basic mysteries of the universe to escape mortality.

This movie series has already "cheated" its own death by introducing this plot. As I looked at Captain Christopher Pike in his wheelchair at the end of the film, not as hideously deformed as he was in the television series, I recalled the dialogue of the film that an alternative future had been created for all the characters.

Personally, I would look forward to more of these films, with these characters, taking old plots in new directions, or creating new plots.

But the more significant question for me is, what will a generation of heroes that looks like this young Kirk say about our expectations as a culture? This is not the wise, ironic Kirk of the television series or the earlier films. This is a young man of science, full of good intentions and a sense of justice, but also hubris against the most basic forces of the universe. Will more myths and heroes of this type follow? And what will the culture be like that favors these stories?

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