The Final Frontier: International Relations and Politics Through Star Trek and Star Wars. Joel R. Campbell and Gigi Gokcek. Lexington Books, 2019.
In this book, political scientists Joel R. Campbell and Gigi Gokcek have written an introduction to International Relations (IR) theory, creatively using the fictional worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars to illuminate and to provide engaging illustrations of disciplinary approaches. This approach has the potential to draw in undergraduate students who are familiar with one or both of these fictional universes and to inspire them to take an interest in the theoretical frameworks of IR.
Campbell and Gokcek argue that science fiction (and especially the “space fiction” that they focus on in the book) is well-suited as a vehicle both to inspire dreams of the future and to introduce students to IR. As a genre, science fiction deals with change, it focuses on ideas, it raises new possibilities, and it focuses on the future. (p. 2) In Chapter 1, the authors place Star Trek and Star Wars in the context of the history of science fiction literature and film, which they see as having affinities with the philosophical technique of the thought experiment. As the novel Frankenstein dramatized the dangers of technology and the film Metropolis portrayed a society with deep class divisions, Star Trek pursued a liberal vision of the future and delved into stories that paralleled the Vietnam War, racism, and other contemporary issues, and Star Wars explored the challenges of authoritarian vs. republican government.
Chapter 2 presents an overview of the major theories in IR: realism, neorealism, liberalism, neoliberalism, and democratic peace theory. In addition to explaining these approaches, the authors provide an overview of Marxism as well as several “constitutive” approaches: constructivism, environmentalism, and feminism. They encourage students to think of each of these approaches as a lens that illuminates certain aspects of real-life situations. The authors’ explanations of these approaches are written in a clear and engaging style and they highlight major themes in a way that would be accessible to an undergraduate reader.
In Chapter 3, the authors illustrate the way the early Star Trek series and films portrayed an optimistic, liberal vision of the future: a world in which human beings had overcome sexism, racism, poverty, and war and had joined with other interplanetary species to form an alliance (the United Federation of Planets) guided by principles of cooperation, respect, and non-interference with developing life forms. The “Prime Directive” encapsulated the Federation’s commitment to these values. The chapter focuses on the way key episodes of the television series and films dramatize liberal theory, including “Devil in the Dark,” in which enemies are brought to mutual understanding, and “The Corbomite Maneuver,” in which a purported alien enemy is revealed to be a childlike creature eager for peaceful relations. The motion pictures explore similar themes, such as peace-building and the development of mutual respect among species. The authors argue that Star Trek: The Next Generation continues to center liberal values, as in Captain Picard’s defense of humanity against the alien Q in “Encounter at Farpoint,” and the achievement of mutual understanding with an alien species in “Darmok.” “The Wounded” puts Picard in the situation of having to decide between respecting a peace treaty and arresting Federation officers who were ready to violate it. In liberal fashion, he chooses to support the aims of peace.
Chapter 4 turns to Star Wars, which the authors view as a portrayal of the way a republic is corrupted to become authoritarian. The first trilogy, they argue, was a story of idealistic democratic rebels who overcame a corrupt empire (with key characters such as the Emperor and Darth Vader modeled on historical figures that include Adolf Hitler and Richard Nixon). This trilogy presents an interplay of realist power politics and liberal ideals (upholding human rights, democracy, and limits on government power). The second (prequel) trilogy illustrates the downfall of a fragile democracy at the hands of those who sought to undermine it and gain power for their own aggrandizement. The authors draw interesting parallels to historical and contemporary examples of the rise of authoritarianism. The third trilogy offers a kind of repetition of the first, with new characters taking on the roles of idealistic rebel and authoritarian oppressor, suggesting a cycle between liberal and realist structures of government that continually and temporarily overcome and replace one another.
Chapter 5 returns to the Star Trek universe to argue that alongside its predominant liberal values runs a current of realism mirroring the thought of Hans Morgenthau, especially the idea that ethics must often take second place to power politics. (p. 40). According to this approach, in an anarchic situation (in which there is no overarching authority), each actor must defend its own self-interest. This idea is illustrated by the alternate-universe Captain Kirk’s stratagems of deterrence and compellence against the character Khan Noonien Singh in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Even in the original series, several episodes are written from what the authors characterize as a Cold War focus on the balance of power among enemies. Of all the Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine stands out for its sometimes-murky ethics and its acknowledgement that the drive for power may necessarily overcome one’s moral ideals. The episode “In the Pale Moonlight” presents Captain Sisko as he reflects in his log on a series of moral compromises and transgressions that he undertook (and that he does not regret) in order to gain the upper hand in a war.
Chapter 6 takes up Marxist, feminist, and environmentalist themes throughout the two franchises. The authors argue that economic inequality and injustice are drivers of the political conflicts in Star Wars, while a variety of economic systems co-exist in the Star Trek universe. Chapter 7 makes a foray into a third fictional universe, that of Battlestar Galactica, which the authors see, in its rebooted version, as capturing the political unrest of the Bush era. (p. 178). The book concludes with two “primers,” one to initiate readers into Science Fiction and the other to introduce them to the two central television and film franchises on which the book as a whole has focused.
The book as a whole makes a convincing case that both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises are deeply concerned to explore international politics and that the major theories of IR are central to the dramatic aims of both. The interplay of liberal and realist analyses in both franchises is quite convincingly depicted. Particularly for students who come to a college class in IR with some knowledge of one or both science fiction franchises, this approach could effectively draw them in. Students may experience more freedom to examine political questions, and thus to grasp the basics of a theory, in a fictional situation than they would when examining historical examples for which they either lack background knowledge or have pre-formed opinions. For students who come to a college class without prior knowledge of the Star Trek or Star Wars stories, however, they might be at a double disadvantage, since they would need to learn simultaneously about both the film universes and the theories of international relations. For those who are familiar with the stories, the authors have illuminated both the narratives and the theories in an enlightening and memorable way.