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31 May 1999

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Science friction

What do Star Trek, orientalism and America's fear of Japan have in common? Everything, says Ziauddin Sardar

The Star Trek (ST) enterprise, with all its films and multiple television shows, is a great barometer of American consciousness. For the past 30 years it has been exposing the latent fears and anxieties as well as the visible hopes and aspirations of the American people. And inevitably, whenever the shows begin to sag and the ratings drop, a new villain who taps right into that American state of mind is introduced to reverse the decline. Last year, Voyager, the youngest of ST's progenies, was declared by even the most zealous fans to be dull and ready for an early grave. But the arrival in the last season of the half-Borg character Seven of Nine restored the warp drive. Thanks to Seven, Voyager started its fifth season this month on a triumphant note.

Seven, played by the svelte and curvaceous Jeri Ryan, is clearly every man's dream babe. But when we first meet her, she is a different person, a Borg. Draped with wires, fitted with mechanical arms and eyes, and complete with zombie skin, she is all machine with no individual identity. She is linked to a hive mind that exists as a collective. This drone collective is the most dangerous foe of the Federation. But what or who are the Borg?

A major element in the success of ST siblings - The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DSN) and Voyager - is their representation of aliens in terms of the deep-seated anxieties of Pax Americana. The xenobiology of ST is littered with marauding aliens that have been constructed like a patchwork quilt with the fabrics of orientalism. The main foe in TNG is the warrior race of Klingons, who, with their genetic predisposition to treachery and fatalism, their emphasis on honour at the expense of justice, contain more than a shade of the Saracens of the Crusades. Indeed, to ensure that we transform all the orientalist illusions to contemporary geopolitics, they even fight, in the age of phasers, with scimitars. The Cardassian empire, currently engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Commander Sisko of DSN, contains more than a passing reference to contemporary China. Like the orientalist representations of the Chinese, the Cardassians love family and tradition, revere their elderly and their ancestors, eat anything that moves and have a herd-like instinct. And like today's China, they are determined to seek a dominant position in all matters. The Borg are to Voyager what the Klingons and Cardassians are to TNG and DSN. But there is a major difference that makes the Borg rather special.

The central question that ST shows address is the problem of how we imagine the "undiscovered country" that is the future. This question is explored in an explicit, indeed overstated, framework of double diversity. The shows are not only grounded in multiculturalism, but also work within a number of different and highly specialised disciplines. The latest theories, controversies and ideas from anthropology, sociology, linguistics, psychology, physics, astronomy and electronics can all be found debated and deconstructed in TNG, DSN and Voyager. ST is constantly questioning the modernist underpinnings of western civilisation - the notion of perpetual progress and economic expansion, the truth of reason and science, the self-assurance of morality, authority and identity. All those categories, in fact, that we now know, thanks to a herd of social theorists, to be in crisis.

ST aliens, even with all their orientalist make-up, are never painted in black and white. They are always complex and amenable to change; today's foe may become tomorrow's friends. This framework is further enhanced by the Federation's principles of non-interference, encapsulated in the Prime Directive. Thus the ST crews seldom make moral judgements about other cultures and are always open and willing to learn from new aliens they encounter - a direct reference to contemporary dilemmas about the limits of the political and cultural representation of various others and what it means to be responsible in these postmodern times.

Yet the Borg, who have featured in the most successful ST episodes and films, have escaped this postmodern logic. With the Borg, we are seeing a 1990s reworking of the body-snatching commie-pod-people aliens of cold war science-fiction. A race of totally evil cyber zombies, the Borg cruise in spaceships that resemble big black cubes or dense solid spheres, and look to evolve by absorbing new individual races. What makes them so terrifying is their superior technology and collective will. They have a simple and direct mantra: "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated."

As the distillation, in its purest form, of all the orientalist stereotypes of Japan, the Borg provide us with an early-warning signal of another approaching cold war. The Borg are the American fear of Japan writ large.

Japan occupies a special place in the lore of orientalism. Like the rest of the orient, it has been seen as an exotic culture, the land of karate and the geisha. It has been admired for its aesthetics (exquisite gardens, curious architecture, strange kabuki theatre and funny tea ceremonies) and feared for its "inhuman" martial traditions (samurai, bushido, ninja, kamikaze). In contrast to evil and treacherous Muslims and cowardly and effeminate Hindus, orientalism represented the Japanese, as ST now represents the Borg, as emotionless sub-humans with no humanity, a robot-like people hermetically sealed in their Zen spirituality and communal outlook.

But Japan also differs from much of the orient in two distinct ways. First, it was never colonised. So Japan was able to protect itself from the onslaught of the orientalist scholars. The histories of all oriental civilisations have been written by western scholars in a framework that makes them small tributaries in the great universal river of western history. But Japanese studies, unlike Islamic, Chinese and Indian studies, have been and continue to be very much the preserve of Japanese scholars. Therefore Japan was and is able to control its own history and identity, and the west is unable to shape a modern, westernised Japanese identity. This is the key to understanding western representations of Japan. The representations are based on the fear that the west has no control over Japan's sense of itself. (For example, we have not succeeded in persuading the country to own up to its responsibilities following the second world war.) Japan is thus destined to remain irreducibly different from the west and impenetrable to the total embrace of western humanism.

Secondly, Japan was able to adopt, appropriate and transform western technology. Indeed, a technologically advanced Japan has "Japanised" technology itself. If the future is technological and technology has been Japanised, then it is reasonable to assume that the future, too, is Japanese. Or rather, Japan is the future - a future that displaces and transcends the west. For many of us, this is a deeply frightening thought.

It is also a thought that has produced a new variety of orientalism. The fears of an irreducibly different Japan, a western culture about to be overwhelmed by the Japanese other, a Japan comfortable with high technology, all come together in techno-orientalism. In techno-orientalism, Japan is not only located geographically, but also projected chronologically. It is located in the future of technology. This reinvented Japan - a land of manga comic strips and film animations, Godzilla, video games, video cameras, video-phones, techno porn, faxes, televisions, computers, smart buildings, superfast bullet trains, packed underground carriages and overcrowded cities - can be sampled in cyberpunk novels such as William Gibson's Neuromancer and futuristic movies such as Blade Runner.

The Borg are the most pernicious representation of techno-orientalism. As symbols of a future Japanese society, they represent the end product of dehumanised technological power, the nightmarish dimension of capitalist progress. But this representation is based as much on animosity as on jealousy. The mutant Japanoids are better suited to survive the future. As Voyager makes clear, the Borg adapt very quickly and are totally future-proof.

If the Borg are the fear, Seven is the hope. In her Borg incarnation, she is modelled on two icons of contemporary Japan. The first are the kids of the otaku generation, lost to everyday life because of their immersion in information technologies. Techno-orientalism imagines these young people mutating into machines, a cyber-biological mode of being for the future. The second is a brand of techno-body horror imagery (drills entering eyeballs, wires bursting the flesh) that comes straight from Shinya Tsukamoto's cult film Tetsuo. The two icons are combined to produce a single distinctive image of future Japanoids.

But as Seven is humanised and assimilated into the crew of the Voyager, she begins to lose her horror make-up and transforms into a ravishing beauty. We return from techno-orientalism to the old-fashioned variety. The west has always seen the oriental woman as a functional instrument. Seven becomes an automated doll, an empty vessel ready to be reprogrammed as an individual by western humanism.

It is significant that the Borg first appeared in the aftermath of Shintaro Ishihara's influential book, The Japan That Can Say No. Ishihara argues that Japan needs to stand up for itself and shape its own destiny, independent of the west. American commentators immediately attacked Ishihara as a "Japanese chauvinist" and called for the containment of a Japan with ideas way above its station. The Borg are the first major exercise towards that containment. And Seven shows what the Japanese, drained of their ugly Asian values, could become: a ravishingly beautiful, curvaceous and industrious cog in the grand narrative of western humanism. In the sub-conscious mind of Pax Americana, Japan looms large as a future nightmare and an orientalist dream.

The new series of "Star Trek: Voyager" is on Sky 1 (Mondays, 6pm)
Ziauddin Sardar is the editor of "Futures", the monthly journal of policy, planning and futures studies. His book "Orientalism" will be published in the autumn by the Open University Press
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