What is clear is that utopian science fiction offers us insights into what can be, and dystopian science fiction presents the most abysmal than can or is likely to come to pass. There is a third pillar I would refer to as anti-utopian. Anti-utopian, like to previous two pillars just mentioned, again, focuses on what we can imagine about the future that we can see in ourselves now. Like all good science fiction, morality plays come into being through a close examination human society, what our goals and actions are and what our share ambitions are, or at least, what we have in common among our many ambitions. That is how science fiction can function like good conflict resolution. It sees the now above how we see ourselves and offers a middle ground of reason and responsibility.
One trope I have found to be common in what I term anti-utopianism is the cornerstone of leadership. In the Star Trek: Discovery episode, “Kobayashi Maru,” (2021) what is left of the Federation still has a long way to go to recover from The Burn. At one point, President Laira Rillak states to Captain Michael Burnham, “Leadership is about balance. Knowing what weight is yours to carry, and what isn’t.” This not unlike the lessons that Captain Johnathan Archer had to learn along the way as the first Starfleet ship to travel into deep space. Always encountering hostile species and still struggling to maintain his humanity – his compassion – Archer learned,
“Someday my people are going to come up with some sort of a doctrine, something that tells us what we can and can’t do out here, should and shouldn’t do. But until somebody tells me that they’ve drafted that directive, I’m going to have to remind myself every day that we didn’t come out here to play God.” (Star Trek: Enterprise, “Dear Doctor”, 2002)
For Archer his leadership skills, under heavy burden of constant attack, lead to what would become the Prime Directive. For Michael Burnham, she was being tested by Rillak, who had her own ideas of leadership. I hold that her assumptions about the capabilities of the crew of Discovery, as well as that of Burnham, were off target, but appropriately and even reasonably placed give her own personal experience within the universe that she lived in.
This very same sentiment about leadership was previously stated in The Orville episode, “Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes” (2019). Cmdr. Kelly Grayson cautions Lt. Gordon Malloy’s eager, and unsteady, attempts to take the command test that one doesn’t do so quickly. Kelly states that part of leadership is knowing your limits. One could take this leadership advice, both from Cmdr. Grayson and President Rillak, as holistic approach to leadership; that some things will need to be sacrificed for successful missions and one must learn to accept that as it is. However, one could also apply the teaching to everyday life and integrate it into one’s self-care routine. The coerced labor of our capitalist society certainly would permit such allowances – leadership within oneself in the regiment of self-care.
I had a professor in graduate school for a philosophy course on ethics and leadership and he spent the entire semester repeating his mantra as though it was the one thing he wanted us to remember, “I could be wrong.” He explicated that short statement into an analytical idea of custom and trait that could synthesized into any situation as a doorway to step above a situation and find balance. A few years later, I see this in William Adama so clearly. Though he would rarely admit out loud, you know from his frequent change in policies and direction, that Adama felt it and went by it as a matter of truism. He could be wrong. This side-stepping himself didn’t take away from his leadership but demonstrated it. His instincts were often sharp. As seen in the statement,
“There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.” (Battlestar Galactica, “Water,” 2005)
However, it is often the softer, vulnerable Adama that we really see when he has reconsidered some tenet and in that he not only gets closer to his truth, but closer to our truth as well.
“We decided to play God, create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.” (Battlestar Galactica, Miniseries [the initial part of the series], 2003)
Commander, and later Admiral, William Adama finds the truth like a humanities scholar forced to wear the apron of war. He was ready for the war, no doubt, but the humanities scholar always came back into the picture of what they were doing, where they were, and what they needed to achieve with poetic integrity and a vulnerable grit.
Likewise, we can see this vulnerable grit in Marcus and the other Rangers in Babylon 5. The world of Babylon 5 is certainly not a utopia and doesn’t easily fit into the dystopian model. In my estimation the series falls within the anti-utopian model. The Anla’Shok credo “I am a Ranger. We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass. We live for the One, we die for the One” certainly carries with it both elements of sacrifice, vulnerability, determination, and, yes, leadership. The Rangers are a leadership within a leadership, not beneath it. While there is a figurehead, Jeffrey Sinclair, Delenn, what is notably absent is a mythos element of archetype. It is all unpredictable, negotiable, and flexible. In that, too, is leadership. Without flexibility, one cannot learn. If one cannot learn, one cannot lead. Neuroplasticity – the fact that it even exists – informs us that to learn is life. The relearn is a gift of nature. Not to learn, grow, develop, recover, is the absence of leadership: for ourselves and each other.