Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: David Mack And Speculative Fiction As A Harbinger of Diversity

Star Trek would have you believe that, one day, Earth will become a virtual utopia. War, famine, and poverty will be eliminated. Advanced civilizations will come and help humanity solve its problems, and even explore the very stars themselves. Humanity, through a United Federation of Planets will encounter new species, societies, and ways of living. And while there will initially be conflict and fear, it will ultimately give way to tolerance, peace, and love.

Personally, I don’t find this realistic. Strip away the technology and science, even accepting the caveat that somehow unlimited resources and energy can be had, and you still have human beings that still feel greed, possess hubris, and fear what they don’t understand. And that is how we treat our own fellow human beings. I think that, if anything, our interactions with each other and other species would be a lot more like the scenario set in the universe of Babylon 5: where there are differences of opinion, internecine and squabbling politics, sanctions, and warfare but a degree of acceptance and understanding among individuals. But that is assuming that human nature will remain the same. Certainly, the anonymous reader that wrote a letter deriding the lesbian relationship between a Vulcan and Klingon in David Mack’s Star Trek novel Harbinger reflects some current human traits all too well.

It can be disheartening to consider that such bigotry exists — and has done so for some time — in speculative fiction and geek fandom. Even David Mack, in his epic open letter rebuttal of this reader’s email, admits that diversity is not nearly as represented in the Star Trek television series as it could have been. And even if the writer of the email to Mack wasn’t a hardcore Trekkie, this is not an original sentiment in whatever might constitute itself as geek culture or the various fandoms that make up some kind of community. I don’t think it is too much of a revelation to state that Star Trek — or speculative fiction itself — and fandoms can be problematic with regards to gender and cultural diversity.

But there is more to this. There always is. I think what really stands out at me is the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series. Part of the reason I bring this up is because of the image that Katharine Trendacosta uses in her i09 article Star Trek Writer’s Defense of Diversity in Sci-Fi Is Damn Near Perfect. It depicts the episode “Rejoined” where Jadzia Dax encounters Lenara Kahn. In fact, both women are Trill hosts for their respective symbionts: whom had been married. I was either in the latter stages of elementary or in the middle of high school when I first saw this episode, and I didn’t understand it.

Dax and Kahn

It wasn’t that I didn’t understand why Dax had feelings for Kahn. I assumed, then, that she was just experiencing echoes of emotion from her symbiont’s last host. Naively, I was more confused as to how she could even pursue a relationship with her even though the symbiont no longer had a male host and if disrupting the rules of their society was worth the trouble. I will even admit that, at the time, it made me uncomfortable. In retrospect, many adults seemed to feel the same way, or so Star Trek producers believed. Years later, of course, I realize that the Trill philosophy of wanting to prevent symbionts from “limiting their experiences by relationships from their previous lives” was another way of stating that people were uncomfortable with two pansexual beings — who both happened to be women this time around — from continuing and having new experiences with their relationship. You can say that it was the nineties and that we weren’t “quite there yet” (and we still aren’t in a lot of ways), but when I look back at that episode and even my own naivete and ignorance, I feel a kind of righteous anger that they couldn’t pursue that relationship further.

There are many other instances of how Star Trek poorly handled their depictions of gender and ethnic diversity, but there is one other story line that particularly got to me: though not, again, until recent years. There was a story arc between Miles O’Brien, his wife Keiko, and the Bajoran Major Kira Nerys embodied best by the episode “Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places.” Due to a potentially lethal accident, the O’Briens’ unborn son had to be transferred into Kira’s womb. During this episode, Kira moves in with the O’Briens so that they can take care of her in the meantime. Miles and Kira end up spending a lot of time together, which Keiko actively supports. Their family dynamic changes during this time and Miles and Kira actually end up developing feelings for each other. Nothing comes of this, however, and after she carries the child to term Kira leaves the O’Briens.

I definitely remember being distinctly uncomfortable with this arrangement at the time: seeing the two characters bordering on cheating. Certainly, while life happens in chaotic ways, their situation was no time to develop a relationship. But now I can’t help but feel that there were a few possibilities in how that relationship could have turned out. While the resonance feels more like something Robert A. Heinlein would create as opposed to Gene Roddenberry or other like-minded writers, it would have been fascinating to see a polyamorous or non-monogamous relationship dynamic form from that particular episode: another kind of diversity and representation in a futuristic series priding itself on philosophical and human progress.

Kira Miles and Keiko

Even so David Mack, in his own open letter, states that “those of us who write the licensed Trek fiction continue to do our best to depict a more progressive, enlightened, open, and harmonious future, not just for humanity but for all sentient beings.” And maybe it was these words, along with seeing Dax and Kahn again, that reminded me that although the writers of Star Trek couldn’t be too radical, they pushed the envelope of diversity as far as they thought they could: particularly in Deep Space Nine.

It’s funny. When I think about it, Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 both aired more or less during the same time period. Perhaps that’s why I mentioned both programs in the context of this article. Maybe it reminds me of how different I am from the child and adolescent I used to be. But I also learned something new. David Mack, in his rebuttal to his anonymous reader over the accusation of “remoulding the Vulcan persona to suit himself,” quotes the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. It even has its own symbol worn by many Vulcans: including Spock himself. Whether or not Gene Roddenberry created the symbol to sell merchandise is kind of irrelevant but it reminds me of something else. I realized that even if that utopian ideal is unrealistic and will never happen, it is something to strive for. That sense of hope and wonder in the form of sheer possibility and diversity is what Star Trek is, and what it should ultimately be about.

This is what speculative fiction and geekdom should be about: what it should be the vanguard for.

David Mack, in not only being unashamed of the lesbian relationship between his two characters but even supporting and rejoicing in it, states that he will continue to support diversity in his writing. When you look at current fandom and some of its displeasure over other changes or recent iterations in franchises such as a Black Captain America, Thor now being a woman, and a female lead in a Spider-Man film you begin to realize something else. Not only is diversity important in representing various people in the franchises that they love, but it is utterly integral in keeping those worlds fresh and alive: keeping them changing.  Closed mindsets will be maintained and never challenged. No one will care about stories that never change or make them feel a part of them.

Without diversity, without change, genres and mediums will die.

It is my hope that writers such as David Mack continue to travel these places and bring us along on the ride: to make a place where a story is judged by the quality of its writing and interactions and not solely by an idea that hasn’t been fully fleshed out, or reactionary responses.

To boldly go where no one has gone before, or to go to where other people go and you don’t.  Frankly, if this is a journey that doesn’t suit you, then you shouldn’t come for the ride. As for me, I want to see where these explorations will take me.

A Ghost Arcade In A Festival of Zines and Underground Culture

On October 20, I attended the 2013 Canzine Festival of Zines and Underground Culture at the Bathurst Culture, Arts, Media and Education Centre: an event presented and covered by Broken Pencil Magazine. And here is where a little more background information is order. A zine is usually a self-published work of original or “borrowed” text with images that are usually printed and arranged from photocopied material (though sometimes they are hand-drawn as well), while “underground culture” can generally be seen as an umbrella term for art, politics, philosophies, Do-It-Yourself crafts and games that focus on topics generally not given the same attention by “mainstream culture” such as many of the above including fanfiction, sexuality, and ephemera.

Remember the word ephemera: because it’s integral to the idea behind the Ghost Arcade.

CanZine 2013

I already feel as though I am doing the Canzine Event–which spans the cities of both Toronto and Vancouver–very little justice in my above description. For me, that word ephemera is what comes into play: transitory material and supplements that do not always survive the light of another day. The truth is that I wanted to cover this Event for G33kpr0n. I wanted to talk about how important it is, and focus on some of the glimmering gems that I found among the newspaper-like quality of zines, the Robert Crumb Underground Comix-like drawings, Game of Thrones colouring books (with presumably wide lines for lots and lots of red), abstract Nuit Blanche-worthy art, erotic Choose Your Own Adventure Books, the presence of the Toronto Comics Art Festival, vendors with small tiny cautionary stories about loving someone who does not love you back, chocolate-chip cookies, and so much–oh so much–irony. It’s like a 21st century Portobello Road of sass, cuteness, and the just plain weird: but at the same time it’s also a community where friends can meet, eat $10 vegetarian meals and even make a profit or so as a vendor in a laid-back atmosphere of general good will. But this is a very generalized description and there isn’t very much that I can add beyond it.

Instead, all I can focus on is the Ghost Arcade and how, in my mind, it ties everything–and all of this–together.

I actually heard of it online first and knew that Broken Pencil had specifically gone out of their way to ask Skot Deeming (aka mrghosty) to bring the Ghost Arcade to the Festival: as if it hadn’t already been there … at least outside of its spirit. Skot is an artist, curator, researcher and doctoral student at Concordia University as well as a curator for Team Vector and co-director for its Vector: Game and Art Convergence symposium: which is appropriate given that Skot himself examines how video games influence culture and create various hacker subcultures. This focus determines the Ghost Arcade and, in some ways, draws on the very spirit of the Canzine Festival.

It was the first room I went into as I entered the festival. I didn’t know what to expect and I admit: I was surprised. The room’s blinds were drawn and there were devices with pieces of paper under them. The items ranged from PlayStation Portables, to Gameboys, all the way to miniature laptops. I will also admit that, at first, I was disappointed. Here I was expecting to find game cabinets like the Torontrons painted in white or ethereal colours with strange and unusual pixilated games from a lost time. But I looked at the games themselves and their descriptions within the dim light of the room and the screens that still glowed.

And this is where the power of the Ghost Arcade began to exert itself on my mind. I found a prototype hack of Resident Evil 2–known as Resident Evil 1.5–and a NES or Famicom version of Final Fantasy VII on a hand-held device. There was Somario: which was a game featuring Mario with all of Sonic the Hedgehog’s running and spinning moves. There was also the strange and arcane Polybius game that supposedly drove people insane from a singular black arcade cabinet in the 1980s: in which you as the player must align the environment around you so that your ship–which you can’t move–can shoot the targets properly and not get destroyed in the process. In addition, there was a Marvel Vs. Capcom remix game: a hacked game that plays Michael Jackson’s songs in lieu of the original programmed soundtrack, a Nintendo 64 controller reprogrammed and modified to play games as its own entity–in much the same way H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West experimented on dead body parts to make them into singular and independent creatures–and a Pokemon Black game inspired by the creepypasta of the same name: another Internet urban legend made manifest by the will of its hacker-fans.

Ghost Arcade Polybius

Polybius at Ghost Arcade. Do you feel the madness? Photo credit: Skot Deeming.

Did I also mention that at least one Nintendo game was on a PSP and there were just as many hardware modifications as there were software alterations? This is only part of the point that Skot Deeming is trying to illustrate–a perspective that Anna Anthropy in her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters also shares–in which video games have evolved from being products of an industry to narratives that inspired many childhoods from the late 70s onward the point of being appropriated by hackers acting as programmers, artists, and storytellers. Zines themselves are also historically known as being part of the punk subculture: in which–in addition to punk and grunge music of the late 80s to 90s–zines, remixes, and other counter-culture or DIY artifacts were–and are–crafted. What I’m trying to illustrate is that all of this is tied together: that Skot partially looks at how some of us as players have taken something that was once a consumer product–something considered ephemeral and made for short-term fun–and made it into something beyond the nostalgia factor: made it into something new.

But Skot goes further than that. The Ghost Arcade–in which he curates all these games and customizes their strange bare-bones Frankensteinian hardware–is a one-day event that displays games that not only should have been short-lived and brushed away in the daylight, but also should never have existed at all. And yet they do:  just like ghosts are reported to be. And now, think about what a Ghost Arcade is. An arcade is defined as a succession of arches supported by columns that sometimes enclose a particular space. But what happens when these arches are ideas and the columns are the stuff of daydreams and nightmares made manifest in pixels and old newspaper?

And that, in the end, is what the Ghost Arcade represents to me. It symbolizes the very soul of the Canzine Festival: a one-day market and celebration of media that can easily be modified and thrown away, but whose ideas continue to linger on and find new life in places beyond traditionally established organizations. They exist in unique goings on. They get recycled and modified. They exist in people and every-day individuals.

It’s strange how things come together. A little while ago, I examined the origins of a Slovenian art and music 1980s movement known as FV Disko on my Mythic Bios: and not only did they have punk, DYI, collage, pastiche, and experimental influences but they also used photocopiers and appropriated technology from older authority structures and industrial products to make new art. And after attending the Festival this weekend, I can see where social change and art interlap and it’s just as autumnal, fleeting, modest, and beautiful as an exchange and a celebration of Geeks and ghosts. In fact, and as far as I am concerned, life itself can be defined a Ghost Arcade.

If you are interested in knowing more about Skot Deeming’s Ghost Arcade, please feel free to read his Blog on the subject: in which he describes the importance of saving transitory and ethereal human experiences in pixels far better than I ever could.