“… no matter how far we travel or how fast we get there, the most profound discoveries are not necessarily beyond that next star. They’re within us, woven into the threads that bind us, all of us, to each other.”
– Captain Jonathan Archer, Star Trek: Enterprise
Science Fiction, along with Fantasy and Horror, has long been considered an unliterary genre of fiction. A genre of made-up inventions and pretend situations. A genre for nerds. And while this is certainly enough to satisfy my reading requirements, those who require morals and meaning from their fiction may be surprised by the depth this underappreciated genre has to offer. Star Trek, perhaps the most science-fictiony franchise to ever go to warp, has been challenging social norms and presenting an accepting and progressive front to the known universe since its inception. Its detachment from our current reality allows it to address difficult issues with a distance that means people don’t feel victimised for having a different opinion. People are far more open to new ideas and ways of thinking when they feel unthreatened. Star Trek is certainly not the only member of this genre to address current social and ethical issues. Becky Chambers’s novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Seth MacFarlane’s television series The Orville are two recent works that both subtly and overtly address current issues. One of these issues is the biological and physiological modification of both foetuses and newborn infants. A heavy topic made less-daunting through Science Fiction.
The freedom to choose has always been incredibly important to me, my parents didn’t have me christened as an infant so that I would be able to choose what was right for me and I am not only grateful for that choice, but it also influences the way I see the world. And so, my focus will be on medically unnecessary procedures performed on infants. Procedures that take away choices and may deeply impact the infant’s life. The first issue I want to talk about is that of circumcision. This procedure is only medically necessary for a handful of people, and yet parents often make the decision to circumcise; this procedure has risks associated with it, the most severe (though incredibly rare) being the contraction of meningitis or septicaemia (BUPA). People often tout the supposed health benefits as valid reasons to make this decision for their children, frequently citing the reduced risks of developing STIs and hygiene-related conditions. Do you know what else can reduce these risks? A condom and a shower. Why permanently alter a child when educating them would do the same job? Let them decide by themselves.
Another issue worth mentioning is sex assignment surgeries performed on intersex infants. Despite teaching children that females have two X chromosomes and males have an X and a Y, that boys have penises and girls have vaginas, sex is a spectrum and doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. 1.7% of babies are born with characteristics of both ends of this spectrum and, for every 2000 babies born in hospitals, one of them is deemed sexually abnormal enough to warrant surgical intervention (Human Rights Watch). The decision to operate on a child, for this reason, is made by the parents (though in the past it was often made by doctors who left the parents none-the-wiser) for the sake of being the child being seen as normal. Taking this choice away from the child may affect them for the rest of their lives, lives they have had very little say in.
My final IRL issue is, in my opinion, far more ethically ambiguous and I’m not entirely sure where I come down on this one. It is now possible to successfully screen for Down Syndrome during the first trimester of pregnancy (Wright). This early window means that terminations may be performed safely and are less physically traumatising than ones performed later in pregnancy. Should these screenings be issued as a matter of course? Should a pregnancy be terminated because a child has Down Syndrome? Is this a form of natural selection and could it lead to a society where Down Syndrome has been eradicated? Would this be a good thing? Can we tell women that they can’t terminate a pregnancy they would have otherwise kept? Can we tell people that they have to terminate these pregnancies? Was it right to develop this method of diagnosis in the first place? This whole issue is a mess of contradictions and creeps dangerously close to Eugenics.
But Jasmine, I hear you say, this is all very interesting, but what on Earth does all this have to do with science fiction? Well, dearest reader, let me explain. I recently discovered Becky Chambers and her character-driven novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a story about a rag-tag crew who use their not-exactly-state-of-the-art ship to help prevent an intragalactic crisis. One of these characters, Jenks, is the ship’s comp tech, a music and tattoo enthusiast, and red-weed smoker. He also has a form of dwarfism. His mother, who was something of a hippie, refused medical interaction, including genetic screening, whilst she was pregnant with him and, once he was born, refused the genetweak that would have genetically eradicated the dwarfism that wasn’t negatively impacting Jenks’s life. By refusing to bow to pressure, his mother gave Jenks the gift of choice. He is frequently harassed by doctors who say that they can fix him. Jenks maintains that you can’t fix what isn’t broken, he refuses the genetweaks and is always completely himself.
Like most Science Fiction authors, Chambers uses a made-up procedure, in this case a genetweak, to throw her setting into the future. Genetweaks are provided as a catch-all solution to the majority of medical conditions and syndromes. Missing a chromosome? We can fix that. A little on the short side? We can fix that. Did mummy accidentally have an affair? We can fix that. The real question this novel asks is should we fix it? Should we interfere with nature? Should we genetically alter foetuses and infants to confirm with what we deem as normal? The example Chambers uses is currently a scientific impossibility and is, therefore, distanced from the current word we live in and so does not alienate her audience. Despite this distance, it is easy to make the leap from genetweaking to genetically screening pregnancies for conditions like Down Syndrome. By including details like this in her characters’ backgrounds, Chambers provokes thought in her readers and has them asking themselves difficult questions – well, she had my asking questions, anyway.
The Orville, Seth MacFarlane’s new Star Trek spoof television series, takes this thought-provocation one step further and actually talks through the issues raised, often using twentieth and twenty-first century analogies. One episode, “About a Girl,” is particularly poignant in this regard. During the episode two Boclans, a predominately male species, lay an egg together which then hatches into an incredibly rare baby girl. The parents, Bortus and Klyden, petition the ship’s doctor to perform the procedure Boclans customarily complete to change the sex of their female babies. The human doctor, along with the majority of the crew, see it as wrong to change the sex of someone who is too young to decide for themself. The Orville’s crew band together to try and convince the parents that they should not be the ones making this decision. They actual succeed … with one parent. Bortus becomes convinced after learning the story of Rudolph and how the reindeer’s supposed abnormality, his glowing nose, saves Christmas. With the parents in disagreement, the case goes to Boclan family court and though the Orville’s crew put together a terrific defence, the Boclan judge remains unconvinced and rules that the baby should undergo the procedure so as better conform to Boclan society.
Not only did this episode bring up and talk through the ethics of performing sex reassignment surgeries on infants, it also discussed how culture affects these decisions. In Boclan society, it is normal to perform this procedure, just as it is normal to have Jewish boys circumcised. This episode did an incredible job of presenting a suitably alien example of sex reassignment in a completely relatable way. It also successfully demonstrated the struggle involved with social reformation. Change doesn’t just happen overnight. It has to be worked for by people who believe in it. It doesn’t work out for Bortus but that doesn’t mean that Boclan females will be non-existent in the future. The episode creates an undeniable sense of hope for the future – not just for Boclan females, but for all people who are often labelled abnormal, for that 1.7%that don’t fit into neat boxes, and for those that have their choices ripped away from them before they can even hold their own heads up.
Convinced yet? Not only is Science-Fiction wickedly entertaining, it can also be used to do a whole galaxy of good. Presenting serious issues in a viewer-friendly format means a whole range of people can receive the message, encoded or otherwise, and start thinking about issues that don’t directly affect themselves. And, as long as people are thinking, progress will be made. It may be slow and done one step at a time but, as long as we keep moving forward, we will boldly go into a future that accepts people for who they are and gives them the freedom to make their own decisions.
“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
– Neil Armstrong, July 20th 1969, The Moon
“About a Girl.” The Orville. Written by Seth MacFarlane, directed by Brannon Braga, Fuzzy Door Productions, 2017.
Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Hodder and Stoughton, 2015.
“Facts About Male Circumcision.” BUPA, http://www.bupa.com.au/health-and-wellness/health-information/az-health-information/facts-about-male-circumcision. Accessed Dec 2017.
“I Want To Be Like Nature Made Me.” Human Rights Watch, http://www.hrw.org/report/2017/07/25/i-want-be-nature-made-me/medically-unnecessary-surgeries-intersex-children-us. Accessed Dec 2017.
Wright, D. et al. “Contingent Screening for Down Syndrome is an Efficient Alternative to Non-Disclosure Sequential Screening.” Queen’s University Belfast, 2004.