Star Trek, A Celebration of Difference

The end of the university term means marking. In order to get through the endless papers, I will often run Star Trek in the background, something made easier at the moment by Netflicks, which currently carries the original series and all the spinoffs. Fifty years on, and the Star Trek universe still holds my attention.
I grew up in the late 60s, but I don’t remember anyone in my house watching Star Trek. I saw the show a few times at a friend’s house—the sight of Spock and his ears comes back to me vividly—and we even re-enacted a couple of episodes. But the summer before I turned eleven, I lost my sight in a car accident, and I didn’t fully rediscover the show until my twenties.
Much of my teenage years I spent reading. I discovered fantasy, and authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien opened me to worlds I had never imagined. I also began reading science fiction—Asimov, Le Guin, Clarke, and Heinlein. And at the end of my teens, I started watching reruns of Star Trek.
At this point, I was maybe developing something of an obsession. At twenty-one, I remember climbing through my parents kitchen window one evening in June while they were out. They hadn’t left a spare key, and I wanted to watch Star trek on their TV. My wife and I were living across the alley, but we didn’t have cable.
Seeing The Wrath of Khan in theatres, then watching Next Generation on television, got me thinking differently about the show. I always thought of it as a series that pushed boundaries—it was, after all, the final frontier. But for some reason, I remember feeling disconcerted by the character of Geordi La Forge, the blind chief engineer on Next Generation. At the time, I never asked myself why the character of Geordi bothered me—perhaps if I had, I would have learned something more about myself as a blind person.
There were, however, things about Geordi that just drove me crazy. Early in Season 2, for example, Dr. Pulaski offers to give Geordi back his normal range of vision with ocular implants. And he refuses. Geordi’s blindness and his visor both define his character—I get it—but I remember thinking a number of times as I rewatched the episode, “Just take the goddam implants!”
I’ve always found the scene poignant for another reason. Diana Muldaur (Dr. Kate Pulaski) had two roles in the original series. In Season 3, Muldaur plays Dr. Miranda Jones in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?,” a young blind woman who is assistant to a Medusan ambassador. No one, of course, knows Dr. Jones is blind until near the end, and the outcome of the episode suggests she has to come to terms with the limits of her disability. Interestingly, in this episode, Spock must wear a visor whenever he interacts with Kollos, the Medusan ambassador, the sight of whom causes humanoids to go insane. Spock’s visor here seems a rough precursor to Geordi’s visor in Next Generation.
Introducing characters with disabilities is only one thing that has characterized the franchise. Difference of all kinds was central to the show from the beginning: Spock, with his Vulcan control of emotion, is the alien who comments endlessly on human behavior. The show also provided a range of both racial and ethnic perspectives through characters such as Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov. More than this, the show has dealt with the foreign, the alien, and the marginalized in every incarnation since the original series.
It’s the relentless attention to difference I’ve always appreciated about the show. Apart from Geordi, differently abled characters appear variously throughout the franchise: Riva, the deaf mute diplomat who speaks through his chorus; and Melora, the gravity challenged ensign on Deep Space Nine. Even Worf is temporarily disabled after an accident in engineering that crushes his spine. The franchise also raises same-sex issues, most poignantly in the Next Generation episode that introduces the Trill, and the episode in which the Enterprise crew work with a genderless race to recover one of their shuttlecraft.
As campy as the Original series was, it spoke to Jean Roddenberry’s vision of a future in which humanity confronts itself by encountering difference. That same vision persists through Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. It’s what science fiction does best. It gives us a mirror for all that is good and noble, ugly and evil; it looks straight back and shows us what we don’t want to see. Like Armus from “The Skin of Evil” in Next Generation, science fiction is a genre that shows us ourselves—what we fear, what we hate, and what we don’t want to confront.
Because I’m a blind person living and working in a sighted world, I think I found a way to connect with the show in a way Roddenberry might have intended—a show about difference, about the alien, about the demons inside. I understand what it means to encounter the unknown—I do it every time I leave my front door. If Roddenberry wanted us to encounter the unknown, both out there and within ourselves, then he’s succeeded. Exploration, non-interference, truthfulness, and tolerance are qualities that Starfleet strives to represent in all things, and even if many of the series read like a simplistic utopia, if every one of us incorporated a modicum of those qualities into our lives—just a little more than we already do—then we would find ourselves living in a better world.

In Remembrance

In remembrance, this day, November 11, 2016, of all those men and women who have fought and died in service to their country, securing peace and freedom for friends and family, where ever they may be.
This day always reminds me of those people in my family who have served in the military. My maternal grandfather, Percy (Tobe) McFarquhar, 1893-1967, drove ambulance in World War I. He join the Canadian forces in 1915 and served until 1918. I have also had other family members serving variously in other conflicts around the world.
If I’m trying to find meaning in a day or an event, I often turn to my favourite authors. Here’s a passage from C S. Lewis’ spiritual autobiography. Lewis, as did many other young men of his generation, went to war at the age of nineteen, the same age as many of the first-year students I teach every year.

The war itself has been so often described by those who saw more of it than I that I shall here say little about it. Until the great German attack came in the Spring we had a pretty quiet time. Even then they attacked not us but the Canadians on our right, merely “keeping us quiet” by pouring shells into our line about three a minute all day. I think it was that day I noticed how a greater terror overcomes a less: a mouse that I met (and a poor shivering mouse it was, as I was a poor shivering man) made no attempt to run from me. Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gum boots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother. I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man: particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. …
But for the rest, the war–the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E., the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet–all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard–so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peace-time poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life
(XII. Guns and Good Company)

From The Blog Archive: A Life-Long Adventure

Almost three years ago, I decided to set up a blog that focused on children’s and young adult books. Here is my inaugural post from 2014. The adventure continues.

As a kid, I was never much of a reader. I looked at my dad’s newspapers, the covers of my mom’s novels, and I flipped through the pictures in the National Geographic. In grade five, we had a series in our class that was supposed to help with reading comprehension. I was put in the orange readers, halfway between the books for dummies and those for the average kids in the class.
The summer after grade five I was blinded in a car accident. I spent four months in hospital because of a badly broken leg. My world had changed. Apart from trying to adjust to being blind after eleven years of running, biking, and rough-housing, the unspeakable boredom of the hospital bed nearly drove me crazy.
One day two women from the school board came to visit me. They brought me an oversized, open-reel tape recorder and some recorded books. One of those books was J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
The world of The Hobbit was the world as I had never imagined it. I had thought elves to be diminutive shoemakers, while dwarfs were funny little characters with funnier names, who helped runaway princesses.
In Tolkien’s world, the dwarves–not dwarfs–still had funny names, but they went on quests to steal back dragon-guarded treasure, while elves were tall, beautiful, otherworldly, and threatening. And what was a hobbit?
After the traction came off my leg, they put me in a body cast: three months flat on my back, and I was finally able to get up. One night after the nurses had done their rounds, I maneuvered myself out of bed, and hobbled and cruched my way down the hall to the schoolroom, the room for all the kids who were too damaged or messed up to go into the regular hospital classroom. In that room, at the root of a mountain, the strangest creature I had ever met waited for me; for me and a little hobbit, who was lost, in the dark, and all alone.
Meeting Bilbo, Gollum, and Smaug introduced me to a world of books that became my lifeline and my world. It took the place of the life I had lost, and it gave the visual center of my brain something to do. I imagined myself into every book I read, sometimes scaring myself into nights of wakefulness, as I did with H. G. Wells The Time Machine and later Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I have been on that road ever since, and it all began at a round, green door with a pipe-smoking hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, and an unexpected adventure to lands faraway.

A Ghost Walk on the University of Alberta Campus

I’ve always believed that ghosts haunted the University of Alberta campus. Last week, I found out I was right.
Last week, I went with some friends to take in the UofA ghost walk. We gathered in front of the Rutherford House on Saskatchewan Drive—a surprising forty people for a cool night in late October. Our guide stood on the steps of the house and outlined our walk. She told us about the house itself, Alexander Cameron Rutherford and his family who moved into the house in 1911. She encouraged us to visit the house, where, if you listen carefully, you can hear the ghost of a little boy and his ball who has haunted the second floor of the Rutherford House since the 1980s.
Our walk took us across campus to the Power Plant, where we learned about Dr. Carl Clarke, an early researcher into the oil sands, whose lab-coated ghost still wanders the building. We headed next to Pembina Hall on the west side of campus, where we learned about the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic in Edmonton, and the bodies that were temporarily piled in the basement of the building. Finally, we walked all the way BAC across campus to the Emily Murphy House, where our guide told us about Emily Murphy, the Famous Five, and the early days of Alberta politics. People say you can sometimes still see the ghost of Emily Murphy, and sometimes, you can hear the kettle whistling in the room that was once the kitchen.
There was much more to our walk, as it was a historical tour as well as ghost walk, and our guide had many stories about the early days of the UofA. You can find more stories about campus ghosts here.
I wouldn’t say I’m overly sensitive to ghosts. I’ve been inside Glamis Castle in Scotland, which is supposed to be one of the most haunted castles in the country, and I didn’t feel too bothered. One gets a sense of days long passed in such a place, but I never felt or heard anything specific.
But I’m still prepared to believe such stories. As I said, I’ve always thought the UofA had its ghosts. If you are in the Humanities Building at night, as people clear out of the building, you will begin to feel the oppressive silence of the place, like something pressing on your ears. You will start watching, listening, and looking around corners. And sometimes, if you turn quickly enough, you might…

October and Literacy

October has me thinking about literacy. In my job at the university, I talk to students about sentence construction, about nouns and noun phrases, about usage, idiom, parallelism, and all the grammatical stuff they will mostly forget once they leave my class. But visiting a junior high school earlier this month during Read IN Week reminded me how critical literacy is to the lives of young people. Literacy is more than just learning to read and write. It’s about understanding, self-expression, engagement, and taking part in the world in a fulsome way.
Each term, I teach classes in first-year academic writing. Almost the first thing I tell my students is that they aren’t in an English class: it’s a writing class. Of course it’s English, but I make the point about writing to derail their prejudices.
Many first-year students come to post-secondary with a misunderstanding about books and reading. For many, English class is boring, or hard, or tedious, or weird, and the professor’s opinion always counts more than theirs. In many ways, I can’t blame them. They’ve been told all throughout their school careers that books are important, and many books are better than others. Hamlet beats Harry Potter, and Pride and Prejudice beats Twilight. Perhaps so, but literacy is more than the literary equivalent of American Idle. It’s also more than having to read Lord of the Flies for grade twelve English, recognizing all the important bits, then writing an essay about the disintegration of society. Literacy involves communication in all its multitudinous forms. It includes Facebook and Twitter, texts and email; it’s about a person’s ability to function competently in a world that thrives on the dissemination of information, and her ability to sort this bloated, often self-reflexive mass of news bites, internet pages, and memes into something usable.
The kids I met earlier this month at Spruce Avenue School were all new comers to Canada. Literacy for these young people is less about popular culture than it is life. They are learning a new language in a new country. They have to learn to communicate with teachers, peers, and neighbours. I came in for part of the afternoon, and we talked about fairy tales. I told them the story of Red Riding Hood—my version of the story. They had read the story earlier in the year, and they were very appreciative. Storytelling can be one of the finest vehicles for literacy, as it puts the storyteller right in front of you. As the listener, you become part of the story, and sharing in such an experience mostly makes you want to explore more stories. Contributing in a small way to those young people’s growing experience of literacy was gratifying and encouraging—as much for me as it was for them. Hopefully, I can visit them again soon.