I have shown how the ideas of progression and of the indefinite perfectibility of the human race belong to democratic ages. Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be; in this direction their unbounded imagination grows and dilates beyond all measure. Here then is the wildest range open to the genius of poets, which allows them to remove their performances to a sufficient distance from the eye. Democracy shuts the past against the poet, but opens the future before him... Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
...it no longer seemed so important whether the world was Adam Smith or Karl Marx. Neither made very much sense under the new circumstances... Isaac Asimov, I, Robot
INTRODUCTION: 'DREAM NOT OF TODAY, MR PICARD'
I grew up frightened. Nuclear war and concentration camps were my childhood monsters. It might sound overblown today, but dread and anxiety were very real. Looming disaster was a constant motif. I was born in 1972, a child of the Cold War and of the oil shock. Perpetual economic crisis and the Warsaw Pact's missiles cast a long shadow over our heads. Even in my sheltered enclave of Paris, the threat of war, nuclear or otherwise, was palpable. It was like a background hum, never quite so strident but nonetheless perceptible. Some were more aware of it than others. Kids certainly took it to heart.
The year I turned nine, my grandfather had taken it upon himself to tell me all about his arrest by the Gestapo and his time at Buchenwald. Needless to say that did not help. The particulars of the story are what one would expect, torture, the cattle car, hunger, cold, forced labor, death. It was a lot to take in.
In my overactive and somewhat precocious mind, I reached the sobering conclusion that neither my parents nor my family, nor even France and its mighty atomic arsenal, could ever protect me from mutually assured destruction. They were as powerless as I was against the rolling thunder of the world. And I was right. Without a shred of a doubt.
These are the things you do not want to be right about at eight or nine.
You can easily understand why the Death Star was not my thing. It hit too close to home. Star Wars was too dangerous, and had too many villains.
Star Trek, on the other hand, was different. I first saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture in Paris, at the age of eight. And if you had given me the choice, I would have jumped at the chance to live in the world of Star Trek. Watching the Star Trek movie was like being let, as a kid, into a gigantic space laboratory where adults were doing very cool and important things. In a sense, the Enterprise crew’s leisurely and rational, technobabble-soaked demeanor made their lives and their work more approachable. In Star Trek, science and reason triumphed over danger. Their world was definitely better equipped for harmony than ours.
Star Trek presented my terrified eight-year old self with the mind-blowing idea that in the future things would get better. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was my starting point, the moment in time when my mind had finally awakened to the possibilities of the world, that there was something, a future maybe, to look forward to.
More than anything else from my childhood, this is what has stuck with me my entire life. When my wife and I got married, we convinced the befuddled judge to say ‘live long and prosper.’ To this day, the greatest sense of wonder I experience from Star Trek comes not from the starships and the stars, new life and new civilizations, but from its depiction of an uncompromisingly humanist, galaxy-spanning utopian society.
Which means that one huge question has haunted me since I was a boy. Is Star Trek possible? How likely is it to happen?
I committed very early on to live by the precepts of Star Trek, in the faint hope of hastening its coming somehow. That commitment was easy, as Star Trek blended effortlessly with the kind of secular Judaism passed on to me by my parents. Learn as much as humanly possible, solve problems for others, fight injustice wherever and whenever you can, try to be a mensch. Heal the world, tikkun olam, as we say in Hebrew.
The task proved much more daunting and complicated than my naive eight year-old self could ever have envisioned. For one, like many before me I failed miserably at inventing faster-than-light engines. Yet I remain convinced that a better world is indeed within our grasp, and that Star Trek gives us a roadmap for our shared future. Indeed, some of it is already happening right now, among us, in real life.
RENDER UNTO STAR TREK...
Everybody knows Star Trek. Everybody has heard of Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan salute and of the transporter (‘beam me up Scotty’). You don't have to be a convention-going, costume-wearing fan to be familiar with Star Trek. In the 50 years since its first airing on NBC, the show, all seven hundred and twenty six episodes of scripted TV, has become an icon, a cornerstone of popular culture, an American monument.
We owe a lot to Star Trek. Star Trek has made the world a better place. Star Trek has had a tremendous impact in the real world. You cannot say that of many other TV or film franchises. As far as changing the world goes, Star Trek stands alone.
The list of practical technologies that came out of Star Trek is almost endless: ion propulsion, telepresence, portable diagnostic sensors, non-invasive medical imaging and surgery, transparent aluminum, natural language human-computer interaction and translation in real time, cybernetic prosthetic implants… There is not a month that passes without a research group or a startup claiming to have come up with this or that Star Trek device.
Star Trek is famously responsible for the cell phone. Dr. Martin Cooper of Motorola was a fan of the original show and really wanted a portable communicator that would work just like Captain Kirk's. Star Trek gave its name to the first space shuttle, the Enterprise. Star Trek: The Next Generation showed one of the first instances of software-defined, touch-sensitive contextual user interface, also known in plain English as the iPhone. And all that in the late 1980s.
It never ceases to amaze me that mere TV entertainment, and of a sub-genre widely regarded as juvenile if not downright unserious, could spur such world-altering feats of engineering. At its best, Star Trek is a source of constantly renewed inspiration for engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs; a true, demonstrable engine of progress, and, ultimately, a force for good in the world. And that is before even considering the most profound of all Star Trek speculations, the one thing that has gotten the least attention by virtue of being the most obvious, and because it is much harder to recreate in a lab or to release as a product: the economics of Star Trek, or what I call trekonomics.
WHAT IS TREKONOMICS?
The world of Star Trek is an economic utopia.
Economics is the art and science of managing, producing and exchanging resources as a society.
Economics exists because goods and resources are never in infinite supply. As a result, both individuals and society as a whole must make choices regarding the allocation of said limited goods and resources. These choices can be made through multiple mechanisms such as prices, markets, or central planning. But form or system notwithstanding, the fateful fact remains that choices have to be made. This is precisely what the great British economist John Maynard Keynes called 'the economic problem' or, in the words of another famous Englishman: you can't always get what you want.
Trekonomics solves Keynes’s economic problem, if only fictionally. In Trek’s universe, most if not all of the real-world conditions that drive economic behaviors essentially disappear. In Star Trek, currency has become obsolete as a medium for exchange. Labor cannot be distinguished from leisure. Universal abundance of almost any goods has made the pursuit of wealth irrelevant. Superstition, crime, poverty, and ill health have been eradicated. For all intents and purposes, the United Federation of Planets is a paradise.
Star Trek’s amazing world of carefree abundance appears on the screen as a byproduct of incredible technological progress. Faster-than-light starships, transporters, replicators, holographic projections and humanoid robots are Star Trek’s arsenal of prosperity. From the standpoint of economics, however, these do not matter one bit.
What really matters, and what makes Star Trek uniquely utopian, is the social distribution of these impressive technologies. What distinguishes the United Federation of Planets is not so much that they invented the replicators, these magical machines that can produce almost anything on demand, but rather that these replicators are free and available to all as public goods. Think about it this way: if the benefits of replicators, monetary or otherwise, only accrued to those who own and operate them, then Star Trek would not be Star Trek.
The other striking aspect of trekonomics is anthropological, for lack of a better word. Again, it goes back to Keynes’ economic problem. A world where evenly distributed cornucopia is both the norm and the policy profoundly changes its inhabitants. Just like money, the compulsion to work to ensure one’s survival has simply vanished. Thanks to the free availability of robotic helpers, human labor has been rendered obsolete. Star Trek explores at great length what happens to motivations and psyche under such conditions of post-scarcity.
For one, competition among people is completely transformed. Reputation and honors, the esteem and recognition of one’s peers, replace economic wealth as public markers of status. But these are largely optional, as there are no material penalties or disincentives for those who do not seek nor attain higher status. We usually see the best and the brightest of Star Trek’s society on the show, the small elite of heroes and overachievers who boldly go where no one has gone before. Do not be fooled: Starfleet captains and their crack officers are the outliers. That is why they are so exciting and relevant for TV drama. In the background, however, the vast majority of the Federation’s citizens are not nearly as driven or exceptional. Or rather they are, but in a more pedestrian way. They all go about their daily lives without much concern or worry, safe in the knowledge that they shall never want in anything.
The world Star Trek built raises multiple economic problems. For instance, what happens to innovation and scientific progress without the hope of financial rewards? Similarly, how can a society where all is freely available avoid the tragedy of the commons, the trap of resource depletion caused by unchecked over-consumption? Star Trek does not shy away from these questions. Several episodes of the show deal openly with the challenges of organizing and regulating its own utopia.
THE INVENTION OF TREKONOMICS
Trekonomics did not come about fully-formed. Through the lens of economics, there are in fact two distinct Treks. There’s The Original Series on the one hand, including the films up to STIII: The Search for Spock; and, on the other hand, the post-economic, utopian world outlined in broad, comical strokes in STIV: The Voyage Home, and then fully fleshed out in the subsequent TV shows and movies. The first Star Trek, call it Star Trek 1.0, is heavily indebted to author Robert Heinlein, while version 2.0, The Next Generation and beyond, derives many of its basic elements from Isaac Asimov.
The difference between the two Star Treks arises from within the universe's internal, fictional chronology. ST: Enterprise, the last produced series of the franchise, is set in the 22nd century. The Original Series, the first iteration of the show in the 1960s, is set in the 23rd century. The Next Generation, Deep Space 9 and Voyager, made in the 1980s and 1990s, all take place in the 24th century.
Through that grand saga of the future, the pace of technological innovation does not slow down. We go from the rustic quarters and galley kitchens of the early starships, to civilian families, bars, holographic entertainment (the holodecks) and even an arboretum on Captain Picard's Next Generation’s Enterprise. That Enterprise is an interstellar cruise ship with some science, diplomacy and policing duties on the sides. The Love Boat in space, with a shmear of galactic patrol. The show is a highlight reel of these few moments of tension and heroism that occasionally occur on an otherwise leisurely and uneventful journey.
That Enterprise holds something that its predecessors did not: replicators. That fact alone makes all the difference. Replicators can materialize anything out of thin air, on demand and for free. They can produce food, clothing, objects, even weapons (if the ship’s safety protocols are disabled). They are the ultimate economic machines, a metaphor for robots and automation. Their presence establishes that by the Next Generation's date (or ‘stardate,’ as the Captain’s logs voice-overs state at the opening of each episode), the share of human labor in society has shrunk down to almost nothing. Jean-Luc Picard's world, the 24th-century Federation, has very little in common with Kirk's and Spock's world.
The center of gravity of this book is therefore Star Trek’s 24th century. This is not to discount the importance of The Original Series. It was in fact groundbreaking. It contributed the key building blocks for trekonomics: the characters’ altruism and their inclination towards science, as well as the uniquely utopian tone of the series, its optimistic vision of a humanity pacified at long last.
THE ISLAND OF UTOPIA
By a fortuitous coincidence of the calendar, 2016 is not only the 50th anniversary of Star Trek; it is also the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia. That short epistolary novel spawned the literary tradition that bears its title. Science fiction, and therefore Star Trek, are its legacy.
Utopia literally means ‘not a place’ or ‘nowhere’ in Greek, which signals the speculative nature of both the book and the genre. In Thomas More’s landmark work, Utopia is a fictional island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Its inhabitants live happy lives in their perfectly organized yet hypothetical nation. In keeping with the philosophical program of the Renaissance, Thomas More rediscovered Plato’s Republic and adapted it for his time and place. However, in contrast to Plato’s classic opus, Utopia was a story rather than an abstract and prescriptive treatise.
Utopia was inhabited by people, albeit fictitious, and thus the author’s discourse was embodied. By disguising his blueprint for a harmonious polity in narrative garbs, Thomas More invited readers to identify with the characters and their circumstances. He walked them through the island’s fictional society, so to speak, instead of presenting them with a ready catalog of schemas and plans. While the story could be mined for More’s views on the ideal form of government, it read above all as satire and critique of the present.
Thomas More’s lasting intervention was to paint the island of Utopia as a better place whose existence was chiefly a potential in the minds of readers. That dramatic artifice, More’s bolt of pure genius, helped define a tradition that spanned several centuries. It produced among the most provocative and most popular works in the history of ideas. From its inception, Star Trek shared the same levity and playfulness with those tales from the past. It rightfully belongs in that noble literary tradition.
While it owes much to the utopian genre, Star Trek is also, primarily, science fiction. It is known the world over for its starships, its aliens and its extrapolations of technology. Its overriding contract with the audience is to probe the consequences of progress.
The problem for Star Trek was that although the progeny of utopian literature, science fiction had early on broken with utopia, its intellectual forebear. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein epitomized that departure from the idyllic comforts of Utopia. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, Frankenstein captured the awe and the terror of the machines humans had unleashed upon the world. Such was the power of Shelley’s creature that to this day, dystopia, the ‘bad place,’ remains the dominant story in science fiction.
The enduring resonance of Shelley’s template may explain why Star Trek’s brand of economic utopia has very few precursors or antecedents in science fiction itself. Star Trek presents intelligent machines and technological change as unequivocally beneficial, instead of threatening or even apocalyptic. In that, it stands largely athwart its own genre - science fiction - and in many ways it stands out from the rest of popular culture.
TREKONOMICS: CAPITAL IN THE 24TH CENTURY
Science fiction and economics share an oft-overlooked kinship. Both are preoccupied with change, and predictions about change. The future is their province, but not just any future: the future of society. One approaches it through mathematical tools, the other through narrative flourish. Both, however, derive their conclusions from careful observation of the world as it is. And both usually fail. As atomic physicist Nils Bohr once said, predictions are hard, especially about the future. But the very manner in which they fail matter, because they force us to think about our present condition in a new light.
Good science fiction such as Star Trek is great fun. Yet, at the same time, like economics it is meant to be deadly serious. Its mission is to explore the ‘new life and new civilizations’ that lie ahead of us. What are the economic, social and even psychological consequences of technological change? What will become of us humans, and what can we become in a world that runs on automata?
Indeed, the rapid rise of automation in our everyday life is generating deep and legitimate anxieties. Many recent books have investigated the economic consequences of the coming of intelligent robots. Their conclusions are fraught and worrying. Countless people are already losing their livelihood to automatons, and even the more specialized professions, from doctors and surgeons to financial analysts and engineers, stand to be mercilessly replaced as machines continue on their current trajectory of exponential improvement.
These anxieties are entirely about the political economy of technological progress. Who will reap the benefits of such wondrous inventions? Are we headed towards an even more unequal and oligarchic society? Star Trek hints that among the many potential paths forward, there is at least one that is not uniformly bleak and dystopian. Star Trek proposes the prototype of a society where the replacement of human labor goes hand in hand with an even distribution of wealth. The show remains tantalizingly vague on the policies needed to reach such harmonious and blissful outcome. There is no step-by-step guide on how to get there in Star Trek, except maybe to build a faster-than-light spaceship and to encounter pointed-eared benevolent aliens, the Vulcans. And voilà!
For fans and interested observers alike, this writer included, the first impulse is to treat that missing piece of the show as Dr. Martin Cooper did with the cell-phone. It is the can-do spirit of the enthusiast - let us try to make it work with what we have now at our disposal. That is not illogical, given the proven success of that approach in the realm of technology. Unfortunately, policy prescriptions are not nearly as straightforward as inventing new machines, if only because the global economy is a very complex and dynamic system. One cannot as easily reverse-engineer the future of society like a gadget or a gizmo.
WHAT’S IN THIS BOOK
Everything has been written about Star Trek. The physics of Star Trek, the technology, religions, philosophy, political science, the history of the various shows, the actors, Gene Roddenberry and so on. There are hundreds upon hundreds of books about every minute aspect of the franchise. And yet, surprisingly, despite that avalanche of works, scant attention has been paid so far to the economic theory behind Star Trek’s vision of the future. This is the book I really wanted to read but could not find anywhere.
Hence, my primary objective is to describe the economics of Star Trek. The idea is to take a step back: instead of trying to reverse-engineer the future one piece of technology or one policy fix at a time, I attempt to take Star Trek at its own word, to give credit to its economic imagination. Exploring how to get there makes very little sense without a clear picture of what it actually is.
Furthermore, to my great surprise, in the process of researching and writing this book, the question of possibility gradually dissolved. It turned out that Star Trek's main economic thesis, that machines can eventually free us of the drudgery of work, is almost as old as the industrial revolution itself. It is not at all crazy. On the contrary, it seems rather logical given the trajectory of the past two centuries. Human activity has quickly moved away from the purely physical towards the mental and the symbolic. Meanwhile, more or less autonomous machines have taken on the task of transforming raw materials on an hitherto unimaginable scale. Star Trek's utopia is nothing more than the world that awaits us on the other side of that great social metamorphosis, provided that we decide to distribute our newly acquired freedom evenly and that we avoid boiling our planet.
The first chapter deals with the glaring absence of currency in the Star Trek universe. How does the Federation function without the pricing mechanism? What is lost and what is gained by renouncing money as both a unit of account and as an information signal? In a society where the 'economic problem' has been overcome, money is of very limited usefulness.
The second chapter is interested in the status of human labor in Star Trek. It describes the paradoxical fact that while there is no need to work in Star Trek's utopia, everyone seems incredibly busy. What existential meaning can be derived from work when sentient mechanical beings can make anything better and more efficiently than humans?
The third chapter focuses on the replicator, the machine that enables Star Trek's post-scarcity. The replicator serves as a metaphor and a stand-in for automation, as well as the fictional endpoint of the industrial revolution. The replicator's place in Star Trek's society rests entirely on the political decision to make it free and available to everyone as a public good.
The fourth chapter takes on the issue of natural limits to economic growth. If there is to be post-scarcity, that is, infinite social wealth, how can such proposition be even remotely consistent with the old notion that natural resources are limited? Notable examples of technological substitution help demonstrate that Star Trek's society does not break economic theory.
The fifth chapter investigates the question of negative externalities. While Star Trek's society is indeed capable to manage common resources, alien species are much less inclined to do so. The chapter presents an analysis of a Star Trek-inflected prisoners’ dilemma game to demonstrate that even the most rational and well-governed of societies is powerless when confronted with an uncooperative foreign actor. The chapter touches upon the work of Elinor Ostrom, who tried to describe how to create institutional solutions for mutually beneficial collective action.
The sixth chapter offers readers and trekkies a breather. It proposes a brief intellectual history of Star Trek and trekonomics. Strangely enough, Isaac Asimov’s oeuvre excepted, the abolition of human labor is seldom an object of science fiction. Trekonomics is essentially a reworking and a deepening of Isaac Asimov's main inventions (he famously coined the term 'robotics' in 1941, at the tender age of 21).
Chapter 7 discusses human behavior and human nature. Star Trek characters such as Spock and Captain Picard have nothing in common with 21st century humans. They can freely devote their lives to science and justice precisely because they are free from economic necessity. The remarkable weirdness of the show's beloved protagonists illustrate how, under conditions of post-scarcity, most economic behaviors and psychology (naively taken as immutable and natural) disappear.
The penultimate chapter is all about the greatest alien species in all of Trek - the odious and disgusting Ferengis, that is, us. The Ferengis are the capitalists and merchants of Star Trek's galaxy. Yet even them, the most hardened of profit-seeking species can change. All of Star Trek's third show, Deep Space 9, is in fact the story of how the Ferengis abjure their old traditions and become Keynesian social democrats.
Chapter 9 reveals how Star Trek’s cornucopian society is in fact already here, albeit local and and unevenly distributed. Expanding prosperity, combined with the spread of global public goods, the rise of ‘free’ stuff, are bringing our world ever closer to trekonomics. The challenge is distribution rather technology.
PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR AS A YOUNG FAN
You seldom meet people who develop a love for science fiction in their later, more serious years. Maybe because science fiction exerts special and enduring powers of enchantment over children. For those of us who catch the bug early, science fiction plays a pivotal role in who we become as grown-up citizens. It is a teacher and a moral compass. It shapes lifelong pursuits.
I was introduced to Star Trek and science fiction by one of those rare persons who had embraced fandom in adulthood. As I mentioned earlier, can trace it all back to that day in 1980 in Paris, when a friend of my father's took me with her to see the newly-released Star Trek movie. Her name was Dina Gertler. She was a psychoanalyst, a colleague of my dad’s. Like him she had emigrated to Paris from Israel, but by way of Hungary. She was a Holocaust survivor. Science fiction had not made her, but she claimed it had saved her.
My parents were not exactly thrilled. To them anything that began with ‘Star’ was bound to be super violent Yankee crap. That is why they had denied me the chance to go see Star Wars back when I was five. And they still had to be convinced for Star Trek. Lucky for me, they trusted Dina’s professional judgment. Her considered opinion as a therapist was that Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not going to cause any lasting psychological damage. On the contrary, she argued that it would be very beneficial, that it would heighten my budding interest in science and technology. Basically, she had sold them on Star Trek by playing the good grades card. I remember her joking afterwards that my parents were boring and didn't know any better.
Up until that point my exposure to science fiction had been minimal, limited to France's national treasure, Jules Verne, and playground echoes of Star Wars. Star Trek: The Original Series was not shown on French TV, and besides we did not have TV at home (another one of my parents' anti-imperialist decrees).
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, then, was my first encounter with Kirk, Spock and the ship itself. The Enterprise, revealed in all its glory by Douglas Trumbull’s and John Dykstra’s special effects, was the most amazing and majestic starship I had ever seen on a screen (obviously, I had been forbidden to experience the total sensory assault that is Star Wars' opening sequence).
When the movie was over, I really, really did not want to leave the bridge of the Enterprise. I had to make that experience last. I still remember that very precise feeling, equal parts wonderment, recognition and melancholy: this was the place I had been looking for, this was where I wanted to live, this was where I belonged. I had found my promised land. Pity it was all fiction and make-believe.
Afterwards, seeing my unbridled enthusiasm for the movie, Dina proceeded to feed me science-fiction books on a regular basis. They were both French translations and English originals, with gaudy covers and names that did not sound like the kind of stuff you were supposed to read in school, especially if you were trying to be a good student.
It is not like science fiction was an escape from the material circumstances of my daily life. My parents were as solidly middle-class as Parisian intellectual professionals could be. Sure, they had their quirks and their absurd demands. All parents do, and kids abide if only to get them off their backs. But my daily life was fine and uneventful. There was very little to escape.
The thing was, we were Jewish. Irreligious and miscreant, as expected in a household headed by Freudian analysts, but Jewish nonetheless. My dad was from Israel, a foreigner, an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land. There was no stigma or overt racism attached to that, especially in our rarefied, cosmopolitan milieu. But still, I had a funny name, and I looked just a tad too Mediterranean not to stand out. Every time a teacher or one of my friends' moms garbled my name or asked me to spell it out loud, even with the best of intentions, I was reminded that in their eyes I was not from here.
This may sound inconsequential to grown-ups, but kids do not take words lightly, and they are logical to a fault. So if my name raised eyebrows repeatedly and consistently among a wide sample of the natives, then it followed logically that my name was indeed odd and foreign. And if my name got such treatment, then what about all the rest? The accumulation of minuscule slights is quite an education. It warps you as surely as direct, frontal assaults of bigotry. From that experience, you grow with two demonstrably true yet contradictory realities: I am and I am not from here, this is and is not my hometown, this is and is not my culture or my country.
To me, diving head first into Star Trek and science fiction was the opposite of an escape. It was a revenge fantasy, the kind that kids and members of minority groups tell themselves to cope with the complete unfairness of the world. Thanks to science fiction I could renounce my French citizenship in all but the paperwork. I had pledged my allegiance to the future. Origins, skin color, the shape of your ears, none of that stuff mattered on the bridge of the Enterprise. Only your brains and your talent. Country? Pfff. There were no countries in Star Trek or Asimov! Outdated and irrelevant, a barbaric idea and a temporary annoyance. Besides, I was not from here, I was from the future, and it was an immeasurably better place. So it did not exist, so what? Neither did the place of my supposed foreign origins, the one unwittingly ascribed to me by the casual and ordinary racism of the locals. At least the future was a place of my own choosing. It was the land of imagination.
From the get-go, fandom was a refuge, a way to deal with the anxiety of not fitting in, of growing up ever-so slightly different. I can only assume it is a rather common occurrence. But fandom was definitely not a social activity or a way to make new friends. These were the early eighties, I was in France, science-fiction was completely marginal. Beyond Star Wars, kids my age couldn't care less, and my parents sneered at it.
The only other person I knew who was a fan was Dina, and she was a mystery to me. I had an inkling that she had survived the war and the camps because of the tattoo on her forearm, but I did not know the specifics. I knew about the tattoos because my grandfather had one, too (although he was not a science fiction fan at all).
She was from Budapest, that I knew. She spoke several languages and seemed to be well-read in all of them. She laughed a lot. She had a crystalline, generous, innocent laughter. Every time she would come to dinner at our place, she would bring new books for me. My parents were a bit concerned, they really believed science-fiction was as bad as Walt Disney, that it was not at all the kind of literature that would help me succeed in life. The fact that they thought there was such a thing as literature that makes you successful says more about the absurdity of the French educational system than about them. Dina made light of their aesthetic unease, she called them snobs in front of me.
Much later she had told me more about her life. You see, she was of a different breed than you and me. She was a superhero, a true one, not some ridiculous comic-book invention.
By birth she was a member of that strange tribe, the Hungarian Jews. No community of comparable, minuscule size had nurtured more Nobel Prize recipients and giants of the arts and science than the pre-war Budapest Jewry. It is an oddity that so much of the modern world, from the Atom bomb, astronautics and game theory to modern computing would be the brainchild of so few people.
Dina was only a therapist. She had not brought about the nuclear age nor had she broken new artistic ground, but she definitely shared the same otherworldly will to live and intelligence as her fellow Hungarians. She had survived the war in Budapest and Auschwitz as a teenager. She had been a nurse on the frontlines during Israel’s war of independence. She had lived in the US for a while, and then had settled in France. Amidst all that commotion, she had found the time and the energy to read everything and to become a psychoanalyst. As far as life goes, it doesn't get any more hardcore than hers.
That does not explain why she was such a fan of science fiction or what had led her to it. Science fiction alone could not have righted the wrongs she had suffered, nor could it have made them disappear. What kind of hope or wisdom did someone of such high culture, a Holocaust survivor, find in Star Trek?
I have very little to go on. Maybe it was not about hope at all. She passed away a long time ago and I never got a chance to ask her. This book, concerned as it is by the economics of a fictional better world, is also and above all a belated meditation on that unanswerable question.