So apparently it’s #trektuesday, and I thought I’d commemorate it with a piece of my own writing that I’m particularly fond of. It’s what I read for the 50th anniversary Star Trek reading hosted by the New York Review of Science Fiction here in New York in September 2016, and I think it sums up a lot of what Trek is about.
The 2005 novel Articles of the Federation is an off-kilter Trek book, as it isn’t about a starship or a space station or about any of the characters we know from television. Rather it’s about the first year in office for Federation President Nan Bacco. (Also the year following the events of the movie Star Trek Nemesis — so, among other things, she has to deal with the Romulan Senate having been turned to pixie dust, and the originator of that coup d’état being blown up by the Enterprise.)
This is a commencement speech President Bacco gave to the Starfleet Academy graduating class during that first year in office. (I’ve edited it down to just the speech without the narration.)
Ex astris, scientia. Those words are on that flag over there. It’s from an old human language called Latin. Nobody’s spoken it conversationally for several hundred years, mind you, but we like to trot it out every once in a while to make ourselves sound more interesting. It means, “from the stars, knowledge.” Which makes it kind of a funny motto for a place that has you spending the bulk of your time right here on Earth.
The thing about the stars is that they do provide knowledge—but that comes with a concomitant risk. Nothing underlines that risk more than the fact that you are the first Academy class in quite a while to have gone through your entire tenure at the Academy when the Federation wasn’t at war. And that, my friends, is something to be celebrated. Because the classes before yours either came as first-years when we were at war, or were cadets when the war was declared, or joined when they thought war was pretty damn likely. But you all are the first to come through without that particular Damoclean sword hanging over your collective heads.
There’s an old human saying—not in Latin, you’ll be happy to know—that says that knowledge is power, and another one that says that power corrupts. Since its founding two hundred and nineteen years ago, the Federation has tried to bring a message of hope and of knowledge to the galaxy. The galaxy, unfortunately, hasn’t always been impressed. We may not be at war anymore, but the possibility always, tragically, exists. The people who sat in those seats seven years ago were embroiled in a war six months later when the Dominion took Deep Space 9.
But the purpose of Starfleet isn’t to fight the Federation’s wars. That is their task—and that might be your task—when it’s required, but it’s important for all of you to remember that it is a last resort, not a first one. Starfleet was formed when the Federation was, but it grew out of Earth’s space exploration arm, and they had a Latin motto too: ad astra per aspera. It means, “to the stars for hope.” And every time we go to the stars, we’re filled with hope—no matter how many times it would be better to be filled with dread. Their job then, and your job now, is to seek out new life and new civilizations. Some of those will be like the Klingons or the Romulans or the Cardassians or the Tzenkethi or the Tholians, none of whom were kindly disposed to us at first, and some of whom still aren’t. Some of those will be like Bajor or Evora or Cairn or Delta Sigma IV, all of whom joined the Federation in the last decade. Regardless of who you do meet out there, though, you will bring the hope of peace.
It sounds funny, doesn’t it? You’ll be flying around in ships that have sufficient weaponry to lay waste to a planet—not really much of a peaceful message, is it? When we’ve had to, we have fought, and we have bled, and we have suffered—but it’s because with this Federation, we’ve found something that’s worth fighting for, worth bleeding for, worth suffering for, and yes, worth dying for. And we’ve also found that the hope we come to the stars for must be tempered with a willingness to defend what we have, because if we don’t, there are plenty of people all over the galaxy who’d be more than happy to take it away from us.
Every day I go down to the first floor of the Palais de la Concorde, and there are over a hundred and fifty people in there. Each one is from from a wholly different world than the person in the next chair, and both are from worlds wholly different from the person in the chair behind them. Yet they come together, they argue together, they discuss together, and they work together to make this Federation better than it already is. It would be easy to fall into old patterns. Before the Federation formed, Vulcan fought against Andorian, Tellarite fought against Klingon, Earth fought against Xindi, Romulan fought against pretty much everybody. But now, worlds stand together instead of apart.
I’ve always had tremendous respect for Starfleet. My chief of staff and my security advisor are former officers. Some of our finest presidents are former Starfleet—Lorne McLaren, Thelian, T’Pragh. Still, I never really understood their importance until something that happened during the war.
When the war was getting particularly bad, Starfleet sent the U.S.S. Enterprise to talk to the Gorn, see if they could be convinced to ally with us against the Dominion. Turns out their timing was pretty spectacularly awful, since Starfleet arrived just in time for a coup d’état on the Gorn homeworld. The new regime sent ships to Cestus III and actually occupied the planet for a while. In the end, though, we were saved, because the Enterprise was able to stop the violence and convince the Gorn not to count us as their enemy. They didn’t do it by force, they didn’t do it by blowing Gorn ships out of the sky, though both things did occur out of necessity. But even with a war on, even with the powerful arsenal the Enterprise had at its disposal, their captain and crew were able to negotiate a settlement, and bring the Gorn into the war. It was a show, not of force, but of ideas that led to the Gorn signing a treaty with the Federation that they signed in my office in Pike City.
Starfleet is the glue that holds the Federation together. The responsibility you each have now is to maintain this little miracle that we’ve kept going for over two centuries, through tumult and strife, through feast and famine, through war and peace. It will be difficult. All of you will face hard choices in the years ahead, if history’s any guide—and it usually is. But throughout it all, you must remember that it is from the stars that you find knowledge, it is from the stars that you find hope, and it is from the stars that you will find peace.
I’d wish you luck, but I suspect you will not need it. Simply continue to do well. Thank you.