“Resistance is futile.”
With that catch-phrase, the 1996 science fiction film Star Trek: First Contact, introduced the Borg to the world. As a hostile cyborg hivemind, they are determined to assimilate humanity and destroy its distinctiveness in the process. The Borg are among the many enemies facing human protagonists in science fiction. Be it the Gamilas, the Buggers or the Martians, science fiction enjoys showing humanity as triumphant resistance fighters against an alien threat.
What is this trope, and why do we enjoy it so much?
Although Star Trek’s cast of protagonists never solely consisted of humans, the USS Enterprise is often an ambassador of earth’s (or the West’s) culture and values. Values such as tolerance and rational thought. And while Star Trek is a diverse franchise that covers almost every trope in the book, First Contact tells a story of humanity facing the alien threat that is the Borg. We, the audience, root for the Enterprise because that is what is familiar and close to our values, while the Borg are the strange and unknown Other.
I believe that this trope’s popularity can, to an extent, be explained by a form of nationalism. Nationalism is an ideology characterized by the promotion of the interests of a particular nation. It may sound strange to bring up nationalism, with examples like Star Trek and Ender’s Game which feature Earths where internationalism reigns supreme.
However, in both cases, nationalism has taken up (inter)planetary proportions. Instead of tales that promote or instill American values over foreign values, these stories promote “Earthly” values over alien ones.
There is an advantage to that, because in space, there are (as far as we know) no real nations to suffer from our nationalist pride. Whereas nationalism by definition promotes a particular nation over the others, sci-fi “nationalism” promotes our very own earth over fictional aliens. American Sniper was a 2014 American film about the feats of Chris Kyle, an American marksman who served in the Iraq War. This movie was both praised and criticised for its nationalism.
“Real” nationalist media is divisive, and sci-fi “nationalism” is not. No one is offended by the one-sided depiction of the Borg. We can all take pride in humanity’s feats because we are not doing so at the expense of others.
However, whether that means interplanetary nationalism is harmless remains to be seen. After all, it still generally resorts to a one-sided portrayal of the alien threat, and this does anything but foster tolerance towards the Other among the audience.
The fact that this trope tends to promote Western culture and values as representative of earth is also problematic. It marginalises different cultures and could unwittingly imply that Western culture is more advanced, because it has the values that sent humanity to boldly go where no man has gone before.
In summary, human resistance is a common trope in science fiction. It can instill a sense of pride in its audience, reminiscent of nationalism, but with the added bonus that no one is directly affected negatively. From early sci-fi novels to modern television series and online sci-fi communities, the idea of human resistance against an alien threat is popular even today.
Despite that, sci-fi authors should take a careful look at the assumptions of the trope, especially those about culture and otherness. While the interplanetary version of nationalism sci-fi offers may be less divisive than common nationalism, it still espouses intolerance towards the Other. It may be a necessary evil to trigger the feeling of warm, fuzzy pride, but it should not be ignored by authors of the trope.
If nationalism, otherisation and spaceships interest you:
Look up Independence Day (1996), Space Battleship Yamato (1974) and Ender’s Game (1985) as case studies. Also consider the rest of the Ender’s Game series as it subverts the trope in subsequent novels, studying “the other”. Finally, watch Starship Troopers (1997) – not exactly about resistance, but it is about the best example of nationalism in modern sci-fi.