Michael Chabon doesn’t do cynicism. But, as a father, he does struggle with pessimism. His four children — who range from 15 to 24 years old — don’t share his rosy outlook. “One of the most painful experiences for me as a father has been watching my children grow up and face this question of the future,” he tells me. “My older children express a degree of pessimism about a human future beyond the next century or two. That would have scandalized me as a kid. That idea would have been too painful for me at their age.”
Chabon, a father of four, is most famous for his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but he never rested on his literary laurels. These days, he’s writing for the Star Trek franchise, and his first foray is a self-contained short episode called “Calypso”; part of a mini-anthology series called Short Treks, which just debuted this week on CBS All-Access. The main character in this story is a father stranded on a starship, contemplating the meaning of existence. Believe it or not, this type of thing isn’t thematically that far away from the memoir Chabon put out earlier this year, a book called Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces. That book opens with Chabon recollecting the time a famous novelist advised him not to have children because it would destroy his writing career. Obviously, Chabon rejected this cynical advice.
He rejected it so pointedly he now has four kids, half of which are full-fledged adults. And this is pretty much in keeping with Chabon’s militant optimism. Chabon is so obsessed with having his kids believe in the future that he was eager to write about it — to boldly go where many lesser screenwriters — Chabon co-wrote Spider-Man 2, the good one — have gone before. Chabon wants his kids (and all of us) to see a future that they can strive towards and, in the absence of politicians or civic leaders offering such a description, he’s supplying it.
“The realization that my children feel this way has just intensified more than anything in the last few years — and now I think that their pessimism is with good reason and may be accurate,” he says.”I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a kid right now. And I say that as someone who grew up during the Cold War. The specter of mass extinction through nuclear weapons was my daily and nightly reality. I went to bed every night, thinking about that at the back of my mind. And even so, I still thought of it as a human problem, and it could be avoided and overcome. In fact, that idea was explicit in the history of Star Trek in the backstory: that we went through that horrible period, but we got out the other side.”
How we get from the turbulent world we live in, to a Star Trek-ish future isn’t super clear, but Chabon thinks there are some profoundly inspiring examples of human beings thinking about a positive future as a given.
“We need short-term solutions that are also long-term behaviors. I’m so moved by the New College at Oxford that was founded in 1379, and the same time they built the building they planted oak trees so that when 1,000 years later when the roof started to decay, they would have oak beams they could use to rebuild the roof. That kind of thinking is what we need. We need that kind of thinking to return.”
So what can parents do? We know we’re supposed to be careful about how much we expose our kids to the news every day. We know we’re supposed to think positively about the future? But how? Chabon’s answer, like his interpretation of his own writing, is profound because it’s simple. We must first assume that people will survive. Thus the current stint writing sci-fi minisodes for CBS. Thus, “Calypso”
Like the Greek goddess the story is named after, the father at the center of the story, Craft (Aldis Hodge), is a castaway. Unlike the goddess, he’s stranded on a spaceship, ensnared by a living computer named Zora (Annabelle Wallis) who seems to be in love with him. It’s like the movie Her only without Joaquin Phoenix’s self-conscience mustache or consent. Even if you’re confused about Star Trek, it would be impossible not to enjoy the scenes in which Craft dances like Fred Astaire with the spaceship’s A.I.
Wait, is this a sci-fi allegory for dads getting hooked on internet porn? Chabon laughs but says it isn’t. This story is what it is. “There’s no relationship someone has with internet porn,” he says. “This story was about a relationship.” Still, it’s a story about a father’s moment of weakness. As such, it resonates.
It’s easy to look for metaphors in the work of Michael Chabon. But the reason why he’s so good is that his writing shows him thinking very clearly, even when everything is complicated. “Calypso” is a futuristic retelling of part of The Odyssey. It’s simple in that sense, but complex in a human sense. Craft must turn away from the machine, and he finds this hard. (In a sense, the show might be more about phone addiction than porn addiction, but that’s not quite right either.)
“It’s about the possibility of forming a relationship with a machine,” Chabon says. “They become friends and then companions. And in some ways becoming lovers, whatever that would eventually mean. It’s not a Pygmalion story. It’s much more in the realm of Brief Encounter; two be people who meet and have something and have to leave it behind.”
Right now, Chabon’s dalliance with popular TV science fiction is another brief encounter. But, it won’t stay that way. This episode (or “short film” as he calls it) is just the beginning of a new phase in his writing career. He’s gambling that writing more science fiction set in the optimistic future of Star Trek can help foster a belief in a hopeful future. Which is probably why Michael Chabon decided to join the writing staff for the new Captain Picard Star Trek series airing sometime in 2020.
Hopefully, we’ll all be around to watch it.
Michael Chabon’s Short Treks installment, “Calypso” is streaming now on CBS All-Access.