Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Z is for ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha


Since this is the last post for the A to Z Challenge, I wanted to keep this post short and sweet.

In the universe of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha is the name of the galactic sector in which Earth is located.  This is a designation given by outsiders.  The entry in the Guide regarding Earth is also written by an outsider, and it consists of one word: Harmless.  Ford Prefect tries to make Arthur Dent, who as an Earthling is disgruntled by this lackluster entry, unsuccessfully tries to comfort him by saying the new edition will have an expanded entry.  Earth will soon be described as “mostly harmless.”

In encountering this interaction, I have a few thoughts.  Douglas Adams, brilliant as he was, couldn’t provide a true outsider’s perspective.  After all, he was a human being, at least insofar as he could tell.  He simply poked fun at a world of which he was inextricably a part.  How might an actual alien species describe our world and the people in it?  Would we seem impossibly strange to them?  Quaint?  Disgustingly violent?  What other outsider's perspectives have you seen in science fiction?  What might be the value in attempting to view our culture from an outsider’s perspective?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y is for Youth


Within the field of medicine, many have been working tirelessly to extend our lives and improve our health.  I discussed this in my post for I where I dealt with the concept of immortality.  When humans envision living forever, they typically envision themselves living out that forever in a youthful, healthy body.  Perhaps why there have been so many stories that focus on the mythical fountain of youth.  It sounds pretty enticing, at least on the face of it.  Take a drink of this water, and you will stop aging.  Frozen in time in the physical sense, you get to live on in the world, experiencing all it has to offer.

“Youth is wasted on the young.” –George Bernard Shaw

“In youth we learn; in age we understand.” –Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

These quotes make it easy to see one of the ways that eternal youth appeals to us.  We cherish the wisdom that comes with age, but we lament the loss of the strength, endurance, and beauty that goes hand-in-hand with youth.  If we can gain eternal youth, we could have wisdom along with the benefits of youth.

There are problems with eternal youth, though.  When those around you age and die, it’s hard to form lasting relationships with people, either because of jealousy on their part, or fear of losing them on your own.  Your immortality sets you apart, leaving you separate from humanity.  In the film The Man From Earth, a man in modern times reveals that he was born as a caveman, and through some fluke of genetics, has been able to live for more than 14,000 years.  He stopped aging in his mid-thirties, and while he has had injury and illness befall him, he has always healed and continued on with his life.  Unfortunately, the fact that he no longer aged made him an object of fear for many, who assumed it had to be due to some kind of evil influence.  He started moving from place to place, staying for only about 10 years in each location before moving on.  In the film, he decides to tell his colleagues the truth about himself, reactions range from fascination to outrage.  Some parts of this film may be considered controversial for some, and the fact that it is all dialogue mean that it isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was an intriguing movie.  If one of your friends revealed that they were immortal, how would you react?  Would you doubt them, would you envy them, or would you want to try to understand?

However, what if all humans were suddenly blessed with eternal youth?  Birthrates would either need to decline significantly, or we would need to expand and colonize other worlds.  Would humans lose an appreciation for life, or would we embrace the benefits of a seemingly limitless lifespan and explore all the universe has to offer?

Monday, April 28, 2014

X is for Xeno-


The prefix xeno comes from the ancient Greek xĂ©nos.  Both refer to something that is foreign, and denotes a lack of familiarity.  When we are unfamiliar with something, it can often be strange, even frightening.  The word xenophobia denotes a fear of that which is alien.  This is a common fear, and makes sense given our history.  Humans form tight-knit communities as a means of self-preservation, but anyone coming in from the outside could conceivably pose a threat.  Luckily, we also have the ability to reason, so many of us do not let xenophobia get the best of us.  (Though, in my opinion, there are still far too many people who live with an unfounded fear of those who are different from them.)  Xenophilia, a term that one hears less often, refers to a love of that which is foreign.  As a science fiction geek, I may have a touch of Xenophilia, but that’s fine with me.

Science fiction, after all, deals in things that are alien.  This can mean the presence of an actual alien species, though it can simply be anything that is different.  In this day and age, one can be said to be xenophobic if they fear different human cultures, and we’re all part of the same species. 

There is plenty that anyone would recognize within science fiction.  Humanity is often at the forefront of science fiction stories, and we ride along as the humans in the story engage with whatever forces are threatening them or their way of life.  The presence of humanity gives the reader or viewer something with which they can relate.  It gives them a foothold so they can enjoy a story that is otherwise replete with the unfamiliar.  If everything were strange to the audience, most of them would likely feel alienated and unengaged.

Even things that we are relatively familiar to us can be something we see as “other” in a story.  Technology may advance to the point of feeling strange and threatening in a way we never expected.  People we know may be changed by an outside influence.  This influence can be alien in nature, or it can be a frightening disease that threatens humanity.

Do you have any experiences with xenophobia or xenophilia?  What kind of encounters with alienness do you find most frightening?  The most intriguing?  Why do you think we have both a natural fear and a natural curiosity about the unknown?  Which of those natural reactions to the unknown do you think should be embraced?  Or are both a good thing, as long as we use reason to guide us?


Saturday, April 26, 2014

W is for Warfare


If there’s anything we’ve become better at over the course of human history, it’s waging war.  There was a time when we were limited to the use of bows and arrows, swords, or similar weapons.  The invention of the gun made it a bit easier to kill your enemy, but now we have nuclear weapons.  Such weapons of mass destruction can take out large numbers of people at a time, as well as devastate the ecology of the area.

It isn’t surprising that science fiction often shows us war in the future.  As much as I hope we eventually get past our tendency for destruction, it isn’t unrealistic to assume that warfare will continue to change as we advance technologically.

In Star Wars, The Empire constructs the Death Star, which is capable of destroying an entire planet without much problem.  Babylon 5 also shows that both the Vorlons and the Shadows have their own planet killers.  These aren’t the only examples of such technology being used.  Never mind the issue of how you’d begin to power such a device.  How can we ethically justify destroying an entire planet?  Would it ever be justifiable?  Does it depend upon the level of threat the inhabitants of that world pose to our own people?  How do we determine whether they are a big enough threat to justify resorting to such drastic means?

Babylon 5 also shows a kind of brutal planetary assault at the end of the Narn-Centauri war.  The Centauri used mass drivers to accelerate asteroids to hit the Narn home world.  Mass Drivers had been outlawed by every civilized planet, so this action stirred up a lot of controversy.  This assault killed millions of Narns, destroyed the Narn infrastructure, and wreaked havoc on the environment.  How does this compare to an action such as dropping an atomic bomb?  What use of weaponry is too barbaric?  Too widespread?

Warfare also includes gathering information.  We frequently encounter telepaths in science fiction, who could easily be used as intelligence operatives.  Would employing such a method be unethical, or could it be justified if doing so saves lives?  Is there a fundamental difference between searching someone’s desk for information vs. invading their mind?  They are both forms of intrusion, after all, though one seems a tad more personal than the other. 

Various forms of torture could also be used to extract information from people.  The use of torture is controversial as it is, but time will surely help us develop new and more effective means of extracting information from unwilling people.  In your mind, can torturing someone for information be justified under certain conditions, or is it always wrong?

Friday, April 25, 2014

V is for Virtual Reality


Virtual reality is frequently seen in science fiction, and that can hardly come as a surprise.  Today people spend considerable amounts of time and money on video games, as well as movies and books.  People love to immerse themselves in worlds outside their own reality.  There’s no reason to believe the desire to do this will disappear anytime soon.  And as technology progresses, we can likely expected even greater levels of realism when it comes to such recreational activities.

Image courtesy of
Victor Habbick/
FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The benefit of video games for many is that they’re interactive.  However, something like the holodeck from Star Trek is completely immersive.  Red Dwarf also deals with this concept with total immersion games.  These games could allow you the opportunity to visit any place and to live any life that you want.  (I’ve also read the Red Dwarf novels, which delve into greater detail about these.  Apparently some people become so addicted to the games that they actually starve to death in the real world.  For some, real life might genuinely be the unappealing a prospect, I suppose.)

Holodeck addiction also became an issue in Star Trek TNG.  Reginald Barclay struggled to deal with people.  He was nervous, and generally didn’t know how to interact with living, breathing people.  Within the simulated world of the holodeck, he could act without fear of judgment.  It gave him the freedom to be who he wanted to be.  Of course, he also allowed his holodeck time interfere with his duties from time to time.  In the Star Trek Voyager episode “Human Error”, Seven of Nine also had a problem with this when she used to holodeck to perfect her social skills and try her hand at having an intimate relationship.  Janeway also had a holo-romance in “Fair Haven,” though she questioned the wisdom of such a relationship, primarily because he wasn’t real.  Why are real world experiences considered more valuable or meaningful than the ones you can have on the holodeck?  Is it because of our responsibility to real people?  Or do we, subconsciously or otherwise, consider simulated experiences fundamentally inferior?

Is virtual reality pure escapism?  After all, one of the benefits of the holodeck and other such inventions is that it can make the experience feel intensely real.  If we wanted only to escape reality, why would the realism inherent in virtual reality technology be so important?  Or would we use virtual reality to live the kind of life that real-world circumstances might deny us?  If it adds something meaningful to our lives, should we consider those experiences as inferior, or should we celebrate them with the understanding that we need to balance them with real life experiences?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for Utopia


In the realm of science fiction, we often try to imagine societies that have improved past the arguably dire state of our own.  If you look at today’s world as a whole, there’s a lot of room for improvement.  The question is, how do we work on our problems in a way to make things better for everyone?  Is that even possible?  Differences in ideologies and values systems, as well as personal experience, mean that we’ll all have a different idea on how to go about turning our world into an ideal place.  We may have an idea of how we want the world to be, but there will undoubtedly be plenty of people who disagree.

Many kinds of utopian societies have been envisioned.  Perhaps someone’s idea of utopia is to live within a tight-knit community of people who hold the same religious beliefs as they do.  Historically, plenty of communities have been founded for this express purpose.  I live in Iowa, so I am inclined to mention the Amana Colonies as an example.

The proposed religious utopian community New Harmony.
Image found here.
There were also communes in the 1960’s that sought to bring people together to live off the land and come up with new ways to govern themselves as a group.  That is also the same time period that brought us feminist utopias presented within the realm of science fiction.  Joanna Russ’ The Female Man is an example of this.  In this novel, four different women from parallel worlds encounter one another, and the conflicting ideas of gender roles they each have challenges them and the reader to question the assumptions of gender that we might make.  Books like this were born at that time because women were fighting to be seen as equals and yearned to be able to define themselves on their own terms.

Star Trek shows us a kind of utopian society.  They’ve abolished money, poverty and war are nonexistent (at least between human beings-worlds that exist outside The Federation still cause plenty of problems), and people work with the goal of bettering themselves and the rest of humanity.  Science and technology add to the quality of life.  It’s not all perfect, of course.  Individuals can still be corrupt, can still crave power for personal gain.  And since not all sentient beings ascribe to the same ideals and live within this utopian society, threats still exist.

What would your idea of a utopian society be?  Is it even possible to come anywhere near creating a utopian society?  If you don’t believe it’s possible, do you think it’s even worth trying?  If you were to go about creating a utopia, how would you engage with those who disagree with your ideas about what a utopia would be?  Do you find depictions of utopian societies interesting, or do dystopian narratives resonate with you more?  Why? 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for Time Travel


I couldn’t do a science fiction theme without addressing time travel, now could I?  The Star Trek franchise has used time travel many times, along with Babylon 5 and various other shows.  Doctor Who has existed for 50 years for a reason.  People enjoy the idea of time travel.  We love the idea of connecting with the past, and the possibility of changing the things that went wrong.  Quantum Leap anyone?

There are lots of ways to come at the theme of time travel.  We could talk about paradoxes, which are always fun.  We could look at the different ways that time travel has been used to good effect in fiction.  I considered various ways of tackling this subject, but in the end I decided to look at the ethics of time travel.  After all, I’ve been looking at ethical issues throughout this challenge, so why not?

If we gained the ability to travel through time, should we use it, and if we choose to do so, in what way should we use it?

If it were possible to use it as observers without actually interacting with events, think of all the things we could learn.  Then again, think of the cultural heroes we admire now, the people who inspire so many.  It’s perfectly possible that they too had their demons, and that learning the full truth about them could dishearten many.  Would it be more of a curse than a blessing to learn these kinds of truths, or is it always better to believe the truth than in a lie?
Image courtesy of
LabLayers/
DeviantArt
Then, if we decide that we can interfere in the past, to what extent should we be allowed to do it?  Even The Doctor, who changes events all the time, knows when to be careful, and he warns of fixed events that cannot be changed.  We would need rules that determine what can be changed and what can’t.  Events such as the Holocaust were horrific, and we could save so many people if we went back in time to try to change it.  However, this is an event in history that impacted so many, how can we even begin to imagine the impact such a change would have?  There’s also the question of whether we could even change it.  The revival of The Twilight Zone brought us the episode “Cradle of Darkness,” where a nanny sought to kill Adolf Hitler as a baby.  In the end, she killed an innocent child and ensured that Adolf would grow up in the other child’s place.  Time is tricky that way.  And even if that nanny had killed the real Adolf Hitler, can we ethically justify killing someone who has not yet done any harm?

If we did have a set of rules governing how we tinker with time, who would make those rules?  Who should have the right to decide which events determine our future?  In the film Galaxy Quest, we see the Omega 13 device, which allows someone to jump 13 seconds into the past.  That is enough time to rectify a single mistake.  At this small a level, we cannot see what the consequences might be of such alterations, and it could conceivably save lives.  Yet, once the mistake is made, is it within our right to go back and change it?

It’s also worth noting that the Star Trek universe has a Temporal Prime Directive, but people tend to flagrantly ignore it.  Maybe it’s worth considering whether people will actually follow the rules at all before we make time travel a reality.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Doctor Who-Take On Me

The animation is stunning in this video that hails back to a classic music video while celebrating the awesomeness that is Doctor Who.  Enjoy!

S if for Symbiosis


Symbiosis refers to an interdependency between two different species.  We see examples of symbiosis all the time, though we may not always recognize them for what they are.  Our own digestive tracts are filled with bacteria.  The bacteria have a warm, nutrient-filled environment in which to thrive, and they help us process the foods that we eat.

The following video does a great job of explaining the different types of symbiotic relationships in greater detail.


We see plenty of examples of symbiotic relationships in science fiction.  In the Star Trek universe, we see the Trill, a species that can play host to a symbiont.  Not all Trill are paired with a symbiont, but those who are gain the memories of the new creature inhabiting their body.  The person playing host is permanently altered by the experience, and the symbiont is able to have a many new experiences they wouldn’t have been able to enjoy before.  The joining undeniably changes them both, but what kind of symbiotic relationship do they have?  It’s certainly beneficial for the symbiont, but could it be beneficial for the Trill as well?  Trill society, after all, reveres the idea of being a host, perhaps because it has been a fact of life for so long that it’s become an integral part of the culture.  Not all Trill can be hosts, so perhaps this too makes it seem like being chosen is an honor rather than an obligation.  How would you feel about having another intelligent organism living inside your body, knowing that you would never be the same as you were beforehand?

We also have the terrifying scenario in Alien, where the xenomorphs reproduce using the bodies of other creatures to reproduce.  The process is nonconsensual, and the births are violent, resulting in a gruesome death for the host.  We are treated as little more than incubators, our humanity denied.  Does this make the xenomorphs monstrous?  Or, since it is crucial to their survival, should we look at it merely as a creature acting according to its instincts?

There are also plenty of examples of science fiction where we see alien intelligences taking over a creature altogether.  These body-snatching scenarios seem far more sinister than mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships, in that there seems to be no semblance of the original person left.  For beings that value the freedom to make decisions and to act of our own volition above all else, this is a horrifying prospect.  Why are body-snatching and mind control scenarios so prevalent in science fiction?  What real world fears do these stories touch upon that make them so scary for audiences?

What other symbiotic relationships can you think of?  Which kind of symbiotic relationship do you find the most disturbing, and why?

Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for Religious Belief


Humans have long demonstrated a strong need to believe in something greater than themselves.  This is the feeling from which nationalism springs.  This is the reason why we adopt personal ideologies and fight for the principles that we hold most dear.  Having a cause gives our lives a sense of meaning.  For many people, religious belief does this as well.

Some believe that this need was built into us by the intelligence that created us, while others believe that it is the result of evolutionary processes.  At this point in time, we cannot answer this question, at least in a way that will satisfy everyone, so I would prefer instead to look at the specific ways that science fiction has addressed religious belief.

Sometimes science fiction encourages us to be cautious about the ideas that we buy into.  We see a mysterious woman use technology to her advantage in the Star Trek TNG episode “Devil’s Due.”  Armed with knowledge of a prophecy and some technological trickery, she convinces the people of the planet in question that she is the devil and has come to rule over them.  The people are about to hand everything over, but Picard exposes her for the fraud she is.  A con artist turning belief against people is not new, and has happened numerous times in the real world.  Faith can give people strength, but it can also leave them vulnerable to the unscrupulous.

Other times, science fiction simply acknowledges the continued existence of religious belief.  Babylon 5 is an example of a show that does this.  While the Vorlons appear to each race differently, and have almost certainly been interpreted as angels upon their previous visits to Earth and other worlds, these things are not presented in a way that denounces religion.  The episode “The Parliament of Dreams” ends with a representation of Earth and its religious beliefs.  Instead of generalizing, the episode presents us with a long line of people, each one representing a different faith.  The takeaway message seems to be, no matter how far we come technologically, humans as a whole will still need what religious faith gives them, and that’s okay as long as we treat one another with dignity and respect.

How do you envision religion in the future?  Surely tenets of various faiths will change.  Some will die out altogether.  New ones will be born.  How will technological advancements and meeting alien species change the ways in which we view and practice faith?  How might our spiritual beliefs as a people be viewed by outsiders?  Do you think we will come to rely more and more on the answers that science gives us over time?  Will we move away from religion, or will it evolve alongside us?  Which religious traditions have you seen depicted in science fiction?  What do these faiths, both fictional and actual, say about us?


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for the Q and Other Powerful Beings


Given that the universe is estimated to be approximately 13.8 billion years old, and the Earth a mere 4.54 billion years old (with the appearance of modern humans occurring far more recently than that), it isn’t unreasonable to assume that of the intelligent alien species that may exist, a number of them came before us.  If they came before us, that means they’ve had longer to evolve and to develop their technological capabilities.

Babylon 5 shows this with the First Ones.  For the most part, the First Ones are unconcerned with the affairs of less advances species.  To them, we are like the insects you pass by on your way to run important errands.  Unless we grab their attention by being exceptionally irritating, they go about their business as if we aren’t there.

Anyone who has spent enough time immersed in the Star Trek universe knows about the Q.  At least, we know as much as they want us to know.  To humans, the Q seem to be omnipotent, immortal, god-like beings.  They can manipulate events with the snap of a finger.  They can transport your ship to another time, or a distant region of space.  They can make people disappear and reappear with little effort.  Some consider them to be a threat, while others view them as a nuisance.  Either way, when the Q show up, it can be difficult to convince them to leave.



Take this quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  The Q may appear to us to be all-powerful, but that’s because they’ve got a huge head start on us.  If we stood in their shoes, the ability to manipulate matter with the snap of a finger would not be considered magical.  Imagine a person from the modern day traveling back in time a thousand years with a supply of modern medicines.  You give a sick person antibiotics, and they get better.  Would that seem magical to them?  It probably would, simply because they don’t have the knowledge to understand how medicine works.

Why do we inject these kinds of beings into our science fiction narratives?  Is a part of us naturally drawn to the idea of beings that are infinitely more powerful than ourselves?  Do we hope that we too could achieve the kind of evolutionary pinnacle we see with the Q?  Are we acknowledging the idea that even the most bizarre of things we encounter probably has a rational explanation, even when we may not have any idea as to what it might be?  Is this a symptom of our scientific minds and our drive to unlock the secrets of our universe?  Or do we force the heroes of our stories to encounter such creatures because, in facing them and coming out on top in some way, those heroes reaffirm the idea that with determination and ingenuity, human beings are capable of accomplishing anything?

Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Population Control


One way of coping with the issues of overpopulation and dwindling resources is to institute policies concerning population control.  Today we see population control being implemented in China, where the population already exceeds 1 billion. It is hardly surprising that science fiction writers have envisioned worlds where such control is mandated by the government.

One way of controlling the population is to control who gives birth and how many babies are allowed.  In the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Ender Wiggin is bullied for being a “third.”  In a world where families are almost always restricted to bearing only two children, Ender is singled out by this.  Some see him as someone who shouldn’t exist in the first place.

We also see futures where people are required to obtain a license before having children.  In worlds where this is the norm, how do you decide who gets a license and who doesn’t?  Is it based on genetics and intelligence?  What are the ethical implications of this kind of eugenics program?  How do you balance the interests of humanity as a whole with the rights of the individual?  Should the government have any right to limit how many children their citizens have?

Sometimes people are expected to forfeit their lives.  This helps control the population, as well as eliminates many issues associated with end-of-life care.  We see this in Logan’s Run and the episode “Half a Life” from Star Trek TNG.  Should the government be able to determine when its citizens die?  How do you determine when a person’s life should end?  How can such a determination ever be made when each person’s circumstances are different?  Consider all the contributions these people might have possibly been able to make to the world had they been allowed to live.  Is the harm done to society by cutting off that potential worth the benefits of such a policy?

In the Sliders episode “Luck of the Draw,” people voluntarily take part in the lottery.  Those who win get money and all sorts of perks, but most of that will be enjoyed by their families as the winners will forfeit their lives soon after.  Should people be encouraged to make that kind of sacrifice?  Is this kind of voluntary system preferable to one that limits one’s right to have children, or should the lives of those who already exist take precedence?

What other versions of population control have you seen depicted, and what are the ethical ramifications?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for Original vs. Copy


Today I want to address the topic of duplicates.  In science fiction, a duplicate can be created through cloning, or through some kind of freak accident.  When this happens, the story in question has a great opportunity to explore the nature of identity.

Now, in thinking about how I wanted to tackle this issue, I realized a post that I wrote months ago on my writing blog addressed most of the issues that I wanted to talk about here.  So, I decided to re-post it here, not out of laziness, but because I think it's worth sharing here.  You can see the original post HERE.

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Descartes penned the famous words "I think, therefore I am."  We know we exist because we are thinking beings.  And our thoughts, our memories, are a large part of who we are.  Even when we stand at a crossroads in life, confused about which path to take, we still feel confident about our identity.  We know our name, we know about our past, we know what our dreams were as children (even when real life forces us to change gears). When someone asks us who we are, we can typically provide them with an answer deemed satisfactory by both parties.

However, life can become complicated.  And in the realm of science fiction, life altering complications are the norm.  I recently re-watched the Star Trek TNG episode "Second Chances" (Season 6, Episode 24).  In this episode, a visit to a science outpost reveals that there are two William T. Rikers.  When Riker served aboard the Potempkin eight years earlier, a transporter accident resulted in the materialization of two Rikers: one aboard the Potempkin, and one on the science station.  After living alone on the science station for eight years, Lieutenant Riker is shocked to learn of the existence of Commander Riker.


Is one of them the real Riker?  After all, we each have an idea of our own unique identity.  Would the presence of a copy threaten that unique identity?  (In thinking about this question, I wrote a poem.)  Let's run with our intuition for a minute in thinking about this question.  Say you were to walk into a scientist's lab and scanned.  Before your eyes, a perfect duplicate materializes, complete with a record of your memories.  You'd intuitively say "I'm the real me.  They're the copy."  Yet, possessing your memories up to the point of being scanned, your duplicate would likely make an impassioned case that they're the real you. Why wouldn't they?  They possess everything you do that makes you who you are.  You are both thinking beings, and you think you possess the same identity. How can that be?

In the case of this episode, Riker didn't even see a duplicate materialized.  His body was disassembled, and the information ended up manufacturing two Rikers.  Both of them came into existence at the same time with the same DNA and the same memories.  In a very real sense, there's no way to point to one of the Rikers and say "This is the real one."  At the moment they both materialized, they both had an equal right to declare the same identity. It is my assertion that for that one moment, the Rikers were very much the same person, though they inhabited different bodies.  After that moment of genesis, however, their lives proceeded down very different paths, producing distinct memories and attitudes.  Each passing day differentiated them from one another a little more. The identities they possessed became more recognizably their own.  When we see the two of them together on the Enterprise eight years later, they are certainly similar in more ways that not, and a casual observer might say they are the same person, though that is no longer the case.

If you think this scenario seems disconcerting, you're not alone.  Lieutenant Riker and Commander Riker clearly rubbed each other the wrong way.  They saw in one another what might have happened, what may have been.  They also likely felt intruded upon.  Lieutenant Riker expresses interest in rekindling his romance with Deanna Troi, which Commander Riker had left behind in the pursuit of his career.  So long as the two of them remained on the same ship, it seemed inevitable they would tread on each others toes.  It seems clear there's only enough room in our lives for one of us.

In the end, Lieutenant Riker leaves the ship to restart his career.  There was little doubt this would happen.  He has to make a new life for himself, and he could never do that on the Enterprise.  Commander Riker is our Riker.  He's the one who serves as Picard's right hand man.  He's the one we've watched play poker and trombone.  While it was fun to see the other Riker for a time, one feels more authentic than the other.  We may know intellectually that this is ridiculous, but that doesn't change the gut feeling we have.  Had we begun the series following Lieutenant Riker on the science station, our feelings would be different.

Perhaps this is why, before he goes, Lieutenant Riker decides to go by his middle name: Thomas.  He understandably wants to claim a life for himself, though to be fair, he could have just as easily said Commander Riker should change his name. Except one of them has been alone for eight years, and when he did set foot on a starship again, he clearly stood in the shadow of our Riker.  He changes because he's put in a position where he feels like an imposter, regardless of how strongly he feels about who he is.  One Riker has an entire ship of colleagues who can attest to who he is and can say that he's the Riker they know.  The other doesn't have that.  He needs to seek that out.  Deciding to claim the name Thomas is, in my opinion, an attempt on his part to embrace his own path and make a place for himself.

I know I've covered a lot here, but I'm encouraged by the questions I've raised.

  • How is our sense of self enforced by the people around us?
  • Why would a duplicate threaten our sense of identity?
  • What constitutes identity?
  • How do experiences shape our identity?  What about biology?  (Nature vs. Nurture is an old philosophical debate)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Nationalism


Nationalism is the way one identifies with and is attached to one’s nation.  A nation is typically understood, at least at this time, as the country in which one resides.  Our national identity is part of who we are.  When we honor a nation’s flag, we honor what that nation values.  We value its people, and the culture of those people.  It’s about more than borders drawn on a map.

However, ideas of what constitutes a nation can change.  If you research the definition of the word “nation” you’ll see that the concept is not so easy to pin down.  A nation can be a group of people who share a particular culture or language.  It can be a group of people represented by a formal government, which is the way we typically seem to understand it now.

Image courtesy of http://flagburningworld.com.
What does nationalism have to do with science fiction?  I can’t help but notice that, living in the United States, I hear people talk fearfully about the idea of a world government.  People have a genuine fear that a world government will not only come into being, but that such a government will inevitably change the way we live our lives.  What strikes me as interesting is that a lot of science fiction that takes place in the future depicts us as living under a world government.  Perhaps the writers simply didn’t want to get into the nitty gritty details of politics between individual nations, so they used single world government to simplify things.  Or perhaps it is because, in the future, we have learned to resolve our petty disagreements and come together.  Perhaps we have learned to see ourselves as one people who happen to have different traditions instead of different peoples altogether.  This would be more in line with what we see in Star Trek.

If we were to meet an alien race, how would the politics play out if our planet is still a conglomeration of more than 200 individual nations?  Who would have the right to speak for the world?  What would happen if one country committed an act of aggression against our alien visitors?  How would we interact with an otherworldly visitor without the benefit of a united front?

In Star Trek, we also see the Federation.  The Federation allows for each member world to govern itself, but there are still overriding principles that member worlds must uphold.  It could be seen as a nation of sorts, one that is defined by a group of core principles.  If our world were to one day belong to such an organization, what would our national identity look like?  We would surely identify heavily with our home world, but we would also be part of something beyond that, something that unites us with creatures who are much different than ourselves.  Is this a desirable thing, or do we risk losing our culture altogether under such a scenario?

Nationalism is something that can both unite and divide us.  Here’s a quote that I found quite interesting, as it highlights the divisive nature of nationalism that we’ve seen in our own world.

“Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”
Charles de Gaulle

Can the concept of nationalism be expansive enough to be useful in the future as times continue to change, or is it a concept that should be abandoned altogether?  What new ways of identifying ourselves could potentially replace it?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Monsters


There have been plenty of science fiction TV shows and films that have depicted alien creatures as monsters.  You sometimes hear alien threats in sci-fi TV shows described as “the monster of the week.”  Sometimes they come with the intention of conquering our world.  Sometimes they invade our bodies and use them for nefarious purposes.  In these scenarios, these creatures are monsters, at least from our perspective.  I contend that perspective and motivation play a crucial role in determining who is a monster and who is not. 

Let’s start with the basics.  When you hear the word “monster,” what image do you see in your mind?  According to Merriam-Webster, a monster can be a “strange or horrible imaginary creature” or “one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character.”  When I read these definitions, I am struck by how subjective these indicators are.  What makes a creature strange or horrible?  What is normal or acceptable behavior?

Anything that differs from ourselves is at risk of being classified as a monster or as having a monstrous nature.  We have a natural inclination to distrust anything that we don’t understand.  The realm of science fiction is filled with creatures that have different cultures, biologies, belief systems, etc.  When you encounter someone from an entirely unfamiliar background, there is bound to be some trepidation.

Granted, when you encounter an alien that is trying to harm you in some tangible way, it’s easy to classify them as a monster.  I’d even say you would be somewhat justified in doing so, but in dismissing them as merely being a monster, you might be missing out on an opportunity to understand them.  What is their motivation?  Why are they attacking you?  Is there a way to ensure that you can both get what you want without anyone being harmed?

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, we see the crystalline entity.  It has killed thousands of people, but the widespread destruction is part of its feeding process.  We see something similar in the Star Trek Voyager episode “Bliss.”  That creature uses a form of mind control to make people in passing ships see what they want to see, enabling it to lure the ship into its trap.  It isn’t killing vindictively though.  It’s merely feeding.  Humans kill animals all the time, and not always for food.  Does that make us monstrous?  Human beings are certainly capable of committing monstrous acts.  What kinds of acts make a human being a monster?


The story of Frankenstein comes to mind.  People refer to Frankenstein’s monster all the time, but I have to ask, who in that story was more of a monster?  Frankenstein’s creation certainly did some terrible things, but what brought him to that point?  Frankenstein had envisioned something far different from what his creation turned out to be.  He was repulsed by the sight of the creature, who had done nothing wrong at that point.  Frankenstein brought him into the world and abandoned him, though he arguably had a responsibility toward him.  With no guidance and shunned by his creator, Frankenstein’s creature had to figure out the world on his own.


Monstrosity is not an objective classification.  What do you deem to be monstrous?  Are there any creatures you feel have been unfairly labeled as monsters?

Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for the Limitations Imposed by Light Speed


According to the laws of physics, at least as we currently understand them, it is impossible to go faster than the speed of light.  That speed limit, in a cosmos as vast as ours, is problematic to say the least.

That speed limit, and whether or not it is obeyed within a science fiction story, determines the kind of story you can tell.

In Star Wars and Star Trek, we see ships moving at many times the speed of light.  Though Star Wars uses hyperspace and Star Trek uses warp, the effect is largely the same when it comes to storytelling.  The story isn’t inhibited by an inability to travel between the stars.  The protagonists in those stories are free to interact with a plethora of alien species, visit a multitude of worlds, and generally get into any kind of trouble the imagination can conceive.

Image courtesy of  Brad Wilson/
Flickr
On the other hand, there are examples of sci-fi where the speed of light cannot be surpassed, yet humans still try to travel amongst the stars.  Barring the existence of a wormhole, which has often been used even in universes where faster-than-light travel is possible to get around the any limitations those technologies may have, humans have to travel the long and slow way.  In scenarios like this, we might see humans go into some kind of long-term sleep, which enables the human players within the story to still make it to their destinations within the allotted amount of time.

However, when there are no shortcuts to be had, and no way to sleep peacefully through the journey, we get generational ships.  These are ships where generations of people are born and die before the ship comes anywhere near its destination.  They never know a life outside the ship.

I’ve never written a story of this type (though it sounds tempting), but if I did give it a try, I know a few of the questions I’d like to explore.  Let’s say there are multiple ships, each heading to its own destination, and there is limited contact between them.  How long would it take for the people aboard each ship to develop their own distinctive cultural traditions?  How long before the languages changed so much between ships that it would no longer be possible for them to talk to one another?  Evolution would also continue on its course.  How long before the people between ships differed so much that they could no long breed with one another?  How long before they no longer recognized one another as members of the same species?


And, of course, after a group has lived on a spaceship for such an prolonged period of time, would it even be feasible for them to settle on a new world?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for Kinship


The term kinship often refers to blood relationships, or, in other words, relationships between family members.  The history of our own world has shown us a variety of family structures, but I contend that kinship extends beyond blood.  As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.”  We form complex bonds with those around us, bonds that influence who we are.  In the realm of science fiction, where alien species enter the picture, and where human societies have evolved over time, the kinds of families and social networks one can form will inevitably be more varied than we are used to in this day and age.

One book that comes to mind is Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  In this story, a human man visits Gethen, a world inhabited by ambisexual people.  They spend most of the time as androgynous, nonsexual beings, but for a few days out of the month, they enter kemmer, where they become either male or female based on the acquired gender of an interested partner.  In this world, any one person could be a mother to a child, and a father to another.  This is a strange concept for the human in the story to comprehend, and it certainly challenges our traditional notions of family.  In our daily lives, we relate to one another as male or female.  What would it be like if those distinctions did not exist?  How would families form?  Would there be less of a focus on the nuclear family and more of a focus on extended family?

Sometimes science fiction portrays alien species with three genders, all of which are necessary for the act of procreation.  The Star Trek Enterprise episode “Cogenitor” brings us the Vissians, who have the male, the female, and a cogenitor.  The cogenitor, while necessary for the reproductive process and demonstrably intellectually equal to males and females, it is not granted the same rights.  This inequity highlights how, as humans, we are often uncomfortable with anyone who does not conform to our standards for how males and females should behave.  Those who fall outside those established definitions is sometimes met with hostility.

Another novel that I’d like to look at is Clay’s Ark by Octavia E. Butler.  In this book, an alien life form has infected a group of humans, igniting in them an intense need to reproduce.  They have isolated themselves to protect the rest of the world from infection.  Monogamy disappears as those infected need to mate, whether there is an unattached partner for them or not, and the children who are born from these couplings are definitely not human.  Still, the parents love their children, and the nature of their situation bonds all of them together.  They are essentially one large, albeit unconventional, family.

What is family?  How do the varied expressions of family and relationships in science fiction reflect who we are?  Why do certain familial configurations make us uncomfortable, and what do you think of stories that challenge us with those dynamics?


Image courtesy of nitanita/
DeviantArt

Friday, April 11, 2014

J is for Justice



If someone commits a crime against you, what would it take for you to believe that justice had been done?  Most people would agree that it depends upon the crime, but in some fictional societies, the punishment for all crimes is the same.  We see this in Star Trek TNG, in the episode “Justice.”  In this episode, Wesley accidentally sets foot in an area that is off limits.  The punishment for that or any other transgression is the same: death.  The belief is that with such a harsh punishment for all crimes in place, people will obey the law.  This is a more extreme example of the kind of no-tolerance policies we see in many schools today.  Could this be considered justice, or is utilizing human judgment better, even though human judgments can admittedly be flawed?

In the British sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, we see another episode entitled “Justice.”  In this scenario, the crew encounters the justice zone.  Within the zone, any crime you attempt to commit is instead committed against you.  For example, if you try to commit arson, a part of your body, or the clothing covering it, will go up in flames.  This is the old eye-for-an-eye view of justice.
Image courtesy
Pearson Scott Foresman via
Wikimedia Commons

Babylon 5 explores an alternative to the death penalty, though it isn’t much different in reality.  Criminals can have their personalities wiped, and a new personality is programmed in, and this new person is expected to repay society through doing public service.  Though the physical body lives on, everything that made them who they were is gone.  Is this truly a more humane alternative to the death penalty?  Is it ultimately any different than the death penalty?  Will people feel that justice has been served?

In the Star Trek Voyager episode “Repentance” we meet a convicted murderer who has been sentenced to death for his crimes.  He initially feels no remorse for what he’s done.  After being injured, he’s injected with Borg nanoprobes.  Those nanoprobes end up repairing an abnormality in his brain, which allows him to finally feel remorse for what he’s done.  The Voyager crew contend that he is essentially a different person than he was when he committed the crime, and that he is no longer a danger to society.  However, the justice system with jurisdiction in this case leaves the punishment in the hands of the victim’s family.  The family initially refuses to examine the evidence.  They eventually look at it, but decide to go forward with the execution.  This raises many questions.  Could victims or their families possibly be objective enough to make a choice like this?  Does this kind of system really allow for justice to be done?  If the family make is the choice for someone to die, does this also make them killers, or is this choice justified by the heinous nature of the crime committed against them?

What is justice?  Can any legal system truly bring about justice, or is the term too subjective?  Or is life simply full of too many variables for any justice system to be foolproof?


(I don’t have enough space to discuss it here, but the novel The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert presents Gowachin law, which is one of the more interesting legal systems I’ve ever read about.  If you haven’t read it, I recommend it.)