by Jonathan Turner
“Why is there no Star Trek in Star Trek?” I asked. That was the question that started it all.
It wasn’t meant to be profound. We were killing time between–or instead of–classes, at the Science Fiction Society. Forgive me if I don’t name the university. You’ll understand later.
“Because it’d make the show really boring?” said Allen. “It’d be all, ‘Mr. Spock, have the computer figure out which episode we’re in and tell us how we fix this.'”
“Allen” isn’t his real name, by the way. None of the names I’m going to use are real, not even “Jonathan Turner”. You’ll also notice that I’m not giving you much in the way of dates.
“Sure,” I said. “That’s the real reason. But what’s the in-universe reason? I mean, Trek is supposed to be the future, right? The actual future of our actual world. Which includes a TV series named Star Trek.”
“It’s not the actual world,” Lisa objected–Lisa tends to get detail-oriented. “No Eugenics Wars.”
We had a lot of conversations like this in the SFS. We called it “The Room That Time Forgot.” It was a musty little windowless space in the basement of Wedderburn Hall with a mangy collection of fourth-hand furniture and a carpet that looked like it had been dipped in goat bile. We loved it.
“No, but think about it,” said Sean. “It’s not just Trek, it’s everything. Like, in The Terminator future, why doesn’t somebody on the Skynet project say something like, ‘Hey, guys? Remember that movie? Should we maybe not do this?'”
“When does Skynet come online?” Lisa asked.
“August 4, 1997,” said Allen, who can be relied on to know stuff like that.
“And the movie came out in . . . “
“So only thirteen years. And it’s not like the movie was obscure.”
“Ergo,” I said, “in the future shown in the movie, the movie itself either doesn’t exist or isn’t widely known. Which means that it’s not our future.”
“I’m good with that,” said Lisa.
And that should have been that. This conversation should have gone the way of the one where Allen and I worked out what happens if you cast an invisibility spell on a campfire. (Invisible photons, in case you’re wondering.) That is, we would have spread it around a bit, referenced the punch lines periodically, and otherwise gotten on with our lives.
This one recurred every so often, though, just because of the calendar. Some date would go by, and someone (usually Allen again) would point out that according to book/movie/TV show X that was the date when event Y happened. And we’d agree that they really should have checked the film archives, or whatever, so they wouldn’t have been surprised.
Eventually we all graduated. I went into quantum physics. Lisa and Allen got married; she became a high-powered government lawyer, Allen an AI researcher. Sean was the one who travelled furthest, as a globe-trotting fast-track executive for an international e-commerce company. But we never lost touch. It’s one of those groups where it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been away–you walk into the room, and it’s like you never left.
So it’s maybe not surprising that “the Trek Paradox” kept cropping up. I remember one conversation in particular. Sean had flown in from Japan, and we had gotten together for a weekend of board games and catching up.
“So it looks like Invasion: Earthlight isn’t going to happen,” Allen said, moving a tiny spaceship. (Yes, that’s a made-up title. I told you, I’m being coy about details.)
“Umm . . . good?” said Lisa.
“The antigravity boots would have been nice,” said Sean.
“Well, there’s your problem right there, sir,” I said. “Antigravity’s probably not physically possible. Call me a soulless reductionist, but I bet any future that’s scientifically impossible won’t happen.” I moved one of my own spaceships into Sean’s territory.
“You’re a mean one, Mister Grinch.” Sean made a sad face at the game board. “I don’t like this future.”
The conversation switched to pure game-speak for a while while we blew up each other’s spaceships. It popped up again when we broke for pizza, though.
“We could still get The Martian,” Sean said hopefully.
“Only if we increase Martian air pressure enough to blow over a lander,” Allen objected.
“If your name is Mark Watney, do not leave the lander!” said Lisa.
“NASA should have a checklist on their job applications,” I said. “Is your name (a) Mark Watney, (b) David Bowman . . .”
“(c) Ellen Ripley,” added Lisa, our resident Alien expert (she also does Godzilla).
“What they ought to do is take all their actual astronauts and write disaster stories about them, so that whatever they write about won’t happen.” Sean was harboring ambitions to be a writer himself, although we didn’t know that then.
“If NASA starts publishing stories where their actual rockets actually blow up their actual astronauts, I think there will be morale issues,” I said.
“Do it as non-fiction,” said Lisa, who at that point had a good dozen legal articles to her credit.
“I don’t think it would work that way.” Allen shook his head. “Suppose one expert writes that there will be a mission to Mars within twenty years, and another expert writes there won’t. One of them has to come true.”
“Stories are more specific,” I said. “‘A mission to Mars’ covers zillions of potential futures. In a story, you’re specifying one. The number of possible futures is colossal. The probability that we just happen to land in that specific future is infinitesimal.”
It has been noted that I like to lecture.
“Sure,” said Sean, “but you don’t need much specificity for a paradox. If they discover a monolith on the moon, that’s weird, right? Even if there’s no Pan Am space shuttle or HAL or whatever.”
“Well, there’s also active avoidance going on. If somebody invents humanoid androids, they’re not going to be called ‘replicants,’ because of Blade Runner. So the story actually closes off that future. When you publish a story, all futures in which people are unaware of that story become impossible.”
“I heard the guys who started Skype named it after Skynet.”
“If they did, it was because they were aware of the movie. There are no histories where people aren’t aware of the movie. Including its signature elements. So, arguably, those signature elements can’t happen.”
The conversation veered off from there, but it stuck in my head. I started wondering: could you quantify the effect? How specific would a reference have to be, before it started affecting people’s future choices? How widely spread? Does the medium make a difference? The length?
It started out as just a spare-time project in information theory. The longer I went on, though, the more connections I started seeing. We’re talking deep, fundamental results here. You’ve probably already started thinking about quantum mechanics. That’s one link, sure, but here’s another example.
In the first Star Trek movie, there’s a picture of the space shuttle Enterprise on the starship Enterprise. But the space shuttle was named after the starship. The fiction depends on the real depends on the fiction.
Just a cute little in-joke, you think? Now imagine an index card. The front says: “The sentence on the back of this card is true.” The back says: “The sentence on the front of this card is false.” That’s a famous paradox, related to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. And it turns out that if you can formally define “real” and “fictional” as analogues of “true” and “false” . . . okay, I’ll spare you the math, but take my word on it: it’s impressive.
Which is what I said at one of our later meetings. Time had moved on, and we’d all moved up. Considerably up, in fact. If I told you Sean’s real name, you’d recognize it. Allen and me you might or might not recognize, but you could Google us. Lisa you would definitely not recognize, nor does she show up on Google; recall that she works for the government, and draw your own conclusions.
This particular get-together had been short on traditional geekery and long on grousing about the state of the world. The topic came up when Lisa said something like “Dammit, why couldn’t someone have written a story where He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named won that election? Then maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
That was my cue to give the spiel. It was maybe a little longer than the summary you just read.
“Wait,” said Sean, interrupting me. “You think the Trek Paradox is real?”
“I’m not sure,” I confessed. “There might be a connection with Shannon entropy, too. If you consider the fiction as a signal from the past to the future, with specificity as analogous to redundancy–“
“Inconceivable!” said Sean. “By which I mean, Incomprehensible!”
“It’s the Even Less Certainty Principle,” Allen said.
“They called me mad,” I retorted, “but I’ll show them all! Anyway, this is just a bizarro idea. It’d take like a whole research institute to try to prove any of it.”
“So?” said Lisa with a shrug. “Let’s do it.”
To make matters short: we did it.
Sean got us corporate funding and equipment. Lisa got us government protection and data. Allen set up a quantum-computing deep neural network cluster. (If you think that’s impossible, then either you don’t know the whole truth, or I’m not telling you the whole truth.) I handled the science and math. We recruited some other friends, whom I’m not going to discuss.
And, yes, the Trek Paradox is real.
Observing changes the thing observed. A sufficiently specific prediction is equivalent to observing the future. Which changes it. The universe, at a fundamental level, does not permit self-reference. You can’t dictate what the future will be. But you can determine what it won’t be.
We quantified everything. We know how specific you have to be. We know how changes in popularity affect the result. We know why fiction is vastly more powerful than non-fiction. We know how far and fast it happens.
And in the process, we learned a lot about the future. I’m not going to tell you how. You might suppose that we learned to make pretty accurate predictive computer models. Not as good as Hari Seldon’s psychohistory (but there will never be a science of psychohistory, or a Hari Seldon). You’d be amazed what you can find out once you’ve got both secret government information sources and global-scale commercial big data.
Or maybe it wasn’t computer modelling. Maybe we actually found out that, in certain limited ways, information can travel backwards in time. You might think of the narrative and the future as being in a state of quantum entanglement. Determine one, and you instantly and time-symmetrically determine the other.
Hey, for all you know, parts of this story take place in the future. Didn’t you ever think there was something a little odd about a story that’s set in, say, the 30th century, but written in the past tense? If you did, you were right.
Are you starting to realize now why I’m being so short on specifics? But if you really want the details . . . I’m looking for a writer.
There’s a science-fiction novel I want you to write.
Call it a near-future thriller, with dystopian elements.
Maybe I could do it myself, but then what? It’s no good if the thing doesn’t get published. Publishing it is very important. So I need someone with a name, an agent, a track record.
You do the writing. I provide . . . let’s call it worldbuilding. Characters, places, dates, events. Especially events. I retain veto power; there are certain things that have to go in there.
Trust me, it will be exciting.
You can put your name on it as sole author. I don’t want any money. Any awards it wins are all yours. Assuming there are any awards left.
If we can get this thing into print by, say, November of next year, that’d be great.
“Jonathan Turner” may or may not have grown up in the academic/farming town of Amherst, Massachusetts. He’s supposedly a software engineer. There’s documentary evidence that he won a Pegasus award for songwriting, and that he wrote a Sherlock Holmes story that features a puking cowboy racing up Twelfth Avenue on the handlebars of a bicycle. Rumors that he lives in New Hampshire with one wife, three cats, and five thousand books are probably just crazy talk, though.