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Star Trek

The Real Story

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 . . . “

“1984.”

“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.

~

Bio:

“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.

On the Android Spectrum or Aspies in Space

by Mina

To be a perfectly logical creature with no emotions and no social needs is not really perceived as an advantage by most NTs on earth in the 21st century – NTs or “neurotypicals” is what Aspies (people with Asperger’s Syndrome) call everyone else. No NT will pray to whatever god they believe in to turn them into an Aspie, whereas an Aspie may well wish they were not so. This is where science fiction greatly differs from the rest of that human construct we call the world – it is full of Aspies in major roles, not just in minor, abject ones.

Before I go any further, let’s get our labels pinned down. I dislike labelling, but it can be a helpful shorthand when you have a word limit. The two important labels for this article are Asperger’s Syndrome and PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). Both are considered pervasive developmental disorders on the autism spectrum. Both are “pure” forms of autism, not accompanied by any complications like learning disabilities. By “pure” form, I mean it is “only” a social disorder, which means a (complete) lack of empathy and real difficulties in communicating with others. It is not an illness or a handicap; the brain is simply wired differently.

Aspies appear everywhere in fiction now – think of characters who are brilliant, incapable of lying, unable to “read” the people around them (or even their own emotions), literal in their responses and who show obsessive and anxious behaviours. The brilliant is a bit unfair because Aspies are like anyone else – they can be of just average intelligence. Aspies may have a touch of PDA, which is now finally being seen as a disorder in its own right. PDA is an inability to adapt to the world or its demands, usually due to extreme anxiety. It is much harder to romanticise which is why fiction is not full of people with this disorder. PDA behaviours include aggression (leading to severe meltdowns and violence in some cases), psychotic behaviours and an internal fantasy life often more real to that person than the external world. Both Aspies and people with PDA have no empathy –they have to learn how to interact with others. They can learn to successfully navigate the world of NTs, but it is skilled acting and imitation, never more than skin deep. Neither of these disorders must be confused with childhood traumas such as Attachment Disorder, where a severe form of neglect leads to some Aspie/PDA behaviours.

So, where are all the Aspies in science fiction? They are, quite simply, in our fascination with logic, robots and androids. I will limit myself to a spectrum of R. Daneel Olivaw from Asimov’s robot novels, the Star Trek canon (Spock, Data, Lore and Lal) and a film that explodes all boundaries but could be considered a mix of fantasy and horror, “Heavenly Creatures”.

The R in R. Daneel stands for “robot”. Today, we would call him an android. Daneel has a “positronic” brain, a CPU so advanced that he is a sentient being and one who is literally “wired differently”. Daneel is the typical Aspie – he does not really understand human drives and emotions and he is very literal in his way of seeing and understanding the world. Like Aspies, he has a very formal way of talking and an expressionless face. He is an android detective partnered with a human, Elijah Baley, and, like an Aspie can, he learns from Baley. Daneel appears in four robot novels but, unlike Aspies, he is ruled by the “Three Laws of Robotics”, which artificially prevent him from harming humans.

My favourite conversation between Daneel and Baley is in “The Caves of Steel” when Baley attempts to explain the Bible and a particular story in it to Daneel. Baley describes the Bible as a code of behaviour and a higher law. He tells Daneel the story of the adulterous woman that Jesus saves from stoning (“he that is without sin, let him cast the first stone” – “go and sin no more”). Daneel struggles during the conversation to understand the case of a guilty party that is not punished as society dictates, and he is totally baffled by the notions of mercy and forgiveness. For someone without a “theory of mind” as Aspies are sometimes described (an inability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes), a parable or an allegory can be hard to grasp because it is based on a purely intuitive and emotional gut understanding of the world and other people. At the end of the book, Daneel has progressed far enough in his understanding of NTs to apply the story to the situation at hand saying: “it suddenly seems to me that the destruction of what should not be, that is, the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good”. Note though that Daneel says “you people” – he has understood how an NT would apply the Bible story but does not really feel the same way. That is quintessential Aspie.

The Star Trek canon – I shall proceed chronologically and start with Spock. He is of course not an android but a human/Vulcan hybrid. Vulcans pride themselves in being logical above all else. The original “Star Trek” series was not subtle and Spock’s character was often used for comic effect – his literal (mis)understanding of things said to him, in particular. Spock values reason and science – Aspies (with no PDA to muddy the waters) often end up in jobs where science and computers play a major role, as they function well in a structured, orderly universe. Spock has an expressionless face and a deep, mesmerising voice (this is less accurate, Aspies can creep people out with a total lack of inflection when speaking); he is loyal and makes few but lifelong friends (this is more accurate). It is not that Spock does not have feelings – Vulcans have strong emotions and primal instincts if we think of their mating rituals in “Amok time” – but he chooses not to express them (an Aspie would probably not feel that they had a choice). Apart from the moments where his abysmal social skills make for laughter, he is a respected part of the Star Trek universe and a valued part of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle. If you have nothing better to do tonight, go on to YouTube and hunt out the video of the many, many times Spock says “fascinating”. He is ultimately a positive image of an Aspie in space.

The actor Brent Spiner has said repeatedly in interviews that he did not set out to play Data as an Aspie, yet Data is the character most Aspies relate to best in “Star Trek the Next Generation”. They relate in particular to his struggle to understand social rules, taboos, manners, interactions and emotions. Data is a more pathetic figure than Spock because he wants to be something he is not. Spock is ultimately happy with who he is and chooses his Aspieness; Data is not, he is an Aspie who wants to be an NT. He is valued by the other members of the crew and saves the day on more than one occasion however, so it is not just a case of a wayward child being patronised by indulgent adults. He is shown as sensitive and, above all, curious and with a thirst for knowledge. Like Daneel, he has a positronic brain, is sentient, has an expressionless face and speaks in a formal manner. Data is also reminiscent of Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man”, an android who longs to be human and even succeeds in that most human act, dying.

The best Data episode in my opinion is “The Offspring” where he creates a daughter, Lal (“beloved” in Hindi). In her short life, Lal is “more human” than Data – her speech is more natural (she uses contractions like “I’m”) and she feels emotions. Her first emotions are fear and confusion, which I think most Aspies would relate to. Anxiety is probably the strongest emotion felt by many Aspies as they try to negotiate an alien and sometimes hostile and unkind world. Lal tells her father she loves him; Data replies he cannot feel love, yet his actions belie his words for he takes very good care of Lal and does everything in his power to save her, even if he fails in the end.

Daneel, Spock, Data and Lal are all characters that mostly call on our sympathy. We enjoy them and they are presented as “good”. If it feels like I am ignoring Seven of Nine from “Voyager”, I am. Not because of the way she is highly sexualised but because, for me, she is not a true Aspie. She is an NT that displays some autistic behaviours but is arguably a victim of a huge childhood trauma; a trauma that she learns to overcome in her dealings with other crew members in a safe and understanding environment.

Much more interesting is Data’s brother, Lore, the deliciously “evil” Aspie in the Star Trek universe. I like Lore because I am a little tired of fiction stressing the “wonders” of being an Aspie. If it’s so wonderful, why do Aspies have a higher suicide rate and suffer from depression more often than NTs? Not all Aspies grow up in a supportive environment; like anyone else, they can come from dysfunctional families and less privileged backgrounds and have their own unique hang-ups. Also, they are often presented as victims whereas a being with absolutely no empathy could be a very scary predator like Lore. Lore has absolutely no empathy, enjoys playing with others, is immoral (or at best, amoral), displays a weak sense of self and is a megalomaniac with psychopathic tendencies. Lore shows that Aspies can be the “baddies”, emotional and downright dangerous if they have not been taught to value the life and dignity of others in a meaningful way. It is a dark edge to Aspies but also a more nuanced view. And one without Asimov’s Three Laws to keep us safe.

Lore could be considered an Aspie with a large dollop of PDA. It is difficult to explain PDA to those who have no experience of it. Unlike pure Aspies, people with PDA can be very irrational. Their wild and constant mood swings, their extremely personally-directed meltdowns and aggression, their fundamental indifference to the feelings or concerns of those around them, their ability to hold an entire conversation with a cuddly toy, their immersion in a fantasy world and their lack of straight lines in anything they say can be very difficult to live with. So difficult that I couldn’t actually think of a well-known character in science fiction that displays these less than lovable traits. Whereas an Aspie can be a mad but lovable scientist figure, someone with PDA would probably be obsessing about a bedridden author they are terrorising in a Stephen King novel.

The closest I can get to a more nuanced example of PDA is a film that does not purport to be about PDA, “Heavenly Creatures”. The two teenage girls in the film, Pauline and Juliet, create fantasy worlds (Borovnia and The Fourth World) that are more real to them than the outside world and they lose themselves in their fantasies. The singer Mario Lanza, for example, is more real to them than their own parents. The girls become obsessed with each other and ruled by a fear of being separated. They end up murdering Pauline’s mother, Honora, who they blame for their predicament (blaming others can be a big part of PDA). The girls are able to kill Honora because they feel no empathy whatsoever for her. The most chilling thing is that the film is based on true events and the directors create a disturbing fantasy film where we see the worlds the girls have imagined in glorious Technicolor. The directors, Walsh and Jackson, did a lot of research to try to give the story psychological depth whilst avoiding judgement. As a viewer, I of course add my own interpretation to the film, which to me is an incredible illustration of what can happen when fantasy, aggression and psychosis operate unchecked by empathy. This article does not lay any claim to being scientific and objective. I think it’s great that we have so many Aspies in space. What I would like to see is perhaps more variety and a more nuanced picture where Aspies are allowed to be like everyone else – good, bad and indifferent. Yes, they make interesting heroes but they also make fabulous anti-heroes. Aspies do not show alien behaviours after all; rather, they show extreme behaviours of which we are all humanly capable. And science fiction is the ideal forum for considering human behaviour in all its permutations, even if we need to wrap it up in android form and put it in a space ship.

~

Bio

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She has published “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.