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Star Trek

Hollow Pursuits: Is Star Trek Truly A Universe With No Gods Or Creeds?

by Mina

Earlier this year (21 August 2021), Yanis Varoufakis published an article about politics and international relations, discussing Star Trek’s (ST) Prime Directive, i.e. that those with superior technology must not interfere in cultures/communities which are still technologically behind: “the invader’s motives, good or bad, matter not one iota”. Varoufakis finds this liberal anti-imperialist doctrine particularly fascinating because it was part of the original Star Trek (TOS) in the 1960s and could be interpreted as a criticism of the US involvement in the Vietnam War. He calls this a clear political philosophy and a critique of US foreign policy that is still relevant today. It is a good point, but I do not want to delve further into political philosophy and ST here; rather, I would like to examine whether ST lends itself to a similar analysis with regard to religious and moral philosophy.

ST’s creator Gene Roddenberry was an atheist and “secular humanist” (i.e. espousing a philosophy that emphasises the importance of reason and people, rather than religion or God, for human fulfilment), who imagined a future without religious doctrine and conflict. To quote long-time ST producer Brannon Braga on Roddenberry’s wish to cast off “superstition and religion”:

“This was an important part of Roddenberry’s mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry’s future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.”

As an interesting aside, the word “God” was banned, even as an expletive, in Discovery (one of ST’s most recent reincarnations). So, is ST a universe devoid of religious and moral philosophy (which I prefer to “superstition and religion”)?

To begin with, ST is full of encounters with god-like beings, such as Q. Q is most definitely not a god, but he does remind us of the Ancient Greek and Roman gods in his capriciousness and callous disregard for individuals. Even his affection for Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation (STNG) reminds us of Roman and Greek mythology, with bored gods playing with their favourite mortal toys (like Q plays with the crew of the Enterprise in his first appearance in Encounter at Farpoint). Since each episode is created by humans, we should not be surprised that the writers and producers draw their inspiration from human history, mythology, and religious and moral philosophy. A nice detail is that even semi-gods like Q show character development. Q in particular appears in several episodes in STNG and Voyager (VOY) and gains depth over these episodes.

To my mind, the Klingons also fall into this category of drawing from human history: they are a war-like race that seem like a cross between certain aspects of the Vikings and Japanese samurai. The Klingon philosophy is based on being a warrior as a way of life, attaining a glorious death, semi-religious rituals (e.g. the Klingon death rite), weapons as semi-mystical objects (e.g. the bat’leth, a double-sided scimitar), Kahless (a messianic figure in Klingon lore), Sto-vo-kor (the Klingon afterlife) and Gre’thor (a Klingon Hades). The most interesting thing in Discovery is the Klingons wishing to remain themselves, with their own language and culture, and not to be absorbed into a Federation that would literally “emasculate” them. Although female Klingons are presented as fierce warriors too, they do seem to be reduced to the status of Klingons-with-breasts, i.e. there is no real attempt made to differentiate between the Klingon sexes in ST.

In his article on opuszine, Jason Morehead gives examples of TOS episodes where human religions are at the very least respected. In TOS: Balance of Terror, Captain Kirk officiates a wedding in a universal “chapel” on the Enterprise at the beginning of the episode. The chapel appears again at the end of the episode as a place for grief. In STNG, the chapel seems to have been replaced by the holodeck where the crew can recreate any place or ritual they wish, e.g. the Klingon Rite of Ascension is STNG: The Icarus Factor. In TOS: Bread and Circuses, Uhura corrects the crew’s erroneous interpretation of the “sun” worship in the local culture, reminding them of the worship of the “son of God” in Earth’s not-so-distant history. Kirk, Spock and McCoy are forced to acknowledge the power in history of a religion based on love and brotherhood, where great sacrifices are possible.

Morehead finds it fascinating that even in TOS, religious matters do occasionally creep in:

“…it seems odd to strive to be so faithful to the letter of Gene Roddenberry’s ethos when even he was frequently incapable of doing so. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s weird to be so focused on this particular aspect of Roddenberry’s vision (his atheism), particularly when those series that he was most involved in - The Original Series and The Next Generation  - weren’t afraid to include such content. (If nothing else, religious and faith matters can make for great drama.)”

Brannon Braga has also been quoted as saying:

“…there was no consideration in giving humans, talking about God, or talking about those types of things. We wanted to avoid it to be quite frank. But we did very often explore theology through alien characters. Which frankly is much more interesting anyway. Whether it was the Bajorans and their religion or the Borg and their religion. They had the religion of perfection. That, I think, was more interesting. We want to keep Star Trek secular. The human facet of Star Trek secular.”

This brings us nicely to The Borg as seen in STNG and VOY, and the Bajorans and their “Prophets” in Deep Space Nine (DS9). The Borg with their extreme collectivism and hive mind could be seen as a sublimated form of communism: there is no “I”, only “we”. Yet even this collective has a “queen” presented very much as an individual, comparable to a female Stalin or dictator. Characters like Seven of Nine in VOY are shown as needing to recover from the complete brainwashing that comes with such a totalitarian philosophy. The Borg have a form of immortality (each drone’s memories and experiences live on in the collective consciousness) and they strive for a perfect (technological and transhumanist) “ideal”, both of which are aspects of most world religions.

The Bajoran faith and mysticism is built around their Prophets, regardless of the fact that Starfleet science considers them “wormhole aliens” (DS9: Emissary). Ben Sisko asks his son Jake to respect the Bajoran belief in their Prophets as gods in DS9: In the Hands of the Prophets. For Ben Sisko, your own beliefs do not mean that you can disregard and disrespect the beliefs of others; “it is a matter of interpretation”. The Prophets are one of the central plot arcs in DS9. I could not summarise it better than here on Ex Astris Scientia:

“The general tendency is that the Bajoran faith grows on Ben Sisko, that the Prophets are gradually becoming more god-like and that ultimately Ben even becomes one of them. The Prophets’ god-like nature becomes particularly clear in the episodes where they determine the destinies of the Bajoran people and of Sisko, respectively…”

This reminds me of Old Testament prophets in the Christian Bible, and Sisko’s journey has Buddhist undertones for does he not become a sort of Buddha in the eyes of the Bajorans?

This brings us to the Vulcans and a bridge into humanism, where each individual has agency and can contribute to the future of the human race. Whereas ancient Vulcans seem to have practised a polytheistic faith (STNG: Gambit), modern Vulcans have enshrined logic and science above all else, based on a philosophy developed by Surak, where logic must rule over all emotions and science has an answer for everything. Is this not a large part of secular humanism? Humanism in my view simply replaces gods with humanity. Behind STNG’s utopian universe in particular is the belief that humanity can move beyond its primitive origins, reach for the stars and achieve wondrous things. This comes uncomfortably close to deifying ourselves, creating an “Übermensch” or, at the very least, an unforgiving meritocracy. This is why one of my favourite episodes is STNG: Hollow Pursuits.

Hollow Pursuits is for me a critique of an unbridled humanism. The character of Barclay begins as a perceived failure in STNG: he is shy, nervous, a terrible communicator and physically unprepossessing; he has OCD tendencies and seems bright but unstable. Barclay does not fit in and even Picard trips up and uses the crew’s nickname for Barclay (Broccoli). Barclay hides on the holodeck where he has developed programmes to boost his lack of self-confidence, leading to a holodeck addiction. It is the only episode that shows the crushing weight of the meritocracy that comes with Roddenberry’s espousal of humanism. It also shows how the crew must take some responsibility for the state Barclay is in (highlighted by Guinan in one scene) and for understanding and supporting him. With the right support, Barclays is able to prove that he too has a valuable place in the ST universe. This episode is also humorous and shows that audiences held the fumbling Barclay in great affection because he went on to appear in other episodes where it is precisely his idiosyncrasies that help him save the day. This offers a little balance in an otherwise painfully perfect social order.

I would argue that all of the ST universe contains spirituality in some form – for what else is a search into the mysteries of the universe and the nature of man? I would also argue that this spirituality has a place in even a mostly atheist or agnostic future (and that humanism itself is a moral philosophy, even if it is not a religious one). As the authors (Jörg Hillebrand et al) of Ex Astris Scientia (EAS) state:

“Roddenberry condemned religion because it suppressed people in his view, which is definitely true for some eras of human history. But he did not look at the other side of the medal that, quite contrary to his statement that religion is making people dull, it has enriched Earth’s cultures and even science in the course of the centuries. What would our world be without its magnificent cathedrals and temples, without music and literature inspired by religion, without scientific interest that has its roots in the desire to be closer to god(s)?“

They go on to say:

“There are certainly fundamentalists who do not respect other views than their own. However, like political fanaticism this is just an outgrowth of human nature, not of the idea of religion. It would be unfair and ultimately counter-productive to ignore the ways of life of the majority of humanity in an effort to depict ST as a desirable future for them. In order to achieve Roddenberry’s utopia some day, we could ponder about abolishing everything that might be subject to misuse or what might restrict our freedom. But then we could question the existence of just about every technological, cultural, political or social custom, law or institution, anything that makes up our lives. With a firm stance that it would be better to take away faith from people, ST, in its few worst instalments, is just as narrow-minded and arrogant as the religious zeal it strives to condemn. On these occasions ST acts against its own principles.”

However, I would not couch my conclusions quite as negatively as EAS because ST has involved many different “cooks” and they did not “spoil the broth”. In fact, the ST canon in all its guises repeatedly asks questions and draws many different conclusions about philosophy, religion, mysticism, faith, rituals, false gods, humanism and the human race’s general search for meaning. If this universe sometimes contradicts itself (or its creator), that is a happily accurate rendition of our own universe, where we are faced with many questions, conflicting views and no easy answers.

Coda: Some claim that ST itself has turned into a religion or cult, with its conventions, fan clubs, forums, fan fic, a founding prophet (Roddenberry), a set of (humanist) beliefs or principles, scripture in the form of well-loved and much-quoted episodes, debates about what is “canon” and what is derivative, collectibles as pseudo-sacred objects, a vision of a utopia to be striven for, etc. However, I think I would agree with Mark Strauss’ conclusion that this is a bridge too far. Fandom or even a sub-culture do not a religion make.

~

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 publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

“Sokath, His Eyes Uncovered!”, or, Is the Universal Translator A Myth?

by Mina

There are two series which have coloured our collective consciousness when we think of the concept of a universal translator: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Star Trek (in all its guises). As a linguistic aside, “hitchhikers” was initially spelled in various different ways (hitch hiker, hitch-hiker, hitchhiker, with or without the apostrophe) until it settled as “The Hitchhikers Guide” in around 2000 (even the abbreviation has various forms: HG2G, tHGttG, HHGTTG, etc.). One wonders how many pitfalls communication may involve if one word can have so many variants within one language.

HG2G began its life in 1978 as a BBC Radio 4 series. This was followed by five novels, with a TV series sandwiched between novels two and three. The author, Douglas Adams, was involved in all of these versions, but they are far from identical to each other, and it is best to see them as a collection of leitmotifs. I am ignoring the 2005 film, which feels like a huge “mistranslation” (even if Adams was briefly involved in it before his death), missing the point on several levels – it is an attempt to turn HG2G into a PC, action story with a romantic subplot, dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, obsessed with Vogons and not at all true to the original radio/TV series or to the early-1980s-Britain pastiche that was so much fun. This sense of fun is very present in one leitmotif, the Babel fish described by the “book” as:

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language.”

I can always hear the voice in my mind of Peter Jones as the “book” narrating this passage in both the radio and original TV series (the “book” is almost a character in its own right). The description goes on to state that it was a “mind-bogglingly” useful invention and there is a hysterically funny passage on how it was used to disprove the existence of God (incidentally, a whole generation of SF nerds integrated “mind-boggling” and “I don’t give a dingo’s kidneys” into their everyday vocabulary due to this passage). Although the Babel fish makes it possible for the most unprepossessing human to ever travel the galaxy, Arthur Dent, to understand and communicate with aliens, the Babel fish is also dangerous:

“…the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

Star Trek (ST) does not have a “Babel fish” but it does have a “universal translator”. It begins its life in Gene Roddenberry’s original ST as a handheld device and by Star Trek: The Next Generation (STNG), it has been incorporated into the communicator pins all Starfleet personnel wear on their uniforms. All Starfleet vessels are also equipped with a universal translator. Although Enterprise is seen as a poor cousin to other series in the ST canon, it is actually the only series to look in depth into the development of the universal translator that is mostly taken for granted in the series and films that take place “later” (if we look at the ST universe chronologically). In Enterprise, we actually have a skilled linguist on the crew, Ensign Hoshi Sato. We see that new languages have to be added to the universal translator by gathering enough data to build a “translation matrix” (a data construct facilitating the conversion of symbols and sounds from one language to another). And Hoshi Sato does not just use this translation matrix, she improves upon it, inventing the “linguacode” translation matrix to anticipate and speed up the conversion of new and unknown languages. She is a main character whose linguistic skills are used time and again to get the crew out of thorny situations. I cannot stress how unusual this is in an SF (or any) series. We will come back to the idea of “training” a universal translator and translation matrices later when we look at Machine Translation technology today.

Not everyone sees a universal translator as a good thing in the ST universe. There is a scene in ST Discovery between Burnham and a Klingon (Kol), where Burnham sees the universal translator as a means of communication and reaching a peaceful accord, and Kol sees it as another attempt by the Federation to subsume Klingon culture. In fact, my husband was annoyed by the fact that the Klingons in Discovery speak Klingon all the time; I actually rather enjoyed the series’ courage on this point, as subtitling puts off some viewers, but I think Klingons speaking amongst themselves should speak Klingon. Interestingly, Klingon began as gibberish but was later developed into a language by Marc Okrand for ST III: The Search for Spock in 1984 based on some phrases originally developed by the actor James Doohan (Scotty) in ST: The Motion Picture in 1979. Okrand developed a grammar and expanded the vocabulary and, should you be so inclined, you can actually learn Klingon online through the Klingon Language Institute. It is fascinating to see interest from both the producers and viewers in a constructed language yet, at the same time, most of the series hinges on the existence of a universal translator.

The universal translator is shown to have its limits in the STNG episode Darmok. This episode is based on the premise that a universal translator cannot make sense of a language based on abstraction and metaphors, deeply rooted in culture, myth and history. Stranded on a planet with a Tamarian captain Dathon (a Child of Tama), Picard struggles to learn enough about Tamarian metaphors to communicate with Dathon as they face a common enemy. The Tamarian language is described by Troi as a language based on narrative imagery, with reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mytho-historical accounts, much like using “Juliet, on her balcony” as a metaphor for romance. Picard slowly learns to communicate with Dathon who tells him the story of “Darmok and Jalad, at Tanagra”. In exchange, Picard reframes the earth myth of “Gilgamesh and Enkidu, at Uruk” for him. The whole episode is an absolute delight for anyone interested in languages, communication, linguistics, logic and alien thinking. At the end, Picard has learned enough to successfully communicate his regret for the death of Dathon to his first officer and that he and Dathon reached communion or true communication before his death:

TAMARIAN FIRST OFFICER: Zinda! His face black. His eyes red— (expressing anger)

PICARD: —Temarc! The river Temarc. In winter. (asking for him to be silent and listen)

FIRST OFFICER: Darmok? (asking if his Captain’s plan was successful)

PICARD: …and Jalad. At Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean. (the plan of two strangers working together to fight a common threat was successful)

FIRST OFFICER (to others, amazed): Sokath! His eyes open! (thank God, you understood)

PICARD (continuing): The beast of Tanagra. Uzani. His army. (shaking his head) Shaka, when the walls fell. (explaining how Dathon died and his regret at Dathon’s death)

FIRST OFFICER: Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel. (a new metaphor enters the Tamarian language to signify successful communication between two races who were strangers to each other)

I have added the “translation” in brackets after each utterance but the lovely thing about this episode is that, having accompanied Picard and Dathon on their journey at El-Adrel, the viewer can understand the entire exchange without help.

In his article in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost feels that the episode has its shortcomings because it tries to limit the language of the Children of Tama to our understanding of how language works, i.e. using our familiar denotative speech methods. Bogost stresses that the Tamarian language works more like poetry or allegories, which replace one thing with another (rather than simply comparing one thing to another like metaphors do). But, he argues, the Children of Tama are not replacing one image with another, they are using the familiar logic (the intention) behind each situation to which they refer to communicate in a manner that is almost computational, i.e. procedural rhetoric takes precedence over verbal and visual rhetoric and dictates their immediate actions. Whether or not you feel that Darmok lends itself to this level of analysis or that Bogost is right or wrong, the whole episode serves to demonstrate a completely different linguistic system and logic.

How close are we to such a universal translator? How effective are Machine Translation (MT) tools? The best-known MT tool is Google Translate, which has moved from being just a Website to also existing in App form for mobile phones, and from just translating text to also translating text contained in images and translating speech. How accurate is it, for example, when translating into English? As a linguist, I can tell you that it depends on the language combination. It copes reasonably well with Romance languages where the syntax is not too dissimilar from English, less well with German where the syntax is quite different, and not at all well with Estonian, where the syntax and logic of the language are very different (and it is a small and rare language with a more limited dataset). MT currently needs to be used with caution and with a clear aim in mind: it can be very useful if you want to know the gist of an article, for example, to run it through an MT tool to obtain a rough translation. However, it is dangerous to rely on an MT of a medical or legal text where precision is vital. MT can sound very convincing until you get a native speaker to check its accuracy, since MT has to cope with languages being flexible and ambiguous, with meaning being derived not just from a word but also its co-text (e.g. collocations) and context (e.g. a word where the meaning changes depending on where you read it, in a novel – “Oh, that’s criminal!”, where I consider your taste in wallpaper a travesty – or an article – “David was arrested for his criminal activities”, where David really did commit a crime).

That said, how MT works has changed over time: early rule-based systems (using lexical, syntactic and semantic rules that hit their limits at the sheer number of exceptions and variables required) were replaced in the 1990s with statistical methods (using a large corpus of examples but which were divorced from context, thus often leading to errors) and, more recently, we have moved towards neural MT (NMT). It is NMT that most resembles the language matrices of the universal translator mentioned in Enterprise and where fiction and reality begin (on a humble scale as yet) to converge. In NMT, the input is a sentence in the source language, with source language grammar, and the output is a sentence in the target language, with target language grammar. In between, we have an algorithm, which is an application of deep learning in which massive datasets of translated sentences are used to “train” a model capable of translating between any two languages. For example, it must be able to cope with all variants of the word “hitchhiker”.

One established NMT structure is the encoder-decoder architecture, composed of two recurrent neural networks (RNNs) used together to create a translation model. Textual data is transformed into numeric form and back into different textual data (its translation):

“An encoder neural network reads and encodes a source sentence into a fixed-length vector. A decoder then outputs a translation from the encoded vector. The whole encoder–decoder system, which consists of the encoder and the decoder for a language pair, is jointly trained to maximize the probability of a correct translation given a source sentence.” (https://machinelearningmastery.com/introduction-neural-machine-translation/)

This architecture has problems with long sequences of text which is why we now have an “encoder-decoder with attention” model. The system learns to only focus on the “relevant” part of the sequence to translate each individual word, so that length is no longer a problem. Google Translate uses this architecture and feeds it with millions of stored sentences. It is a system that still has its problems, however: the training and inferences speed is still too slow, it can be ineffective dealing with rarer words (it struggles with large vocabularies and a myriad of contexts) and it sometimes fails to translate a word it does not recognise, simply leaving the source-language word in the target-language sentence. MT initially focused mainly on the written word, but work is now being done on the spoken word as well.

So is a universal translator possible in our world? (N)MT will continue to improve, that is for sure. Whether it can ever fully replace the need for a human linguist remains to be seen. It cannot yet do what is one of our biggest strengths of the human mind: it cannot make inferences and assumptions based on context, background knowledge, culture and an instinct for which rules can be broken and which not. It cannot spot mistakes, decipher bad style or pick up nuances of embedded, deeper meanings. MT is based on algorithms and probability, it works with separate units (numeric representations of words) and even with the development of “attention” and “deep learning”, it cannot yet get a quick overview when examining a large sequence of units or adjust to circumstances when making a decision. It is not yet truly flexible. It is possible that one day, computers will imitate the way the human mind makes connections (and recreates the intention of the communication in the source language in the target language) so closely that we will not be able to tell the difference. The operative word is imitate: we are still a long way from a “sentient” computer able to think autonomously rather than applying a set of complex mathematical rules. That does not mean we will never get there but we are not yet at a point where the computer can translate the full meaning of “Picard and Dathon at El-Adrel” into other languages.

~

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 publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

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.

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