The Further Adventures of Professor Spacetime

Professor Spacetime and the Wonders of the Universe

PROFESSOR: Come with me, and I can show you all the wonders of the universe. All of space and time, at your fingertips!
COMPANION: All of a space and time? Really?
PROFESSOR: Well… anything in our future light-cone.
COMPANION: So… most of space and time?
PROFESSOR: More like a small and steadily-shrinking fraction of space and time, within the confines of a slowly contracting cosmological horizon.
COMPANION: But it can travel to other galaxies, right?
PROFESSOR: Indeed! You’ll be dead millions of years before we get there, though.
COMPANION: Somehow I thought it’d be bigger…

Professor Spacetime and the Pocket-Sized Plot Device

PROFESSOR: Quickly, my dear, grab the atomic screwdriver!
COMPANION: Here it is… but what good is it to us now? We’re about to be dropped in a pit of lava!
PROFESSOR: My dear, what isn’t an atomic screwdriver good for? This cunning device has gotten me out of thousands of scrapes over the years!
COMPANION: But how does it work?
PROFESSOR: It’s atomic!
COMPANION: But that’s just a word. It’s like calling it a quantum screwdriver or something – you haven’t explained what it does.
PROFESSOR: This is a life or death situation! I can’t possibly go into exposition now.
COMPANION: You do that all the time.
PROFESSOR: This is different! It would be far too difficult to explain my Spacelord science to a human.
COMPANION: It sounds to me like you just slapped the label “atomic” on it sixty years ago when it sounded cool and futuristic so you’d never have to explain it, and now you’re stuck with it, even though it’s a bit naff.
PROFESSOR: That was pretty easy, actually.

Professor Spacetime and the Witches of Vaxahar

PROFESSOR: I fear we’ve uncovered a terrible evil, my dear. I thought the Witches of Vaxahar were just a myth!
COMPANION: The Witches of Vaxahar? That’s far too many letters from the wrong end of the alphabet to be a good thing.
PROFESSOR: The Witches are an ancient and powerful species from the beginning of time. Where Spacelords – like you humans – mastered the universe through a science based on mathematics, the Witches mastered a different science… one based on words. You might call it magic.
COMPANION: Oh no! But… how will we defeat them, Professor?
PROFESSOR: Well… in order to accurately model the universe, their word-science still had to be self-consistent, and satisfy basic philosophical axioms in the same manner as our mathematics.
COMPANION: So it works exactly like math?
PROFESSOR: Pretty much. Except they never got around to inventing numerals, or mathematical notation
COMPANION: But that means…
PROFESSOR: Yes, my dear.
COMPANION: Word problems!
PROFESSOR: Fiendishly difficult ones. Have you ever tried to model rocket equations using descriptions of trains converging from Cardiff and Brighton?
COMPANION: They really are evil!

Professor Spacetime and the Thousand-Year Reich

MECHAQUEEN: …and as the Earth died, we could not help but despair… until our savior came, to carry us away into the stars. It was the suffering of the children, you see. I think that was what moved the spacewhale most to pity.
COMPANION: So that is how you rewarded her? Torturing her, for centuries, to carry your fossilized constitutional monarchy through the stars?
MECHAQUEEN: We thought we had no choice!
COMPANION: But that’s monstrous! How could you live with something like that?
MECHAQUEEN: Actually, we couldn’t. Hence the whole memory-wiping thing.
PROFESSOR: It’s a pretty ingenious solution, come to think of it.
COMPANION: Professor! You can’t actually think they did the right thing? To imprison such a noble and selfless soul, who wanted only to save lives and alleviate suffering…
PROFESSOR: Actually, I’m a consequentialist; though disturbing, sometimes we have to operate against our ethical intuitions in order to minimize suffering. Besides, your whole argument is predicated on the assumption the spacewhale has humanlike consciousness, and a humanlike capacity for empathy and suffering. Given its completely different evolutionary background and environmental selection pressures, this is beyond exceedingly unlikely; furthermore, its apparent selflessness also has to be held to be suspect. Given the vast emptiness of space, I would wager that spacewhales would be forced to use the k-selection strategy for reproduction; even if they had humanlike intellects, they couldn’t possibly share humanlike empathy for life, much less the lives of children, or they would be paralyzed by suffering and grief, at the knowledge the vast majority of their kin don’t make it to maturity, and end up starving to death in the vast emptiness between the stars. The spacewhale was probably there to feed on what was left after the solar flares destroyed Earth’s capacity to defend itself from spacewhale attacks.
COMPANION: So what you’re saying is…
PROFESSOR: The spacewhale is a dick, and deserves to be tortured.
COMPANION: Oh. Well, then. Carry on.

Professor Spacetime and the Unresolved Sexual Tension

PROFESSOR: I can’t! It wouldn’t be right! I’m a thousand-year old Spacelord, you’re just a girl!
COMPANION: A woman, Professor! And don’t tell me you don’t want to kiss me!
PROFESSOR: But the angst is the only thing carrying this season!
COMPANION: Oh, Professor! All this – the spaceship, the wonders you’ve shown me, the fact you embody all the wisdom and experience of the older man, in the conventionally attractive body of a younger one – how could you not sweep me off my feet?
PROFESSOR: We mustn’t, my dear!
COMPANION: Professor… I should warn you, I-
COMPANION: I’ve been reading fanfiction…

Professor Spacetime and the Translation Matrix

COMPANION: Wait, seriously? You have a universal translator?
PROFESSOR: Of course. Standard Spacelord technology.
COMPANION: So you have a computer capable of instantly and seamlessly translating any language into any other, without significant context or prior exposure, and all you use it for is making conversation with aliens and Welshmen?
PROFESSOR: Why does that surprise you?
COMPANION: Because it’s impossible! Worse, it’s unlikely. A true universal translator would be nothing short of an extraordinarily powerful strong AI – capable of perfectly comprehending context and external reference and encoding these neatly into translated utterances – combined with magic. Zero-context translation would allow you to arbitrarily recover any plaintext from any ciphertext. You could use it to decipher Linear A! To crack every code ever! To generate reverse one-time-pads that turn meaningless noise into the secrets of the Universe!
PROFESSOR: Yes, but then this wouldn’t be a very interesting television programme, would it?
COMPANION: Face it, Professor. It’s all been downhill since Series 3 anyway.

Professor Spacetime and the Ominous Secret

MYSTERIOUS FIGURE: And when the clock strikes twelve, his name shall be revealed!
PROFESSOR: No! That’s impossible! It can never be!
COMPANION: What’s the big deal? It’s just your name.
PROFESSOR: I forsook my name long ago… I am only the Professor now. There is an ancient prophecy that, should my name ever be revealed, the Universe will come to an end.
COMPANION: I don’t believe you.
COMPANION: Look, it’s just a name: an arbitrary ordering of sounds that can be produced by the Spacelord vocal tract. Since Spacelords are suspiciously primate-like, in every external feature, including the manner of their vocalizations, we can assume the physical constraints on the phonology of Spacelord languages are roughly the same as they are on human; therefore, the probability that, even after the virtual extinction of your species, some human somewhere in the wide universe has ever uttered a set of syllables which resembles your name approaches pretty near certainty. But the universe hasn’t yet ended.
PROFESSOR: But… but all this foreshadowing! All these ominous clues, building throughout this series!
COMPANION: It’s something far more sinister, I’m afraid. Do you think your name could ever actually be revealed onscreen? The fact that you’re merely the Professor is one of the few interesting things about you.
PROFESSOR: It can’t be!
COMPANION: It is. I’m afraid the showrunner’s just been writing himself into a corner.
PROFESSOR: No! That means—
COMPANION: Yes. The finale is going to be incredibly disappointing.

Professor Spacetime and the Christmas Special


PROFESSOR: Quickly, my dear! Reverse the polarity on the temporal stabilizers!
COMPANION: It’s no use! We’ll never break free in time!
PROFESSOR: Never say never, my dear! I’ll try to rephase the inertial dampeners with a blast of neutrino radiation from the timecore. Hold on!
COMPANION: The saccharine singularity is about to devour the ship!
PROFESSOR: Try to generate as much cynicism as you can! We can’t take another blast of mawkish cliches!


PROFESSOR: Damn it all!
COMPANION: Professor, I— I think I’ve been affected!
PROFESSOR: Resist, my dear!
COMPANION: I can feel it coming over me, Professor! Holiday cheer! The urge to repeat sentimental nonsense!
PROFESSOR: But it’s absurd, my dear! Remember that! We’re nowhere near Earth, you’re the only human for billions of light-years! What possible relevance could a culturally specific human religious holiday have to our present circumstances?
COMPANION: It’s no use, Professor! I can’t shake the feeling that, somehow…
PROFESSOR: Fight it!
COMPANION: …science ficiton should never make us uncomfortable!

Professor Spacetime and the Planet of the Babyeaters

COMPANION: Why, Professor, that’s the third planet this week we’ve visited that’s reinforced our parochial, middle-class British values!
PROFESSOR: Uncanny, isn’t it? Hundreds of worlds, and our biggest moral dilemma so far is whether I’m allowed to seduce you pre-watershed.

RIP Terry Pratchett

“She heard him mutter, ‘Can you take away this grief?’

‘I’m sorry,’ she replied. ‘Everyone asks me. And I would not do so even if I knew how. It belongs to you. Only time and tears take away grief; that is what they are for.”

(I Shall Wear Midnight)

The Naming of the Stars

Memorandum of the Contact and Cultural Exchange to the settlement Iparaha: General Sciences divsion From: Dr Renée ISHIKAWA, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy) To: Dr Mara SHANG, University of New Berlin (department of astronomy)

August 11, 2206

Dr Shang,

I know the university senate has been eager for a more substantial update, especially after the worrying communique the UN mission received in July; you can reassure them that such an update is on its way, and that we’re all fine here. Yes, there was a small diplomatic incident, in that the Chereni did eat a couple of members of the diplomatic corps, but it was a genuine misunderstanding, and for what it’s worth, they do feel terrible about it. We’ve been hard at work building bridges with our hosts here at Iparaha, and the governing committee of the Exchange is putting finishing touches now on a pretty comprehensive document on the Chereni in re: the possibility of mutually beneficial scientific and economic exchange between our two species. Though the contents of the report are supposed to remain classified until the General Assembly has time to go over it, I can tell you that things are looking extremely promising. Aside from the aforementioned mixup, the Chereni are quite the peaceful people, and are as eager to learn from us, as we are from them.

As comprehensive as the report is going to be, though, we’ve learned so much in so short a time we couldn’t possibly fit everything in it. The general outlines of Chereni biology, history, culture, law, religion, etc., are there, and I’ll leave it to the experts and exchange officers briefed in those fields to cover them. (In short: the Chereni are like us in a lot of ways, and unlike us in a lot of ways; once you get past the different evolutionary pressures that produced them, and some elementary differences in their perceptual systems, though, it’s more like than unlike – under the slime and the scales, they’re basically human.) But there are some things that aren’t going to make it into the report, for reasons of time and space; of particular interest to me was the Chereni approach to astronomy. Well, not astronomy exactly, but astronomical nomenclature. In short: on the Cheren homeworld, the poets named the stars.

A little background: the arc of Chereni history has been pretty different from Earth’s – not surprising, given the environmental and biological differences, to say nothing of psychological – but it’s just as long and complicated, and I can’t hope to give you anything like a reasonable summary, so you will have to forgive me in advance for butchering it with crude analogies to our own. But there was a period, a few centuries ago, very roughly analagous to the scientific revolution on Earth, when it looked like the general trend of Chereni science and culture (and the interaction between the two) might’ve followed something like the trajectory they did on Earth: science as the province of socioeconomic elites, with time and money to spare, efforts being concentrated by something like universities or national academies, plus elite sponsorship, producing the ancestor of the modern research institution, and so on and so forth. But there was a political upheaval and, to cut a long and boring story short, the first Cheren Enlightenment fizzled. It didn’t die out, but it didn’t have anything like the impact the Enlightenment on Earth did, and the first, tentantive steps of scientific exploration and systematization of thought didn’t lead to anything much. Experiment and empiricism became the province mostly of a few minor religious orders, who laid a lot of the groundwork for the second Enlightenment. But they weren’t much interested in astronomy.

You see, the atmosphere of the Cheren homeworld is thicker than Earth’s. It lets some light through – they say about as much as a very cloudy day here at Iparaha – but their world is further from their sun than Earth is, and has to trap quite a lot of heat so that the surface remains inhabitable. There are very high mountains and plateaus where the clouds thin enough that you can see the stars, but the Chereni can’t survive any better than humans at those altitudes, so there wasn’t much in the way of ancient astronomy. The advent of radio helped a little – natural radio sources in the sky at least got them looking up – but the heavens never captured the Chereni imagination the way they did the human. Their gods were always walking among them, invisible; the skies were like the seas or the caves below the earth, supposed to be filled with demons and monsters, and the unhappy dead.

So even within the scientific fringe, slowly building the foundations of methodical empiricism during this great medium aevum, astronomy was a further fringe; it wasn’t the monks who tried to study the stars, venturing to the high mountaintops and the margins of the great uplands to make fleeting observations of the few visible stars, but mystics and wild-eyed hermits. Even the Chereni can’t account for why they did. I have my own suspicions – and they have to do with the feeling that infects the soul the first time you stand in a place like the Atacama Desert and look up at the night sky – but they remain suspicions, and pretty anthropocentric ones at that. These early astronomers weren’t versed in the religious language which was later adapted to scientific vocabulary, in the way the educated elite of Europe adapted Greek and Latin to science, and their jargon had little in common with the rest of early Chereni science, which only deepened the split. But they weren’t astrologers. They had no truck with gods and myths when they measured the stars – for, after all, among the Chereni, the gods walk the land, not the skies.

When the real Enlightenment came to the Chereni, when the scientific method finally exploded out of the cloisters and the scriptoria, the revolution was as swift and thorough as it was on Earth. Maybe even more so. But it didn’t sweep up astronomy, not at first. Astronomers were wild and dangerous back then – weirdos, not scientists. By the time the mainstream Chereni scientific establishment was ready to treat them seriously, a whole parallel subculture had emerged when it came to the study of the stars. True, they were every bit as systematic and rigorous as the scientists; but the astronomers had no truck with scientific jargon, distrusted dry technical language which was devoid of awe or appreciation of the phenomena it studied, and disagreed entirely with the implicit purpose of the Chereni scientific project. Their goal was not to understand the universe, they claimed, not as its own end. Their goal was nothing less than the transformation of the Cheren soul, in the crucible of beauty.

I’m quoting from an old astronomical treatise there, and not really doing the translation justice – please forgive me. Chereni grammar can be every bit as bloody-minded as human. Nowadays, of course, astronomy, like any other science/philosophy/scholarship, is regarded among the Chereni as one of many valid and interesting domains of knowledge, and probably without any inherent special purpose. It retains a distinct vocabulary, though, and in Chereni schools is usually more associated with what we would mostly call humanities and social sciences: literary and digital criticism, linguistics, conlanging, and sociology. But that’s a historical artifact.

But when I first sat down with my Chereni colleagues to compare our star charts, what really struck me were the names. That’s probably their biggest inheritance from their ancestors. You see, on Earth, we have to rely on photographs to convey the wonder of science to the public. And sometimes, even the pictures don’t do it justice; you see something a hundred times, you forget how special it is, even if it’s a photograph taken from the surface of a barren planet five light years away, by an AI-controlled probe. Jupiter is Jupiter; you forget it’s also hundreds of times the size of Earth, an immense swirling sphere of storms, a world of endless clouds and wind. The Chereni don’t have that problem because, as I said, the poets named the stars.

Their names are systematic; they are precise. They classify objects as rigorously as we do, and though they slice their classifications a bit differently, they use mostly the same basic parameters. But every name for an alien world, or a distant sun in a Cheren language contains a little fragment of awe. They have nothing so banal as the Crab Nebula here at Iparaha, because the first time a Chereni saw it, she saw it through a powerful telescope, and to her it was as if she had seen a forest made of fire. So they named it Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, and that’s how it’s referred to in every encyclopedia, database, and scientific paper since. When they saw the Eagle Nebula, to them, too, it looked something like a great bird of prey sheltering newborn stars. They named it Cuizigan, after the devouring mother of myth, and they added the epithet, Mother of Stars. The planets of their home system are given names a little more mundane, but still evocative of their natures: Taius, the Ice-Clad, Vethrin of the Shroud, Ardal the Broken, and Gorhas, the Desert. Some names are long, nearly unwieldy; some are short and pithy. But every time they speak of these things, they use the name in full. I asked one of my interlocutors why, and she did a Chereni shrug. “Tradition,” she said. “But also this: it reminds us that these are the faces of nature at its wildest and strongest, and the appropriate feeling toward such beauty is always awe.”

Naturally, when Chereni physics and astronomy advanced to the point where true cosmology became a field of study, this habit of poetic astronomical nomenclature was extended to cosmological matters as well. Because actual telescopic astronomy was so hobbled by Cheren’s atmosphere, the two actually developed hand-in-hand for much of the last three centuries. Just as we use metaphorical handles to deal with astrophysical phenomena beyond our comprehension, so do they; but I must give the Chereni credit. Theirs are far more beautiful. There is nothing so mean or naked as “the Big Bang” or the “steady-state model” in Chereni cosmology. They call the former Talasendrion, the ancient word their gnostics use for the birth of God. Sometimes, also, I have seen it named the Elemental Fire, but I believe this more usually corresponds to what we call Planck epoch. The latter is Choraselos, the Universe of Order; your opinion may vary on whether it is an appropriate name, but to the Chereni it carries all of the weight of the hope of a knowable and comfortable universe which inspired it there, as here. Supernovae, I am told, are given a dozen different names depending on the type, but they are grouped together within the “ephemeral and trembling stars,” which include also novae and some variable stars. Among stellar remnants, they speak of white dwarfs, “the white and dying flame,” neutron stars as “the mighty anchor-stones of the sky,” and for black holes they have a word which alludes to the ancient Cheren fear of oblivion, which my companion, shuddering, declined to speak aloud.

You may think that science among humans can be poetic, and until I came to Iparaha, I thought so, too. Certainly, we have our occasional turns of phrase; I am reminded of the old Hubble image, which was given an almost Chereni title, “The Pillars of Creation.” We have occasionally named the surfaces of our worlds with something approaching their majesty: the Labyrinth of Night, on Mars; or the Ocean of Storms. But these names are either informal (as for the Pillars), or rendered distant and sterile by languages whose use connotes all things Scientific and Rational, all things seperated from Emotion and Art. The odd popularizer of science has tried to bridge the gap: Sagan, for instance, when he wrote that bit about “what men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but not if he were an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia?” But Sagan wasn’t really a poet, or not a very good one, and his attempt to reclaim something of poetic majesty for astronomy, though admirable, was not quite up to snuff.

But, ah! The Chereni astronomers could put Shakespeare to shame. I can’t read the language they use here at Iparaha very well – it’s logographic, like Chinese, though they do have terminals that display phonetic symbols for children, and that’s mostly what we’ve been relying on. So I’ve struggled through a few astronomical papers that my hosts have provided. Jesus, Mara, you should read these papers. Hell, even just their encyclopedias. Just as ours tend to adopt the scientific tone when writing about scientific matters, so their adopt the poetic tone when writing about astronomy, or astrophysics. We may speak of the Crab Nebula as a remnant of a supernovae, a pulsar’s nebula in the direction of Taurus. The Chereni speak of Ishilar, the Forest of Fire, whose boughs of a thousand colors reach toward their father, the corpse of a shattered star that sings his death-song in the radio frequency, whose music causes his children to weep and burn. I can’t do it justice, really. There’s a specific vocabulary of usage here: the word they use for “weep” recalls the blue of synchronotron radiation. Their words for “radio” and “frequency” have nothing of the connotation we give them, of technology and wavy imagined lines. In all my years working in astronomy, or teaching it, I have seen nothing like the Chereni papers, and felt nothing like the awe their scientist-poets induce. Mara, I’ve never wept while reading about exoplanets before – but that’s what the Chereni have reduced me to.

I’m working on preparing a short paper on the Chereni approach to astronomy; I expect I could probably get it published in one of the Martian cultural journals. I’d like to try to translate a couple of articles, too, but honestly, I’m just not sure English as we speak it now is up to the task. Our technical vocabulary is – well, too technical. I yearn for a form of the language that could be stripped of the legacy of the industrial revolution, recast in a form where progress and logical positivism weren’t baked into every Greco-Latin syllable at the expense of sorrow, and beauty, and art. Then, perhaps, I could begin to tell you of what the Chereni know of the serene beauty of Andromeda, or the achingly sad yearning they see in the redshifted galaxies at the cosmic horizon; or the bewitching mystery of the Great Attractor, or the loneliness and the silence of the Boötes Void. But alas! We never let our poets explain the universe to us. We will have to let the Chereni do it for them.

Dr Renée Ishikawa HLRN: TA455671(ce) University of New Berlin Department of Astronomy

Ithaca and Durotar

The last time I found myself back in Nashville, in the back of my mind, the whole time, I knew what I really wanted was to be somewhere else – anywhere, in fact, but home.

I have an uncertain relationship with the concept of “home.” There are, I think, reasons for that – I lived in the same house, from the earliest period in my life I can remember, until I left for college at the age of eighteen. Nor was it a sudden, clean break, setting off for a country three thousand miles away, never to return except at Christmases: rather, my adult existence has proceeded in fits and starts, sometimes feeling like a kind of half-maturity, inhibited by the occasional realization that there are times and seasons in my life when I lack a certain critical resolve, and have found my course bending homeward again, back to Nashville, for a few months, or a year or so. But, of course, in time I always rediscovered that necessary strength, and left again. And it helped that every time, Nashville felt a little less like home.

It is the curious feature of time spent away – which we forget, lulled as we are by the closing of conceptual distance by the jet engine and the automobile – that places continue to change even after we are gone. They change while we’re there, too, of course, in ways both welcome and unwelcome. I am not a big fan of change, especially of the unnecessary sort, as anybody who was there for my childhood will attest, but at least when we’re present for those changes, they feel gradual, and can be incorporated into our internal histories of the places we inhabit. But the changes which accumulate while we are away will always seem to have happened suddenly, and to possess an alien quality, because we were not there to witness them unfold. The house down the street is torn down, or repainted. A new building goes up downtown. The menu changes at your favorite coffee shop, and now the staff are all different, and they don’t know what your usual order is anymore.

And these things might seem small, and it might seem only the peevishness of the stubborn mind, intent on finding flaws in the universe where none really exist, to harp on them, and to find in them small traces of a deep and illimitable sadness. But I do, and it is not peevishness, nor stubbornness, nor merely a penchant for melancholic moods (though I admit I possess all three at times, and not rarely together). But we write the psychohistory of our lives in the places that we know; and in that way, we map our selves to the spaces we have inhabited for years at a time, so surely, I think, that the paths and places where we played as children become for us a metonomy of our childhood as a whole: the creek behind the house, the backyard, the floppy-eared dog, the cracked sidewalks, and everything else. And human memory is a notoriously unsatisfactory device: memories fade with time, are lost, and shift in emphasis as we remember them. So how wonderful it is to turn a corner, or visit a favorite spot, or see a familiar face in one’s hometown, and by the physical sensation find oneself confronted with memories suddenly fresh, suddenly new again, and pieces of a life we had thought lost forever returned to us, even if only for a little while. It helps, of course, if the memories are good ones. As for me, I had what seemed unremarkable at the time, but was in retrospect a very happy childhood. And for that reason, maybe, I especially hate to go home.

With time, of course, the city where I was born, and where I spent the vast majority of the first eighteen years of my life, feels less and less like home. My parents are divorced; a strange man lives in my mother’s house where I grew up. The last time I returned, the house had been rearranged, and my room no longer felt like the little sanctuary I had spent years carefully building for myself. Nashville is now a rather alien place, the city of a Capgras delusion, very like (but not the same as) my home. And the city where I have lived, on and off since, feels more and more like mine, even though I don’t hold the local citizenship, can’t vote in the elections, and have a funny accent. Any place you stay long enough will become inhabited with new memories, just like the places you grew up, and I have been lucky in my adulthood, as I was in my childhood, in that many of them are very good ones.

Tonight, at about three AM, because I couldn’t sleep, I reinstalled World of Warcraft. I’m not sure what exactly my motivation was. The new expansion, of course, is being talked about, and the occasional post bubbling up into my awareness on Reddit. When I really can’t sleep, when I feel my thoughts going endlessly in circles, what I want more than anything is to be taken out of myself, and into another world. RPGs are good for that. So I found myself back in Azeroth, for the first time in, I think, about two and a half years. My Tauren druid, level 85, was standing right where I had left him, in a hut in Orgrimmar, a staff slung over his shoulder, in a motley of armor picked up from various dungeons and quests. The sensation of returning to an avatar I had spent a couple of years inhabiting, in a world I knew as well as my own, was not a little pleasant. Aha, I thought; yes, I remember how this goes. The muscle memory of the hotkeys came back quickly enough, and no sooner had the desire formed in my mind, but I had transformed into a hawk and was again soaring through the sky.

And yet, what’s true for Nashville is true for Kalimdor. Out of curiosity, I clicked around on the various social windows World of Warcraft offers. Out of what was once an active membership of a couple dozen people, only five characters still had the guild tag. None of them, save Ekhan of course, had been online in years. Half of my friends list was missing entirely, their names replaced by an ominous “UNKNOWN”; even the long list of people I had permanently /ignored over the years was now two-thirds “unknown” entries. Orgrimmar was functionally deserted (of course, the fact that a new expansion had been released, and that it was the small hours of the morning, probably contributed to that). For curiosity’s sake, I later looked up the server’s entry on Wowpedia; of the top-rated Horde and Alliance guilds listed on that page, all of which had been active when the Path was in its heyday, most did not even have their websites up anymore. Ten million people are subscribed to World of Warcraft – just not, apparently, anybody I know.

And it goes deeper than that. I think in a lot of ways, despite its phenomenal success, World of Warcraft is an object lesson in how not to build a good MMORPG. There are a couple reasons for that. Not the absurdity of the stories it tells, or its penchant for scenery-chewing melodrama – I love that about World of Warcraft. But its theme-park nature, its grindy gameplay, the inability of the players to meaningfully create their own stories in the world, all stand against the strong lessons games like Minecraft – or even EVE Online – have taught us since. World of Warcraft isn’t a tool for players to create with, like good virtual worlds are, and it certainly doesn’t have that alive-sense that the best have. It is, at best, a carefully curated set of dioramas and theme parks, and thus has to be driven by continuous content-heavy expansions, which, when they fail to appear regularly, tend to result in precipitous drops in the subscription rate. What this means, in real terms, I think, is that if you log in for the first time in six months, you feel out of the loop; if you log in for the first time in two years, you feel you have landed on another planet. Old features, like reputation factions from previous expansions, or endgame content rendered meaningless by a raised level cap, sits there, orphaned and abandoned. That’s not all bad: you might have very fond memories associated with those dungeons. But it’s strange – like coming home and seeing the house next door has been abandoned.

Cataclysm in many ways was a serious error on Blizzard’s part. There were things about that expansion that I loved, but it is not a coincidence that it was in the middle of Cataclysm that we wound down the guild. The stories Cataclysm told were fantastic – Chris Metzen has refined melodrama into, well, not a high art exactly, but certainly something I consume with relish, especially where the dynamics of the Horde and the Alliance, and Lovecraftian gods and mad dragons are concerned. But in changing the world so thoroughly, for those of us who inhabited Azeroth for years beforehand, a great deal was lost. I have no strong memories associated with Orgrimmar now, or the Barrens, or Azshara. Those are all zones which, in their previous incarnations (red cliff canyons, endless sere grasslands, high autumnal hills and ancient ruins), I spent an embarassing quantity of time, mostly just running around, and which I knew like the back of my hand. Tonight, though, when I returned to them – well, it’s like coming home, and finding the house next door is now a parking lot.

Parking lots are good. You need somewhere to park your car. But no parking lot in the world is a special place.

None of this is meant as specific criticims of World of Warcraft with my video-game-critic hat on; that’s not what I’m interested in at the moment. I really just want to talk about familiar places, and the passage of time.

I have a problem with time – a beef, a fundamental personal disagreement. It has a bigger, more existential component, but only when I spend too much time reading about astronomy on Wikipedia (don’t ask), but the core of this disagreement is simple, and personal. I don’t like it when things change. I don’t like it when things change, because I don’t like to lose people. I don’t mean death (although yes, I have a problem with that too, obviously). I mean in the most mundane, unremarkable sense of loss; I don’t like to lose people. It is partly, but not only pragmatic – I don’t make friends easily, and it’s a pain to make new ones. But more than that, it’s just sad, a little stab of grief, to look up one day and remember that you have not spoken to someone who used to be a good friend in weeks, months, years – that you have no idea what they’re doing or what they’re like now. Or worse, in the age of Facebook, you know exactly what they’re doing: but it’s like looking into their life through glass, because you have no connection to it anymore. You could send them an email, or write them a letter – but what would you say?

I have this problem with time, because it seems unbearably cruel to me that we should live in a world where even the happiest thing it is possible to have in this world, the bright bond of friendship, is subject to the same slow death as every other entropic process in the universe; and crueler still, that the physical matrix in which the memories of such things are embedded should likewise be subject ot the same decay. Time, that old son of a bitch, can keep his mitts off neither Nashville nor Azeroth; and one day, when I have moved away to some other city, with less soul-destroying winters and less rain, and I return to Dublin to visit, I do not think he will have had the courtesy to refrain from meddling in my adopted hometown as well.

And just as it is true that all things are subject to decay, it is true that such decay is never permanent. You do make new friends. You do fill a new place with new memories. There are always more adventures to be had, a little down the road, even if everything that has gone before is in some sense lost. But ain’t it a bitch all the same? For even if unending future joys should wait for us, a little ways further down the line, there is always sorrow behind. It does not crush; it does not overwhelm. But it accumulates in a slow drift beneath us, like the subduction of a tectonic plate, and carries us along.

I do not know if there is a place in this world which will ever feel like home, in the way the place you are born does, when you are a child. For me, it is not Nashville, nor can it ever be again. It isn’t Dublin, not really. In my mind’s eye, it might be a place a little like my brother’s neighborhood in Berlin, with wide, tree-lined streets, flanked by handsome old buildings. And if it were really home, my heart of hearts whispers, it would always be early autumn in a place like that, with a fragrant breeze and the midday sun; and you would know, that maybe not next door, but not far away – just down this street, or that, maybe a couple blocks over – was every friend you had ever had, and every companion you had ever missed. You might see them often, or rarely; but if suddenly one evening the urge struck you, to while away a few hours with someone you had not spoken to in years, you would know just what door to knock on, and there they would be, beloved, and familiar, and glad. It would be a place without partings, sweet or sorrowful, and there, time would have no power to wound or mar our hearts, because however far we went away, we would return safe in the knowledge this was where we were meant to be all along.

The Essential Unreality of Star Trek

Discussed in this essay:
  • Star Trek (1966-1969)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
  • Star Trek V: The Undiscovered Country (1989)
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
  • Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)

One of the features of Star Trek that I have always found most striking is the show’s essential unreality. I don’t mean the fact it’s science fiction (obviously), the fact its plots are of the adventure-escapism style (common enough), or the fact its deals largely in exaggerations and archetypes in order to make its points (necessary in an episodic one-hour television format). Even given all the assumptions of the form and the genre in which Star Trek operates, the show has a degree of essential weirdness – a weirdness of a very narrow, particular type, mind – that runs through every incarnation. It was probably at its lowest ebb in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and at its highest in the original series, but for the purposes of this post, the examples I have in mind are mostly from the original series and Star Trek: Voyager.

The unreality of Star Trek manifests itself in a variety of ways, but is of a single essential type. I think of things like the child-captain of the Fesarius (and the ship itself), the Crystalline Entity, the many episodes concerned with interiority and mental landscapes, and the way that the omnipotent aliens the series inevitably encounters have the strange habit of transposing the various crews to other times and settings, to play out stories in genres not their own. Much of this is common to the type of science fiction that prefers to play faster and looser with things like physics, the suspension of disbelief, and consistent writing, but even when Star Trek is doing nothing unusual for the pulpier kinds of science fiction, its manages its own special brand of weirdness.

An example: In Caretaker, Voyager is, after the introduction of a starship full of obvious redshirts, transported to the far side of the galaxy at the behest of the series’ plot engine. After the immediate consequences are dealt with (swept away the dead crew members, put out the fires, stopped a warp core breach), the first proper scene set in the Delta Quadrant is aboard the Caretaker’s Array – in a holographic simulation made up like a creepy Southern farm, like something lifted straight from the pages of Ray Bradbury. This is a choice made time and time again in Star Trek: something weird has happened/is happening, the crew approaches the liminal threshold, the edge of what has been established as normal in this science fiction universe, and bam, they’re ejected from the premise entirely. The 24th century peels away, and something else takes its place.

Why? Well, it could be shoddy writing – writers who can’t come up with anything better or weirder than a fallback to Alien Simulation of Earth History. The trouble with this hypothesis is that Caretaker is easily one of the strongest episodes in Voyager’s whole seven-year run (a problem which will be the subject of a different post entirely), and use of this trope has produced both very strong episodes – Far Beyond the Stars – as well as more middling ones and some outright stinkers. Translation of time and place (often using time travel or the holodeck) is common in a more general context, even outside the immediate concerns (indeed, some would say any of the concerns) of a franchise set mostly in the context of space exploration.

The common factor here seems to be liminality. Star Trek is all about thresholds – barriers of knowledge, barriers of space and time, barriers of memory, and barriers of human capability.1 The essential weirdness of Star Trek is, in part, a way to confront those barriers, and as often as not, the (sometimes gossamer-thin) science fiction premise is just a way to set up a threshold, one of interiority, essentially psychological in nature, and then attempt to see what’s on the other side. The interior aspect of Trek’s approach to the liminal is most chronically apparent in the original series – episodes like The Corbomite Maneuver, The Menagerie, A Piece of the Action, The Immunity Syndrome, For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky, and The Savage Curtain2 all have premises that are, no two ways about it, weird. They’re strange even for science fiction, apparently razor-thin justifications for far-out ideas whose unusual nature is hardly justified by things like the expense restrictions for television shows and the excuse-generators of the setting; and the list above is hardly exhaustive. Trek is plainly not concerned with exploring science fiction concepts in a science fiction setting, though it does do that sometimes, too, as a means to an end. More generally, it seems to be concerned with posing a kind of searching self-examination – an examination essentially psychological, and inwardly-directed. To put it another way: I don’t think Star Trek has ever genuinely sought to pass comment on broader philosophical or social issues. Something inherent in the nature of the series prevents that, and it is only able to deal with such matters when it does so through the lens of self-examination – how the individual must position him- or herself with respect to the social or theoretical complex under consideration. One of the most obvious examples is the original series episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, which treats racism through the lens of personal hate, or the countless forays of the series into questions of religion and belief, always in the particular sense: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Mortal Coil, Barge of the Dead, anything in Deep Space Nine involving the Prophets.

The inward-looking nature of Star Trek goes a long way toward explaining why it is so different from other science fiction, even other adventury or Utopian soft sci-fi. There is very little of the Flash Gordon, the John Carter, or the Culture here, and if this vision of the galaxy often seems hallucinatory and claustrophobic, it’s because the various captains and crews the franchise follows are engaging us on a journey as much internal as external, as much about dealing with psychological constructions as space adventures. This is an area that has traditionally been a domain of fantasy, legend, and myth: works like Gawain and the Green Knight that use external landscape, reflected through a kind of psychological form, in order to probe interior spaces in the guise of adventure to far-off countries. Tolkien is also good for this in spots, especially in his short works like Farmer Giles of Ham and Leaf by Niggle. So is China Miéville. But this has rarely been the raison d’etre of science fiction, and still more rarely is it competently done. There were occasionally shades of this in the fiction of Ray Bradbury and Roger Zelazny, but they never developed it really well; the only author I can think of who did it with anything like the thoroughness in Star Trek is Philip K. Dick, though his particular brand of weirdness often put him so far into the inner territory he came right out the other side babbling on like an acid flashback (here’s looking at you, Liars, Inc.).

It is of course nothing new to observe that science fiction often deals in exaggerations and archetypes – indeed, it’s so obvious as to be trivial. But I don’t think that straight-up simplifications of reality are what Star Trek is about, and it would be a mistake, even when it’s at its most preachy and ham-handed, to write Trek off as a stab at a simplified model of our own world, defamiliarized through the lens of science fiction. There is a more fundamental negotiation going on within Star Trek, one which I haven’t often encountered in television shows, and if for no other reason I think it is why Trek’s popularity has endured, despite its obvious shortcomings. It isn’t because sci-fi fans devour it indiscriminately. While that might have once been true, the market has been too large now for decades, and the demand for good sci-fi too strong. Rather, I think it is because Star Trek shows us our compelling desire to know ourselves, as well as the world around us, and it’s capable of tapping that desire and pulling something interesting out of it, even in its weakest moments.3

  1. Or, in the case of Threshold, the barrier on how much suck human intelligence can cram into forty-five minutes of television. [back]

  2. Can we just take a moment and appreciate the glory that are the titles of episodes in the original series? [back]

  3. Except Threshold. Seriously, fuck that episode. [back]