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Tuesday, 6 May 2014

What if we're the bad guys?

I'm watching Continuum these days, about a cop from the future sent back to today. It's not brilliant but one reason I like it is that although the cop wants to get back to her future and secure it from being changed, it's not at all clear that her future is really worth saving. Meanwhile, the 'terrorists' in this time period are trying to derail a pretty awful future. This moral duplicity leads me to a more general question not so often dealt with in science fiction, namely, what if we become the bad guys as far as other alien species are concerned?

So, to be clear, I'm not talking about man's inhumanity to man (read any history book) or our environment (ditto for any recent nature book), but us as a hostile force in the galaxy. Of course Avatar is about this, albeit at a localized level, in the quest for resources, like plundering the Amazon except on another planet. And even Star Trek - famously pro-human-nobility - had a go at it with the film Star Trek Insurrection. But these are meant to be non-mainstream activities, our dirty (read greedy) laundry in an otherwise blossoming future based on strong governance and wholesome values.

It gets more interesting when our badness gets institutionalized. Ender's Game tackled it head on in both the film and the book, as experienced by Ender (literally a child) as he begins to grasp the nature of the enemy he is tasked to destroy. But at the end of the day, his attack on the alien fleet is borne from humanity's collective fear, and yes, the aliens did attack us first.

What if fear and xenophobia led humanity down a dark path, one where we subjugated other races and began to despise them, a kind of galactic apartheid, so that other races feared and reviled us?

I tackled this issue in two of my short stories, based on a future version of humanity united under a military governing system called Sphericon. The stories have no relation to each other except that they both occur with Sphericon in the background. The first is called The Sylvian Gambit, the second is called Executive Decision. In both stories you get to see a vision of humanity gone wrong.

Is there no hope? Of course there is, humanity has hope hard-wired into it, and there will always be those trying to protect the underdog (or alien). Also, as in my Eden Paradox books, the likelihood is that we won't have the luxury of a choice, as it is just as likely that we'll be bottom of the ladder in terms of alien intelligence, hoping that our alien betters have their own brand of nobility and altruism.

Coming back to Continuum, at one point the future cop has the chance to kill someone who in her future has caused millions to die, but right now he's just a kid. This is sometimes called the Hitler dilemma. If you could go back in time and you met Hitler as a young man, and you had a gun, would you shoot him? Aside from temporal paradoxes, there's a moral dilemma here. And it relates to who we choose to become in the future. If you pull that trigger, and get away with it, then conventionally you still have five bullets left, so who's next? As is said in the episode I just watched, once you pull that trigger, there's no going back, you've crossed a line. That path leads to the type of future society Continuum envisages, and the kind of galactic version I call Sphericon.

In Terminator 2 there is the same dilemma, but in the end, the protagonist (Sarah Connor) talks to the man whose invention will enslave humanity, tells him what his life's work will lead to. He listens to it all, and then throws up.

Like I said, with humanity there's always hope...




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