The winner of the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) was an episode of the fantastical sit-com The Good Place. Entitled The Trolley Problem it took as its premise the attempts by a deceased professor of ethical philosophy to teach morality to a demon in a fabricated after life. Specifically, it used a species of philosophical thought experiment called the trolley problem coined by British philosopher Philippa Foot.
Broadly Trolley Problems pose ethical dilemmas of life and death, presenting people with awful choices of who to save and who to sacrifice. Not unlike the infamous Kobayashi Maru training problem in Star Trek, the objective of such problems was not actually find the right solution but rather to examine the assumptions and reasoning behind the choices people make.
The situation in such problems are intentionally absurd and contrived partly to remove the Captain Kirk approach to such problems i.e. find a practical, situational solution that avoids the ethical dilemma that has been constructed.
The framing of such problems as a choice of one life over several lives is not confined to philosophical thought experiments. The theme is one that crops up in speculative literature, most famously in the 1954 short story “The Cold Equations”. That specific story was neither the first, last nor the best example of a character forced to choose between one life over many but for various reasons it has become the type-specimen for the sub-sub-genre. The story itself is over contrived in its efforts to make the ultimate decision by the pilot of a space craft to eject a young woman out of an airlock (see this discussion by Cory Doctorow https://locusmag.com/2014/03/cory-doctorow-cold-equations-and-moral-hazard/ ). The story circles us back to a broader field of philosophical scenarios known as lifeboat ethics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lifeboat_ethics ) The emphasis being on tough choices and often dangerously skewed value judgements about people. There’s an excellent essay by Marissa Lingen in Uncanny Magazine (https://uncannymagazine.com/article/beware-the-lifeboat/ ) where she looks at these lifeboat tropes in science fiction. Well worth a read (and very timely for where I’m up to in this project).
However, the flow of scenarios between philosophy and science fiction is not one way. In the field of the question of personal identity the Teletransportation Problem overtly borrows from science fiction tropes to raise questions about who we are. The heart of the issue is teleport technology such as that used in Star Trek where the underlying principle is disassembling a person and then beaming them as information to somewhere else to be reassembled. As Commander Riker discovered in Star Trek The Next Generation, such a teleport can in principle be a device for duplicating a person.
The idea that a teleport is actually a machine that kills you and makes a living copy of yourself somewhere else has been explored in fiction including by Stanislaw Lem. The most famous philosophical example though is in Derek Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons*. In Chapter 10 “What we believe ourselves to be” Parfitt opens with a sci-fi vignette:
“I enter the Teletransporter. I have been to Mars before, but only by the old method, a space-ship journey taking several weeks. This machine will send me at the speed of light. I merely have to press the green button. Like others, I am nervous. Will it work? I remind myself what I have been told to expect. When I press the button, I shall lose consciousness, and then wake up at what seems a moment later. In fact I shall have been unconscious for about an hour. The Scanner here on Earth will destroy my brain and body, while recording the exact states of all of my cells. It will then transmit this information by radio. Travelling at the speed of light, the message will take three minutes to reach the Replicator on Mars. This will then create, out of new matter, a brain and body exactly like mine. It will be in this body that I shall wake up.Parfit, Derek. Reasons and Persons (p. 199). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.
This is a jumping off point for Parfitt to explore what it means to be the same person as we were previously.
Which takes me, at long last, to James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur”, a story that echoes the Cold Equations, delves into lifeboat ethics and uses Parfit’s teletransportation problem as a pretext for doing so.
The dinosaurs (which is why we are here) are hyper-intelligent aliens who strongly resemble dinosaurs. They have an advanced teleport technology which they are choosing to share with humans. The ‘dinos’ regard the humans as primitively emotional.
Michael Burr is a human who works with the dinos on a space station where people are teleported. His role is a particularly special one:
“Some Hanen technologies are so powerful that they can alter reality itself. Wormholes could be used by some time traveling fanatic to corrupt history; the scanner/assembler could be used to create a billion Silloins — or Michael Burrs. Pristine reality, unpolluted by such anomalies, has what the dinos call harmony. Before any sapients get to join the galactic club, they must prove total commitment to preserving harmony. Since I had come to Tuulen to study the dinos, I had pressed the white button maybe three hundred times. It was what I had to do in order to keep my assignment. Pressing it sent a killing pulse of ionizing radiation through the cerebral cortex of migrator’s duplicated, and therefore unnecessary, body. No brain, no pain; death followed within seconds. Yes, the first few times I’d balanced the equation had been traumatic. It was still … unpleasant. But this was the price of a ticket to the stars. If certain unusual people like Kamala Shastri had decided that price was reasonable, it was their choice, not mine.“Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (p. 18). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.
‘Balancing the equation’ is an imperative that must be done if humans are to have access to the technology.
The story was the winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novelette, and a nominee for the Nebula and HOMer awards. In 2001 it was adapted as an episode for the rebooted Outer Limits, with Enrico Colantoni playing the role of Michael Burr. Clinton has his own Hugo connection via his role as the leader of the Thermians in Galaxy Quest, which won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2000.
The Outer Limits version of the story shows Michael Burr as quite a different character and adds an additional human character to compensate for the way the novelette focuses on internal dialogue and thoughts. Both the novelette and the TV version make it clear that the people who use the teleport are aware that their body is destroyed at the end of the process. There is a consensual aspect to the premise that cleverly avoids some of the other potential ethical aspects of the situation.
In both versions, Michael is tasked with helping a woman, Kamala, prepare for transport. Unfortunately during the process the supervising dino reports an error. It appears (at least initially) that the transport has been unsuccessful. Consequently, rather than destroying the ‘body’ on the station, Kamala is revived but she is deeply traumatised by the experience. Only later is Michael told that in fact the transport was successful. Kamala (or a copy of her) is at the destination and therefore the ‘real’ Kamala has to be destroyed to ‘balance the equation’.
The novelette Michael and the TV Michael react in different ways but their choices lead to the same result: Kamala ends up murdered by airlock.
The additional twist is some years later, Michale meets Kamala again when she returns from the destination. However, Michael is now a changed man. The experience (in the novelette) has taught him too ‘think like a dinosaur’.
The TV version adds some extra motivation and present a more sympathetic character for Michael. Earth we are told is overcrowded and people are dying in its polluted atmosphere. The TV Michael that Kamala meets on her return is a broken man, emotionless who denies knowing who she is. The final voice over warns us that:
“We believe that human advancement should be attained at almost any cost, but what if the ultimate payment is one’s soul?”Think Like a Dinosaur, The Outer Limits Season 7 Episode 8
The novelette is less pointed but the implication is similar. The story responds to The Cold Equations not by pointing out the numerous flaws in the premise but questioning the heroism of the man who makes the ‘tough decisions’ – the metaphorical lifeboat captain who must decide who dies for the good of everyone else. Michael Burr characterises himself as hero:
“I don’t know how long it took. The thumping slowed. Stopped. And then I was a hero. I had preserved harmony, kept our link to the stars open. I chuckled with pride; I could think like a dinosaur.“Think Like a Dinosaur” by James Patrick Kelly in Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs (p. 18). Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.
However, the implication is that he has become both alien and monstrous. Unlike the TV version of Michael, the novelette version takes pride in how he has changed but in both cases the implication is that the cost is his humanity.
It’s a point that takes us back to Philippa Foot. Her work in ethics was to help revitalise interest in virtue ethics — the idea of how what we do changes us and how that should shape how we practice being good. It is a concept that looks beyond ethics as either rules or as broader consequences. The psychological and character aspect of ethical decisions is more central within this perspective. It’s a fascinating perspective but not one that is fully explored in “Think Like a Dinosaur” but one that the story is open to in a way that The Cold Equations is not.
I have to say that I actually disliked this story quite deeply but I can’t help admire the depth to it. There is a callousness to it (mitigated somewhat in the TV version) that I found just too unpleasant. It is has a psychopathic aspect that is there for a reason but which I’d rather not partake in. I appreciate how it re-examines the trope of the young woman forced into an airlock for reasons but it is still another entry into the annals of young women murdered for the cause of making a point in sci-fi.
Perhaps I’m biased that James Patrick Kelly chose dinosaurs to be the representative of the brutal disregard for the lives of others (even if they are copies). I suspect I am being unfair and in his introduction to the anthology ‘A Fistful of Dinosaurs’ he is manifestly somebody who loves are saurian pals:
“Why are we (or is it just me?) so crazy about dinosaurs? We’ve certainly been fascinated ever since the Victorians gave a name and a shape to these incredible animals. Perhaps it is because they loomed out of the mists of time so unexpectedly to challenge our notion of ourselves.Introduction Kelly, James Patrick. A Fistful of Dinosaurs . Mad Cow Press. Kindle Edition.
To be more fair, he also presents his dinosaurs as not just intelligent but far beyond humans in the breadth of their technology and understanding of the universe. Yet this is also where those cold equations creep back in. The dinos know that the equation must be balanced and that Kamala must be killed. It is true that Kelly rejects that humans should take the evolutionary step to be more like them but the implication remains that there brutal position is from a place of wisdom. It is a brutal universe but Kelly implies that we should reject Burr’s reaction to that fact.
Next time: A new century, a new millennium, welcome to the Cretaceous.
*[I’m probably not going to persuade anybody to read it but the introduction starts like this “Like my cat, I often simply do what I want to do.” and you’ve got to love that.]