Monday, 30 January 2012





As a herbalist, i have a fair amount to do with old herbals.  They’re often useful but may need some kind of conceptual translation.  Two related types of book used in mediaeval Europe were bestiaries and lapidaries, of which the latter is by far the most obscure, dealing with stones.  There is a neat division between the three types:  the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms.  Items from each can sometimes be found in the same book.  I perceive herbals as having a directly practical intent:  they tell you how to identify, use, gather, prepare and grow plants.  Lapidaries and bestiaries, however, strike me as fanciful in nature.  They seem not to be intended for practical use.  For instance, bestiaries give no advice on hunting, cooking or medical uses of the animals recorded in them.  However, all three seem to be part of natural history and are based on description, rather than natural philosophy.

Bestiaries generally comprise a series of chapters, each describing an animal, seen as a beast, bird or fish.  Bees are seen as birds and whales as fish, for example.  Each chapter includes an illustration, a description of a striking, usually behavioural, characteristic, and sometimes a sermon-like passage explaining the spiritual significance of the animal.  The pictures are often rather unlike the way we see the animal, and are often of apparently deliberately humorous tone.

The text engages a literary or religious faculty in me more than a scientific one, and i feel my impulse to think of it as intended to describe a situation literally is misplaced.  I get the impression that this categorisation itself is an imposition of my mindset, which is driven to separate art and science in a way which only began after the books were compiled.  I suspect that a partial explanation for this difference is that the producers and audience were more focussed on eternity than the then and there, seeing mundane life as a brief prelude and the history of the world itself as much briefer than we are wont to view it.  Hence the emphasis is on what life lessons can be learnt rather than what could be observed by detached dispassionate observation of the animals concerned, which were often distant in one way or another from the reality of the people concerned with the book.  The animals seem to be there as embellishments or to make the stories memorable, and there are also elements of entertainment and appeal to the emotions about the text and images.  They are strikingly unlike herbals, except that herbals also try to fit their subject matter into an intricate system, which i find works as a mnemonic device and a form of system-oriented thinking in a superior manner to at least elementary botany, ecology and therapeutics.  Herbals seldom venture into fable, though one exception is the mandrake:



Though we might separate the animals in bestiaries into mythical and real, things are rather less clear cut.  While many species share the names of those we know today, many of them have very different characteristics.  For instance, bears lick their cubs into shape, lion cubs are born dead and the father breathes life into them three days later – like many other stories, a religious allegory – and there are many apparent confusions, combinations and duplications.  For instance, a number of different apes are described as giving birth to twins, one of which is abandoned and the other of which is fatally smothered by the mother, a tale reminiscent of the one told today about giant pandas, which are said to bear twins and abandon one, but of course a panda is bear-like, not an ape.  Many species are seen as hybrids of others.  Whales, for instance, are both fishes


(aquatic animals in this definition – mammal was seemingly not a familiar notion) and crosses between serpents and turtles.  Others are duplications:  the “monocerus” and the unicorn may be described separately.





The external history of the genre reflects a change in views of and approaches to the world.  Unusually for him, the philosopher Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century BCE,  gave a remarkably accurate account of many animals in his work, based substantially on first-hand observation and the testimony of people who were familiar with them, such as beekeepers, and includes factual details which have only recently been recognised as correct such as the detachable reproductive tentacle of the male octopus.  By the first century of the Christian Era, Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis was a secondary source, not based on his own observations but still quite accurate.  During the following century, an unknown author, possibly Clement of Alexandria, wrote Physiologus, the prototype of future bestiaries.  Tellingly, the title is derived from the fact that many of the entries include a phrase translatable into English as “The naturalist” or Physiologus, “says”, and was not available to the West in the original Greek.  Hence first-hand authority was even more distant.  It is the source of such stories as the one about the lion mentioned above and of the pelican drawing blood from its breast to resurrect its chicks.



Physiologus is allegorical in nature, in a manner akin to Aesop’s Fables, and this is probably the key to the tone of the works which were to come after it.  Deviation from literal accuracy increases with later bestiaries.  However, to say that is to look at it from our own perspective.  One thing it seems to signify is that we separate artistic and scientific concerns and the intellectuals of Europe in the Middle Ages did not.

Bringing this forward to today, just as was the case back then, we have separate academic subjects grouped into the humanities, social sciences, arts and sciences, meaning for example that history is not meant to be fictional, geometrical diagrams are not drawn in an abstract expressionist style and scientific papers are not written in verse.  Though this can often help, this is not the only way to do things and when we look at how things are done now, we might benefit from ignoring these categories at least some of the time to stimulate thought, creativity and versatility.  So when i say i would like there to be a new bestiary, i mean that there should be a creative work about animals we believe to be mythical which is emotionally engaging, uses the imagination to combine fantasy and science and raises as many questions as it answers.

Thursday, 26 January 2012



Language Barriers


English has the feature of having two distinctive registers to its vocabulary, whose tones differ in terms of learnedness.  This is also extended in the higher register to at least two further degrees, and of course this is a simplistic way of looking at it.  Although there were certain features before that, most of this division is connected to the Norman invasion of 1066 and the gradual loss of territories on the Continent, leading to the nobility throwing their lot in with this land and their language gradually merging with our speech.  This nobility is reflected today in the illusion of greater intelligence conferred by the use of what might be called “long words”, though some of them are not.

There are a few cases of words taken from Latin and French before the Norman conquest which are notable for lacking “poshness”.  Examples are the Latin “mouse” and “pope” and the French “proud”, which was also transformed in a very English way into the abstract noun “pride”.  Quite a lot of other words are now so ingrained in English that they too have lost their status, such as “very” and “use”.  There are also a number of other words from Scandinavian languages which are often so close to their English counterparts that they have merged or carry a somewhat different though related sense:  they lack a change in register.  These include “drink” and “drench”, “skip" and “shift” and “them” and “’em”.

It’s perfectly common for a language to have more than one register or even for the more technical terms to be from a language closely related to Latin when the language itself isn’t, but there are also many languages which are less open than English in this respect, including German (and Icelandic even more so), Hebrew and Chinese.  Whereas these may have registers, there is little difference in the origin of the words in each and so the meanings can be clearer to more people.

The idea of registers in this context communicates something other than a dictionary definition style of meaning.  It also fulfils the roles of establishing an in-group and an out-group.  Language can put at ease or it can be about asserting superiority for one or more people using a particular register.  It can also be an anti-language, like the use of particular words in youth culture, either for good or ill.

Learning the jargon can be a passport to understanding and a form of shorthand.  Although the words can be longer, they might not be as long as the words needed to explain the meaning otherwise.  There is also a shortcut to learning much technical vocabulary:  learn Greek and Latin and the meaning of many technical terms is uncovered.  This is because, as well as the French/English division in English-speaking countries, Latin and to a lesser extent Greek have dominated intellectual communication in the past in European culture.

Using a higher verbal register can also help convince people that you know what you’re talking about, or even that there is content to what you’re saying when there isn’t.  It can also be used to refer to things which exist but aren’t worth thinking about, or persuade others to think like you think, even when that isn’t in their best interests or in the interests of a larger group.  Examples of such language would include a phrase such as “educational premises”, which assumes that learning is best facilitated in locations dedicated to the purpose.

Beyond this, not all learning is linguistic.  Learning to test a baby for clicky hips, to knit, drive, paint or draw are all substantially non-linguistic.  Significantly, though many practical skills benefit or can be communicated well using language, they often include a substantial practical, “hands-on” element.  These are often the skills which ensure our survival.  For instance, driving is a  hazardous activity and there is a craft to avoiding the dangers inherent in it which appears to be second nature to many motorists.  In a different sense, the ability to knit well seems not to be primarily linguistic to me, who cannot knit, but enables one to make clothes.  Learning to provide the classic three basic needs of food, clothes and shelter, and many things which follow from them, are substantially non-linguistic skills.  Moreover, many linguistic skills can be acquired simply by manipulating symbols without grasping their meaning.

Given all of this, and i know this is a bit of a “splodge” of a blog posting, suggests three areas of learning which might be important.

  • If you learn Latin and Greek, it helps you to fake being clever and is a passport to understanding technical vocabulary.  It isn’t just about dead white men, partly because the long chain of dead white men who did use those languages were good at hoarding their learning rather than sharing it.  Access to that information can be gained by learning classical languages, even if the language concerned is in a mother tongue.
  • Take care with language use so that we can both say things on our own terms and include others, thereby making sure we have more freedom and “craftiness”.  Spot when others are taking away our words or language to serve narrow-minded or short-sighted needs, which may not be ours or even theirs.
  • Ease off on reading and writing so we don’t plonk children in front of a book in the same way they might be plonked in front of a screen.  This has its place and shouldn’t be denigrated, but people need to learn to do things themselves rather than just reading and writing about them.

Friday, 20 January 2012



Why i think we’re all doomed and my response to it.


OK, frivolous title for a serious subject.  I often assert that i believe we are one of the final generations of the species, and that Homo sapiens will soon become extinct, without explaining why.  Hence this blog post.

In detail, my belief is as follows:  Sometime in the very near future, by which i mean a couple of generations, our species will have become extinct, and that it is unlikely that enough will be done to prevent this.  I’m aware that it’s long been popularly believed that the world is about to end and i’m open to the possibility that i’ve done this.  Moreover, i realise that in a sense, the belief that human beings are about to disappear without trace is an unusual belief for a Christian.  Nonetheless, it is what i believe.

I have several reasons for thinking this is so, and i’m going to present two of them in detail.  I’m not going to mention climate change as one of them because i don’t want to engage with that argument.  Nor will i be talking about the question of overpopulation.  Even so, there is an interesting tangential argument about high population which is relevant.  It’s known as the “Doomsday Argument”:

There are said to have been somewhere near 80 thousand million humans on this planet.  The human population at most times since the Mount Toba eruption during the last ice age has been increasing, and though there are some drops due to the Four Horsemen the general trend is not only upwards but exponentially so:  population is currently doubling about every three decades.  I was born at a time when the world population was less than half its current size and if growth continues in this way, children born in 2042 will be born into a world whose population is about twice as big as now.

If the lifetime of this species (and any predecessors able to conceive of something like the idea of the end of the world) is finite and population increases over most of its history, and if we can consider ourselves to have been born at a random point in that history, the probability that we have been born near the end is higher than at other times simply because there are more people now than ever before.  Therefore, it is more likely than ever before that we are about to become extinct, and with each passing generation the probability increases.  Therefore, there is not only a relatively high risk that we are the last generation, but our children are even more likely to be it, and so on, as long as the population is rising.

Although i thought of this independently, this is quite a well-known argument for imminent human extinction.  An important implication for a parent is that one’s children should be prepared for difficult circumstances to a greater degree than usual.

Another reason is the increasing complexity of the infrastructure.  As technology changes, we become more dependent on a system which involves enough people to have sufficient skills to keep it going, and for there to be sufficient material resources to enable this.  This has in fact been the case for a very long time, but it is also a trend which increases with the rate of technological change.  This also involves increasing risk.  A Specific example is our reliance on distant sources of energy such as power stations and oil and coal deposits, which depend on complex systems to continue functioning.  Another instance is the dependence of telecommunications on a physical infrastructure such as mobile ‘phone networks, cable-based internet and, again, reliable sources of power.  Today, ordinary utilities and the likes of essential drug supplies depend on all of that working well.  The more complex this system becomes, the harder it is to guarantee its maintenance.  That maintenance also depends on a high level of education, and there needs to be a high level of practical skill to keep it going.  If it fails, which is again increasingly likely as time goes by, people will need to be creative, flexible and resourceful.

Other arguments for our extinction in the near future include reduction in biodiversity, the existence of the ability to produce weapons of mass destruction, reliance on scarce physical resources and conversion of those resources into a form which makes them difficult or impossible to recover, the evolution of new pathogens and the appearance of new diseases.  Each one of these reasons may be wrong, but taken together there are so many of them that the probability of at least one of them happening is high.  It also seems that, just as the Doomsday Argument is that probability of human extinction increases with population, a similar argument could be made that the more long-term risks emerge the longer the species survives, meaning that the risk of our extinction rises in any case.

It’s for these reasons that i believe it’s likely that we are about to die out.  I also think that attempts to prevent this, where a risk is apparently identifiable, are not significant:  not enough people are doing enough, and there are unknown risks about which we can clearly do nothing.  Therefore, i think it’s almost certain we will soon die out.

The question is, how to respond to this, and this is where i make two different kinds of response.  One is internal:  i think this is effectively a bereavement and that thinking of it in those terms explains quite a lot of how people behave.  Deep down, many people have a hunch that we haven’t got long to go.  They therefore respond as if they’re grieving, which i’ve possibly over-enthusiastically seen as a five-stage process involving denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  I would like to reach the stage of acceptance and stay there.  Some suggested manifestations of each stage might be:

Denial:  I would say climate change denial here but i don’t want to annoy anyone.  Therefore, i’m going to give the example of a general unwillingness of people to face the prospect of changing their own approach to how they live in a manner which is beneficial to themselves.  Sorry to be vague.

Anger:  The Occupy movement, demonstrations and non-violent direct action.

Bargaining:  The Transitions movement, which inspired me to write this entry in the first place.

Depression:  I don’t really need to justify this i think.

Acceptance:  This is a stage which is quite unstable, not one which makes one superior but, i hope, one which i’ve reached.  Note that it is beyond depression.  I am not claiming that this is a depressing prospect, simply an inevitable one.

Note also that this doesn’t mean i will forget about the whole project of attempting to alleviate whatever the oncoming disaster is.  I try to act in such a way that if all people acted similarly they would be able to prevent our extinction.

My other response is to ensure that children are able to remain resourceful, inspired and engaged with the world in such a way that they can benefit from any situation the world throws at them.  I am trying to provide opportunities that maximise self-sufficiency and a general rather than a specific level of competence.  This belief is a major motivation for me making the children aware of their choice with respect to their upbringing.  Also, as many children as possible need this flexibility, which is not currently being provided by schools.

Hence this is a big reason, behind it all, to see schools as inadvisable and hazardous to the long-term survival of the species.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012


The Fun They Had

Here’s another depiction of children’s education in SF.  Once again, schools have ceased to exist:

This is a short-short by Isaac Asimov, written in 1951.  Margie’s mechanical teacher, an educational computer which covers the entire school curriculum, has broken down and she has found a paper book.  She and her friend Tommy are surprised that the text on the pages of the book doesn’t move.

Unlike the previous example, this version of a world which has superceded schooling has replaced it with school at home, which is unpopular with the children and Margie wishes she was still able to go to a physical building where teaching takes place.  Nevertheless, various comments are made which suggest the inefficiencies of schooling as practiced in the 1950s, and possibly until the present day.

“How could a man be as smart as a teacher?”  It’s implied that individual human beings can’t possibly have enough knowledge to teach subjects properly, which is similar to the internet today.  The knowledge of a mechanical teacher is seen, at least by the children, to be superhuman.  This suggests certain things about the nature of education and knowledge, such as the idea that a child’s mind is an empty vessel waiting to be filled with objective knowledge, and that this is the activity of children’s education.

It’s also considered remarkable that all children at the same age are taught the same thing.  Margie says, “But my mother says a teacher has to be adjusted to fit the mind of each boy and girl it teaches and that each kid has to be taught differently."

Education for children is still referred to as “school” and children are generally isolated from each other while education takes place.

This particular picture of future education is more like the stereotype of education otherwise than at school involving social isolation, which however in this case takes place because children are seen as having individual needs which cannot be served simultaneously.  However, children do socialise outside school hours.  Education also seems to take place at home rather than more flexibly, for example in the neighbourhood, the wider community or other “educational” venues such as schools or museums.  Nonetheless, it is still assumed that information technology would make schools obsolete as institutions.  There is also an element of irony because children in 1951 were clearly about as reluctant to attend school as they are today.  The lives of children, however, seem to have gone downhill as a result of the change, since they are able to socialise less.

Again, the assumption is that computer-aided learning replaces the kind of learning which is part of the explicit curriculum, and that other functions of school are subsidiary.  One of these functions, socialising with other children, is fulfilled in different ways and not so well by the system which replaced schools.  This has become a stereotype of “homeschooling”.

Hthe childcare function of school is fulfilled is not explicitly resolved in this story.  Two answers to this are suggested by the time of publication and other Asimov stories, and i would also suggest a third, which may answer the question in this and other stories.

The first answer is the ascribed gender roles of the ‘50s, where it can be presumed that women stay at home and men go to work outside the home.  This is not universal in Asimov’s stories by any means, though it does sometimes happen, for example in ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’.  In the Robot stories, however, Susan Calvin is clearly a career woman with no interest in children, though it is hinted that she has a nurturing instinct which moves her to care for robots instead.  The robots are a second answer:  Asimov’s robots are safe and care for children elsewhere, such as in ‘Robbie’.  Therefore, we can probably conclude that the childcare function of schools has been superceded as well as their educational function, though in a different way.

The third reason childcare may not be an issue here or in other SF stories where schools have been technologically superceded is the nature of work in such a world.  Either there is such a high level of automation that society is now based on leisure, in this situation perhaps similar to that of the Ancient Greek or Roman slave-owning class, or because working from home is now more feasible.

So again, i would ask the question:  why the discrepancy between futuristic SF depictions of children’s education and those of the real present day?  What functions are schools now performing given that the extent of advance in the educational use of IT is, as before, probably underestimated in these stories? Though an argument could be made for socialisation in this particular story, it doesn’t seem to be childcare in this case, given the wider context.

And again, why is school education still a majority activity?

Saturday, 14 January 2012


Science Faction and Education

Back in the ‘70s, when i was an impressionable child, there was a vogue for what a school friend of mine called “Science Faction”, or, as he put it, “science fiction written as if it was true”.  An example of this might be a mock-up of a newspaper front page covering current affairs in the Galactic Empire.  There were various books written in this form, varying from the mushy soft (implausible) to the fairly hard (scientifically plausible), without a strong narrative element.  The most well-known survivors of this genre from that time include the Terran Trade Federation series.  Similar books are still sometimes published today, such as the Haynes Manual for the Millenium Falcon (though of course Star Wars is not SF).
One of my favourite books of this time is the ‘Handbook For Space Pioneers’ by L. Stephen Wolfe and Roy L Wysack, published in 1978.  This is a description of the eight planets colonised by humans in the year 2376, going into considerable detail about their statistics, life forms and, most interestingly for the purposes of this blog entry, the societies on these planets, notably for the purposes of this blog, education.  Other content of this book has been reviewed unwittingly elsewhere on the web, but is hard to find.
The book was written at a time when the post-war consensus had yet to break down, though being American it is more committed to the principles of free enterprise than the UK economy was at the time.  Nevertheless, it implies clear assumptions about how the education of children would develop which is reflected in other science fiction, for instance to some extent Asimov’s ‘The Fun They Had’, which can be found here:
(I may refer to this in a future blog).
Anyway, the eight planets, discovered and colonised in order, are as follows:
Wyzdom:  in the Alpha Centauri system and considered a lucky find, by the date the book is set it has been inhabited for about three centuries and is a mature society whose standards of living are like Earth’s in the 24th century.  The model of education on Wyzdom is therefore not influenced by material necessity such as the lack of resources or poor communications and transport:  remoteness or inaccessibility are, for example, not factors.
Education on Wyzdom is lifelong and referred to as “common”.  There is no state education and children learn by a combination of non-profit cooperatives, private tuition and computer-aided learning.  Autonomous education begins at below what we would think of as school age and continues throughout life.
Poseidous:  A planet whose land surface consists entirely of small islands and consequently has a wide variety of political systems and independent states.  Two contrasting islands are Troon, a hedonistic society basically inhabited by hippies who have few material needs due to the good climate and abundant resources, and who pass on their culture efficiently nevertheless without any formal education system at all.  This is contrasted with Moamba, a totalitarian state where government policy is to minimise family life.  Childbearing on Moamba is seen as a grim duty to the state, everyone wears overalls and children are raised in publically-funded childcare centres and then compulsory state boarding schools.  A small minority of parents look after their own children.  The general depiction of Moamban society is negative and the reader is clearly expected to disapprove of this system.
Brobdingnag:  This is the newest of the older colonies, and there was a gap between the arrival of humans on this planet and the following due to First Contact taking place.  Hence it is, like Wyzdom and unlike Poseidous, neither underdeveloped nor geographically fragmented.  The continent which is most densely populated and on which the planetary capital is situated, i.e. the most developed one, where like Wyzdom there is basically an Earth-like level of technology, has a law requiring parents to purchase education for their children up to the age of nineteen.  However, there and elsewhere, education is not state-funded and local schools are organised and funded by the community as opposed to local or planetary government.
Genesis:  This planet lacks any complex life and is therefore considered to be a predictable and controllable environment which can be easily developed to human needs, even lacking infectious diseases.  This gives the planet a level of predictability which means that a command economy is appropriate for the colony.  Little is said about children’s education here, but since it is a state socialist, though democratic, society, it can probably be presumed that schooling is both state-funded and compulsory on Genesis, though this is not explicit.
Mammon:  High in rare earths and on the lower edge of habitability, a corporation led the colonisation of this planet but it has now become a fully-fledged society.  The autobiographical section describes the education of the writer as a child, which is materially under-resourced and led by ordinary people volunteering as teachers and maximising their use of physical materials such as drawing on the ground with sticks.  There is also computer-aided education.
Yom:  Children’s education is not mentioned on this planet but it may be too primitive and new for it to have become an issue.  However, the autobiographical section describes the foundation of the planet’s first university.
Romulus:  Since this planet, which is double and settled under special conditions because the other planet contains a technologically primitive but intelligent humanoid species, is governed under socialist principles, it may have compulsory schooling.  Laissez-faire activity is inappropriate here due to the non-interference policy.
Athena:  So far unsettled.

What interests me about all this is that, in spite of the fact that this book is in no way focussed on education, the assumption was that children’s education in the future would be substantially autonomous, not funded by the state and substantially aided by ICT, whether or not the society in which it existed was technologically advanced.  The point is that this is an assumption:  the idea that schools as they then stood would still exist in the future was completely rejected almost without conscious thought.  Moreover, this assumption is typical of science fiction of the time:  it was assumed that because of communications and information technology, state schooling would either vanish or become more autonomous. 
Which leads us to ask the question:  Why is the developed world not in fact like this today?  Why have we gone in the opposite direction with education policy?  These works generally underestimate the rate of progress in IT, and yet for some reason we still have schools.  So what’s that about?

Friday, 6 January 2012



Thomas Hardy and the Star Trek Mirror Universe

Do i want to anger Star Trek fans?  Do i want to anger Thomas Hardy fans?  I don’t know.  One thing i do know, though, is that i’m more familiar with Star Trek than Thomas Hardy.

However, i do have a general impression of Thomas Hardy’s writing, and one thing which strikes me as a flaw is that there are too many coincidences.  I have the impression of a plot which is kept going by a series of improbable occurrences.  There is sometimes a justification for this, i’ve heard – a character may be cursed, in which case she may well appear to be unlucky, and presumably then a string of incredible mishaps is defensible.  Incidentally, should anyone wish to puncture my bubble of ignorance here they would be most welcome.

Most fiction is only well-plotted if it minimises the element of coincidence and improbability because the more of those there are, the less convincing the story is and the more likely the reader is to be distracted by the improbability.  Moreover, unlikely events may be unconnected except by the fact that they occur in the same story, so they break up the flow of the story-telling in a way which makes it feel like consecutive seemingly random events messily stuck together rather than a story.  On the other hand, a story with no remarkable events at all might be extremely boring and many unremarkable things should be excluded for that reason.  Therefore, my general view is that every story should be allowed one unlikely event, perhaps near the start, from which other events should unfold as consequences.

A plethora of coincidences or improbabilities is not always a sign of a bad story, however, because it can be the main point of the story.  This might apply to the Hardy novel in question, which might be ‘Tess of the d’Urbevilles’ incidentally.  If a character is cursed, misfortunes have to befall her, and these are going to be unlikely.  Those who see Biblical stories as myth might cite them as examples of stories whose point is the very improbability of the events in them, pointing to the unseen character known to us as God.  Mythologies in general contain many such stories.  Another example is a book, which i’d love to track down, where two friends invent a luck machine, but go on to discover that luck has positive and negative charge like electricity, meaning that for one person to be unusually lucky, another has to be unusually unlucky.  I’m sure these are all good stories, but their quality is connected to their emphasis of the improbability.

Hardy’s novels may work in this way too but if this is not evident to a reader today, to me that seems to prevent them from being universal in their appeal.  It may be that the subtext of, for example, being cursed, would have been evident to most people reading it when they were published.  On the other hand, maybe working at understanding the circumstances of a story is a good thing, and the fact that they have provoked my curiosity in this respect means that they do work.

Now for the more comfortable ground of Star Trek.

There is an ongoing occasional theme in Star Trek, beginning in the Original Series, of a “Mirror Universe”, where there are counterparts of the protagonists in the universe depicted in the rest of the series, but they are in some way dark or evil.  In the first episode which depicted this, It might be thought that this is a parallel universe, but this is where problems emerge.

Given that Star Trek is possible at all, the main Star Trek universe is a possible world, and the Star Trek Mirror Universe is separate possible world.  They have different but remarkably parallel histories.  There is in fact no particular reason why this should not be so if there are an infinite number of possible worlds whose timelines vary widely enough.  Having said that, there is one thing the Mirror Universe isn’t, which is an alternate history with a small number of points of divergence (PODs).

It’s a science fiction cliche to depict worlds with single points of divergence to our own, either early on in the story or off-stage entirely, classic works of this kind including Philip K Dick’s ‘The Man In The High Castle’ and Len Deighton’s ‘SSGB’ where the Axis powers won the Second World War, or Murray Leinster’s early story ‘Sideways In Time’, where several alternate histories appear in the same world with various PODs.

Economy suggests that a good alternate history story would depict a universe with only one POD, although again the principle that if the story is about how many PODs would be needed for a state of affairs to exist, that would also be acceptable – one way of doing this is to use multiple PODs to illustrate how inevitable a particular actual event really is.  There are other possibilities here, such as the world of Ill Bethisad, which shadows our history in a similar way to the Star Trek Mirror Universe, but not in a simple light/dark way so much as – well, just look at it and you’ll see what i mean:

Ill Bethisad

It’s more a literary convention than a scientific principle, though it does follow a principle of parsimony like Ockham’s Razor does.  However, there are an infinite number of possible worlds, and where a plot device is used to move the point of view between a world closely resembling the actual one and another possible world, the two worlds need not be simple forks with a few PODs.

The Mirror Universe is in fact not a simple fork but an alternate timeline containing the same entities, similar institutions and the like but not as a result of a single POD in spite of what the internal story might show.  Zefram Cochrane shot the Vulcans and stole their spacecraft in the Mirror Universe, but this is not an adequate explanation for all subsequent events depicted in that possible world.  It does not explain how everyone in the main Star Trek universe seems to have a version in the Mirror Universe because that would imply that details of the timeline, though surrounded by differences, would be identical, such as the conceptions of James T. Kirk and Jonathan Archer by counterpart parents, with the same sperm and ova being involved.

This in itself does not stretch credulity too far because there are after all an infinite number of possible worlds.  However, a couple of things are missing from the explanation and there seems to be no in-universe way of providing it.  Firstly, if the Mirror Universe were simply to be allowed to go its own way without contact with the main Star Trek universe, the problem would be less severe, though it would still exist.  Every moment that passes in the Mirror Universe is improbable, but every possible world has a probability of zero anyway, so that’s not a problem.  However, once a story takes place in the Mirror Universe, every event which occurs which has a counterpart in the main universe makes it more improbable and harder to believe.  In this respect, the Star Trek Mirror Universe is very similar to Thomas Hardy and has the same flaw.

There is a second flaw, however, absent from Thomas Hardy.  Though the Mirror Universe can safely be allowed to plough its own furrow, even if that furrow is suspiciously like the main Star Trek one in some respects and arbitrarily unlike it in others, except in that it’s in some way “dark” or “evil” (and the physical universe doesn’t care about that, and is never portrayed as doing so in Star Trek, so why should it happen?), conduits from the main universe usually seem to end up in that universe without having any reason for doing so.  Whereas there could be an explanation for it – morphic resonance maybe – there is never an attempt even to hint what it might be.

So, to summarise:  Thomas Hardy’s novels and the Star Trek Mirror Universe suffer from the same problem:  they pile up a heap of improbable events without providing a real connection between them, which makes them both ultimately unsatisfying and difficult to suspend disbelief in.