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.