Forethought: Prompted by the appearance of torture and mind-probing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I’ve been writing about science fiction mind probes, and how they allow us to better delineate the ethical questions of the ticking time bomb thought experiment. Then this brilliant notion came up. And rather than trying to hammer it in as part of a huge post, I realized this was worthy of its own.
We commonly regard torture as heinous. A crime against humanity. Even unthinkable. But what is it that makes it so? In torture, the agony and destruction of the psyche is part of the process by which information is coerced. Is it still as bad if pain is incidental to the process? Or there is no pain? Science Fiction considerations of the Ticking Time Bomb give us a chance to explore what it is that makes torture so terrible. If it’s not just the cruelty and the willful infliction of pain, it the invasion of privacy? Is it the issue of consent and agency? Really, we should write more about this.
What I’ve yet to see in fiction is the innocent victim. Mind probes have always been a tool by which to move forward an action / espionage / mystery story. In the real world, far more innocent people get interrogated than guilty.* We seldom explore the innocent bystander that is caught up in a mystery or political situation. Here is a Star Trek scenario that explores this facet without mucking about with all the other problems that torture brings.
Instead we’ll muck about with all the problems that a Vulcan mind-meld brings.
Jana is a young healthy human woman, a citizen of the United Federation of Planets. She works as a freelance computer clerk who does data-processing tasks for small enterprises. Her specialty is agricultural supply. When someone wants to make a food farm, she arranges that all the materials needed to start one show up at the designated location.
On a bad day, Jana is caught up in a supply racket. She coordinates suppliers to deliver materials for a project, but it turns out the intent was other than what was declared. Due to an easy human error, Jana inadvertently covers the tracks of her clients, so when oversight steps in to audit the project, she looks like the culprit, engaging in willful misappropriations. It’s a mess.
Jana testifies she was completely unaware of the nature of the business who commissioned her, but her auditors have their doubts. Jana feels she has nothing to hide, thus volunteers to undergo a Vulcan mind-meld.
For sake of our story, we’re going to even give the society the benefit of doubt. In her community, what is under the umbrella of the United Federation of Planets, she really does have nothing to hide. To sweeten the deal, by undergoing the mind-meld, she gains immunity regarding any discoveries not closely-related to this crime, so it’s actually legally advantageous to her to get ruled out by meld, since doing so pardons her of any other wrongdoing (inadvertent or otherwise) she might have committed.
The mind-meld session is conducted by Saris, a Vulcan expert witness. The thing is, mind-melding is an extremely intimate process. It’s Vulcan mind-sex. We humans only experience emotional closeness like this only with our sexual partners (and our young children, about which we sometimes freak out), and as a result, we associate that intimacy with physical love, so while Kirk and Spock, who have mind-melded frequently are used to the intimacy of lovers without physical overtones, the rest of us as an audience have to contend with our own preconceived notions, and our corresponding feelings. Often that manifests as awkward discomfort or sexual excitement (and a need to read / write slash stories).
Saris is accustomed to forensic mind-melds and finds Jana a cooperative and suitable subject. The mind-meld session is uneventful, and succeeds in confirming Jana’s innocence in the matter. Otherwise, if anything Jana’s life is especially quotidian, and she would benefit from more excitement and adventure. Perhaps a nice tour in the Peace Corps.
Jana’s response is common for human subjects: She falls madly and completely in love with Saris. (This is despite all Saris’ efforts to close up loose ties and leave everything in her head exactly as it was found.) Jana is no stranger to love, sex and intimacy, but this connection with Saris is beyond anything she’s ever felt with prior partners. She feels like she completely knows Saris, on account that she completely knows Saris: favorite foods, artistic endeavors, favorite lines of poetry, catch phrases, music preferences, political opinions and so on. She knows what it feels like to be Saris: hurts, hopes, yearnings, joys, regrets and so on.
And thus Jana proceeds to integrate herself into Saris’ life, joining connecting social circles, appealing to Saris through offerings of food and poems, befriending Saris’ family and friends.
Essentially, Jana stalks the fuck out of Saris, because wow, that Vulcan really is soooo dreamy.
Afterthought: The problem with sci-fi short stories (or any story, really) is that they have to end in some kind of satisfying climax. (It’s a cookbook. ) In this case, it’d be too tempting to write a finale featuring a blaze of gunfire and scandal.
To be fair, I don’t know unrequited love tropes very well, and what makes one of those work. If I was trying to tell a moral story of why we shouldn’t use privacy-invasive technology to discover evidence, unrequited love wouldn’t necessarily be the focus, or the issue requiring resolution. Rather Jana might end up in prison for something like copyright infringement and go mad from years in terrible prison conditions. That’s the corporate cyberpunk dystopia we suffer today.
Real life doesn’t typically end the way that short stories do. In classic literature, forbidden love ends in dissolution and tragedy, yet teachers and students in real life re-unite, sometimes after prison sentences, and make lives together. Sometimes they even last a while.
But this story is less about forbidden love (unless it’s professionally proscribed, as with therapist-client relationships) and more a challenge to the validity of the feelings of love when it is the side effect of an artificial mechanism. Is love still valid if it’s the product of intervention, say, drug use? What if the effect is permanent (i.e. long term)? If someone is behaving in accordance to that effect, do they still have agency, or is their behavior regarded as a product of manipulation or intoxication? If this was the question I was asking, Jana could ultimately be arrested as a stalker, still confused why or how her behavior is inappropriate.
But Saris was the other half of the mind-meld that started this in the first place. Might Jana succeed in courting Saris? If she did, we still wouldn’t find out if love truly conquers all until the sequel, when another subject of Saris’ work responds in exactly the same way Jana does. That story could easily end in a blaze of gunfire and scandal.
After-Afterthought: If I were to connect the post-mind-meld love thing with the ticking time bomb scenario, Saris, as a counter-terror agent would forcibly mild-meld with Jana, who, while useless for defusing the bomb would completely understand Saris’ perspective (even if she didn’t agree with it.) Jana then would take the role of guardian, stalker, rescuer, etc. as Saris tried to stop the bomb plot.
At the point that Saris rebukes Jana, she would become an even bigger problem than the bomb plot. Hell hath no fury something something blaze of gunfire and scandal.
* Clarification. People are subject to interrogation and deep searches justified by being suspects of crimes they didn’t commit. They often end up criminals because it is easy to become a criminal in the US, thanks to lots of obscure laws, a lot of common practices which are criminalized, and the popularity of controlled substances like cannabis. Once a person is searched for one crime, they are often charged for whatever other crimes, petty or otherwise, are uncovered. It is really not a good idea in the US to catch the attention of law enforcement, say, by driving on major interstate highways.
Edits: For style, punctuation and tidiness and OMG I can’t write straight!