Sunday, 3 August 2008

Fictional Sceptics #4: Something New

OK, so my "fictional sceptics" feature was originally named "Fictional Sceptics in Pop Culture". But today I'm breaking with that particular pattern because I want to bring you something that is most certainly not part of the popular culture. It's a short story by an unknown author going by the name of Nick Westwood*, set in a parallel future the better part of a thousand years distant. It's part of a wider collection of stories which will eventually form The Unity Chronicles. Various other background pieces for this collection can be found at the author's page on DeviantART.

The Uraz Research Facility never slept. This was aided by its positioning at the temperate northern pole of the planet, where they experienced only two hours of semi-darkness in every thirty. The sun was at its highest in the sky when Nakato finally lost his temper.

'It's what we're made of! Please try to lift your mind out of religious complacency and comprehend what I'm telling you!'

'I'm sorry, Hari. I'm trying to understand what you're saying but it goes against everything we know about the universe and our place in it. You can't just dismiss centuries of knowledge with a few simple phrases.'

'I agree. But that's not what's going on here; firstly, it's not centuries of knowledge - it's centuries of willful ignorance. Secondly, I'm not dismissing it with a few simple phrases, I'm dismantling it with logic and reason.'

'But how do you know all those old texts are even real? They must have been outlawed for a reason.'

'Of course they were outlawed for a reason; they were outlawed because they run contrary to every teaching of the Book of Unity. Contradictions in matters of fact as well as in the morality of all this new research.

'But that's just the point, isn't it? Science isn't meant to play God.'

'What is it meant to do then, Faerin? Toil away at petty, circular research and find more and more advanced ways for humanity to destroy itself? I don't know about you, but I'm sick of that; and I thought this new alliance would bring the opportunity to break from the old dogma, to give science the freedom it needs to find the truth and improve lives. Do you know that in some respects we're actually less advanced than Earth scientists over a thousand years ago? Before any colonisation had taken place? Does that make even a little bit of sense to you?'

'What did they know that we don't? It's hard to imagine a culture ignorant of space travel could be more advanced than us in any way. Besides, how could all that information just get lost like that?'

'It was "lost" because of the rise of the Church, don't you get it? The fields of genetics, evolutionary biology, cybernetics - all outlawed because of the threats they presented to the Church's theological dogma. Anything they claimed as "science playing God" was made anathema; funding was pulled, and research was legislated against. Before the Church gained dominance, science had made great leaps in understanding exactly what humans were made of, and of what they might one day be capable. The censorship imposed didn't just set us back by decades, it completely removed entire fields of research. Now that we're free of that dogma, I was hoping to to revive the outlawed sciences. Give me one good reason why we shouldn't - one that doesn't appeal to religious authority.'

'I can't, Hari. It just goes against the grain. It feels wrong.'

'Of course it does; that's the point. If we don't challenge these boundaries then our science will remain restricted in the way it has been for the last few centuries. It feels wrong because like the rest of us you were raised in a dogmatic, blindly unquestioning society. All I ask is that you read these texts and then tell me if you still feel the same way. Try to keep an open mind.'

- - - - -

Two days later, Hari Nakato sat at his workbench poring over a set of readings he had just taken. Everything from the texts were being confirmed; every test he ran resulted in the exact predicted outcomes. Just then, Faerin entered the lab. Her hair was unkempt and her eyes bloodshot. Her face bore a strange expression, that Nakato recognised only too well; a conflicted mixture of enlightenment, disbelief, and frenzied excitement. She'd read the texts.

'Hari, they knew how we came to be. There was no Almighty Hand, no mud sculptures, no miracles. They - they actually mapped a human genome, they proved a relation to other apes. The potential for genetic modification, for eradicating disease and deformity even prior to birth... You were right. The ancient Terrans were way ahead of us, they knew things we'd never imagined were even there to know. How could the Church even defend itself against that sort of advancement?'

'Nobody knows for sure; it's astounding that these texts even survived to be honest. The only other history we have left is what we're told by the Church, and as has become abundantly clear, they can't be trusted to tell the truth. I think we can probably assume that they managed to raise a furore over the implications of the research - the morality of modifying "God's Design", and once they'd got their foot in the door they were free to outlaw anything that contradicted their precious book.'

'But aren't we going to do a similar thing with these texts? Who's to say that these are more valid than the Book of Unity?'

'I see you took the message of the questioning mindset to heart; but you seem to have overlooked the most important one - the texts themselves tell us not to take them as unquestionable truths but test them, probe them - doubt them. That's what I've been doing while you were away missing two nights' sleep. Everything I was able to test of what they say is true, Faerin. Everything. We just rediscovered DNA and the origin of the species. Given a few more decades and sufficient funding and personnel, we might actually be back to where we were a millennium ago. Further, if you count the progress we've made in the fields of research that weren't outlawed.'

'God bless the Varangian Alliance.'

'I can think of more suitable ways to put it, but yes. Things are finally starting to look up.'

Nothing to add to that really, I'll let it speak for itself.

* Yeah, that's me.

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