Orson Scott Card wrote a wonderful short story entitled “Fat Farm” which tells the story of obese people who go in and have their brains duplicated into new, thin bodies. The problem was that the old bodies were still around, too, and terrible things ended up happening to them. For my purposes, that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the New, Thin Body Guy – NTBG for short – had the illusion of continuity from before and after the transfer. In NTBG’s mind, he was the same guy as the fat guy who came in before the transfer. But he wasn’t – that fat guy was still alive. Well, imagine if the fat guy, instead of being left behind, was summarily executed after the memories were duplicated in NTBG’s brain. Yikes. Wouldn’t that be a bad thing?
Well, that’s exactly what happens every time someone from Star Trek steps on to a transporter platform.
Transporters break down matter into energy, and then use that energy to reconstitute the matter in a different location. Yet the newly reconstructed matter hasn’t truly been transported – it’s been duplicated. The atoms and raw material used in creating the new James T. Kirk on the planet’s surface would undoubtedly be different than the ones that were converted to energy in the Enterprise’s transporter room. That means that, while the new James T. Kirk would, like Card’s NTBG, function and feel as if he were the same James T. Kirk who had been blasted into energy up along the Enterprise, he wouldn’t be. That James T. Kirk is dead. But nobody mourns him, because the duplicate has seamlessly taken over his life.
Several Star Trek episodes address this tangentially while ignoring the central moral dilemma this poses. In an early Trek episode, the transporter produces a Good Kirk and a Bad Kirk, and then it combines the two back into the Regular Kirk. Can anyone really argue that any of those three Kirks is really the same being that first stepped onto the transporter platform? What about the TNG generation episode where a transporter mishap creates a second Riker who’s left behind on a planet while the “real” Riker beams back aboard safely? Or all the episode where people’s transporter “patterns” are used to reverse medical problems and “fix” things? Wake up, people! Transporters are killing people all the time and making new people in their place! Why is that OK?
Some may argue that, since the series of duplicate James T. Kirks have maintained the illusion of a single, linear life, that we shouldn’t worry about it. This is deeply misguided, as it demonstrates a contempt for the unique value of an individual human life.
Others may argue that since transporter technology doesn’t actually exist, and I’m getting all worked up about fictional nonsense, that I should actually get a life. To those who think thus, I weep for your lack of imagination, and I scorn you preemptively to compensate for my own strange compulsions, as evidenced by my vintage Battlestar Galactica lunchbox.