A discussion of sex, love, and rape on the holodeck of Star Trek Voyager.
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If you’ve read my fiction, you’ve probably gathered that I’m not a religious man. But I do secretly worship a particular entity – Star Trek Voyager. The philosophical issues raised in the series are mind-boggling (e.g. see chopping up children for Tuvix). But there is one aspect of Voyager that I find troubling.
When it comes to depictions of intimacy in the series, it often feels like a teenage boy wrote the episodes. Characters tend to stand on top of each other when they interact, and seem to have no respect for personal space at all. But put that aside. An uneasiness grew in me when I watched a series of questionable sexual encounters on the holodeck.
Okay, before I continue, I want to make it known that I’m not conservative about sex (much of my novel, Hedon, is set in a gay bathhouse). I’m no social justice warrior either. But something … mmmm … something is amiss on the holodeck.
The problem begins when Tuvok, the ship’s resident Vulcan, becomes desperately ill. It turns out that Vulcans, the galaxy’s ultra-rational thinkers, experience a period of uncontrollable sexual rage every seven years. They call it the ‘Pon Farr’. If they don’t have sex with another Vulcan during the Pon Farr, they will die. Yup, you read that correctly. Sexual frustration is so serious in Star Trek, it causes death.
The difficulty is that Tuvok’s ship, Voyager, is stuck in the Delta Quadrant, decades travel from Tuvok’s wife. Unfortunately, the loyal Vulcan won’t have sex with anyone but her. The solution? You guessed it. The handy engineers on the holodeck construct a holographic replica of Tuvok’s wife, complete with her personality, and a body Tuvok can … well, there’s no delicate way to put this … fuck.
Everyone, including Tuvok, is overjoyed with this solution. Pats on the back all round. So it’s no wonder then that the same solution is employed to resolve another Vulcan’s shipmate’s Pon Farr a few seasons later (Ensign Vorik), and an equivalent sexual rage experienced by B’Elanna Torres, a horny Klingon. (For the record, you don’t want to be trapped in a room with a horny Klingon seized by ‘Blood Fever’).
Here’s my question:
Is there something wrong in programming a hologram to want sex with you?
Tuvok has sex with the hologram on condition that it’s indistinguishable from his wife, both physically and psychologically – otherwise he would feel that he’s acting unfaithfully. The hologram believes she is a person – believes she is Tuvok’s wife. A person capable of agency, free to make her own choices. But the reality is that she has no choices, at least not when it comes to sex. The Mrs. Tuvok simulacrum is programmed to lust only after Tuvok.
The hologram is being used purely as a sex object. And yet, this object has thoughts, desires, and aspirations. Suppose Tuvok treated a flesh-and-blood person in this way. Suppose he eliminated her ability to choose (say, with a powerful drug), and brainwashed her into wanting sex with him. This would be considered rape. Shouldn’t we, therefore, consider his treatment of the hologram, rape?
“Too fast!” you shout. Yes, you might agree that if the hologram was a person, then this would be rape. But, you argue, the hologram isn’t a person. The hologram is just a representation of computer code. It may look and sound like a person – but it’s a merely a simulacrum. A hologram isn’t sentient. And as such, it can’t be wronged.
It can’t be raped.
Now it just so happens that one of the best subplots in Voyager centers around a holographic character, namely, the Doctor. The Doctor is introduced to the crew in the first episode of the series as the Emergency Medical Hologram, after the ship’s human doctor is killed. The holographic Doctor a grumpy, sardonic narcissist who quickly earns the disrespect of the crew. But over time, the doctor grows. He develops a bedside manner. He augments his programming, so that he can sing opera. Eventually, he falls in love. He even learns to captain the ship, and saves the crew on multiple occasions. He earns Captain Janeway’s trust, and is granted the status and rights of any other flesh-and-blood member of the crew. Although he never loses his megalomania. The Doctor is, I think you’ll agree, the best character on Voyager.
It is clear that in the Voyager universe, at least, the Doctor is considered a person. It seems odd then, that the holograms used for sex aren’t also considered persons, and given the same rights as the Doctor.
Fine, you say. Alright. You’ll concede that there’s an inconsistency in the way the Doctor is treated, compared with the way the Mrs. Tuvok hologram is treated. But this inconsistency, you might argue, should have been resolved the other way. The Doctor shouldn’t have been given the status of a person. Neither the Doctor, nor the Mrs. Tuvok hologram, has rights. Neither is sentient. Neither can be raped.
One reason for adopting this hardline position on holographic rights is that you might argue that holograms can’t experience emotions. Indeed, in a previous blog post, I argued that Samantha, the AI in the film Her, cannot experience emotions. Why, then, do I think that the Doctor does have emotions?
The reason I argued that Samantha can’t experience emotions is that she lacks a body. The Doctor and the holographic Mrs. Tuvok, on the other hand, do have bodies. Sure, those bodies are composed of photons rather than of matter, but their bodies are concrete objects capable of lifting a glass, or shaking hands, or anything else a human body can do.
This is the reason why in the stories I write, artificial intelligences are embodied. In Dinner with Flexi, the protagonist is a sex bot who tries to escape the control of her johns. In Falling for Q46F, the android’s greatest pleasure is to allow undead humans to gnaw on his forearm on Fridays. And in my latest series, Defragmenting Daniel, Margaret is a bloodthirsty android in search of human body parts to replace her cybernetics.
All my android characters are designed to elicit sympathy precisely because they experience the world through their bodies.
Bodies are vulnerable to injury. Vulnerable to coercion. And in Star Trek Voyager, vulnerable to rape.
I want to conclude with a thought about love. In season 6 of Voyager, Tom Paris creates a virtual holiday destination by constructing a holographic Irish town, called Fair Haven. The Voyager crew take turns unwinding in this slow-paced, pre-technological holographic village. But the story takes an interesting turn when Captain Janeway develops a romantic interest in the barkeep, Michael Sullivan.
Sullivan is, of course, a hologram. As such, Janeway feels no guilt when she abandons him after a one-night stand. But due to a glitch, the holographic town can’t be switched off, and Fair Haven’s characters develop. Sullivan becomes angry with Janeway, and confronts her, saying how hurt he is. The result? Janeway realizes she was wrong to treat him this way. She considers reprogramming him, to make him want her again and forget her wrongdoing. But she realizes this would be wrong. Why? It would undermine his autonomy – in the same way the holographic Mrs. Tuvok’s autonomy is undermined when she’s programmed to want sex with Tuvok.
Janeway chooses not to reprogram the dashing barkeep, and wins back his trust. Interestingly, over time, she falls in love with him, and they develop a relationship.
It seems to me that if one can love a hologram, and be loved in return by the hologram, then one can rape a hologram too. The capacity to love and be loved, is sufficient for the capacity to be raped. (This raises interesting issues around whether sex with an animal is rape – but that’s a whole new blog post).
What do you think? Is it possible to rape a hologram? Did Tuvok rape holographic Mrs. Tuvok by programming her to want sex with him?
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About the Author
Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.
He’s the author of the sci-fi thriller trilogy, Defragmenting Daniel, two novels, Hedon and The Solace Pill, and the short story anthology, Obsidian Worlds. His books will make your brain hurt. And you’ll come back for more.
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