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Playing Dice With The Universe


by Bill Kte'pi
Sep 09,2004


Playing Dice With The Universe


This is another of the columns where I'll be talking about something setting-specific -- the Star Trek universe -- as a way to illustrate things more general. Since I'm talking about a first contact issue here, it's fairly easily usable for any future-earth setting encountering its first non-hostile (or ambiguously motivated) alien species. (I was originally going to write about the Babylon 5 setting, but I haven't finished the series yet and didn't want to fact-check in case it spoiled things for me. I'll be done by the time this column runs, so feel free to talk about it in the forum if there's anything interesting to compare.)

I'm not going to talk about all the possible religious responses to first contact here -- some of that was covered in the Superman column, after a fashion, and I'm considering a later column on religious institutions and first contact. I'm just going to talk about one specific type of approach, one that I think is inevitable and debatable only in the scope of its popularity -- and one that many people, both adherents and outsiders, will likely not consider a religious response: the "otherkin" reaction.

I'm not going to dwell on fine-line definitions of religion, because doing so does neither of us any good; if you don't want to think about this as "religious" in nature, then just assume I've daytripped outside my jurisdiction. Remember, though, that "religious" is not synonymous with "a rejection of other beliefs" -- the popularity of Americans combining Buddhism and Catholicism over the last five decades is one good example, even if many of them bend over backwards to claim that they're not combining anything, but rather recognizing a preexisting sameness.

Quick background, Star Trek

In spring of 2063, Earth first encounters the Vulcans -- a humanoid but nonhuman alien species -- when the first faster-than-light spaceship is noticed by a passing Vulcan exploration wessel. Judging from the movie Star Trek: First Contact, Earth society -- at a minimum, American society, which is largely what I'll talk about here -- was still more similar to that of our time than it was different, especially compared to the Federation society of the Star Trek TV shows. World War III, which involved nuclear weapons in some capacity, had been fought recently, and the general human character has not yet been possessed of the intrinsic optimism which is so common several centuries later.

Let me suggest some general tendencies about American religion; if you don't agree with them, or if they ring false for you, so be it. It isn't something I've seen much scholarly treatment of, especially outside the pseudoacademic "cycles of faith and renewal" rhetoric of fundamentalists.

  • The period during and following a major war tends to be one of religious change: Deism, the faith of many of the founding fathers, declined gradually after the Revolutionary War; the Civil War reshaped many Protestant denominations; the period after the Great War saw a rise in fundamentalism and rural religious revivals, as well as a growth in atheism and agnosticism (if we consider the period of time around a war to be relevant, then conservative Judaism was organized in 1913, just before the Great War, and had begun as a movement not long after the Civil War); the years after World War II saw a rapid rise in interest in Buddhism among Catholics, as mentioned above.

  • Periods of unrest and/or economic difficulty likewise tend to attract religious change: the many religious movements of the mid-19th century, the religious shifts associated with the protest movements and new social concerns of the 1960s, the renewed popularity of both fundamentalism and non-mainstream religions such as Wicca in the recession of the 90s.

  • Granted that each of these things can be described in terms of more specific causes, the pattern still seems to be there and might be relevant.

Vulcans, for their part, are -- to quote from the startrek.com article about them:

A humanoid race, with copper-based blood, slightly green-tinted complexion and notably pointed ears, they are responsible in a large part for the founding of the Federation. Over the centuries, Vulcans have developed a culture dedicated to the complete mastery of logic, learning to suppress their once-violent emotions in nearly every aspect of their existence.

In ancient times, Vulcans were a war-like race, leading to their near extinction. Its ancients believed in gods, such as war, peace and death.

(It's also worth noting that at the time of their contact with Earth -- only a few short centuries before Spock and other familiar Vulcans -- they still possessed a noticeable amount of the emotions they would later suppress. Just enough, I'd think, to make their suppression noticeable, if you see what I mean. If you smack someone in the head with a brick and they don't seem to notice, maybe they just didn't feel it; if they grimace but bite their tongue and don't yelp, then you know they felt it but they're taking it like a hardass, which is more impressive.)

(By the way, don't smack anyone in the head with a brick.)

Quick Background, Otherkin

You're on the internet and you're interested in roleplaying games. There's a good chance I don't need to tell you what otherkin are.

It's an umbrella term, much like "Christian" or "priest": otherkin believe that in some relevant way, they are not exclusively, if at all, human. They may believe they were born to the wrong species, as some people believe they were born the wrong gender, and that they are mentally and spiritually the "other" with which they identify; they may believe they are physically different from humans, perhaps even an entirely separate species; they may believe they are possessed by, or share space with, the essence of that other; they may invoke, as explanation, examples of real-life mystics, ancient systems of mystical belief, and certain schools of modern-day psychology.

This other may be an animal, dragon, angel, vampire, other mythical creature, etc. At the far end of the spectrum, you have people who will claim to be avowedly fictional characters -- the Vampire Lestat, say, or Simon Detritus, or Auguste Dupin -- although their rationale of identification tends to be different (they aren't, in other words, the stereotypical asylum resident claiming to be Napoleon; they're aware of the surface irrationality of their claim). That variety is important to keep in mind; this is a widespread enough belief system that it has many variants, in-fights, One True Answers, and degrees of elaboration, just like any sufficiently heterogeneous religion.

Some otherkin experience past-life memories or bursts of glossolalia-like utterances in which they speak the language of their other. Feelings of dissociation, distance, and "not fitting in" are often cited as evidence of, or clues leading to the discovery of, one's otherkinship.

You can tell from the column title where I'm going with this, I reckon.


That's a great pun, isn't it?

Maybe not. But I try to pick titles that give you some clue what's on deck when you see them on the front page.

As much as things change, a lot of things stay the same; you hear the same discussions about Jewish identity today as you did in the early 19th century, when Reform Judaism began, and fundamentalists and Biblical literalists have been using the same "science vs religion" rhetoric for a century. A lot of contemporary Wicca is like a less stuffy, more humble version of the 19th century spiritual and magical movements. Agnostics and the wary have been voicing the same concerns about theism (belief in God, a god, or gods) for at least three hundred years.

Despite everyone's predictions, the "obvious" school of thought never prevails, and religious revolutions rarely take off; when they do, they're slow to spark and long to burn.

The otherkin approach -- whatever underlies it, the motivation to associate oneself spiritually with the nonhuman -- is bound to still be around in sixty years; even if you see no truth in it, it's an expression of beliefs which have been around for a long time.

So yeah, you're gonna have people -- humans, at least putatively -- who believe they are, in some way, Vulcans.

The genetic claim

Obviously there are real world reasons why Vulcans look so much like humans -- special effects budgets -- but that would be one of the first noteworthy thing about them. Nevermind the copper-based blood and other beneath-the-surface differences. They look astonishingly human when you consider the visual variety of Earth-based species, and this would be a matter which would receive a great deal of public attention. Biologists would be fascinated by it: does the physical similarity prove some adaptationists' claims, demonstrating that a sentient species of human faculties would -- regardless of base stock -- evolve a human form out of necessity? Does it, as many people will wonder, suggest a common ancestor?

Might Vulcans be the "alien astronauts" who built the pyramids and impregnated the Virgin Mary?

Or is it just coincidence?

It's a long time before anyone will find out about the humanoid species that guided the development of early life on Earth, Vulcan, etc.; and I'm not sure if that even becomes public knowledge. Either way, it isn't important: in the years following first contact, Vulkin can certainly claim that they are somehow related to the Vulcans (especially if Vulcan and Earth scientists determine that the species are cross-fertile). Most would probably posit some earlier visit to Earth by Vulcans, either temporary or long-term (the idea of exiled aliens integrating into ancient human society is a persuasive one), and thus the introduction of certain markedly Vulcan traits into a limited gene pool.

Some may use the "common ancestor" or "inevitable adaptation" views to posit that they have spontaneously developed Vulcan genes: that Vulcans represent the logical (so to speak) next step in human evolution, and that they themselves are part of a transitional group which is making that leap. Lots and lots of New Age rhetoric is sympathetic to this view.

The spiritual claim

Remember the bit in Babylon 5 where humans are being born with Minbari souls?

It's very easy to make a persuasive claim -- once you accept the existence of souls, spirits, or some other essential non-matter in an individual -- that the soul is a product (or cause) of sentience and intelligence; that intelligent life is separated from other forms of life not simply by its tool use and grasp of abstract language but by its possession of such a soul; and thus, that soul is a concept which is not species-specific. A Vulcan soul and a human soul would then be made of the same material, the same spiritual building blocks.

It becomes much easier, then -- particularly if there is some medium through which souls travel, or if reincarnation is incorporated into the belief system -- to argue that one has been born with a Vulcan soul (or into a human body), or a soul with distinctively Vulcan features.

The proselyte

A proselyte is a new convert to a religion; in turn-of-the-zero Palestine, a proselyte was a non-Jew who worshipped the Jewish god, believed in the validity of the Jewish Scriptures, and sometimes (but not always, as this was something many Jewish authorities objected to) followed Jewish laws of ritual cleanliness.

A proselyte Vulkin, then? Someone who doesn't believe they are a Vulcan, exactly: that is, they don't believe they were born any differently than anyone else on Earth. But they now associate themselves with Vulcans, favoring them over humans, perhaps after some radical conversion event; they will (like Quellek, the alien who adopts himself into Dr Lazarus's culture in Galaxy Quest) do their best to act like a Vulcan, follow Vulcan traditions, and so on.

What exactly those traditions are -- and how accurately they're followed -- depends on the nature and extent of early contact between Earth and the Vulcans. Certainly, a reverence for logic and self-discipline, and a desire to control one's emotions (both positive and negative), would be key.

The response

Chances are, "Vulkin" wouldn't get any more public attention than otherkin do; in the years following first contact, there'd be so much news generated daily, so much information for official and unofficial bodies to respond to, that unless something like this became unexpectedly popular, it's a blip. As for the Vulcans -- I expect their reaction would be split.

On the one hand, they aren't likely to agree with proponents of the genetic claim. About the spiritual claim, it's hard to say: Vulcans have by this point abandoned their old gods, I believe, but there seems to have been an episode of Star Trek (and all the spinoffs) once a season or so forwarding some science-fiction-mystical-mega-tech explanation for souls, gods, magic, whatever, such that some Vulcans might very well accept the possibility of the spiritual claim and simply cluck at the naivete of the human articulation of it.

Judging from Spock, I think proselytes would be approved of; the Vulcans have obviously steeled themselves to control their emotions because they believe it's good to do so, so there's no reason to think they'd mind serving as an example to another race. They might even -- and this could prove an interesting plot point in a campaign set during this time or perhaps even later -- favor humans who are explicitly Vulcan proselytes, in their dealings with Earth, choosing them as ambassadors and for other diplomatic roles, particularly when all other things among candidates are equal.

Now, there's no reason not to keep the Vulkin around considerably after first contact -- even into the present day of the Star Trek universe. And if they do hang around, it's very likely there'd be 'kin for other alien species as well -- Klingons are inevitable (we have them already, essentially). Consider just how little we see of mainstream human society, and especially mainstream Earth: if you divide subcultures into those like the Shakers, who are segregated from mainstream society and mostly refrain from participation in it; and those like the BDSM community, which exists entirely within mainstream society, and is made up of mainstream participants who do not necessarily identify primarily or publicly as bdsm practitioners; then really, the Star Trek shows have mostly displayed the Shaker cultures, while leaving BDSM untouched.

Next month: King Arthur.

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What do you think?

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