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“Shaka, when the walls fell”

Ian Bogost writes about a famous Star Trek TNG episode:

On stardate 45047.2, Jean-Luc Picard leads the crew of the Enterprise in pursuit of a transmission beacon from the El-Adrel system, where a Tamarian vessel has been broadcasting a mathematical signal for weeks. The aliens, also known as the Children of Tama, are an apparently peaceable and technologically advanced race with which the Federation nevertheless has failed to forge diplomatic relations. The obstacle, as Commander Data puts it: “communication was not possible.”

The funniest thing about this particular episode is how polarized opinions about it are. “Darmok” is by far the most controversial of all TNG episodes. While (as Bogost points out) the episode touches upon the very essence of Star Trek and Gene Rodenberry’s vision of utopian human future, most controversy that surrounds it concerns how… unserious it is. I think this might be the only TNG episode that I felt slightly uncomfortable watching, because of how silly it felt.

But Bogost’s piece reminded me of a book I read some time ago, which touches upon the issue of understanding vs. comprehension, the nature of intelligence (yes, there’s even a discussion about Searle’s Chinese Room in there) and difficulties of “first contact” in a much more intellectually demanding yet satisfying way. This book is Peter Watts’ “Blindsight”. While I don’t agree with many of the points the author makes throughout the novel, I can’t think of a better “hard sci-fi” that I’ve read in a long, long time. “Blindsight” most definitely isn’t an easy read, but if you like good old science-fiction that really tries to do science justice and packs loads of facts, you won’t be disappointed. Oh and best of all, the novel is available online for free (CC license).