Eureka, fictional characters and personhood

Eureka’s Zane (Niall Matter) and Fargo (Neil Grayston), mourning the loss of a friend.

One of my favorite shows, Eureka, airs its last-ever episode tonight. It’s sad for those of us who have been with it for its entire 5-season (6-year) run, and have come to know and love the residents of the quirky science-genius enclave. As with the ends of many other ongoing stories I’ve been invested in–TV, books, comics, etc.–there is definitely some real grief in knowing that I won’t be seeing these people anymore.

People who don’t get invested in fictional characters often think such grief is preposterous. They’re not “real” people, they argue. How could you possibly have “real” emotions about their demise (whether in canon, or because their story ends in other ways)? Until recently, I’ve had a hard time arguing with this. I can easily argue about how the friends I meet/interact with online are, in fact, real people, but defending feelings for a person who doesn’t even exist? That’s harder.

Now, however, I think I’ve come up with a better answer, and it’s thanks to Eureka itself, and the theme in its final season about what constitutes reality–and a real person. (Spoilers ahoy after the cut!)

Five seasons in a nutshell

A brief recap, for those unfamiliar: Eureka focuses on the residents of a small town in Oregon that just happens to house a company that hosts the best and brightest scientists in the world. Most of its episodes center around some wild invention or experiment that goes awry, and the efforts of its non-genius sherriff to mitigate the damage. It started out fairly light, but in the last couple of seasons, went darker, as the core group found themselves in a time warp that put them back into an alternate timeline–one in which many things important to them had changed drastically. One character found that her autistic son was no longer so. Another found that her boyfriend was still only a nemesis. Another found that he, formerly a lowly employee and screwup, was now the head of the company. And another found that he was married to a woman he had never even met.

Our crew spent the majority of that season working out how to deal with their new reality. They finally did settle in–not without some crises–and things looked basically good.

In this last season, however, a space mission went wrong, and we opened up with our heroes again coming back to a world they didn’t recognize–one that was four years in the future from where they’d started. At the end of the opening episode, we found out that things were even more bizarre than that: the crew of the space mission had instead been kidnapped, and were living out their lives jacked into a Matrix-like virtual reality world, while the “real” world went on thinking they and their ship had disappeared on the mission.

Eventually, they did get back to their proper reality (albeit still the altered timeline) but one member of the team died in the process. Her virtual self had figured out that they were all trapped in a game, so she was terminated.

That’s when things got weird. Well, weirder.

The character, Holly Marten, played by geek queen Felicia Day, didn’t quite die entirely. Her body died, but her consciousness remained behind, as data in the computer hosting the virtual world. Over several episodes, the other characters alternately grieved her death and set about trying to find a way to transfer her consciousness into another form, so she could continue to live on somehow, even without the biological structure in which her consciousness had formerly existed. Finally, they managed to get her into a new, fabricated body, only to lose much of her stored memory later on thanks to a rogue program that tried to create dozens more walking AIs to further the efforts of the Matrix program. One recent episode had the characters literally fighting off body-snatched versions of themselves that were trying to wrestle them back into the virtual world.

Complicated, definitely, but oh, the questions it raised!

Yes, but are the electric sheep also real?

Of course, these questions have been raised hundreds of times before in other sci-fi stories, from Asimov to Dick to the aforementioned Matrix. The personhood of AIs, particularly androids, has been questioned time and time again.

Mostly, these stories did come to the same conclusion: of course androids and other AIs should be considered people, because what makes a human being a person is our consciousness. Just because an AI’s consciousness is silicon-based instead of carbon shouldn’t mean it’s not a person deserving of rights and consideration.

Religion, of course, always gets involved in these questions. The recent Battlestar Galactica reboot explored this in terms of pantheism v. monotheism, much to the dismay of people who were upset about religion getting involved in their sci-fi stories. And there’s nearly always some clergy character or other arguing that humans shouldn’t “play God” by creating life on their own, or that such created life can’t be considered a genuine person because, as it wasn’t created by God, it doesn’t have a soul (such arguments, of course, have also been used against various kinds of infertility treatment, and the opposite–that anything with a soul is only God’s to destroy–has been used to argue against any sort of killing, whether in war or via abortion, etc.)

And it is perhaps this issue that’s behind a lot of the argument against having feelings for fictional characters. Such characters may, if written well enough, have every ounce of personality that a person in meatspace does, but because they came out of the minds of others, instead of developing from a natural meeting of sperm and egg, then they can’t possibly be real. If they’re portrayed by an actor, perhaps they’re a bit more real–with the idea that the character is simply an aspect of the actor’s personality they’re bringing to the forefront–but generally speaking, those characters simply do not exist in physical, organic form, and therefore they’re not people.

But then there’s the issue of Dr. Marten, who once was organic, and therefore a person–perhaps even with a soul–but whose consciousness got transferred to non-organic (non-God-created) media.

Of course, such things aren’t (yet) possible in the real world of science–we’re only beginning to understand the brain, and the concept of copying it like a file on a hard drive is well beyond us for now. But if it were, would Dr. Marten continue to be a real person with that data stored in another “machine” or would her personhood–her soul–cease to exist if her original organic form did? Does, the question must be asked, the soul reside in the data created by our neurons, or in the neurons themselves?

Such a question needs to be answered carefully by those who believe in an afterlife. Because if the soul rests with the organic matter, then when that dies, the soul must die with it. If it exists in data form, and can therefore be transferred to the great server farm in the sky, then how can we assign personhood to a container that doesn’t have that data (say, an embryo, an anencephalic fetus, or someone who is brain dead)?

Let’s get (meta)physical

Therein, of course, lies my defense of the sobfest I will undoubtedly have at the end of tonight’s finale: the essences of these people–their souls, if one must–don’t rest within what physical forms they have, but in the data of who they are that’s been accumulated over the years.

Even though I’ve not had two-way interaction with these characters, I have nonetheless “known” them for nearly six years. I have watched them grow and change, fall in and out of love, feel the elation of new hope and the pain of grief. I’ve watched some of them die or come to great harm. I’ve had, in other words, a greater exposure to the lives of these people who were made by someone else than I have to the people living in the house next door. If those people had a death in the family, I would feel sad for them, but not nearly as sad as I felt when Eureka thought it had lost Dr. Marten. Of course, I’d feel considerably more sad for any loss suffered by my real, meatspace friends, but that doesn’t mean the sadness I feel for the non-meatspace people I care about is any less genuine.

Real relationships do require ongoing, candid, two-way communication, of course, but that initial spark of infatuation and affection doesn’t. It’s certainly possible to have real affection for “real” people whom one simply hasn’t interacted with much, if at all. I have a great fondness, for instance, for many of the cast and crew of this show even though I’ve only physically met a few of them, and couldn’t remotely be said to be friends with any of them. I see a fair snippet of their lives go across Twitter, for instance, and that tells me quite a lot about who they are. It’s not the same as knowing them in person, of course, but enough to know that I probably would still like them if I did. And the same is even more true of the characters these people have created to entertain me. I “know” Fargo better than Neil Grayston, the actor who plays him, but I like both of them, even if they’re different people with the same face. I’d happily be friends with either or both, just as much as I enjoy the other friends I currently have.

Of course, no discussion of this topic would be complete without mentioning my own efforts at playing God. As much as I’m invested in the people made by others, I’m even more invested in the ones I’ve made myself, in the novels I’ve written. Regardless of whether anyone other than my close friends ever “meet” these people, they are nonetheless incredibly dear to me, and I enjoy visiting their lives and sharing their adventures, even if those adventures are things I created, too.

Likewise, as an actor, I’ve helped “create” other characters, and I become invested in them, as well. Gilbert and Sullivan may have created Buttercup, but the version of her that lived through me several years back is especially dear, as are the old friends who played her fellow denizens of the HMS Pinafore.

Regardless of the initial “genesis” of a person, they still have the power to become a part of my life, and that means that my grieving them is only natural.

I get that my perspective on this is one that not everyone can or wants to share. Some people are extremely invested in the physical, and therefore can’t generate strong emotions for anyone they can’t see and touch in meatspace. Some people require two-way communication to develop feelings for someone that go beyond an initial physical attraction. I get this. I most definitely have stronger emotions for people I can actually talk to and physically hug, and given the choice, I’ll hang out with such folks. But that doesn’t mean I have no feelings at all for the people I can’t do that with. A body isn’t what laughs and cries and shares secrets with you. It’s the data stored inside that body’s cranial cavity. If I have access to a lot of that kind of data, regardless of what form it’s stored in, I’m going to have an emotional response to it.

So, yes, when the credits roll and the sun goes down on the town of Eureka, I’ll be grieving the loss of those people I’ve come to know. They, of course, don’t know I exist, but I know they do, and as far as my feelings are concerned, that’s enough.

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Ethics, Fiction, Human Nature, TV, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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