The Letter: Dear Princess Celestia,
it can be hard to admit that you’re not capable of doing something on your own, and sometimes there’s a strong temptation to pass someone else’s work off as something you did yourself. But a real friend would never do something like that! Not only would you not get away with it, but your friend would know never to trust you again, and if you can’t trust your friends, who can you trust? If you work hard, your friends will always support your efforts, and working together is always better than working alone.
Your faithful student,
What is it? The first single episode story of My Little Pony ‘n Friends, and an exercise to see how much story they can tell in such a short time.
What’s it about? Two evil monkeys kidnap Danny and Surprise to force Megan into giving them the Rainbow of Light.
Is it worth it? Eh. It’s short, so you’re not losing much there. What else are you up to for some random 11 minute stretch? It’s not bad, but you also wouldn’t be missing much by skipping it either.
What else was happening? 3 October 1986 - TASCC, a superconducting cyclotron at the Chalk River Laboratories, was officially opened, and a bizarre solar eclipse occurs, visible only for a few moments in parts of the Atlantic ocean, between Greenland and Iceland. We haven’t advanced a week, so the movies and music are the same as they were with The Ghost of Paradise Estate.
Strangeness and science make for a good segue into the episode, because that’s the theme at work in these 11 minutes and 16 seconds. A tight episode, slotted into the now usual pattern of a 4 part story for Monday through Thursday, with a 1 shot on Friday to finish out the week.
Episode author Diane Duane is better known for her Star Trek and her Young Wizards series of novels, and will end up with dubious honor of being one of the highest profile authors MLP ‘n Friends will have. At the time, though, Star Trek: the Next Generation hadn’t begun airing, so the new wave of fans hasn’t quite started battering down the doors, but let’s talk about Star Trek anyways for a moment, because it gives a little lens into the episode. An inherently optimistic and utopian program, Star Trek envisions a post-scarcity future wherein the universe is patrolled and defended by a voluntary military force who do what they do simply because it is the right thing to do. They are called, and they serve. No one uses the world socialism out loud, because Americans have a kneejerk reaction to it, but what else do you call a planned society in which everyone is given tasks that they are qualified for after rigorous testing, where there is no economy because science, via the replicator, has made commerce essentially obsolete, and where a great deal of time is spent exploring the rest of the galaxy looking for other societies which are ripe for uplifting and integration into the federation once they have passed certain benchmarks? Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, arguably the best of the films, states outright that “The needs of the many outweigh...” “The needs of the few...” “...or the one.” Endless numbers of “redshirts” are slaughtered throughout the various episodes with barely any acknowledgement by the rest of the crew so that the wheels of progress can keep turning, and the technocratic engines can continue to absorb and uplift and improve the rest of the galaxy. It will be found and understood, because that is the technocratic impulse that drives the Federation. Duane has already written the novel The Wounded Sky, parts of which will be incorporated into the script for Where No One Has Gone Before, postulating a hypothetical end point to this exploration, literally the outer rim of the galaxy, where reality and thought become one and the same thing.
But reality (those philosophically loved and despised “things-in-themselves” our senses always are interpreting for us) and human thought are different. And science is constructed from human thoughts.
Because despite the protests of those who would demand otherwise, science does not control the world; that’d be putting the cart before the pony. The universe does not “run” on mathematics, nor does it “think” in terms of laws or theorems. The cosmos isn’t a big computer, nor a large formula, though it helps us conceptualize to think of it as such. Best as we can tell, atoms move; that is all. Science, once you get into the theoretical aspects, is a system applied onto the world by mankind to make the world intelligible and predictable. Atoms move like this under these conditions, and so if we do this, then.... To mangle Karl Popper’s definition, science consists simply of those likely theories which have yet to be proven wrong. It is never infallibly Right. It is simply not wrong yet. It may be highly unlikely, and when one properly understand the rigors of testing and evidence necessary to even present a theory as likely, it does seem highly likely that certain scientific theories will never be proven incorrect. But we do not have enough hubris to say never. Should not, rather.
And so, when science encounters something which it cannot properly explain, science must change to accommodate it. The world will not change to allow a pretty or convenient theory to continue existing for our sake.It is the nature of science to build around things it cannot yet understand. It is additive, absorbing the world, building boxes to encompass any new information and throwing out its old frameworks if they cannot accommodate the new information. Good bye, Tychonic system with your pretty epicycles, hollow Earths, luminiferous aether, spontaneous generation, miasma theory of disease, telegony, phlogiston theory, Aristotelian physics, electron clouds, emitter theory... We thought the universe used to be like that, but it turns out we were wrong. Maybe we got it right this time?
Needless to say, science is different from magic. To steal a quote from Lawrence Miles’ This Town Will Never Let Us Go:
A scientist points a device of death (let’s call it a laser-gun) at a victim and fires. He knows every atom in the path of the beam will be incinerated, the target’s skin will boil and burn away but those parts of the body left outside the beam will remain intact, and anything which happened to be around the victim will also suffer. Much of the floor is bound to be singed, not to mention the walls.
On the other hand, a magician points a device of death (let’s call it a wand) and fires. She knows that the victim will vanish or turn to ash in his entirety, leaving everything around him intact, maybe even his clothes. That’s the real difference. Magic is the art of meanings. The universe doesn’t know where a human being ends and the clothes begin. The laws of physics only know atoms, not complete shapes. Only a magician’s weapon recognizes the target as a target, and only magic understands context. Magic is context. (p.233)
Mad Larry is talking about weaponry here, but it would work for any sort of magic, not just the violent kind. We’ll be back to science vs. magic in just a moment. Now, the Rainbow of Light is one such powerful magical item. Its central importance to this era of ponies is on par with later years’ Elements of Harmony. And at the opening of this episode, we find Megan snuffing out the clouds with the Rainbow’s magic as easily as the aforementioned magician destroyed her victims, so the ponies can pick cherries to make cherries jubilee without getting rained on.
The weather is such a highly complex system that predicting it with any accuracy even seven days out is terribly difficult using our most advanced technology, let alone actually changing it. Could you imagine the power of a device that could simply destroy clouds in an instant, then summon them right back again? The present reader’s mind, of course, jumps ahead twenty-five years to the weather factories of Cloudsdale and the teams of Pegasi that patrol the skies with the utmost efficiency, keeping Equestria’s weather managed to the most predictable moment. Their Rainbow is the element of loyalty, who, despite her brash demeanor and lazy attitude, is simply so good at her job that she has more than enough time to relax. But right now, back in the past, it’s stuck in a small, easily stolen locket, and Megan is outraged that Danny would even consider engineering on that scale. “Portable weather, great idea, huh Megan?“ No, it isn’t, and she makes him put things back the way they were. Which, in this case, means back to the way they were when she was changing things to suit the needs of the group, not simply obeying the whims of one malicious malcontent.
Enter the Gizmonks, Gonk and Glouda, a pair of advanced tool using apes who view the miraculous Rainbow of Light from afar on their steampowered television set, much like we viewers at home. After capturing Danny and Surprise with a falling cage, they come within one word of uttering the catchphrase that the Borg would a few years later. (So close, yet so far.) The two have already imprisoned numerous creatures, create fantastic devices that they don’t understand, and seem to desire acclaim from their peers for their inventing prowess. It’s implied that there is a society of Gizmonks, who trade in inventions and receive praise for creating. A magical item like the Rainbow of Light would work as a wonderful shortcut to said acclaim. But really, it would never work for them. Not if their society works anything like they say it does. Look at all the latest tools and gadgets they pass over in Danny’s bag (“Not the walkman! No, it’s a computer, don’t!”). Could they credibly pass any of them off as their own? Of course not. Who’d believe they were capable of creating something as brilliant and powerful as the Rainbow of Light?
Because, when you actually consider it, what these Gizmonks are doing isn’t science. They even admit outright that they have no idea what some of their inventions do, and they create them with no specific tasks in mind, and no idea about their potential outcome. The throw things together and hope that they work. While many inventions are the result of lucky accidents or as the unintended side effects of trying to create something else (plastic, penicillin, pacemakers, microwave ovens, ink-jet printers, the slinky...), actual science requires a formal hypothesis tested rigorously under controlled conditions, with variables accounted for, reproducible results, and lots and lots of math. Even the brute force style inventing of Thomas Edison’s laboratories had a lot of rational thought and engineering put into trying parts that could work, and was being tested to see what worked best. Though inspirations and ideas may come from any number of sources, there are no accidental scientific theories. Einstein didn’t wander onto the stage not realizing that it wasn’t the patent office banquet he was supposed to be giving a toast for and start making up a story about looking into mirrors while travelling at the speed of light to get himself played off stage to applause without looking too embarrassed.
The Gizmonks want science to be magic, and it never will be. They don’t even understand magic. Because magic requires thought and intention. Magic is context. And that context, as we know, is friendship. It’s doubtful the Rainbow would work for Gonk and Glouda even if they acquired it. Magic isn’t a shortcut or “the cheat codes of the universe” any more than science is. It isn’t a bypass on the easy road to happiness. Magic -- understanding context and significance, why certain things are the way the are because of the situation they are in and why an action can mean totally different things depending on what surrounds it and when it happens -- takes work. So does maintaining friendships. There’s a difference between using the Rainbow to clear the skies to pick cherries with your friends, and using it to change the weather to suit your personal whims and pick on your sister. I’d even go so far as to argue that while intent may not be magic, context is magic, and is in fact the only way in which certain things can ever be understood.
Oddly, there isn’t even time for the ponies to confront and reject the Gizmonk’s worldview. As with many episodes, the philosophical quandary is already resolved by the time they arrive, as Danny and Surprise have already busted the place up and come rolling out of the glass domed tower in a Trojan horse-like contraption that immediately falls to pieces. The ponies' hedonistic naturalism and lack of interest in controlling the world around them need not be questioned. Megan keeps them safe and innocent. She’ll bear the weight around her neck for them.
-- I am, of course, being completely unfair to Star Trek up above. That Kirk and Picard and Sisko and Janeway are in almost constant rebellion against the directives from above, that they regularly encounter people and societies which desire no interference whatsoever from the Federation, and that the Federation’s “conquering with kindness” impulses are mirrored darkly in the anonymous hivemind of the Borg, the xenophobic imperialism of the Romulans, and the cloying sadism of the Cardassians is very much the point. It’s a fascinating and frustrating and wonderful series of programs and films to lose yourself in. If you need a guiding text, Josh Marsfelder is doing wonderful work here: http://vakarangi.blogspot.com/
--”The history of science, like the history of all human ideas, is a history of irresponsible dreams, of obstinacy, and of error. But science is one of the very few human activities — perhaps the only one — in which errors are systematically criticized and fairly often, in time, corrected. This is why we can say that, in science, we often learn from our mistakes, and why we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress there.” --Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: the Growth of Scientific Knowledge
--I hasten to add, for the benefit of myself and because I’ve actually had people somehow come off with this impression when I talk about science and history and doubt, that no, I absolutely do not believe that, for example, the stars suddenly realigned themselves and quit moving in loop-de-loops and that the Earth suddenly shifted in place however many billions of light years to quit being the center of the universe (if such a place is even correctly thought of as existing) when the observations and theories of Copernicus and Galileo gained traction amongst the general human population. Yes, I used to play Mage: The Ascension too, and I read that one JLA story where Wonder Woman’s lasso breaks, and I’m quite familiar with the idea of consensual reality. I also happen to know how to separate the quite fictional trappings of a role playing game or comic book from quite genuine doubts I have that we are presently at the zenith of all knowledge and that there will never be anything ever proven to be false or incomplete ever again. I’m as sure as I’m going to be that black holes exist. I don’t know enough to make any confident assertions regarding dark matter. If, for some reason, the Earth stops rotating and the Sun doesn’t appear to rise tomorrow morning, I’ve got a heck of a lot more problems than figuring out a new model of physics. All that said, vaccinate your kids so they don’t die, global climate change is real and a major problem, and yeah, it totally sucks about Pluto and the Brontosaurus, but that’s how things go sometimes. The old scientific theory is only discarded in favor of one that works better, not skeptically jeered at in advance just in case because you’re afraid to admit you were wrong some day.
--And lest you think I’m some crackpot, no, obviously magic of the kind wizards and sorcerers do isn’t real. Well, aside from the kind of telepathy I’m practicing right now, wherein I sit in a specific position for hours at a time, staring into a brightly lit screen that changes colors occasionally, moving my fingers across a board covered in symbols, and concentrating really hard on just the right words and ideas to send my thoughts all over the world and into the heads of interested parties who have screens of their own, who will see the symbols and know what they mean and may hear what they imagine my voice to sound like in their heads...
--Oh, and the magic context that makes the example you might be thinking of okay is “Hey, want to see my impression of what a racist/sexist/transphobic/etc. jerk sounds like? You do? They sound like this...”
Next week: Magical Mystery Cure, pt 2.