Tag Archives: sci-fi

Worlds of Women: review of A Door Into Ocean

A Door Into Ocean is a 1986 sci-fi novel by Quaker author Joan Slonczewski. It’s interested in nonviolence and the creation of a culture focussing on sharing and equality. One of the ways it explores these themes is through the invention of a society in which there are only women. I picked this up because it was recommended in a Quaker context, but as I was reading I soon realised that it’s relevant to another discussion I’ve been reading recently – the extensive discussions about gender plague/gendercide stories. I mostly read these conversations on Twitter, but I recommend Ana Mardoll’s blog if you need to catch up on the latest round. On Twitter, and I’m sorry I can’t find this again, someone said something to the effect that perhaps authors look for ways to kill off all the men in these stories because they want to create a matriarchy but they don’t know how to do that without murder.

I think that might be true about this book. And if it is, that would be deeply ironic for a story so concerned with nonviolence and the avoidance of death-hastening. Before I get into the details, I should say that this isn’t a discussion of the mechanic presented in the book for the creation of an all-women society or how it works: the sci-fi explanation offered is that in the distant past, the life-shapers in this ocean-dwelling society discovered how to create pregnancies by fusing ova, and the group evolved to no longer have men. (Exactly how this squares with their vague belief in a creating deity who set the entire ecosystem up in balance isn’t explored.) But it has an extremely similar vibe to Nicola Griffith’s book Ammonite, in which a virus kills all men who land on a particular planet, and it’s still very much the case that the author made these decisions. 

Both books also have a kind of situational lesbianism, in which it feels like the author wanted to create lesbian relationships (which is great!) but didn’t believe women would really be attracted to other women if they had the choice of men. In particular, in A Door Into Ocean, although women in the all-women society take women as lovers, a man who goes to live in the all-women society easily finds a lover there, and the woman who crosses from another world into the all-women society retains her attachment to the men in her previous society. It imagines women loving women but always being attracted to men as well. In a somewhat similar way, A Door Into Ocean is aware of trans possibilities in a way I don’t recall in Ammonite, but it shies away from exploring them – there is just one scene in which a woman from the all-women society suggests to her lover, the man from the other world, that he could simply go to the local medic and be reshaped into what she regards as a normal female body. He immediately and emphatically rejects the idea and it is never mentioned again.

Joan Slonczewski has good reasons for wanting to create a society very different to her own. In fact, she creates two societies: one, associated with stone and metal, which seems to reflect real-world situations, with men mostly in charge (and some women in military roles), a strong military, lots of invasions, communities controlled by violence and fear, hunger and homelessness, etc. The other, represented by the world of water where everything is fluid and growing (a metaphor made literal which Slonczewski uses extremely well), is all women, nonviolent, governed by gatherings of people at which all adults can speak and a consensus is sought… in fact, funnily enough, the women of the ocean world make decisions in a very similar way to the characters in my novel Between Boat and Shore. This other Quaker author and I might be drawing on, err, Quaker discernment processes? All this is good in some ways. But what is the message given by the conclusion she apparently reached before writing, namely that such a society could not have, or would be much better off without, men?

I think it normalises the assumption that masculinity and violence go together. If it was a one-off, there wouldn’t necessarily be any harm in this creation in a sci-fi; but this book is part of a much larger pattern, in which it’s clear that the opposite – a society of all men, which is completely peaceful and loving and nonviolent – is not being imagined. (And if you are about to tell me that they couldn’t reproduce, remember that in these stories we’re talking about speculative fiction in which a wide range of currently impossible surgeries are made possible, and mpreg is already a genre, and also some trans men carry pregnancies…) It also tends to ignore trans experience, as already mentioned. And, to return to the idea from the first paragraph, it is interesting that authors trying to create societies where women lead need to do so through the nonexistence of men. 

Whether men are killed by a virus or other plague, or die off when they become unnecessary, this creation of matriarchies through death undermines the nonviolent results Slonczewski wants it to have. It can imply a bio-essentialism, because it suggests that violence is inextricably entangled with the male body rather than being a social problem. Those results are so at odds with the other values expressed in A Door Into Ocean (such as the belief that every person can learn and grow, and the possibility of social change through nonviolent pressure) that it seems unlikely to Slonczewski intended them. Now they’ve been pointed out, hopefully future authors with similar social agendas (myself included) can avoid them.

Book review: Our Child of Two Worlds, Stephen Cox

Spoiler warning! This a book review which includes some details about the plot, so do read the novel first if you’d prefer not to know what happens. 

Stephen Cox’s new book Our Child of Two Worlds is a sequel to his previous novel, Our Child of the Stars (which I previously discussed on this blog). It explores the implications of Molly and Gene’s decision to make Cory, the child of the titles, part of their family. They turn out to have less control over the situation than they imagine: when the other side of Cory’s family arrives for their distant planet, decisions Gene and Molly were struggling with are actually out of their hands.

Image of the book cover and details of the social media blast, 31st March-3rd April, which includes posts by @booksandlovelythings, @geekdads, Red Train Blog, Scrapping & Playing/ @annarella, For Winter Nights/ @wetdarkandwild, Blue Book Balloon/ @bluebookballoon, Brigid Fox and Buddha/ @bookgeekrelng

There are a handful of other characters who explore the themes of the book alongside Cory: besides Molly and Gene, I was especially interested in Molly’s sister, who faces her own very difficult decisions, and Elsa, another child Gene and Molly end up adopting. It’s absolutely consistent with their characters that they go on welcoming more people and trying to support everyone; but as Cory needs more support – as his alien powers develop and seem to be out of control – the more complex situation also becomes more dangerous. 

This book left me thinking about what decisions you get to make. In the end, and after worrying about what to do, Gene and Molly don’t get to decide whether or not to travel with Cory to an alien world – the purples, Cory’s people, don’t offer to take the whole family. Cory must travel alone and everyone has to make the best of it. On the other hand, there are a lot of decisions they have been able to make along the way: how to respond to Cory’s arrival in the first book, how to handle Cory’s development and changing needs, and how to look after other children (baby Fleur and teenage Elsa, and others in the wider family/community) as well. 

Cory also gets to make some decisions, but often not from a position of having good information. Lacking almost all contact with others of his own kind, he doesn’t know much about his own powers, his own health, or what help he can expect and when. He’s also too young to think some things through well – something which can be tricky to portray in fiction, where a character’s decisions are carefully considered from outside even if they are made to see unconsidered inside the narrative, but which comes over convincingly here. Some of the adults are also very aware of Cory’s youth; his powers, although often a plot point, aren’t in the end treated as a handy magical MacGuffin by the people around him. That makes a refreshing change from some other superhero genre stories, where powers are regarded mainly as a useful tool and care for their possessor often comes second.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. If I have hesitations, they’re not just about the story: I read the last part of it, which includes violence in space, at the time of the start of the war in Ukraine, which made those sections more difficult to read than they would usually be. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you enjoy stories about family, trying to stay together when things are difficult, and finding new ways to make connections, you’ll probably enjoy both of these books – it may be best to start with Our Child of the Stars and then pick up Our Child of Two Worlds.

Writing prehistory as sci-fi

I’m now working on my third novel manuscript set in the far past. The first was Between Boat and Shore, set in Neolithic Orkney, about 4000BCE. The second, currently called Enduring All Things and under consideration by a publisher, is set in North Wales in between the Romans leaving and the Saxons arriving, around 450CE. My current manuscript is set in the east of England, around the fens, soon after the start of the Iron Age (so, depending which source you read, perhaps around 700BCE). In some sense, these are historical novels – that’s the way we usually describe fiction set in the past. However, writing about prehistory has a different set of challenges to writing fiction set in more recent historical periods – lack of documentary evidence. 

For the Neolithic, we have only archaeology. From material remains (of which there are a lot at some places in Orkney, one of the reasons for my choice of location), I am trying to reconstruct, or actually build from very little, everything about the society I’m trying to understand – and so I used modern comparisons. Ethnographic comparisons with living communities who build with large stones or have comparable rituals for burying their dead are fairly common in the archaeological literature. I wanted a comparison with a living community who could provide a model for complex decision making, and (probably lazily!) I stayed close to home and used Quaker practices to fill in some of the gaps.

For the Iron Age, we have some archaeology – sometimes mysterious and intriguing artefacts, like the wooden figures, or evocative locations, like the Flag Fen platform – and a few comments from Roman authors. We have to choose how to interpret those, of course. I found it interesting that in Barry Cunliffe’s overview of the period, he’s happy to accept that Roman stories about human sacrifice could be true (p100 – with the body of the Lindow Man as archaeological evidence), but rejects as probably mistaken Julius Caesar’s report that British people of the time practice polygamy, with wives shared between groups of men (p83). I have chosen to assess that evidence differently – I was interested in the possibility of writing about a polyamorous society anyway – since the argument that Caesar misunderstood what he was told about British society only means we should take his words with a pinch of salt, not that we have to assume Iron Age Britain was more like our society than depicted in Caesar’s writing.

For the post-Roman period, a period previously known as the Dark Ages because of the lack of written material, and now called the Early Medieval (so early most books on the Early Medieval don’t cover it), we have… almost nothing. We have information about the wider world, but very little detail about Wales. I am lucky enough to have access to a university library, and in researching the book set in this period I looked for archaeological evidence – not much, mostly for the south of Wales where it does exist, and containing some odd gaps, like no coins and no pottery. There doesn’t seem to be an agreement about the extent to which people just kept using Roman coins (so we can’t tell archaeological apart from those dropped or buried earlier on) or reverted to a non-currency-using economy. In the novel, I mainly avoid this question by having characters rely on social situations to get what they need – a monarch can demand to be given food by a subject as a matter of right, and a traveller requests hospitality from a host on the understanding that, when at home, they would do the same for other travellers. And they use wooden plates and leather cups, materials which are plausible at a lot of periods and usually vanish from the archaeological record (unless you’re very lucky with a bog or desert). 

As a writer, though, I sometimes think this exercise is more like writing sci-fi than dealing with a later historical period. There are very few recorded facts – instead, I begin with the technologies and the ways of life it allows. I begin with the houses (stone, turf, wattle and daub, wheat thatch and reed thatch) and the tools, the sources of food (especially the state of farming at the time, from the woodland clearance suggested by changes in the pollen record in the Neolithic to the field systems with sheep pens which have been discovered on Iron Age sites), and build a society from there. The archaeology can tell me some things about what people did, but it also leaves a lot open – just as you can have an army or a science mission or a cult on a spaceship, there could be a warrior or a weaver (or both) living in a roundhouse. I try not to let my imagination be bounded by a view of the past which says we have made steady progress and everything must have been terrible and repressive back then – or a view which says that in the deep past everything was peaceful and matriarchal and wonderful! Instead, I think about societies and people I know today, and the many different ways individuals express themselves and communities can function, and try to include that diversity and realistic psychology in my fiction. 

Writers, how do you tackle this? Readers, what interests you about stories set in these periods?

Qui-Gon Jinn, most Quakerly Jedi?

I’ve been saying for years that I think Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as being the most important character in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and probably the most likeable character in the prequel trilogy, is the most Quakerly Jedi in the Star Wars universe. I’ve just read Claudia Gray’s new novel, Master & Apprentice, and I think it proves me right.

Before I go any further, let me clarify the limitations of my claim. I’m not arguing that the Jedi are Quakers, or that Qui-Gon Jinn is a Quaker. Jediism, both as a fictional faith and a real one, has both significant commonalities and differences with Quakerism: Jedi and Quakers both like being calm and aware of their connectedness with the world; fictional Jedi often use violence while Quakers usually reject it; real Jedi usually adopt that faith as adults, like most Quakers today; Quakers have at least a historical connection to Christianity and often a role for Jesus in their spirituality, while Jedi don’t (counter-arguments involving members of the Skywalker family on a postcard, please); and there are more nuanced cases – in some other post perhaps I’ll compare the minister/elder system used by the Valiant Sixty with the master/apprentice structure.

The Jedi are not Quakers. Some of the Jedi are deeply unQuakerly – and not just the ones who become Sith, but also those who accept the status quo, use violence before other methods, and support their political leaders in immoral courses of action.

That said, there are general similarities between some aspects of the Jedi way and some parts of the modern Quaker way, and in Claudia Gray’s novel Qui-Gon Jinn becomes a spokesperson for them. I’ve picked out three short passages which will illustrate what I mean. There are minor spoilers in what follows, so if that’ll bother you, go and read it first. (It is worth reading: it’s an excellent example of what Star Wars extended universe writing does well with a great mix of mission-focused plot and character exploration).

In the first passage which caught my attention, Qui-Gon Jinn is talking to Rael Averross, a fellow Jedi (and fellow student of Dooku’s, cue ominous music). Rael has gone a bit off the rails before and during a long stay on the distant planet Pijal, and seems to be going further. Here (p124), he and Qui-Gon discuss the Jedi code.

It had been a long time since Rael Averross felt the need to justify himself to anyone on Pijal, but as he walked Qui-Goon to the door, he found himself saying, “You know, there’ve always been a few Jedi – let’s be honest, more than a few – who see celibacy as an ideal, not a rule.”

“I’m coming to believe that we must all interpret the Code for ourselves,” Qui-Gon said, “or it ceases to be a living pact and becomes nothing but a prison cell.” Which sounded nice and all, but was a long way from letting Averross off the hook.

Point one is another difference: Quakers have had different codes of sexual ethics over time, but have never embraced celibacy as a path for the majority, let alone something enforced! Point two, though, is a similarity about the relationship expressed here between the rule, the Jedi Code, and the way it is lived out. Rael suggests a difference between an ideal (presumably a good idea but not a realistic one) and a rule. Qui-Gon suggests that what matters is not so much the rule itself or the way the Jedi act, but the relationship between people and Code.

What’s Quaker about that? Well, it could be compared both to a traditional Quaker approach to the Bible, and to the relationship Quakers have with their own tradition. The first of these could be illustrated with an old but still much quoted passage from first-generation Quaker Margaret Fell, who became a Quaker when she realised that she and her existing church had not made the Bible into a ‘living pact’: “we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves” (link to longer quote with context). As a movement, Quakers have acknowledged the need for each generation to make the tradition its own. This is sometimes explicit, as in these words from Young Friends in 1926: “each generation of young Friends by its experiments must discover for itself the truths on which the Society is built if it is to use those truths and to continue and enlarge the work of the Society”. Sometimes it’s built into the practice, as in the ongoing process of revising the very book from which those quotations are taken. Like the Jedi Code which Qui-Gon follows, it contains rules – but it is meant to represent a “living pact” not a “prison cell”.

The next passage is from much later on in the story (p217). Qui-Gon has had a vision of the future, and has decided that although he will act on it, he won’t share it with his superiors, the Jedi Council.

Qui-Gon had not yet shared his vision with the Council, nor did he intend to. They would spend all their time bickering about the viability of the hyperspace corridor. They were too bound to Coruscant. Too bound to the chancellor. Too far from the living Force.

They were no longer the sort of Jedi who could trust in a pure vision.

It shocked him that he was that Jedi. That he could still find it in him to believe so profoundly, so unshakably, in pure mysticism. Qui-Gon had so often felt out of step with the Order as a whole, but never to this degree.

He had also never felt this close to the Force.

There are more differences here, of course. Although I know some Quakers who study and interpret dreams or Tarot cards, having visions of the future isn’t part of Quaker tradition generally. However, I think Quakers could easily come down on either side of the hyperspace corridor debate (it has political elements familiar from closer to home: questions about economic justice, access to transport, political representation, slavery, and the power of large corporations are all involved). And there is a deeply Quakerly element in Qui-Gon’s rejection of authority in favour of trusting his own connection to the Divine. For him that Divine is the Force, and it might be known as God or Spirit in traditional Quaker understandings – but Quakers use many, many words to talk about God and some of them are remarkably similar. I’ve heard terms like Energy, Universe, and even the Force used in workshops! However they understand it, Quakers seek to contact the Divine directly, not needing any particular person or practice to mediate their knowledge of the Divine. They can use a group process but also listen for leadings from the Divine – much as Qui-Gon does in this passage.

My final passage also comes from a discussion between Rael and Qui-Gon. (Another similarity with Quakers? Jedi in this book seem to discuss their beliefs mainly with each other, and mainly when they disagree, never explaining to non-Jedi characters!) Rael starts by putting a case that if the light and dark, good and evil, sides of the Force should be in balance, their actions are irrelevant (p259):

“…the darkness would be just as strong as the light. So it doesn’t matter what we do, because in the end, hey, it’s a tie! It doesn’t matter which side we choose.”

… “It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch – it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.

One point here is that the language of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is very popular with Quakers, even though it can be racist – and I think the Star Wars use, where light and dark map directly to good and evil, is also problematic in that way.

If we replaced ‘light’ with ‘good’, here, though, there would still be another similarity to Quakers: something which might be called idealism or working from principles rather than pragmatism. In a piece of research which involved interviewing Quakers about social justice work, I found they often mentioned the way in which a long-term, ideals-focused approach won respect from other campaigners. These campaigns are not run in order to win (although, as described in that link, there have been successes along the way). Rather, campaigns against war and for equality are based on a Quaker faith in the importance of doing what is good and what God asks.

Would Qui-Gon Jinn be accepted for membership if he applied to a British Quaker area meeting today? I’m not sure – at the very least, there would have to be a serious conversation about lightsabers and maybe a chat about gambling. But based on the evidence I’ve gathered in this post, I think that theologically he might fit right in.

“Our Child of the Stars” – Quaker Narnia?

Our Child of the Stars, by Stephen Cox, is a sci-fi story about a couple who find themselves looking after a strange child – when a spaceship crashes in their town. (Disclaimer: I know Stephen personally and was sent a free e-book for review.)

Having read it, I’ve been thinking about it on and off anyway, and yesterday I heard a presentation by Centre for Research Studies researcher Jonathan Doering which brought me back to it. Jonathan’s research into connections between Quakerism and creative writing raises a whole set of questions about what makes a piece of writing Quaker or Quakerly or not. Is it the self-identification of the author? Does the opinion of the Quaker community matter? Does the content of the writing matter? (Did you know that T Edmund Harvey, Quaker politician, had a brother who wrote horror stories?)

The opinion I’m going to put forward in this post (comments are open for everyone who disagrees) is that ‘Quaker literature’ is most interesting when it has Quaker content – but that Quaker content is not necessarily things which name Quakers, but content which is inspired by Quaker approaches to life. My example for this is Our Child of the Stars. In Our Child of the Stars, although there are some minor explicit mentions of Quakerism, and the author is a Quaker, these aren’t the things which, in my opinion, make it interesting reading from a Quaker viewpoint. Instead, the key factor which makes this a Quakerly book is the way in which two people love and adopt Cory, a child whose strange origin and appearance make many others reject him – and do so before his charming personality has a chance to work on them.

In my title to this blog post, I compared the book to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, by which I probably just mean The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The comparison is not one of style or content (although both a well-written in their own ways, and have some kindred adventure elements) – instead, it’s theological. If Aslan is ‘Jesus for Narnia’, a fantasy embodiment of Lewis’s theology of access to salvation, Cory is the ET-style embodiment of the Quaker principle ‘that of God in everyone’. In loving him and seeing him as special and worth protecting, Molly and Gene Myers provide a model of the ambition to see everyone in this way.

In doing so, they are often able to convince others to join them in this viewpoint. If only it were that easy in real life!

 

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A Past Future: chapter 29

You know how old science fiction tells you more about the time in which it was made than the future? I think Qf&p chapter 29, ‘Leadings’, is a bit like that. It was compiled for 1994, when this Book of Discipline was new.

Some of it stands, of course. Predictions about the future are about people, and people don’t change that much. 29.01 talks about walking with a smile into the dark – just as much of a challenge in any age. The situation in Northern Ireland has improved, but there are plenty of other places in the world where you can talk to the “men of violence” mentioned in 29.08.

On the other hand, a lot has also changed.

Some of the leadings which are seedlings in this chapter have grown and blossomed into flowers. 29.03 and 29.18 talk about what we now call sustainability. We have stuck with the inter-faith dialogue mentioned in 29.14, and this work has borne some fruits.

Some positions are clear and consistent but surrounding society hasn’t changed – at all, or in the direction we’d like. 29.09 talks about the arms trade – the technology has changed, but the trade is still happening and Quakers are still protesting it. 29.10 talks about not paying taxes for war purposes – but when I submitted my most recent tax return, HMRC provided me with a handy and horrifying graph to show that more of my money is spent on the military than the environment. (See Conscience for the ongoing campaign.) 29.12 and 29.13 were both written in 1987 – but the poverty they discuss is still very much part of British life in 2017.

Some issues haven’t been taken up by Quakers in the way the authors of these passages hoped they might be. 29.04 talks about the anti-vivisection movement: as far as I know, Quakers in Britain don’t have any united position on this, and while many would want to reduce animal suffering, many still eat meat, and I think most would accept that some medications are best tested on animals. As far as I can tell as a white person, the problems of assumptions about race and ethnicity identified in 29.15 are just as much of an issue now as ever.

Other issues which have been areas for Quaker discussion or even decision aren’t mentioned here. Questions about sexuality and marriage aren’t in this chapter (although they were, as I understand it, on the radar at Yearly Meeting 1994). Questions about gender diversity, assisted dying and end of life care, drug legalisation, and mental health don’t appear here, but have all been raised by meetings since this was written.

Which bits of this chapter do you relate to, and what feels outdated or absent?

Sherlock is Sci-Fi: the problem with The Final Problem

Last Sunday, the BBC broadcast ‘The Final Problem’, the final (at least for now) episode of their long-running and mostly very successful drama series, Sherlock. Lots of fans were very excited about an episode which had been described in its creators as making ‘television history‘. Quite a lot of other fans had already drifted away or watched the pirate copy which was circulated hours before the broadcast. Many fans who did watch were disappointed, and I found two very different positions interesting: some fans wanted more mystery solving, and other fans wanted more character development (read: queer romance). I think both forms of disappointment stem from a disagreement about the genre of the series – and of the Holmes canon as a whole.

You can be forgiven for thinking that Sherlock Holmes exists in a detective genre. He is, after all, a detective. He solves crimes – or sometimes mysteries in which no crime has actually been committed, or sometimes prevents crimes. However, I put it to you that ‘detective’ is actually a secondary genre. Holmes is an ameuteur of crime-solving. His real profession is the scientific method.

Conan Doyle based his character on doctors he knew, who specialised in picking up on apparently minor clues in order to correctly diagnose an illness. He has Holmes extend this scientific process to crime – and more or less created the discipline of forensics in the process. Today, it’s easy to forget that this was science fiction at the time, just as stories about going to the moon are now hard to see as sci-fi. There are places in the stories where we can see it at work, though. A particularly obvious example is The Adventure of the Creeping Man, in which [spoilers! although it was published in 1923] the injection of hormones from monkeys gives the patient some of the characteristics of a monkey. My core argument, however, is not just that some of the cases use sci-fi elements, but that Holmes’s method is fundamentally science fiction.

To see this, consider the way in which Holmes’s universe always seems to contain a very small number of possibilities. Why does this client have ink on her finger? She must be a secretary. Or have just signed a cheque. Or be able to write. Or have touched something in a shop on the way over. Or perhaps it’s a dark blue paint from her artist sister’s palette. But for Holmes, it must always mean one thing. Two possibilities are permissible if one of them can be tested in a suitably dramatic way. Seven would be merely inconvenient – but much more realistic.

How does this help us with understanding The Final Problem?  It has two implications. One is that, however carefully fans have ‘read’ the ‘clues’ in the canon, there are always possibilities which have occurred to the writers but not to them. This explains how some viewers were expecting ‘love conquers all‘ to be love between Sherlock and John – or Sherlock and Molly – rather than familial love (or, as Cumberbatch could equally well be saying in the quote at the bottom of that page, the love of fans for actors which might keep them watching even this episode).

The other, more complex, implication is that we should compare this episode, not with other detective stories, but with sci-fi stories. Imagine that this plot appeared as an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Picard, Riker and Worf arrive on a planet where an alien traps them in a peculiar system of her own devising in order to study their reactions to emotionally testing situations. They are able to escape only when Picard can prove his intellectual kinship with her.

It’s not an actual episode, but enough elements of it have happened on the show that I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s plausible. What would be missing is the actual kinship: on ST:TNG, we’re still working with the scientific method, something learned rather than inherited, however little actual science there is among the many handwaves and McGuffins and narrativiums which have been introduced in order to get us to wherever the plot can happen.

The Final Problem, then, treats the Holmes siblings as aliens. And this is where it makes a mistake – a mistake which fans of Star Wars will recognise as the midi-chlorian problem. Early on in the episode, when John Watson first hears details about the third Holmes child, he asks whether she also has “the deduction thing”. The Holmes siblings have it. Others don’t. It might as well be a superpower produced by a mutation of the X gene for all the explanation of it we are given, and this runs completely counter to the kind of sci-fic which Conan Doyle was originally writing.

(I think it would be fine for Dr Who, by the way, for those who are tracking Steven Moffat’s whole portfolio.)

Conan Doyle’s Holmes uses a scientific method – something which Holmes invented, but which can be learned, and which he can teach in small ways to Watson. He is helped by elements in his personality which Conan Doyle assumes are inherent, such as an excellent memory and keen senses, but the method of deduction is just that, a method. In stories about his very early cases, he is sometimes shown to be still learning himself. His older brother also excels at it, but because other people can also learn parts of it, we are left to assume that they honed it together. This isn’t absent from the BBC Sherlock – indeed, the Mind Palace which appeared extensively in the third series is a very good modern reproduction of the core principle: taking a real method and extending it to sci-fi proportions.

Euros is the opposite of this, though. With the three Holmes siblings together, and no evidence in all the discussion of their childhoods that they were taught or invented the method of deduction, ‘being very clever’ is treated as an inborn trait. To return to the comparison with Star Wars: in the Original Trilogy, we thought that being a Jedi was something you learned, because we saw Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda teaching it to Luke Skywalker. In The Phantom Menace, we were disappointed to be told that being a Jedi was something you could detect on a blood test.

The form of sci-fi to which Sherlock Holmes fundamentally belongs entices us in with the idea that humans could be better if we tried harder, or had the right education, or thought about things differently. It makes us want to use the scientific method – even if it’s only to analyse TV shows. The Final Problem lets us down when it treats the Holmes siblings as aliens and not as scientists, because it says that our genetic backgrounds matters more to our abilities than the lives we lead and the decisions we make. And it fails to live up to the promise of an important line Sherlock utters in an earlier episode in the series, The Abominable Bride: “Oh, Watson. No one made me. I made me.”