While science fiction often takes the wildest things for granted- like faster-than-light engines, time travel, and cryogenic suspension- it rarely lets us take the simplest things for granted. For example, last month I talked about virtual reality. We aren’t even allowed to assume reality is real in science fiction.
One of the most basic and hard-to-define things in our lives is identity. I know that I am myself. I like to think that I know who the people around me are, too. What is it that makes someone who they are, though? Is it their appearance? Their mannerisms? Their thoughts? Their beliefs? Their memories?
If you met someone that talked just like you, looked just like you, and knew everything you know, would you believe that they were you? Would you struggle internally to figure out which one was the real you?
Shape-shifters, duplicates, and copies are common fare from the pulpiest of sci-fi to the most sophisticated of speculative fiction. Shape-shifters have a unique place in this list of impostors, because shape-shifters can usually choose to look like someone else. Duplicates and clones are manufactured to look like specific people. Shape-shifters have the ability to change into just about anyone they want.
But why? What motivates these characters to turn into someone else?
Since the 50th anniversary of Star Trek was on the 8th of this month, I would be remiss not to mention the very first episode aired, “The Man Trap”. Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy beam down to a planet for a routine medical examination of the resident archaeologist and his wife. Routine, except that the archaeologist’s wife is a former sweetheart of Dr. McCoy’s. To McCoy, Nancy appears not to have aged a day. Kirk gets the opposite impression. It takes them a while, (and a few ‘red shirt’ deaths), to realize that they are actually seeing two different things. The real Nancy Crater has been dead for several years, survived by her husband, Dr. Crater, and a shape-shifting alien that will do or become anything to get the salt it needs to survive.
Ray Bradbury presents a heart-wrenching example in “The Martian”, a short story featured in his 1950 anthology, “The Martian Chronicles”. An elderly couple, bereaved of their son, have moved from Earth to Mars. One day, a mysterious figure seems to be observing their house. It is their dead son, Tom. The wife accepts the boy as though nothing had happened. The husband is a bit more suspicious. He notices that other families in the area are also receiving back their loved ones from the dead. When the couple take their “son” to town, he reveals himself to be a shape-shifting Martian. At the end of the story, the shape-shifter dies trying to please everyone in town by becoming people they have lost.
Love. Power. Sustenance. Salt. There seem to be endless reasons for shape-shifters to change themselves into other people. But these motivations aren’t limited to science fiction. Affection. Esteem. Success. People all around us find reasons to change aspects of themselves. To create false faces and personas. To shift into things they think others will like.
How can we know who they are, then? How can we know who we are? Have we all shifted so often that we’ve lost our original form? Do we really know the people we live and work with, or are we surrounded by a bunch of shape-shifters?