Drive By Sci Fi #3: Hard Time

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime, The punishment fit the crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment, Of innocent merriment!
Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado

The twofold topic of crime and punishment has yielded bountiful fruit over the years in science fiction, providing endless speculation on the future of law, law enforcement, civil justice, and criminal punishment, and perhaps no representative of the genre has made more salad from this particular harvest than that icon of television, film, and popular culture, Star Trek. Many of its futuristic scenarios implied things wouldn’t stray far from the familiar: investigations, inquiries, inquests, courtrooms, courts martial, jury trials, imprisonment, exile, and executions (usually averted at the last minute). Occasionally we’d be treated to a fun anachronism, like trial by combat.

Punishment was often surprisingly harsh, given Star Trek’s rosy view of the evolution of future society. One of my favorite Original Series Trek moments was Spock’s dispassionate summation of the various forms of execution jovial con-artist Harry Mudd would face were he ever brought to justice:

Well, I suppose it’s better than stranding me on an asteroid with a few hundred robot duplicates of my ex-wife.

Mudd: Do you know what the penalty for fraud is on Deneb 5?

Spock: Guilty party has his choice. Death by electrocution, death by gas, death by phaser, death by hanging…

Mudd: The key word in your entire peroration, Mr. Spock, was… d-d-d-DEATH.

The issue of justice in sentencing, how to make, in the words of The Mikado, “the punishment fit the crime,” came to mind the other day in the form of a couple of articles discussing advances in our ability to manipulate memory, and possible applications this and other biotech developments might have in the criminal justice system.

obrien-hardtimeThe ideas floated in this article seemed hauntingly familiar. Then I remembered one of my favorite episodes from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, “Hard Time,” in which stalwart DS9 engineer Miles O’Brien is arrested on an alien world, charged with espionage, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Virtual prison. O’Brien lives every moment of that 20 years, indistinguishable from reality, in the space of a few hours. Then, he’s released to Federation custody to put his life back together. He has to orient himself to life outside prison, re-forge friendships, and re-learn his job. But he’s still haunted by the ghost of something horrific that happened during that time he was captive within his own mind, and it nearly destroys him. It’s a tour-de-force of brilliant acting by Colm Meaney, who plays O’Brien, and Craig Wasson, who portrays O’Brien’s illusory cellmate. Watch the whole thing, if you get the chance.

It’s paradise, my friend.

We’re approaching the ability to insert false memories in the human mind, distort its perception of time, and automate these effects with computer technology. So many delicious opportunities here. A convict could experience a lifetime in prison in mere hours of real time. A violent criminal could re-live his misdeeds from his victim’s point-of-view, over and over again, until he was rehabilitated—or so emotionally and psychologically broken that he could never harm anyone again—all in a brief space of time with no danger or need to kill or even physically injure the criminal. Prisons and all their expensive and inherent evils would be obsolete, as would the engines of capital punishment. Justice could be specifically tailored to the perpetrator, the crime, and the desires of victims and their families.

Everybody wins. Right?

Well, maybe. There are some thorny ethical issues here, not the least is whether this sort of treatment constitutes torture and invites abuse. Proportionality of sentencing is threatened, as well. It could be easier for judges to issue excessive punishments—it’s all happening in an imaginary world, anyhow. What does an illusion of 100 years in prison matter if it’s only taking a few hours of real time on a soft couch, and nobody gets hurt?

There’s also no guarantee this technology could remain restricted to use by a legal, accountable authority. Imagine the likely outcome if the ability to lock someone in a virtual hell found its way into the hands of terrorists:

We have your daughter. Oh, please, sir, relax…we’re not barbarians. No harm will come to her, but if you don’t cooperate, she’ll be spending 24 hours in our “private resort.”

The most chilling part of this topic for me is people’s readiness to entertain the idea of creating that virtual hell, for any purpose. Much ink has spilled in the last few years about the incomprehensibility of a loving, merciful God consigning anyone to Hell, no matter how heinous their crime or unrepentant their heart. We poor, feeble human beings would never consider sending someone to eternal punishment. We’re better than that.

Mm-hmm. We’d do it in a heartbeat. We’re already talking about it. We’re halfway to figuring out how to make it happen, and we don’t have to worry about being constrained by any of that “loving, merciful” jazz. On this issue, my faith in the beneficence of my fellow man is rather limited. A source of innocent merriment!

We have an affinity for hell.



5 thoughts on “Drive By Sci Fi #3: Hard Time

  1. Excellent post.

    My recent thoughts in similar vein to your post, stuff I’ve been pondering about storytelling and characters and real life:
    1) There is something in the human makeup that demands justice — to be visited on someone else, not on us, or it’s “not fair”.
    2) We want revenge for what’s done to us, but mercy for what we do.
    3) The same folks in Hollywood who are demanding gun control and “talking it out” with our enemies are getting rich on movies involving gun violence and an-eye-for-an-eye responses to people who do the heroes wrong.

    We humans think we’re better than we really are. We also forget that old but true cliche — actions speak louder than words — and the Biblical principle that, intentionally or not, we will speak what’s in our hearts.

    1. Yeah, unfortunately lots of examples lately of mercy and forgiveness flowing only one way. Seems we can’t have a debate about anything without each side demanding the other be both silenced and punished.

  2. Fred, have you ever taken a gander at Babylon 5? There is an episode in the third season called “Passing Through Gethsemane” ( which deals with a future telepathic punishment: “death of personality”, the 23rd century response to the death penalty that obliterates a criminal’s mind and restructures. I highly recommend it and the entire five seasons of the show for such moral explorations.

  3. I liked B5 a lot, but it was hit or miss for me, one of those series that always seemed to be on at the wrong time (like Firefly, and Lost), so I only saw a few episodes. When I can find a good network or streaming source for it, I’d definitely like to watch it all the way through.

    Star Trek got some more mileage out of the virtual life scenario, positively in “The Inner Light” (TNG), in which Picard experiences a lifetime in a lost civilization, and negatively in “Ex Post Facto” (Voyager), where Tom Paris is falsely convicted of murder and punished with implanted repetitive memories of the victim’s final moments.

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