March 06, 2007

Shifty Shape-Shifters

Last night on Heroes we met Candace, a character who can assume the shape of other people -- and who is clearly not on the side of good. The shape-shifter is a common conceit in science fiction, and it's interesting that these characters are almost always bad. Mystique in the X-Men is a terrorist, the T-1000 in Terminator 2 is a killing machine, Martia in Star Trek VI betrays Kirk and McCoy. Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is one of the good guys, but, tellingly, his shape-shifting powers are limited -- he can turn into objects but can't imitate people very well. The more powerful Changelings who show up later in the series are less benign; most of them are the rulers of the Dominion, which ends up at war with the Federation.

Remember the legend of Gyges's ring from Plato's Republic, the ring that has the power to turn the wearer invisible? Glaucon argues that someone who had the ring and exercised the ability to be evil without consequences could be just as happy as a good person, prompting Socrates to mount his extended defense of the just life.

I wouldn't say that sci-fi writers agree with Glaucon, exactly, but it says something about human nature -- at least as artists view it -- that it's so hard to imagine a shape-shifter who agrees with Socrates with enough conviction to be good.

Posted by John Tabin at March 6, 2007 08:01 PM