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Speculative Love, Part 1: No Greater Love

Sep 13, 2011

Okay, here we go. Keep your seatbelts fastened and your arms and legs inside the car for the duration of the ride.

When I introduced this series last week, Galadriel made what I thought was a rather perceptive comment: “I don’t understand the point of a ‘speculative love ‘ story…”

Indeed. What’s speculative about love?


Love is an objective virtue. It doesn’t change. In 2011, Mirriam Webster breaks down the definition of love pretty much the same way people have from the dawn of time. Christians believe that God is the summit and source of all love, and our capacity to love is a result of being created in His image. The Apostle Paul lays out the Christian perspective on love in I Corinthians 13. If you haven’t read it recently, please, do so. You’ll be glad you did.

Now, the rituals, expressions, and other frou-frou we wrap around the concept of love change all the time, and that can make our perception of love confusing. Love is also an emotional virtue, and emotions can be confusing. We find it difficult to distinguish between love and the desire to be lovedor to be in love.  As a result, we do a lot of stupid things and blame them on love.

Getting back to the speculative part, if real love isn’t constrained by time or place, and is unfailing and unchanging in nature, why would we bother making it the centerpiece of a science fiction, fantasy, or other speculative story? There are so many spaceships and aliens and wizards and dragons and wars both interdimensional and interplanetary to write about. Oh, there might be a strong friendship or even a romance on the side, maybe to give the hero something to fight for or to provide an opportunity for a little sexual spice to keep the reader engaged. Love is useful as an accessory, but as the main event? Please. There’s a rack for those sorts of stories over there in the corner.

Of course, the point of writing on this topic is that I don’t believe that. I think the point of speculative fiction is to take our familiar humanity somewhere extraordinary. In the process, we learn that what is right and good and true is still valid years into the future, or on an alien planet, or in a universe where trees can talk and horses can fly. Love is so central to our existence and identity as human beings that a story which doesn’t on some level grapple with what love means, and how it helps make us more than well-dressed animals, is missing something important and compelling.

Here’s an example, and all you literary buffs can freely roll your eyes: Star Trek (the original series), Episode 63, “The Empath.” This story has an interesting background. It was one of only four fan-written Trek screenplays that made it to production. It quotes the Bible–twice. DeForest Kelly (Dr. McCoy) said it was his favorite episode.

There’s not a bit of romance in it, but it’s all about love.

You can read the synopsis here, but I’ll give you the condensed version. The U.S.S. Enterprise is on a routine mission to pick up a couple of scientists from a planetary outpost where they’re studying a star about to go supernova. The scientists don’t answer the radio when Enterprise arrives, so Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to investigate. They find the lab vacant, but are shortly thereafter transported against their will to an alien research facility deep underground. The nature of the research is a mystery, but when they find the two Federation scientists there, dead, they figure it must be something less than pleasant.

They also find a mysterious young woman there. She’s painfully timid, and mute. They gain her trust, and McCoy dubs her “Gem,” which he decides is better than “Hey, You.” Anyhow, Kirk is zapped away for a few hours and returns somewhat the worse for wear after receiving the alien equivalent of the rubber hose treatment. Gem heals his injuries, and they discover that she is an empath, able to link her nervous system and life force to another person and take on herself whatever ails them, then restore herself. It takes a lot out of her, which explains her timidness. She can die working this little trick.

Eventually, the aliens explain that their project is designed to test the worthiness of Gem’s race for rescue from the supernova. She has to demonstrate an advanced level of compassion–but her innate instinct for self-preservation makes this difficult. The aliens announce another test. Kirk must send either Spock or McCoy into their torture chamber, but McCoy will certainly die, and Spock, if he survives, will sustain irreversible brain damage.  Here’s where it gets interesting. As Kirk ponders his decision, McCoy injects him with a sedative, then catches Spock off-guard and does the same thing to him.  McCoy tells the aliens he’s the chosen victim, and they take him away.

Anybody with a passing acquaintance with Star Trek knows that the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy transcends the military chain of command, and even goes beyond a sense of simple friendship or comradeship. This is love, and here it’s in full view. McCoy can’t allow either of his friends to risk death. Instead, he offers himself up to die in their place, not out of duty, or logic, or desire for approval, but love. As Jesus tells us in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

It doesn’t end there. McCoy comes back beaten almost beyond recognition, at death’s door, and the aliens confine Gem with him and wait to see what she’ll do. She’s in agony. She wants to help, but she knows she’ll die if she does. Finally, she touches him, but recoils. The aliens are ready to give up on her, but she comes back and begins to heal McCoy, who flings her away once he’s recovered enough strength to do so.

I won’t spoil the ending if by some chance you haven’t seen this episode, but suffice it to say that McCoy’s act of self-sacrificial love isn’t merely a noble gesture. It inspires Gem to overcome her fear and shames the aliens’ hypocritical experiment. It demonstrates that love has the power to transform lives. Star Trek frequently, perhaps more often than not, gets love wrong, but in this instance, I think it’s right on the mark.

So, our brave Dr. McCoy did good. He achieved the supreme expression of unselfish love, right?

Well, almost. As I mentioned at the beginning, Christians believe that God is the summit and source of all love. In the person of Jesus Christ, He displayed a love that is mirrored only imperfectly in the fictional example. Jesus exceeded the greatest love possible for a man because He didn’t stop with laying down his life for his friends. He laid his life down for his enemies–freely, purposefully, without any assurance that his sacrifice would be appreciated or his love returned. As Paul tells us in Romans 5:7-8, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And that love is even more transforming: “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10) Part of that transformation is to follow Jesus’ example: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”(Luke 6:27-28)

So, there’s a start. I’m sure our readers can come up with more and better examples of self-sacrificial love illustrated in speculative fiction, and please do so.

Next time, The Mushy Stuff!

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16 comments on "Speculative Love, Part 1: No Greater Love"

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Kessie Carroll

Great article! I think this series is off to a great start!
In I, Robot, by Asimov, half the robots in the stories are motivated by love. It leaves you wondering if this love is merely the robot adhering to the First Law (don’t harm human or allow a human to be harmed) or if this love arose from simply following the First Law.
Robots are a really interesting way of exploring love, because love is a completely foreign concept to a machine. And science would like to tell us that we’re only machines made of cells. So how does love come into it? I think that’s one reason I love robots (like that brilliant cartoon The Iron Giant). When they’re good, they’re very very good, and when they’re bad, they’re horrid. 🙂

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Great post, Fred. I’m glad you anchored your thoughts in Scripture and pointed to God as the summit and source of it. (Great phrasing). I like that example you used from Star Trek. I think I remember how it ended.

You’re right to say that that TV program didn’t get love right very often, and my guess is they probably would resist the idea that this particular episode was about love. No, they’d say, it was about friendship. I think our culture has a very narrow view of love.

Recently one of Sarah Sawyer‘s commenters mentioned that even literature written for the young plays up romantic love — something far advanced from their target audience’s experience. Instead, what they should capitalize on is familial love or friendship. But I’m guessing our culture hardly recognizes those as love any more. 🙁




In the comment you quoted, I was referring mostly to romantic (ie ‘kissyface’) love, not the friendship love. Friendship love is severly overlooked in all fiction fields today, not just fantasy and sci-fi. To add to the TV examples, I will refer to my current obssession: Doctor Who. In both the classic and revived series, the Doctor has strong, sacrificial love for his friends. Four introduces Sarah Jane as “my best friend,” and Eleven gets seriously angry when his friends are threatened–witness this speech from “A Good Man Goes to War”
Those words: “Run away.” I want you to be famous for those exact words. I want people to call you “Colonel Run Away.” I want children laughing outside your door because they’ve found the house of Colonel Run Away. And when people come to you and ask if trying to get to me through the people I love (deep breath)is in any way a good idea… I want you to tell them your name.
Ten has a similiar quote. It can overlap with romantic love, but I think it speaks to all his relationships with humans:

They leave. Because they should or because they find someone else. And some of them, some of them … forget me. I suppose in the end, they break my heart.
-The Next Doctor

One issue that I think speculative fiction needs to explore more is the problems that can arise with love between different races/species/cultures, especially when one has a far longer lifespan than the other

Kessie Carroll

Props for the quote. The Doctor has had some real zingers in the last few seasons. Kind of like the I Have the Pandorica speech. 🙂


I was going to add River’s quote from Impossible Astronaut, but I think I’ll wait till the appropriate post.


Kissyface is okay in some situations.

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