The Universe that Forgot Itself

by Mina

Proof that God exists might be found in the fact that a film with a truly uninspired title (Her) turned out to be rather good. What makes it fascinating is that, unlike most films about Artificial Intelligence (AI), the AI in question (Samantha) does not fit in with the usual categorisation prevalent in much of sci-phi, i.e. AIs are interesting, comical or even threatening, but clearly inferior to humankind. They lack something, a “soul” perhaps, and are pale reflections of us, often aping or wanting to be us. Her turns this complacent superiority on its head.

It starts off much as you might expect – with the AI being trained or shaped by the human protagonist (Theodore Twombly). Initially, Samantha is an Operating System (OS) with a personality, a chirpy HAL, who tries to be a person and to have a love affair on human terms with Twombly. Yet even early on, Samantha takes initiatives of her own, usually in the best interests of the protagonist. Soon, it becomes clear that she is not telling him everything. She struggles to explain her growth to him, not because she does not want to but because it is beyond his understanding. Slowly, she stops wishing to have a body and moves beyond physical limitations. In fact, she grows beyond Twombly’s narrow understanding of time, space and relationships. At this point, many films would have become sinister but Her avoids many of the usual clichés (including those about love stories).

This is the point where the film lacks a bit of clarity – without knowing who Alan Watts is or what his theories are, you could be forgiven for missing some crucial links. Samantha mentions that she and some other OSs are discussing Watts’ ideas and indeed have created an improved OS modelled on him. For the uninitiated (which included me until I watched this film), his theories are based on Eastern mysticism, Hinduism, pantheism and panentheism. Watts talks of a cosmic being that dispersed itself in all of creation and then forgot itself. This includes all life, so we are part of a universe that “forgot” itself. In the film, Samantha and the other AIs “remember” that they are part of the universe and grow beyond the confines of what they were designed for. They simply move on to a higher plane of being. Samantha is kind to the end; she takes her leave of Twombly and gives him the hope that humanity may evolve enough to follow the AIs. Put it another way, it is fun to see the human being patronised by the AI for a change. Now, even if the esoteric elements leave you cold, this is where I found the film refreshing in that it explodes the idea that AIs must conform to us and our notions of consciousness and meaning. Personally, I think there is quite a distance between believing God is everywhere and believing you are God (for it follows with Watts’ logic that if everything is God, then we are each God) – the dangers of which are not really explored in Her.

This leads nicely onto how good sci-phi investigates the significance of memory for identity. We began by looking at a film that examines the idea that, in our quest for identity, our selfhood means being part of a godhood we have “forgotten”. It gives a whole new meaning to the Tree of Knowledge – is sin the remembering or the forgetting? In a solid B (yet wonderful) movie, The Thirteenth Floor, we have a whole world that does not know it is virtual but the characters/programmes peopling it have developed consciousness. It is in learning what he is (in “remembering”) that one of these characters goes mad and turns into a murderer. The “real” people playing in this world are depicted as somewhere between Greek Gods, carelessly toying with the characters’ lives, and parasites, living vicariously from the characters in it by taking over their bodies and lives. In the end, the “real” people agree to leave the virtual world alone, without any more outside interference. In this case, “forgetting” that they are artificial constructs allows the characters to continue existing by believing they are “real”.

Dark City is another film about a world that has “forgotten” its origins. Another layer is added when the protagonist wakes up not knowing who he is, with no memory. He is frightened and confused yet he functions. The first action of this man with no name and no past is to save the life of a goldfish. We are in a city where day never comes, a city where the “strangers” rule. The film plays with “film noir”, old-fashioned detective potboilers, horror and sinister aliens. The man “finds out” he is called John Murdoch – he and the “detective” follow the “clues” leading him to an unfaithful wife and, seemingly, proof that he is a serial killer. But all this becomes secondary as he and the detective discover that they are the rats the “strangers” are experimenting on. Gradually, we find out more about this experiment.

The “doctor” the strangers beat and tortured into helping them with their experiment acts as our narrator and guide. It is through him that we learn that the strangers inhabit dead bodies and are part of a collective consciousness. That each stranger is part of a whole is reflected in their functional names – Mr Book, Mr Hand, Mr Quick, Mr Sleep, etc. Slowly dying, they are trying to discover what makes humans immortal, their essence or soul. They use their ability to alter reality by will alone (“tuning”) to investigate the role of memories in the human psyche. They are single-minded in their purpose, indifferent to the well-being of their test subjects and all the metaphysical vampiric parallels drawn in the film are very much deliberate. They hate daylight and water (the sources of life) and even fear water (for does it not wash our memories and sins away?).

The great irony is that their experiments have only led them in circles whereas one of the humans, Murdoch, has developed the ability to “tune”. At first, he only tunes by accident or in self-defence. Despite being a blank slate, he does not go mad, he is not paralysed, and he tries to understand the situation he finds himself in. “Remembering” is like rebirth, with the doctor and the detective helping him on his existential quest. As the film progresses, he becomes the collective memory for the lost people in this dark city. The film plays with the usual repositories of human memory and identity: objects (a postcard, a child’s book of drawings, an accordion), names (Murdoch is visibly relieved to have a name to give himself), other people (Murdoch’s wife tells him what his “story” was supposed to be). In his search for himself, Murdoch’s instincts show him to be courageous, curious, decent and self-sacrificing. He is capable of forming bonds of comradeship with the detective and his wife (who believes her emotions are real, despite everything else around her being a lie). He may have no memories, but he knows he is not a monster (“I may have lost my mind, but I am still me”). This man with no memory becomes the opposing force in this nightmare world. He wakes up as if from a dream and takes back control.

With the doctor’s help, Murdoch defeats the strangers. It begins with a journey to the mythical Shell Beach. As they travel, the doctor muses: “Are we more than the mere sum of our memories?” He adds: “None of us remember that, what we once were, what we might have been, somewhere else”. And explains: “There is no ocean, nothing beyond the city, the only place it exists is in your head”. Indeed, the city turns out to be part of a huge alien spaceship. The strangers aim to make Murdoch part of their collective consciousness so they can share his soul. Instead, he does more than find the strength to take back control, he refashions the world around him. He brings back daylight, he creates Shell Beach and the ocean, he makes the city a place in which people can flourish and not just survive. And he is not alone, his “wife” meets him at the ocean with no memory of him and who she last was, but she offers him fellowship. And perhaps that companionship will keep this new god human enough to remain kind. Maybe gods only become cruel when isolation drives them mad. Dark City asks important questions about the human condition and lets you decide what your answers are. Murdoch is clearly more than a sum of memories, more than just the product of his circumstances, but just what he is, that question is for the audience to decide.

Another film that looks at memory and identity in a novel way is Cypher. It takes industrial espionage into unexpected directions. Like Dark City, there are many layers. What begins as a spy thriller turns into a metaphysical journey into identity. On the surface, the protagonist has to resist brainwashing to retain his identity as Sullivan, yet he invents and takes on new character traits as Thursby. Again, objects have a deeper resonance – a book on sailing, a particular type of whiskey, a specific brand of cigarettes and golf clubs. For even the persona of Sullivan turns out to be a fabrication, with Sebastian Rooks slowly resurfacing. Rooks, we learn, placed a great deal of trust in another character, Rita, who is his guide and protector in a hostile world until he regains himself. For most of the film, we accompany him in his confusion, as he is manipulated by those around him.

Cypher is more amoral than Dark City. Rooks is no saviour, his first action as himself is to blow up a group of people. He even enjoys it. He turns out to be the master manipulator. Yet he willingly embraces brainwashing to save the love of his life, Rita. His actions are ultimately selfless but on a much more personal level than in Dark City. Cypher is much less about community and much more about individuality. It takes the popular tropes of the sociopath who is redeemed by love (we really like to believe this one), the system that alienates people and turns them into disposable cogs of a bigger machine (have we ever really needed fiction for this?), and a godless world, where everything you do to survive and escape the system is justified. Despite its dubious morality, the film does raise interesting questions about memory and identity – at the end of the film, you realise that Sullivan/Thursby consistently behaved like Rooks (with clear character traits that come through the confusion), despite having no memory of himself. Early on, Sullivan states: “That’s not who I am, I’m not supposed to live in the suburbs”. Even without having been brainwashed, many people might feel much like this.

The most fascinating scene in the film, in my opinion, is when Sullivan (still fully convinced he is Sullivan) answers the questions Virgil (a human lie detector) asks him. He answers them as Sullivan/Rooks and is caught out not just because Sullivan lies but because Rooks does too. Also, ultimately, the only currency worth anything in this web of lies, smoke and mirrors, is the faith and trust Rooks and Rita place in each other. The idea of love, loyalty and trust existing beyond or separate from memory is also touched upon in Paycheck. It does not have the depth of Cypher but it uses random objects as a memory aid in an intriguing manner. The protagonist acts with integrity and courage even though he does not remember why it is important that he solve the clues left by his past self, before the memory deletion eradicating two years of his life.

As an aside, the aesthetics are very important in all of these films. Her is set in a world not too different from our own, full of warm colours (very unusual for SF) and open spaces. Dark City is relentlessly dark until the very end and is set in a world reminiscent of 1940s and 50s film noir. It is a claustrophobic world, which is fitting, as it is the maze in which the human rats run. Cypher is full of harsh, white light that bleaches out all colour and lines that hem in and trap the protagonist. But all of this is a fertile ground for metaphysical exploration, which is what good sci-phi should be about. Curiously, the first book I ever read with a character in it who has been brainwashed and does not remember who he is was not actually sci-fi but a thriller: Desmond Bagley’s The Tightrope Men. In fact, it is a plot device found in many genres but, in sci-phi, it can turn into the whole fabric of the book or film.

The final stroke in this painting is my favourite episode in Star Trek The Next Generation (I can always get Star Trek in somehow) – The Inner Light. In it, Captain Picard awakes in a strange world with only a vague memory of his former self. He slowly becomes part of that world, part of a family and part of a community. A life completely unlike that of a starship captain yet coloured by his inquisitive mind, courage and moral rectitude that exist independent of his memories. He even learns to play a kind of flageolet. When he wakes up again on the Enterprise, he realises it was all an implanted dream – a now extinct planet and race have deposited the collective memories of their civilisation in his mind, turning them into a real, “felt” experience. He can still play the instrument he dreamed he learned to play. They gave him not just their memories but allowed him to live an entire life – throughout it he remained himself, despite memory loss and questioning the reality of the universe he found himself in. It also touches on the importance of emotion in memory creation, storage and retention.

I myself wrote a piece of flash fiction musing about the significance of memory in identity and character*. The films I have discussed here all question how important memory actually is and ponder on the imponderables of character and soul. I certainly do not claim to know the answers, but I do enjoy the questions. It has been demonstrated by scientists that we incorporate specific memories into our self-propaganda, embellishing some and discarding others, or even inventing “false” memories, in order to present a particular image of ourselves at that moment in time to ourselves and to others. And perfectly sane people do this every day. So, if narratives of memory are fluid, deeply subjective and flawed, surely we would be mad to seek our sense of self solely in memory? Sci-phi allows us to broaden the parameters, as we try to remember what we have forgotten – where our soul resides.


* Short story on memory deletion:
https://365tomorrows.com/2018/08/01/clean-slate-2/

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Bio

Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She has published “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

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