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Mina

Travelling Theory in a Parallel Universe

by Mina

Academia is always sprouting new theories like a rabid hydra. Deconstruction and Derrida may have been all the recent rage, but my interest was caught by a theory that slipped in with much less fanfare: travelling theory. Basically, it looks at how other theories spread, grow, change form, thrive or fade away. To my surprise, I found an excellent illustration of this theory in a sci-phi / fantasy novel. But more on this in a moment: first, I must blitz you a bit with, yes, theory. I promise to be as concise as possible.

To travel, a theory must cross cultures, sometimes taking a ride on the back of a different language. One theorist, Hillis Miller, stresses that a theory will be read and understood differently by a non-native speaker reading the theory in its original language (where s/he will interpret it his/her own way and based on his/her level of competence in the original language) or in translation (where s/he will interpret someone else’s interpretation). The room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation is, of course, huge.

The main proponent for travelling theory is Edward Said. In his opinion, theory travels well because theory is ‘conceptual and generalized’ and is not tied to a particular time, place or situation. However, the language of a theory is tied to a particular language and culture. A theory that has travelled does bring with it ‘the culture of its originator’. We will now ‘appropriate’ his theory. By that, I mean we will take this theory, examine it from various angles and turn it into something that is ours. Let’s also do something high-brow articles aren’t supposed to do – have frivolous and irreverent fun!

I found my own starting point by combining a science-fiction novel by Iain M. Banks and Said’s mobile theory. To summarise ruthlessly, Said identified four stages of travel for a theory: the point of origin, the distance traversed, the conditions of acceptance or resistance, and transformation. After such travel, a theory may be greatly diluted (domesticated theory) or magnified and strike a new direction (transgressive theory). For Zhang Longxi, another theorist, the most important stage is the point of destination or the point of origin in reverse. Basically (to overuse this word some more), he focuses on how a theory has been transformed by its destination to meet the needs of the point of destination.

Iain M. Banks writes science fiction for the ‘thinking man’. His books are beautifully constructed and complex. His novel Inversions struck me as a particularly good parable for travelling theory, especially if we focus, like Zhang Longxi, more on the point of destination. The novel is set in a primitive world reminiscent of medieval Europe, a common enough trope in fantasy. Its inhabitants are unaware that they have been visited by people from ‘The Culture’, an advanced post-scarcity interstellar civilisation. In the novel, the stories of two characters, ‘the Doctor’ and ‘the Bodyguard’ (my capitals), occur at the same time but in different lands and without overlapping in any way. It is only through the tales told by the Bodyguard to a sick child that the reader realises that these two characters come from a distant, more advanced civilisation and that they are cousins.

It is the tales that the Bodyguard tells which bring us to travelling theory. In the utopian world he describes, two cousins who are also friends argue about a theory: one cousin (who we can surmise to be the Doctor from the clues left for us in the novel) believes that it is the duty of a more advanced civilisation to help more primitive civilisations and ‘make life better for them’; the other cousin, the Bodyguard (identified again from the clues provided by the chief narrator) feels that more primitive civilisations should be left alone to make their own way. To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question; a debate which we often find in science fiction, going no further than the Prime Directive in “Star Trek”, where the crew of the starship Enterprise are not permitted to intervene in local matters just because they are the more advanced civilisation. It is perhaps easier to shift such a thorny debate into outer space than to discuss the realities of colonialism in planet earth’s history. To return to the theory the Doctor expounds in the Bodyguard’s tales, we could call it the ‘Theory of Beneficial Intervention’, i.e. a belief that the more advanced civilisation can and should intervene for the better of the primitive civilisation.

The Doctor actively strives to change the society in the land she visits by influencing its king and his advisors for the better. She remains the outsider throughout but does indeed seem to sow the seeds of peace and scientific ‘progress’ before disappearing. Towards the end of the novel, the author hints that she is an agent of ‘Special Circumstances’, a covert organisation whose aim it is to send operatives to influence events in the civilisations bordering ‘The Culture’. The Bodyguard does not actively strive to change the land he visits but limits himself to being part of its society and reacting to events as they occur. He fails to protect his ruler (the Prime Protector), who is assassinated, and, even worse, he allows a civil war to erupt. As far as we know, he is not supported by any external organisation; he reminds us more of the lone cowboy searching for adventure in the Wild West.

What is very interesting is that the only glimpses we have of the point of origin of the Doctor’s Theory of Beneficial Intervention, i.e. the civilisation known as ‘The Culture’, are the tales told by the Bodyguard. In fact, ‘The Culture’ is never referred to directly; the reader will only know of its existence from the other novels written in this universe by Iain M. Banks (which reminded me of A Horse and His Boy, where C.S. Lewis writes a story completely within Narnia). The two narrators (the doctor’s assistant and a concubine) are part of the local primitive cultures with no knowledge of ‘The Culture’ and only a partial understanding of the motives driving the Doctor and the Bodyguard, thus they have no awareness of the theory under dispute and are not biased for or against it. It is as if the rat in an experiment were to tell you the story from his point of view, with no knowledge of the experiment and its variables. This offers us a view of the travel of a theory from the bottom up and not from the top down, as is more customary. It also makes the point of destination far more important than the point of origin.

The symbolism in the main characters’ names is very clear: the Doctor is a ‘missionary-soldier’ who wishes to cure the malady presented by a primitive culture and the Bodyguard wishes to protect its right to be its primitive self. On the surface, the Doctor’s Theory of Beneficial Intervention would seem to have been vindicated by her. She leaves behind a society moving towards long-lasting peace, greater social equality and scientific progress. The Bodyguard leaves behind a society dissolving into chaos and civil war. However, it is not as simple as that, the deeper ramifications of both stories would point to a more subversive role for travelling theory.

It could be argued that the Doctor simply made a good ruler better and speeded up a process that would have occurred with or without her. She sowed the seeds on an already fertile ground and was, at best, not a revolutionary, only a catalyst. The Bodyguard, despite his belief in non-intervention, does change one small event: he saves the life of a child. This child goes on to become the ruler who brings peace to his land, after its descent into civil war, and gains renown as a scholar. Since his own father was only interested in fighting and maintaining power, and was not a scholar, it raises the question of where this ruler learned about the possibility of peace and stability if not from the tales of a utopian land once told to him by his father’s bodyguard.

Despite his ‘resistance’ to the Theory of Beneficial Intervention, the Bodyguard communicates this theory to the child who will one day become a ‘good’ ruler, suggesting that acceptance or not of a theory has nothing to do with its method of transmission. This would further suggest that resistance to a theory is as important as acceptance of it because it encourages the transmission of the theory. A theory may travel by trumpeting its virtues through active debate, e.g. the Doctor’s long discussions with the king and his advisors, or through texts, e.g. the notes the Doctor leaves for her assistant. However, it may also slip in quietly through the back door through a small action saving one person’s life or through a tale, a myth or a parable, which may be interpreted in unexpected ways.

The irony of the novel is that the Bodyguard ultimately proves the Doctor’s theory right in a more convincing manner than the Doctor herself (he also goes on to become a successful trader and what better way to encourage peace than through trade?). In other words, regardless of the origin of the Theory of Beneficial Intervention, it takes root in the primitive world described by Banks because two rulers who are fully part of that world see the merits of the peace and stability resulting from its application in their respective societies.

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A Short Bibliography:
(if you wish to hit yourself with some heavyweight theory)

– Hillis Miller, J.
(1996) “Border Crossings, Translation Theory: Ruth”. In: The Translatability of Cultures, Figurations of the Space Between, Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser (eds.). Stanford University Press, 207-223.

– Said, Edward W.
(2000) “Traveling Theory Reconsidered”. In: Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Harvard University Press, 436-452.
(1983) ”Traveling Theory”. In: The World, the Text and the Critic, Harvard University Press, 226-247.

– Zhang Longxi
(1992) “Western Theory and Chinese Reality”. In: Critical Inquiry, 19, 1, 105-30.

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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.

On the Android Spectrum or Aspies in Space

by Mina

To be a perfectly logical creature with no emotions and no social needs is not really perceived as an advantage by most NTs on earth in the 21st century – NTs or “neurotypicals” is what Aspies (people with Asperger’s Syndrome) call everyone else. No NT will pray to whatever god they believe in to turn them into an Aspie, whereas an Aspie may well wish they were not so. This is where science fiction greatly differs from the rest of that human construct we call the world – it is full of Aspies in major roles, not just in minor, abject ones.

Before I go any further, let’s get our labels pinned down. I dislike labelling, but it can be a helpful shorthand when you have a word limit. The two important labels for this article are Asperger’s Syndrome and PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). Both are considered pervasive developmental disorders on the autism spectrum. Both are “pure” forms of autism, not accompanied by any complications like learning disabilities. By “pure” form, I mean it is “only” a social disorder, which means a (complete) lack of empathy and real difficulties in communicating with others. It is not an illness or a handicap; the brain is simply wired differently.

Aspies appear everywhere in fiction now – think of characters who are brilliant, incapable of lying, unable to “read” the people around them (or even their own emotions), literal in their responses and who show obsessive and anxious behaviours. The brilliant is a bit unfair because Aspies are like anyone else – they can be of just average intelligence. Aspies may have a touch of PDA, which is now finally being seen as a disorder in its own right. PDA is an inability to adapt to the world or its demands, usually due to extreme anxiety. It is much harder to romanticise which is why fiction is not full of people with this disorder. PDA behaviours include aggression (leading to severe meltdowns and violence in some cases), psychotic behaviours and an internal fantasy life often more real to that person than the external world. Both Aspies and people with PDA have no empathy –they have to learn how to interact with others. They can learn to successfully navigate the world of NTs, but it is skilled acting and imitation, never more than skin deep. Neither of these disorders must be confused with childhood traumas such as Attachment Disorder, where a severe form of neglect leads to some Aspie/PDA behaviours.

So, where are all the Aspies in science fiction? They are, quite simply, in our fascination with logic, robots and androids. I will limit myself to a spectrum of R. Daneel Olivaw from Asimov’s robot novels, the Star Trek canon (Spock, Data, Lore and Lal) and a film that explodes all boundaries but could be considered a mix of fantasy and horror, “Heavenly Creatures”.

The R in R. Daneel stands for “robot”. Today, we would call him an android. Daneel has a “positronic” brain, a CPU so advanced that he is a sentient being and one who is literally “wired differently”. Daneel is the typical Aspie – he does not really understand human drives and emotions and he is very literal in his way of seeing and understanding the world. Like Aspies, he has a very formal way of talking and an expressionless face. He is an android detective partnered with a human, Elijah Baley, and, like an Aspie can, he learns from Baley. Daneel appears in four robot novels but, unlike Aspies, he is ruled by the “Three Laws of Robotics”, which artificially prevent him from harming humans.

My favourite conversation between Daneel and Baley is in “The Caves of Steel” when Baley attempts to explain the Bible and a particular story in it to Daneel. Baley describes the Bible as a code of behaviour and a higher law. He tells Daneel the story of the adulterous woman that Jesus saves from stoning (“he that is without sin, let him cast the first stone” – “go and sin no more”). Daneel struggles during the conversation to understand the case of a guilty party that is not punished as society dictates, and he is totally baffled by the notions of mercy and forgiveness. For someone without a “theory of mind” as Aspies are sometimes described (an inability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes), a parable or an allegory can be hard to grasp because it is based on a purely intuitive and emotional gut understanding of the world and other people. At the end of the book, Daneel has progressed far enough in his understanding of NTs to apply the story to the situation at hand saying: “it suddenly seems to me that the destruction of what should not be, that is, the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good”. Note though that Daneel says “you people” – he has understood how an NT would apply the Bible story but does not really feel the same way. That is quintessential Aspie.

The Star Trek canon – I shall proceed chronologically and start with Spock. He is of course not an android but a human/Vulcan hybrid. Vulcans pride themselves in being logical above all else. The original “Star Trek” series was not subtle and Spock’s character was often used for comic effect – his literal (mis)understanding of things said to him, in particular. Spock values reason and science – Aspies (with no PDA to muddy the waters) often end up in jobs where science and computers play a major role, as they function well in a structured, orderly universe. Spock has an expressionless face and a deep, mesmerising voice (this is less accurate, Aspies can creep people out with a total lack of inflection when speaking); he is loyal and makes few but lifelong friends (this is more accurate). It is not that Spock does not have feelings – Vulcans have strong emotions and primal instincts if we think of their mating rituals in “Amok time” – but he chooses not to express them (an Aspie would probably not feel that they had a choice). Apart from the moments where his abysmal social skills make for laughter, he is a respected part of the Star Trek universe and a valued part of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle. If you have nothing better to do tonight, go on to YouTube and hunt out the video of the many, many times Spock says “fascinating”. He is ultimately a positive image of an Aspie in space.

The actor Brent Spiner has said repeatedly in interviews that he did not set out to play Data as an Aspie, yet Data is the character most Aspies relate to best in “Star Trek the Next Generation”. They relate in particular to his struggle to understand social rules, taboos, manners, interactions and emotions. Data is a more pathetic figure than Spock because he wants to be something he is not. Spock is ultimately happy with who he is and chooses his Aspieness; Data is not, he is an Aspie who wants to be an NT. He is valued by the other members of the crew and saves the day on more than one occasion however, so it is not just a case of a wayward child being patronised by indulgent adults. He is shown as sensitive and, above all, curious and with a thirst for knowledge. Like Daneel, he has a positronic brain, is sentient, has an expressionless face and speaks in a formal manner. Data is also reminiscent of Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man”, an android who longs to be human and even succeeds in that most human act, dying.

The best Data episode in my opinion is “The Offspring” where he creates a daughter, Lal (“beloved” in Hindi). In her short life, Lal is “more human” than Data – her speech is more natural (she uses contractions like “I’m”) and she feels emotions. Her first emotions are fear and confusion, which I think most Aspies would relate to. Anxiety is probably the strongest emotion felt by many Aspies as they try to negotiate an alien and sometimes hostile and unkind world. Lal tells her father she loves him; Data replies he cannot feel love, yet his actions belie his words for he takes very good care of Lal and does everything in his power to save her, even if he fails in the end.

Daneel, Spock, Data and Lal are all characters that mostly call on our sympathy. We enjoy them and they are presented as “good”. If it feels like I am ignoring Seven of Nine from “Voyager”, I am. Not because of the way she is highly sexualised but because, for me, she is not a true Aspie. She is an NT that displays some autistic behaviours but is arguably a victim of a huge childhood trauma; a trauma that she learns to overcome in her dealings with other crew members in a safe and understanding environment.

Much more interesting is Data’s brother, Lore, the deliciously “evil” Aspie in the Star Trek universe. I like Lore because I am a little tired of fiction stressing the “wonders” of being an Aspie. If it’s so wonderful, why do Aspies have a higher suicide rate and suffer from depression more often than NTs? Not all Aspies grow up in a supportive environment; like anyone else, they can come from dysfunctional families and less privileged backgrounds and have their own unique hang-ups. Also, they are often presented as victims whereas a being with absolutely no empathy could be a very scary predator like Lore. Lore has absolutely no empathy, enjoys playing with others, is immoral (or at best, amoral), displays a weak sense of self and is a megalomaniac with psychopathic tendencies. Lore shows that Aspies can be the “baddies”, emotional and downright dangerous if they have not been taught to value the life and dignity of others in a meaningful way. It is a dark edge to Aspies but also a more nuanced view. And one without Asimov’s Three Laws to keep us safe.

Lore could be considered an Aspie with a large dollop of PDA. It is difficult to explain PDA to those who have no experience of it. Unlike pure Aspies, people with PDA can be very irrational. Their wild and constant mood swings, their extremely personally-directed meltdowns and aggression, their fundamental indifference to the feelings or concerns of those around them, their ability to hold an entire conversation with a cuddly toy, their immersion in a fantasy world and their lack of straight lines in anything they say can be very difficult to live with. So difficult that I couldn’t actually think of a well-known character in science fiction that displays these less than lovable traits. Whereas an Aspie can be a mad but lovable scientist figure, someone with PDA would probably be obsessing about a bedridden author they are terrorising in a Stephen King novel.

The closest I can get to a more nuanced example of PDA is a film that does not purport to be about PDA, “Heavenly Creatures”. The two teenage girls in the film, Pauline and Juliet, create fantasy worlds (Borovnia and The Fourth World) that are more real to them than the outside world and they lose themselves in their fantasies. The singer Mario Lanza, for example, is more real to them than their own parents. The girls become obsessed with each other and ruled by a fear of being separated. They end up murdering Pauline’s mother, Honora, who they blame for their predicament (blaming others can be a big part of PDA). The girls are able to kill Honora because they feel no empathy whatsoever for her. The most chilling thing is that the film is based on true events and the directors create a disturbing fantasy film where we see the worlds the girls have imagined in glorious Technicolor. The directors, Walsh and Jackson, did a lot of research to try to give the story psychological depth whilst avoiding judgement. As a viewer, I of course add my own interpretation to the film, which to me is an incredible illustration of what can happen when fantasy, aggression and psychosis operate unchecked by empathy. This article does not lay any claim to being scientific and objective. I think it’s great that we have so many Aspies in space. What I would like to see is perhaps more variety and a more nuanced picture where Aspies are allowed to be like everyone else – good, bad and indifferent. Yes, they make interesting heroes but they also make fabulous anti-heroes. Aspies do not show alien behaviours after all; rather, they show extreme behaviours of which we are all humanly capable. And science fiction is the ideal forum for considering human behaviour in all its permutations, even if we need to wrap it up in android form and put it in a space ship.

~

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.