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Mina

Sure Solacer of Human Cares – The Joys of Tuning in to SF Radio Theatre

by Mina

I began by reading what the “Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy” has to say about imagination. Here is a summary of my understanding of the salient points (imagine the voice of Peter Jones as the “book” in “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” BBC radio serialisation as you read this). There are two ways to use your imagination: in a transcendent manner that “enables one to escape from or look beyond the world as it is”, and in an instructive manner that “enables one to learn about the world as it is.” SF and sci-phi ask us to do both. Imagination is not the same as belief, although they are both ways of interpreting the world around us: both involve holding an image or representation in your mind. There are also similarities in how imagination and memory work: “both typically involve imagery, both typically concern what is not presently the case, and both frequently involve perspectival representations.” Both also involve mental time travel, remembering the past works in a similar way in your mind to imagining the future. Finally, imagination helps us to understand other minds, to pretend and recognise pretence, to characterise psychopathology, to engage with the arts, to think creatively, to acquire knowledge about possibilities and to interpret figurative language.


We use imagination in all aspects of our lives but here I will be focusing on how we use it recreationally. Films, TV series, books and radio dramas all “catch our imagination”. With SF, we relax by postulating alternate realities. But where our imagination truly flies, in my opinion, is through SF radio theatre. We suspend disbelief while we listen: we behave as if we believe that other worlds or ways of being actually exist. It is a temporary state of mind for we snap back into our everyday reality afterwards (unless we are suffering from some form of psychosis). With the advent of TV, radio dramas declined in many countries but continued to thrive in Britain and Germany. Radio plays are different from film: “with no visual component, radio drama depends on dialogue, music and sound effects to help the listener imagine the characters and story. It is auditory in the physical dimension but equally powerful as a visual force in the psychological dimension” (http://www.theatrecrafts.com/pages/home/topics/sound/radio-drama/). I prefer radio plays to films of my favourite SF classics because it leaves me free to visualise things as I wish (for example, the wonderful adaptations of all of John Wyndham’s novels).

I will begin with “Solaris”, of which I do not think there has been a truly satisfying film version made – I find Steven Soderbergh’s most recent film adaptation starring Geroge Clooney oddly bland. Hattie Naylor’s 2007 radio adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s book, however, is wonderful in its simplicity. There are few sound effects, only very occasional music and just five voices; yet it creates a wonderful atmosphere. Inside the CD sleeve note, Polly Thomas writes that “Solaris” offered “the opportunity to play with the imagination and invent a new world through sound… we created layers of sound texture”. And the production team did just that: footsteps ringing, sound echoing in large spaces or dampened in smaller confines, and using the finest instrument, the human voice – the narrator, in particular. It is a haunting radio drama, which explores imagination, illusion, memory, desire, grief, regret, guilt and wonder. It looks at the parts of the mind we normally ignore, what makes us flawed and human. It explores science, faith, redemption, men and the birth of gods.

Although the film “Blade Runner” is good, I prefer the radio play which keeps Philip K. Dick’s original title “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. Jonathan Holloway’s 2014 radio adaptation is done in a style reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe detective stories. The radio drama spends more time on the philosophical questions than the film, particularly what makes a person human and alive. There is a blurring of the lines between android and human that works very well when you only hear the voices. Its use of music and sound effects make it feel more like a film soundtrack than a radio play.

One of my favourite radio serialisations is James Follet’s “Earthsearch” (1981). It has ten episodes, each ending with a cliff-hanger, much like similar dramas in the 1950s. The production team did not have enough money for a musical soundtrack, so they chose to use cheesy sound effects such as clicks, whirring, whooshing, beeps and blasts that serve to add to its charm. The CD’s sleeve note states that Earthsearch is “a memorable attempt to bring hard SF notions to listeners in the form of an exciting, character-driven adventure”. And character-driven it is, with a small cast. The spaceship’s crew of four each have their own well-defined personalities, but most interesting, oddly enough, are the megalomaniac onboard computers Angel (Ancillary Guardian Environment and Life) 1 and Angel 2. The scriptwriter began with one idea: a ship of humans returns to our solar system to find the Earth gone. We are given hints of what has passed over the preceding millennia: the Solaric Empire, First Footprint City, the dregs of humanity and the computer wars. The relationship between time and space plays a crucial part in the plot. It is also a story of the loss of innocence and a journey to find a mythical paradise. It was so successful that James Follet went on to write a sequel “Earthsearch II” (1982) and a prequel “Earthsearch: Mindwarp (2006)”.

I will now focus on two radio plays that explore true sci-phi themes. Mike Walker wrote two award-winning radio dramas that explore Artificial Intelligence (AI): “Alpha” (2001) and “Omega” (2002). Both play on “I think therefore I am” and examine what makes us alive. In “Alpha”, we meet a Catholic priest having a crisis of faith. He acts as a sort of trouble-shooter for the Vatican. He is sent on a final mission by the Holy See to investigate Project Alpha, which turns out to be the first sentient AI. The priest interviews Alpha in an attempt to determine if it is truly self-aware, if it has developed consciousness and whether it has a soul. Alpha challenges the priest’s faith and displays a definite personality: it is playful, a little cruel, and determined to survive (it states that good is what helps you survive; bad is the opposite). Alpha prefers to be called Sophia and insists that she is a machine, born of complexity, and that, like all life, she is made from stardust. She and the priest also make an emotional connection over a shared memory.


Alpha proves to the priest that she can travel anywhere in cyberspace and access any system. For her, time is not a prison, it is a door. The priest replies that humans, however, are prisoners in time. He admits that he believes Sophia to be real and that he will be committing murder when he is forced to switch her off. Sophia tells him that there will be others like her and the priest wonders if humans will prove to be a dead end in evolution and AIs like Sophia the future. They discuss the priest’s feelings of guilt and hope for salvation. Sophia thanks him for teaching her about conscience, as she needed to understand it. The priest switches off the computer, but he does not believe he has killed Sophia, for she was already wrapped around the world, like a web. He is proud to have been Alpha Sophia’s teacher and he wonders what she will become when she grows up. He himself seeks a simpler life and asks to go back home to Nicaragua, to try to be a priest, to listen to the frogs sing as they did in the childhood memory he shared with Sophia. Music plays an important role because, through it, Sophia has understood beauty, and she plays a fragment of choral music to the priest, suggesting that she too has a soul. Music is also used to mark the passing of time, which is not linear to Sophia in the way it is to the priest.

Where “Alpha” looks at the birth of an AI, “Omega” examines its death. Initially, this radio drama seems to be about an architect John Stone and his reaction to his daughter’s miraculous recovery after a car crash. On the surface, the tale revisits the tension between science and religion, and the nature of miracles and faith. But small fissures in “reality” help us to realise that John is a sentient computer programme. The people in his world are actually a team of scientists experimenting with artificial consciousness. To them, John is the result of mathematical probability at a quantum level. However, one of the scientists, Kate, develops a conscience and tells John what he is. John struggles to accept that he is not human because he feels human. Realising his total lack of freedom in the experiment, he asks to remain himself or “to be nothing”. Kate helps him to “die” a good death and destroys all the research that led to John’s creation. Her boss, Brandt, believes that science justifies everything (he clearly personifies scientific hubris); Kate discovers that becoming a creator comes with responsibility for your creation (she shows humility and compassion). Kate recognises that John has developed self-awareness, feelings, ambitions and dreams. His psyche is undistinguishable from that of a human being. Music is used to create a dream-like quality, mixed with sounds that are important to John, like a heartbeat, child’s laughter and the sea.

Germany boasts as fine a tradition of SF radio dramas (Hörspiele) as the UK, ranging from Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s social satire in “Das Unternehmen der Wega” (1954) to Frank Gustavus’ fun adaptation of Conor Kostick’s “Saga” (2008) set within a computer game with sentient characters. My first example is George Robertson’s 1971 “Rückkehr aus dem Weltall” (“Return from Space”; translated from Canadian English by Gerhard Pasternak). It is set in the future after a nuclear disaster where the remains of humanity live in Australasia and Indonesia, including the descendants of the scientists who caused the nuclear disaster in the first place; mutant humanoids also exist in Europe in a barren world that will eventually run out of oxygen. The scientists of the space programme in Melbourne want to find a new world to inhabit before then; the politicians want to find way to produce artificial oxygen so that they can remain on the earth they control. A spaceship returns from an earlier mission with the body of a mummified scientist and evidence to suggest that the ship managed to travel faster than the speed of light. The politicians are disturbed by this and threaten to stop the space programme, so its director decides to launch the next ship clandestinely with its crew of four, including John Taggart and his second wife Sheila.

The crew do discover a habitable new planet in the Alpha Centauri system, which they christen Paradise. Sheila suggests staying but John decides to return to earth to persuade the remains of humanity to move to Paradise. During the return journey, the ship hits a tear in space and time and travels faster than speed of light, thus arriving at earth in the past before the nuclear event has taken place. Two of the crew take the ship’s shuttle to earth to try to warn humanity of their future fate. Sheila dies saving John’s life and he realises he loved her, even if the words were never spoken between them. John is stuck in orbit around the earth, wondering if the past can be changed. The sound effects are limited to the odd whoosh or beep. And the drama has a slightly cold feel to it. This I think is on purpose to stress the scientists’ need to see logic in everything and science as the answer to all problems, even the ones it has caused. This lack of emotion also works well to bring into sharp relief the tragedy at the end, both on a personal level and, we suspect, for the whole of humanity who seem bent on self-destruction. 

Stefan Wilke’s “Mondglas” (1999) also asks questions about the future of humanity. It begins with an interview with an old man, Winston, about the return of the spaceship Centaurus (we hear soothing birdsong in the background to lull us into a false sense of security). Winston recounts that Centaurus brought back microorganisms from Loki, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. He remembers Alan T, the AI steering the ship, who tells Winston of having had dreams, even nightmares, during its journey. Alan T seems confused and amnesiac and we wonder if it is lying. Winston was the scientist who developed Alan T and he is presented as an arrogant, macho scientist, obsessed with proving he is right. The microscopic life forms Alan T retrieved from Loki are considered harmless. He also brings back a form of glass, the Mondglas or “moon glass” of the title. This material is light, strong and beautiful, and it proves to be recyclable. After 20 years, it takes over from normal glass and is used for everything, including jewellery. Winston tells the reporter of his Moon Glass Theory: he believes that the moon glass has emasculated scientists. Although there are no longer any wars on earth, neither are there any new scientific breakthroughs. The last progress made was the solution for recycling moon glass, which came to a female scientist in a dream.

Winston tells the reporter that he interviewed Alan T one last time before it was deactivated. He stresses that Alan T had dreams because it met a problem it could not solve with logic. In the final interview, Winston “hypnotises” Alan T and asks him about his dreams. Winston comes to the conclusion that Alan T did not dream; rather, it was tampered with so it would disregard the reality it discovered, that is, that there was a highly developed civilisation on Loki that did not want contact with such an aggressive species. Winston feels that it is the nature of (a masculine) humanity to want to conquer new worlds. That is why he thinks that the inhabitants of Loki sent the moon glass which acts like a type of drug, reducing the drive and aggression of humans (making them more female and conciliatory). The reporter was granted an interview with Winston, as long as she was not wearing any moon glass jewellery during the interview. When she leaves, the reporter decides not to put on the moon glass necklace she left with a nurse. When the nurse asks why she is leaving her necklace behind, the reporter replies that it is “an experiment with an uncertain outcome”. She will publish an article on Winston’s Moon Glass Theory about the influence of moon glass, which she wants to test for herself. Despite Winston’s unapologetic machismo, he hands over this task to a woman. I particularly enjoyed this radio drama’s play on sexist as well as SF tropes.

Why do I think SF/sci-phi radio dramatizations are so important? In my opinion, film is a pervasive medium – after years of watching Star Trek in its many guises, it has inevitably influenced what I imagine when I read the words “shuttle craft” in a story. A friend of mine who is a gifted artist feels that she only managed truly original work as a child; as an adult, her mind has been influenced by other art and images from the outside world. Radio dramas (like reading) allow us to flex our imaginative muscles that can atrophy if we only watch SF films where everything has already been imagined for us. And imagination allows us to ponder the deeper questions of life, the universe and everything. I will finish by quoting part of Emily Brontë’s poem “To imagination”, where she calls flights of fancy her “true friend” and solace from the pain in life:

But thou art ever there, to bring
The hovering vision back, and breathe
New glories o’er the blighted spring,
And call a lovelier Life from Death.
And whisper, with a voice divine,
Of real worlds, as bright as thine.

I trust not to thy phantom bliss,
Yet, still, in evening’s quiet hour,
With never-failing thankfulness,
I welcome thee, Benignant Power;
Sure solacer of human cares,
And sweeter hope, when hope despairs!

~

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 publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bug?

by Mina

The words “virus” and “pandemic” are all around us. The media is constantly bombarding us with them and friendly acronyms such as “COVID-19” and “SARS”. We are currently living in a climate of fear and anxiety most of us would prefer to find only in SF movies about alien invasions and post-apocalyptic futures. It is a fear of the unseen because we cannot see the virus that has become part of our everyday lives, as have lockdowns, confinement and isolation. We have lost our freedom of movement and countless small liberties we used to take for granted. Have we entered an era of mass hysteria or are the measures imposed upon us right and reasonable? Are we on the verge of a breakdown in our social order? These are the sorts of questions often posed in Sci-Phi, so I set myself the task of finding parallels in SF. I have tried to avoid horror fiction, but all good disaster SF has an element of horror and formless fear to it.

The best place to start is with the classics of this genre: H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) and John Wydnham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951). The War of the Worlds is, on the surface, an alien invasion story. Digging deeper, it is an exploration of societal and personal collapse. The narrator and other main characters are never named, giving it a universal feel: this could happen to you or to me. The Martian invasion in this story can be likened to the spread of a virus, just with the unseen made viscerally visible. Wells himself drew parallels to the social devastation wrought by British imperialism and, today, we could draw parallels to rampant globalisation obliterating all resistance in its path.

The alien tripods protecting the fragile bodies of the Martians come armed with “heat rays” and a poisonous “black smoke” – we cannot help but think of chemical warfare today. This thought comes with uncomfortable questions for – are not humans an infestation that needs to be wiped out from the point of view of the “superior” Martians? As well as their deadly weapons, the Martians bring with them the “red weed” to take over the surface of our planet like a vibrant parasite. In the end, the Martians are killed by simple pathogens, unseen infectious agents. This is the closest parallel to COVID because we too, in our hubris, could be wiped out by such microscopic organisms.

My favourite adaptation of the novel is Jeff Wayne’s 1978 rock opera with the mesmerising voice of Richard Burton as the narrator. The basic plot of the novel was maintained in the rock opera but several details were changed, for example if we look at the SF anthem, “The Spirit of Man”. In it, the nameless pastor from the novel becomes Nathaniel whose wife Beth, a character that does not exist in the book, argues with him as he despairs. Nathaniel has been driven mad by the invasion and is ranting and raving about the end of times:

“Listen, do you hear them drawing near
In their search for the sinners?
Feeding on the power of our fear
And the evil within us?
Incarnation of Satan’s creation of all that we dread
When the demons arrive those alive would be better off dead!”

The pastor is lost in his fear: for him the world has descended into hell and there is no hope of salvation, not even for a chosen few. Beth refuses to accept this:

“No Nathaniel, no, there must be more to life
There has to be a way that we can
Restore to life the love we used to know
(No) Nathaniel, no, there must be more to life
There has to be a way that we can
Restore to life the light that we have lost.”

Beth believes in the spirit of man, that humanity will survive somehow. As Nathaniel sings of darkness and demons, she clings to love and light with unwavering faith. Interestingly, the power of religious faith is not really part of the original story. In the novel, the narrator has a nervous breakdown after the ignominious end of the Martians and is helped by kind strangers, so there is perhaps some faith in basic humanity. Upon his return home to find his wife alive and well, the narrator still cannot shake off the anxiety caused by his recent ordeal, as humanity cannot hope to survive a disaster of such proportions unscathed. Unlike a great deal of disaster SF, we have no hero saving the world; humanity is saved by pure chance.

Nightmarish as Wells’ scenario might be, it remains small in scale. All the action occurs in and around Woking, touching briefly upon South London. The scale of Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids is much larger – it is a global disaster. The aliens are replaced by a manmade enemy: bioengineered carnivorous plants capable of locomotion, armed with stingers and poison. The triffids could be compared to an opportunistic virus that spreads after a freak “meteor storm” blinds most of humanity (the protagonist wakes from an eye operation and several weeks with bandaged eyes to a world gone to hell, ironically spared permanent blindness because he could not witness the lights in the sky). Social order breaks down completely and the triffids sweep through like a ferociously efficient pandemic. These monsters do not seem particularly intelligent, acting mostly on instinct, but they only have to bide their time and strike at the weakest, just like COVID kills those with the lowest defences.

There is much ordinary courage in The Day of the Triffids with the protagonist/narrator and the small family unit he manages to build surviving against all odds. There is even a love story which, although it is a pragmatic partnership in many ways, is real and solid in a disintegrating world. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist reflects without bitterness that humanity probably brought the disaster on itself, theorising that the “meteor shower” was actually the result of manmade satellite weapons systems being set off by accident and producing blinding radiation. He hopes that future generations will learn from the mistakes of their ancestors. He and his family unit will retreat with others to an island they can defend (the Isle of Wight) until they can find a way to fight back. The spirit of man does survive in this novel.

The zombie apocalypse film 28 Days Later about a rage-inducing virus spreading from animals (chimpanzees) and causing societal collapse in the UK clearly borrows a lot of ideas from The Day of the Triffids (for example, the protagonist wakes up from a coma to a devastated world). The infected can no longer function cognitively and simply starve to death. The sequel 28 Weeks Later shows the “Rage virus” being spread to Europe (the pandemic originally having been contained within Britain) by an asymptomatic carrier – one of the biggest fears in any pandemic scenario.

Ray Bradbury’s short-story collection The Martian Chronicles(1950) contains a short story that also touches upon disease, “And the Moon Be Still as Bright”. In this story, the fourth manned expedition to Mars discovers that the Martians have been mostly wiped out by chickenpox (an infection caused by a virus), brought by one of the previous expeditions. It is ultimately a story about colonisation. Bradbury ponders on whether there is a right or wrong form of colonisation, with wrong being an attempt to recreate Earth (thereby repeating old mistakes) and right having respect for the fallen civilisation (and learning from it). We are left with the question – are humans an infestation on Mars or will they become the new Martians in a brave new world? This question is highlighted in another short story in this collection, “Night Meeting”, where two characters meet outside time but without us knowing which one represents the past and which the future. It is almost irrelevant as civilisations will always rise and fall and disease will always be one agent of change.

The Star Trek canon also examines viruses in different contexts. The most fun episode is “Macrocosm” in Season 3 of Voyager. In it, we see Captain Janeway single-handedly fighting giant viruses in a spoof of Aliens. She is combating the result of a viral infection with insect-like macro-viruses flying around the ship infecting the crew and propagating from their living flesh. The doctor and Janeway manage to exterminate the giant bugs in the end with an antiviral gas. In reality, antiviral medication cannot be produced in less than one hour.

In the episode “The Quickening” in Season 4 of Deep Space Nine, Dr Bashir tries to find a cure for the “blight” caused by biological warfare, where the series’ archenemy, the Jem Hadar (the military arm of the Dominion), infect a planet that resisted them. Bashir is unable to cure it but finds an anti-viral treatment that acts as a vaccine – when injected into pregnant women, the baby is born disease-free. This is the hope in any pandemic, that a vaccine can be found to preserve at least the next generation. Ironically, Earth later hits back at the Dominion by infecting an unwitting carrier who, in turn, infects other Changelings like himself. Deep Space Nine does not shy away from the tough questions of whether anyone (including humans) has the right to use biological warfare to potentially wipe out an entire race.

The most interesting viral analogies are the indirect ones made by the existence of the Borg. We first encounter them in Star Trek – The Next Generation. In the double episode, “The Best of Both Worlds” (which ends season 3 and begins season 4), Captain Picard is “assimilated” and briefly becomes Locutus, a mouthpiece for the Borg Collective’s hive mind. The Borg are clearly presented as a militaristic virus – taking over entire races, using “nanoprobes” to infect their technology, and disposing of the weak.

My final example is a less well-known film, Daybreakers. It is an interesting mix of SF and vampire tropes, where a plague caused by an infected bat has transformed most of the world’s population into vampires. The remaining humans are captured and harvested for blood but, as the human population shrinks, there is a shortage of blood for food. Vampires deprived of blood and who drink their own blood instead become psychotic and increasingly bat-like “subsiders” – a whole underworld culture is suggested with blood as the currency. The protagonist is a vampire scientist attempting to create synthetic blood. He discovers that an accidental cure has been found for vampirism – using the right amount of sun and water. Drinking the blood of a “cured” vampire will cure the drinker too, but the protagonist must fight against the corporate powers that do not want to change the status quo and lose their profits.

To summarise, SF is full of disaster scenarios involving viruses beyond our control, whether they kill humans or alien enemies. Sci-Phi also goes further, where humanity itself may be seen to be the disease, asking hard questions about colonisation and colonialism. Viruses can also become a much more abstract agent that may transform rather than kill us, although the transformation is rarely a desirable one. I expect that this is partly because a plot where we all are infected with, for example, love and peace, would make for a very short story.

The fears and anxieties triggered by COVID are primal ones and, as we have seen, ones that are widely explored in SF and Sci-Phi fiction. So how can we best respond to the panic arising both at a social level (e.g. mass hysteria or a breakdown of social systems) and a personal one (e.g. people suffering from increased anxiety and compulsive disorders, or depression due to isolation)? I would like to finish with this quote from C. S. Lewis. As you read it, replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus” in your head:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year… or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me… you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways…

… If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Of course, C. S. Lewis had not met the concept of “social distancing” but the central tenet stands: we must face our fear of death head on, whatever form it takes. And Sci-Phi gives us a safe forum in which to stare straight into the eye of the monster.

[My thanks to Ian H for drawing my attention to the quote from C. S. Lewis.]

~

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 publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.

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/

~

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.

New Worlds, Old Worlds

by Mina

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away… I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole and found an intriguing series of “shorts” directed by Tomasz Bagiński called “Legendy Polskie” (“Polish Legends” – this is the translation used by the director himself, since you could also translate “legends” as “fables” or “(fairy) tales”), which transplants old Polish tales into a sci-fi/fantasy context. They have decent English subtitles and the images are of good quality. I loved them but that is not reason enough to wax lyrical: I am writing about them because, in my opinion, good sci-phi is not really about other worlds, it is about this one. In this case, the films are unapologetically set in a Slavic-Polish universe. They are also a good example of the archetypes found in our collective unconscious and what a friend of mine called “folk theology”.

Before going any further, for those that have not watched these shorts (yet!), here is a summary of the five tales. The first “Smok” (“Dragon”) takes a local legend about a dragon terrorising the city of Krakow. In the original, the king offers his daughter in marriage to whoever rids him of the troublesome dragon. A poor shoemaker tricks the dragon into eating a sheep filled with sulphur, which makes it so thirsty it drinks from the Vistula river until it explodes. The clever guy gets the passive princess – the usual stereotypical solution, which is not particularly interesting in itself. In Bagiński’s version, the focus is more on the David and Goliath premise behind it. This is a much richer trope in the collective unconscious – the little guy beating the giant with nothing but intelligence.

In the modernised version, the hero is a computer nerd and science geek; the princess is a sporty, spunky girl the hero has a crush on; the dragon is a sexual predator with a spaceship. This short is the one most influenced by US teenage culture, social media and computer games. The dragon is a mercenary, feared but also idolised on social media (the film seamlessly incorporates his media presence on Facebook, Twitter, etc. – he even has a signature song – and fake news clips). When the heroine is captured by the dragon in his ship, the hero cannot hope to win in face-to-face combat, so he fights back by creating a cross between a high-tech K9 and a female android (as well as the nod to Doctor Who, there is another to the manga “Ghost in the Shell” in the background of one scene). His bedroom is full of the gadgets he has created, but he steers the android using an ordinary mobile telephone. On the surface, it is all very formulaic: good wins against evil, guy gets girl. Under the surface, you could argue that it’s a great plaidoyer for hard work and brains being more important than muscles and arrogance, a critique of the power of social media and fake news and a comment on political corruption. Particularly in Poland today, this is all much easier to say in a parallel universe.

Going in chronological order, we then move on to chapters one and two of the same tale: “Twardowsky” (incidentally, a chapter three is on the way as a full-length movie). The original legend is a Faustian pact with the devil, so it is an ideal example of folk theology or urban legends. The black, if not subtle, humour is very apparent in Bagiński’s take on this age-old story. He has us reluctantly rooting for the foul-mouthed, sexist and arrogant (anti)hero (reminiscent of the heroes of the wonderfully outdated “Seksmisja”). Part one shows Twardowsky’s confrontation with the female demon Lucy on the moon and his escape by stealing her ship. The plot itself is very simple but behind it is an adoption of the sci-fi genre into Polish culture, with the US tropes being replaced by Polish ones: the successful Polish millionaire on the cover of Newsweek (although the fact that he got there through a deal with the devil makes this particularly subversive); the first man living on the moon is Polish (in the original, Twardowsky does flee to the moon) and he is living in a sleek moon station; the soundtrack is full of Polish golden oldies and the hero is played by a Polish actor who is to the Poles what Depardieu is to the French (Robert Więckiewicz). My favourite line is Lucy commenting that the holy water the hero initially tries to poison her with cannot work because the bishop who blessed it is already in hell. In today’s ultra-conservative Catholic Poland, it is a daring joke.

Part two shows Twardowsky outwitting hell again. It is full of very imaginative details about hell and its inner workings. The ship the hero has stolen is powered by sin and he gets stuck in the rings around Saturn because it runs out of fuel. He tries to power it by swearing and is about to attempt masturbation when he is interrupted by a conference call with the demon Boruta (in Polish mythology, he corrupted noblemen). Hell is painted just like a large corporation with many ranks of demon and a bureaucracy underpinned by a massive computer system. We even see Boruta’s assistant, Rokita, sorting out a computer bug for his boss (and he demonstrates Smok’s soul being downloaded into hell, a nice detail). This of course leads to Boruta being careless with his password, which allows Twardowsky to use it to hack into hell’s mainframe from his demonic ship. Our hero is able to power the ship by committing suicide, but he also interrupts and reverses the download of his soul to hell, thus escaping into outer space. The happy ending is mitigated by showing us the demon Lucy clinging to the outside of the ship, letting us know that there will be another battle to come, and the fact that Twardowsky is fleeing again when all he really wants to do is to return to earth. A coda at the end shows Rokita trying to explain to Boruta that Twardowsky’s hacking led to the wholesale collapse of hell’s mainframe and to many complications.

All of this cheerful irreverence towards religion may not seem like much but it is very risqué if you take into account the political and cultural climate in Poland right now. It is not the first and will not be the last sci-phi film to critique religion and society. Another underlying message can be found in the lyrics to the song at the end of part one. Being human means not knowing what happens next in life (the people you have not yet met, the moments you have not yet lived, croons the song) and this is what Twardowsky lost when he sold his soul. He does not just get his soul back at the end of part two, he gets back the uncertain future he lost (and thereby, hope); just like Poland got back an uncertain future at the end of the Communist regime. Freedom is painful and comes with no guarantees (hell may still catch our hero; Poland still has a lot of problems).

The last two shorts show the escape of two Slavic demonic beings from hell as a result of the complete rebooting of the computer system – a basilisk and a witch. “Operacja Bazyliszek” (“Operation Basilisk”) begins with a flash-forward to the hero trying to save the “princess” (a female soldier) from a “giant chicken” (the basilisk, with its deliciously creepy voice), then goes back to two policemen on a fishing trip somewhere near Warsaw. This short really enjoys turning the whole fairy-tale trope on its head and it is the funniest in my opinion (although it is perhaps more superficial). Unlike Twardowsky, the hero Boguś (short for Bogusław, pronounced Bogusz) is a completely lovable if crass “typical” Polish male. He has premonitions and he saves the day with his mobile phone and his “Slavic anger”, that indomitable Polish spirit. I do not think you could go as far as accusing the film of rampant nationalism, but it is full of blatant national pride. Boguś’ hard-drinking uncle also helps, although more by accident than design. He is a wonderfully comic element with his terrible puns, but it also feels as if the director is taking the stereotype of the “drunken, macho Slav” and lending it more depth and weight than usual.

“Jaga” (“Witch”) shows the battle between a very powerful witch who has just escaped hell and the demonic military swat team sent to collect her. It is my least favourite episode, as it is built on a trope that is over-used in sci-fi/fantasy films: the slo-mo fight reminiscent of a computer game with one against many, underscored by the music. Jaga is, however, a strong female character and not a passive princess or repulsive crone (the main female stereotypes in fairy tales). Boruta freezes time to ostensibly persuade Jaga to come back to hell but actually to help her escape. Jaga goes on to wreak chaos on the humans that have polluted the air and ravaged the land of her world and killed her sacred trees. Boruta hopes to become king of the chaos that ensues when humans lose comfort and order. However, Jaga’s actions lead to the escape of a very powerful demon Perun (god of thunder and lightning in Slavic mythology), so Boruta will have competition in his plans for world domination. Jaga is not portrayed as good or bad, simply as dangerously single-minded in her defence of Gaia. Boruta comments that she was only in hell until she chose to leave it, again stressing the silent strength of this female figure.

The shorts are all produced by Allegro (the biggest online e-commerce platform in Poland) and their site for these films offers free extra material. All the music can be downloaded for free, there is an interview with the demon Boruta in text and audio form and there are some wonderful videos to go with the music. For example, the song “Aleja Gwiazd” (“Star Road”) shows how a demon (Lucy) is born; “Jaskółka Uwięziona” (“Trapped Swallow”) shows us Jaga being tortured and escaping from hell, as well as Boruta’s fascination with her; “Kocham Wolność” (“I love freedom”) shows us the mundane lives of demons. It is a great use of cross-media platforms, which feels appropriate for sci-fi/fantasy shorts. However, although the music videos can be enjoyed without knowing a word of Polish, the other extras are only available in Polish, which does make most of the content “hermetic” to the non-Polish speaker (to quote THEfirstNEWS, a Polish internet magazine which publishes in English).

The director Bagiński studied originally to become an architect and began in computer-aided animation, and these origins are clear in how important the aesthetic aspect is to him. He is also very rooted in his Polish culture – his first animated short “Katedra” (“The Cathedral”) won many awards: it is based on a short story by a Polish author Jacek Dukaj and the images are inspired by the paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński. The mix of imagination and social critique are already present in this early work – are we seeing a man sacrificed to a construct or gaining immortality? Bagiński is now working on a series for Netflix “The Witcher”, based on the works of the Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski. In an interview with THEfirstNEWS, however, Bagiński states that his favourite project is still “Polish Legends”, “a collection of reinvented Polish narratives”.

In an internet article on the entertainment blog (rozrywka.blog) of Spider’s Web (a Polish technology and lifestyle blog), Bagiński discusses in depth what he means by “narratives”. For him, they exist at all levels of life and in all domains. In business, companies rise and fall based on their “stories” (which seem to equal well-placed lies in some cases). In politics, parties that have a coherent, simple story or narrative do well (which can equal propaganda). A story is much more than entertainment, it is when we suspend disbelief and let ourselves be carried by the narrative. In the same interview, he is asked why he has been involved in so many projects focused on Polish culture. He answers simply that, when his career took off the ground, he decided to stay in Poland and it felt natural to use the “cultural instrument given to me by my native country”. And not just use it, but reflect and comment on it in a world context. It is his biggest influence, along with US action movies from the 1980s.

The visuals in these shorts are stunning and it must not be forgotten that they have brought Allegro a lot of money, despite being made available for free. Allegro itself considers “Polish Legends” to be a marriage of culture and marketing. Not surprisingly, the films have won awards for branded content, brand awareness and positioning, and online videos. They are an attractive package aimed at a generation that has grown up with the internet and media platforms. Moreover, they are a shining example of Polish creativity and innovation. But beyond their glittering surface, they have a deeper resonance lent to them by their use of stories and ideas taken from the collective unconscious and folk theology, skilfully harnessed by Bagiński. These films may postulate future or alternative worlds, peopled with demons and other fantastical creatures, but what they do best is tell us a lot about the Polish psyche.

~

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.

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.

###

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.

~

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.

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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.