July 5, 2020 § Leave a comment
An adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is premiering on Apple TV later this June. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgbPSA94Rqg
April 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
Far from being a genre of pure imagination, Science Fiction is a category of writing insistently aware of the boundaries of reality. In The Paris Review, Ray Bradbury called it “the art of the possible, never the impossible.” Isaac Asimov characterized Science Fiction writers as seeing the inevitable. Science Fiction takes elements of existing reality and extrapolates possibilities from that firmly grounded place…until they’re looking backwards.
With alternate history genres like steampunk and retrofuturism, Science Fiction authors looking back in time change events which cannot be changed, still imaging possibilities but for worlds and histories and timelines that cannot be ours. Often, in the name of exploring possibilities, these stories gloss over the realities of the historical oppression faced by nonstraight, nonwhite, nonmen. Homophobia doesn’t kill Allen Turing in Machines Like Me. Ada Lovelace is far less at the whims of sexism in The Difference Engine.
While imaging a world outside these limitations is freeing in a way, this week I’m interested in authors who do something a little different. Phillip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969) and Clifford D. Simmak’s The City (1952) both look back at our real past, and without changing anything, pronounce it a dystopia.
In Ubik, Joe Chip and his associates have found themselves in an America that has temporally regressed to 1939. He’s just begun accepting this, having A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court-esque fantasy of even thriving in the past with his superior knowledge:
Suppose, he reflected, we can’t reverse our regression; suppose we remain here for the balance of our lives? Would that be so bad?
A few beats after Joe has this thought, his cab driver opens up a topic that will answer than last question for him. Bliss, the cab driver, asks Joe what he thinks will happen with World War II:
“‘Hitler will attack the Soviet Union in June 1941.‘
‘And wipe it out, I hope.‘
Startled out of his preoccupations, Joe turned to look closely at Mr. Bliss driving his nine-year-old Willys-Knight.
Bliss said, ‘Those Communists are the real menace, not the Germans. Take the treatment of the Jews. You know who makes a lot of that? Jews in this country, a lot of them not citizens but refugees living on public welfare. I think the Nazis certainly have been a little extreme in some of the things they’ve done to the Jews, but basically there’s been the Jewish question for a long time, and something, although maybe not so vile as those concentration camps, had to be done about it. We have a similar problem here in the United States…‘”
The taxi driver goes on to praise Charles Lindbergh, and expand the problem of the Jews to black people, using a racial slur the protagonists says he’s never heard spoken out loud before.*
This interaction thwarts Joe’s nostalgia:
“‘I had forgotten this,’ he realized.“
Just as being trapped in 1939 America exactly as it was is peril enough for Joe’s multiracial team, in Clifford D. Simmak’s The City, the great fear-inducing specter hanging over the text is just…humans. Not zombified humans, not a special strain of serial killer humans, just us as we actually were. Whereas Joe Chip living in a technologically advanced vision of 1992 had “forgotten” the racism and zenophobia of the past, when the characters in the far future of Simmak’s novel encounter the ugliness of human history they’ve erased it so thoroughly they can hardly believe it existed at all.
The novel, which is told by dogs who are uncertain that these stories of the creature “man” are anything more than fairytale, includes this caveat in the beginning:
“…another concept which the reader will find entirely at odds with his way of life and which may violate his very thinking, is the idea of war and of killing. Killing is a process, usually involving violence, by which one living thing ends the life of another living thing. War, it would appear, was mass killing carried out on a scale which is inconceivable.
Rover, in his study of the legend, is convinced that the tales are much more primitive than is generally supposed, since it is his contention that such concepts as war and killing could never come out of our present culture, that they must stem from some era of savagery of which there exists no record.“
These acts that are so violent that advanced dogs have trouble believing the ones who committed them ever existed – war and murder – are ours by right. Simmak is writing these stories during the Korean War, a violent blip between World War II and Vietnam, but there are very few points in human history where the characterization of man as warmonger would not ring true. The stories in The City bear this judgement out. At one point, a robot named Jenkins attempts to have humans again by taking a small group and erasing their mind of the possibility of violence. But still, eventually, one of these primitive men creates a weapon. He forges a bow and arrow, even though he does not have the name for either, and Jenkins is forced to accept the obvious:
“Once I thought that Man might have got started on the wrong road, that somewhere in the dim, dark savagery that was his cradle and his toddling place, he might have got off on the wrong foot, might have taken the wrong turning. But I see that I was wrong. There’s one road and one road alone that Man may travel – the bow and arrow road.
I tried hard enough, Lord knows I really tried.
…I took away their weapons, not only from their hands but from their minds. I re-edited the literature that could be re-edited and I burned the rest. I taught them to read again and sing again and think again. And the books had no traces of war or weapons, no trace of hate or history, for history is hate – no battles or heroics, no trumpets.
But it was wasted time, Jenkins said to himself. I know now that it was wasted time. For a man will invent a bow and arrow, not matter what you do.”
There is something powerful about Science Fiction writers, those arbiters of seeing the foremost possibility, accepting, (thereby forcing the reader to accept), that the limitation imagination runs up against is human nature. The world of Ubik has figured out how to stave off death, but it does not contain the antidote to white supremacy. The genius inventors of The City can produce a 10,000-year-old robot and dogs that philosophize, but they cannot keep man from killing.
Accepting these realities and conveying them as they are stands against the whimsy in time travel narratives like Twain’s or the fun inventiveness produced in steampunk, but, as Jenkins says in The City, “history takes the laugh out of many things.”
*While no one will ever accuse Phillip K. Dick of being an optimist–it is telling that he thought 1992 was far enough in the future to assume racial slurs would have died out.
March 30, 2020 § Leave a comment
On the outside, the worlds, plots, and protagonists of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Roger Zelazny’s “For a Breath I Tarry” are irreconcilably different. Bester’s world is a technologically advanced 24th Century where some humans have evolved to have telepathic abilities, his plot is a tense thriller that becomes cat-and-mouse chase between murderer and detective, and his main character is the greedy, entitled, morally bankrupt and hopelessly rich Ben Reich. In Zelazny’s future earth, humans are not hyper-advanced – they’re dead. His plot is likewise opposite Bester’s in that it is quiet, a story of intellectual exploration and discussions of art. His main character is Frost, an AI that coordinates other machines in all of the Northern Hemisphere, but who is driven by his curiosity about the machines’ long-extinct creators, Mankind.
But if we look beyond these surface differences, these texts are both using science fiction to explore the same question: How does one make a man?
For Bester, this question is rooted in psychology. His story of murder most foul does not begin with grand schemes and nefarious plans – those come later. It begins with nightmares. Ben Reich himself thinks he is merely motivated by greed, and that killing the man who threatens his business will cure his nightly terrors, but as the plot unfolds the reader realizes he is a man who doesn’t understand his own mind or motivations. The process of catching him is not one of evidence collection or fingerprinting, but a telepath’s literal dive into Reich’s psyche to understand what makes him. The layers of Reich’s mind are pulled back in an attempt to discover what is at the core of him, and in doing so, understand his true motives for the murder. This same cycle happens with Barbara D’Courtney, whose trauma from witnessing her father’s murder makes accessing her knowledge of the events impossible. In order to cure Barbara, she is put into a state of pre-infancy. She then goes through an accelerated growth process to progress as a toddler, then child, then teen, and eventually resuming her adult self but now prepared to know what she could not face in her prior state.
This restarting of a man is also the project of Zelazny’s work, except “For a Breath I Tarry” is not initially interested in the mind. The AI have intellect. It is the physical – the physical body, the senses, anything which cannot be understood by logic – that is missing. Frost begins his search for man academically. He unearths ruins, studies artifacts, and reads what books remain of the lost species. Eventually, he creates eyes and a nose for himself so that he may better understand what man found beautiful. He looks at art, then attempts to make art, then attempts to decide if what he has made can be constituted as art. In the end, Frost receives his answer from the very same place Reich receives his: psychological terror. It is only after Frost inhabits a body, only after he weeps and screams and announces “I fear!” that he can truly be declared a man.
Both texts use intertextual reference to orient themselves in a long line of literature that engages with the same question. In The Demolished Man, Freud obviously casts a long shadow. But so do the classics. Bester presents his own Oedipus Rex, not just in the context of the psychological, but in taking literal elements from the story. Reich does kill his father and go mad with the knowledge of what he has done. He doesn’t rip out his own eyes, but he does suffer blindness, first being unable to see the stars, then the moon, and eventually the sun and everything else. Similarly Frost’s story is part Odyssey, and part Lot. Biblical allusions populate the text – Frost says, “I’ve prepared a room for you,” the machine that killed the last man, an inverted Cain, is marked to wander the earth telling its story, and countless others – as is fitting a creation tale.
Both Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man and Roger Zelazny’s “For a Breath I Tarry” are stories that seek to explain man, and both seem aware that this is what writing has always done. The quote that best demonstrates this in The Demolished Man is outwardly about mindreading, but could easily be an ars poetica for writing fiction:
“Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sicknesses…Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people.”
March 16, 2020 § Leave a comment
As I write this Italy is reporting its deadliest day since the beginning of the coronavirus. 368 people are dead, and I am reading A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake for a module called “Altered Humans – Longevity.” When I envisioned this week on my schedule, I was primarily drawn to Ringworld and Slan, bold dreams of what is possible with the human body in the hands of science fiction. Now, I’m preoccupied solely by survival.
For that, only Atwood will do.
Despite its fixation on the form, in much of altered-human science fiction the body is not the body. The body is potential, the body is possibility, the body is the “before.” These texts look at the body in a way that is already looking beyond it. Not so, Oryx and Crake. In the process of having to explain his form to genetically engineered children, the protagonist Jimmy/Snowman explicates the body as is. He doesn’t have too much skin, he has wrinkles from aging. His facial hair he explains as “feathers.” A wonderful example of this fixating-on-but-not-seeing the body happens in text, when Snowman and Crake are teenagers. In a future with an abundance of edgy content online, they are exposed to the body at its most extreme. They watch executions, suicides, and every kind of sex act with regularity. They see the bodies, but they don’t. Then one day a trafficked young girl, Oryx, makes eye contact with the camera, and therefore the viewers. In Oryx’s gaze, the reality of the actual bodies beneath the entertainment seeps into Snowman in a way that never leaves him. He later is able to understand these spectacles anew: “…the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies. Pornography, its romance.”
This is our Oryx moment.
The body has become blatant, unignorable. We are now hyperaware of our hands and our faces. We are aware of how carelessly and often we touch. We notice the coughs of others. We assess those we care about by their bodies’ vulnerability. We do not let ourselves touch our grandparents. We do not let ourselves touch our immunocompromised friends.
We know now how much we want to touch those we cannot.
We know now there are people we cannot help but touch, though we should not.
Oryx and Crake ends the way we are beginning: “Conspiracy theories proliferated…don’t-travel advisories were issued in the first week, handshaking was discouraged. In the same week there was a run on latex gloves and nose cone filters.” Next, England closes its ports and airports, and all hospitals are closed. The population is advised not to exit the cities. The sick are told to stay home, drink fluids, and call a hotline. While I hope we can bypass the ending fate of the world Atwood creates, there is one social consequence hinted at in the text that I believe this awareness of one another shields us against: “He’d grown up in walled spaces, and then he had become one. He had shut things out.”
Social media is alight with people rejecting this “shutting out.” There are pictures of children visiting their parents and grandparents, just to stand by a closed window and talk on the phone. A man forbidden from seeing his wife in her nursing home stood on the lawn outside holding a sign declaring his love for her. There are no shortages of complaints about how students have reacted to university closings: gathering in the streets and open spaces in exactly the way they are not supposed to. Confined to their homes, the quarantined sing from their balconies.
This is the pandemic for people who have read Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Red Death” and decided to go in the opposite direction.
I hope this virus is short-lived. I hope this awareness and appreciation for one another is not.
February 17, 2020 § 1 Comment
“What type of worker do you think is best from a practical point of view?”
“Oh! Perhaps the one who is most honest and hardworking.”
“No. The one that is the cheapest. The one whose requirements are the smallest.”
This discussion of robots in Karel Čapek’s R. U. R. won’t seem strange alongside a modern understanding of automation. Of course, most people think robots exist for labor and labor exists for capital and capital increases profits by lowering cost. In the annals of late-stage capitalism, automation’s value being tied to profit is seen as self-evident. And, yes, this mercenary evaluation of the animated being has been around for about one hundred and sixty years.
But automatons have been around much, much longer than that.
Since the time of at least ancient Egypt, automatons were allowed to exist as gods, as children, as novelties — as anything but productive labor.
For two thousand years, they were wonders.
Perhaps the longest and most consistent association automatons have is with the divine. Around 100 BCE, Hero of Alexandria made the wonders of the gods visible through the use of automatons in the temple. Among his inventions were a Hercules that attacked a dragon before being pushed back by water from its mouth, a Bacchus that distributed (of course) wine, and – my personal fav – a horse that would drink water *after* having a sword pass through its neck. These were all tied to divine faith, animated beings designed to make temple goers believe in miracles.
When automatons enter the late medieval period, they again enter through the church. This time Catholic. The first gearwork automaton – not powered by fire, air, water, or weight as Hero’s had been – is designed in 1352 as a crowing, flapping rooster in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg meant to symbolize Christ’s passion. The Cock of Strasburg (I didn’t name it) ushers in an era of what Christopher Swift and Danièle Cybulskie call “robot saints.” Robot saints are . . . exactly what they sound like, automatons made in the images of holy beings brought to life. While the creepiness cannot be overstated – please see the footage here of Monkbot, an automaton monk from the 1500s – the religious automatons raised public demand, and soon the age of the automaton was in full swing as monarchs and the very rich sought to own them. Still, these creations were typically not mass produced. They were singular inventions brought in to play violin for a crowd, bow to guests at the doorway, or perform circus feats like tumbling or tightrope walking.
Even in this transition from divinity to novelty, automatons weren’t held to the standard of value we see in Čapek’s play and today. The value wasn’t in being the cheapest, or needing the fewest requirements. Their value was in entertainment, how well they approximated life and, particularly in the case of automatons commissioned as gifts for the children of the elite, how much joy it brought to watch them move. In this way, the phase of automaton as novelty is not so different from their turn as religious artifacts: they still existed to make people believe in the impossible.
The fall of the automaton, when it comes, is swift. At the end of the Civil War, America gets its first patented humanoid animated being. The American Automaton is patented by Zodoc Dederick with the face of a black man, exists solely to provide labor, and is intended to be mass produced and sold at $300 a piece. This marked a shift in the status of the animated being that persists today. These approximations of life stopped having their value measured in the language of wonder – how they could perform, what they could make us believe – and started having value measured in the language of capital – what profit they could generate and what expense they could eliminate.
With questions of AI and personhood on the horizon, it would be wise to treat the current status quo of robots-as-labor with suspicion. It wasn’t so long ago that people applauded automaton violinists, and prayed to robot saints.
February 3, 2020 § 1 Comment
In 8 AD, Pygmalion prays a statue to life to be his wife. In 1886, Ewald enlists a fictional Thomas Edison to create Hadaly, a romantic companion who would have the beauty of a human woman without the pesky spirit. In 2009’s (distressingly orientalist) The Windup Girl, main character Anderson finds a lover in the continually exploited Emiko, a genetically engineered woman programmed with a compulsion to obey and without control over her own sexual responses. Peppered between these are countless others – E.T.A. Hoffman’s automaton Olympia is pursued by Nathanael in 1816, Helen O’Loy becomes robot companion in 1937, and this is without branching out into film, though The Stepford Wives (1975) and Ex Machina (2014) would fit comfortably in this cannon.
Given this legacy, one would be forgiven for envisioning the literature of the artificial human as being primarily* a collection of tales – either cautionary or laudatory – of heterosexual male desire finding its ideal expression in vessels with consciousnesses either too new or too programmed to be anything but subservient. However, one genre of animated being fiction has, historically and contemporarily, bucked this trend: tales of the golem.
A being from Jewish folklore, a golem is a humanoid creature made of clay and given commands by the written word – akin to a robot programmed by binary code, except instead of “0”s and “1”s golem creators use the Hebrew alphabet as the base of their commands. Inarguably the most famous golem tale is that of the Golem of Prague, a creature created by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the 16th Century to protect its/his people from anti-Semitic violence. A dedicated protector for a while, the golem deviates from its purpose by either breaking the Sabbath or falling in love, depending on the tradition, and is eventually deactivated. What is interesting about the figure of the golem is that it is neither solely a vessel for the romantic as female automata, robots, and puppets have been, nor a duty-bound sexless creature as has been the fate of less humanoid constructions**.
Golem depictions are as complicated as the original in Prague, who managed to be both utterly programmed and ultimately disobedient. In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), the golem serves as both an important the main character’s tie to heritage and the physical embodiment of the need to allow ties to the past to disintegrate. Zod, the golem in Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It is the object of female sexual desire, but exists in a society that devalues traditional, heterosexual family constructions.
Perhaps the most interesting construction of a golem comes from Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers (1997). If male creatures of other animated beings are giving life to a vessel for their romantic desires, the title character of Ozick’s novel creates a golem to give birth to herself. This purpose is initially mystified even the Puttermesser herself, who initially does not remember how or why she created the creature. She tries to name the golem after the daughter she imagined she’d have. The golem rejects that name in favor of Xanthippe, the only person who had the courage to gainsay Socrates and a figure with whom Puttermesser herself identifies. When asked why she was created, the golem replies that she came so that Puttermesser “could become what she was intended to become” (65). Xianthippe is both a dedicated servant, and a sexual being, her hunger for partners with greater and greater political power her eventual undoing.
A being both mechanical in that it is manmade, but natural in that its materials are of the earth, it makes sense that the golem presents an opportunity for figures that trouble the binary between creations that are either only sexual objects or totally nonsexualized appliances. The novels above each mention the Golem of Prague directly in text, but their golems also exist in a way that marks them as successors to a branch of animated being stories that provide much needed texture to the animated being cannon.
*Though not entirely, as we do have Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) among a few others.
** From this I exempt Paladin, a creation in Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous (2017) a tankish military bot who is both a sexual being, and far from humanoid.
December 13, 2019 § Leave a comment
In the film adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel, The Ware of the Worlds (1953) imagines a future where the next phase of warfare in human history is the introduction to enemies that are far beyond the bounds of human nature. The invasion of Earth and the introduction of virtually indestructible enemies is a trope in science fiction that remains relevant to the anxieties of today. The “enemy” of mankind is consistently transfigured from humans or humanoid creatures to creatures that are too removed from anything human-like.
The film begins with a narrator that briefly describes the progression of warfare on Earth by showing images of the new technology used during WWI and WWII, the origination of the concept that the world is hurtling towards a future that is entirely submerged in war. The most interesting thing about this fear is how these types of films and novels are never focused on destroying the exterior threats as much as they are concerned with the other image and expression of humanity. For example, when the comet that brings the aliens first arrives, the townspeople are shown clustered together and excitedly sharing their own speculations about the situation. The community and human interactions are shown immediately after the intrusion of an inhuman enemy. I find the use of aliens interesting, because they are often used to establish a binary system that places humans of the “right” side of existence.
To be human is to be unlike the other. In this situation, I am referring to aliens as the “other.” Although there are other sci-fi works that have thought to subvert these tropes, the usage of an enemy that cannot be deserving or receptive of sympathy is normal. It makes sense that it would be difficult to sympathize with an ugly gray alien blob, the Martians, but that may not necessarily mean they should not at least be under review for it. This is why films like Arrival(2016)and Avatar(2009)were so interesting; they forced their audiences to sympathize with beings that are beyond human.
December 10, 2019 § Leave a comment
For our final project, Asia and I decided to create a negotiation style board game based off of H Rider Haggard’s novel She. Below are infographics detailing the rules, objectives, background and characters that the game entails. Also you can click the following video in order to watch a play through of the game!
December 10, 2019 § Leave a comment
Rappaccini’s Daughter, a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne first published in 1844, follows a young man named Giovanni Guasconti as he falls in love with Beatrice Rappaccini and becomes enraptured in her poisonous world created by her father, Dr. Giacomo Rappaccini. A mystery unfolds in the story as Giovanni learns about Dr Rappaccini’s infamous scientific experiments and the secrets behind why Beatrice rarely leaves her home and garden. Hawthorne uses descriptive and flowery language to describe both Beatrice and the garden until it becomes almost like the two are interchangeable entities in the story. The use of language fits the story quite well because by the end it is revealed that Beatrice is poisonous and able to kill with her breath after growing up surrounded by poisonous flowers and plants. She even has sisterly bond with a specific poisonous shrub that has grown up with her which she calls her “sister shrub”. Giovanni ends up entangled in this world of poison because he becomes infected with the poison and possesses the same deadly power as Beatrice because of his constant contact with her in the garden.
The language in the story really stuck with me because it unraveled the mystery in such a way that I felt immersed in the garden with Giovanni. I felt the confusion he held when first witnessing Beatrice’s “death breath”, to be colloquial, in action. I also felt the turmoil that Giovanni went through when trying to figure out what was really going on with Beatrice and whether he should stay away or not. Hawthorne’s descriptions and use of language allowed me to experience the story with the main character and submerge myself into the twisted garden of Dr. Rappaccini.
Aside from the language used in the story, the character of Beatrice was also highly fascinating. The main source of mystery in the story, Dr Rappaccini’s daughter had a sort of dual persona about her. You can see this in how Giovanni struggles with how she is beautiful and captivating but also dark and mysterious in a way that makes him uneasy. Beatrice’s two sides of remind me of both a Disney Princess and Ayesha from the novel She by H Rider Haggard. She reminds me of a Disney Princess like Rapunzel, for example, because she is this vibrant person who is sequestered to her home and is unaware of what life is like for normal people, etc. She just draws you in with her innocence and beauty and that very thing is what also reminds me of Ayesha. Ayesha is also beautiful and able to draw men into her presence and control them, blinding them from her evil doings. While Beatrice is not evil like Ayesha, her poisonous composition combined with her beauty and charisma creates an allure that draws you in.
Giovanni experienced this throughout the story in how he would realize that something was off but then when Beatrice lit back up and smiled he forgot about whatever the looming problem was. At one point he forgot that he was badly burned because he was in a, “reverie of Beatrice” (pg 13). This is just one example of how Beatrice affects the people around her and what makes it even more intriguing is that she doesn’t enjoy being this way. Beatrice in her explanation to Giovanni talks about how she was lonely and only wanted his love because as she said, “though my body be nourished with poison, my spirit is God’s creature, and craves love as its daily food” (pg.19). Beatrice did not intend to make Giovanni like her, unlike Ayesha’s intentions with Leo in She. She only wanted love and at the very end of the story Beatrice takes an antidote that was given to Giovanni by a family friend in order to rid her body of its poisonous nature because she did not want to live in her condition any longer, but it does not work as initially thought.
Beatrice’s physically poisonous nature consumed herself and the people around her whether she wanted it or not due to her father experimenting on her, turning her into a poisonous entity. However, through all of that she still managed to be such a beautiful person with such innocence that everyone fell in love with, which made her ability to destroy even that much more dangerous. This short story is so packed with drama, mystery, death, love and so much more that I would recommend it to everyone. I tried not to spoil anything too badly so even after reading this blog, you should be able to enjoy the story just as much as I did!