Future Interrupted: How to Lose Friends and Objectify People
Interzone #263 is now a thing in the world. Those desirous of their own copies are urged to visit the TTA Press website, Smashwords or any purveyor of eBooks with a search function and an ounce of sense.
The non-fiction is as superb as ever: Nick Lowe considers Deadpool, the modern blockbuster, the state of contemporary blockbuster film making and asks “Why would anyone think this was fun?”. Meanwhile, Nina Allan writes about the pleasures of long, difficult books and our lamentable tendency to view anything even remotely difficult as either homework or an ordeal that must either make us stronger or kill us stone dead. Tony Lee continues to do sterling work reviewing both the less bombastic releases and the acres of extruded genre product you find collecting in bargain bins and on the shelves of large supermarkets. However, amidst the dross is King Hu’s kung fu epic A Touch of Zen, which is apparently a “visionary masterpiece”.
My favourite piece of non-fiction in this month’s issue is Jo L. Walton’s review of Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance. Walton is a critic whose voice is depressingly unique; it’s not just that he can close-read with the best of them or that he plucks at loose thematic threads and spins them into cloth of gold, it’s that everything he writes is filled with such amazing humour and playfulness:
There is the obligatory reflection on storytelling. There’s a certain kind of story (maybe called postmodern, or metafictional) which, it’s often said, loves to draw attention to its status as artifice. The is the main gossip about metafiction: as per one classic The Streets track: “you’re fic, but my gosh don’t you know it.” Like a lot of gossip, this is partly true and it can be useful. In some university classrooms, yell enough about breaking the fourth wall, maybe you’ll at least break the ice.
Anyway… this month’s short fiction includes:
- “Ten Confessions of Blue Mercury Addicts” by Anna Spencer
- “Spine” by Christopher Fowler
- “Not Recommended for Guests of a Philosophically Uncertain Disposition” by Michelle Ann King
- “Motherboard” by Jeffrey Thomas
- “Lotto” by Rich Larson
- “Andromeda of the Skies” by E. Catherine Tobler
My Future Interrupted column from IZ263 looks at Lisa L. Hannett’s novel Lament for the Afterlife, which I found both thought-provoking and somewhat frustrating. However, if you want to read my 1400 words of studied ambivalence you’ll have to either wait a few months or buy the magazine. In the mean time, here is this month’s reprinted Future Interrupted column considering Ex Machina, Social Death and what it means to even ask what it means to be human.
I recently found myself re-watching “The Measure of a Man” from the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s the one where the ship’s android second-officer Data is ordered to submit to a battery of dangerous tests designed to replicate his neural functions. This process is deemed necessary because reproducing Data’s consciousness would allow Starfleet to create hundreds of androids who could be sent into situations deemed too dangerous for mere organics. Data understandably refuses to comply and resigns from Starfleet, at which point Starfleet argues that Data is their property and so can neither resign his commission nor refuse an order. The bulk of the episode is then given over to a court case in which Captain Picard and his first-officer Will Riker argue about whether or not Data should be afforded the same basic rights as any other member of the Federation.
The legal proceedings do eventually (and begrudgingly) conclude that Data is not property but the episode suggests that 24th Century liberals will have grown so morally complacent that they will treat the enslavement of a friend and colleague as a subject worthy of consideration. To make matters worse, the episode also takes place against a backdrop of presenting Data as sympathetic only in so far as he maintains a Pinocchio-like desire to “become human”. Whenever the Enterprise encounters an artificial lifeform (including Data’s identical twin Lore) that does not share this desire, said lifeform is invariably depicted as cold and calculating while non-human individuals who refuse to acknowledge the primacy of human values are treated as moral simpletons and subjected to a torrent of racial abuse that ranges from patronising eye-rolls to overtly racist diatribes about the perils of miscegenation and the horrors of spending too much time surrounded by people from other species.
While science fiction has long enjoyed playing with the question of what it means to be human, the answers it generates always tend to err on the side of inclusion. Even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – thought by some to be the first work of science fiction – features an artificial lifeform asserting his right to a happy life as part of a character arc transporting him from horrible thing to person worthy of understanding and sympathy. This story plays itself out so frequently in the history of science fiction that one could almost argue that aliens, mutants and pre-historic lifeforms were invented to be the kinds of things that turned out to be people after all. Science fiction errs on the side of inclusion because the human capacity for empathy will always expand when left to its own devices; Documentaries like Nicolas Philibert’s Nenette and James Marsh’s Project Nim show how natural it is for us to treat apes like people and anyone who has ever owned a cat will know just how easy it can be to fill little fluffy heads with wildly complex psychological states.
“Measure of a Man” is a fascinating piece of TV as while it too errs on the side of inclusion, it does take seriously the idea that Data might be a thing and so explores the beliefs and thought processes required to look at a friend and colleague and decide that they are not a real person. Academics have a name for the process of reducing people to the state of things, they call it social death.
One of the leading theorists of social death is a sociologist by the name of Zygmunt Bauman. Driven from his native Poland during a wave of anti-Semitic purges in the 1960s, Bauman has written a number of books about the connections between modernity, rationality and social exclusion. Following Freud and Hobbes, Bauman argues that modern societies depend upon people being willing to trade their personal liberties for a sense of collective security. Rationality and modernity are expressions of this trade-off in so far as they are concerned with eliminating uncertainties and creating a world that is understood, regulated and controllable. Society’s drive to regulate uncertainty also extends to people and so modern societies go out of their way not only to categorise people according to gender, sexuality and race but also to decide which of these categories contain normal hard-working people and which contain inhuman scum. According to Bauman, the Holocaust was not a return to pre-modern barbarism but a predictable expression of society’s existing need to categorise, control and – when appropriate – violently exclude its own constituent parts.
Many of humanity’s greatest atrocities have rested upon the assumption that it is possible to provide a definitive answer to the question of what it means to be human. “Measure of a Man” may end with the vindication of Data’s rights but in recognising the court’s authority to rule on the question of Data’s personhood, the episode unwittingly explores the idea that courts could legitimately wield the power to impose social death and reduce people to the status of objects. By suggesting that lawyers and jurists have a role to play in fixing the boundaries of personhood, “Measure of a Man” has tacitly accepted the same assumptions that once underpinned not only America’s Jim Crows laws and South Africa’s system of Apartheid, but also the anti-Semitic Nuremberg laws that provided the Nazis with a legal framework for determining who did and did not get shipped off to the camps.
Another work that flirts with this type of idea is Alex Garland’s recent science fiction film Ex Machina. The film opens with fluffy, liberal Caleb flying off to Scandinavia to spend a few days with his boss Nathan; a brilliantly zeitgeisty villain who somehow manages to embody all of the viciousness and fake bonhomie that you’d expect from your average multinational tech company: Dude… we’re like totally best buds and stuff but you really need to sign this form giving me unrestricted access to everything you say, do or write from now until the day you die.
The film revolves around Nathan’s decision to recruit Caleb as the human component in a Turing test. However, as in the case of Data’s trial, the test is complete nonsense as the audience recognises the AI’s personhood the second she steps on screen. Rather than presenting the audience with anything resembling a valid reason for thinking that ‘Eva’ might not be worthy of the same rights and freedoms as your average human, the film concerns itself primarily with the relationship between Caleb and Nathan resulting in a wonderfully demented psychological thriller in which Nathan messes so thoroughly with Caleb’s head that the poor lad winds up slicing open his own arms in order to make sure that he isn’t secretly a robot.
Ostensibly concerned with the same philosophical issues as “Measure of a Man”, Ex Machina echoes and amplifies the problematic elements of that episode in two quite fascinating ways: Firstly, by presenting the robots as women and having two men compete to determine their fate, the film is inviting us to realise the links between real-world inequalities and the assumption that some people are less than human. Secondly, while Caleb does eventually come to recognise Eva’s personhood, he only does so because Eva manages to convince him that she is an appropriate recipient for Caleb’s feelings of love. In other words, Ex Machina is a film in which women are only recognised as people once they become potential girlfriends. Needless to say, this is not the type of test that anyone would think to apply to Caleb, Nathan or Captain Picard as the white man’s humanity is never called into question.
Garland’s film is a wonderfully ambiguous and unsettling creation that is best read as stripping works like “Measure of a Man” back to their core philosophical components in a way that highlights the ugly racial and gender politics inherent in any attempt to fix the boundaries of personhood. Take out the self-congratulatory tone, the eloquence of Patrick Stewart’s oratory and the sense of legitimacy provided by a courtroom setting and what you are left with is the true face of these types of discussion: Powerful white men sitting in mansions debating whether or not the women they want to have sex with are actually people. I don’t know whether Alex Garland intended Ex Machina to be uncomfortable viewing but there is something both intensely familiar and positively inhuman about discussing whether or not someone is actually human.