A Mirror, Darkly Lit
Last week I caught an episode of Almost Human pretty much by accident. I have to say it was pretty fantastic. The story followed Dorian the android and a human detective as they tried to track down an illegal sexbot ring that was using human DNA in the skins of their androids. The show had a nice sense of humor, some cool advanced technology, good action and pacing, and excellent dialogue. It culminated with Dorian being present for the ‘death’ of a sexbot made with the illegal skin. It was the climax of the episode’s central theme – what happens when you die, and how can others derive comfort from it? It really was very, very well done.
Accordingly, I expect Fox to cancel it within 12 episodes or so.
Anyway, the exploration of human morality through the lens of androids is not a new one. It arguably dates all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy. In Caves of Steel we meet Detective Bailey and his robot partner Olivaw and watch a dynamic quite similar to that of John and Dorian, except the roles are more stock: whereas Karl Urban’s John is the one that is emotionally damaged and unavailable and Dorian is empathetic and open, Bailey is the poster boy for emotional appeal compared to Olivaw’s bloodless logic. In Asimov’s case, however, he was attempting to show the technology of the future as helpful and wise despite its frightful appearance. Almost Human is doing something a bit different; it is taking a more even-handed approach to the prospect of advanced tech, showing the horrors as well as the benefits. Dorian is meant to be more human than John and in many ways he is. Unlike Asimov, who is asking social and economic questions, Almost Human seems to be concerned about psychology, morality, and humanity on a more personal level.
In this sense, then, Almost Human owes less to Asimov, all noble and ponderous upon his gilded throne of Golden Age Science Fiction, and a great deal more to the fallout-choked alleys and half-religious psychadelia of Philip K Dick. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, replicants are virtually indistinguishable from humans save via extremely intricate post-mortem physical exams or less-than-reliable ’empathy tests’ based off the assumption that androids are incapable of feeling empathy. The society of the book adopts this mantra as the quintessential definition of humanity, and yet the action of the book spends a great deal of time demonstrating just how foolish a definition this is. Humans are shown not to be empathetic at all and not only towards replicants; they hurt each other, they judge each other, they demean each other with casual familiarity. The world, as shown by Dick, is hostile to life in all its forms, and no creature comes to expect quarter from any other, replicant or otherwise. This is not to say that there is no hope, but rather to demonstrate how we who feel that humanity is doing just fine haven’t really stopped to look at ourselves. Dick does this with Replicants, as artificially creating the ‘other’ to be abused by the so-called noble, pious, empathetic forces of humanity makes it easier for us to see ourselves.
So, too, does Almost Human attempt to show us reflections of ourselves in the person of androids, in the hopes that we can actually recognize ourselves better when faced with that which we define as not ourselves. These stories, when done well, are hard to watch. They have the power to levy biting criticism unfettered by the softening insulation of social context or apologism. These stories are also not easy to do – too many of them fall into trite echoes of ‘traditional’ values (Spielberg’s AI comes to mind). So far I feel that Almost Human has done a good job, but it is very early. I will keep watching, though. I hope very much they can keep it up.
Wonder Vs Terror
So, recently my attention was drawn to this diagram floating around the internet that traces the history of science fiction. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. I agree with much if not all of its suggestions (it gets a bit muddy towards the end there, but that is to be expected) and, in particular, I am drawn to the two words that are crouching atop its very beginnings: Fear and Wonder. Since I like the word better, I’m going to talk about them as Wonder and Terror.
Speculative fiction of all types derive their power, chiefly, from those two basic human emotions. Interestingly, they both primarily relate to what could be and not what is. Wonder is being stunned by something new you had never imagined before and Terror is dreading the manifestation of the same thing. These emotions led to the creation of pantheons of Gods, endless cycles of mythology, sea monsters, HG Wells, Jules Verne, the drawings of DaVinci and so on and so forth. Wonder and Terror–what could be and what we hope won’t be.
These emotions are the engines of human progress. They have brought us from the bands of nomadic hominids staring up and a night sky and led us all the way to this–the Internet. The endless tales we have told one another throughout the aeons regarding what we wonder and live in terror of have inspired humanity to strive for change and avoid the many pitfalls our progress may afford us. Though we haven’t been successful in all our endeavors, we still try. We try because we can’t stop wondering and we can’t stop quailing in terror at our collective futures.
The balance of these forces change, as well, as time marches on. Our relationship with technology and progress–whether we live in awe of its possibilities or in fear of its consequences–is in constant flux, dependent not only on the power of the technology itself, but also upon the mood of the society itself. In the times of Jules Verne, for instance, science was the great gateway to a better world–the engines of technology would wipe away the injustices of man, clear up the cloudy corners of his ignorance, and lead him to a bright new tomorrow. That tomorrow wound up being the early 20th century, with its horrifying wars and human atrocities, and so we read the works of Orwell and Huxley and even HG Wells, who cautioned us against unguarded optimism and warned of the terrible things to come. The cycle was to be repeated again, with the optimism of the 1950s (Asimov, Clarke) giving way to the dark avenues of writers like Philip K Dick and even William Gibson.
Where do we stand now? I’m not sure; I’m inclined to say this is a dark age for speculative fiction. We look to the future with pessimism, not optimism. Our visions of apocalypse (zombie or otherwise) are numerous and bleak. With every era there are your bright lights of hope–the Federations of Planets and Cultures–that say that yes, one day humankind will rise to meet its imagined destiny with wonders of glorious power, but for every Player of Games there seems to be a World War Z or The Road. Perhaps I’m wrong.
This coming spring, if all works out (and it looks like it might), I will be exploring this idea in much greater detail in a class I’ll be teaching on Technology and Literature. I’ve been wanting to teach this elective for a long time, and I can’t wait to see what I can teach but, more importantly, to see what I’ll learn in the process.