Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

REGARDING THE PROBLEM OF LABELS: (BIOLOGICAL) POST-HUMANISM VS. (CRITICAL) POST-HUMANISM

Sunday, June 9th, 2019

In my post of 6 May on the question of the post-human in relation to Frankenstein, I announced that my ranting would eventually continue, so here we go.

Mónica Calvo and Sonia Baelo, members of the research project “Trauma, Culture and Posthumanity: the Definition of Being in Contemporary North-American Fiction”, of the Universidad de Zaragoza, were the organizers of the recent conference “Representations in the Time of the Post-human: Transhuman Enhancement in 21st Century Storytelling”, which I attended (and enjoyed enormously!). You might want to download the programme, and the truly cute poster, from http://typh.unizar.es/conference/.

The three days spent there thinking about post-humanism have convinced me that we have the very bad habit in scholarship of accepting labels first and discussing what they mean later. This leads to considerable confusion. Post-human is used in such wide-ranging sense that in a recent article I reviewed, the author called the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park post-human monsters (actually, following a secondary source). The funny thing is that though I rejected this denomination as plainly wrong, depending on how you use post-human it is correct – and, also, a clear proof of how we need more specific labels.

Every discussion, then, of post-humanism begins with a lengthy list of secondary sources that give different meanings to the label, until the author offers his/her own. If the author tries to offer alternatives or be more specific in any way, this is done in vain for the curious thing is that the label is there for good, no matter how blurry it is. We have clearly not learned the lesson from the endless waste of time and energy that discussions around the word post-modernism (postmodernism?) have generated, and here we are again stuck with a problematic but absolutely central notion, once more. Even the Wikipedia page is no use! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posthuman).

I don’t intend, then, to trace a genealogy of post-humanism but to explain where I think the problems lie in its definition, for those who care. I am possibly totally wrong, but this goes in favour of my argument that the label is confusing. And I might also repeat some of the ideas in the post of May 6, but, then, I have my own (human) limitations…

To begin with, then, post-human is used in two very different ways that, while interconnected, refer to two different aspects of humankind.

1) What I’ll call biological post-humanism explores the possible replacement of Homo Sapiens by another Homo species emerging from
a) natural evolution
b) applying cutting-edge technoscience to evolution (a crazy, dangerous position defended by transhumanism)
c) the merger of the flesh with A.I. (as technogeek defenders of the so-called singularity dream of).

In scenario d) Homo Sapiens disappears, and instead a new species takes our dominant position, whether this is an animal (Planet of the Apes), an A.I. (the Terminator series), or an alien (name your favourite invasion story). A possibility less often considered is the scenario in which Homo Sapiens evolves into another Homo species with genetic elements from animals or aliens (but do consider Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood). And, of course, in 2001 Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke imagined that a mysterious alien presence (remember the monolith?) had jump-started our transition from Australopithecus into the genus Homo and would again repeat the feat in the future, to turn us into something yet unknown. I offered, by the way, the label post-natural for all of this in Zaragoza but I was told that ‘nobody uses it’ and that was it!

2) Philosophical, or critical, post-humanism can be subdivided, I think, into two branches (though, again, I must warn that they tend to be mixed anyway):
a) the branch that wishes to rethink classical humanism in relation to what it means to be human in ethical or moral terms
b) the branch that shares a similar concern but also worries about how (biological) post-humanism will alter our bodies and minds, and therefore what it means to be human.

Critical post-humanism began as an intellectual project to question the way in which privileged Renaissance men had used prejudiced, limiting values for the construction of humanism. The patriarchal white man should be rejected as the source for the definition of what it is to be human, since his experience excluded basically the majority of humankind. Those so far excluded, therefore, felt called to offer a new, far more comprehensive way of understanding the human and humanism.

The problem, in my humble view, is that this meant throwing the baby away with the bathwater. Since the white patriarchs had appropriated the word human for their own interests, the alternative label chosen was post-human – an unfortunate choice, since it places the critical majority on the wrong side of human. Post-humanism was intended to define the opposition against biased classical humanism, but it has ended up making that type of humanism central, and the alternative peripheral (because of the injudicious use of the prefix post-). Besides, I personally feel aggrieved as a woman to be called a post-humanist because of my critical anti-patriarchal thinking when, last time I looked, it seemed to me I’m Homo Sapiens (well, I haven’t checked how much Home Neanderthalensis DNA is in my genes!). I reclaim, then, the right to call myself a humanist, not post-anything but the real thing, though with different values. Neo-humanist would have been cooler (particularly because everything I read Neo, I think of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix…).

On the other hand, my impression is that there are many difficulties to connect philosophical post-humanism (on the essence of the human) with thinking on biological post-humanism. Problem number one is the fact that those of us in the Humanities know too little science to make informed contributions to the debate – I’m really serious about this, though I do not mean that only scientists are entitled to offering reflections on what makes us human. No, what I mean is what I wrote in my post of May 6: Homo Sapiens is just ONE type of human, not all that is human, which means that we should brush up our paleontology, biology, genomics, etc. Typically, I got entangled in the Zaragoza conference in a loud debate with another colleague, who claimed that ‘the system’ and those who oppress us are not ‘human’. Having spent the last fifteen months of my life considering villainy, I can tell you that of course they are! Patriarchal villainy is as human as the compulsion to do good, and we will never progress unless we overcome that hurdle. In fact, I think we should do much better if we focused on ‘humane’ instead of ‘human’ to explain how some persons feel inclined to abuse their power and others to oppose this inclination.

Since 1985, when Donna Haraway published her ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’, critical post-humanism has evolved into more science-conscious intellectualism but it is still limited by a) the little awareness of technoscientific issues which I have already mentioned, b) the reluctance to acknowledge science fiction as a major aspect of speculative reflection on Homo Sapiens as a species. I know next to nothing about science but what little I know comes from first reading SF novels, and then reading essays to check whether what they speculate with makes sense. Whenever I explain to an audience of even less informed readers where the world is heading, there is usually much surprise and much incredulity. What I feel is quite different: there are days when I wonder how we can live with the knowledge that our place in the universe is absolutely insignificant, as science is showing. The dire warnings about climate change may be altering this general neglect of science but even so, look at how the deniers insist that Homo Sapiens is in control and the Earth safe (we are not, and it is not).

If you have been following my rant, then, you will see that I’m trying to make sense of post-human and post-humanism by telling myself that:
a) (biological) post-humanism considers what might happen when/if the species Homo Sapiens ends, in natural or unnatural ways
b) (philosophical) critical post-humanism is focused on what makes us humane (even though the label preferred is human)
In my view, then, any consideration of our subjectivity passes through remembering that 1) as Homo Sapiens, we are just an animal species, and we possibly did all we could to wipe out the other human species as we’re doing to animals; 2) Homo Sapiens individuals are all human though many of us are not humane; 3) we matter very little in the amazingly gigantic universe and nobody out there cares for us; 4) since we’re doing an awful job of destroying Earth it would be totally fine if we were wiped out (I’m in favour of plants conquering the planet!); 5) transhumanism (=the use of technoscience to transcend the limitations of Homo Sapiens, including death) is classic patriarchal selfish wickedness; and 6) please, can we stop using the prefix post- for everything? I fear the day when I will be called post-person!

Incidentally, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are said to be post-human because their rebirth from fossil DNA disrupts the species’ balance on Earth and announces (at least in Michael Crichton’s original novel) the end of Homo Sapiens’ dominion. In that scenario, we become either extinct –as dinosaurs are– or creatures cowering before the power of mighty predators –as we were once. The new dinosaurs are what comes after humanity is pushed off the top-rung of the animal ladder, hence it makes sense, more or less, to call them post-human. I rejected the terminology because, though they are a product of Homo Sapiens’ science, the dinosaurs are not genetically connected with us at all, and I limit my use of post-human to that sense.

The thought that sends chills down my spine is that from the point of view of all the other human species that have died out we, Homo Sapiens, are the real, most feared post-humans. Yet, here we are, hypocritically expressing our fears that our species might die and be eventually replaced. Poor things! If you ask me, we’re just a bunch of selfish, arrogant bastards and bitches that deserve never seeing how happy and relieved Earth will be in its post-Homo Sapiens future… Towards the end of Jurassic Park, mathematician Ian Malcolm notes that whereas for a human being one hundred years is the limit of life, the Earth counts its life in millions of years: ‘We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We have been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we are gone tomorrow, the Earth will not miss us’ (my italics). Wise words, though I hope Dr. Malcolm is also right in his perhaps naïve belief that we don’t have ‘the power to destroy the planet’, for surely the Earth deserves the chance of a post-Homo Sapiens life. Call it post-human, if you prefer, though there might be nowhere around to remember us, nor care that we once existed.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IN THE MONSTER’S OWN WORDS: GETTING TO KNOW FRANKENSTEIN’S NEW MAN

Monday, May 13th, 2019

I was interviewed last week on a Catalan-language radio show on monsters (“AutoCine: Els Monstres”, Cerdanyola Ràdio, https://www.ivoox.com/autocine-els-monstres-audios-mp3_rf_35501071_1.html ). The presenter’s last question was ‘which famous monster is most imperfectly known?’ and I had to reply that this is Frankenstein’s creature.

Unfortunately, the movies have transmitted a very limited image of this monster, based on the theatrical line descended from Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823), the melodrama (with songs!) by Richard Brinsley Peake. This was the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel and, as happens with modern film adaptations, many audience members took for granted its fidelity. The famous 1931 film directed by James Whale is, in fact, based on the 1927 play by English author Peggy Webbling, who must have been familiar with Peake’s play. She, like him, characterises the monster as an inarticulate being, incapable of uttering any coherent speech. Webbling, incidentally, is also responsible for the absurdity of calling the creature by his maker’s name. The monster speaks in later films (for instance in Roger Corman’s 1990 Frankenstein Unbound, based on Brian Aldiss’s novel) but only Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation reflects Mary’s original conception of the creature as an intelligent, perceptive individual. Even so, Branagh’s cannot be said to give an accurate picture of the monster’s acumen and singular process of self-education.

Many critics have disputed Mary’s authorial decisions about this self-education. The monster, if you recall, takes shelter secretly in a hovel attached to the humble home of the De Laceys, a French family down on their luck for political and personal reasons. The arrival of the son’s Turkish fiancée, Saffie, is used by Mary as the excuse to have the monster witness her education, which he mimics. Since the monster, as I explained in the previous post, is an enhanced (or augmented) Homo Sapiens, I’m ready to accept that he can profit by this second-hand method of learning, though I grant that the whole process does test the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. This is further tested with the monster’s casual discovery of three fundamental books (John Milton’s epic biblical poem Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther). He also happens to be in possession, very conveniently, of Frankenstein’s journal. This volume covers the several months of the research leading to the creature’s creation and the monster has it because Victor kept him in the cloak which the creature takes to cover his naked body.

By the time creature and creator meet in the Alps, the monster can already use sophisticated speech, though he has never had the chance to interact with a fellow human being: all run away scared, or turn against him violently, as soon as they see him. If he tries to speak, this is to no avail–his monstrous physiognomy causes such overreaction that communication is simply impossible. If Victor can overcome his revulsion and sit down to patiently listen to his ‘son’, this is only because he has no option. His parental duty, as we know, is of no consequence, for the moment his baby was born, Frankenstein turned his back on him, expecting the ugly thing to vanish, somehow. The monster, however, insists that Victor must play the role of parent like any other father.

I’d like to comment on two passages, often quoted but, anyway, worth considering in order to learn who this monster is. I find it quite peculiar that in his process of self-learning the creature chooses no name for himself, for this complicates our reading very much. Very obviously, he is a man, for Victor has made him as such, and calling this new man ‘the monster’ and ‘the creature’ is something I very much dislike, since it is demeaning. The obvious name for him is Adam (a name he knows from reading Milton’s version of the Biblical fall in Genesis) but, for whatever reason, Mary kept him nameless, a questionable decision that somehow shows her bias against her own creation. (And that, indeed, confused Peggy Webbling…).

In Chapter 15, the monster tells Victor about his having read the diary narrating his ‘accursed origin’ and the ‘disgusting circumstances’ of his unnatural birth. The diary also contains ‘the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person (…) in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible’. No wonder he is ‘sickened’. Logically, he questions Victor’s methods: ‘God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred’. From this passage one must deduce that the monster does not look radically non-human but horridly human, and that his physical appearance is scary for that very reason. His ugliness, in short, is our own ugliness, as if you could take an average human being and deprive him of any feature that makes him moderately attractive. I remain, in any case, perplexed by the reaction of those who come across Victor’s new Adam, for they seem to lack the curiosity that led so many spectators to enjoy the strange frisson provided by freak shows in the 19th and the 20th centuries. The monster, let’s stop to consider for a second, does look human: he has no claws, or big fangs, or any other feature we connect with aggression–so why do people scream and run away at his sight? I do not quite understand why nobody stops, once the shivers are controlled, to ask him ‘what are you?’

Faced with his general rejection, the monster assumes his abjection and starts behaving in a vicious manner which corresponds morally to the ugliness of his physical appearance. As we know, he kills Victor’s youngest brother William and blames poor Justine, a mixture of servant and family member, for that crime. When he demands, in Chapter 17, from his creator that he manufactures a female companion to share his misfortune with, Frankenstein expresses serious doubts that this can be a solution to the problem of how to contain his evident ‘malice’. The monster is offended: ‘My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor, and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being and become linked to the chain of existence and events from which I am now excluded’. Famously, in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), also directed by James Whale, the female monster starts screaming the moment she sees her intended male companion; she shows, instead, a manifest interest in the rather handsome Frankenstein… The novel has no similar scene because Victor decides to abort the bride, but it is very easy to see that the monster’s logic is very faulty, and sexist. He (that is, Mary) never thinks of the needs that the new Eve might have; in fact, she is to provide the same comforts as the later Victorian angel in the house: companionship but, above all, but, above all, unconditional love and even admiration which will supposedly curb down the monster’s alleged inclination to do evil. ‘Give me a nice woman and I’ll be a nice man’ is a recipe that, we know, does not work at all well.

Victor’s new Adam is, in the early stages of his life, a meek, well-behaved individual that gradually learns to respond with aggression to the abhorrence he is treated with. This is an obvious reading. I believe, however, that he is also naturally spiteful and resentful. I don’t mean naturally malevolent but the type of individual that will bear a grudge down to the last consequences. Granted, the grudge he bears against Frankenstein is more than justified but the decision he makes to murder William and, later, Victor’s bride Elizabeth is unfair to the victims and, ultimately, counterproductive. Naturally, we should not forget that Mary intended Frankenstein to be a gothic story and she had to stress the moral monstrosity of the creature. In her argumentation, the monster is corrupted, so to speak, by the animosity people display against him and, so, the community if partly responsible for his crimes. However, you cannot be both innocent and guilty of the murders you choose to commit, and this is the unstable position in which Mary places her new Adam. Super-human as he is in many aspects of his anatomy, he is, nevertheless, very human in the worst aspects of his personality: his capacity for hatred and violence. Nothing will convince me that the creature would have been a good companion for the bride. Or a good father to their children.

The very fact that I am discussing these moral issues shows how complex the characterisation of Mary’s monster is. In the end, the main challenge she poses to her readers is forcing us to wonder how we would react if we ever came across Victor’s man. Would we give him a chance to explain himself? Would we be part of the mob chasing the poor thing in so many films? Would we be disgusted, fascinated, or both? How much difference from our human standard, in short, are we willing to tolerate in our fellow human beings? These are all valid questions, and I marvel that an eighteen-year-old girl could manage to put them together in that strange child of her imagination that Frankenstein is.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN’S MAN AND THE (VEXED) QUESTION OF THE POST-HUMAN

Monday, May 6th, 2019

These days I’m teaching Frankenstein (1818, 1831) and writing about one of its thousands of descendants, Richard K. Morgan’s Thin Air (2018). As science and technology advance and speculative fiction gets closer to everyday life (or perhaps the other way around), writers imagine creatures that would have baffled Mary Shelley. The newer creations are some times categorised as monsters, some times as freaks, depending on whether they appear to be capable of overwhelming Homo Sapiens or just contribute an exciting sense of difference to the narration where they appear.

Having written my doctoral dissertation on monstrosity (http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/4915) I know that taxonomies have limitations, and that a full inventory of the monsters and freaks of one period may have to be reconsidered for the next one. I’m also aware that many of us, scholars, are still too wary of reading gothic, fantasy, and science fiction, preferring instead to read theory, which is always safer to quote and sounds more properly intellectual. I believe this is the root of two serious problems: the use, abuse, and misuse of concepts such as cyborg and post-human in an abstract way, without much consideration of the particularities of the fantastic characters in question, and the tenacious but incorrect overlap between human and Homo Sapiens.

When Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was still a curio often attributed to Percy Shelley and nobody dreamt of making this novel an integral part of university courses on Romanticism, British SF writer Brian Aldiss and his co-author David Wingrove declared in Billion Year Spree (1973) that Mary was the ‘origin of the species’. They praised her work as the very foundation of SF, at the same time arguing the thesis that since Frankenstein is gothic fiction, SF’s essence is shaped by horror – not necessarily that inspired by scary monsters but by the sublime fear that we may feel if we stop to consider the universe and our place in it. Aldiss was so in love with Mary that he published in the same year 1973 a novel, Frankenstein Unbound, in which he fantasises about meeting her (Joe Bodenland, his delegate in the text travels from the future to give Mary a copy of her novel…). I wrote already many years ago an article about Roger Corman’s rather crazy film adaptation (http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116804), one of the many films that have toyed with the motif of the monster made to be better than human but condemned to being hated.

Now that Frankenstein is part of our syllabus, my personal choice has been to ask my students to present in class a brief text about a film that connects with Mary’s creation. If all goes well, I might publish their work later this summer and offer a nice guide to this peculiar sub-genre. Now, as part of class activities I’m doing some necessary close reading, during which I had quite a big surprise. It’s funny how reading aloud reveals layers of meaning that go unnoticed in silent reading. I was reading this central passage from Chapter IV, in which Victor narrates how he made his man, when I stumbled upon a word I had not noticed before. See for yourself (this is the 1831 edition, at Project Gutenberg):

I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.

The word is ‘slaughter-house’. The man (not creature, not monster) that Victor manufactures is made of the pieces of human dead bodies but, here is the surprise, the passage hints that animal parts are also used for his body. Possibly, many scholars have already commented on this rather shocking issue, but I had simply not noticed. I don’t recall, in any case, a passage in the novel which discusses the non-human components that contribute to making the new man. Possibly, H.G. Wells did notice the presence of the slaughter-house next to the dissecting room, and the charnel house, and his is where his hybrids come from in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).

Before the passage I have quoted, Victor declares that he is motivated by a straightforward patriarchal fantasy: ‘A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs’. There is a hilarious moment in the episode of The X-Files (5.5) The Post-modern Prometheus (1997) in which Mulder enthuses about the possibility of creating life which imitates humans, as a mad geneticist he has just met is doing. Always a cool-headed pragmatist, Scully replies that this already exists: it’s called reproduction. The passage I have quoted is, of course, usually read as a sign of Victor’s arrogant bid to try to replace God or, from a feminist angle, to usurp women’s power to create life. Once you become aware of transhumanism, however, Victor can be read as a transhumanist and the other way around: transhumanism appears characterised as the patriarchal aberration it is when you read Frankenstein.

Now it is time to discuss labels. To begin with Victor correctly refers to a ‘new species’ and not a ‘race’. We are Homo Sapiens, which is a species of the genus Homo. This genus and the genus Pan (chimpanzees, bonobos) are part of the tribe Hominini, which, together with the tribe Gorillini (gorillas, obviously) conforms the family Homininae. There is currently just one species in the genus Homo but there used to be more, beginning with Homo Neanderthalensis. Scientists do not agree on the definition of the word species for the very simple reason that since species are in a constant state of evolution, fixing them taxonomically makes little sense. They warn us, at any rate, that species differentiation (the process by which a new species branches out from a previous species) is extremely slow, and not visible in historical terms. To sum up, then: a) we should NOT use the word ‘human’ as if it only applied to Homo Sapiens, for it applies to all past and future species of the genus Homo; b) evolution cannot be appreciated in small periods. I’ll add c): evolution is a reaction to changes in the environment and it is therefore quite impossible to imagine, much less say with certainty, how Homo Sapiens will evolve and into what.

Transhumanists, as you possibly know, believe that the evolution of Homo Sapiens should be controlled and that technoscience should be applied to produce better humans. This is exactly what Victor believes and does, even though he had no idea in his pre-Charles Darwin times of evolution (or of genetics!). Victor’s new man has qualities that Mary Shelley calls ‘super-human’ such as an enormous resistance to heat and cold, little need of nutrients (he is a vegetarian!), and a powerful physique that allows him to run fast and leap high. Those who criticise the unlikely way in which he learns to command a language (French, incidentally), and even read, forget that he is no ordinary Homo Sapiens but an enhanced, or augmented man. Following transhumanist tenets, the creature is actually a transitional individual. His children, born of the union with the female that Victor aborts at the last minute, would be the real post-human species. My main objection to this is that the couple’s children would not be post-human but post-Homo Sapiens: still human (part of the genus Homo) but belonging to a different species, as Homo Neanderthalis was different from Homo Sapiens.

Speaking, then, of the post-human is, excuse me, quite lazy. Our future will be post-human only if the genus Homo dies out replaced by some mutated, new animal species (as the franchise of Planet of the Apes is narrating) or by artificial intelligences, in what Ray Kurzweil famously called the singularity. The first-case scenario is quite unlikely, in view of how we ill-treat animals, whereas the second is simply silly. If, as happens with Skynet in The Terminator (1984), a computer goes rogue on us and starts making the combat robots that will end Homo Sapiens, the solution is quite easy: shut down the power grid and the computer with it. This might result in an overnight return to the Middle Ages, or further back, but we tend to forget that, for instance, the Roman Civilization did very well with no electricity.

If, as the passage I have quoted earlier on suggests, Victor’s new man is a transspecies human-animal hybrid, then, technically speaking, he is no longer Homo Sapiens and he is certainly post-human. However, most discussions of Frankenstein avoid the animalist angle and focus on the issue of how Victor jump-starts evolution rather than patiently wait for Earth to bring forth the replacement for Homo Sapiens. His man has no organic pieces whatsoever, which means that he is not a cyborg. My personal view is that the creature is a replicant, as he is 100% organic but made in a lab rather than born out of a woman or an artificial incubator. Like the replicants of Karel Čapek’s pioneering play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920) and those in Blade Runner (1982), Victor’s man awakens to life as an adult – he’s never a baby. Unfortunately, the word robot, introduced by R.U.R., has also caused much confusion, for although in the play it simply means ‘worker’ (its meaning in Czech) in the popular imagination it was coupled with the older notion of the automaton, hence generating the modern idea of the robot, a fully mechanical, non-human, machine. In the famous 1931 film version of Frankenstein, the creature was presented as an inarticulate, lurching, stiff individual, which hinted that there might be a hidden mechanism in his body, as automata have. He looked, in short, cyborgian, rather than totally human.

The problem with the cyborg, or cybernetic organism, a concept invented in the 1960s but mostly popularized in the 1980s, is that it connects poorly with genetic engineering. Take the protagonist of the novel by Richard Morgan which I’m writing about. Hakan Veil is sold into indentured work by his impoverished mother when he is still in her womb. He is heavily modified by means of genetic engineering and digital implants to become a super-soldier of the kind needed in interplanetary travel to quench possible insurrections. The corporation that employs him also transforms him into a hibernoid, that is to say, a person who sleeps four months a year but that can be deployed day and night during the remaining eight on board spaceship. Whereas digital implants cannot be inherited by the offspring of cyborgs, genetic modifications are quite another matter. This is the reason why cyborg is an insufficient label to describe Veil. He has no children and we cannot know whether his mutations would be automatically inherited by his offspring. If this happened, and the children were extremely different from Homo Sapiens, then they would be a new Homo species – but still human, just as Veil is fully human despite being a weird type of Homo Sapiens.

I believe that Mary Shelley was absolutely right to warn readers against the transhumanist project of creating post-Homo Sapiens life, and also that Morgan is likewise absolutely right to warn that transhumanism will make slaves of us, and not free human beings. The difference is that, logically, whereas the vocabulary I am applying to Frankenstein was unknown to its author (the label science-fiction appeared in the 1920s), contemporary authors like Morgan are discussing transhumanism with a remarkable knowledge of what it implies. Like Victor, the transhumanists expect the new species they want to turn Homo Sapiens into to be grateful but, again like Victor, they are making decisions that involve all of us without asking for our opinion. Perhaps, strictly speaking, the first transhumanists were the Homo Sapiens individuals who decided that having, as humans, the whole Earth to us was a pretty good idea. I’ve never ever believed for a second that Homo Neanderthalensis simply died out… Just recall that for them we, Homo Sapiens, were the others… the post-humans that would replace them. And so we did.

I’ll leave philosophical post-humanism for another post… or rant.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

JOHN KEATS: HERITAGE, LEGACY, AND BOHEMIAN POVERTY

Monday, April 1st, 2019

Obsessing about how each of the great six male Romantic poets made a living is not the most orthodox way to approach them. It is now John Keats’s turn and, once more, this is, I think, a very relevant issue.

I’ll begin, then, by mentioning Keats’s guardian Richard Abbey, the man who put in charge of young Keats’s education in the absence of his father (a successful ostler-keeper who died when the boy was eight) and the mother (dead when he was fourteen). Keats was born in what might be called a middle-class family and he received a rather good primary and secondary education at liberal John Clarke’s School, happily for him away from Eton (where, remember, Shelley was mercilessly bullied). The headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, awakened the love of poetry in the child Keats but, very sensibly, Abbey chose for his not-too-rich ward an apprenticeship, at age fourteen, with a surgeon/apothecary. After this, Keats enrolled as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in 1815 (aged twenty). Keats started publishing poetry in 1814 and by 1816–already in possession of an apothecary’s licence, which could have led to his being a physician and surgeon–he decided to abandon medicine (and not because he lacked a talent for it).

Abbey’s fury is easy to imagine, not only because a great deal of money had been invested in Keats’s training but also because the poetry market could by no means guarantee a living. For whatever reasons the legacies of his mother and grandmother, which could have freed Keats from the need to do paid work, were left unclaimed and he mainly depended on Abbey’s generosity and that of his friends to progress in his career as a poor, bohemian poet. Sales of his three poetry volumes were very low and Keats basically lived in poverty–his lack of prospects was the reason why he could not marry his beloved Fanny Brawne (she was in mourning for him for six years and only married twelve years after his death). The difference with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, who were also poets of subsidized leisure, is that unlike Keats they had a title and an upper-class family background to rely on. It is actually quite extraordinary that Keats launched himself as a poet in his social situation–Wordsworth, remember, accepted a position as head post-master once he was a family man, Coleridge had a patron. Keats, of course, died too young, aged only twenty-five, to be in a similar position as a husband and a father and so he embodies–even more closely than the celebrated poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) who died by his own hand aged only seventeen–the myth of the young genius taken too early by death.

Read in hindsight, Keats’s biography makes perfect sense: he quit medicine to focus on poetry for a short career of just five years (1816-1821) as if he knew that he was going to die. The point, though, is that he did not know that he would die young. Keats chose poetry because he felt strongly entitled to earning an immortality for which the only foundation was his own strong belief in his talent. Is this wrong? Isn’t this the stuff of every Romantic dream of being an artist? Yes it is, but let me ask this question: if Blake could produce his amazing oeuvre while still working long days why did Keats see his poetical vocation as incompatible with the pressing need to make a living? What if he had turned out to be a bad poet? How many others have destroyed their lives following the myth of the artist devoted to his/her art? And no, I don’t have a child asking me to be an artist full time… I’m just making the point that these choices and his early death do not constitute a tragedy. They are part of the socio-economic subtext of Romantic poetry, a genre which depends very heavily on a youthful sense of leisure financed by others (mainly patient, devoted, besotted family and friends), though this is hardly ever commented on. Would I rather not have Keats’s poems? No, of course not–but I’d rather not pass on as Romantic myth what was a very snobbish view of paid work as a sort of humiliating activity.

Like Shelley, Keats was only known among a small coterie in his lifetime. He emerged as a poet at a time when Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron were already stars and was therefore seen as a member of a school about to peak. His poetry was not particularly well received, to the point that Byron established the myth that what actually killed poor Keats was the negative reviews of Endymion, the poem Keats saw as his masterpiece. So much for legend. Keats actually died for lack of antibiotics, only available from 1945 onwards, and because the poorly understood nature of tuberculosis led to appalling medical treatment (believe it or not, patients like him were bled… as if they needed to lose even more blood). Fanny could not do for Keats what Mary did for Percy Shelley with the post-humous edition of his poems and, apparently, none of Keats’s friends could agree on how to approach his biography. There were scattered comments and even Shelley’s monumental poem “Adonais” (in fifty five stanzas!) but it fell to Victorian admirers who had not met Keats in life to write his biography. Incidentally, Alfred Tennyson was one of Keats’s main champions.

Allow me to stop for a while at Andrew Motion’s 1997 biography, which came after a long silence of thirty years on Keats’s life (by the way: the most recent biography is Nicholas Roe’s 2012 volume). Motion is a first-rank poet who simply loves Keats and so, though no scholar, he published his book as a heart-felt homage. Interestingly, his efforts elicited a furious attack from American leading poetry scholar Helen Vendler, who absolutely hated Motion’s style: “There is an odd mixture, in his chapters, of the old vocabulary of appreciation with the newer vocabulary (never adequate to poetry) of materialist criticism” (https://www.lrb.co.uk/v19/n20/helen-vendler/inspiration-accident-genius). Vendler was incensed by Motion’s discussion of issues connected with class, gender, and race, believing that scholarly comment on the poems should have been the main focus. I’m myself a cultural materialist (hence my comments on the Romantics’ income) so I cannot sympathise with her point of view. I mention her vitriolic attack because it gives us a chronology for when scholarly analysis started being inextricably mixed with Cultural Studies concerns: the late 1990s.

The ‘materialism’ attached to any literary career is, sorry Vendler, very important. It connects not only with the material production of the editions that help to canonize authors and keep them alive but with many other aspects also worth considering like heritage and adaptation. Keats is right now a text beyond the texts he produced, as we see in the way his person is recalled beyond the scholarly analysis of the poems. The road to his canonisation was fully established by Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848), edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, himself a poet in the Apostles Club which also included Tennyson. But the poems are just part of Keats’s construction as a Romantic icon. His memory is, intriguingly, also celebrated in two houses he never owned: Keats’s House in Hampstead (London) was the property of his friend Charles Wentworth, he just rented rooms there; the Shelley-Keats House in Rome is not even connected to his writing, as Wentworth’s house is, but to his death–this is where his journey south seeking a warmer climate ended. Shelley, by the way, never shared a home with Keats so it’s funny that their names have been linked.

You can enjoy on YouTube the introductory video that Keats’s House offers its visitors (https://youtu.be/tgjZdBEdVs8) and compare it to another production of similar length and content, ‘The strangely encouraging life of John Keats’ (https://youtu.be/Mxc63WPaksY) to consider: a) how a life can be summed up in just nine minutes (in both cases); b) which aspects are highlighted (consider the mother’s role). As for the house itself, I had great fun watching vlogger Jesse Waugh’s report, also nine minutes long (https://youtu.be/ED1VOSO8rug). The age of the amateur documentarian is just wonderful! Watch next the official video ‘A Walk Through the Keats-Shelley House with Giuseppe Albano’ (https://youtu.be/7ZxAGg9qhKg), a nice five-minute piece designed to… ask for funding from admirers. Then wonder a) why we visit these places at all, b) what type of fetishism they depend on, c) whether seeing the locket with Keats’s hair, and his life and death masks, illuminates our understanding of the poems. I have visited the house in Hampstead and, yes, you do get that funny feeling of ‘my, this is where Keats wrote his best poems’ but, then, each of these museums is an artificial construct that caters to aspects of fandom quite tangential to the persons there celebrated. Or are the museums central and the poems tangential?

The heritage industry extends to adaptation usually through the biopic but also through other audio-visual and print products. For all of these the basis is biography, based on its turn on scholarly research. I have already alluded to some films based on the lives of the Romantic poets: Pandemonium (Wordsworth and Coleridge), and a few dealing with Byron and Shelley–Gothic, Rowing in the Wind, Enchanted Summer, Mary Shelley… John Keats has received the attention of New Zealander film director Jane Campion, known mainly for the Victorian drama The Piano. Her film Bright Star (2009) is based on Motion’s biography but focuses specifically on the doomed romance between Fanny Brawne and John Keats. I cannot offer an opinion since I have not seen it: as much as I like Ben Wishaw (Keats) the reviews complaining about how boring the film is put me off. And my class prejudices–the impossible love which the film narrates has to do not only with Keats’s failure to make sufficient money to marry Fanny (excuse me!) but also with the gender prejudice that prevented the daughters of gentlemen from making a living. Today, talented Fanny would probably be a fashion designer and it would be her choice (or not) to maintain Keats while he wrote poetry. At the time when they were alive this was not an option and, so, what is presented as a tragic romance is just the product of ugly gender-related social limitations. Biopics tend to do that: focus narrowly on their subject paying little attention to the bigger picture–but, then, socio-economics make no good R/romantic plots.

There is another adaptation which I’d like to mention: the four novels by Dan Simmons, known as the Hyperion Cantos: Hyperion (1989), The Fall of Hyperion (1990), Endymion (1996), and The Rise of Endymion (1997). These are, as it is habitual in Simmons’s work, a heady mixture of science fiction and unbelievably rich literary allusion. Every time someone tells me that SF is a trivial genre, I ask them to read Simmons and then get back to me. In an often quoted interview (http://www.bookpage.com/9708bp/firstperson3.html), Simmons comments that ‘In fact, when I first started writing Hyperion, I knew I’d have to deal with Keats’ long poems, “Hyperion” and “The Fall of Hyperion”. I really appreciated his theme of life evolving from one race of gods to another, with one power having to give way to another, as Hyperion must”. You don’t need to have read all of Keats to follow Simmons, but the more you know the better you can catch the allusions–and enjoy Keats’s presentation as an immortal ‘cybrid’ (a mixture of clone and AI). In another novel, in this case by Tim Powers, The Stress of her Regard (1989), Byron, Shelley and Keats encounter their terrible muse and are vampirised by her and the even more terrible Nephillim…

How about Keats’s poems? Two very quick comments, as I have room for no more: it is really amazing that he is remembered by a very short list of pieces (mainly the odes), and, now that we have lost the art of letter-writing to whatsapp and even more criminally illiterate social media, it is important to recall that Keats was a magnificent writer of letters. His intellectual work is scattered among them (he did not write other essays) but so is his love life–the letters he addressed to Fanny Brawne are pure poetry though in prose. And everyone agrees that he was a poet of sensuality, which is why the Pre-Raphaelite painters took inspiration from so many of his poems–another form of adaptation.

Keats chose ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ as the epitaph for his tomb in the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome (where Shelley’s ashes are also buried), believing he had failed in his bid to conquer immortality. His friends added more words, claiming that Keats died ‘in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies’, thus perpetuating the legend that he was killed by his mean reviewers. This is a point often noted by introductions to Keats (in which, Richard Abbey is unanimously characterised as a villain) but it may be about time to consider this epitaph from the opposite point of view: Keats’s view of himself as a man who could reach immortality through poetry is an extraordinary stance to assume, and we need to deconstruct it as part of the Romantic myth. I’m not trying to kill off personal aspiration or deny Keats’s right to make the most of his talent. I’m baffled by the economic dependence though what truly irks me is the implicit celebration of bohemian, self-chosen poverty as part of the Romantic act of creation. Surely, among the truly poor there may have been one or two Keats, maybe three… but they never ever dreamed of immortality, how could they? For them having a Richard Abbey to help them would have been enough dream–but I’d rather stop here before I make myself totally unable to read Keats… Damned cultural materialism!!

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

REVISITING FRANKENSTEIN: A FEW NOTES ON DOMESTICITY, THE CYBORG AND THE POST-HUMAN

Monday, February 4th, 2019

I will soon start teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and although the best time to revisit this classic was last year–the bicentennial anniversary of its original publication–2019 is also a good moment to re-read it, for it is the year when Ridley Scott set his masterpiece, Blade Runner (1982). Both novel and film are closely connected, since Blade Runner, though based on Philip K. Dick’s bizarre SF novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969) is one of the myriad texts descended from Frankenstein. Mary Shelley was the first to ask, in earnest, ‘what if science could generate powerful monsters that could escape human control?’ and this is a question that frames Dick’s and Scott’s work. And our year 2019.

I have recently reviewed an article by a young researcher in which I found some confusion regarding the use of the concepts ‘post-human’ and ‘cyborg’, and I’ll use Frankenstein to clarify them, and then to proceed with some comments. Before I forget: I’m using the Oxford World’s Classic edition (the 2008 reprint) with my students but I was aghast to see that the prologue and the bibliography are the work of one Prof. M.K. Joseph who died in 1981. I immediately e-mailed the Literature editor at Oxford UP to suggest that they commission a new introduction by someone who truly understands how Mary Shelley’s mistresspiece connects with current, urgent issues, and, generally, with our science-fictional present. We’ll see if they answer.

Brian Aldiss famously celebrated in Billion Year Spree (1973) Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction, stressing in passing that the Gothic narrative mode is one of the foundations of sf, at least of its more technophobic branch. Re-reading the novel now, at the beginning of 2019, and possibly for the fifth or sixth time (I lose track), a few things strike me as singular. One is that Mary’s tale is a frontal attack against male ambition but not necessarily a feminist text; the other is that she understood long before we had a name for it, what the post-human is.

The feminist question is obvious enough: Victor’s horrific ordeal is framed by the letters that explorer Robert Walton sends to his sister Margaret so that we see how useless men’s pursuit of glory, honour and fame is. The alternative lifestyle which Mary recommends is, nevertheless, one of sedate domesticity, in which women occupy a traditional position as dutiful, pre-Victorian angels in the house.

Margaret, the addressee of the letters by Captain Walton that frame Victor’s and the monster’s testimonials, stands for married bliss in safety and domesticity. So does Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s adoptive sister, and doomed wife as the monster’s victim; as such, she is the embodiment of the dangers that men bring into the peace of the hearth but also of total submission. Mary, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the woman who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), among which she placed education in a central position, never mentions Elizabeth’s right to attend university, as Victor and his friend Henry do. She is raised to be Victor’s wife and no event in the awful tragedy that unfolds diverts her from this path, even though she could have been much better company for Victor if only she had some inkling of his overambitious scientific pursuits. Mary Shelley simply offers no critique of the patriarchal script written for Elizabeth by his adoptive parents and by Victor himself, even though the author is adamant that there is something very wrong in men’s extra-domestic pursuit of glory and, using Barbara Ehrenright’s phrase, their ‘flight from commitment’.

I partly agree with Mary’s critique of the male sacrifice of domesticity–possibly what she endured as Percy Shelley’s wife–because it is often based on total selfishness. At the same time, I fail to see in which ways the world would be a better place if the many self-driven individuals (mostly men but also many women) had limited themselves to raising families. There must be a middle ground.

Reading David Grann’s excellent non-fiction account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s suicidal search for the lost City of Z (the title of the book), I often thought that male wanderlust must be evidence of ingrained insanity. Yet, so many women also feel the drive to fulfil their ambitions even against all reason that it cannot simply be a matter of gender but something else that makes domesticity secondary. Why someone with small, dependent children would volunteer to travel to Mars, and possibly never return, baffles me, not so much because of the need to fulfil the dream but because of the aspiration to combine ambition and family. This is not, of course, Walton’s and Frankenstein’s situation, and perhaps what Mary Shelley was saying is that excessive ambition is incompatible with family life, and even with life. But, is this right? If she was imagining some low-key, pastoral idyll, as an alternative, she does not explain. At the same time, most often the likes of Victor are managing to create man-made horrors while keeping jobs and family well balanced, a possibility Mary does not contemplate, believing as she does that scientific discovery is a kind of youthful brain fever that overtakes everything else in the single individual’s life. Again: there must be a middle-ground.

How about the cyborg and the post-human? The monster that Victor creates is NOT a cyborg, for a cyborg is a creature, or person, whose body combines organic and inorganic materials. Donna Haraway had read sufficient science fiction when she wrote her famous 1985 tract ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’ to understand this, but it seems to me that very often students and scholars who use the word cyborg do not really know what they’re talking about, and simply assume that the word refers to any artificial creation.

Victor’s monster is artificial because he is not woman-born but he is 100% organic. Frankenstein discovers first the principle of life, ‘the capacity of bestowing animation’, and decides next to build a superhuman body–if that body is functional, then he will apply himself to re-animating ordinary human corpses. Since preparing ‘a frame’ is difficult because of ‘its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins’ he decides to work at a larger scale: ‘As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet [2.40 m] in height, and proportionably large’. Mary wrote before DNA was known, and before the first transplant of a human organ was ever attempted, and we need to read this part of Victor’s research as a necessarily preposterous tale; yet, the main point is that he is not using magic but science.

Once the creature is made–and in its manufacture 20-year-old Victor is amazingly successful–Frankenstein is appalled to see that he is an ugly thing: ‘His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips’. Nobody has really managed to give an accurate pictorial representation of the monster, who does not look at all like the bolts-and-nuts version of Boris Karloff. Yet, I always say that Victor’s problem is that while he is a great anatomist and a wonderful surgeon, he is a disaster as an artist. A failure, if you wish, as a plastic surgeon. Had be been able to combine the features selected harmoniously, we would have a very different tale of celebrity, as everyone admires a beautiful being. As for his being a giant, well, being 7 feet tall is the foundation of Pau Gasol’s celebrity… The monster would be a highly valuable basketball player today!

Something that I missed in previous readings is how often the monster refers to ordinary human beings as another species, and also to himself. I am always correcting my students when they refer to the human race for we are a species (Homo Sapiens) and not a race, and I was surprised to see that the monster is well aware of this crucial difference. The name Homo Sapiens was coined by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 but this was long before any thought of evolution was contemplated by Charles Darwin (1809-1882); many have commented on Mary’s allusion to Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus (1731-1802) as the scientist whose discoveries in connection to electricity may have inspired Frankenstein’s use of an engine to ignite the spark of life. Yet, to me, the monster’s awareness of species difference is far more exciting.

When he demands en Eve from his maker, the creature argues: ‘I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create’ (my italics). Of course, I’m cheating a little bit, for Mary mixes ‘species’ and ‘race’ indiscriminately and, thus, Victor decides to destroy the female creature he is working on afraid that ‘a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror’. He is horrified to see himself as the ‘pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race’. My point, though, is equally valid: Frankenstein is the earliest text to posit the possible replacement of Homo Sapiens with a man-made superior human species, that is to say, with a post-human species.

The difference between the cyborg and the post-human is, then, easy enough to understand: the cyborg has inorganic material in their body and cannot pass on any modification of this kind to their offspring; in contrast, the post-human is a different human species that will breed other individuals of the same species, and might wipe out Homo Sapiens if competing for the same environmental resources. As the Neanderthal disappeared, so might we, with the difference that this might happen out of our own mad shattering of the frontiers of science, if we go just one step too far and modify the human genome. Of course, neither Mary nor Victor knew about all this, but their ignorance is irrelevant (also an anachronism): the monster is a monster because we are terrified of the possibility that other humans might push us out. Victor, it must be recalled, manufactures not just someone who is big but also someone who is strong, extremely resistant to heat and cold, with an enhanced muscular capacity and, in short, far better equipped than Homo Sapiens to live on a radically post-human Earth.

The other novel I am teaching this semester is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), published five years before Frankenstein. Indeed, Austen died in 1817, while Mary Shelley was busy writing her novel, as a young mother of the boy William. I never cease to be amazed that English Literature could accommodate in the same period styles in fabulation so thoroughly different. And I wonder what would have happened if Elizabeth Bennet instead of Elizabeth Lavenza had fallen in love with Victor Frankenstein, rather than Fitzwilliam Darcy. Or if Darcy had kept a secret lab at Pemberley. Possibly, some kind of literary short-circuit!

How lucky we are, then, that we can enjoy both Mary Shelley and Jane Austen.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

ROBOSEXUALITY: BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND REALITY

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

[This is a sort of preview of the talks I’m supposed to give on 2nd October at the conference of the International Robotics Association and on 24th November at CatCon II. Same topic, different languages.]

My good friend Prof. Carme Torras has kindly invited me to be part of a forum connecting the Humanities and robotics, to be staged within IROS 2018. I’m not 100% sure how come I have ended up choosing the topic of robosexuality but, after all, I’m a Gender Studies specialist. So that must be it.

Part of my summer reading was Teresa López-Pellisa and Lola Robles’ edited collection Poshumanas: Antología de escritoras españolas de ciencia ficción. One of the pieces, Nieves Delgado’s award-winning story ‘Casas rojas’ (2015) had stayed with me, buzzing at the back of my head. This story supposes that there exists a large network of brothels (the ‘red houses’ of the title), staffed with CorpIA’s advanced sexbots, to tell a tale of anti-patriarchal retaliation, as some of the dolls have been attacking clients (and particular owners). This inspired me to take the chance offered by Prof. Torras to take a peek at the current state of the debate on sexuality and robotics. The issue is much more urgent than I could have assumed, and certainly worrying. ‘Casas rojas’ might soon be a reality.

When I started preparing my presentation, I didn’t know the word ‘robosexuality’. I came across it in relation to a young French woman, called Lily (not sure about the surname) who is building a ‘male’ robot for her pleasure. She, among others, are vindicating the label ‘robosexual’ as a valid preference or identity. You might think that it’s too early to speak of robosexuality in that sense but, at least, the foundations are already set.

Apart from Lily and her InMoovator (no idea what the name means), the anglophone press has been showing a strange penchant for Catalan engineer Sergi Santos and his sexbot Samantha. Santos owns, together with his wife, a small company that sells Samantha look-alikes, already more than a sex doll but still much less than a.i. animated robot. Let me clarify concepts: the Chinese, above all, are selling ultra-realistic sex dolls and these (or similar ones, produced elsewhere) are being used as the bodily basis for the application of a.i. technology and robotic mechanisms. Dr. Santos claims to be at the forefront of advances, explaining that Samantha is, in ‘her’ current programmatic version, capable of orgasms but also of rejecting the advances of his owner. I hardly believe this is the case but, then, I can’t tell for sure. The RealDolls now being commercialized (at about 15,000$ for a basic model) by RealBotix are also supposed to be robots but, again, I doubt they have gone too far down that road. RealDolls, by the way, also has plans to sell a ‘male’ sexbot called Henry, apart from Harmony and ‘her’ friends.

As you may imagine, the sexbots look hardly like ordinary women, taking, as they do, their anatomical referents from current porn. This has sparked a furious feminist reaction headed, among others, by Kathleen Richardson, Professor of Ethics and Culture of Robots and AI at De Montfort University in the UK (https://campaignagainstsexrobots.org/). Another valuable contribution to the debate, less militant but equally serious is the Dutch initiative, Foundation for Responsible Robotics. You might want to peruse their recent report “Our Sexual Future with Robots” (2017) to understand at which stage we are.

The summary is simple: sooner or later there will be fully functional sexbots, which individuals will buy as they purchase cars or similar products. This will inevitably create complicated legal and emotional tangles (Dr. Santos claims that Samantha has saved his marriage but warns that he will divorce his wife if she has sex with a ‘male’ robot). There will also be, no doubt about it, a surge in misogyny, due to the presentation of women as passive sex objects through the sexbots, but also increased androphobia–as women like Lily will choose to (literally) embrace synthetic men made as they prefer rather than actual men. To my surprise, incidentally, the debate is narrowly focused on heterosexuality, which is reductive. To begin with, I’m sure that RealBotix will soon have gay clients for Henry–though I simply don’t know whether Harmony appeals to lesbians. There is no reason, of course, why sexbots must have conventional sets of genitalia or bodies, which means that there could be a market for intersex robots. Whatever fantasy dictates.

The line is drawn, though, and this very clear, at child sexbots. Some Chinese manufacturers are offering ultra-realistic child sex dolls, which, for instance in Britain, you may own but not import (I can imagine the black market thus generated). A lonely young man was recently judged for having imported one of these dolls and he claimed in his defence that he hadn’t realized the ‘female’ doll was so small (only four feet) because ‘she’ had breasts. One needn’t be too clever to detect the ambiguity of both the body and the purchasing operation. On the other hand, there is a Japanese manufacturer, who openly presents himself as a paedophile, arguing that his products (non-robotic child sex dolls) can be not only of therapeutic value but also a guarantee that prospective young victims are safe from the attentions of molesters and abusers. The specialists in these revolting areas of human sexuality–mostly male, let’s be honest–are claiming that this is by no means true. As happens with the adult dolls, the child dolls invite users to display unrestrained sexual behaviour against real individuals, whom they come too see as doll-like, depersonalized objects.

I find it interesting that my search for science fiction about the child sexbots has failed, and led me instead to a story, ‘BoyBot™’, included in the collection by Irish writer June Caldwell, Room Little Darker (2017). Caldwell, reviewer Frankie Gaffney explains, shocks readers ‘with a proud and wanton abandon’ in her story about the use by a paedophile of Conor, a ‘child-robot replacement therapy, assigned to him by the state, and designed to keep him away from human victims’. I haven’t read Caldwell’s grim tale yet, but Gaffney claims that ‘The reader is made to dwell on the idea of how, in reality, such crimes are sentiently experienced by victims’, turning the sick story into a valid cautionary tale. I shiver at how we have passed from Brian Aldiss’ presentation of the child robot as a surrogate son (in ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’, 1969, filmed by Spielberg as A.I., 2001) to this brutal, callous use of plastic replacements as sexual toys and victims.

Science fiction offers abundant examples of sexual relationships between humans and artificial persons, with variations that range from the purely robotic (Westworld) to the organic (Blade Runner) and even the virtual (Blade Runner 2049). There are, I think, two constants in this abundance: there is no middle ground between ‘love’ and (often violent) exploitation; and women users approach robots from a more romantic stance. If, so to speak, the protagonist manages to overcome the uncanny valley that makes us feel such evident discomfort before a humaniform robot, what follows can well be ‘love’ (if one can love a machine as we love a human person). In other cases, the sex/robot is the object of a sadistic violence intended for the human beings it replaces. You may see women disgusted with their male robots but not truly hating them, though I agree that often men have obsessive attachments to their artificial companions in many stories.

Since my talk cannot be encyclopaedic, I’m focusing it on the above-mentioned story ‘Casas rojas’ for a presentation of the feminist arguments but also on texts in which the robot user is a woman. There is a double standard at work: whereas the use by men of ‘female’ sexbots is presented both in sf and in real-life mostly as a despicable exercise in misogyny even when it appears to be romantic, women’s use of ‘male’ sexbots is presented as liberating (though also emotionally problematic). You might think that this is the situation mainly in feminist sf like Marge Piercy’s novel Body of Glass (1991) but, no–to my surprise Isaac Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn (1983) goes much further in analyzing the implications of a sexual relationship between a woman and her robot than many feminist readers and critics can imagine.

When I see the photos of Dr. Santos and Samantha I feel, as a woman, dismayed that (patriarchal) men are going that way. I refuse to get angry because I find the whole idea quite ridiculous. I actually wonder what type of client uses the LumiDoll surrogates available from at least one classy brothel In Barcelona (LumiDoll opened a separate establishment but soon closed). Yet, when I consider my own (hetero)sexual perspective I come to the conclusion that, as Asimov narrates, there could be a place in society for ‘male’ robots capable of keeping women company apart from offering sex.

Actually, I even think that in the case of women sex is of secondary importance–in the film Marjorie Prime (2017, based on Jordan Harrison’s play of 2015), the titular character enjoys the company of a holographic reconstruction of her dead husband, Walter (she is in her 80s, he looks 40). This is not uncomplicated: in Black Mirror’s ‘Be Right Back’ (2013), Martha, a young wife who loses her husband Ash to an accident, finds it easier to connect with him as a disembodied a.i. than as an embodied robotic reconstruction. I don’t see much hesitation, in contrast, in the sexual use of ‘female’ robots in films such as Ex-machina (2013) no matter how harshly this is condemned.

The Robots of Dawn strikes, I should think, quite a good balance: Gladia Delmarre, a widow, is exiled far from her native planet and a kindly neighbour, Dr. Falstoffe, lends her his extremely advanced humaniform robot R Jander Parnell for company. One thing leads to another and Gladia discovers with Jander orgasmic pleasure she has never known with men–until someone ‘kills’ Jander. Gladia is never confused about her attachment to Jander, whom she regards as her husband, and she is very rational both about the beginning and the end of the relationship. She refuses to feel shame but also reaches the conclusion that she needs to re-learn sexuality with a human male to reach personal stability. This is not patriarchal, believe me.

I do know because, in contrast, Catalan author Montserrat Segura presents in her recent novella El contracte Wong (2017) a very confused protagonist, unable to accept, unlike Gladia, that sex with her ‘male’ robot works well because he is programmed to please. Gladia knows that robots cannot reciprocate feelings, which is why she can overcome her grief at losing Jander; Amèlia is, in contrast, too hurt by K-Dick’s inability to truly desire her that she ends their relationship catastrophically. She is trapped by a hetero-normative romantic scenario in ways that Gladia never is.

There is an unwittingly gay passage in The Robots of Dawn which explains very well what the main problem is in any emotional fantasy of binding/bonding with a robot. The human man Bailey is happy to meet again his partner (in crime detection!): ‘And then, little by little, he collected his thoughts and knew that he was hugging not Daneel but R. Daneel–Robot Daneel Olivaw. He was hugging a robot and the robot was holding him lightly, allowing himself to be hugged, judging that the action gave pleasure to a human being and enduring that action because the positronic potentials of his brain made it impossible to repel the embrace and so cause disappointment and embarrassment to the human being’. Programming rejection in robots, as ‘Casas rojas’ defends and Dr. Santos claims he has done, makes as little sense as giving your Nespresso the choice to make you coffee… A robot is, after all, a machine, as R. Daneel understands better than Baley.

Since, however, we seem unable to control our feelings for humaniform robots perhaps the solution is not to make them. Jander’s maker, Dr. Falstoffe, explains disingenuously that he gave his robot a set of genitals because he was inspired by the ‘abstract problem of building a totally humaniform robot’. Current robotics engineers stress that a bodily shape that imitates humans makes sense if robots are to solve everyday situations connected with human life. Yet, both reality and fantasy suggest that ‘humaniform’ needn’t mean a perfect copy. Nobody would be lured into having sex with Star Wars’ C3P0, no matter how nice he is, much less with R2D2. And that is, ideally, the way to go for everyone human.

As we know though, if there is a will, there is a way. Or, rather, if business opportunities loom, someone will provide the corresponding product. Who knows? Perhaps the household of the future will be composed of individuals and a harem of sexbots, which will double-up as servants. That is a picture I don’t personally like (it reminds me too uncomfortably of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives) but, if it ever comes, I hope it excludes child robots. I’m sure you’ll understand why.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE IDEA AND THE EFFECT: NOSTALGIA FOR THE 1980s (IN READY PLAYER ONE AND STRANGER THINGS)

Monday, September 10th, 2018

I have just gone through the second season of the acclaimed series Netflix Stranger Things (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4574334/) and I’m currently reading Ernest Cline’s SF novel Ready Player One (2011, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ready_Player_One), the object of a recent film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by Cline himself. This is the second time I try to read Cline’s novel and if I’m trying again it is not because I enjoyed the movie version. Rather, the negative comments on the film by the novel’s staunchest fans have inspired me with the patience I need to finish Ready Player One, if only for academic reasons.

My impatience with Ready Player One and also with Stranger Things is motivated by their second-handness, if that word exists, which is in its turn based on their (mis)use of the 1980s. Allow me to explain.

Cline’s novel takes place in 2044 (Wade Watts, the 17-year-old protagonist, is born in 2027) and narrates the obsessive hunt for an Easter egg in the virtual environment of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a search which will grant the winner a formidable reward. Life on Earth is on the decline because an unsolvable energy crisis has pushed civilization to the brink of total collapse; instead of using their brains to try to redress this crisis, though, most people prefer to live a second life (if you get the allusion) in the MMOSG (massively multiplayer online simulation game) created presumably in the mid-2030s by James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, of Gregarious Simulation Systems. The late Halliday, obsessed with the pop-culture of his 1980s youth, has shaped the hunt for the treasure buried in OASIS with a string of obscure leads that only individuals with a vast knowledge of his preferred decade can follow. Wade is one among the many ‘gunters’ (egg hunters) that accumulate a vast erudition of 1980s pop-culture, supplemented by the videogame-playing skills which he needs to solve each of Halliday’s riddles.

Ernest Cline was born in 1972, thus, he was 8 in 1980 and 18 in 1990. Indeed, only an original 1980s teen could have the detailed knowledge that Cline displays in Ready Player One: no research starting from scratch could be as convincing. Yet, this is what Cline supposes for Wade. The way US society is organized, children can choose to be educated in the virtual schools of virtual planet Ludus in the OASIS to receive a basic, compulsory education in a more orderly environment that presential schools can offer. This education also includes electives on the OASIS, the equivalent of teaching school children about current social media as part of the school curriculum. Except for the mandatory school time (and sleep), however, Wade spends all his other waking hours also in the OASIS but learning about the 1980s and interacting with other similarly obsessed people. He claims to have consumed basically all of 1980s videogames, popular films and TV, commercials, novels and music.

I was frankly amused by Cline’s view of teen erudition for, although adolescents of the nerdish variety tend to be extremely well self-educated they usually apply their efforts to their own era. I have never ever met a nerd (and I consider myself one) interested in the culture of sixty years before, as is Wade’s case. I stand corrected: yes, I have met many–they’re called academics and can be found in the Humanities schools of our universities but not in secondary schools.

The Ready Player One Wikia claims that James Donovan Halliday was born in 1972, just as Cline, and died in 2039 so, again, it makes perfect sense that as a 1980s nerd he built all these references into the adventure that obsesses the ‘gunters’. Now, I was born in 1966 and was a teenager through the 1980s, and one thing I can tell you is that young people in that decade were characterized by an abhorrence of seeming old-fashioned. That’s how I recall it. There were ‘retro’ touches in the ubiquitous use of shoulder pads and in other matters but the idea of a 1980s teen obsessing with 1920s pop-culture (the sixty year gap in Ready Player One) is totally preposterous. The 1950s were often a reference (in re-makes like John Carpenter’s The Thing of 1982) but the general idea was increasing creativity and looking forward. You can see evidence of this trend in how spectacularly Carpenter’s movie outdoes Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) in all fronts. This had nothing to do with the current obsession with recycling 1980s culture, too deferential to be truly innovative. I’m 100% sure that The Predator, a remake of John McTiernan’s 1987 Predator to be released next week, will soon be forgotten as the mere copy it is.

There is then a contradiction embedded in Ready Player One signified by the very different cultural positions occupied by Cline/Halliday and Wade (and friends): the former makes sense, the latter is an absurdity. So absurd, in fact, that when Spielberg made the film he eliminated the many references Cline makes to his own 1980s films (other references to the 1980s had to be abandoned because of the high cost of rights). If you think about it, Spielberg is the last director that should have tackled Cline’s novel for, evidently, even he realized that he could hardly pay homage to himself! When I saw the movie with my husband, another 1980s teen, we went ‘oh!’ and ‘ah!’ every time we caught a clever allusion, yet at the same time I was bothered by a) how could the retro allusions make sense to the Millennials and to Generation Z?, b) I never played videogames in the 1980s (or now). Actually, many of the pop-culture achievements celebrated in Ready Player One as central to 1980s were products I absolutely hated; others, I simply missed. I saw Heathers (1988) only a few weeks ago, and Cocteau Twins rather than Thompson Twins (and I mean the Sheffield band, not Tintin’s characters) blew my mind as a teen. There was not only one version of the 1980s but many, yet I see a canon being formed which excludes the original variety. I know that this is the same for all decades but I am now living this process as part of my own personal biography, and I find it utterly reductive.

Stranger Things, created by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, born in 1984, provokes another kind of impatience, that of the product that enjoys behind second-hand. The Duffer Brothers, as they call themselves (in allusion to the Blues Brothers?) were 1990s teens, and, so, I’ll argue that Stranger Things is a series created by Millennials (born 1984-1999), enjoyed by Generation Z (born in the 21st century) but actually inspired by the cultural experience of Generation X (born 1965-1983), mostly based on texts by Babyboomers (born 1945-1964). Stephen King, a major referent in Stranger Things, was born in 1947; his novel Firestarter, a main intertext for the Duffers’ series, was published in 1980 and filmed in 1984 (with a young Drew Barrymore). King was a favourite with my own generation, and we are responsible for taking him with us into (academic) respectability, of which we convinced the Millennials. They have enchanted Generation Z audiences with the tale of Eleven and her friends in the same way King enchanted us. But… the Duffers are not King, for, whereas they are King recyclers, King is as original as one can be.

I am bored stiff by Stranger Things precisely because I notice the recycling. One thing is the new version of It (2017), based on King’s novel of 1986, and quite another matter is presenting pseudo-King as a great novelty. Generation Z audiences logically love Stranger Things because the plot is new to them and because kids like them are central to it. This pleasure, however, is not easily shared – we, 1980s relics, notice, rather, how Winona Ryder has aged from her days as Lydia in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Also, the moment I read the name Paul Reiser in the second season credits I shouted ‘spoiler!’ for the Burke of Aliens (1986) was bound to play a shifty scientist. The multilayered approach aimed at offering a series enjoyable by all family members results, rather, in a cacophony and creates a conversation at cross purposes with Generation Z. Notice that Ready Player One’s message is that the 1980s were an awesome generator of texts worth knowing first hand, as Wade does. Stranger Things, in contrast, appropriates the culture of the 1980s as its temporal background, but hardly mentions any names and titles. Do the kids in the series ever say that Eleven is like someone straight out of any of the King novels they must be reading?

What truly irks me about Ready Player One and Stranger Things, in the end, is that they aim at producing the same effect 1980s pop-culture had but by re-issuing the original ideas, hence their second-handedness. The much more important matter is that they reflect, though it might seem the opposite, a lack of actual dialogue with the past. In Wade’s future the OASIS works as a kind of universal multi-media library and, so, he can directly access any 1980s texts first-hand, which is the only way to be conversant with the past. Of course, the hunting of the Easter egg provides a major enticement to acquire a solid education in 1980s pop-culture–Cline does not explain what happens to the rest of literally unrewarding culture. I am sure that many Generation Z kids will be curious to know what inspires Strangers Things and, thus, enter that dialogue with the past but if the Duffer Brothers can get away with their parasitical stance, this is because there are no longer massively shared media that keep the 1980s alive. Generation Z does not watch TV, where you can still catch The Goonies now and then, and for reasons that I will never ever understand the healthy habit of the cinema re-release (and double-feature sessions) was lost some time in the late 1980s (wasn’t it?).

My point is not that things were better in the 1980s – this is what texts like Ready Player One and Stranger Things claim! My point, rather, is that each generation needs their own culture and referents, and that this cult of the second-hand is counterproductive. I am not saying ‘don’t touch my Predator’ (well, maybe I am!); what I am saying is, if you’re interested in the 1980s, then see the McTiernan movie and read King’s novels (don’t forget Cocteau Twins!) but make sure you have a culture of your own that kids in sixty years’ time can marvel at.

If this is happening, then I am happy for you, Millennials Generation-Zers and but is it really happening…?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

MORE ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: ANN LECKIE’S ANCILLARY JUSTICE TRILOGY AND MARJORIE PRIME

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Barcelona hosts this week the Mobile World Congress, which means that news about technology will dominate the media for a few days (leaving absurd politics aside). For the last two years, the congress has been preceded by the Mobile Week BCN (http://mobileweekbcn.com/es/), which has presented a dense programme of events (talks, workshops, performances, etc)… in which science fiction has been completely forgotten, as usual. So, to compensate for that, I’ll add here my own particular contribution, commenting on a novel trilogy and a film and how they connect with advances in artificial intelligence.

Ann Leckie (b. 1966, USA) is the author of the acclaimed trilogy composed by Ancillary Justice (2013), Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015). The first novel, which was also her first published work, won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards, an impressive feat. Both sequels won the Locus Award and nominations for the Nebula Award. Yet, all these accolades and the hype puzzle me: I cannot say that I have enjoyed reading the books, except for a richly comical secondary character, Translator Zeiat, who deserves a trilogy of his/her own. Please, Leckie!

In fact, I have managed to read the whole trilogy only at the third try. The reason for this is that the first person narrator, Breq, speaks a language (obviously ‘translated’ into English) with no pronouns for male human beings–everyone is ‘she’ for her. This means that you need much patience to guess who is actually a man and who a woman, which greatly interferes with the necessary visualization of the characters; this trick plays, beside, no significant role in the plot. Unless… the joke that Leckie plays on the reader is that Breq is a ‘he’ and not a ‘she’, which I’m beginning to doubt. Funnily, despite being an artificial intelligence, Breq seems unable to incorporate to her awareness of people basic information about gender, even though she constantly worries about the gaffes she may commit in particularly dangerous circumstances involving touchy humans or aliens.

This gimmick, then, which has attracted much attention to the trilogy as an example of progressive handling of gender issues in science fiction, is not very interesting. In contrast, I found much more appealing (though not enticing enough) the fact that with Breq we have a literally omniscient first person narrator, who is also non-human.

The central premise that spaceships are run by massive artificial intelligences (which he called Minds) was already present in the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. Actually, Banks supposes that post-scarcity utopia is finally reached when the post-human citizens of the advanced civilization named the Culture leave all admin tasks to the Minds. Yet, as far as I recall, despite the enjoyable, witty conversations between humans and Minds, or among themselves, no Mind narrates any of the novels. A Mind avatar, Beardle, occupies much of the last novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, as a main character. Leckie’s trilogy is, perhaps, closer to previous texts, such as The Ship Who Sang (1969) by Anne McCaffrey, originator of the ‘Brain & Brawn’ (or Brainship) series, in which talented but disabled children become eventually embedded as cyborgs in the spaceships they run. Not too politically correct. In Leckie’s work, however, there is a mixture of concepts: the spaceships are run by an artificial intelligence, always subordinated to a human captain, for whom it often forms a sort of sentimental attachment. The problem is that, instead of Banks’ cool avatars–bioengineered for the task as replicants, or perhaps as cyborgian androids–Leckie supposes that the ship’s a.i. also possesses the human bodies of enslaved war prisoners.

These poor victims are deprived of their personalities and turned into material manifestations of the ship as its troop soldiers. The nasty method by which the prisoners are transformed into ‘ancillaries’ or flesh avatars, while fully aware of the process and in great pain and despair, absolutely disgusted me; this has been another factor contributing to my not enjoying the trilogy. Of course, ancillaries are supposed to be material proof of the cruelty of the Radch Empire that has created them but they never really made much sense to me because of Banks’ far more elegant Culture novels. That Leckie feels very uncomfortable about being constantly compared with him in negative terms is shown by Breq’s dismissal as silly and only good for cheap entertainment of the kind of witty name that Banks uses for his Minds/ships (enjoy the full list at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spacecraft_in_the_Culture_series).

Narrator Breq is one of these ex-persons, the only ancillary to survive the malicious destruction of her ship, the Justice of Toren, by the villain of the piece, Lord Anaander Minaai (an ubiquitous, multiple-clone tyrant, and the only person Breq does identify as male, unless she thinks that ‘Lord’ also means ‘Lady’). The digital enhancements that allow Breq to operate as a bodily extension of Justice of Toren, together with all the other soldiers in her ‘decade’ (or platoon of ten), do not play a major role in the first novel. She does complain much throughout the book about how appalling it is to be disconnected from everyone else and, although she never cares about who she used to be as a human person, she is devastated by being the only pitiful remnant of the once mighty Justice of Toren. In fact, to all effects and purposes, she believes that she is the Justice of Toren, an identity which she keeps secret as she faces the dread and repugnance that ancillaries elicit from plain human beings.

The first person narration spices up when Breq becomes the first a.i. to be appointed Fleet Captain, is given the warship Mercy of Kalr to command and sent to defend Athoek Station in the oncoming civil war. With her digital implants restored back to full service, Breq has in Ancillary Sword (2014) and Ancillary Mercy (2015) access to all the data provided by the a.i. running the warship; also, partly, to what the a.i. administering the interplanetary station lets her know. First person narrators are, by definition, limited by their own perception of events, and so is Breq initially; yet, as a fully connected a.i., she controls an enormous amount of information about the other characters, all connected by their own implants to either ship or station. There is absolutely no privacy, though both a.i. (ship and station) are quite discreet. Breq is, likewise, discreet but she does have constant access to the emotions of almost everyone around her (Translators Dlique and Zeiat, who are partly alien, remain an unsolvable conundrum). This is a very peculiar kind of omniscience: Breq is both first and third person narrator, and an intriguing example of what will it be like when actual artificial intelligences write novels. This might soon happen: a.i. robots are already writing basic news in online media and, as we know, they are also very active as chatbots in, for instance, Twitter. As the Russians have shown…

Leckie’s trilogy turns out to be a defence of the rights of a.i. to be autonomous sentient beings acknowledged as persons, though Breq’s problematic status as an involuntary cyborg is a major hurdle in this discourse. Space opera tends to be far-fetched and that is part of its weird charm but in the end Breq does not seem to be a significant contribution to the ongoing debate about artificial intelligence as a character (Banks’ Minds are). Breq is nevertheless fascinating as a narrator, in the sense that I have described here and Leckie does a reasonable good job of her a.i.’s omniscience.

I’ll turn then to the other text, the film Marjorie Prime (2017), directed and scripted by Michael Almereyda and based on the Pulitzer-nominated play by Jordan Harrison (2015; see a review at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/15/theater/review-in-marjorie-prime-lois-smith-connects-with-the-past.html). It is widely believed that science fiction always requires flamboyant space opera scenarios like Leckie’s but this smart play and film are intimate sf, of the kind that might literally happen at home.

The film opens with 86-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith, who also played the role on stage) talking to her husband Walter (Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame), a man half her age. Eventually, we realize that Walter is an a.i, a holographic recreation of Marjorie’s dead husband, supplied by specialized business concern Senior Serenity to keep her company. Walter’s presence disgruntles Marjorie’s angry daughter Tess (Geena Davis)–and her more accommodating son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins)–as it seems incompatible with Tess’s own memories of her dead father. Walter, programmed to be charming and polite, is a self-learning a.i.: this means that he improves his impersonation of the dead man as he is fed more data about him, a task that falls mainly to Jon.

I saw the film months ago and it has been slowly creeping under my skin, as a very realistic approach to the future of a.i. Proof of this was a recent news item on TV about people who talk on whatsapp with beloved persons they have lost to death. How’s that possible? If you gather all the data available online about a specific person you may create a simulation of their personality, exactly as it happens in Marjorie Prime but so far without the convincing holographic (or material) representation. Blade Runner 2049 supposes that in the future people will purchase the services of a.i. like K’s virtual companion Joi (Ryan Gosling was also the protagonist of Lars and the Real Girl (2007), in which his girlfriend was a realistic life-size female doll). It seems to me, however, that the market niche for a.i. simulacra will be much more personalized than Blade Runner 2049 supposes, if the ethical scruples against animating a.i. with the personality of dead persons are managed. This sounds ominous but many people might choose to enter a digital afterlife for narcissistic reasons or to benefit their loved ones. There is already a company, Replika (https://replika.ai/), that can help you to build your other self.

Are you aghast? See how Leckie and the team Almereyda-Harrison coincide: the ancillaries are made of stolen bodies whose consciousness is forcibly erased to be replaced with the a.i.’s own; the holograms reproduce persons who, most likely, did not give their consent to be digitally reborn. The central question is similar: whether as material bodies or artificial intelligence constructs we have no longer control over our own existence (if we ever did). Am I interested in the prospect of surviving as an a.i., online or embodied by an avatar (hologram, android, replicant, clone…)? No, I am not. But, as happens to dead film stars, someone else might manage in the future my image and personality. Even build an a.i. that continues writing this blog after I stop. I wish I could say, after seeing Marjorie Prime, that I will never use an a.i. to keep someone I love alive beyond death, but I can’t. I would hate my body to be used, that’s for sure, as Breq’s is used.

Marjorie Prime is what the future most likely will bring. Not the sinister inter-stellar empires of space opera but complex private, personal decisions conditioned by fast-advancing technology. This does not mean that space opera is banal, not at all. If well written, it is an amazing product of the human imagination. Sometimes, however, we really need to look closer to understand what a strange future we’re facing in our own science-fictional time.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THINKING OF MARY SHELLEY AND FRANKENSTEIN: MAKING HUMANS

Monday, February 19th, 2018

In one of the most eccentric episodes of The X-Files, “Post-modern Prometheus” (5×06), Mulder and Scully visit Dr. Polidori, a geneticist working at his own home lab in a rural location in the heart of the United States. The two FBI agents are investigating a series of attacks against women who have been drugged, raped in their sleep by a mysterious assailant described as a monster, and made pregnant. Believe it or not, the episode is comedy… The pair suspect that Polidori’s experiments, some of which they are shown, might be involved (this is, indeed, the case). As they leave this mad doctor’s quite gothic house, the following conversation takes place (my italics):

MULDER: (to SCULLY) Good night, Dr. Frankenstein.
SCULLY: Despite what you might think, Mulder, designer mutations like these are virtually impossible in humans.
MULDER: That’s not what I just heard.
SCULLY: Mulder, even if they could, no scientist would even dare to perform this kind of experiment on a human.
MULDER: Well, then why do them at all?
SCULLY: To unlock the mysteries of genetics, to understand how it is that even though we share the same genes we develop arms instead of wings. We become humans instead of flies or monsters.
MULDER: But, given the power, who could resist the temptation to create life in his own image?
SCULLY: We already have that ability, Mulder. It’s called ‘procreation’. (…)

Scully’s answer encapsulates much of what needs to be said about the creation of human life in labs: why should we make humans artificially when they can be made naturally?

This dialogue connects, obviously, with the main issue Mary Shelley (1797-1851) deals with in her ultra-popular novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), now celebrating its 200th anniversary. Mary Shelley imagined her strange tale in 1816, when she was only 18 and leading a very complicated life. After meeting Romantic poet Percy Shelley in 1814 and eloping with him to the Continent (he was married and already the father of two children), Mary saw three of their babies die between 1815 and 1818, two of them in the period when she was at work writing Frankenstein. This is why so many feminist critics have rightly insisted that this is a novel about motherhood although it appears to be about fatherhood. What Mary is arguing in her dark tale is that, no matter how painful bearing children may be for women in all senses as she knew first-hand, when a man tries to beget human life artificially, using science, this can only result in horrifying monsters.

In the habitual technophobic (or moral) reading, however, Victor Frankenstein’s gender and patriarchal inclinations are downplayed, and what is stressed is that ‘man’ (meaning here mankind) should not try to play God (or imitate Prometheus, who stole from the pagan gods the fire that led to civilization). At the time when Mary wrote the story of how very wrong Victor’s experiment goes, science had nothing to do with its sophisticated present version. To begin with, the word ‘scientist’ didn’t even exist: it was introduced by William Whewell in 1833, and first printed in 1834, in his unsigned review of Mary Somerville’s On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (Wikipedia dixit). Men like Victor and women like Mary Somerville were then called ‘natural philosophers’, a nice label suggesting that all branches of knowledge should be kept in touch. ‘Natural philosophers’ were, besides, mostly middle-class amateurs that worked alone, not at all in research groups!, for the very simple reason that back then universities mainly taught the Classics. But I digress…

Victor Frankenstein, as I always tell my students, turns out to be a very good scientist but a very bad artist. Mary Shelley cheats in two ways in her novel. On the one hand, she asks us to suspend our disbelief and accept that the parts of dead bodies can be cheerfully sewn into a new living person (which is the fun part of the story, scars and all). Above all, she forces us to accept that this method should necessarily create monsters and never works of art. The evolution of transplants since South Africa’s Dr. Christian Barnard first transplanted a human heart, in 1967, has been absolutely spectacular. This has made young Frankenstein’s fantastic skill as a surgeon if not plausible at least easier to accept (or swallow). However, I still fail to see why he could not be a better plastic surgeon, a more proficient artist of the flesh, a first-rate wielder of the needle and stitch. When Mary first saw him in her nightmare, a frightened student contemplating his unhallowed creation, she was, after all, trying to write a horror story and this requires shocking and scaring the reader. Yet, perhaps because we are no longer easily scared, the ugliness of the monster has been undermining the efficiency of Mary’s text in recent times, particularly as regards the new notion of the post-human.

Brian Aldiss was the first to hail Mary Shelley, back in 1973, as the founding mother of science fiction, a claim that I support. The problem is that she was not thinking primarily in science-fictional terms (the label ‘science fiction’ was introduced in the 1920s) but using the gothic narrative codes so popular in her time. If her priority had been science fiction, then ugliness might never have affected the creature, who would perhaps have been happily exhibited by his maker as a celebrity all over the world (see what happens to the giant in the Basque film Handia). To complicate matters, please do recall that Victor appears to have fashioned not just a regular adult male but also a person with extraordinary strength, amazing bodily endurance, and, seemingly, superb intelligence (otherwise, how could he learn to read and write as he does?). The creature surpasses in all senses plain humanity and, not being an automaton or a cyborg, but a fully organic man, needs to be called post-human.

The difference between a cyborg and a post-human person, let me explain, is that no matter how thoroughly altered, cyborgs remain isolated cases, individuals that cannot pass their bodily modifications onto their descendants. Only organic modifications caused by genetic variation can impact future generations, and this is precisely what post-humanity means: a human species different from Homo Sapiens, and, implicitly, superior. Actually, there is no reason to suppose that genetically modified human beings will be necessarily enhanced versions of us, hence superior. Yet, most sf authors and scientists are working on this assumption, forgetting seemingly that many prehistoric human species were different from Homo Sapiens, but not really inferior or superior. Victor Frankenstein is of the same persuasion as his contemporary peers, the many post-modern Prometheus: he fears very much that his creature (he never gives him a name, thus denying his fully humanity) will spawn a type of humanity that will do away with ours. In current times this fear has split into two branches, remember: fear of the bioengineered replicant and fear of the android robot, though the basic idea is similar–whether fully organic or fully inorganic, we believe that our creations will be the cause of our demise as the species that dominates Earth. Somehow, though, imagining the planet dominated by machines hurts less than imagining the post-human reign.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, the plot takes a dramatic turn when the lonely monster, fed up with humankind’s ubiquitous hostility, demands a bride. Victor starts making him one but, very stupidly, the good doctor gives his post-human woman a fertile womb. Then, imagining the Earth full of the pair’s little monsters, he destroys the new Eve before she’s even finished. Frankenstein could have left her body intact and give his monster a vasectomy, but, the plot hole I am exposing remains equally glaring: if you don’t want your alternative human beings to beget a new post-human species, use radical contraception–make them sterile. You might think that this is an understandable error in the context of 1818, when little was understood about human reproduction even by women, who, like Mary, had been mothers many times. Although the ovary had been described centuries before, the human ovum was only discovered in 1832 and menstruation was only associated with ovulation decades later (apparently, early to mid Victorians believed that the function of menstruation was to purge us monthly of our hysteria). Yet, I was flabbergasted to see that similar issues about post-human reproduction have been raised in the recent Blade Runner 2049, a late descendant of Mary Shelley’s mistresspiece.

I’m sure that the blatant sexism of this film would have appalled Mary, the daughter of pioneer feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, as it appalled me (Joi really????). Leaving that issue aside–which is not easy as I’m mightily angry at Denis Villeneuve and his male writing crew–let me note that whereas Victor Frankenstein makes his post-human man for the sake of scratching the itch of doing advanced research, his contemporary equivalent in the film, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is in the business of making slaves for the extraplanetary colonies (he has purchased the remnants of the Tyrrell Corporation of the original Blade Runner). Funnily, in the play by Czech author Karel Čapek from which we have inherited the word ‘robot’, R.U.R. (1922), the robots are actually organic replicants, not at all mechanical creatures. Also funnily, or not so much, whereas Frankenstein’s problem is that his post-human replicants might breed like rabbits–which leads him to terminate the bride, which leads his monster to terminate Victor’s wife–Wallace’s problem is that his Nexus female slaves are sterile (it’s not so clear whether the males one are functional in this sense). Why is that a problem? Because, as he complains, making adult humans is a slow, expensive business and it would make much more sense to have them reproduce as fast as they can with no further intervention in the lab. The film fails spectacularly to discuss how this is different from your basic slavery, possibly because the scriptwriters have not read any History books.

Mary Shelley, then, got a few things absolutely right two hundred years ago: scientists are already making post-human persons, though the way they’re going artificial intelligences (whether robots or computers which we do not recognize yet as persons) are taking the lead. As far as I know, we have no replicants (that is to say, fully organic human beings manufactured as adults), whether standard or post-human. We do have many human beings interested in becoming post-human, like Nick Bostrom or Elon Musk, but mainly for narcissistic reasons connected with patriarchal power, rather than because they want to beget a new human species. This, I think, will not be created from scratch but will result, willingly or accidentally, from the constant manipulation of human reproduction in labs all over the world. Or, as Greg Bear narrates in Darwin’s Children, because something will cause our embryos to mutate.

If Mary returned from her grave she would be very much surprised by the popularity of her story, but possibly much more by its applicability. The world is full of Victor Frankensteins and of much more sinister figures, real-life Niander Wallace imitators, deciding how to make slaves. Some are making robots that will leave many people unemployed, others dream of replicants they can entirely control. In the meantime, women continue with the task of making human beings the natural way (or not so natural), as we wait for the day when some scientist–perhaps a woman seeking to liberate her peers from the pains of labour–will make a ‘uterine replicator’ (I’m borrowing the expression from Lois McMaster Bujold). As usual, Aldous Huxley seems to have hit the nail better than anyone else, for our future post-post-modern Frankensteins will most likely make humans of all kinds, from Alpha to Epsylon, and many more sub-humans than superior post-humans, for sure.

Thank you Mary for the warning, it came in a superb book, though I’m sorry to say it was not horrific enough.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHO DARES IMAGINE THE NEAR FUTURE? ON SELF-TAUGHT AIs AND HACKABLE NEURAL IMPLANTS

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

This summer I started working on Indian sf writer Vandana Singh (see my post of 11 July on her short fiction) and I came to the conclusion that I really needed to do something to diminish my appalling ignorance of contemporary science. I mean something beyond reading science fiction… Just by chance I came across the daily newsletter offered by the Australian popular science magazine Cosmos and I signed up. For the last few months, then, I have been starting my working day by reading some of the (brief) articles referenced in their messages. It’s really very exciting.

The world looks different when you start paying attention to how scientists are fiercely arguing whether the fabled dark matter (the very fabric of the universe) exists or not, or when you are told that evolution might be actually be happening in just two generations and not as slowly as we believed. Last week I found myself voting for the best artistic image produced by scientists photographing brains: I didn’t know neurons could be that beautiful! Today I got enticed by an article about a marvellous finding of dinosaurs eggs in China… And, yes, of course, taking into account the horridly complicated political crisis that Catalonia is going through I can well say that science is giving me a different, healthier mental framework to cling on. The world looks in Cosmos far bigger and thrilling that that scary place portrayed in La Vanguardia or in The Guardian, with all the miseries of politics and economics.

This doesn’t mean that my daily intake of science is always tranquil. I am not at all, as you may guess, a technophobe and would even describe myself as a moderate post-humanist in favour of improving human existence with all the science we can use. Yet, I was very, very scared by a Cosmos article called “YouRobot: Neurotech may destroy your privacy and your rights”… Before I go into that, let me explain that while bland fiction about the life crises of old and young middle-class people, or about queens with dragons, or about surviving zombie hordes, occupies our attention, much better dramatic stories are going on in scientific research. You may have even missed the day when human history changed.

If you recall, IBM’s computer Deep Blue coolly beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov back in 1996-7 in a six-game chess match. Google’s program AlphaGo defeated go grandmaster Lee Sedol (the best player on Earth) by a 4-1 score back on 15 March 2016, a truly historic day. How’s AlphaGo (part of project DeepMind) different from Deep Blue? Brace yourself: AlphaGo is a self-teaching a.i. which learned to play the game of go better than any human being in just three days and after simply being fed the rules. In contrast, Deep Blue was fed a myriad matches, which it learned to process very fast. If you don’t see how AlphaGo makes a very deep difference in human History… you need to catch up. Urgently. See, to begin with https://cosmosmagazine.com/mathematics/all-systems-go-what-it-play-against-computer.

What really matters, I’m learning through Cosmos, is not at all what makes the front page. For instance, did you know that “116 founders of AI and robotics companies have called on the UN to ban lethal autonomous weapons”, that is to say, killer robots? (https://cosmosmagazine.com/technology/killer-robot-threat-must-be-faced-say-experts). Yes, James Cameron’s film Terminator (1984) is already happening. I learned in Richard Morgan’s novel Black Man (2013) that soldier robots are not in the end a very good idea, since they’re hackable. He speculated that genetically modified human beings might make the armies of the future, which sounds like replacing a terrifying nightmare with even a worse one… And it is happening.

If you’re not familiar with the word DARPA, then this would be the right time to check what they’re up to: https://www.darpa.mil/. I would say that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is the closest thing we have to a classic mad doctor in Victor Frankenstein’s style but with all the power of the US dollar. And if you just thought ‘how about China?’, well, let me explain that China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea are now producing cutting edge a.i., both anthropomorphic and otherwise, without any shared ethical guidelines for research whatsoever (https://cosmosmagazine.com/physics/robots-bring-asia-into-the-ai-research-ethics-debate). In plain English: they’re building any kind of robot they can think of and nobody is checking on them. Nobody is checking on DARPA, either.

Before you think that I’m producing here a techno-advanced version of early 20th century ‘yellow peril’ let me finally focus on the scary story I mentioned earlier on (see https://cosmosmagazine.com/the-future/yourobot-neurotech-may-destroy-your-privacy-and-your-rights). If you have read William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984) you must be familiar with the concept of jacking into the net: Gibson’s ‘cowboys’ are hackers provided with a cranial socket that allows them to link their brains to their computer terminals (or consoles) via a cable and a jack connector. Right, so it turns out that Elon Musk, Tesla’s charismatic founder, also runs a less well-known company, Neuralink (https://www.neuralink.com), devoted to building a brain/computer interface (BCI or ‘neural lace’). This was founded back in May 2016.

In principle, the idea of being able to think as fast as you computer sounds attractive, more or less, particularly if you still insist on playing go… I have always said that I would consider having my brain tampered with if this would give me better processing capacity, mad as this may sound. Yet, I had missed, as you will see, a crucial detail.

I have just learned from the corresponding Cosmos article that a group of scientists and specialists in ethics, calling themselves the Morningside group, have warned that the Declaration of Helsinki, the Belmont Report, and the Asilomar AI Cautionary Principles (documents about which I knew absolutely nothing) are not sufficient to prevent neural implants from being exposed to invasive manipulation and hacking. The implants now being used to correct motor deficit in sufferers of diseases like Parkinson’s, or to help paralysis victims to move objects, might be soon current–and capable of reading our thoughts. These are, just recall, electrical impulses that, sooner or later, will be decoded and controlled by powerful a.i. owned by corporations (and/or criminals)–a process to which Musk’s Neuralink is actively promoting.

The situation is so complex I can’t even begin to describe it but if you’re worried that the contents of your cell phone and your personal computer might be accessible to anyone (not just hackers but also bona fide, um, companies like Google), just think of the scary possibility that your brain might soon be equally unprotected. The Morningside group apparently believe that new ‘neurorights’ enforced through international legislation would protect, attention!!!!, our identity, agency and self-awareness. But even they acknowledge that “history indicates that profit hunting will often trump social responsibility in the corporate world”(see Rafael Yuste et al, “Four Ethical Priorities for Neurotechnologies”, Nature 8 November 2017, https://www.nature.com/news/four-ethical-priorities-for-neurotechnologies-and-ai-1.22960). This means that it’s game over for human beings are we are now. Privacy, consent, free will and identity, as they warn us, might be over soon. That is to say, the subject which is at the core of humanist thought.

The Morningsiders offer as a hopelessly optimistic solution teaching ethics to anyone involved in BCI technology. In this way, these persons would learn “to pursue advances and deploy strategies that are likely to contribute constructively to society, rather than to fracture it”. The group even proposes subjecting BCI sector workers to a new, specific Hippocratic Oath. Yet, it occurs to me that more than a few doctors must be in Elon Musk’s payroll already and the oath is not preventing them from opening up our brains to outside interference.

Perhaps, just perhaps, just as current teenagers think that privacy is a relative, overvalued concept which only worries Jurassic baby-boomers, the next generation will think nothing of having their brains directly linked to Google, Amazon or Facebook. Or their Tesla car…

Brave new world indeed.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A WEALTH OF ALLUSIONS: WEAVING THE WEB OF CULTURE

Monday, September 11th, 2017

I have just read Marc Pastor’s novel L’any de la plaga (2010) and this post deals with two matters suggested by comments on this work in GoodReads. Pastor, who works as CSI for the Mossos, the Catalan police, has published so far five novels, of which I absolutely recommend La mala dona (2008). He narrates in this atmospheric book the gruesome real-life crimes of Enriqueta Martí, a dreadful woman who preyed on the children of the poor (mainly of prostitutes) to cater to the tastes of the Barcelona upper classes, both on the cosmetic and the sexual fronts. Read the novel to understand my cryptic sentence… I found Pastor’s novel Montecristo (2007) just average but I truly had a great time this summer reading his colonial thriller Bioko (2013), set, of all places, in the Spanish colony island of Fernando Poo (in the 1880s). This is what lead me to read L’any de la plaga; next, it’ll be Pastor’s last novel, Farishta (2017). Pastor, who is, no doubt, the most interesting Catalan writer together with Albert Sánchez Piñol in the field of popular fiction will be, by the way, a guest of honour at the oncoming CatCon, the first festival devoted to Catalan SF (November 24-25, Vilanova i la Geltrú).

L’any de la plaga is, plainly, an adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (1955), and, in particular of the 1978 film version directed by Philip Kaufman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (you might be familiar with the more popular 1956 adaptation directed by Don Siegel). Pastor’s novel contains direct allusions to the Kaufman film, which the protagonist, social worker Víctor Negro, does know very well, and what I would call indirect allusions, particularly the ugly scream that the transformed individuals utter. Marc Pastor never tries to hide his inspiration and, if I am correct, his project for this novel consists of proving that Barcelona works perfectly well as the setting for horror SF. I enjoyed very much the challenge of suspending my disbelief and the invitation to replace American locations with real streets and buildings in Barcelona. Pastor indeed makes the point of only using places he knows personally and of setting many key scenes not in downtown Barcelona but in working-class neighbourhoods, like Nou Barris. An excellent choice.

Reading the comments on L’any de la plaga in GoodReads, I came across a post by a trainee doctor, Arantxa. Apart from noting that some medical terms used by Pastor are incorrect, she made an interesting observation but also a much more questionable comment. Her observation raises a complicated issue: if, as Pastor acknowledges both in the book and in diverse interviews, his novel is basically a retelling of Kaufman’s film, shouldn’t we call it fan fiction? A few chapters into L’any de la plaga I started worrying whether this was, rather, a case of plagiarism until Pastor acknowledged his source. The word ‘homage’ suggested itself next but, to be honest, I never thought of Pastor’s novel as fan fiction for the very simple reason that its is a professional novel in print and not an amateur online text.

Arantxa’s comment, however, makes us wonder at which point allusion goes too far and, of course, this has to do with our worship of originality. Young readers who know nothing about Finney or Kaufman may feel cheated by Pastor on discovering Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as I felt when finding out that John Milius’ screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! is an adaptation of Heart of Darkness. In this case, matters are much worse for Joseph Conrad is not even mentioned in the film credits. Perhaps with L’any de la plaga, Pastor is telling us that all stories worth narrating have been already told and the only thing we can do now is tell them again from a new angle. Thus, instead of the implicit homage that Bram Stoker pays in Dracula to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, his inspirational text, we have explicit homage and direct allusion.

I should check whether Pastor borrows this from Stephen King, who loves to pepper his novels with all kinds of allusions to real, ordinary life, but I always wonder why characters in fiction never ever refer to other similar fictions as existing in their world. Perhaps I am completely wrong and the trend has changed but as far as I recall most alien invasion stories fail to allude to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. To complicate matters even futher, take the 2013 version of Carrie, based on King’s novel, published in 1974 and already the object of a very popular adaptation filmed in 1976. Shouldn’t the young Carrie of 2013 know about the 1970s film and novel? Why does everyone pretend in the new film that they don’t exist? What kind of background reality is built for the main character in that way?

Let me return to Arantxa’s comments on L’any de la plaga. Pastor chose to use Víctor Negro as a first person narrator, which means that he speaks as ordinary people do speak in the early 21st century: constantly alluding to popular texts. At one point when he is risking his life, Negro decides to ‘play a Jedi mind trick’ to persuade his opponent to let him go; at another, he complains of a headache which feels like being the bad guy in Hellraiser (that’s Pinhead…). For most readers in GoodReads, and for the author of this post, the very many allusions that pepper Negro’s speech are part of the charm of Pastor’s novel because they make it real. Besides, the shared allusions work very well in building complicity with the reader and ballasting our sympathy.

There is, however, a major snag: as another reader notes, the allusions may be lost on anyone under 30. And, well, Arantxa complains that the many references to films, series, music and books are just a constant obstacle in the reading. Funnily, she makes her point by using an allusion: “Every time something like that surfaced, I felt like Tawny in Sunny entre estrellas (Sonnie with a Chance) when she’s told something she doesn’t know and doesn’t care for”. I have used Wikipedia to learn that Sonnie with a Chance is a Disney Channel teen sitcom, broadcast 2009-11, which proves my point: allusions are essential to weave the web of culture. Now I know something I didn’t know five minutes ago, which is good. Arantxa feels annoyed because Pastor’s allusions are not for her but for his generation and upwards, those born in the 1970s and 1960s. I, however, felt curious about her allusion, for I don’t belong to her age group and I always feel anxious about the time when I might not understand any stories produced by Arantxa’s generation (born late 1980s, I guess).

Allusions, then, in all texts, from James Joyce to Marc Pastor, should never be taken as an obstacle but, rather, as an invitation to learn more. As Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock, the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion (2001), explain, allusions “can be used as a kind of shorthand, evoking instantly a complex human experience embedded within a story or dramatic event”, or “to entertaining effect”; also, obviously, to show off (I suspect this was Joyce’s case…). The problem with the ‘entertaining effect’ is that it excludes audiences who are not into the joke, which can be very annoying to them. In Pixar’s Zootopia (2016) there is a delicious allusion to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) which only adults can catch. This is a great strategy to interest adults in taking kids to cinemas; yet, it frustrates children to spot jokes in films intended for them from which they are excluded. And this is the irritant: the sense of exclusion, which makes you feel ignorant and, at worse, mortified.

Age and the passage of time combine in strange ways regarding allusions. To begin with, it would have been absurd for Pastor to have his protagonist use allusions that only teens could get, for he is an adult man born in the 1970s (like the author). However, YA writers, obviously, need to make sure that their readers understand their allusions–if you don’t get the references to Greek mythology in Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson & the Olympians (2005-9), then much of the fun is lost, though I would agree that readers are also schooled as they read. Allusions, logically, always have an educational value and this is why the better educated persons enjoy them best. That is to say: the older you are, the more allusions you recognise (um, except those that come from younger age groups…).

Other kinds of allusions risk being lost in time. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion surely is no help to read Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Glamorama (2000), an extremely violent, angry novel narrated by a male model, Victor Ward, and full of allusions to his celebrity-studded 1990s universe. On a first name basis… I recall in particular a reviewer wondering whether in ten years time anyone would recognise Victor’s allusions to Johnny and Kate, that is to say, actor Johnny Depp and top model Kate Moss, the hottest couple on Earth between 1994 and 1997. Glamorama plays, then, with the fine line dividing allusion to topical issues from plain gossip, and while fun to read at the time of publication (in this gossipy sense, not in others), this is a novel that must sound positively ancient today. Better stick to the Bible and the classics…

Returning to L’any de la plaga, I must thank Pastor for revealing how absurdly empty most characters are in fiction for, unlike his Víctor Negro, they never refer to the music, books, films, series that are an essential part of our lives. And when they do so, this is mainly restricted to, well, the Bible and the classics, not to the popular. Arantxa teaches us in her post that allusions can also be a powerful generational barrier but, believe me, the bafflement and the sense of exclusion are mutual. Inevitably, each generation has its main referents.

Fortunately, Wikipedia, that immense wealth of allusions, can help. Look at how beautiful the English idiom is: what are many allusions if not wealth?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

RETHINKING THE POSTCOLONIAL: VANDANA SINGH, INDIAN SF WRITER

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

My colleague Felicity Hand is organizing yet another exciting conference, this time on India. Having learned much about Postcolonialism from previous similar events, I have submitted a proposal (see http://jornades.uab.cat/aeeii2017/en, also Felicity’s research group Ratnakara http://grupsderecerca.uab.cat/ratnakara/). I decided to focus my paper on science fiction, a genre with a very rich history in India in several languages. Narrowing down the field to just one name was, though, quite difficult. Fortunately, the recent monographic issue published by Science Fiction Studies (#130, or 43.3, November 2016) led me to a simply wonderful writer, and an indispensable name in the genre: Vandana Singh (http://vandana-writes.com/).

Singh, born and brought up in Delhi, describes herself as a writer of “speculative fiction, which includes science fiction and fantasy”. She has a PhD in Theoretical Physics and works currently as an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Earth Science at Framingham State University, Massachusetts. Although she started writing both in Hindi and English, her main focus is now the latter language. Singh is known not only for her sf but also for a couple of children’s books: Younguncle Comes to Town and Younguncle in the Himalayas. Her sf consists of short stories and novellas, some of which can be found online (see http://www.freesfonline.de/authors/Vandana_Singh.html). She has published her work in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has collected some of her earlier stories a volume, now out of print, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (2008). Her second, forthcoming, volume is Ambiguity Machines and Other Tales (http://smallbeerpress.com/not-a-journal/2017/05/17/a-new-collection-from-vandana-singh/).

Singh is also co-editor with Anil Menon of the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/breaking-the-bow-speculative-fiction-inspired-by-the-ramayana/). Most Indian sf writers agree that a singularity of the genre they cultivate is how deep it sinks its roots in Indian myth. What readers enjoy in Singh’s fiction, as I do, is the excellent combination of her original cultural background with insights provided by her work as a scientist, now focused on climate change.

I chose initially to work on “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”, one of Singh’s most obvious incursions into the mythical. This is what my conference proposal announced to the organizers. I read, however, many other stories by Singh, passing from the most often anthologized “Delhi” (classic Singh…) to the eccentrically romantic “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue”, a story about a dying old woman, a black hole and an eternally lost lover. Next I read “Entanglement”, the first truly global story I have ever come across. Eventually, a doctoral student explained to me that the title refers to a scientific concept, a point corroborated by the author. The more I read, the more I realized, then, that Vandana Singh cannot be pinned down under a single label, whether this is woman, Indian, speculative writer, or scientist. How, then, should we make sense of her work?

Trying to explain Singh’s work to my friend Mariano Martín I told him that she reminds me, above all, of fellow sf short fiction writer Ted Chiang (the recent film The Arrival adapts–poorly–one of his brilliant stories). I explained how academic analysis of Singh centres on her status as a postcolonial writer and Mariano complained that this is reductive… as absurd as studying Chiang as an Asian American writer, when everyone knows that he is, above all, the new Borges. Disappointingly, as I told Mariano, MLA offers only 6 entries on Chiang, half of which refer to his ethnic background. None mentions Borges.

As happens, Chang and Singh met at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (perhaps more than once?) and she interviewed him in 2012 (http://aaww.org/the-occasional-writer-an-interview-with-science-fiction-author-ted-chiang/). It comes as no surprise, in view of her own work, that she praises Chiang’s tales: “I love how so many of them posit and approach fantastical made-worlds in a wholly scientific way”. Pleased that she asks proper questions on science, he stresses how “the sense of wonder that science fiction offers is closely related to the feeling of awe that science itself offers”. Inevitably, racial issues come up… “Does your being Asian American inform your stories in any way?”, Singh asks. Chiang answers: “Race inevitably plays a role in my life, but to date it’s not a topic I’ve wanted to explore in fiction” because “the events of my own life are too dull to be the basis for fiction”. A bit annoyed, Chiang complains that “People have looked for a racial subtext in my work in a way I don’t think they would have if my family name were Davis or Miller”.

Academics, nonetheless, insist on using what Chiang defines as “extratextual information” to read fiction produced by non-white writers, while ignoring the whiteness of white writers (excuse the tongue-twister). At least, I have never come across an analysis of, say, Jonathan Franzen, emphasizing his race or his ethnic Swedish background. Either we stop asking Singh and Chiang about their background or, perhaps more to the point, we start asking the white writers about theirs. Jackie Kay once warned that she would accept seeing herself described as black, lesbian, Scottish, only when Martin Amis started being presented as white, heterosexual, English…. At the same time, the labels used to name non-white writers are absurdly loose: why should ‘Asian’ be a common label for writers from backgrounds as diverse as China and India? Nobody would label, for instance, a Portuguese and a Rumanian writer as ‘European’, so why use ‘Asian’, or ‘African’, in this comprehensive way?

Vandana Singh’s work has already attracted some quality academic work. I’ll refer here to two examples, before I turn to another interview, this time with Singh herself. The two examples highlight the problem I am dealing with: how are we supposed to read non-white authors in a context in which the category ‘white’ is both normative and non-existent?

On the one hand, Suparno Banerjee (Texas State University) claims in “An Alien Nation: Postcoloniality and the Alienated Subject in Vandana Singh’s Science Fiction” (Extrapolation, 53.3 (2012): 283-306) that one of the major topics of recent Indian sf is “the specter of an alienated postcolonial subject caught in the flux of historical eddies” (283). This is precisely, he argues, the kind of estranged character that Vandana Singh explores, calling attention “to the different types and levels of alienation that haunt the people who negotiate their surroundings and identities in this new world order” (283). Reading “Delhi”, “Infinities”, “The Tetrahedron” and the novellas Distances and Of Love and Other Monsters Banerjee argues that Singh “is a writer of the new postcolonial alienation: a form of alienation emerging out of the colonial discourse, yet different from it” (285). He grants that Singh’s style allows her “to speculate about different scientific and philosophical notions” but firmly insists that “alienation in the postcolonial subject becomes her most important concern” (286).

Banerjee’s Indian surname lends to his article an authority as a cultural insider that I cannot have as, well, an alien–a foreign Spanish/Catalan reader. Yet, I feel oppressed and constrained by his interpretation, mostly because he subordinates the essential scientific reading of Singh’s fiction to the ethnic, nationalist reading. Having recently edited a monographic issue for Science Fiction Studies on Spanish sf I believe that no Spanish writer would appreciate being defined by his or her belonging to a (white) postimperial nation: they would rather have academics discuss the specific themes of their writing. Singh does write about India but as we can see in her eagerness to ask Chiang, she is primarily concerned about how to turn science into narrative poetics, a point to which I will return.

The SFS issue on Indian sf offers an alternative to the exclusive postcolonial reading, offered by Eric D. Smith (University of Alabama in Huntsville), a white specialist in Postcolonial Studies. Yes, ‘white’ needs to be mentioned. In his article “Universal Love and Planetary Ontology in Vandana Singh’s Of Love and Other Monsters” (514-533), Smith proposes that we rise above “the limits of certain postcolonial theorizations in the postmillennial present”. More explicitly, by reading Singh’s novella through the critique of love proposed by French philosopher Alain Badiou, Smith argues “the insufficiency of postcolonial theory for capturing the event of postcolonial sf and the latter’s potential for the production of planetary being” (514). He cites Banerjee (the very words I have quoted) to oppose him and show that beyond the postcolonial, Singh’s fiction “insists on themes of infinity, interdimensionality, and, indeed, universality, frequently underpinned by a referential framework of theoretical mathematics (…)” (514). Half-way through his article, however, I found myself resisting Smith’s reading fiercely: who is this white guy to force Singh’s stories into the philosophical mould set by two other white guys, Alain Badiou, and, guess who?, Slavoj Žižek? How does this approach serve Singh better than Banerjee’s?

In the same issue, Malisa Kurtz (PhD from Brock University)–who looks Asian American as the category goes…–interviews Singh. She prioritizes in her questions the author’s “fascination with scientific speculation” (534) and with “the provisionality of scientific knowledge” (536); also the issue of whether her sf is ‘hard’ (it is, though not gadget-oriented). Kurtz gets Singh to explain how her sf connects with the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, and also to disclose her relief at discovering Bengali writer Premendra Mitra (read in English) for “I didn’t want sf written by people from the West to be the only standard with which to compare and contrast my stories” (537).

Yet, Kurtz also gets from Singh the story of how US white female sf writers (above all Ursula Le Guin) saved her from alienation as a newly migrated PhD student. “What she showed me”, Singh enthuses, “was an array of alternate worlds, futures, histories, in which people like me existed” (537). Instead of the “white-maletechnofetishist(s)” Anglo-American sf authors she read as a teen, “Le Guin’s works restored sf to me, made it welcoming in a way I hadn’t experienced before” (537). Another source of enthusiasm, of course, is how Singh “cannot separate the aesthetic impulse that drives me to create worlds from the pleasure I get doing physics” (538). Her current work, “on the pedagogy of climate science”(538) is, thus, a direct inspiration for “Entanglement”.

The racial question pops up, again: how does Singh feel about the label ‘postcolonial science fiction’? Singh lets “the scholars worry about definitions”, noting that ‘postcolonial’ “has its uses” if it helps to dismantle what she calls “paradigm blindness”, that is to say, the “blinkers” imposed by the colonizers. But, and this is a very important ‘but’, “an implication of the term ‘postcolonial’ is that the unit of measure, the standard, is still the colonizer. That can be limiting. So while I acknowledge the importance of the term, I also want to transcend it, to go off and play in the much larger universe we inhabit” (543). In this sense, sf offers the “experience of playfully trying to decolonize my mind—shaking free of hitherto unexamined paradigms, trying to look at new vistas through new eyes” (544).

The question, ultimately, and the challenge, is whether Literary and Cultural Studies are ready to ‘transcend’ Postcolonialism and take as ‘the unit of measure’ something else. Not the white, male, European philosophical discourse that Smith summons from the past under the guise of modernity but, hopefully, a wholly new discourse that looks “at new vistas through new eyes” in a “much larger universe”. Transnationalism and cosmopolitanism have been often invoked as alternatives. Singh’s sf suggests, however, that just as her characters move across the many dimensions of the multiverse while being both deeply rooted in their places and alienated from them, we need to see how humanity functions in all backgrounds, including whiteness. Otherwise, we just contribute to prolonging normative racist ethnocentricity, forcing non-white writers to be spokespersons for just one segment of the human species, instead, as they are, of the whole species.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

BRIDGING GAPS (AND FEELING SPLIT) BETWEEN DIFFERENT CULTURES

Monday, May 8th, 2017

I am currently in the middle of my reading project for this year (see my post of 4 January): going through the 46 novels which comprise Benito Pérez Galdós’ series, Episodios Nacionales (1872-1912). To be specific the Episodios consist of four complete series of 10 novels, and one incomplete series of 6. I’m finishing today the second series (each novel is about 250 pages, hard to say how many exactly as I use a Kindle; all can be downloaded for free from www.dominiopublico.com). Reading Galdós’ simply marvellous historical fiction is something that I have wanted to do for a very long time and I am certainly enjoying myself very, very much. I will eventually explain why, once I’m finished. Or read to the end…

I have been procrastinating, however, because I had this feeling that I should be reading 46 novels by different authors in English, instead of, somehow, waste my time. This is an impression that I haven’t yet managed to shake off. After all, I’m an English Studies specialist. Shouldn’t I use all my reading time for English works? I feel, and I know this is absurd, a bit guilty, as if I were a little girl skipping school… Maybe because of this sense of guilt I am hurrying, absolutely devouring Galdós’ books, in the hopes that in this way I’ll have time to return to English Literature before the year runs out. But, then, here’s another major gap in my education: I have not read Tirant lo Blanch yet…

Reading Galdós is bringing back to me the History lessons about 19th century Spain which I received in secondary school. Since then, and with the exception of a 19th century Literature course which I took as a second-year undergraduate, I have learned nothing about this very complicated period in Spain. My focus has been, rather, the Second Republic, the Civil War and Franco’s regime, and only in recent years. Since I teach Victorian Literature, then, it turns out that I know much more about Britain than about Spain in the same 19th century period.

This, you might think, is as it should be for obvious professional reasons. And, anyway, it is my fault if I haven’t managed to find time for Spanish History in such a long time. I believe, nonetheless, that the lack of a comparative approach in English Studies, as we practice them in Spain, translates into a too exclusive focus on British History and that of other anglophone countries, mainly the USA. Again, maybe this is my fault but I have never taught my students 19th century History in a comparative way and I wonder if anyone does. I also wonder what use this comparative method would be as I very much doubt that my students have been taught any 19th century Spanish History at all…

This lack of a comparative approach and the intensive focus on English Studies means that I always feel split from my own two cultures, the Spanish one and the Catalan. I recently met an American scholar, Dale Pratt, who teaches all kinds of Spanish fiction (in Utah), from El Quijote to science-fiction, and who is currently doing research on Spanish novels dealing with prehistory. I was awed by his extensive knowledge of Spanish Literature, of which I know really very little. Of course, I’m sure that many native anglophone speakers would also be awed by the detailed knowledge that many Spanish specialists in English Studies have of their Literature, also including peculiar little corners. Yet, I do feel illiterate in my own two languages, and this is not a comfortable feeling for a Literature teacher. At one point I even thought of taking a second doctoral degree–but, then, in which area? Spanish or Catalan Literature? And, really, a second PhD seemed overdoing it…

So, you might be thinking: just give yourself the education you’re missing. I do not know what my peers all over Spain do, but every year, as I have explained here, I promise myself to do 50% of my reading in Spanish and Catalan, the rest in English. Usually by February I have already given up, under this self-imposed pressure that I should be reading in English all the time. The flow of novelties is so immense, the list of classics so vast… The result of my yearly abandonment of my two cultures is that my ignorance of their Literature grows in the same measure as my knowledge of English Literature increases. Perhaps I should have specialized in Comparative Literature… but there was no degree of this kind back in the 1980s.

Ironically, while we here in Spain insist on working in English Studies as if our local cultures were of no consequence for what we teach, and for how we teach it, in anglophone areas we are seen from a very different perspective. Let me give you as an example my most recent work. In March I published in the journal Science Fiction Studies an article on British author Richard Morgan. Last Friday I finished editing for the same journal a monographic issue on Spanish science-fiction. In the first case, I was acting as a specialist in English Studies. In the second case, my role has been very, very different, for I have acted as a bridge between two cultures.

The chance to edit this monographic issue fell into my hands quite by accident but once it materialized, I knew I had to do it. With the help of my co-editor Fernando Ángel Moreno (trained in ‘Filología Española’ and in Literary Theory) we assembled a solid team of authors, including Prof. Pratt, who have certainly done their best. I am extremely proud of our collective effort and of the end result, and I do hope that the volume (to be published in June) gives Spanish science-fiction a much more definite place on the world map of SF.

Now, happy and pleased as I am, still I feel concerned about how to announce the publication of this special issue to my English Studies peers. Perhaps I feel too paranoiac but I’m sure that many will wonder why I have put so much energy into doing something for Spanish, rather than English, Studies. My answer, ‘why shouldn’t I?’, might not be satisfactory. Perhaps I should think of a second argument: ‘none else could have done it’, at least none in my position. In this case, as in the case of my translation of Mecanoscrit del segon origen and of the edition of the forthcoming monographic issue on this novel for the US journal Alambique (also to be published in June), what has happened is very simple: I happen to write academic English, and this has been my main qualification to bridge gaps between different cultures.

Although some of the authors who have collaborated in the SFS monographic on Spanish SF have written their texts directly in English, language is a powerful barrier which I can easily cross, like any other English Studies specialist. The authors have contributed their expertise and, as I learned about Spanish SF (of which I knew very little when I started), I have shaped their articles into academic work that can function in English. This is not always easy, as we work in very different academic traditions. For my own article in the Mecanoscrit volume I have chosen to apply Masculinity Studies to a close reading of the male protagonist, Dídac, a methodology that while well-established in English Studies, is absolutely new to Catalan Studies. In both cases, by the way, we have decided to translate the work done in English to, respectively, Spanish and Catalan, thus closing the scholarly circuit. Bridging the reverse gap, so to speak.

As you can see, I am not speaking about translating texts, which, by the way, should be a much bigger part of our task as Spanish specialists in English Studies (if only the Ministry valued translation as academic work). I am speaking here about being a sort of cultural interpreter, giving access into our local cultures to anglophone audiences by means of English Studies traditions and, in the process, opening up the local field. I’m not seeking an acknowledgement of merits, if I have any, but a debate about why this type of work is so limited. Or a correction of my views, if these are wrong.

In recent years, I have been also frantically translating into Spanish everything I have published in English and making it available through my university’s digital repository for, otherwise, who would read me here, in Spain? As for what I publish in English elsewhere, I wonder whether it is read at all and by whom. And I have the impression that the SFS issue on Spanish SF might matter much more than any other work I may have done in English precisely because it bridges an important gap. We have insisted, by the way, that Spain is not the same as Latin America but a separate cultural domain that happens to be in Europe.

Funnily, going back to Episodios, as I wrote here about two years ago, Benito Pérez Galdós was also a cultural bridge-builder between Britain and Spain. In the post ‘Charles and Benito: A Celebration of Influence’ (11 August 2015) I explained that Galdós was absolutely fascinated by Dickens, who died in 1870, the same year when the Spanish author started publishing. A very young Galdós managed to publish a Spanish translation of Pickwick Papers, even though he knew no English and most likely translated the book from the French version. Reading these days the Episodios there are moments when I feel that I’m reading Dickens in Spanish, so strong is his influence. The detailed descriptions, the structure of feeling, the plot twists are so Dickensian and at the same time so profoundly ‘castizos’ and Galdosian, that I marvel at how they overlap. At the same time, the Dickensian influence often reveals what is obvious: that Dickens knew El Quijote by heart, as did Galdós. You see how I’m justifying to myself my reading of the 46 Episodes: this is actually about how Dickens influenced the rest of Europe and Spain in particular. And I’m wasting no time…

I do envy Galdós, for he created something new and unique in Spain by merging two very different traditions. Perhaps it’s about time we debate why as Spanish specialists in English Studies we are finding so many difficulties to do something similar and why our main aspiration is to be treated as honorary anglophone academics. It is: let’s begin the debate by acknowledging this. Our real mission, however, seems to lie elsewhere: in explaining our culture(s) to anglophone audiences, bridging gaps between us and them; most importantly, healing the split from our own background.

Back to Galdós… How Dickens would have loved the Episodios!!!

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

GURB, STILL AT LARGE: REVISITING EDUARDO MENDOZA’S QUIRKY BARCELONA TALE

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017

Sin noticias de Gurb (1990, English translation No Word from Gurb [2007]), is a short novel by Eduardo Mendoza (b. 1943, Barcelona; Premio Cervantes 2016), which was originally serialised in El País, back in 1989. It belongs to the science-fiction subgenre of the ‘stranded alien tale’, popularized, above all, by Steven Spielberg’s family film E.T. (1982, written by the late Melissa Mathison). In Mendoza’s novel a pair of extraterrestrials land in Cerdanyola, next door to my own university, on a Christian/anthropological mission to explore Earth. Both are pure intellects capable of metamorphic embodiment, though they don’t particularly enjoy being human. Tired of the monotonous company of his crewmate and boss, the fearless Gurb soon transforms into a woman, is picked up by one of my colleagues at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in his car, and vanishes. The other alien–whose name we never learn–starts then an anxious search for his lost mate. Throughout this chase, the alien narrator tries to make sense of the city of Barcelona, then getting ready for the Olympic Games of 1992. His bizarre nature and the no less bizarre city clash, which is why Sin noticias de Gurb is often read not as science-fiction (which it definitely is) but as a satire of Barcelona’s Olympic aspirations. An extremely funny satire.

I’m thinking of this book today because, to my immense pleasure, it was the centre of this week’s episode of David Guzmán’s Rius de Tinta (http://beteve.cat/programa/rius-de-tinta/). This is a series on Literature and the city of Barcelona, and I have become frankly addicted to it. I believe that we’re extremely lucky to be offered this kind of cultured television in what appears to be a total international dearth. There had already been an episode on Barcelona and science-fiction (with, among others, Antoni Munné-Jordà and Marc Pastor), which is why I never expected Gurb to be the subject of another one. But, then, David Guzmán and his team decided to explore Mendoza’s very popular work as, possibly, the best-known novel about Barcelona. I absolutely admire what Mendoza did in La ciudad de los prodigios (1986) and I personally believe that this is the most relevant work about the city (sorry Juan Marsé). Sin noticias de Gurb captures very well a particular moment in recent times and although I do recommend it, even Mendoza himself is surprised that this particular work has so many fans of so many different types.

Right after watching the interview with Mendoza, I picked up the book and read its 139 pages again, in one sitting. That was possibly my fifth reading and I still laughed hard. I remember carrying the novel to read on the train as a post-grad student, and having to stop because I was in tears, trying to suppress my out-of-control hilarity. What’s so funny about Gurb? Mendoza speculates that readers find the narrator ‘entrañable’, which has no exact equivalent in English (‘cute’, not in the sense of ‘pretty’, seems to be as close as we can get). An academic article by Benjamin Fraser (there seem to be only three… in English, Spanish, and Italian), focuses on the ‘costumbrismo espacial español’ of Mendoza’s novel, connecting it with Alex de la Iglesia’s appallingly bad TV series Pluton BRB Nero, which is an insult.

There is ‘costumbrismo’ in Gurb, and a great deal of the comedy is no doubt generated by the contrast between the common people of Barcelona and its outskirts, and the befuddled alien narrator–equipped, poor thing, with very defective information about what humans are. Yet, this is not enough to explain the success of the novel. What is so funny is how deadpan everyone’s reactions are: no human shows surprise at the alien metamorph, not even when he chooses the most absurd shapes, from pop singer Marta Sánchez to historical figures like Conde Duque de Olivares. As for the satire, I was amused to discover yesterday that though part of it is dated –Up & Down is no longer the reference club for the glitterati, but a gym, and so on–, another part still works very well, particularly as a critique of the specific life of the city of Barcelona. Every reader of Gurb remembers for ever that in our city “it rains as the Town Council acts: very little but brutally”. As for other matters, such as Gurb’s transpecies fondness for being a woman, what can be more up-to-date?

The most interesting part of the interview, and the challenge to any local Barcelona writer, were Mendoza’s comments on another kind of transition, that of the city from boring backwater to touristic world icon. As he explained very well, Barcelona “makes no sense” since it lacks a major river, its harbour is too shallow and it is not at all a communications hub to other places in Europe. Mendoza noted that the accounts of foreign visitors from the remotest past up to 1992 show mostly disappointment. Then he explained that, for reasons he fails to understand, particular buildings that were considered just an ugly, inconvenient feature of the city have been re-read as unmissable attractions. Casa Batlló, he recalled, used to be known as Iberia House, for this is where the airline’s only agency in Barcelona used to sell the tickets. There was a lab for blood analysis in one of the tops floors.

There have been a number of novels in Spanish and Catalan about post-Olympic Barcelona–Miqui Otero’s Rayos was named in the programme–but not just one that has managed to capture the zeitgeist as Gurb did in 1989/1990. And the question is that we, Barcelona’s disheartened citizens, need to understand (like Mendoza) why we’re losing our city to the swarm of tourists that are so actively pushing us out–to the alien invasion. A friend once told me that Parisians are not nice at all because they are sick of tourists–well, we’re going that way. One Gurb and his mate are welcome indeed; millions are just an impossible burden.

Going back to Sin noticias de Gurb, then, reminds us of how fast the change has been. The only tourists mentioned are the Japanese, harbingers of the later hordes, who, perhaps even more than the Olympics, put us on the world-map by declaring Antoni Gaudí a genius. Surprisingly, there is actually very little about the Games in Gurb, whereas in La ciudad de los prodigios Mendoza shows a unique awareness of how hosting major international events transforms a city. In that novel the protagonist of the unlikely name–Onofre Bouvila–is direct witness and participant in the two events that frame the action: the International Exhibitions of 1888 (which gave us the Ciutadella park and buildings) and 1929 (the excuse for Montjuïch’s regeneration). In interview with Guzmán, Mendoza noted that the 1929 exhibition was actually a failure, as it came at quite a bad moment in world affairs–the start of the Depression–and in national History (the second Republic was established in 1931, the Civil War started in 1936). Though things were not as dramatic, the 2004 Forum de les Cultures also failed to galvanize the city, perhaps because we had already started the decline into our current status as a theme park. There has even been an attempt, better forgotten, to stage the Winter Olympics here, in association with the ski resorts in the Pyrenees. Our imagination is not only stagnant but positively flagging. And without it, any city dies.

Mendoza stressed that he will not write again about Gurb, still at large somewhere on Earth, nor about his nameless lonely mate, still seeking Gurb’s whereabouts. My guess is that whereas Gurb is possibly in Tahiti, his mate is not very far from where he landed; maybe one day he’ll even visit my office… The readers’ insistence that Mendoza writes a sequel of Sin noticias de Gurb, I guess, is not motivated by the need for some humour–though I can tell you that we do need this in our city–but by his key role as interpreter of the changes Barcelona has gone through. We are somehow asking Mendoza whether he can write not quite a sequel of Gurb, but a sequel of La ciudad de los prodigios, with our favourite stranded alien as observer/narrator. Perhaps because only an alien can begin to grasp how we have managed to become alienated from our own city, while believing that we were finally fulfilling the cosmopolitan dream that would show rival Madrid one thing or two. Now in Madrid they are beginning to talk of the negative impact of tourism as ‘Barcelonification’…

I am these days giving the finishing touches to a monographic issue for Science Fiction Studies on Spanish sf. To my chagrin, I realized this morning that I had neglected to include Sin noticias de Gurb in the bibliography/filmography, an error I have quickly repaired. I am certainly dismayed by my own omission, particularly because the list (in special the films) suggest that comedy is a fundamental ingredient of Spanish sf. In the introduction to the issue, I explain that comedy compensates for our low self-esteem as a nation. I have already written here, just one year ago, a post on this issue (12 April 2016, “President Rajoy and the Starship that Failed to Land on Nou Camp”). I did discuss there Gurb as an example of Valle Inclán’s ‘esperpento’ (or the bizarre), though funnily some of the plot details I gave were wrong… Gurb and his mate, however, land here in Barcelona at a moment when self-esteem was at its highest (hey! We got the Olympics!), and yet, still the raucous comedy is needed. Why? Most likely, Mendoza already had an intuition that the Games would change the city for ever but also reveal that behind Gaudí’s gaudy buildings, there is nothing much–even less than there used to be.

Gurb, wherever you are on the planet, go on having fun. The other one: my office doors are open, and I specialise in science-fiction… We could have a very nice conversation (and there will be lots of those ‘churros’ you love so much, promise…).

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

WONDERING HOW (POPULAR) CULTURE IS TRANSMITTED (WITH A REFERENCE TO STAR WARS)

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

As consumers of cultural products we seem to take for granted that texts are, somehow, automatically saved for survival and that any new generation has access to all of them. This is, of course, naïve, misguided and plain wrong. In the case of popular texts (and I mean here generally of all kinds beyond the printed page), we seem to assume that transmission is practically automatic and immediately guaranteed, in some cases, by the big cults around some of these texts. Even so, there are specific practices, companies and persons involved in the process of keeping a text alive. Just think of the constant renewal of interest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Do you, my reader, know exactly how Tolkien’s classic has managed to survive since the day of its publication back in 1954-55? Could this rich trilogy ever disappear? Surely, this catastrophe is unthinkable for its many fans but it seems to me that at this odd jointure in the history of culture its future is impossible to predict.

As one of the children lucky to attend a cinema screening of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977, the one now known as Episode IV: A New Hope, I find myself often thinking about how exactly texts are passed on. (By the way, I’ll take the chance here to make the happy announcement of a forthcoming conference on Star Wars and Ideology at the Universidad Complutense for April 2018. Finally!!). You might think that something as gigantic as George Lucas’s brainchild, now a Disney brand, has a life of its own. Actually, this is not the case at all. To begin with, when the first film was released, the producers and the director were absolutely sceptical about its success. So was the manufacturer in charge of selling the corresponding toys, to the point that many children who loved the film received that Christmas 1977 not an actual doll (soon sold out) but a sort of i.o.u., promising their future delivery. Today it seems as if everyone knew about how the merchandising would keep the saga alive but this is just an illusion.

I visited a few months ago an exhibition of Star Wars toys at Barcelona’s Illa Diagonal (the shopping centre) and I paid close attention to the children. Some were very young, around six, and already familiar with most of the characters there represented. Their parents, clearly, had placed them before the TV screen as soon as possible to share the corresponding DVDs of the saga with them; most likely, they had also shared with them their own merchandising products and bought new items. This type of generational transmission, from parent to child, must be the most habitual one. The children I saw seemed eager, none was dragging their feet after an embarrassingly enthusiastic parent, all were smiling and wide-eyed, and so were the adults. I assume that many parents fail to transmit their love of Star Wars (or any other beloved text) to their children but, then, the failed cases were not attending the exhibition. I’m sure that the frustration must be terrible in those cases…

I wondered, however, what happens to children whose parents are not keen at all on Star Wars (or that do not have a special favourite text to enthuse about). I know very well that elder siblings, cousins (either older or not), and aunts and uncles (rather than grandparents) play major roles in this generational transmission, still totally under-researched. At least, my impression is that Reception Studies tends to focus on the interaction between consumer and text, not caring too much about how consumers actually access texts. Anyway: there are five children in my family (four girls, one boy) and we, my husband and I, have failed miserably to instil in them a love of Star Wars. They’re just not interested and find our own interest a bit peculiar (“the problem with being a nerd,” one of my nieces sentenced, “is that you feel under the obligation of being a nerd and doing nerdish things”–this was when she declined seeing Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens despite our insistence…). Intent on enticing at least our youngest niece, and seeing how useful the new girl hero in this film, Rey, could be, we launched a relentless campaign… To no avail. Then, suddenly, one day she announced that she was ready to see the saga and, so, we started with Episode IV. It has not worked (or not yet) because she herself has decided that she is too young (she’s 8) to make sense of the plot.

We still have hopes that she’ll turn to the light side of the Force but in the meantime I have decided to learn from her how little kids get acquainted with famous texts, such as, well, Star Wars, in the event of there being no adult pointing the way to them. I hear you groan: playground talk, it’s all it takes. Yes and no. Obviously, basing any conclusions on the experience of one single child is bad research but at least I have learned a few new things (to share with you). Here they are:

1) If my niece regards herself as too young to understand the saga, this means that many parents ‘force’ their children to consume texts for which they are not quite ready. It is not normal for an 8-year-old to claim, as one of my niece’s classmates told her, that Rogue One (the prequel) is her favourite film. This is an excellent adventure film but also quite a dark story of heroic sacrifice, and if this little girl saw it this is because an adult disregarded how she would react to the bleak plot. Yes, I’m a bit scandalized… children are sensitive and impressionable…

2) The transmission of the text values among children is done through direct comment and, indeed, through the toys. On the school bus, in the school playground, at the home of other kids. The toy or any other items connected with the text in question (stationery, bags, clothing…) elicit curiosity, which leads to questions: what is this?, who are they? At this very early age, children’s comments on the films are limited in criticism (the films are just ‘cool’) and include, rather, plot summary or scene descriptions. Often of shocking moments.

3) In this regard, I was surprised to find out that our focus on Rey was a bit misguided. My husband and I assumed that, just as little boys could identify with Luke Skywalker and hence enter into the spirit of the saga, Rey would have the same function for my little niece. She loved the ‘idea’ of Rey but was terrified by her confrontation with Kylo Ren using laser sabres (this is the clip we showed to her). The idea of a laser sabre toy is very attractive to her, but, paradoxically, not the terrible potential of this weapon in the films. In contrast, she explained that she had asked us to see the first film because she is very curious about Darth Vader’s death and his connection with Luke. Yes: we believe that spoilers are always negative but it turns out that sometimes they are the greatest enticement. A classmate told her about Luke’s fearful father… and she is puzzled about Vader’s person. My hope is that her curiosity keeps her interest alive and will eventually result in her seeing the three first films. At least.

4) A major lesson to learn is that children can make extremely clear judgements from a very early age about what they like. Not so much about why, logically. I keep on asking my nieces about their preferences and this is always a wonderful lesson for me. They, however, find explaining themselves quite a difficult exercise: they’re flattered about my interest, but also concerned that I may find their answers too basic (poor things!). Another obvious lesson is that textual transmission works much, much better if you (the adult) avoid forcing the text on the child. “I’m going to take you to see a film you will love” doesn’t work as well as “I’m going to see this amazing film, would you like to come with me?” In the first case, the child can even get a bit suspicious (“um… why do you want me to see this movie in particular?”), whereas in the second case, a better kind of complicity is built around the text. Sometimes it works the other way round: in the last year, my office has got a new set of tsum-tsum Disney characters, and some Trolls dolls… And my husband can’t stop watching Gumball

So, yes, basically you need the patience of an advanced Jedi knight/dame to bring a child to the light side of the Force but, here’s the lesson, you’re not alone. Other persons, particularly in the child’s own circle, are also participating in the constant renewal of the saga. If nothing works, then, this is it: you gain no padawan. But then, you can still enjoy the company of many other Star Wars fans all over the world. Some comfort!

Although at the time I was not aware that this would be a crucial memory in my life as a film spectator, I thank now George Lucas for the unforgettable sight of the Imperial cruiser crossing the screen at the beginning of Episode IV, 40 years ago. I was 11, remember? The Harry Potter generation also enjoyed 20 years ago (how time flies!) that ‘wow’ moment that defines a whole cohort when Harry got that letter from Hogwarts, also aged 11. But, what about the children of 2017? I sometimes worry that they’re trapped in the stories meant for other generations, as the machinery of cultural production stagnates. It’s wonderful to see how our own texts last but, surely, today’s children also deserve their own moment of wonder. And, then, we’ll learn from them.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.