ROBOSEXUALITY: BETWEEN SCIENCE FICTION AND REALITY

[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/

IRVINE WELSH IN TOWN, 25 YEARS AFTER TRAINSPOTTING

I had a truly weird experience yesterday attending Irvine Welsh’s presentation of his novel Un polvo en condiciones, Francisco González’s translation of A Decent Ride (Anagrama, 2015). This is the tenth novel in Welsh’s long list, which also includes four short story collections and also plays. I decided to attend because I was meeting a friend, not because I’m a fan of the author. As happened, my friend arrived in time for the talk but after admittance to the auditorium was closed–that’s 250 seats. So, there I was, surrounded by 249 persons in a packed house, wondering how many who had rejected the translation aid could really understand Welsh’s Edinburgh brogue (and suspecting he was overdoing it…). About 15 minutes into the talk, two persons walked out, and then a few more–one a woman possible in her sixties, who did have the translation aid but, my guess, didn’t know who Welsh was (some members of the public will attend any literary presentation) and had left… in disgust at the obscene humour? Yet, when I left, towards the end of the q&a segment, 75 minutes later, there were people still queuing. I didn’t know Welsh had such loyal fandom.

Actually, I have a tale to tell. This was back in 2005 and Irvine Welsh came to Barcelona to present a new translation (Anagrama, which publishes his books, used to bring all prominent UK authors to the British Council thanks to the good offices of a now retired head of cultural affairs). The book was probably Glue–I’m not sure–but one thing I recall is that I had never seen, in years of attending, any presentation as crowded as that one… and with so many men!! In the q&a segment I did ask Welsh whether he saw himself as a writer specifically addressing men, and how he connected with his female readers–I don’t recall the exact words but he replied something along the lines that he hoped women found his books anyway interesting. Like many others, women and men, I consider Welsh’s first novel Trainspotting (1993) a great achievement. As a newly arrived PhD student in Glasgow, in 1994, I couldn’t help noticing the black book with the guys in silver skull masks on the cover, so frequently seen on the metro and the buses in the hands of young readers. I was fascinated by the phenomenon and I was subsequently fascinated by the text (once I could make sense of the dialect!)–I do have a copy signed by Welsh on that day of 2005.

I also have a peculiar personal memory. The British Council kindly invited me to stay for dinner and I found myself sitting between Welsh and his new wife, Beth Quinn, a Chicago native. I suspect that Welsh does not care for academics and, so, the moment I was introduced to him was, more or less, the last moment he spoke to me, despite my efforts. Perhaps the man is shy. In contrast, I found myself deep in conversation with Quinn, who, embarrassingly for me, chose to discuss the very personal topic of whether she should have children immediately, wait, or never have them. Welsh was then 46 (he was born in 1959); Beth, his second wife, 23. He had divorced Anne Antsy, his wife since 1984, and dedicatee of Trainspotting, in 2003. I was so enchanted young Beth and she was so absolutely full of very American charm and candour, that when we said goodbye, and I can’t believe I did this…, I shook Welsh’s hand and told him ‘you take care of your wife, she’s wonderful’. He said he would. The relationship has lasted for 15 years, until 2017–and they never had children.

So, yes, maybe I’m a bit prejudiced against Welsh because the social skills he displayed over that dinner were not top-notch, but, then, I trust that Beth Quinn was happy with him for a long time and, so, this is in his favour, absolutely! What makes me bristle at his novels is, rather, the glamorisation of a type of laddish masculinity that few women, if any, can abide. He is, clearly, still not thinking of his women readers, which is why his candid exposé of the dregs of the masculine underworld is, ironically, so useful to us: because we learn a lot.

Welsh is fully aware, as he acknowledged once more yesterday, that he occupies an extremely unstable position for, although he claims to be still surrounded by the working-class male friends of his youth, at the same time he is an educated man (with an MA) who makes a living writing novels–hardly a cultural product that interests men like his mates. No wonder then that, as he joked, they monitor him constantly for signs of his going soft (too middle-class), whereas he is transparently using his books to prove that he is in possession of a macho bravado that few, if any contemporary novelists, have. His presenter yesterday (Spanish novelist Kiko Amat) and most of the audience (except the grey-haired lady who left and yours truly) found it hilarious that A Decent Ride has so many penis jokes. I found the excitement with Welsh’s gross prose quite boyish, which in this context is not a word of praise.

Welsh defined himself as a brand, and he is right–specifically, he is a one-trick pony: a writer stuck in his Trainspotting universe while he himself and his characters age. This is neither good nor bad. He lives and works, however, in constant tension to prove to the reviewers he claims not to care for that he is not a literary writer. In his logic, he cannot be one because he is too prolific (lack of time was the reason he invoked to justify his disinterest in the reviews) but, then, his books are clearly unique and belong in no known genre, except the sub-genre of the ‘Irivine Welsh novel’. Anyone who has read Marabou Stork Nightmares can tell you that Welsh is an extremely ambitious literary novelist doing his best to undermine any possible reputation as such.

Thus, in order to prove to himself that he cannot be touched by the critics because he is not a literary writer of the kind that is shortlisted for the Booker Man Prize, Welsh spins increasingly delirious tales of men gone wrong and doing unspeakable things, or provoking them. The in-your-face scatology grows with each novel and is humorous if you’re already interested in that kind of bodily, iconoclastic comedy but it also produces a feeling of déjà vu and a sad impression that Welsh refuses to grow up as a writer. His staunchest fans are actually loyal to the spirit of Trainspotting and will buy anything he publishes (or queue to see him in the flesh) but they do so in a spirit of mateship, so to speak, than of readerly pleasure.

I’m re-reading these days Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, now about to reach its 22nd instalment with In a House of Lies (to be published in October), and I was wondering how his Edinburgh and Welsh’s Edinburgh overlap. Rankin’s villain, Big Ger Cafferty, uses his taxi business as a cover for drug dealing at one point, and the protagonist of Welsh’s A Decent Ride is a self-employed taxi driver. Does Big Ger know this Terry Lawson, I wondered? Has he at any point done business with Sick Boy? Has Rebus ever arrested any of the Leith crew in Trainspotting? How would Rebus fare in a Welsh novel? Has he read, perhaps, Filth and enjoyed the exploits of Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson? Has Frank ‘Franco’ Begbie ever read a Rankin novel?

It’s funny how we accept such separate literary universes as representation of the same city, and even of the same circles, and how authors highlight each other’s strengths and foibles. After a dose of Rankin, Welsh seems dirtier than ever; after a dose of Welsh, Rankin seems over-polite. And it’s funny how you have no doubts of who the bigger literary artist is. Rankin is very good at spinning convoluted plots held together by extra-thin threads–his Rebus novels are very clever spider webs–but in his novels the prose is limpid and the main word-games are found only in Rebus’ sometimes obscure banter. Welsh, in contrast, elevates to literary art the prose one finds in elevator and loo graffiti, while pretending he just has a good ear. It may not be to everyone’s liking, not even the author, but Mr. Welsh you do write Literature. Please, note that Kiko Amat mentioned Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) as a referent to understand Welsh’s work, and who doubts that Céline wrote Literature?

Amat also argued that perhaps it would be in Welsh’s benefit to be as dead as the French author because then he would be a proper cult author for the reluctant critics. This was Amat’s polite way of hinting that perhaps Welsh should have stopped writing once he published Trainspotting. After all, Emily Brontë only wrote Wuthering Heights–the Trainspotting of 1848– and then she died at 30, and look at her! Imagine, if you can, twelve more novels by Ms. Emily dealing with the same characters and environments, and you can understand Welsh’s problem.

Another unsubtle thing Amat said is that if you don’t enjoy the gross-out factor in Welsh’s novels and his kinky humour this is because you’re a prude, which barely concealed a misogynistic taunt, as he really meant ‘a prudish woman’. This is a type of justification that admits no counter-argument because if you acknowledge your prudishness then you’re done for in our heavily sexualized times, and if you reply that you’re unprejudiced but just don’t like vulgar humour, then you sound prissy anyway. As Stuart Kelly put it in his very negative review of Welsh’s novel in The Guardian, ‘The tired old rebuttal is “it’s a satire and you don’t have a sense of humour”. But listen. What’s that? It’s the sound of no one laughing. There is a faint and distant sniggering, though. If anyone parts with £12.99 for this, they’re being taken for a ride’. Not having read A Decent Ride yet, I cannot say whether it is indeed a scam perpetrated on pliant readers but, at least, I’m satisfied that not all men enjoy Welsh’s kind of laddish, boyish or childish humour, whatever you prefer.

There’s a slumming factor here at work that I need to unpack and that is verging on the dangerous side of snobbery. Welsh may be working-class originally but he is, I insist, an educated, middle-class writer reproducing in his works an idiolect conditioned by class and regional markers, with its peculiar humour. He has built his reputation on building characters that sound genuine and that you might recognize in certain areas of Edinburgh (perhaps as they used to be, not as they are now). He is doing, so to speak, literary-anthropological work for the benefit of his middle-class readers (perhaps mostly declassed readers with a working-class background) and presenting the ‘life of the others’ as humorous material.

I’m not about to suggest that this is cultural appropriation or politically incorrect in any way. What I’m saying is that Welsh’s novels are yet further proof that the working-classes have not been yet given a dignified literary representation which is neither sentimental nor humoristic. I’ll mention, however, William McIlvanney’s novels Docherty (1975) and The Big Man (1985), as an example of how Scottish fiction can offer better portraits of working-class masculinity beyond Welsh’s shenanigans. Incidentally, McIlvanney’s Laidlaw (1977) started the Tartan Noir tradition from which Rankin’s John Rebus descends (the first novel, Knots and Crosses was published in 1987). I cannot recommend enough McIlvanney’s elegant The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), with dour Inspector Jack Laidlaw.

I wish I could have asked the 249+ persons attending Welsh’s talk with Amat why they were there. Perhaps in a city of 1,500,000 million, this is a tiny figure. I had an easy excuse: I’m a Literature teacher, and I have even taught Trainspotting (well, the film rather than the book, try to have second-language students read Welsh…). Was it celebrity? Was it a the memory of handsome Ewan McGregor, no matter how Rent-onized? For, and this is one last nasty barb, if you think that reading Welsh in translation is reading Welsh at all… you’re being taken for an (in)decent ride…

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)

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/

THEORIZING CHARACTER: A FEW POINTERS

I have suggested to one of my prospective doctoral students to consider studying the configuration of secondary characters (in Harry Potter) for his dissertation and, so, I have embarked on a small bibliographical search to see what is available generally speaking on characters. This post is a record of my failure to find much of significance and implicitly a call for your suggestions.

As usual, I have started with the MLA database, which to my infinite surprise carries no entry for a monographic or collective volume on ‘character’. You get hundreds of entries, mostly journal articles, with analyses of this or that character but nothing systematic that can be used as a departure point to study this central concept. Next, I have turned to WorldCat, where I have found a couple of academic books with the title ‘character’. They have turned out to be studies on moral philosophy within ‘Virtue Ethics’ (https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_virtue_ethics.html). Here ‘character’ is used in the sense of personal identity that needs to be fortified in order to make adequate ethical decisions. Interesting! And how Victorian!

Next, I have turned to the Spanish database Dialnet, in search of anything on ‘personaje’. Here are some of the most relevant results:

*La construcción del personaje, Konstantin Stanislavskiï, Alianza Editorial, 1999.
*El personaje novelesco, coord. Marina Mayoral, Cátedra/Ministerio de Cultura, 1990.
*Más allá del personaje, José Javier Muñoz, Confederación Española de Gremios y Asociaciones de Libreros, 1996.
*Teoría del personaje, Carlos Castilla del Pino, Alianza Editorial, 1989.
*La condición del personaje, Álvaro Salvador, Caja General de Ahorros de Granada, 1992.
*El personaje teatral, Jesús G. Maestro, Universidade de Vigo, 1998.
*Personaje dramático y actor, César Oliva Olivares, Universidad de Murcia, 2004.

What do we have here, then? Very little!! 20th century research, with one exception; books that are hard or impossible to find and, in any case, more of interest in the field of drama than of the novel. Marina Mayoral’s collective volume gathers together the papers presented in a seminar and cannot be the type of systematic study that should exist but does not exist… but at least it is something…

Of course, E.M. Forster made a famous (or infamous) distinction in Aspects of the Novel (1927) between flat and round characters and most specialists in Literary Studies are content to pass it on our students with no further thought. This is, however, a very limited impressionistic difference of little actual use. I may be completely off the track but it appears that the major academic book in English on characters is W.J. Harvey’s Character and the Novel published in 1965, yes, +50 years old (see https://ia801601.us.archive.org/31/items/in.ernet.dli.2015.459267/2015.459267.Character-And-The-Novel.pdf). Its most recent edition is dated 1970, which gives an important clue about when the study of character went out of fashion. There is an article by Mark Spilka, Martin Price, Julian Moynahan and Arnold Weinstein called “Character as a Lost Cause” published in 1978 (NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Spring 1978, 197-217) so, let’s say, for the sake of the argument that 1980 marked a turning point.

The article by Fernando Sánchez Alonso, “Teoría del personaje narrativo (Aplicación a El amor en los tiempos del cólera)”, in Didáclica (10, 79-105, 1993, https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/DIDA/article/viewFile/DIDA9898110079A/19784, offers in its abstract an interesting summary of the issue: (my translation and my italics) “In this article, we try to explore our understanding of character as well as explain the reasons why its study has fallen into disrepute in modern literary theory in comparison to its prestige in Greco-Latin and Renaissance poetics; we examine character next in relation to psychoanalysis and society to finally explain how it is built and which kinds of character there are.” That is to say: in the 1980s stylistics lost ground to the forces of identity politics, whether on an individual basis (Freud and company) or in the context of representation (need I explain this?). Narratology, though, opened other ways to consider character, of which an example is Francisco Álamo Felices’ article “La caracterización del personale novelesco: Perspectivas narratológicas” (Signa 15, 2006, 189-213), which I must recommend for its thoroughness in presenting the case. I must say, in any case, that his bibliography does not include any text dealing specifically with characters but mainly with narratology–as it should be expected from the title.

Here I open a brief parenthesis to note that I personally disagree with the application of psychoanalysis to the study of character, which was pioneered by Freud’s reading of Prince Hamlet as an individual manifestedly suffering from Oedipus complex. A character is a construction, not a person. If we have to psychoanalyse anyone that should be the author but this is not at all a strategy I would endorse. Now, being myself extremely guilty of exploiting character traits to endorse this or that aspect of gender representation, I must insist that it is precisely because I am researching representation that I find the gap in the study of characterization so worrying. We need to understand collectively much better what kind of stylistic device a character is to see how innovation is produced, hence contribute to a better kind of representation for specific identities.

It has finally occurred to me that the obvious place to find volumes about characters in fiction (and here I mean novels, short stories, drama, film, TV… all kinds) is in creative writing. Here’s the list of 115 books with the words “creating characters” in their title offered by WorldCat (https://www.worldcat.org/search?q=ti%3A%22creating+characters%22&qt=results_page), and here’s the shorter list (88 volumes) of ‘Books for Writers’ that you may find in GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/13705.Books_For_Writers

Allow me to highlight a few titles, with the word ‘character’ in them, though I think we can safely assume that all these books offer instruction about characterization (please do read Stephen King’s On Writing):
*Characters and Viewpoint by top science fiction and fantasy writer Orson Scott Card
*Creating Unforgettable Characters by Linda Seger, a very well known name in the field of creative screenwriting
*Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain
*Characterization and Sensory Detail (Writing Active Setting #1) by Mary Buckham
* The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi
*Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell

Here’s the daring thing to do: incorporate all this ‘advice literature’ to the academic study of character. I know that this is not as straightforward as I am suggesting here for, when read from an academic point of view, these volumes can be problematic. We are not used to their pragmatic approach, which clashes with our textual heuristic, etc. It might also be the case that, at least speaking for myself, I distrust this type of book because at heart I think that authors should know without being told how to build a character from reading other authors–and I know this is silly.

So far I have only mentioned ‘character’ in general, without distinguishing between protagonists and secondary characters. This is one of my pet obsessions these days: that secondary characters reveal the true tensions in the text. But… what does secondary mean? Think, for the sake of argumentation, of Mercutio and Count Paris in Romeo and Juliet: neither is a main character like those in the title, yet we can see that Count Paris is of lesser importance because he has few lines. However, if you think about it, you could take Mercutio off the play and the plot would still work (you could have Romeo slay Tybalt for another stupid, macho reason), whereas if you eliminate Count Paris the plot collapses–his arranged engagement to Juliet is the reason why she marries Romeo secretly and in such a hurry, as she does not want to marry her father’s choice. It makes no sense at all, as I’m sure you see, that secondary characters have been overlooked with such intensity in Literary Studies, with very few exceptions (the monographic issue of Belphégor, 2003, http://dalspace.library.dal.ca/handle/10222/31210).

In drama a ‘spear carrier’ is the nickname that actors in walk-on parts with no dialogue receive. The film equivalent would be the character seen but not heard–poor Álex González made his Hollywood debut in X: First Class, part of the X-Men franchise, appearing in the credits as Janos Quested/Riptide though he had no lines. A glorified spear carrier, then. I amused myself by asking some literary colleagues what is the minimum we need in print fiction to define a character as such: is a name enough? There was no agreement… These are examples to make you see that the problem is not simply that we do not know how to approach fully developed characters–we don’t even understand the spectrum of characterization connecting spear carriers and main characters, nor where to draw the line between kinds of secondary characters.

Plenty of work to do, then…

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/