BEING THE OTHER, THE OTHER BEING: MASCULINE INSECURITIES IN MATTHEW HAIG’S THE HUMANS AND BLAKE CROUCH’S DARK MATTER

This is the ten-minute talk I gave last week at the international conference of the Science Fiction Research Association, of which I spoke in my last post. Since we had been given such a short time, I used no secondary sources and focused directly on the two novels I discuss. I was a bit nervous that the paper would seem too informal but nobody complained. So, here it is, with a warning about spoilers.

The exploration of gender in science fiction mostly focuses on women and the LGTBI collective, overlooking heterosexual masculinity, even though most authors have that identity. I consider here what men’s recent science fiction says about this type of masculinity from a critical position informed by Masculinities Studies, though I’ll leave my theoretical framework aside because of time constraints. My focus are two novels set in the present: The Humans (of 2013) by English author Matthew Haig, and Dark Matter (of 2016) by American novelist Blake Crouch. Haig’s novel is a satire and Crouch’s a thriller but, despite their differences, both address a key issue for contemporary masculinity, namely, how to successfully combine the demands of an ambitious career with a pro-feminist family life.

These novels could be Gothic horror about the wife and teen son who gradually realize their husband and father is a stranger. Yet, both are first person narrations that use science fiction (in a light vein) to portray a male individual who needs to understand how men function in the contemporary world. In Haig’s novel, a nameless alien learns to be a caring human man by rejecting the behaviour of the uncaring workaholic it replaces. The family man in Crouch’s novel must defend his well-balanced masculinity from the assault by another uncaring workaholic, his own doppelgänger. Alien and family man have little in common but the authors’ message is similar. Both use science fiction to endorse a positive masculine model, focused on caring for women and children. Neither author explains, though, why a happy family life should involve sacrificing personal careers. In each case, the birth of a son transforms the lives of at least one parent into a less publicly rewarding existence. Arguably, both novels resist above all the impact of parenting on personal life.

In each novel, there is a talented woman who has chosen motherhood over her career but the situation of the husband, both gifted scientists, is different. In The Humans top Cambridge mathematician Andrew Martin is a selfish career man, and a disappointing husband and father, who cheats on his wife Isobel and lacks any empathy for his literally suicidal teen son Gulliver. In Dark Matter, Chicago physicist Jason Dessen is a happy family man, in love with his wife Daniela and in syntony with their son Charlie, unconcerned by having ditched his promising career. Each from their angle, Haig and Crouch are very critical of the workaholic career model that makes family life dysfunctional (or impossible) and that relegates women to a supporting role. In The Humans, workaholic Martin is killed when the alien narrator snatches his body. In Dark Matter Jason2, the doppelgänger, is dispatched for stealing Jason’s family life. In his gentle satire, Haig hints that an alien could be a better English family man than a human male, whereas Crouch has his happy American family man kill in a vicious way the workaholic he might have been.

Neither Haig nor Crouch, however, imagine their scientific male geniuses, for this is what Martin and Dessen are, combining their professions with a rich family life. For both, the arrival of a child at an early stage in their careers is a major crisis which forces them and their partners to make crucial choices. Andrew’s wife Isobel abandons her career as a historian to be a mother and to support her husband’s career, later taking up teaching. The unexpected pregnancy of Jason’s girlfriend Daniela makes them abandon their dream careers –hers as an artist, his in quantum physics–to become teachers, too. When each novel begins, the two couples are in their early forties and have been in their relationships for long: 20 years in Andrew and Isobel’s case, 15 in Jason and Daniela’s case. The novels narrate, then, a sort of mid-life crisis.

To give some more detail, Haig’s novel narrates the efforts of a Vonnadorian sent to Earth to stop Professor Martin from announcing his resolution of the Riemann Hypothesis, as this would fast-forward human progress in ways the aliens mistrust. Martin’s identity is wiped out and his body occupied by the nameless alien, who cannot easily adapt to his new life. The professor’s new oddball behaviour is, of course, attributed to a breakdown caused by overworking. On its side, the body-snatcher resists its orders to kill all who might know of Martin’s mathematical breakthrough. The alien refuses to kill Isobel and Gulliver, though he does murder the rival to whom a boastful Martin communicates his discovery. Taking a look at the many certificates of distinction in this man’s office, the alien feels “thankful to come from a place where personal success was meaningless” (89).

As the alien starts valuing Isobel and Gulliver, it discovers that Martin was totally focused on his career, that his wife was unhappy but unable to divorce him, and that Gulliver cannot cope with being the son of a genius. Enjoying the pleasures of caring for the boy and of being cared for by Isobel (since in its genderless home planet, family and love do not exist), the alien decided to become fully human. The attack of a second murderous alien, however, forces the alien to disclose its real identity. Gulliver takes the revelation well, even with relief. As the alien writes, there was no sentimental scene but the boy “seemed to accept me as an extraterrestrial life form far more easily than he had accepted me as a father” (264). Isobel, though, is shattered by the loss of her new happy family life. After this episode, Haig sends the alien abroad, still posing as Martin. But, being comedy, The Humans ends happily. When Gulliver invites his fake Dad back home, claiming that Isobel misses their life, the alien asks whether she misses the original or the alien Martin. “You,” Gulliver replies. “You’re the one who looked after us” (289). No more is needed.

In Dark Matter, Jason2 comes from the universe where Jason rejected fatherhood, and Daniela aborted. He built there the box that gives access to the multiverse. Successful but lonely, Jason2 starts seeking the life that Jason and Daniela enjoy with Charlie. As Jason comments, “If I represent the pinnacle of family success for all the Jason Dessens, Jason2 represents the professional and creative apex. We’re opposite poles of the same man, and I suppose it isn’t a coincidence that Jason2 sought out my life from the infinite possibilities available” (265). Jason2 kidnaps Jason and, wrongly assuming he will be thrilled to take his place as a single career man, swaps lives with him. In fact, Jason is shattered and only uses the box to get back home and terminate his usurper. Daniela and Charlie take Jason’s eventual revelation that they have been living (for a month) with Jason2 just with mild puzzlement. Yet, despite the reassurances of wife and son that Jason2 was not better than him, a certain doubt lingers. Since Jason’s family never really distrusts this other man (Daniela is, in fact, thrilled with their renewed passion), it appears that Jason is replaceable. Jason is robbed of his life but Jason2 is, on the whole, a good enough replacement, as if Jason’s roles as husband and father were just performances and not an expression of a deeply-felt identity.

To sum up, Haig and Crouch use science fiction to reject the workaholic male genius who refuses to be a good family man. Martin is flippantly replaced by an alien who is better at performing human masculinity than he ever was. As for Jason, by killing Jason2 he eliminates his workaholic self and regains his lost happy family life. Crouch, though, cannot wholly erase the impression that this man is replaceable because he can never prove that Jason is unique. Ultimately, whether a man is selfish or caring, his choices may make him vulnerable. In Haig’s and Crouch’s novels, the ‘other being’ embodies the choices not taken and men’s struggle to combine professional ambition and rewarding family life. It is, therefore, important to highlight science fiction’s contribution to the discussion of these male anxieties. I hope you agree!

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

IS SCIENCE FICTION RESPONSIBLE FOR IMAGINING THE FUTURE? POSSIBLY…

I’ve been attending these days in fits and starts the Science Fiction Research Association’s international conference, conditioned by the six-hour difference with Toronto, where the hosting institution (Seneca College) is located. Fifteen months into the pandemic I needn’t say how impossible it is to listen to anybody speak on Zoom, or similar, without either multitasking or disconnecting after five minutes. I may doodle like I’m possessed when I listen to papers delivered in person, but it is just beyond me to get used to streaming. I pity our poor students! And, no, unlike what you might expect, science-fiction conferences do not happen in an advanced virtual reality environment where we can project our ultra-realistic yet fantastic avatars, as if this were Ready Player One’s immersive universe OASIS. At most, you get funny backgrounds. A keynote speaker had chosen, for mysterious reasons, a gorgeous photo of a process of in vitro fecundation. Another was floating in outer space.

The main theme of the conference has been ‘The Future as/of Inequality’, so you can be sure that there has been much talk of class (in my case of middle-class men’s fears of not doing well as family men). Even so, I would say that the main keywords, or buzzwords, in the sessions I have attended were ‘race’ and ‘dystopia’. I wish the papers had dealt with how utopia will be reached in a post-racial future civilization, but most dealt with the extension into a long-lasting dystopia of the same racial issues negatively affecting so many people today. The number of authors and main characters other than white has grown spectacularly in recent science fiction, but many (or even most) are battling conflicts so deeply rooted in current racism that no utopian horizon is emerging for anyone of any skin colour.

The most interesting panel I attended had contributions by two of the most admirable scholars in science fiction (yes, I said admirable because I admire them): Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint. This came after the keynote lecture by Lars Schmeink in which he described the connections between the current theorization of capitalism–such as surveillance capitalism, the concept popularized by Shoshana Zuboff in her eponymous book, and others, such as Susan Lettow’s biocapitalism–and current science fiction. I had a feeling of déjà vu, having heard plenty in the 1980s about how corporations might replace nations in the 21st century as de jure and de facto global organizations. William Gibson ranted all he wanted in his cyberpunk novels about the boundless power of zaibatsus, when it seemed that Japan would soon dominate the world (whatever happened to Japan?). And if I recall correctly, in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991) the characters’ citizenship was granted by the corporations they worked for (as if I were an Autonomous University citizen rather than a citizen of the Spanish kingdom). But back to Bould and Vint: they discussed whether science fiction should and could operate beyond capitalism both in its means of production and the content of the stories. Their views were similar yet quite different. You’ll see.

There is something definitely hypocritical, I think, in telling tales of corporate dystopia while being published or broadcast by immense corporations. As Mark Bould insisted, science fiction should be free of commodification in order to be a true contributor to a future which could imagine life beyond corporate dystopia. Schmeink quoted Ursula Le Guin’s famous saying “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words”. This optimistic view appears to agree with Bould’s faith in science fiction but, of course, Le Guin does not explain how ‘the art of words’ can undermine the corporate monster from inside. We know that capitalism, in fact, can turn anything into a commodity, including resistance (the first example that has come to my mind is the fortune someone must have made selling t-shirts with the photo of Che Guevara).

Bould suggested something along the lines of perhaps turning science fiction into a kind of “collective folk art” as, to name an instance, ballads once were. Bould, who co-edited with British author China Miéville the volume Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction (2009), is surely aware of Miéville’s alternative proposal that authors are paid a salary by the state, which has always raised many eyebrows but seems fairer than having another job as you produce fiction in hippie-folkish (or Elizabethan aristo) style. Being myself an author paid by the Spanish state to write (also to teach, of course), I see Miéville’s point–though I wonder how authors would be selected, and if writing science fiction would be considered a merit. Anyway, Bould complained that “science fiction is everywhere but not evenly distributed” and called for an end to its commodification. My view, however, is that this goal is as difficult as making academic work truly open access, and not yet another corporate product (or what did you think it is?).

Sherryl Vint’s argumentation was more anti-corporation in the sense that she not only questioned how corporations force everything, including sf, to be commodified, but also how the nightmarish world that corporations have created has colonized sf’s imagination of the future and also our present. Her main target were the white, male, US billionaires whose visions of an ultra-monetized future we are all following like sheep to the slaughter, and how they are presenting those visions not as the opposite of the future science fiction has imagined but as its realization. To give you an example, Elon Musk is selling Neuralink–a project to connect human brains to computers–as the realization of Iain M. Banks’s neural laces in the Culture novels, calling himself a fan. Conveniently, though, Musk forgets that the Culture is a post-capitalist, post-scarcity civilization where guys like him would be socially ostracized. So, yes, I’m with Sherryl Vint in this urgent need to vehemently deny that the future to which Musk and company are dragging us is a utopian science-fictional future, and the only possible one. We must “resist the occupation of sf by all these corporations and alt-right groups”, she said, and reject all the “bad forms of using sf”. These are, I believe, dominant in the stylish but trashy sf served by the streaming platforms, cinema and videogames (less so in print fiction), overwhelmingly at the service of convincing earthlings that despite the unstoppable onslaught of climate change and other man-made disasters they must buy the latest i-phone and change their gas-powered car for a Tesla.

I have already expressed here several times that as academics we can contribute to altering the path of science fiction by writing about the works that promote positive change, and eschew the dystopian texts. I am, however, in a minority of one (or of very few), and run besides the risk of having nothing to write about if the sf I am reading and seeing these days continues in this dystopian vein. As plain consumers and as academics we can make demands on writers, showrunners, filmmakers and videogame designers to move beyond the ‘strong-hero-battles-corporation’ scenario, as we are managing to get better gender and racial inclusiveness. I’m sure that corporations are to blame a great deal for their insistence on destroying the planet as they sell us parasitical, useless objects and services but each of us contributes their share. Including myself. For instance, have spent this morning twenty euros to buy from Amazon Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry of the Future, hypocritically ignoring that this contributes more to enriching Jeff Bezos than to furthering Robinson’s crusade for utopia (I don’t think, however, that Robinson would appreciate the idea of sf as a folk product).

I am working on something completely unrelated to sf, connected with recent American politics, and listening yesterday to Senator Cory Booker speak to Jimmy Kimmel, I realized what we’re missing and this man has in great quantities: positivity. Someone commented on YouTube that listening to Booker and to Donald Trump made you wonder how they could belong to the same species. Well, Trump is a main generator of dystopia whereas Booker has made a point of turning his personal sunniness into positive politics aimed at increasing US citizens’ welfare. I am not saying that Booker should write science fiction (or perhaps he should!): what I am saying is that science fiction has lost all its optimism and that generally speaking optimism is defended by very few (like Booker). Because of this science fiction is now an almost useless tool to fashion not only utopia but even a workable plan for the next decade. Hearing my twelve-year-old niece say recently that she does not want to have children because she herself has a very difficult future ahead breaks my heart. I wish I could tell her ‘don’t be silly, your future will be great!’ (I would never tell anyone ‘do have children’, that’s their choice!) but I just cannot illustrate this promise with any text, science fictional or otherwise. We seem to have lost in the attack against the false universalism of traditional sf the ability to build new worlds without inequality.

I’ll finish with a remark someone made in the conference: the problem is that we, middle-aged white baby boomers, do not want to give up our privileges and share our wealth with other generations and other nations. This is not a new discourse, but I was dismayed to hear it in a science-fiction conference because it is divisive and because Earth has resources to make everyone’s lives better, if only we get rid of the billionaires. I don’t mean killing them and using them for compost, as someone’s bad joke went, but putting a cap to personal earnings. One of the biggest lies of capitalism is that without the incentive of making money individuals do not exert their best talents–the defunct Soviet Union is often quoted as an example of how lack of personal gain-based initiative undermines nations. Yet, as long as the world is run by a cadre of billionaires (American or Chinese, I don’t care) and their corporations the future will be dominated by inequality. As for Le Guin’s words, someone did imagine what the future would be like without the absolute right of kings, but the problem is that we cannot imagine, having horrendously failed with communism, what will replace capitalism. She suggested smaller, rural communities with limited technology based on mutual aid, but I don’t quite see that. I see full automation generating income that guarantees universal freedom from the worst kind of jobs–but that for many is dystopia.

Let’s ask science-fiction writers to come up with new ideas, and help them to rethink the future. It is our duty, as much as theirs.

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

NO PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?: MASCULINITY IN SCIENCE FICTION

This is a self-translation of my part of the article originally in Catalan which I have just published with Miquel Codony on the website El Biblionauta. I have not translated Miquel’s section but comment on it at the end of my own text.

I have been working on gender and science fiction for a long time from a feminist point of view and I need, therefore, to constantly reflect on the place of women authors and on the representation of female characters in this field. In 2008 I published an introductory piece on this subject, “Mujeres y ciencia ficción”, which was followed by a more formal article in 2010, with a very similar title, “Mujeres en la literatura de ciencia ficción: entre la escritura y el feminismo”. I have recently written the article originally in Catalan “The ethical impact of robotics and digital technologies: Carme Torras, from The Vestigial Heart to Enxarxats” –for the monographic issue of the Catalan Review on current Catalan SF, which I currently co-edit with Víctor Martínez-Gil and should be published in 2022– and in this article I make the first academic reflection on the place of women in this genre and in this language. According to my own figures, the Catalan female authors of SF are around 20-25% of the total and, thus, you can speak without a doubt about women’s Catalan SF.

The problem is that when thinking about women and femininity, we tend to lose sight of how men treat masculinity and whether there have been recent changes. I’ve been doing Masculinity Studies for a couple of decades now, but I didn’t understand a very important question until I wrote in 2016 an article about Black Man (2007), a remarkable novel by British author Richard K. Morgan, known for the trilogy about Takeshi Kovacs (Altered Carbon 2002, Broken Angels 2003, Woken Furies 2005). I complained in this article that Morgan allows his monstrous hero, Carl Marsalis, to make a deep and totally pertinent reflection on the patriarchal evil that power-hungry men do, but he does not let this man seek justice for all, only allowing him to take revenge at a personal level. The author told me in an interview that all his heroes are great individualists, but when one of the peer reviewers of my article (published in Science Fiction Studies) asked me why it was not possible to imagine Marsalis as the leader of a social change beyond what Morgan claimed, I finally realized that this is the main question: while women often feel attracted to science fiction because it imagines a better future for us, which we might call post-feminist, men do not have a vision for the future about masculinity nor plans to change it, which is why they are trapped in the individualist vision Morgan expresses even when they have a clear anti-patriarchal stance. Most women, I would add, are striving to achieve the utopia promised by feminism, but men do not have a utopian horizon that motivates them to improve for the future as men. There are simply no plans.

Traditional Golden Age science fiction fulfilled part of this function, full as it was of scientific heroes and space explorers who inspired many young readers personally and professionally. I think, however, that since the 1950s there are already signs that something was breaking in the field of masculinity, perhaps related to the massive trauma of World War II, a conflict which transformed many ordinary good men into murderers but forced them to keep silent about how they felt (the Vietnam War ended this enforced silence). This had already happened in World War I but the scale of WWII was bigger and included, let’s not forget, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is no coincidence, I think, that one of the most unpleasant male characters I have ever come across is neurosurgeon and World War III (yes, III) refugee Dr. Martine in Bernard Wolfe’s novel Limbo (1952, available in the SF Masterworks collection). I haven’t checked my hypothesis in depth but my impression is that the portrait of male characters in SF has never recovered the positive tone of the technophilic science fiction from the Golden Age, and never will.

One might think that this issue is closely related to the emergence of second-wave feminism in the mid-1960s and the revolution that texts such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) meant from the 1970s onward in the treatment of gender. I think, however, that the war waged by the female authors has never consisted of attacking the representation of masculinity in their works (well, some have done that) but mostly of improving the view of femininity in the SF by men. And I think this is a war that has been won. I still find sexism and misogyny in some of the 21st century SF novels written by men, with presentations of female characters that refer to their body and sexuality above all else, but in general professional, efficient, strong women abound in all these imaginary futures. David Weber, the American author of military SF, has a long series of fourteen novels (begun in 1992) about Officer Honor Harrington, a woman who climbs up the ranks of the Space Fleet to the highest level. It could be said that women like Harrington are essentially male characters with a woman’s body, but what matters here is that both Weber and many other male authors are perfectly capable of writing SF about female characters admired by men and women. On the contrary, that men write SF about admirable men no longer happens, or seldom.

Richard Morgan told me that his heroes are dangerous men I wouldn’t want to have coffee with, and since that conversation I run the ‘coffee test’ whenever I read a SF novel starring a man –would I want to meet him for coffee? I would certainly like to meet Miles Vorkosigan, protagonist of the very long saga published since 1986 by Lois McMaster Bujold; Fassin Taak, hero of Iain M. Banks’s The Algebraist (2008); and Fitz Wahram, the main male character of 2312 (2012), a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. The rest of them don’t interest me that much, or disturb me, or scare me… Without going so far, these are in many cases men with serious deficiencies when it comes to socializing, almost always clumsy in relations with women, and with a not very seductive profile. Some still play heroic roles, such as Pandora’s Star’s Wilson Kime (2004) by Peter Hamilton, or Jim Holden from James S. A. Corey’s series Expanse (2011-), but not many more; and I should certainly mention the serious shortcomings of these and other male characters. Holden, for instance, congratulates himself on his honourability in a scene from Leviathan Wakes (2011) in which he celebrates not having abused sexually a woman under his command who is too drunk to give her consent. Ramez Naan’s Nexus (2012) begins with a distasteful scene in which the protagonist Kaden Lane, presented as an engineering genius, practically rapes the woman he is having sex with. I’m frankly surprised at how many male protagonists are not people I would like to meet and the question is whether this is a shared impression (it is for many GoodReads readers). Where, in short, are the great male characters of 21st century SF, the men of the future?

In fact, I would say that the authors are using SF not to imagine a positive and admirable future for masculinity but to deal with the insecurities and fears of today’s men. For example, in Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter (2016), physicist and engineer Jason Dessen has a very bad time trying to return to the universe where he is a good father and husband when he is impersonated by another man. In Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), the protagonist —who also goes by the name Charles Yu— is stalled in a temporary loop he cannot leave unless he finds his father, lost in another temporary loop. In Spin (2005), Robert Charles Wilson’s beautiful novel, melancholic Tyler Dupree can’t get the woman he loves (and who loves him) because he doesn’t know how to make her see that nothing really separates them. In Peter Watts’ Blindsight (2006), Siri Keeton loses half his brain to prevent deep epilepsy and the result is a man who understands the patterns of human behaviour but feels no empathy at all. I could go on… Perhaps the worst thing is that when authors try to write an attractive hero in the old style, with self-confidence and even personal beauty, this either sounds false or results in totally unbearable types, such as the repellent Darrow in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (2014). And if you liked Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) I am sorry to say that in Ready Player Two (2020) the rather nice hero Wade Watts becomes a dangerous, selfish man that totally outdoes Elon Musk with his supposedly benevolent plans for world domination.

Since here I am talking about science fiction originally in English because this is the territory which I know better I invited my Biblionauta colleague Miquel Codony to give his view of Catalan SF for the article, which then became a joint effort. Miquel found in Michelíada (2015) by Antoni Munné-Jordà (a clever retelling of the Homeric Illiad) and in the space opera Adzum i els monoculars (2020) by Sergi G. Oset, a satirical vein opposing heroic hypermasculinization. He also found humour, in this case at the expense of the anti-hero trapped by apocalyptic catastrophe, in Marc Pastor’s L’any de la plaga (2010). Miquel also mentions “a sophistication of the emotional scenarios” usually allowed to male characters in alternate history within Catalan SF, highlighting Els ambaixadors (2014) by Albert Villaró and Jo soc aquell que va matar Franco (2018) by Joan-Lluís Lluís. His conclusion is that the representation of the male characters by male authors in Catalan SF is now “being filled with nuances and variations that respond to a transformation —without direction, perhaps, chaotic and insufficient— of the meaning of one’s own perception of masculinity in our society”. I find this extremely perceptive and helpful.

My questions might not be the relevant questions –indeed, I asked myself as I wrote why SF male authors should be made responsible for regenerating masculinity, since nobody else seems to be interested (except women!). I’ll finish by citing Raewyn Connell’s classic Masculinities (2005). “In the first moment of Men’s Liberation,” by which she means the 1970s and 1980s, “activists could believe themselves borne forward on a tidal wave of historical change. The wave broke, and no means of further progress was left on the beach”. What follows is quite harsh: “We now speak of a ‘men’s movement’ partly from politeness, and partly because certain activities have the form of a social movement. But taking a cool look around the political scenery of the industrial capitalist world, we must conclude that the project of transforming masculinity has almost no political weight at all –no leverage on public policy, no organizational resources, no popular base and no presence in mass culture (except as a footnote to feminism in a critique of the excesses of masculinity therapy)” (241). No wonder, then, that not even the SF written by men can imagine a bright future for a renewed masculinity, finally free from patriarchy.

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

DON’T WE MEAN MAMMALS WHEN WE SAY ANIMALS? READING SHERRYL VINT’S ANIMAL ALTERITY: SCIENCE FICTION AND THE QUESTION OF THE ANIMAL

In her introduction to her indispensable monograph Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal (2010, Liverpool UP) Sherryl Vint writes that “Part of the rethinking the human-animal boundary, then, is recognising the embodied nature of human existence, that Homo Sapiens is a creature of the same biological origin as the plethora of species we label ‘animal’ and that we have greater or lesser degrees of kinship and common experience with them” (8). Thus, she argues, “In reconnecting with animals, we are also reconnecting with our embodied being, what might be thought of as our animal nature” (9).

This type of argumentation, developed among others by Rosi Braidotti, Dona Haraway and a long list on key names in Human-Animal Studies has allowed us to speak of animal rights by analogy with human rights. I would say that this is plain common sense, yet I was flabbergasted to hear one of my colleagues guffaw at the notion and counter-argue that animals can have no rights because rights must be accompanied by duties. We told him that animals have rights just as children do: because they need protection and not because they are expected to fulfil any duties. Supposing we get to that point, as Vint notes, “A future of human-animal dialogue will require humans to accept their responsibility for acts of exploitation and abuse” (86), a responsibility that, although in different ways, also extends to the appalling mistreatment of children.

The issue I want to address here today is quite simple: when we speak of animals, don’t we really mean mammals? Make the experiment, just say ‘animal’ and tell me what you see. Funnily, I see four legs that most often result in the image of a dog, sometimes a cat, a horse, a wolf… I don’t think immediately of a bird, or a reptile, much less an insect and even less of crustaceans. If you say ‘animal’ and the first image that comes to your mind is that of a crab, fine, but then perhaps the question is that ‘animal’ is too big a category and, hence, human-animal relationships a concept that needs to be more nuanced. Surely, our relationship with dogs has nothing to do with our relationship with mosquitos, nor do we ever think of animal rights applying to lice.

I didn’t know that the Spanish word ‘animalista’, still not accepted by the really absurd Real Academia de la Lengua in its dictionary, has a false friend in English: ‘animalist’, which means, according to the Wiktionary, “One who believes in the dominance of man’s animal nature in behaviour. A sensualist”. I use here ‘animalist’ in the sense of ‘animal liberationist’ to claim that though I am an animal rights defender, I have received a very poor education in animal issues and I’m not at all a real animalist. My mother was convinced that her younger brother had caught typhoid fever from a stray she-cat who bit him (the Salmonella typhi bacteria is actually transmitted by lice and flea, which may have infested the cat) and she instilled in my siblings and I a horror of any contact with animals, which I have not really overcome. I have never had a pet, except for a short-lived goldfish, and you will not catch me petting any dog or cat, no matter how lovely I find them. I do share part of my home with the bees, butterflies, birds, lizards, spiders and insects that visit my plants and that I quite enjoy watching (not the mosquitos!) but that’s about it. I’m afraid that I eat meat and consume dairy products, though not as frequently as I used to and even though I enjoy vegetarian and vegan cuisine I don’t see myself consuming them exclusively. Going to the market has its moments of deep revulsion for me, like yesterday trying to ignore the carcasses of skinned rabbits in the poultry stall. And I would totally agree to have zoos suppressed and any associated research done in the wild. That’s the limited extent of my commitment to animal liberation.

Vint’s book has opened my eyes to how science fiction dreams of communication with aliens from outer space because, as noted, any communication with animals needs to face the ugly issue of our ceaseless exploitation of animals, from direct consumption to their anthropomorphised use in fables, fairy tales, and children’s fiction, passing through lab experimentation or their use as beasts of burden. Vint refers to diverse sf short stories in which animals and humans manage to communicate but the conversation is far from friendly. We suppose that if our pets could talk they would express feelings of tenderness and appreciation for us but it is obvious that not even the most pampered dog or cat in the world would meet their owners’ expectations. Perhaps if animals really could speak we would soon wish they kept silent, for they would have very few kind words for us. They would complain about their enslavement. Hence, Vint argues, our preference for the myriad alien species of science fiction, most of which (whom?) are clearly based on animals. The many reverse plots of conquest, beginning with Wells’s War of the Worlds, amplify our fears and assuage our guilt as we fantasize about what it would be like to be on the receiving end, overpowered by a master species of aliens that would treat us as we treat animals.

I have written here about the current Covid-19 crisis as an alien invasion and I still think that the way things are unfolding, with the figures for infected individuals and casualties mounting sharply on a daily basis all over the world, this is a very bad sci-fi B-movie. Viruses, I must clarify, are not living creatures but “free forms of DNA or RNA that can’t replicate on their own” and that need a host to survive (https://www.livescience.com/58018-are-viruses-alive.html). They cannot really be said to be alive because they do not obey the seven rules of life: “all living beings must be able to respond to stimuli; grow over time; produce offspring; maintain a stable body temperature; metabolize energy; consist of one or more cells; and adapt to their environment”. Viruses have genetic material but are not at all like bacteria and left to their own devices they remain inert. They appear to be descended from ancient RNA molecules that “lost the capability to self-replicate” for unknown reasons, hence their parasitical grafting onto complex living organisms whose cellular reproductive capacities they hijack. Who would have thought, after so much debating on the sentience of animals and AIs, and so much imagining complex aliens, that human civilization would be on its knees because of a dumb non-living piece of genetic code just trying to survive?

Viruses and bacteria (which are neither animals nor plants because they are “single-celled, prokaryotic organisms in comparison to animals and plants which are multicellular, eukaryotic organisms”, https://australian.museum/learn/species-identification/ask-an-expert/are-bacteria-plants-or-animals/) do not occupy any room in Vint’s book perhaps because our relationship with them deserves a separate volume –and now possibly thousands of them considering this supposed ‘new normality’ which does not materialize. This leads me to the matter of size, which I think is totally underplayed in our relationship with animals. What is driving us crazy these days is that Covid-19, like any other virus, cannot be seen by human eyes, which is why most of us are wearing masks to protect us from infection. Allow me to be stupid once more and let me ask you to imagine how different things would be right now if Covid-19 was the size of a butterfly. And the other way round: we find butterflies harmless and beautiful because they are small, but try to think of a butterfly the size of a German shepherd and now tell me whether you’d welcome any in your garden. We love whales and elephants but this is because they are harmless to us.

Vint refers often to how this animal alterity is a relatively new situation caused by urbanisation; she cites a study which discovered that some American kids draw six-legged chickens because the drumsticks they eat at home come in packs of six at the supermarket. This is certainly an aberration, like our having pushed slaughterhouses out of city centres, out of the sight of the consumers who cannot identify which part of the animal they are eating anymore. However, I do not quite see what the target situation is for animal activism, which appears to be again, too little nuanced in this respect. I think that there is a mixture of targets, actually, perhaps not wholly realistic or compatible with each other. Stopping animal consumption is one, with veganism as an ever more popular option (but wouldn’t this make current cattle disappear eventually?). Stopping animal experimentation is another (or at least, stopping unnecessary experimentation that has nothing to do with health issues). Stopping extinction and protecting wildlife is another, though whether nature can be ‘natural’ again is a major doubt. Maybe it is already post-natural.

Then there is the matter of being eaten. One of my doctoral students is working on a dissertation on that topic and Vint certainly addresses it in her book. To my surprise, there is much more than I had ever imagined on the experience of persons who have survived situations in which they were prey, I mean books and documentaries. Recently, a woman was killed by a white shark off the coast of Maine, more or less where Peter Benchley set his best-selling novel Jaws, the one that inspired Spielberg’s blockbuster. I am all in favour of protecting species and their habitats, and correcting the misinterpretations of animal behaviour (white sharks are not the evil monsters of the film) but every time I watch a nature documentary there comes that moment when a predator attacks a lesser animal seen being devoured still alive in all detail. I am not saying that nature red in tooth and claw is not worth fighting for, what I am saying is that I find that aspect of nature often too sanitized in accounts of animal activism.

I’m going back then to my initial question: when we say ‘animal’ don’t we really mean mammal? Shouldn’t we distinguish in a more nuanced way how we relate to fellow mammals rather than insects and birds? And within this more nuanced positioning, shouldn’t we consider how our relation with the animals we eat and exploit is very different from that with the animals that prey on us, from mosquitos to white sharks? And how about viruses and bacteria? They are also natural… I don’t know what the alternative for the word ‘animal’ might be but as it is used today I just find it too unspecific, too abstract. No wonder some people are confused and think of animals as beings that cannot have rights because they have no duties…

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

THE ELUSIVE MATTER OF THE IMAGINATION: TOO FRAIL TO TOUCH?

This post is going to sound a bit cloak-and-dagger since I have decided not to name the author whose opinions I’ll discuss here, in order to respect ‘their’ privacy. The art of sending emails to persons one has not met is a delicate one and in this case it has failed me totally, for which I’m very sorry indeed. I read during the Christmas break a most beautiful volume on creative writing aimed at budding authors interested in fantasy, science fiction, and gothic. By beautiful I mean that the volume has an amazing design, with plenty of illustrations, but also that the content is a gem, for it has contributions by an exciting list of authors and insights by the volume coordinator into the practice of writing fiction which must be eye-openers for all of us, teachers of Literature.

For a long time now, I have been taking any chances that come my way to ask writers about the technical aspects of their craft which, I think, we are overlooking in our obsession with identity matters and, generally speaking, content rather than writing in narrative. Author Richard K. Morgan posted in his website my interview with him about his novel Black Man and someone sent in a positive comment calling it a ‘making of’ style document. From that I got the idea of actually using this concept and I asked my good friend Carme Torras to let me interview her on her novel Enxarxats. She was extremely patient and gracious with my many questions. The resulting interview has been made available this week as a bonus feature of the e-book edition of her novel. Of course, a ‘making of interview’ needs to be read after the novel it explores has been read, since it is full of spoilers. I think of it as the kind of information that many readers are curious about just as spectators are curious about how movies are made. The idea is going beyond ‘where did you get your inspiration for the novel from?’ that journalists ask in promotional interviews and into much deeper waters.

Well, I sent the author I will not name an email praising the volume I had just read to high heavens. I described my ‘making of’ approach, and expressed my frustration that there are no volumes from writers exploring in more depth where the capacity to fantasise comes from, and why authors are divided into realists and fantasists. I do not mean following Freudian or neurobiological methodologies but as a matter of sitting down and considering the sources of the strange daydreaming which is the foundation of their work. I must say that the author in question does offer a notable amount of reflection on how the technical problems attached to writing specific scenes are handled but not about why fantastic storytelling is a skill that only a minority of human beings possess. In short, there is in the volume plenty of great advice once you know what kind of fantastic story you want to tell but no interest in examining why and how the authors of fantastic fiction come up with their singular plots. As a reader I would like to know, for it seems to me that departing from the mundane to risk narrating the imaginary takes a lot of courage. Coming up with Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy is far easier than making Victor Frankenstein and his creature plausible, if you get my drift.

Alas!, my email message did not go down well. I was told by the author that if the imagination is dissected (original wording) it might resist being summoned up. My mission, this person told me, cannot help anyone to produce better writing because authors should never compromise the organic construction that novels are and readers should be satisfied with the immersive experience of reading. What needs to be discussed, I was lectured on, is not the imagination but the technique and the conscious impulses it transforms into good narrative. I replied that I totally disagreed, and thanked this person for the time used in replying to my email. I come to the conclusion that I have ruffled feathers already ruffled most likely by a pro-Freudian academic, hence the emphasis on the conscious impulses.

What I would have explained if the chance had arisen is that that is precisely what I am interested in: how authors go from ‘I have this crazy idea, who knows where it comes from?’ to ‘now, this is the structure I need to tell the story’. I very much respect the mystery of the imagination, hence my interest in it, but if you think about it I am simply following what William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge did in the famous preface to the Lyrical Ballads, or Mary Shelley in the preface to the second edition of Frankenstein. I firmly think that many authors and many readers would welcome the chance to have ‘making of interviews’ accessible, and many academics would be keen to produce them. The imagination cannot be such a frail flower that its bloom is lost at the merest touch, excuse the corny metaphor.

So, now that I have let steam off, let me tell you about a few constants in fantastic authors’ declarations about their craft that scholarly work is not addressing at all, either from a formalist or a political perspective:

1. (my favourite): the best writing feels as if you’re a medium channelling a story that tells itself (a constant from Tolkien to Gaiman, etc). This is often followed by a disquieting ‘as if’: as if the stories come from a parallel universe authors tap into. You may invoke Jung at this point but that still would not explain why only some persons are gifted with that ability to connect with this suspected multiverse.

2. the authors of the fantastic (fantasy, sf, gothic) tend to be far more prolific than realist authors. This has nothing to do with lower quality standards but with the potency of their imaginations. Many speak of being happiest if left alone with their fantasy world and of writing every single day of the year, as if (another ‘as if’) losing touch with their inner storytelling sources would cause withdrawal syndrome.

3. most authors in this genre are ‘travellers’ rather than ‘planners’: they usually start their journey when a scene or a character command it, and sometimes work without knowing how the novel will end though they prefer knowing in advance. Authors who have it all planned down to the last comma and just fill in the dots are frowned upon. Writing is understood as a process of self-discovery: ‘Fancy what my mind has come up with!’ would approximate the feeling I am trying to describe, which is (I think) the root of the pleasure in (fantastic) writing.

4. this does not mean that the writing is not subjected to plenty of revision, including the throwing away of whole intermediate versions; I will name again the matter of plausibility: if making characters and situations convincing in realist fiction is hard enough, try to imagine what it is to give credibility to what simply does not exist in real life. Many authors note that a major frustration is how the final result, no matter how good, can never approach the mental impression produced by the original daydreaming.

5. characters are, obviously, the key to this process. Two ‘mysteries’ about characters (in all kinds of fiction): what do authors mean when they say that characters make autonomous decisions? And, this is a caveat: in order to be a storyteller you really must be interested in people, for without a set of solid characters you cannot engage your reader’s interest. In fact, a constant complaint against contemporary fiction of any kind is that characterization is weak, or that protagonists are not likeable people –at worst, both. I would add the matter of description. In the novel which I have just read (Colson Whitehead’s zombie tale Zone One) we learn that the male protagonist is black only in the last 35 pages. We never know his name and he goes by the nickname Mark Spitz (a white American star swimmer of the 1970s). This has wreaked havoc with my visualization of the story for I could see in all detail the zombies chomping on their poor victims but not the person I was supposed to sympathise with. On the other hand, I was much surprised by author David Weber’s declaration that he didn’t choose a woman as the protagonist of his Honorverse, the space opera series about Honor Harrington: “I didn’t set out to do it because I thought that it was especially politically sensitive on my part or because I thought it was likely to strike a chord with female readership or be a financial success. It was just the way that the character first presented herself” (http://www.wildviolet.net/live_steel/david_weber.html). Fair enough, and I’m sure Weber does not want to know where Honor comes from but, still, he can be asked about specific aspects of her characterization as a military hero with no risk to his imagination.

6. dramatized scenes are the backbone of novels – this is obvious, isn’t it?, but do we really see novels in this way? In essence, then, a novelist is that little kid with a figurine in each hand voicing each invented character in turn against the background of a plot that grows as their interaction expands. Narrative is a lot like puppetry, then. I find, however, that while the narrator’s voice interests many scholars, the construction of scenes and dialogue is not a major source of interest. This may get worse because conversation is dying out, pushed to the sides by the constant use of social media. In science fiction novels set in the future people still communicate face to face, which suggests that authors do not think that social media will gobble up dialogue – but maybe that’s the wrong representation of the future…

In the volume I so much admire but will not mention there is a strange moment. An author reports a conversation with a friend who is a neurologist and who claims she has no imagination whatsoever and could never tell a story. The author cannot understand this deficiency and somehow thinks that the friend is wrong about her own lack of storytelling abilities. Some teachers of Literature are also narrators but most of us lack the ability to tell a story, which is why we are in awe of those who can perform the feat (well, of the best ones whose work we love). What the email I got reveals, though, is that not at all authors enjoy our interest in their craft and even see us as a danger because of our insistence on offering ‘clinical’ analysis. This makes me feel quite nervous, to be honest, concerning what we are doing in our research. I thought I was working to send the message that the fantastic is one of the best creations of the human mind but perhaps I am the middle-person writers and readers can do without, thank you very much. I hope not…

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/

MARY SHELLEY’S (HIDEOUS) FILM PROGENY: A LEGACY IN NEED OF RENOVATION

Last week I skipped my weekly appointment because I was extremely busy finishing the edition of my latest e-book project with students. Here it is, finally!: Frankenstein’s Film Legacy (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/215815). Since 2013-14, when I taught a monographic course on Harry Potter, I have been developing a series of projects with undergrad and postgrad students, consisting of publishing e-books based on their course work. The new e-book is my seventh project (you can see the complete list at http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books) and I’m already at work on the eighth, which will be an e-book about how the United States are represented in 21st century American documentary. In fact, I have started to think of my elective courses as a space for new teaching projects. Thus, I’m already thinking of next year’s MA course on Gender Studies as a chance to explore gender issues in recent fantasy films, after producing already an e-book on science fiction (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282). By the way, I was immensely pleased to present this e-book both at Llibreria Gigamesh (in June) and in our recent national conference of English Studies AEDEAN at Alicante (in November).

Frankenstein’s Film Legacy is exceptional in my collaboration with students because it has been based on work by second-year students. So far, I had only worked on the e-books in third/fourth year BA electives and in MA electives. A little bit too rashly, I decided to include an e-book in our exercises for the BA course on ‘English Romantic Literature’, in which we read the ‘six males’ (as a co-teacher calls them), that is, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats, and the ‘two females’ as I should call them –Mary Shelley and Jane Austen. The reason why I used many entries in this blog last semester to discuss these authors, and the reason why I thought of the e-book is that I assumed mine would be a temporary incursion into Romanticism and I would soon return to teaching Victorian Literature. The e-book was meant to mark, then, a singularity in my teaching.

In fact, this is not what has happened and I’m teaching Romanticism again next Spring, but with no plans for a new e-book. The reason is that, although the students have followed quite well my guidelines (I wrote a model fact sheet /essay they were supposed to imitate), my intervention in their writing has been more intensive than usual. The main reason is that their essays were too focused on comparing specific aspects of each of the films with Mary Shelley’s novel (as I had asked them to do, indeed) and in this way, the larger picture was missing. In some cases, simply because they are young and little used to watching films released before 1999, when they were born. In other cases because only I had the complete picture of the e-book and could connect the dots (yes, The Island and Never Let Me Go share exactly the same Frankensteinian topic). The good news is that most of these students will be soon participating in the e-book about the US documentary, and now have a basic training to do so. Incidentally, if you’re thinking that I have used too much time for this project, the answer is ‘not really’: the time I did not use to prepare lectures (thirty students did class presentations based on the films), is the time I have used for the e-book. My own writing and my constant other deadlines have just delayed publication (though obviously the course marks were awarded punctually in June).

So, what’s this e-book about? I selected 75 films, beginning with Metropolis (1926) and ending with Mary Shelley (2017), which dealt with the topic of artificial life and connected, indirectly or directly, with Frankenstein. The final list is down to 57 because I got work from fewer students than I expected, and also because I finally discarded a few fact sheets that were incomplete. Here are the films, in the same order in which they appear in the e-book:

• 1920s to 1970s: Metropolis (1927), Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Godzilla/Gojira (1954), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
• 1980s: Blade Runner (1982), WarGames (1983), The Terminator (1984), The Bride (1985), Weird Science (1985), The Fly (1986), Robocop (1987), Akira (1987), Making Mr. Right (1987)
• 1990s: Bicentennial Man (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mary Reilly (1996), The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996), Alien Resurrection (1997), Gattaca (1997), Gods and Monsters (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Matrix (1999)
• 2000s: Hollow Man (2000), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), S1mOne (2002), Hulk (2003), Van Helsing (2004), I, Robot (2004), The Island (2005), WALL·E (2008), Splice (2009), Moon (2009)
• 2010s: Never Let Me Go (2010), EVA (2011), La Piel que Habito (2011), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Hotel Transylvania (2012), Frankenweenie (2012), Robot and Frank (2013), Her (2013), The Machine (2013), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), Lucy (2014), Victor Frankenstein (2015), Chappie (2015), Morgan (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), The Shape of Water (2017), Logan (2017), Mary Shelley (2017) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019).

A mixed bag, yes, undeniably. By the way: the e-book ends now with Alita because a student suggested that we include this title. At first, I believed that it would diminish the coherence of the e-book, which I intended to finish with Mary Shelley’s biopic. But, then, I finally saw that Alita works as a sort of ‘to be continued…’. My aim, as I hope you can see, was to teach my students that the influence of Frankenstein is indeed colossal, even though in many cases the films depended on an intermediate source or made no direct allusion to Shelley. The moment, however, you see these 57 films from a perspective that takes Frankenstein into account, interesting things happen. Pedro Almodóvar can now be said to be a science-fiction film director. Both A.I. and the live action version of Pinocchio force us to consider what Mary Shelley’s novel would have been like had Victor made a young boy rather than an adult male. The presence of women, or females, in films such as Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Ex Machina (2014) also raises the question of how Mary’s dark tale would have differed had Victor made a woman originally, or finished making the female mate for his monster.

There are many films I like very much in the list and I think it is necessary to highlight once more the turning point marked by Blade Runner (1982), the first film to hint, albeit quite confusedly, that our future replacement at the top of the animal hierarchy might be flesh-and-blood artificial humans rather than mechanical constructions. I’ll clarify once again that the Nexus-6 replicants whom Detective Deckard must ‘retire’ are not robots but adult individuals made like Victor’s monster out of separate organs. The difference is that Victor scavenges the organs for his Adam from dead people (and animals) and the replicants are assembled using living organs tailor-made for them, using genetic engineering. This is the same method used to make the ‘robots’ of Karel Čapek Shelleyan play R.U.R. (1920). In its original Czech ‘robot’ means ‘slave worker’ and this is what caused the confusion. November 2019, when Blade Runner is set, has come and go and we are not closer to seeing replicants in our streets. Yet, what is already being discussed is whether the humanoids soon to be our companions will be fully mechanical or fully organic. In just two hundred years, then, since Mary Shelley published her Gothic novel, what was pure fantasy is now almost reality.

The films examined in the e-book tell the same story which Mary Shelley told but with variations on the main roles (the creator, the creature) and the background. What is frustrating is that none of the direct adaptations of Frankenstein is minimally good as a film. James Whale’s 1931 version is iconic because it did literally provide popular culture with a major icon in Boris Karloff’s performance and looks, but it cannot be said to be a great film. Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not what its title promises, though it comes a bit closer. There are more embarrassing attempts at transferring the tale onto the screen: Victor Frankenstein (2015) is a mess, full stop. My first intention, in fact, was to focus the e-book exclusively on direct adaptations of Mary’s novel but I did not see what the students would learn by seeing tons of bad movies. This is why I opted for the indirect adaptation, the Frankenstein-themed film if you wish.

The other major disappointment is Haifaa Al-Mansour’s recent biopic, Mary Shelley (2017). I had included Ken Russell’s eccentric Gothic (1986) in the list for the e-book but this is one of the movies that was finally not covered. I thought, anyway, that Al-Mansour’s feminist credentials (she’s the first Saudi Arabian female film director ever) made her a very good choice to lead the team behind the film. Then I saw her biopic in the middle of teaching Frankenstein and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Trying to compress the eight years (1814-1822) of Mary and Percy’s romance in just two hours did not work well at all. Biopics, as a matter of fact, work best when they focus on a single central episode for there is no good way you can summarize real life. I come to the conclusion that a documentary would have served the same purpose but much better; yet, the fictional representation of reality still dominates over the non-fictional.

I don’t know if I am here projecting my own fatigue but after seeing Alita, yet another disappointing film, I have the impression that the topic of artificial life needs an urgent renewal. To begin with, this is a strange case of knowing, yet not knowing Mary Shelley, which possibly explains the failure of Al-Mansour’s biopic (and Jeannette Winterson’s inclusion in Frankissstein of yet another retelling of Mary’s creation of her monster). The treatment of Mary’s person is too superficial for fans to be content and for non-fans to be recruited to the cause of vindicating her genius. Next, her novel still lacks a good audio-visual version, whether this is for cinema or for TV. I don’t mean by this one that is faithful down to the last detail but a version that gives a better impression of that peculiar thing called the ‘spirit’ of a novel. In the third place, the new tales need to get closer to actual science or to actual scientific speculation (in the vein of the first Jurassic Park) and not just be vehicles for shallow plots with skinny girls beating the hell out of bulky male villains. Or with artificial women playing femme fatale or unexpectedly having babies (doesn’t anyone know what a tubal ligation is?). The plotline “scientist makes creature that goes berserk” is, let’s recall it, two hundred years old already. We need to start thinking of a new angle –but just don’t mention the word ‘reboot’… Except for Planet of the Apes!

Enjoy, in any case, the collective effort that my students and I have made to show you the way into Frankenstein’s immense film legacy. And celebrate Mary’s powers of creation, always vastly superior to Victor’s.

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/

THE COMPLEX MATTER OF CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (WITH THOUGHTS ON THE NATIVE AMERICAN CASE)

Working these days on an article about speculative fiction author Vandana Singh, I tried to find an American-born, white woman author to whom I could compare her case. Singh was born in Delhi but lives in the USA since the late 1980s, where she works teaching and researching Physics. The collection by Singh I am examining –Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018)– has been published by Small Beer Press, an independent publisher, and I found among their books one that appears to be the perfect comparator I need: Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees (2012). Johnson, a white Iowa native born one year before Singh, has a higher reputation, based on her having received more nominations and awards and having published novels. Yet, this is also useful as I am looking into the causes why Singh is not better known. I was not looking specifically into the thorny question of cultural appropriation but it has surfaced, hence my post today.

In three stories of her collection –“Fox Magic”, “The Empress Jingu Fishes”, “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”– and in her novels The Fox Woman (2001) and Fudoki (2004) Johnson uses ancient Japan as her background though she has no direct personal link to this country. Scholar Joan Gordon (white, American-born) defends her choice on the grounds that “Rigorously researched historical narratives enable [Johnson] to avoid trivializing or exoticizing the complexity of another view of the world, and it may be that casting one’s narrative into the remote past, as Johnson’s stories do, avoids some of the difficulties of power inequity”. However, I came across a review in GoodReads by Minyoung Lee, an American female reader of Korean descent, who has a very different opinion. She is deeply offended by “The Empress Jingu Fishes” because, Lee claims, Johnson’s research is inadequate, and this leads to serious mistakes in the representation of still unsolved, complex conflicts among the Korean, the Japanese, and the Chinese.

Apparently, Lee even exchanged letters with Johnson about this but far from feeling appeased her impression that outsiders “not immersed in the subtle nuances” of the foreign culture they describe will inevitable offend insiders was confirmed. Lee wonders why anyone would “write about another person’s culture and history that you only superficially know about when you have a rich and fulfilling story of your own that cannot be told in the fullest by someone else?”. This suggests that rather than speak of cultural appropriation perhaps we should speak of cultural depletion in the case of white authors who feel no strong attachment to their own cultural background and use parasitically other cultures. Just an idea. I didn’t expect, however, to come across a case of (possible) cultural appropriation within the context of the Native American cultures of the United States…

On Friday I finished reading Jack Fennell’s edited volume Sci-Fi: A Companion (Peter Lang, 2019, https://www.amazon.com/Sci-Fi-Companion-Genre-Fiction-Companions/dp/1788743490) to which I have contributed an essay on the aliens in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. The book has an article called “Indigenous Futurisms” (by Amy H. Sturgis), which was a total eye-opener, for I know nothing about Native American literature beyond having read a couple of novels by Louise Erdrich. Sturgis deals among other authors with Rebecca Roanhorse and what I less expected is that I would meet her the following day, Saturday. She was a guest of honour at the ‘Seminari de Gèneres Fantàstics I’, beautifully organized by Ricard Ruiz Garzón of the Associació d’Escriptors en Llengua Catalana. Roanhorse’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” was offered as a souvenir in the excellent Catalan translation by Miquel Codony. Independent publishers Mai Mes presented the Catalan version of Trail of Lightning (as El raster del llamp), the first translation into another language of Roanhorse’s first novel. Later, I had lunch with the author, an activity which as you know from a previous post is a ‘necessary encounter’, and I learned a few things, for which I am very grateful.

Rebecca Roanhorse (https://rebeccaroanhorse.com/), born in Arkansas and raised in Texas, is the daughter of an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo mother and an African-American father. She lives now in New Mexico, together with her Navajo/Diné artist husband, Michael Roanhorse (https://www.truewestgallery.com/michael-roanhorse), and their pre-teen daughter. Both were present in the seminar and the ensuing lunch. I was very much surprised to read that Trail of Lightning has been criticized as a very negative example of cultural appropriation by Saad Bee Hozho, the Diné Writers’ Association, mainly on two grounds: Roanhorse is not Navajo herself and the values presented as Navajo in her novel are not acceptable as such because her work is violent whereas Diné culture is peaceful. The extensive open letter published online created quite a controversy, extended to other websites, mostly siding with the critique.

I was, therefore, very curious to see how Roanhorse would approach the matter in her talk with interviewer Alexandre Páez. When he asked about cultural appropriation, without alluding to this episode, Roanhorse simply replied that this kind of accusation is inevitable and one must face it as best one can. However, since she had not explained to the audience that she is part of the Navajo nation by marriage but not by birth her reply somehow suggested that the problem was white authors’ appropriation of Native American heritage. To be honest, I was not very happy with her reply and, although I feared very much stirring a nest of hornets, I was getting ready to ask the really uncomfortable question I had in mind when Catalan author Víctor García Tur asked Roanhorse again about cultural appropriation. Only then did she explain how she connects with Navajo culture, noting that about 30% of the readers were fine with her choices, 30% had criticised her and the rest had problems to make up their minds. She did not allude to the Navajo authors’ letter.

My personal opinion is that writers should be free to explore any topic and culture they feel germane to their interests. However, I think that they should make their own position as clear as possible (why not write a preface or a note?), and I certainly believe that respect for the culture visited is fundamental. Also, impeccable research. What was worrying me in Roanhorse’s case is that she was not clarifying her position before the audience and, so, most were assuming that she is Navajo. For me this is the equivalent of, say, someone from Catalonia writing about Extremadura and concealing this vital information from a foreign audience meeting someone from Spain for the first time. This type of nuanced information is very important. Authors, whether they write fiction or academic work, should avoid any misconceptions about who they are and must totally avoid, in my humble view, speaking for a whole collective to which they do not belong or only are members of in part. This can be a bit ridiculous, if you see it that way, but in my own article about Vandana Singh I have included a paragraph detailing my own position (colour, gender, nationality, age, occupation) so that readers know from which position I speak. Even so, I think, there is a world of difference between Johnson’s choice of ancient Japan, which is exoticizing no matter how lovingly done, and Roanhorse’s choice of Diné culture, which she knows through her personal experience. Or maybe I’m wrong.

I asked Roanhorse about something completely different also on my mind these days. If you read academic work on non-white authors (how I hate this adjective!…) it might seem that they are progressing following traditions isolated from white authors’ work. In Vandana Singh’s case she has often referred to Ursula le Guin as a mentor, writing in her tribute following le Guin’s death that “it is safe to say that I would not be the writer or the person I am without the deep and abiding influence of who she was and what she wrote”. Le Guin not only personally encouraged Singh to publish her first story, she also provided her with crucial instances of non-white characters she could identify with. Indeed, in le Guin’s masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), there is not any white character, a point often missed. During the seminar there was some comment about whether le Guin could get away with this choice today, or would she be accused of cultural appropriation… Anyway, Roanhorse noted that Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) was a major influence for her as a writer. I asked her how she connected with other white male writers, whether they read each other and so on, and she explained that fellow New Mexico resident George R.R. Martin had helped her very much, and so had John Scalzi, possibly the most popular SF author right now. Scalzi, she told me, is particularly generous in promoting the work of non-white authors. Other white male authors, Roanhorse added, are going in the right direction in their fiction by being more inclusive (paying no attention to cultural appropriation issues…) or placing women in the role of the protagonist. I must say that this is what I missed in the Sci-Fi Companion: an overview of what the ‘white boys’ are up to these days. For they are still there, dominating sales and pleasing readers –including non-white women.

Allow me to recommend Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (https://www.apex-magazine.com/welcome-to-your-authentic-indian-experience/), an uncomfortable story that has plenty to say about cultural appropriation and what it is like to be a dispossessed Native American (man) today. Don’t miss the readers’ comments! I have not read The Trail of Lightning (yet) but I’m told it is an exciting novel. You may not like its hero, Navajo monster-slayer Maggie Hoskie, whom Roanhorse herself describes as an “unlikeable woman”, but what is there not to like in the opening up of fantasy and science fiction to as many cultures as possible?

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/

WHAT AN UGLY IMAGINATION IS ABOUT (TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF MY OWN IDEAS)

I am currently a member of the Ministry-funded research project led by Dr. Helena González of the University of Barcelona, Parias y tránsfugas modernas: género y exclusión en la cultura popular del s.XXI (http://www.ub.edu/adhuc/es/proyectos-investigacion/transfugas-y-parias-modernas-genero-y-exclusion-cultura-popular-del-s-xxi). We had a seminar last week, which opened with my presentation of six characters that, in my view, are either outcasts (‘parias’) or dissidents (‘tránsfugas’), or both. They are Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games, Djan Seriy Anaplian in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Matter, Emiko in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Birha in the short story “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh, Breq in Ann Leckie’s trilogy Ancillary Justice and Essun (a.k.a. Syenite and Damaya) in N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy The Broken Earth.

The research group should eventually produce a database with entries for about 100 female characters, and others for theoretical aspects, and I have volunteered to be the Guinea pig (oops!) in charge of writing the first six entries. So, I was trying to explain to the audience in the room that although I am very much interested in expanding my work on Banks and Singh (I have already written about Collins), I will not touch the novels by Leckie and Jemisin because I find their imagination ‘ugly’ (‘fea’). I have nothing against Bacigalupi but others have already written about Emiko, to my entire satisfaction.

I used ‘ugly’ in that informal way one uses intending to amuse the audience but I was the one amused when the presenter, my good friend Isabel Clúa, suggested that I should turn the label ‘ugly imagination’ into a fully theorized concept. This is the task I have given myself this week, not an easy one. Another very good friend in the audience, Felicity Hand, asked me why I was mixing my negative personal impression of the authors with my dislike of their works, and whether I would do the same with Shakespeare: I don’t like what goes on in Macbeth, therefore, I would never have dinner with its author. I replied, quite confusedly, that I knew I was being obnoxious but that what I have against Leckie and Jemisin is how they had forced me to endure not for one but for three novels their extremely unpleasant stories, with no relief whatsoever. In contrast, I said, Banks would treat his readers to some clever Scottish humour whenever he noticed he was going too far with any violence or cruelty. My admired Vandana Singh aims in all her stories not only for literary excellence but for engaging the mind and all senses in plots that are, simply, beautiful though by no means silly or sentimental.

Obviously, all that was improvised and I have been asking myself for the last few days what I mean exactly by accusing some writers of having an ugly imagination. I don’t think I know yet but I’m making an effort here to think hard.

Let me begin with one example. In Jemisin’s trilogy there is a human species whose flesh is of stone. They are called, not too imaginatively, the Stone Eaters (guess what they feed on?). The author herself explains that these living sculptures are “me playing around with the idea of mythological creatures” (http://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/creating-races/), which should be fine except that whereas the people of the Stillness, where her tale is located, “have heard many tales about stone eaters (…) the reader doesn’t have that bank of cultural capital to borrow against”. The Stone Eaters are, however, quite real also in the context of the novels, which means that they are doubly scary: for the characters in the tale, who see the monsters of legend become living persons among them whom they must accept, and for the readers, who do not catch until very late in the trilogy what is going on. “Without the cushioning effect of folklore, the creatures” Jemisin grants, “become too alien and frightening, or pitiful, to embrace as fellow people. I’ve seen other writers manage it, though, so here’s my chance to see if I can do as well”.

My reply is that ‘no, you don’t quite manage it’, for (spoilers ahead) the feeding habits of the Stone Eaters may be fine for monsters but not for characters that carry the weight of the whole story as narrators. Faced with the scene of Essun’s former lover Alabaster becoming stone and a major character/narrator eating his arm, I jumped off the sofa and almost threw the book out of the window. What kind of ugly imagination (well, sick person) would come up with this concept? Same about Leckie and what her girl Breq really is (you find out!). I realise that I still haven’t explained myself, though: Banks is also much capable of offering some truly distressing stuff (think of Zakalwe, if you can without hyperventilating, or of the digital hell which an alien civilization builds) but one knows all the time that we are not supposed to sympathize. Jemisin asks me to accept as a cool character someone who simply horrifies me and the same applies to Leckie. I do not mean that Hoa and Breq are evil or villainous in any way, poor things; what I mean is that the villainy that made them what they are is not sufficiently characterized as ‘Other’ in relation to them, or alternatively that they are too ‘Other’ for me to welcome them as my nexus with the text. There is something awfully cold in the way their tale is told so that the massive destruction from which they both emerge overwhelms any ability I may have to connect with these two and care for them, knowing besides they’re not even human.

Still not there, I know, but I may be getting closer.

By qualifying some writers’ imagination as ugly I don’t mean that I only like pretty tales. Perhaps I can explain myself better if I refer to what horror cinema used to mean to me. Like everyone who enjoys a well-told horror tale, I accepted the pact by which I would agree to put up with some measure of terror caused by the monster until some kind of order was restored by the hero. Progressively, though, horror filmmakers came up with the idea that the pact should be broken, terror maximized, and no final return to order allowed, on the grounds that this is more realistic. There have always been gothic stories with a sting at the end, hinting that the vampire will return once more, or that the creature is not quite dead. However, when I stumbled upon the slasher film Hostel (2005) I just opted out of the pact. That is a most salient example, I think, of the purely ugly imagination that has swallowed whole what many of us used to like in horror cinema –reality is ugly enough for me to enjoy the full panoply of what then emerged as body horror, nor do I need any tales in which there is no relief and no way out. It is fine to avoid ex-machina solutions and be done with villains that spin long justifications rather that kill their foe, but I still loathe the type of storytelling that is relentless in its assumption that the whole world is a monster, and only the silly victims killed one by one have failed to notice this. I no longer watch horror movies for, following my theorizing of the concept, I can no longer put up with their extremely ugly imagination.

I am beginning to sound like one of those snowflake students who demand from lecturers trigger warnings for even the minutest conflict in the stories they must read for class (Glasgow University, it seems, is now giving modern language students trigger warnings… for fairy tales!). This is not where I am going. What worries me is the admiration that the ugly imagination is garnering in our times: the trilogies by Jemisin and Leckie have earned many major awards in the SF field, and so has Chinese SF star writer Liu Cixin, possessor of an even colder ugly imagination (at least in The Three Body Problem). I won’t even mention Game of Thrones –oh, I did! Concepts such as ‘awe’, ‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’ have abandoned fantasy and SF, which means that they are now nowhere to be found. I stand corrected: they are still perceptible in some children’s film and fiction, though not everywhere. I had the same impression of ugliness in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials regarding what villainess Mrs. Coulter does to children, not so much because she is a very cruel person but because she is hero Lyra’s mother. Again: too close for comfort, not Other enough.

So, to sum up, and leaving plenty of room for further speculation: in the tales arising from an ugly imagination there is too little distance between the persons we are supposed to sympathize with, and the Other. Terrible things happen in many of our favourite stories but no matter how close hero and villain get (Harry and Voldemort, Katniss and Alma Coin) there is some margin for hope. Imagine Harry living for decades in the Dark Lord’s regime, or Katniss having to face Coin’s renewal of the Hunger Games, and I think we get closer in this way to what I mean by ugly imagination. If, as happens in Jemisin’s and Leckie’s tales, this hope appears after an overwhelming deluge of terrible events, then it is of no effect. Many readers enjoy this deferral of expectations, just like many readers enjoy watching The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, but not me, I’d rather be told a hopeful, though not a silly, tale.

Now back to reading Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, of which more next week. To be continued…

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/

WHEN DID THE FUTURE DIE? SCATTERED THOUGHTS ON PALEOFUTURISM AND UTOPIA

Sharing coffee with a friend who also loves science fiction, we end up wondering when the idea of the future died. The media have entered a phase which I can only call ‘punk’ (after the Sex Pistols’ 1977 hit song ‘No Future’), for its intense focus on the oncoming climate-change related apocalypse. Perhaps not oncoming but already happening, as the brutal hurricanes in the Caribbean and the devastating floods here in Spain suggest. For the younger generations, like our university students, the perception that the world is doomed and the future fast shrinking must be commonplace; it might explain their presentism and their reluctance to believe in making plans long-term. But for those of us old enough to have been children between the 1950s and the 1970s, the impression is that we have been robbed of a better version of the future which we had been promised, above all by science and its fantasy branch, science fiction.

Commenting on this conversation with my husband, he played for me the delicious official video for Pet Shop Boys’ “This Used to Be the Future” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As5vxxiPRUM). This great song, in which Neil Tennant sings with Phil Oakey (lead singer of The Human League), was released back in 2009, as part of the highly acclaimed double CD Yes. And, yes, it encapsulates to perfection what I feel but cannot articulate so succinctly.

The complete lyrics can be found here (https://petshopboys.co.uk/lyrics/this-used-to-be-the-future), just let me quote some stanzas: “I can recall utopian thinking/ bold mission statements and tightening of belts/ demolition of familiar landmarks/ promises made and deals that were dealt (…) / But that future was exciting / science fiction made fact / now all we have to look forward to/ is a sort of suicide pact”. The agents of destruction in the song are not rapacious capitalism and environmental catastrophe but religion and nuclear power. The Pet Shop Boys sing that “Science had promised to make us a new world / religion and prejudice disappear” and I suppose that many religious people feel offended hearing this; the fact, though, is that one of the promises of mid-20th century futurism was the disappearance of superstition in all its forms, swept away by science. As for prejudice, as my friend ironized, back in the 1970s the future used to be about constant progress in quality of life but all it has brought in the 21st century is Facebook and rampant online trolling.

Back to the song, these two lines sent a chill down my spine: “I can remember planning for leisure / living in peace and freedom from fear”, for I also remember that. The feeling was short-lived, starting in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and ending on 9/11 2001, with the terrorist attacks against the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia which killed more than 3,000 people. I must spell this out because these tragic events happened already eighteen years ago, which means that the generation now reaching its majority (our first-year students) have no personal memories of them. This factor was the focus of the news around the commemoration this year, which also reported the steady trickle of deaths among first responders and reconstruction personnel caused by poisoning due to the toxic debris.

My friend argued that the future did not die on that day but earlier, with the capitalist alliance between Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (US President 1981-1989). In his view, their coordinated onslaught against public spending and their enthusiastic privatization of almost everything put an end to the big dreams that can only be financed without benefit in mind. I grant this, but I want to make the point that even so, in the long decade between 1989 and 2001, and specially during the mandate of Bill Clinton (1993-2001), there was a glimmer of hope. I do not forget the first Gulf War (1990-1), which happened during George Bush’s Presidency (1989-1993), but at least that horror belonged to a new climate in which mutually assured destruction (yes, known by the acronym MAD) using nuclear devices seemed over. Of course, the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, now brought back to public awareness by HBO’s series, stressed that nuclear power for civilian uses can be as dangerous as nuclear weapons for military use. Yet, I should think that nobody is considering today starting a major nuclear war (I hope this is not the kind of statement that in hindsight will sound totally stupid).

For all these reasons, 9/11 was very difficult to understand at the time when it was happening. As I’m sure I have already narrated here, I spent the morning of 11 September 2001 at the cinema, making the most of the national Catalan holiday. My mind was still haunted by the ghosts of Alejandro Amenábar’s atmospheric Los Otros when I switched on the TV to watch the 15:00 news on the national Spanish channel, TVE. The attack was timed to make big news in the United States at 9:00 and I think now that possibly Spain must have been the first European country to broadcast it live, as it coincided with our Telediario.

I was standing up before the TV, trying to make sense of what presenter Ana Blanco was describing as an accident, after the first plane crashed. By the time we all saw the second plane crash live, it was evident that this was no accident. My legs gave way and I found myself fallen on my sofa, physically scared as I have never been in my life. It was all so eerie and disconcerting that I expected Blanco to announce at any point that an alien invasion had started–that Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) was happening in real life. Even when it was understood that two planes had been hijacked and used as weapons against the Towers (another one hit the Pentagon, and a fourth one crashed when the passage repelled the kidnapping), it was impossible to understand who and why had done it. Still to this day, every time I switch on the news, I brace myself for some world-shattering event like that one or worse.

In his 1998 version of Godzilla, Roland Emmerich–a German director obsessed with wrecking America on film–had already fantasized with the destruction of New York, offering images quite similar to those from 9/11. The first film he released after the attacks was, however, quite different and certainly worth watching again today. In The Day After Tomorrow (2004) the villains that end the future as we hoped it would exist are not aliens, monsters, or terrorists but unbridled capitalism, the origin of the unrestrained pollution that starts a new Ice Age. Funnily, this is not global but a phenomenon that only destroys the United States and most of the Northern hemisphere, leaving then some hope for the rest of the world. The first film in the family-oriented franchise Ice Age had been launched two years before, in 2002, and I am now wondering whether this was part of the zeitgeist or a frivolous reaction to the first warnings issued by concerned scientists. Emmerich’s film, already fifteen years old, was, arguably, another nail in the coffin of the future killed by 9/11 or the beginning of the dystopian cycle trapping us today.

Searching for information on the Pet Shop Boys’ official video for “This Used to Be the Future”, which is an amazing montage of futuristic images from the 1950s and 1960s, I have come across the concept of paleofuturism (see https://paleofuture.com/ and https://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/). This refers to the exploration of the ways in which the future was imagined in the past in order to check what has actually been developed and what has fallen into the limbo of the things never invented. A wonderful play by Joan Yago, currently on stage at Escenari Joan Brossa of Barcelona, and simply called The Future, uses paleofuturism in its opening section to stress how our need to imagine the future clashes with actual events. Yago’s play asks the same question as the Pet Shop Boys’ song but answers it with a slightly more optimistic attitude. If we cannot imagine utopia again, Yago warns, we’re lost. Homo Sapiens needs to look forward to a better life both individually and collectively for without some idea of progress we regress. This connects, oddly, with the new book by educator Andreu Navarra, Devaluación Continua, in which he warns that current trends in pedagogy and the pressure of the social networks are creating a new Middle Age in the classroom, meaning a generation of cyber-serfs that do not see beyond the day-to-day. This possibly has something to do with the serious lack of future engineers in our universities (as noted by Spanish newspapers last week) and, what is worse, with the lack of a greater vision for the world that can oppose the messianic plans of Elon Musk and company.

Perhaps, playwright Joan Yago hints, if we checked what the future looked like in the past in a paleofuturistic spirit, we might manage to build a new utopia. The problem, I think, is not only that, as my friend suggested, no public institution has the capacity to engage us in a positive collective future but that our energies are too occupied by the possibility of total disaster to think clearly. Greta Thunberg and her generation should not be using their youth to stop catastrophe but to continue working for a utopia that could have been established for good in 1989, if not before Thatcher and Reagan. I agree with Yago that if we told ourselves ‘this planet is going to be marvellous in two decades’ instead of ‘this planet is going to be dead in two decades’ the promise of a better future could perhaps be rebuilt. Or this is just me being nostalgic of what the future used to be.

Let’s give utopia a chance…

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/

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

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

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

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

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

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

[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/