'When science fiction looks at the future, it is really looking at the here and now.' Discuss. 2500 words.
"So much for the distinction between authentic living human and humanoid constructs. [...] my feelings were the reverse of those intended. Of those I'm accustomed to feel—am required to feel."
Contemporary science-fiction oft deals with the perceived universals of our existence. It frequently offers either nightmare dystopia, or glimpses of the periphery of a transcendence perhaps unattainable. Often, it deals directly with questions of reality, social imperative and the blurring of boundaries, which can subsequently be recognised as artificial constructions.
I shall be pursuing Neuromancer and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? in the context of cultural analysis and counter-culture such as Naomi Klein's No Logo, the attempt of societies to affix stable meaning and indefinitely defer entropic philosophical kibble, and their reliance upon the same to define themselves. I shall empirically identify parallels between the various discourses through close textual analysis, the application of cultural criticism and reader response intervention, and hope to present a set of responses from science-fiction to these identified questions.
It is the contradictory basis of punk and cyberpunk that an anti-ethic readily becomes an ethic of its own. "The attacks are much the same as those lobbed at every punk band that signs a record deal and every zine that goes glossy: [the counter-culture] has simply become too popular" In much the same way, critics who dismiss science-fiction as 'genre fiction' often point to its shock value; for instance the way in which 3Jane's 'father' thaws his progeny for companionship and sexual diversion. However, is this raising the question: "Is it incest to sleep with a clone of your daughter?" or is it simply aural candy, emphasising the perspective gulf between the characters and the reader? The intense layering of meaning Gibson builds in his text replicates the effect of information overload for which the potential exists in contemporary culture.
Recent science-fiction follows the tropes of other postmodern fiction in referring to objects as brands and labels. The difference being that the companies here are fictitious, crafted to imply something we will recognise as a brand. Consequently we have a narrative liberally strewn with nouns such as Sense/Net, a deck is referred to as a 'Hosaka', Deane's personal space is cluttered with "Disney-styled table lamps", "a Kandinsky-look coffee table" There is commodification of everything, from brands to life, which is common to Neuromancer, Electric Sheep? and what we indulgently call civilisation. Rarity is valued and with the saturation of mass production, individually crafted items are sought-after. Interestingly, however, this quest for authenticity often seems mostly confined to generations who retain personal experience of a time when things were otherwise:
'Unreal,' he said, looking up again.
'Nah,' she responded, assuming he meant the furs, 'grow it on a collagen base, but it's mink DNA. What's it matter?'
What do choices matter when experience is already reduced to the simulation of choice by cheap, alternative-eradicating mass production? Corporate censorship is already readily identifiable; in a monopoly, stocking decisions have consequences for freedom of speech. Culture saturation and the elimination of rivals is the stuff of modern guides to successful business strategy, and
if you're not on the team of a company large enough to control a significant part of the playing field, and can't afford your very own team of lawyers, you don't get to play.
'Lawyer' implies 'mercenary' implies law as force of will, bringing a direct parallel between the hi-tech world of sabotage populated by AIs and corporations with comparably hive minds, and the lower-tech world we inhabit, of self-interest perpetrated by faceless, homogenised and economically-driven corporate entities. Even the Turing enforcers of Gibson's world place themselves above the humanity they allegedly fight to protect: "We are at home with situations of legal ambiguity. [...] we create flexibility, in situations where it is required."
The struggle of AIs and other minority life forms for recognition as sentient, valid members of society may be likened to the class struggles of various nations' industrial revolutions. "The fear that the poor will storm the barricades is as old as the castle moat, particularly during periods of great economic prosperity accompanied by inequitable distribution of wealth." As historically, those classed as inferior are the ones subjected to support the lifestyles of the self-styled ruling elite. As Marx would identify, theirs is the labour, yet they enjoy none of the rights accorded to other members of the community. Self-determination, insofar as it is at all agreeable to their 'keepers', is strictly controlled:
'That's a good one,' the construct said. 'Like, I own your brain and what you know, but your thoughts have Swiss citizenship. Sure. Lotsa luck, AI.'
Workers like Molly, be they sex puppet or office worker, are selling their time and the presence of their bodies; in the cyberpunk convention Gibson merely expatiates this logic to present us with the epiphany that their consciousness is increasingly no longer required. Identity is problematised when multiple consciousnesses may inhabit the same flesh, as is touched upon in Case's voyeuristic stint in Molly's physical locus of being; if the human can become a gestalt, in what sense is the gestalt AI inferior?
Also, despite their 'morally-superior' protection of animal life, some inhabitants of Dick's Earth in Electric Sheep? lack the attachment to their pets necessary to distinguish a replica from their original in the event of unexpected demise. Dick's text suggests many reasons why a human might fail an empathy test: being raised off-colony, being born after the war, exposure to radiation; all may provide a lack of the context that the Voigt-Kampff test relies upon. The implication is that either no such context was ever formed, or that a process of gradual desensitisation has occurred. In the former case, this places the human in question in precisely the same ideological state as the android; in the latter, it admits the possibility that any human might become so desensitised, either involuntarily or otherwise.
In a perception of the androids (which is ambiguously attributed neither precisely to Isidore nor the narrative voice), "a peculiar and malign abstractness pervaded their mental processes." Being a creature of predominantly of emotion himself, to Isidore the gap of identification is widened; however, this does not prevent him from regarding them as individuals. In their 'imbalance' each group perceives in a way in which the other cannot; both, it is suggested, have perspectives outside the possibility of 'normal' human experience. Following this logic, since the android and the special represent polarisation of two mental aspects society deems fundamental to humanity, they do not suffer the same conflict; conflict only arises when the normative human population constructs them as transgressive Others who are in some way inhuman. This shared demonisation is powerful associative common ground:
'The chickenhead,' Pris said, 'likes me.'
'Don't call him that, Pris,' Irmgard said; she gave Isidore a look of compassion. 'Think what he could call you.'
If this is not empathy, I know not what might be. However, the arbitrary qualification seems to be that one must be the thing before one can recognise the thing... and by extension, what is not the thing. In the religion of the time it is held "You shall kill only the killers" and Dick immediately deconstructs this truism; "a Mercerite was free to locate the nebulous presence of The Killers wherever he saw fit"
'Head & heart as one' is a popularly recalled binary opposition used to describe a balanced individual, but the oppositional location of a binary this is not a neutral centre; the two are, as Derrida describes, in a hierarchy which prefigures conflict:
The Nexus-6 androids, Rick reflected, surpassed several classes of human special in terms of intelligence. [...] For better or worse. The servant had in some cases become more adroit than its master. But new scales of achievement, for example the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test, had emerged as criteria by which to judge.
The criteria are therefore evident as mutable, hyperreal and self-referential; they 'exist' to exclude and reassure that an Other is 'identifiable' to define oneself by. The implications for minorities within contemporary society are obvious in the subject matter of Deckard's questions:
'In a magazine you come across a full-page colour picture of a nude girl.' He paused.
'Is this testing whether I'm an android,' Rachel asked tartly, 'or whether I'm homosexual?' The gauges did not register.
Returning to the quote with which I opened this essay: Society expects and oft-times requires conformity, otherwise it loses what Klein calls its "cozy, protected, self-referential niche" It is this sense of—often unknowing—ironic detachment which enables people to ignore the marginalized voice, and terminate it with hotly-denied prejudice. Disassociation makes bigotry more palatable. "If we included androids in our range of empathic identification, as we do animals.' 'We couldn't protect ourselves."
Conversely, the interpolation of inanimate objects into terms we comprehend reflect back upon the interpolators: Deckard remarks of the electric sheep "The tyranny of an object [...] It doesn't know I exist. Like the androids, it has no ability to appreciate the existence of another." In a similar way we construct computers, recognise in them our own limiting finiteness and, if they are not sentient, anthropomorphise them in order that we can hate them more effectively. We read our own apathies onto our creations:
'An android,' he said, 'doesn't care what happens to another android. That's one of the indications we look for.'
'Then,' Miss Luft said, 'you must be an android.'
Literally this is not true, unless one assumed Deckard an android or humanity a race of androids. However, an android is an automaton, here a specifically organic one. An automaton is a mechanism. A mechanism is composed of parts, which perform a function. We are mechanisms. The semantic chain required transparently involves nothing subversive; it is the action of thought itself that transgresses against the collective assumption, thought free of group consensus and consciousness. The potential for subversion lies with the individual.
Thus, since 'perfection' is cheap, individuality lies more than ever in the celebration of difference. Ratz's prosthetic arm is a crucial part of his identity, a point Gibson is keen to emphasise: "In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it." Everything about the human body is replaceable. Consciousness may be simulated indistinguishable from the original, as with Dixie. Yet the notion of a personal essence still persists as something 'inherent' to being human.
We have arrived at a system of assessment riddled with hypocrisy: Difference is only crucial when it is detectible. Case notices of the Turing cops that "their youth was counterfeit, marked by a certain telltale corrugation at the knuckles, something the surgeons were unable to erase." which maintains the societal condition that the limits of artifice must remain recognisable. As Case goes on to suggest: "People said that age always showed in the eyes, but he'd never been able to see it. Julie Deane had the eyes of a disinterested ten-year-old behind the rose quartz of his glasses." Only contextual knowledge, which Case accepts as true, enables him to believe that Deane is one hundred and thirty five years old. Simulation is, as Baudrillard suggests, not feigning but being, since everything is produced; the truth being that there was no initial truth.
As time becomes disassociated with effect, location becomes increasingly problematic. Though events are displayed as linear in the narrative (and despite the race against the toxins in Case's blood) the rate of their progression are untraceable given that portions of the narrative take place within the non-space of the matrix; Maelcum merely offers this metaphor to the 'real' world when he says laconically "Time be time" He privileges perception, determination and actions over the fashioned simulcra of time. Determination and realisation such as Case arrives at and builds upon:
He shrugged. And found his anger again, real as a shard of hot rock beneath his ribs. 'Fuck this,' he said. 'Fuck Armitage, fuck Wintermute, and fuck you. I'm stayin' right here.'
Maelcum's smile spread across his face like light breaking.
Anger wrought of apathy is the likewise ironic motivation of Deckard ("I've had enough. She was a wonderful singer. The planet could have used her. This is insane.") Projected resentment provides the impetus for change, echoing the legion voices of civil rights protestors in our own history. It is a voice of profound dissatisfaction:
You'll tear it all down and start building again! You'll build the walls back, tighter and tighter...I got no idea at all what'll happen if Wintermute wins, but it'll change something!'
Case rejects extended life (the cryogenically and universally possible) in favour of exploration of the immortality granted by gestalt evolution, which is an abstract promise. He is empowered by his despair and self-loathing to a transcendent victory ("Beyond ego, beyond personality, beyond awareness, he moved [...] in that second by the clarity and singleness of his wish to die.") and yet... he lives. I take the message of these speculations of the future to be overwhelmingly positive: Transcendence is not death but only change. The matrix itself transcends to gestalt personality, yet immediately recognises that it is not alone. Both risk the unknown and potential annihilation for the promise of evolution. The implication is that evolution requires risk; value requires a context possessed of the possibility of failure and the threat of an end, something Baudrillard refers to as an "ecstasy of fatigue".
In a similar manner, Dick's androids risk all striving to fit into human society, as do the specials. We humans, by contrast, force ourselves into an evolutionary niche, anthropomorphising ourselves in an indefinite loop. The spiralling paradox that one must be human to define what is human is one that, culturally, deserves notice, and science-fiction brings this to our attention. A fixed definition of human nature that permits no flexibility or exception is a death sentence placed upon our advancement.
Thus we delineate between humans and 'lesser' animals we consume, trying to avoid the implication that we consume other people with less apprehension. Decisions of convenience; for instance, if vegetarians find that fruit is also aware of pain, what exactly remains that it is moral to eat? In the US, people routinely forfeit a right to life elsewhere inscribed as inalienable. Science-fiction can encourage us to ask questions, challenge assumptions. For, if people did not feel threatened, even by the relatively simple terror of wasting their time, they would not ban, burn or dismiss these books.
Deviance is a socially feared abstract. Yet as Bhahda postulates, however we interpolate the undesirable, we empower its supplanting of our normative construction.
When evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve. Vive le cyberpunk.
* * *
It used to be that being crazy meant something... now everybody's crazy.
William Gibson, Neuromancer, HarperCollins, 1995
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? HarperCollins, 1972
Naomi Klein, No Logo, HarperCollins, 2000
Rivkin & Ryan (ed.), Literary Theory: An Anthology, Blackwell, 1998
WordWeb 1.53, from Princeton University, http://www.wordweb.co.uk/
 Electric Sheep? p110
 Henceforth, shortened to Electric Sheep?
 (not to mention undergraduate essays...)
 No Logo, P296
 Such as The Beach, Dracula, Brave New World, countless novels 'modern' and otherwise.
 Neuromancer, p21 [both]—I freely admit to having no idea who or what Kandinsky might be.
 Neuromancer, P149
 No Logo, P165
 No Logo, P180
 Neuromancer, P193
 No Logo, P263
 Neuromancer, p159
 Neuromancer, P178
 Electric Sheep? p65
 Electric Sheep? P119
 Electric Sheep? P121
 WordWeb: "Understanding and entering into another's feelings."
 Electric Sheep? P28 [both]
 Electric Sheep? P27
 Electric Sheep? P41
 Electric Sheep? p110
 No Logo, P79
 Electric Sheep? P109
 Electric Sheep? P36
 Electric Sheep? P79
 Electric Sheep? P263
 Neuromancer, p9
 Neuromancer, P189
 Neuromancer, P192
 Neuromancer, P274
 Neuromancer, P230
 Electric Sheep? P105
 Neuromancer, P307
 Neuromancer, P309
 Neuromancer, P316