Monday, May 5, 2014

Another Earth and "Story of Your Life"

Another Earth reminded me of “Story of Your Life” in many ways. Both stories involved a major change of perspective in the main character—one inspired by the learning of a new language and the other inspired by a loss of innocence and purpose. Both stories play with the concept of time. “Story of Your Life” argues that time, even if we could see its entirety, could only unfold in one way. According to Chiang, knowledge of the future or the state of mind necessary to see the future brings peace, even to someone who knows exactly when and how her daughter will die. Another Earth argues that time is multidimensional and that there are probably multiple versions of ourselves on multiple versions of Earth. The director believes that there are many possible ways for our lives to unfold and calls into question the purpose of our lives if there exists a version of ourselves that is better in all ways.
            While I found Another Earth more emotional and personally relatable (I’m a college-age teenager and not a mother who has lost a child, after all), I prefer the structure of Chiang’s narrative. It is more complex and its form follows its function. It has mystery—a question is being answered—and its form follows its function. In comparison, Another Earth was merely the tragedy of a morally gray girl who had to give up all her dreams in order to make reparations.
            I’m the definition of biased, though. “Story of Your Life” has aliens and detailed descriptions of their anatomy whereas the aliens of Another Earth are slightly mutated copies of ourselves. I suppose this is more in line with science fiction’s purpose: to show reflections of ourselves in the strange. But it’s not as interesting!

            If I learned one thing from this course (besides how to write better) it was what I enjoy most in science fiction. The speculative biology and psychology in the works we’ve read and watched for class will certainly shape my own exploration of science fiction. My strengths lie in imagining the organisms of other worlds. If I plan to write or illustrate modern science fiction (and I do), I will have to develop my literary mind to complement my scientific ideas. Nobody wants to read a textbook on organismal biology when they pick up an sf novel.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Final Thoughts on "Story of Your Life"

After the grandiose theories on heptapod evolution that I formulated in my last blog post, the latter half of “Story of Your Life” was a bit of a letdown. It turns out that their grasp of Fermat’s principle doesn’t hint at aquatic beginnings (though I still hold that the heptapods must have an aquatic ancestor), but rather an alternative, nonlinear perception of time that allows heptapods to think of maximizing and minimizing trajectories rather than cause and effect as humans do. This different perception means that heptapods know or experience their entire timeline—past, present, and future—simultaneously. It explains why the heptapods never bothered to ask the narrator questions about their own language, doesn’t it?
            As the narrator learns Heptapod B, she begins to perceive her entire timeline simultaneously as well, as shown in her blocky memory acquisition and the wonky tenses she uses while relating the story of her daughter’s life. As happens whenever we learn anything, especially new languages, the structure of the narrator’s brain changed. It must have changed in such a way that opened up her inner eye, though, because by the end of her experience with the heptapods, she knows the future and passively accepts that her fate is now predetermined in her perception.
            I think this concept is cool—it’s simply linguistic determinism taken to the extreme—but I really don’t think it could actually happen. How might a perception of time like that of the heptapods naturally evolve in a population? I can’t even speculate. It would certainly be adaptive, if knowledge of the future could be acted upon. The narrator’s experience does not definitively prove that it cannot be acted upon—she simply didn’t want to change her story because she wanted to live it. A species that knew the future would know the locations of food, water, shelter, mates, and competitors, as well as the entire evolution of their species. If it didn’t become extinct due to widespread existential crisis, such a species would do very well.

            This knowledge also calls into question the heptapods’ motivation for contacting and teaching the humans their language. Why would they impart knowledge of the future to an alien species? Was their goal to make humans an enlightened race? To warn us of our future mistakes? To place our thinking processes on their own level so that they could befriend us? If knowledge of the future cannot be acted upon, then what would the point be? Maybe it was simply a move to maximize good will among humans or minimize the time it takes for us to advance as a species.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Intersection of Biology and Linguistics in Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life"

I’ve never before tried to figure out a creature’s life history based on their language. This is because there is no other species on Earth with which scientists could do this. Scientists have methods to infer the anatomy or lifestyle of organisms that are difficult to study because they are rare and difficult to find, like deep-sea fish or small nocturnal rodents that live in complex tropical rainforests on uninhabited islands, or because they are difficult to contain for observation, like whales. Given only a blurry video or photograph of a new species, scientists will classify its morphology, relate it to similar animals, and logic out the functions of its structures. Of course, there would never be an opportunity to use this approach with a species that has developed language and technology comparable to our own unless we encounter an alien species—which the narrator of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” does. Like scientists with only visual evidence that an organism exists, the people in Chiang’s story cannot physically interact with the aliens they would like to study.
            If I were to guess at the life history of the Heptapods, I would start with their physical anatomy. They have barrel-shaped torsos supported by seven identical limbs, which, judging from the narrator’s description of their rippling movement, probably evolved from tentacles used for swimming by an aquatic ancestor. Heptapods are radially symmetric and therefore their movement is multidirectional, rather than unidirectional as is in the case of bilaterally symmetric humans (and every other land animal on Earth). This is an important part of the story, since this fact is used by the narrator to figure out that Heptapod writing is also multidirectional; it doesn’t matter what direction you turn their characters because they mean the same thing at any angle. In contrast, English letters lose meaning when they are twisted or attached to each other in odd ways.
            It so happens that the vast majority of radially symmetry animals on Earth are aquatic (think sea anemones or jellyfish—which are both considered sessile during at least one stage of their life cycle), further supporting the theory that Heptapods evolved from an aquatic ancestor. One might think of Heptapods as a hypothesis of what intelligent life would look like if radially symmetry never evolved. Bilaterally symmetric animals outcompeted radially symmetric animals because they are better suited to purposeful movement (which is useful if you are a heterotroph and need to move around in order to find food). If bilaterally symmetry never arose, jellyfish-like creatures might have eventually evolved into terrestrial organisms, become social, and developed the concept of language as we know it. They might even have been more successful with higher thinking because they have a complete view of their environment (have eyes surrounding their entire head part), rather than the limited view that we have (having only two eyes on the front of our face).
            If the Heptapods really do have their origins in the ocean, then that might explain their system of mathematics that has Gary the scientist so excited. The first human concept of physics that the Heptapods recognize is Fermat’s Principle of Least Time, which explains light refraction when it travels from air to water. If the Heptapods remained close to water as they evolved terrestrially (perhaps continuing to hunt aquatic prey or find mates there) then light refraction would be a very important concept to them. It would make sense that they would start their study of physics there. Motion and gravity were the first concepts explored by humans. Humans needed to know how to best manipulate projectiles in order to hunt wild animals, which involves all the basic principles of two dimensional motion that physicists like Newton were interested in. Instead of time and velocity as basic units, the Heptapods may have started out with units of fluidity or light refraction as well as the “action” that is mentioned in the story.

            Similarly, their basic units of mathematics might be influenced by alternative senses. The narrator ponders “what kind of perception made a minimum or maximum readily apparent to them?” Do the Heptapods really perceive the world with senses that humans do not have and have never imagined? If so, this implies that they have sensory organs and receptors that do not exist on Earth! How cool would it be to find out how they work? And if we discovered how a new sense worked we could probably design a tool to measure whatever it detects for ourselves! That is probably the only way we could implement any sort of Heptapod mathematics to solve real-world problems. Hooray for biology!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Wikus in District 9

Instead of focusing solely on the biology behind the prawns and Wikus’s (unbelievable) transformation (which must have involved the altering of his genes on a cell-to-cell basis), I’m going to talk about Wikus’s character in this blog post. I liked him as the protagonist. His personality was a mixture of douche bag and loving husband, such that I couldn't decide whether to hate him or feel bad for him. His character evolved over the course of the movie as well, making him that much more intriguing.
            At the beginning of the film, Wikus was a lovable office nerd, appointed to a militaristic position by his father-in-law (in a move that stank of nepotism). It was difficult to reconcile the image of the bumbling cubicle farmer with the man who set shacks of prawn eggs on fire and sanctioned the death of two million prawns in one day. This all happened before we were introduced to humanized prawns and we only saw them as animalistic antisocial bug monsters, so we didn’t really care whether or not they died in masses. Later, though, when we’ve met Christopher and CJ, who have retained family love and a connection to the technology of their people, Wikus’s actions seem evil. Finally, Wikus ends the movie by killing what must be hundreds of humans in order to help Christopher and CJ escape to their mother planet. This might be construed as admirable, but Wikus only defended the prawn family because he needed them in order to reverse his transformation—so that he can return to his wife. Wikus’s one truly selfless act was to go back and save Christopher when he was wearing the mecha-suit.
            I read Wikus’s function as main character as supporting apartheid. His idea of a resolution to the prawn problem is either separating them further from Johannesburg and placing them in tents or getting them off the planet entirely by fixing their ship and excising prawn-ness so that he can return to being fully human. If someone else was the main character—say, Christopher or one of the MNU guys—then the entire tone of the story would have changed. The main goal would then be either to save the prawns by getting them to a better place or to eliminate the monstrous prawns that pose a threat to the people of Johannesburg. As is, the audience can see that the prawns are thinking being that are being oppressed and yet no effort is made on the part of the main character to inspire understanding in humans of the prawn condition. This support of apartheid can also be read in the animalistic portrayal of the Nigerians as antagonists. Honestly, the film placed them almost below the level of prawns, because for some reason the Nigerians chose to live in the hovel that is District 9 and want to become like the prawns so that they can use their guns (just as MNU does).

            I suppose the lame denouement was meant to expose the darkness of human nature and leave us with a bad taste in our mouths. In a way, the stagnant prejudices of the characters in this movie are more realistic than any major character change the film might have pulled out of nowhere. It would have been a miracle for the humans and prawns to like each other by the end of the movie, just as it would be a miracle for real racial tensions to dissipate in the span of a couple days.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Alien of Alien

Though I’m tempted to wax poetic about how badass Sigourney Weaver was in Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien (the first female protagonist in an American sf film—very exciting!), I found the design of the alien more interesting. Here I analyze it from both a biological and artistic point of view.
            The design of the alien, and really the entire set of Alien, originated in a lithograph by H.R. Giger called Necronomicon IV, pictured below. It has the build of a human in that it has arms and hands, and is bipedal. In all other ways, however, it is distinctly nonhuman.

            One of the more intriguing aspects of the biology of the alien is its pharyngeal jaw. When it opens its mouth, the alien reveals a secondary jaw that can extend to puncture, grab, and pull in its prey, as shown below.


            This type of jaw has an analog in Earth’s moray eel. Unlike most fish, which quickly expand their throat to create negative pressure to suck in their prey, the moray eel possesses a secondary jaw in its pharynx which can move forward toward the oral jaw, grab prey, and draw it down into its throat where it can be swallowed. It is thought that the moray eel evolved this jaw from its first set of ribs to accommodate its preferred home: burrows in rocky sea floors. With a pharyngeal jaw, moray eels do not have to leave their narrow tunnels in order to expand their throats and suck in their prey. Rather, they can stay in their holes and stealthily strike from the shadows.
            Does the pharyngeal jaw reveal something about the preferred habitat of its ancestors? Its constant coating of watery slime, streamlined head, and long tail all suggest that it is descended from aquatic organisms. Throughout the film, the alien also exhibits the burrowing behavior typical to a moray eel, whether it be in the crevices of the Nostromo, a tunnel on an alien planet, or in the gut of a human host. The larval stage (aka chestburster stage) of the alien certainly resembles something that should live at the bottom of the ocean.
            The reproductive cycle of the alien is also noteworthy in that it is confusing. Most interpretations place the facegrabber as the initial phase of the alien lifecycle as a placenta with agency, its purpose being to locate a host and implant the alien embryo before dying. I would argue, however, that the facegrabber is an entirely separate generation of alien capable of parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilization, or animal self-cloning). This cyclic parthenogenesis, or heterogamy, is found on Earth in species like water fleas. A modified version of this is found in all land plants, but it is known as alternation of generations. Animal species with cyclic parthenogenesis tend to reproduce quickly (as does the alien) and rely on parthenogenesis when their population is low and there are plenty of nutrients available. It is useful for outcompeting other species with numbers alone. I can see how this might be useful for the alien, which seems adapted to invading planets, decimating the population, and laying many spore-like eggs that can exist without nutrients for an unknown lengths of time.
            Based solely on the information provided in the first Alien (as the gender system of the species is explained in later films), one might conclude that the facegrabber is the female alien and its child is the male. In this case, the facegrabber must have been inseminated prior to its birth, as are many species of wasp on Earth (the fig wasps being the example that come most readily to mind). This wasp imagery is consistent with the endoparasitic nature of the larval stage, but I think it is unlikely as most of the examples of preadolescent insemination on Earth are associated with the coevolution of wasps and a plant host. In contrast, the aliens are a highly independent species that can use seemingly any warm-blooded organism as a chestburster host and do not require a host in which to oviposit their spore-like eggs.
            On a side-note, why are wasps the model organism for alien design in science fiction film and literature? Are segmented bodies, compound eyes, and parasitic larva really that scary? Do science fiction writers know that wasps, like all insects, respire with a system of air tubes that open directly to the outside of their bodies and rely either on passive diffusion or are regulated by the movement of their limbs? Do they know that this system of respiration is not efficient enough to sustain insects the size of a man in an atmosphere with Earth levels of oxygen? Who do they think they’re fooling?
            Of course, all disbelief must be suspended in regard to the adaptability of the alien. With tissue enhanced with polarized silicone (whatever that is), hemolymph strong enough to burn though concrete and steel, and the ability to synthesize biomass from what we can only assume is the air (because, honestly, how did the chestburster turn into an adult without eating anything?), the only limiting factor to alien reproductive fitness seems to be the availability of hosts.
            The invincibility of the alien is reflected in its artistic design. H.R. Giger’s style is characterized by the blending of human anatomy with metallic technology (often with overt sexual themes). In contrast to the soft organic look of the humans, the alien blends into the grimy, metal interior of the ship, reflecting its superior adaptations to its environment. Even the parts of its body that are not covered in a shiny carapace are more similar to blackened machine cables than skin. Even the one android on board the Nostromo is fragile compared to the alien, requiring only a few whacks to the neck to be “killed.”
            The design of the alien also reflects its insanely strong sexual drive. The one goal of the species is reproduction, as seen in the actions of the facegrabber and in the Xenomorphs in later films. The head of the alien resembles a penis, especially in the original lithograph by Giger shown above. The pharyngeal jaw of the alien, which it uses to puncture the skull of its victims, and the mechanisms the facegrabber uses to implant the embryo and feed the host oxygen are also rife with phallic symbolism. This added reproductive imagery makes the design of the alien an interesting blend of sharp technology and organic softness. Whether this was intentional or an extension of Giger’s hypersexual style (a more subtle example of which is pictured below) is unknown.

            What can we take from the design of the alien? The subversion of reproductive roles and sexual imagery echoes the handling of gender roles in the movie. It’s also interesting that the antagonist of Alien was simply a creature trying to complete its reproductive cycle—the subject of many a human romantic comedy. Perhaps we are supposed to read the unchecked reproduction of the alien as a caution to think about what affect our own reproduction has on society?

The appropriation of the alien by the corporation that owned the Nostromo probably says something about the ethical implications of studying biology for commercial reasons and the introduction of invasive species. I don’t know how I feel about evil scientist characterization of the science officer and the scientists of the corporation, though. What type of society do Ellen Ripley and the crew live in where there aren’t ethical laws for research? Hopefully Scott only wanted us to keep ethics in mind when we proceed to study new organisms rather than condemn scientific research as a whole.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Guess who just fell in love with Octavia Butler

Wow. “Bloodchild” was terrific! What a short story. It was the perfect mix of horror, gore, and science. Besides the fact that it perfectly expressed my feelings about human pregnancy, it was fantastically crafted, combining futuristic politics, speculative alien anatomy, references to coevolution, and allusions to community ecology that we study on Earth. What imagination! For instance:
This image was shown in a Powerpoint presented in my Plant Biology lecture today—I kid you not! It shows the eggs of Cotesia congregatus (a type of parasitic wasp) larvae on a Manduca sexta (a caterpillar model organism). When the caterpillar feeds on plant tissue, the plant changes its chemical composition local to the wound, triggering a systemic response that releases volatile compounds into the air. The plant has coevolved with species of parasitic wasp (in this case Cotesia congregates) so that the wasp is attracted to the volatiles and can lay their eggs in the caterpillars feeding on the plant. The eggs then feed off of the caterpillar as they grow, exactly like the Tlic larvae in “Bloodchild” feed off of their human hosts!
            Of course, there are plenty of examples of this type of parasitism on Earth, but I absolutely love it when authors apply animal biology and ecology to humans. People have negative gut reactions to this trope, but I think it’s educational. The fact is that it’s normal for other organisms use each other in these ways, just as it is normal for other organisms to have indeterminate gender (again, I’m thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness). Uneducated social opinion has denormalized many biological concepts and made us a squeamish race.
            On Earth, humans place themselves above natural selection and survival of the fittest. This is good, of course, but it has also given us a hubris that is reflected in (the vast majority of) our speculative fiction. When most authors write about space travel, they feature humans as the educated and highly evolved species that has come to inspect a foreign civilization. What if when humans travel to an alien planet they are instead assimilated into a preexisting ecosystem as they have been in “Bloodchild?” This is a far more interesting narrative than the one found in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and probably more realistic. (The psychology of the characters in “Bloodchild” is complex as a result of this vestigial hubris combined with their new role as host for the Tlic, but I don’t have time to go into it here!)
            I hesitate to call the Tlic parasites. It is evident that they cannot reproduce without using a host (why they cannot engineer nonliving hosts and grow their children in vitro is a mystery), which makes them parasites, but at the same time the humans are totally dependent on the Tlic for survival on a planet to which they are not well adapted, which makes their relationship somewhat symbiotic. Then again, it was thought that the relationship between farmer ants and the aphids they farm was symbiotic until it was discovered that the aphids are not more reproductively successful when they are farmed (also, the ants cut off all their limbs so that they couldn’t escape, which couldn’t have been pleasant). Therefore, further research must be done on the effect of Tlic parasitism versus the lack of Tlic assistance on human fitness in order to truly understand whether the relationship is parasitic or symbiotic. If only I could perform my own experiments!
            It is also a possibility that the humans have spent several generations on the planet and have begun to evolve resistance to the traumatic births of the larvae. How else could Gan’s father have hatched three clutches of the things? A similar coevolution has occurred between humans and the human botfly, which lays its eggs in human skin. A human botfly host experiences minimal discomfort—mostly itching and some pain when the larva feeds—and when the larva hatches it leaves only a small lesion to signal its former presence. The entire process is entirely hygienic for the human—very little chance of infection. After all, why would it be advantageous to the botfly to kill off its host if it doesn’t have to? With another thousand years or so of evolution, the relationship between the Tlic and humans may become less invasive.

            In conclusion, “Bloodchild” was fantastic. Wow.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Character Design in Blade Runner

Though I was disappointed that Ridley Scott left out the majority of the themes that I loved in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I can accept that the laws that govern the making of good movies are different than those that govern the making of a good book. The science fiction aspects of Blade Runner were driven by music and imagery rather than by the psychological states of the characters. The interesting points made by Blade Runner can be found in the design and cinematography. My favorite part of Blade Runner is the way the character design of the replicants blurs the line between human and replicant in the way Dick blurred the line between human and android.
            Ridley Scott’s replicants appear in costumes ranging from completely normal to very strange, according to how human the character is. Rachel has a chic hairstyle that you might find in any other 80s movie while Pris Stratton’s hair looks like a cat that has been attacked by a straightener. Everything about Rachel is soft, while Pris wears black makeup and a studded collar. Rachel wears furry coats and business dresses while Roy Batty wears sharp black coats… or just his shorts when he’s feeling too much emotion. These costumes establish a gradient of humanity placing Rachel as the most human of the androids (which makes sense because she has always thought that she was human) and Pris and Roy as the least human. Had Pris and Roy looked less like albino punk rockers, the audience would have been better able to sympathize with their plight. After all, all humans struggle with the concept of mortality.

            I also enjoyed the way some of the humans’ costumes resembled technology. Hannibal Chew is the best example of this. When we see him in his lab, he is wearing an oversized fur coat that is attached to something (conceivably a heat source) with long tubes that look like wires. It’s almost as if he’s an android that is recharging itself. Tyrell also has the air of a robot about him. Half of the time, we can’t see his eyes because they are obscured by some of the thickest glasses I’ve ever seen. The light reflected by the lenses calls to mind the lights one might see in the eyes of a robot. These choices in character design provide us with the dehumanization of humans that we see in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Instead of mentioning inventions like mechanized religion and the Penfield mood organ, Ridley Scott shows us how humans have incorporated technology into themselves through analogy and costuming.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Filling the Void: Why Robots Have Taken Over Science Fiction

In my last post on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I mentioned the role robotic people and animals play in filling the void. Here I would like to further expound on what this role says about basic human needs.
            We first see the effects of the depopulation of the world of Androids when John attempts to leave his apartment for work, but is overcome by the vastness emptiness of his building. Confronted with the evidence of his aloneness, John retreats to his room and uses Mercerism to connect with similarly lonely people. However, his mood truly improves when he discovers another resident in the floor below him. The fact that this newcomer is an android escapes his notice (Dick 67). As the novel progresses, the distinction between human and android is steadily eradicated in this way. Eventually, even Rick relaxes up his distaste for robots in order to team up with Resch and later fall in love with Rachel Rosen, a marketing android of the Rosen association (197). Even after being betrayed by Rachel and shunned by John, the only thing that lifts Rick’s depression is his discovery of what he later learns is a mechanical toad (236). Rick’s one-eighty degree change of heart is significant because it shows that even a man who believes that all androids are potential killers can be beguiled by the realistic exterior of a robot.
            Beyond their role as material status symbols, the electric animals function as a comforting stand-in for life that should be there, but isn’t. Imagine a world without birds singing, without squirrels foraging for acorns, even without a decent supply of spiders. How silent must such a world be? How alone would mankind feel? Nobody wants to be the lone survivor of a dying planet. In the absence of a natural animal ecology, it is our instinct to surround ourselves with the images of fauna. Caring for an electric sheep would provide a sense of self-worth—of the interspecies collaboration that we find so inspiring today.
            Perhaps this is part of the reason why personal android slaves were provided to all those who emigrated to Mars. Yes, androids make convenient slaves, but they are also capable of being somewhat human when there are no other real humans around. John found solace in the presence of Pris. Rick found solace in the presence of Rachel. If your entire family died in World War Terminus, what would be the point of moving to Mars? There’d be nothing there for you. With an android, however, you could have something like a friend with whom you could share your adventure. How different would that be from having an imaginary friend, after all?
            I’m fascinated by the reasons that drive us to create androids in fiction and in real life. Is it art? Is it playing God? Is it because we want to share our ideas with a species as articulate as we are? Or is it because creating an android sometimes seems easier than finding a real person to care about? These are the questions that can only be answered in speculative fiction.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Random House, 1968. Print.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Humans and Androids in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

For the sake of forthrightness, I’d like to say that I’ve read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick in its entirety prior to taking this course. Therefore, my analysis will inevitably draw on events occurring beyond the assigned reading. That being said, the first six chapters are a good exposition for the book. Already, I can see development of some of the major themes of the novel. My favorite theme of Androids (and perhaps any science fiction novel about robots) is the difference between humans and their creations.
            Right off the bat, Dick assaults the line between humans and machines by automating emotions. In chapter one, Rick and Iran Deckard own a Penfield mood organ. They can control their emotions with the push of a button. They call it “dialing,” as if their feelings are as complex as a telephone. This kind of technology suggests that the humans in this world are not entirely organic themselves. Rick must have a device implanted in his brain that can alter neurotransmitter levels. For happy feelings, this device must promote dopamine and serotonin reuptake. For depressed feelings, it must inhibit their reuptake.
            This technology must be similar to the machinery responsible for emotions in androids in this world. The rest of the android body has been engineered to resemble the human body such that a simple x-ray would not be able to pick up on its electric nature. Bounty hunters must rely on empathy tests and close examination of bone marrow in order to tell humans apart from androids. If the android brain is as similar to that of a human as the rest of its body, and if it uses the same technology as the Deckards’ mood organ to simulate emotions, then what is the true difference between humans and androids in this world?
            Even the empathy test is not always accurate. The Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test can declare humans with mental disorders affecting their reactions to social stimuli (schizophrenia is mentioned, but there is a wide array of disorders with similar affects) androids simply because their autonomic nervous system does not react to the stimulus questions. Presumably, humans with mental disorders such as aphasia that affect their comprehension of speech would fail the Voigt-Kampff as well. It is even plausible that someone who grew up isolated from society and therefore did not have the chance to internalize American cultural values would fail the test as well. Indeed, before determining that Rachel Rosen was an android, Rick believed that the test had failed for that very reason.

            In many other subtle ways, the line between human and android is blurred. John R. Isidore, a “chickenhead,” would be considered less intelligent than the new Nexus-6 model. Rick is as dissatisfied with his living wife as he is with his electric sheep. Androids can believe themselves human because of false memories provided by their maker. Humans can believe themselves androids. It is nearly impossible to tell the difference between an animal and an electric animal. And, if you don’t know the difference, is it so important? In a world as empty as that of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? electric people and animals can fill the void.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Response to the Strange in The Martian Chronicles

“Anything that’s strange is no good to the average American,” -Jeff Spender (Bradbury, 83)
            This reading felt like a manifesto opposing imperialism, habitat fragmentation, rude tourists, and littering all at once. Reading “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright” was like looking into a mirror. It aired so many of the complaints I have about the American mentality and about humanity in general.
            As a potential conservation biologist and someone interested in cultural diversity, the extinction of any race is a tragedy—a loss felt by entire world. To see a group of (at least somewhat) scientific men receive news on the death of a newly discovered people and to just blow it off like it means nothing makes me sick. Biodiversity is important to the health of the biosphere, as well as the health of human society. Add to that the loss of the wealth of knowledge that the Martians so evidently possessed? How could the extinction of another humanoid species not cause these men to feel at least a smidge of sorrow?
            Bigg’s character was an especially disheartening metaphor for humanity. To vomit in a canal as a christening is the ultimate sign of disrespect. And that’s what humans feel for the environment. Every day we vomit into the canals of our Earth, and every day we adamantly assert our right to do it. What would we do if given a brand-new planet? Bradbury is right: we’d muck it up first thing off.
            Humans care less about what they do not understand. We have automatic prejudice against the unfamiliar—an evolutionary vestigial fear. We mock cultures that vary from ours. We shoot down new ideas. We fine the wrong-minded. We destroy strange beauties wherever we find them. Only a very few, like Spender, find themselves going against the grain and making decisions based on their own moral compunctions instead of the consensus.
            I enjoy science fiction novels that feature the Spenders. Main characters that can travel to new lands and learn about new cultures without feeling threatened give me hope for the future.

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1977. Print.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Science Fiction Film: Horse and Buggy of Social Change

            Entering this course, I questioned the value of studying science fiction films. When I think of the history of science fiction, I think of the seminal works that arose from the era of gothic literature, I think of the classic pulps that arose from the Western, I think of the groundbreaking novels that arose after the popularization of the pocket paperback. I don’t often think of science fiction film as thought-provoking.
            The ultimate goal of film-making is to gain enough money at the box office to justify spending millions of dollars on actors and sets and CGI. In order to do this, movies must cater to the zeitgeist where they are shown. For instance, a movie promoting the welfare of Soviet Russians would not have made a lot of money in the America of the early 1950s. In fact, the director would have been chased out of town by a torch-wielding mob for creating such a monstrosity. Blockbuster films did not start featuring gay couples until gay culture became somewhat accepted by American society, and even now they are severely underrepresented in film. New cultural attitudes are not inspired by movies. Movies must reflect preexisting cultural attitudes.
            Perhaps I feel this way because I am used to the free-range thinking one can find in books and on the internet. Literature can afford to contain progressive (or even subversive) ideas because it does not require the financial investment that a movie does. The audience of printed science fiction is more select, more attentive, and more open to what the author has to say, so new thoughts cause less of a ripple. This is why Stranger in a Strange Land was never made into a movie. And can you imagine The Left Hand of Darkness on today’s silver screen? With today’s attitudes toward intersexuality? It took Hollywood until 1979 to cast a tough female lead (Sigourney Weaver in Alien) (Booker, 15). The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that basically states that society does not need gender roles to function, was published ten years previously—in 1969. That says it all, folks. Compared to the warp drive progressivism exhibited by science fiction literature, science fiction film looks like a horse and buggy.
“American science fiction film of the 1930s was largely confined to low-budget serials… the special effects of [which] were extremely crude. However, to a generation of young Americans, they offered thrilling images of other planets and other times that presented an exciting alternative to a dreary Depression-era world that was drifting toward global war.” (Booker, 3-4)
            Booker’s Alternate Americas did not convince me that science fiction films were socially groundbreaking. With the exception of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, none of the movies mentioned in the passage were acclaimed for the effect they had on the American mentality (Booker, 12). Every other movie either served as a distraction from the monotony of everyday life (whether it be during the Depression, during a war, or during a time of financial prosperity), or as a comment on how Americans were feeling. If Americans want “good” and “evil” to be simple concepts, Star Wars is there to simplify it for them (Booker, 13). If Americans think that the “conventional nuclear family” is the epitome of all things wholesome, then “a group of responsible males who have recently performed their familial duties by producing offspring” will be there to save the day (Booker, 9). If Americans want cultural “relevance,” then filmmakers will suspend filming silly science fiction movies all together (Booker, 12).    
“…Looking into at the Cold War years of the 1950s, then at the late 1970s and early 1980s, some critics have concluded that science fiction film seems particularly to flourish in conservative times, perhaps  because of their escapist appeal to audiences appalled by contemporary reality… Here, however, the escape is… from the soul-destroying nature of life in modern capitalist America.” (Booker, 14)
            Science fiction films flourished in conservative times precisely because the majority were inherently conservative. Science fiction films were astoundingly good at telling audiences what they wanted to hear.
            So why do we study science fiction films? They serve as an interesting gauge of the cultural attitudes at the time of their release. The difference between remakes can reflect the changes America has underwent in the intervening years. They are the face of science fiction, in a way, as they are the most widely popular medium of science fiction. Science fiction films stir our visual imagination, create new science fiction fans, and keep the ideas of old science fiction greats alive. 
            And perhaps they can change cultural attitudes for the better. Maybe their influence on society is simply so slow-acting as to appear to not be moving at all. If so, I'd like to see some love for Muslim Americans and the LGBT community sometime in the near future, please.

Booker, M. Keith. Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture. Westport: Praeger             Publishers, 2006. Print.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Introduction: About Me, About Science Fiction

Hello! This blog is an assignment for a writing course on science fiction, so each post will likely explore the topics I learn in class and what I glean from the materials we read. I am a freshman at Wellesley College, where I study biology. I am also interested in anthropology, visual art, psychology, and science in general. My favorite type of science fiction combines speculation on themes in biology, such as evolution, genetics, or ecology, and fictional cultures. I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which features an alternative system of gender.
            I’m taking this course in the hope that I’ll learn how real scientific development and social thought may be guided by science fiction. Science fiction may one day influence my research, if I become a scientist. Perhaps I will write my own science fiction and influence the research of the next generation in turn.
            Writing is a visual record of thought, but what thoughts are considered science fiction? I’m somewhat familiar with the history of the genre, so I know that science fiction has many historical permutations and many functions, making it difficult to define. Too specific a definition can exclude unique, but relevant, work. Too broad a definition can mistakenly include works of fantasy. After all, according to Arthur C. Clarke, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Though Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by many scholars to be the first science fiction novel, the genre remained nameless until Hugo Gernsback created Amazing Stories, the first science fiction magazine, in 1926. By combining the words “scientific” and “fiction,” Gernsback dubbed his stories “scientifiction.” In the introduction of the first issue of Amazing Stories, he says:

“By ‘scienficition’ I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.”

He goes on to say that “scientifiction” is always instructive and supplies information in a form palatable to the public.
While such a technical manual-style definition of science fiction is not surprising from a former electronics businessman (Gernsback also created the first electronics magazine, Modern Electrics), it is limiting. Many of Gernsback’s stories read like a tour of the future and have little plot or social commentary. Their focus is the machinery of the future and how it works. Not all science fiction is instructive in this way, and not all science fiction strives to prophesize the future. If all science fiction novels followed this definition, the genre would be a husk of its present glory.
            Calling the work of H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe “charming” is also questionable. Wells wrote some of the most apocalyptic novels of the 19th Century (most notably The War of the Worlds). He was famous for exploring the darkness of human nature, especially in cases where man is given power as in The Invisible Man and The Island of Doctor Moreau. Not all science fiction is a charming romp in the future.
            Philip K. Dick, a modern giant of science fiction, was more generous with his definition of the genre.

“SF presents in fictional form an eccentric view of the normal or a normal view of the world that is not our world….Central to SF is the idea of dynamism. Events evolve out of an idea impacting on living creatures and their society. The idea must always be a novelty. This is the core issue of SF, even bad SF. That events accord with known scientific truths distinguishes SF from fantasy.” (The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick, 1995)

This seems like a more accurate definition, but it excludes science fiction that does not always accord with known scientific truths. For example, some of the powers given to the main character in Stranger in a Strange Land are considered physically impossible today. Scientific evidence does not support the existence of psychic abilities. Science fiction often asks what would happen if certain impossibilities were possible. Older works of science fiction, written before scientific discoveries disproved their eccentric views, also don’t “accord with known scientific truths,” yet they are still considered science fiction. Many scientific truths of today may become the scientific falsehoods of tomorrow. We must look for a broader definition.
            David Pringle provides such a definition in his Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels of 1985.

Science fiction is a form of fantastic fiction which exploits the imaginative perspectives of modern science.”

Although this definition places science fiction under the umbrella of fantasy, it also allows for elements that are not based entirely on scientific fact. It appreciates the wide variety of purposes science fiction serves. It emphasizes the role of imagination in its creation and places it in the context of its time. I can get behind Pringle's definition, though I still enjoy Norman's Spinrad's idea:
"Science fiction is anything published as science fiction."