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.