Friday, April 30, 2010

Permutations of the Human: Thoughts on Lexx, Part 1

Thanks to the wonders of the new internet, I’ve recently been working my way through a science-fiction television series that aired back when Geocities represented a predominant paradigm for thinking about web content and community, a fact that is aesthetically confirmed by the late 90’s amateur web-design of the few, untended, zombie fansites still up (though not really running).

The 61 episodes of Lexx, recently made available through Hulu,  originally aired in Canada from April 1997 to April 2002.  Though the series is first and foremost a silly kind of scifi comedy about a misfit starship crew that inadvertently destroys everything it comes in contact with, I find it most notable for the way it provides an articulate contrast to the rational humanism of Star Trek: the Next Generation (1987-1994).

enterprise.jpg Lexx

While I was never a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), there was a period a few years ago when TBS aired something like a three-hour block of the series every weekday afternoon.  I should probably be ashamed to say it, but I caught quite a few episodes, and I’m not ashamed to say that part of the reason for this was that I enjoyed them immensely.  But the following strikes me as incontestably true: Captain Picard, with his elegant diction and love of Shakespeare and Reason, symbolized the sovereign intellect, spontaneous and free (and White and male), that was the ideal of the Enlightenment humanists…the ideal of humanity to which Data aspired, often laughably but always hopelessly. 

In this context, Elaine Graham, in Representations of the Post/Human (2002), persuasively argues that: 

The Federation’s anxieties about the Borg therefore rest in the cyborg body as anathema to the humanist self because it is compromised, hybrid, profane – monstrous….  The fundamental telos of the series is to protect the integrity of human distinctiveness, premised upon clearly demarcated boundaries between humans and others. (147-8, my emphasis)

Human skin, rather than space, is in fact the unacknowledged “final frontier” of TNG, and though the crew of the Enterprise, in the name of bold humanity, invades and often transforms the strange worlds of space, the series ultimately refuses the alien (whether organic or machine…another distinction the series rigorously defends) such freedom of movement or such mutational power. 

But Lexx is scifi pastiche – a mutant to the core – and suitably disrespects almost every formulation of “human distinctiveness.” 

(to be continued)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Quote for the Week

A real post will follow shortly.  I promise.
If one day, with one and the same concept, these two incompatible concepts, the event and the machine, were to be thought together, you can bet that not only…will one have produced a new logic, an unheard-of conceptual form.  In truth against the background and horizon of our present possibilities, this new figure would resemble a monster.
Jacques Derrida, Without Alibi 77 (qtd. in Cary Wolfe, Posthumanism 9-10)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Story of the Week: The Gadarene Swine

26They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don't torture me!" 29For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

30Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"

"Legion," he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

32A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into them, and he gave them permission. 33When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus' feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

38The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39"Return home and tell how much God has done for you." So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.

Luke 8:26-40

Monday, April 5, 2010

Quote for the Week

Truth as Circe: Error has turned animals into men; might truth be capable of turning man into an animal again?
-Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Virtue of Indifference: a review of "Stalker" (1979)

Stalker (1979), like many of Tarkovsky's films, proceeds slowly and thoughtfully through familiar landscapes made strange.  The plot is allegorical: two men, one a scientist and the other a writer, engage a "stalker" to guide them to the heart of the "Zone."  The Zone looks for the most part like normal countryside, except that there are burned out tanks and a few ruined, Soviet-style bunkers laying about.  It was cordoned off by the military of the small, imaginary country in which the film is set, after a few units of soldiers had mysteriously disappeared.  But rumors have it that in the heart of the Zone, there is a room that grants the deepest desire of those who step through its door.  

The Zone represents the Unconscious, and the film is an investigation of the logic of desire.  Its argument is that desire invents its own objects (success, revenge, meaning, escape) but can never be satisfied.  A desiring existence is unbearable--endlessly deferring and disappointing.  

Not until the conclusion of the film does Tarkovsky seem to suggest two alternatives to the manacles of desire.  These are presented by the wife and daughter of the Stalker.  The wife, speaking directly towards the camera, attempts to make suffering into a universal principle, something to be accepted even.  But whom is she trying to convince?  Her eyes, her nervous way of smiling, clearly belie her desperate rationalizations.  The stalker's daughter, on the other hand, never says a word.  In the final scene, her father places her at a table (she was born crippled...or perhaps without the desire to walk); when he leaves, she lays down her head and with a disinterested, bored look on her face seems to push three glasses across the surface with her mind...or at least appears to.  She, it seems, is wired differently, with a mind that does not desire nor accept but rather rejects and destroys indifferently.

Free at Last: a review of "The Unincorporated Man"

I am unfortunately that kind of person who has a hard time not finishing a book once I've begun it, even after I've decided it's worthless, but thankfully I'm finally free, free at last! from the nearly 500-page long The Unincorporated Man (2009) after putting it down and picking it up over the course of about a month and a half.  I'm almost exactly a year late with this review, as Annalee Newitz at io9 already said just about everything I have to say about it back in March of 2009, but I feel like I have to do something to recoup the time I lost reading it, so I'll waste just a little more time writing a blog post about it.

But I won't be as mean as a feel I could be, partly because this is the first novel written by brothers Dani and Eyton Kollin but also because, according to Dani's personal blog, their mother passed away this winter. condolences.

The premise of this novel is that a brilliant industrialist from our time, Justin Cord, is un-frozen three hundred years in the future into a world that, having survived both the Grand Collapse of the global economy and a plague of Virtual Reality that almost wiped out humanity with sloth, has become a utopia spanning the solar system thanks to the wonders of nanotechnology and society's universal embrace of an extreme form of market capitalism in which people themselves are incorporated and split into shares.  The (very limited) government owns 5% of an individual's stock, one's parents start out with 20%, and another 50% can be sold to whomever cares to invest in that individual's future productivity.  Most people own less than a majority of themselves.

The conflict is that Justin Cord views personal incorporation as a form of slavery and so refuses to comply with it, remaining instead the titular "hero."  This singular attitude of resistance threatens to resurrect once more the fractiousness and internecine strife characteristic of the "pre-GC" civilizations and shatter the supposedly dynamic and adaptable harmony of corporate culture.  (What would they have done if they ever met up with aliens?  Maybe you'll find out in the sequels.  I won't, but maybe you will.)

In spite of how nakedly Heinleinian the novel is in its masculine advocacy of self-righteous libertarianism, and also in spite of how fanboy-ish the tone of the novel was when it came to the practical magic of nanotech, I definitely enjoyed a lot of the world-building aspects.

Most of the standard tropes have been done better and more insightfully in other places.  For example, Pohl and Kornbluth at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum had a somewhat more adventuresome take on what happens when corporations take the place of nation-states in The Space Merchants.  Damon Knight, in Dio, thinks more deeply about the relation between freedom and death in a world where technology makes us virtually immortal than the Kollin brothers are probably capable.  And Harlan Ellison, when it comes to examining the cultural relativity of taboos (as the Kollins do primarily through through the "perverse" relationship between Justin Cord and his re-animationist/love interest, Neela), beats these fledgling writers hands-down in "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World," in which it is no industrialist but Jack the Ripper who finds himself awake in the far future.

Nevertheless, personal incorporation is a pretty novel idea, and the Kollins for the most part do an acceptable job thinking through the details.

But there are, regrettably, at least three major flaws that mar this debut work:
  • The protagonist is completely unlikeable.  Scifi has it's bastards...the work of authors like Zelazny and Gaiman is chock full of them, but Justin Cord is just a whiny, charmless Harry Potter or the girl from the Twilight Series. Childish.  Also, unconvincing as an eccentric billionaire industrialist.  He brought a box of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch with him to the future because it was his favorite cereal.  That suggests to me that Cord is a little too transparently based on the lives of the scifi fans who wrote him.
  • The narration is about as childish as Cord.  It is uncertain whether the narrative voice is from the past (our time) and therefore partially justified in calling so explicitly and so often on 9/11 as a cultural frame of reference or from the future, and the result is awkward, superficially sci-fi idioms like "stop on a credit" instead of "stop on a dime."  I guess I should be grateful that at least they're not eating space-burgers and washing them down with space-beer.
  • Lastly, and most infuriatingly, the "freedom" Cord so values is never really articulated.  According to one character, Cord's definition of freedom "wasn't just semantic, it was intrinsic" (187), but Cord's calls for freeeeedoooom! never amount to more than post-Braveheart sloganeering.  You're really comparing incorporation to southern slavery?  I'd compare it to having credit bureaus.  
So, all in all, pretty crummy.  But you don't have to take my word for it.  The second book in the series, The Unincorporated War, comes out next month.