Saturday, April 12, 2008

Falling in love with Frankenstein


This is a sketch for a much longer essay about science fiction. Click 'full post' for text.


One of the dominant themes of Modern culture is the Frankenstein conceit - what you might think of as the 'mad scientist', or, more profoundly, the Faustian bargain. A man (and it normally is a man) is so consumed by his rational intellectual pursuits that he unwittingly provokes disaster and his own death.

As I see it, this is the way in which humanity's soul has digested and absorbed the impact of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment project is precisely that which has elevated one element of our human nature falsely above the others; it has insitutionalised asophism; and thus we are in the midst of ecological crisis. The devil has come to collect his due.

Being a fan of sf, especially visually, I am struck by the way in which this theme has been subverted and then overcome within the world of fiction and film. I see this as a creative analogue of the way in which the Enlightenment project has itself been undone from within. (This is, I believe, why there is such an efflorescence of angst-ridden writings from the humourless atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens et al - they are aware in their bones that they are being left behind.)

Three examples of this shift:
1. The Matrix trilogy. The first Matrix was pure Frankenstein - the intellectual products of humanity turn against their creators and destruction follows; human liberty and salvation lie in battling against the machine. However, the second two films explored something more creative - the machine is not monolithic, it has variety (and therefore more dramatic interest of course) - there is a possibility of an alliance between human and mecha.

2. Battlestar Galactica, the new series. Whereas in the original series we are facing highly efficient automata (rational products of Enlightenment) now the cylons are riven with their own competing needs and desires. The Cylons are now just like us; we can even breed with them.

3. The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The original Terminator film is a real classic, and a classic description of the Frankenstein - a totally remorseless source of death and destruction 'it absolutely will not stop until you are dead'. With the films a little first, but now much more with the series, we have much more creative ambiguity. This crystallised for me in the recent episode where Summer Glau starts to learn ballet. A vision of beauty - and whether it is human or mecha falls by the wayside.

(I've also been put in mind of this by recently finishing Dan Simmons' Hyperion cantos, but I'll write about them separately.)

I believe that what we have in this medium - film and television science fiction - is the creative resolution of the human conflict created by the Western idolatry of reason. As our society moves beyond the Enlightenment, so too does our fiction. Robots who are pure products of reason are no longer very interesting - the robots need to have more to them - and this is simply a mirror for how we see ourselves. In other words, there is more to humanity than the remorseless application of reason.

I find this encouraging and exciting.

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