Wednesday, September 21, 2005

On the core of sci-fi

Subtitled: Is perfection a dirty word?

The following post is founded partly on the feelings of whimsicality and moodiness of this blogger. :-p

Sci-fi, or at least, good sci-fi, is and never really will be about giant robots, alien beings, or galaxy exploration. The setting might normally be remote or futuristic, but like fantasy, the genre it has most in common with, its themes and probings are often very contemporary, timeless even. At its core, sci-fi is always about the exploration of humanity itself, and what it means to be human beings in this universe.

I don't really know why I've been thinking about this a little recently, apart from the fact that I was watching this Disney Channel original movie which had the usual plotline whereby an entirely human-looking nonhuman entity is created for a specific purpose. (In this case, it was a hologram instead of the usual robot, created to front a band - hey, it was a movie for younger teens after all.) Usually, in sci-fi plotlines, we are human because
a)we have a 'soul' (which will, of course, be interpreted differently by different people),
b)that we can 'feel' things (and we ain't talking merely about nervous systems!), usually love, unlike robots - perhaps Pinnochio is an early forerunner!
c) we have an inherent identity of some sort; think of movies that dramatise our fear of world-conquering robots or rogue computers, such as Terminator 3 or The Net
d) and so on...you probably can think of a few more.

One thing I notice however, as I see it, is that one notion which seems to pop up again and again that to be human is to be imperfect.
Perfection, and one ceases to be human. Actually, I'm oversimplifying this, as the really good sci-fis surely don't put it as crudely as that. Yet it seems to me that often, a reader/viewer will come away with that impression, even if it's unintentional; there does seem to be an abundance of books/movies which usually involves the creation of a so-called 'perfect' being(robot/computer/hologram/whatever) which has not-so perfect consequences. It could be the machine goes bad - the word 'robot' was actually coined by a sci-fi author in the 1920s about mechanical humans who rebel against their masters. Or we discover they have limitations such as being unable to emote - think of Lieutenant Data in Star Trek.

I was a little uneasy about this at first. On the surface, it seems obvious - yes, of course, humans are imperfect and limited! I think even humanists don't dispute that too much. But then I thought, wasn't Jesus, 100% human as well as 100% God too, perfect? And aren't all Christians called to be perfect? So, is being human really about being imperfect?

Then I realised that a lot revolved what we mean by 'perfect'. Often, the machines in sci-fi are 'perfect' in terms of their cognition, or ability, or technologically, even looks, but very rarely, if ever, from an ethical viewpoint. And I guess that sci-fi authors often want to challenge our own personal definitions of perfection. Whereas, we're often talking about moral perfection in the Christian context. Or Christ-like perfection, to put it another way.

Still, it is quite interesting to briefly probe a little more. I think it can be pretty telling that a genre normally associated with science, technology, progress etc. is one which is most ideally suited to the question of what it means to be human, often by the means of contrast. Again, our ideas of what perfection means comes under the microscope - can 'perfection' be achieved via these means? It seems as if we instinctively know that we're more than just robots, even if some of the sci-fi worlds portrayed are very Darwinian, where everything happens at random. (Even a light-hearted book such as Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy portrays such a world.)

Or that the concept of the perfect mechanical being has long both fascinated and repelled us. It seems as if we cannot desist from such a quest of finding a thinking but unfeeling machine, because we long for the order and peace that they ostensibly could offer us. It's a quest for perfection, but at what price?

There is also a hint of the creator-creation relationship gone wrong, as frequently we find tales of humans enslaved or preyed upon by the machines they created with their own hands, although interestingly, the characters who are 'perfect' and 'imperfect' are inverted from that in the Christian narrative, as the creator-human in sci-fi are the latter.

Probably the best protagonists are those who strive to do right in spite of their flaws, and not despite their flaws, and it is no different in sci-fi. And perhaps this is the best clue to what it really means to be human. As a Christian, I believe that all humans are made in the image of God. But what does that really mean? I'm still working that out, but perhaps we can pinpoint some things. The word 'image' in the Old Testament apparently was often used to refer to three-dimensional statue of something or someone, a representation. These statues in the ancient world carried about connotations of fragility, of being breakable. That, I think, is perfectly suited to what we know about the human condition. But who are we made in the image of? God, the king of the universe! What this means is that each human is imbued with dignity and value, far above mere animals, or robots for that matter. And we represent one who is certainly far from fragile.

Perhaps this does give us a little pointer as to what being human means, and our love-hate relationship with the idea of perfection. We know that we're imperfect, yet at the same time we know that that's not the way it was meant to be.

OK, I think that's enough for this post - don't want to keep droning on (pun intended?). One last comment. Thinking about this also forces me to confront with my own imperfections, my own hypocrisy - recognising my own weaknesses as a human and as BK in particular. And here I admit I fall short - here I think of that All American Rejects song Dirty Little Secrets. My own confrontation with imperfection needs to be balanced with a renewed striving to do better, not by my own strength, but by the grace of God.
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Anonymous Herng Yih said...

As you rightly put it, perfection has in itself definitional problems. What constitutes perfection? In my opinion, in such quest we are often clouded by our own tinted perception of reality, encumbered by our realisation of the world. Maybe perfection is something that does not exist, though some of you might disagree with me here.

From literature, the first prominent writer to successfully embrace sci-fi is undoubtedly Jules Verne (20 000 Leagues under the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth). But JV's interest in science fiction took precedence over issues that haunt humanity. He is more interested in describing the method by which science creates a believable future. Scientific authenticity was his primary goal. You can observe the painstaking detail in his decription of the science in his novels.

The other great (second in fact) science fiction writer emerged across the English Channel and his name was HG Wells (War of the Worlds, The Time Traveller). Obviously, heavily influenced by JV, he sought to create a consistent reality using the known scientific discoveries of the day (although they were later proven to be very wrong). Like JV, he also sought scientific authenticity. Wells however, unlike JV, is more popular for his role in putting questions on humanity first before the science. He does not describe entire scientific processes in books but merely alludes to them, prefering suspension of disbelief on part of the readers to focus on what matters more to him: Humanity riding on the yokes of science.

I realise now that my comment has gone a bit wayward but my point is that science and technology in our current era has become the prominent driver of change. Fukuyama once said with the dominance of capitalism (and fall of communism) we are at the end of history. Later, he reversed his position seeing how science and technology changed the world; now fate of history is entwined with how we use science and technology to change our collective lifes for better or good. The question has always been on humanity, a much more interesting issue and in fact a greater one in my opinion. That is why the best of science fictions address questions regarding humanity and where it is headed; its journey, perils and intended destination lest we forget what defines us in the first place.

To answer your question, I think perfection is a concept that is bounded to our humanity: The quest for perfection. Though we may never attain it, taking it away is akin to the denial of our humanity.

2:07 am  
Blogger jacksons said...

Great observation there. There are a few types of Science Fiction movies, one type that I have observed are movies about technology that we know (or think) that we are going to manage to invent in the future, like the teleportation device, the intergalactic space craft that flies at light speed, the tractor beam and the force field. This genre of science movies, asks the question – “what are the ethical implications of this technology when it comes?”.
Some examples are like the Island speaks of cloning people to harvest body parts, Final Cut speaks of recording a person’s life, Minority report speaks of the accuracy of prediction versus the dynamic nature of human will and Artificial Intelligence that asks if a robot was wired to feel, would it be able to love? I like these type of movies cause I am an avid analyst and futurist, who loves to predict technological trends.

But as a Christian, one theme I keep seeing in Science fiction is the Imago Dei (Latin for the doctrine that man is made in the Image of God) haunting the non believers. For example, in I-Robot, in Asimov’s original book, the robots do succeed to take over, and they rule mankind and keep him from doing evil to himself and the machines. Such was the atmosphere in Asimov’s modern times, Science will bring technology that will save us – but in the recent movie, man is not ruled by the robots – why? I can only think that such an ending wont go well with us, people who believe the Imago Dei even if we don’t realize it. And think also of the Island, why did we feel so horrified that they were killing those clones? Or the Matrix, when we saw the pod farms, it was so evil to us! Yes, the one theme I see so often in these movies, is the Imago Dei!

5:11 am  

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