Saturday, March 16, 2013

"Information as matter": the New Materialism and Tom McCarthy's 'Remainder'

            I love it when my theoretical interests intersect at a fictional crossroads. 
Some of my readers may recall the enigmatic quote from M. John Harrison’s Light that I used to open my piece on that text: “‘Information might be a substance” (Harrison 357).  One of the continual themes, or tropes, of science fiction that I enjoy pursuing is the suggestion that information, the ideal, or the ideational, is nothing more than a complex emergent consequence of highly developed matter.  This raises a number of troubling questions: what becomes of the interior “self”? what becomes of intention? what becomes of emotions, sensations that we take to be “ours”? where do we draw the line between the conscious and non-conscious, between the organic and the inorganic?  All these queries can be traced back to this unconventional notion that somehow all things once believed essential – our ideas, our emotions, our very selves – are illusions ultimately propagated by dead matter.  After all, human beings themselves eventually emerged out of previous organisms, which in turn emerged out of advanced combinations of cells, which in turn surged violently to life out of entirely inanimate and inorganic matter.
            I recently finished another fictional text, not one that has been viewed through an SF lens, but one that deserves such attention: Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.  As I excitedly read through the entire novel, I was aware of something akin to an SF tone, or at the very least an unsettling contemporary Gothicism.  The story depicts an unnamed narrator who, having suffered a mysterious accident, receives a generous settlement that allows him to pursue his pathological fantasy of reconstructing various sites from his memory; as the story develops, these reconstructions begin to appropriate events from the news and gradually take on a less “simulated” character.  The strange narrative, its abstract quality and vague descriptive tone (which gets specific about specifics – the small details – but leaves larger questions unanswered), its blatantly unreliable narrator who admittedly misleads his audience on occasion – none of these elements point directly to the mode of “science fiction.”  There are no obvious identifiable SF elements in the novel.  Rather, the tone that intrigues me and leads me to associate Remainder with contemporary SF is its sense of unrealism, or unreality.  As readers follow the anonymous narrator, they question how he can continue to direct these reconstructions.  His endless supply of funds is apparently supported by an investment in the stock market; but this does not solve how he is actually able to appropriate the massive locations he requires and reenact the increasingly controversial events he finds himself obsessed with.  The novel’s unrealism persists throughout, ultimately never offering much in the way of explanation.
What the novel does offer, however, near its conclusion, is a brief line that recalled the words of M. John Harrison to my mind: “We had to treat information as matter: stop it spilling, seeping, trickling, dribbling, whatever: getting in the wrong place and becoming mess” (265 McCarthy).  One need not stretch one’s mind to recall the “spilling” of matter in Harrison’s Light, when Kearney returns to the lab where he and Brian Tate run their experiments: “He was expecting to see the female [cat], and indeed, there was a whitish flicker down near his feet; but it wasn’t a cat.  It was a quiet spill of light, emerging like fluid from one of the ruptured displays and licking out across the floor towards Kearney’s feet” (180).  What is this obsession with matter, with substance, in both Harrison’s Light and McCarthy’s Remainder?  Why this emphasis on the redefinition of thought, of ideas, of information as matter?  What do these two works have in common (and what, in turn, does this commonality reveal about Remainder’s science-fiction-ality)?  Since Light already occupies a place on this blog (although one can never write enough about Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract novels, in my opinion), I will turn my attention primarily to McCarthy’s novel.  In doing so, I hope not only to reveal some of the SF elements at work in the novel (which might contribute to its deployment of the “science fiction mode”), but also to discuss what I perceive as an important reversal, or turn, in speculative fiction over the past several years.
            I would classify Remainder as speculative fiction.  More specifically, I would classify it as "slipstream."  Slipstream is an odd generic mode,[1] one that often combines more “realistic” strands of fiction with those that are less mainstream, such as science fiction or fantasy.  Even the description should be jarring: traditional realism blending with traditionally unrealistic forms of fiction.  The result is, understandably so, unsettling, and Remainder works remarkably toward securing this reaction among its readers.  The narrator has no name.  His accident remains largely a mystery.  Readers are told something about being buffeted by winds and something falling from the sky: “It involved something falling from the sky.  Technology.  Parts, bits.  That’s it, really: all I can divulge.  Not much, I know” (McCarthy 3).  All textual clues suggest that the narrator suffers from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; but he is never hospitalized.  Even as his conditions worsens, resulting in intermittent catatonic states, he is never treated.  A doctor sees him, but the doctor’s warnings go unheeded.
Behind all this, consistently supporting the narrator’s reconstructions and isolating him from medical treatment, is the mysterious company known as Time Control.  Time Control organizes and maintains the narrator’s reconstructions, finding him the reenactors and sets that he requires, and consistently evolving to accommodate his new fantastical requirements.  Presumably, the company does what its name suggests: manages people’s time.  The narrator’s attorney, Mark Daubenay, explains: “‘They’re a company that sort things out for people.  Manage things.  Facilitators, as it were.  A couple of my clients have used them in the past and sent back glowing reports.  They’re the leaders in their field.  In fact, they are their field” (81).  Not much more is revealed about the enigmatic company; but a brief comment later in the novel, made by a Time Control employee to the doctor that treats the narrator, suggests that their role is far more involved than readers are led to believe.  When the doctor adamantly demands that the reenactments cease, the employee says it is “‘out of the question.’”  He goes on to offer an intriguing summary of his, and the doctor’s, roles: “‘You, like me, have been hired to ensure he can continue to pursue his projects’” (233).  The comment may mean nothing more than that they were hired by the narrator to facilitate his projects; but what role does the doctor play in this?  Why does the company have no control over treating the narrator, or stopping his reenactments if they run out of control?  Some readers might be inclined to think a larger, more conspiratorial project is at play, of which the narrator is only a part, and that is somehow performing tests, or experiments on him (this was one of my own thoughts); but it remains rather useless to entertain such a notion beyond simple fancy.  No other evidence is given, and beyond this point the narrative begins to spiral hopelessly beyond any last remnants of realism.  If there is a larger plan at work, it is not the novel’s concern.
McCarthy’s novel cannot be properly assessed without considering Zadie Smith’s fantastic write-up in The New York Review of Books.  Smith identifies two paths for the modern novel, one of which manifests in Remainder; a text that, Smith claims, “works by accumulation and repetition, closing in on its subject in ever-decreasing revolutions, like a trauma victim circling the blank horror of the traumatic event” (Smith).  The repetition involves an attempt to isolate and grasp a continually elusive surplus that bewilders and excites the narrator, as when he realizes that his car is low on windshield wiper fluid, and after having the reservoir filled, notices that the liquid has miraculously vanished: “They’d vaporized, evaporated.  And do you know what?  It felt wonderful.  Don’t ask me why: it just did.  It was as though I’d just witnessed a miracle: matter – these two litres [sic] of liquid – becoming un-matter – not surplus matter, mess or clutter, but pure, bodiless blueness.  Transubstantiated” (171).  In Smith’s own words, Remainder “turns out to be an extreme form of dialectical materialism – it’s a book about a man who builds in order to feel” (Smith).  McCarthy identifies this concern at the close of the novel’s first chapter: “I have, right to this day, a photographically clear memory of standing on the concourse looking at my stained sleeve, at the grease – this messy, irksome matter that had no respect for millions, didn’t know its place.  My undoing: matter” (McCarthy 17).
In his book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism, Slavoj Žižek opens by introducing an ideological antagonism: this antagonism is “not […] the struggle between idealism and materialism, but […] the struggle between two forms of materialism (democratic and dialectical)” (Žižek 42).  As a proponent of the latter, Žižek upholds the “‘Platonic’ (‘idealist’) dimension of ‘eternal’ truths,” which dialectical materialism adds to its critical quest (42).  Dialectical materialism arrives at this ideal component via a complicated circuitry of its thought process, but it must be maintained that the idealist dimension is still an emergent result of the material itself.  The idealism of truth does not exist externally to the material, grounding its influence and meaning.  Rather, for Žižek and other materialists in this vein, the material grounds the ideal; that is, the ideal operates as a consequence of materialist movement.  This is what Žižek means when he writes that “the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself” (37).  The idealism of truths distinguishes itself as a gap in the field, a fissure in the material that materialism cannot account for but nonetheless produces by its own movement.  The absolute absence, the eternal vacancy – the place for truth is not a predetermined or pristine essence, but a category produced as an effect of matter.
The narrator of Remainder obsesses over this missing leftover, this surplus, and his obsession haunts the narrative.  Early on, when celebrating his newfound fortune with a bottle of champagne, a stranger approaches the narrator and asks: “‘Where does it all go?’” When the narrator’s friend, Greg, replies that they drink it, the stranger responds: “‘No.  I don’t mean just that […] I mean everything.  You people don’t think about these things.  Give me a glass of that stuff’” (36).  A few pages later, the narrator rescinds his previous desire to sleep with a female friend that is visiting him: “I had to pull the sofa in the living room out into a bed for her.  It was fiddly, finicky: you had to hook this bit round that bit while keeping a third bit clear.  I hadn’t done it before we went out – deliberately, in case the extra bed wouldn’t be needed.  But it was needed.  Catherine had already begun to annoy me.  I preferred her absence, her spectre” (39).  Catherine’s absence, her “spectre,” is the ideational image that the narrator possessed of her prior to her arrival, when he still fantasized about having sex with her.  However, after she arrives, this image is revealed as fantasy, as imaginary.  It is not some pristine essence of her that she fails to fulfill.  It is the ideal essence that the narrator fantasizes from her actual existence, her materiality.  The narrator thus obsesses over this lost essence, this remainder; but unlike the mystics and fideists of the past, he possesses a knowledge of the creative source of this essence.  He knows that the surplus, the essence, emerges from matter itself.  What escapes his knowledge is that this essence is a fantasy.  This is why he pursues his pathological desire to rebuild scenes from memory, to reenact the events he experiences or reads about.  He desires to attain, and to become, the surplus matter that transubstantiates into the ether.
To better understand the implications of this “fantasy,” I quote cultural critic Steven Shaviro: “it is, you might say, an objective illusion, which is to say a fantasy.  It is a fantasy that, qua fantasy, actually operates in the world” (Shaviro 114).  Shaviro specifically speaks of this definition of fantasy in reference to financial derivatives; the fantasy, he claims, lies in the apparent “autonomy of derivatives and financial markets” (114).  This autonomy emerges as a kind of surplus; it does not actually exist – markets and derivatives are not truly autonomous.  But in the complex world of financial abstraction, they appear as such.  When Remainder’s narrator meets with Matthew Younger, a stockbroker, Younger explains speculation to his new client:
“Shares are constantly being bought and sold […] The prices aren’t fixed: they change depending on what people are prepared to pay for them.  When people buy shares, they don’t value them by what they actually represent in terms of goods or services: they value them by what they might be worth, in an imaginary future […] By the time one future’s there, there’s another one being imagined.  The collective imagination of all the investors keeps projecting futures, keeping the shares buoyant.” (McCarthy 46)

Abstract value appears to operate separately from material conditions; it takes on a life of its own and proliferates in its own environment.  For this reason, globalism and finance capital have been popular themes for SF writers since the ‘80s, with writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and (later) Charles Stross and even M. John Harrison attempting to represent, or capture the effects of, massive multinational corporations and global (or interstellar) financial markets.  The autonomy of the market has become a kind of SF trope, and its influence can be felt in Remainder even while the latter is not specifically science fiction.  The key word in Remainder is “speculation”: speculative investment, speculative fiction, the speculative turn in continental philosophy, and now the “speculative” materialism of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.
            This emphasis, evident in both McCarthy’s novel and in the work of Harrison, marks a turn in literary studies.  Traditionally, forms of “speculative” fiction – science fiction, fantasy, Gothic, slipstream – operated under a technique of non-realism, or unrealism.  This is not to say that Tom McCarthy’s novel should be read as a realist novel; it most certainly is not.  But it is an important installment in a new trend that attempts to locate a more radical form of the real.  I have called this trend, in previous pieces, “brutal realism.”  This style is not similar to traditional lyrical realism of the 19th century, or historical or psychological realism, all of which operate (to some extent) under the rubric of an ideological normativity.  The new realist push of Harrison, McCarthy, and other “brutal realists” is not in relation to traditional literary realism, but in contrast to traditional philosophical idealism.  It is a literary attempt to understand how the ideal appears because of the material.  These writers want to expose the ideal not as an isolated, essential source of the material; but as an emergent effect of matter itself.  In this way, modern speculative fiction entirely reverses the stereotype that it is concerned with the supernatural, the essential, or the ideal, as pure and pristine; as a mystery that needs to be solved, as an original point of mystical knowledge.  Instead, modern speculative fiction takes the material as its primary concern in order to expose it as the source of the ideal.  The mysterious essence, the unknown origin, the hidden source… the surplus, the remainder, is not a mystery or origin at all.  It is an illusion projected by the complex interactions of matter.  The material creates the categories from which it sees itself as derived.  This is the great paradox, the incredible post-postmodern turn: that matter injects the ideal into itself as an absence, a void that it tries to fill.  A remainder.

Works Cited
Harrison, M. John. Light. New York: Bantam Books, 2007. Print.
McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. New York: Vintage Books, 2007. Print.
Shaviro, Steven. "The Singularity is Here." Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. Mark 
            Bould and China Miéville, eds. Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 103-117. Print.
Smith, Zadie. “Two Paths for the Novel.” The New York Review of Books. 20 Nov. 2008.
Web. 16 Mar. 2013.
Žižek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism.
London: Verso, 2012. Print.

[1] I intend the word “mode” in a sense similar to that of Robert Mighall in his book A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping Histories Nightmares, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999: “Throughout, the Gothic will be referred to as a ‘mode’ rather than a genre, the principle defining structure of which is its attitude to the past” (xix).  I likewise intend “mode” specifically as a text’s temporal relationship to history; however, in the case of science fiction and slipstream, this relationship is constituted not by the mode’s attitude solely toward its past, but also toward its future.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

"The ultimate shadow": Consciousness and the Human in Kubrick and Dick

            1968 was an interesting year for science fiction, primarily due to two historic moments in the SF tradition: the production of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the publication of Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?  Of even more interest is the mutual concern shared by these two prominent cultural texts: the research into artificial consciousness, and the implications this holds for how we define “the human.”
            Artificial intelligence needs to be separated from artificial consciousness.  Artificial intelligence designates the ability to operate at vastly complex levels of logical computation; this typically includes such actions as algorithmic functions, games of chess, and even linguistic exchanges.  Artificial consciousness, on the other hand, must imply the ability to reflect on these actions; to consider mathematical paradoxes, to relish in the victory over one’s opponent, to speculate on the etiolations (to borrow a term from J.L. Austin) of language in instances of communication.  In most cases, artificial intelligence (henceforth referred to as “AI”) seems to come first.  Consciousness remains an uncertain and mysterious concept, and theorists from across the board – neuroscientists, philosophers, biologists, mathematicians, psychologists, the list goes on – have proffered numerous explanations for its existence.  Despite my relative ignorance in the field of neuroscience and biology, my limited understanding of consciousness proceeds from the following basic assumption: consciousness is what I refer to as an emergent phenomenon.  It is the result of incalculably complex systems of matter and biology: of what Peter Watts calls “chemicals and electricity” (Watts 41).  Consciousness thus does not require a central, core “self” around which to congeal or collect.  The self only appears in retrospect, after consciousness has already emerged out of neural and synaptic networks.
            This, at least, is the argument that must be adopted if we wish to look constructively and intellectually at Kubrick’s 2001 and Dick’s Electric Sheep.  The HAL 9000 onboard computer – perhaps the most iconic character from Kubrick’s film, and referred to as “Hal” – is not constructed on the basis of a core self or identity.  Its identity only takes hold after its complexity allows it to achieve consciousness.  The same must be said of Dick’s Nexus-6 model androids as well.  The ability to conceive of oneself as a self requires the ability to reflect upon oneself; and this reflection is an identifying mark of consciousness.  Among other things, such reflection also permits conscious organisms to contemplate ethical or empathic issues, and it is here that Dick’s novel stakes its primary concern, as evidenced by the importance of the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test:
Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnida.  For one thing, the empathic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct; a solitary organism, such as a spider, would have no use for it; in fact it would tend to abort a spider’s ability to survive.  It would make him conscious of the desire to live on the part of his prey. (Dick 455)

The Voigt-Kampff Empathy test is introduced in the novel as a means by which to verify whether an organism is human or android.  Since the androids all look remarkably human, the only way to tell if they are not is to put to them a series of questions that are traditionally considered to elicit some empathic response.
            The question that inevitably rides on this description betrays a certain paranoia: if androids are advanced enough, can they not mimic conscious/empathic reactions?  We might be compelled to answer “yes” to this question, but we would have serious implications to consider.  Would an organism not require consciousness in order to mimic consciousness, or empathy?  Essentially, can consciousness and mimicking consciousness be differentiated?  Are they any different?  Organisms can certainly mimic intelligence, as argued by theorists such as John Searle in his Chinese room thought experiment; but how would an organism mimic consciousness?  Dick continues to blur the boundaries between human and non-human by introducing human characters that appear to exhibit no empathic faculties, particularly the bounty hunter Phil Resch:
“If it’s love toward a woman or an android imitation, it’s sex.  Wake up and face yourself, Deckard.  You wanted to go to bed with a female type of android – nothing more, nothing less.  I felt that way, on one occasion.  When I had just started bounty hunting.  Don’t let it get you down; you’ll heal.  What’s happened is that you’ve got your order reversed.  Don’t kill her – or be present when she’s killed – and then feel physically attracted.  Do it the other way.”
Rick stared at him.  “Go to bed with her first-”
“-and then kill her,” Phil Resch said succinctly.  His grainy, hardened smile remained. (Dick 537)

The novel’s protagonist, Rick Deckard, questions where the “inhumanity” lies between himself and Resch.  At one point he thinks the following: “There’s nothing unnatural or unhuman about Phil Resch’s reactions; it’s me” (536).  For Deckard, the inhumanity does not lie in Resch’s treating of an android inhumanely, but in his own human love/empathy for an inhuman organism.  Dick challenges his readers to reorient themselves in regard to what constitutes a conscious entity; furthermore, to what constitutes a human.
            Kubrick puts a similar challenge to his viewers.  In 2001, Hal is arguably the most human character, and the computer’s actions reveal a far more reflective and conscious entity than the single, circular red light indicates.  Perhaps most revealing is Hal’s paranoia upon learning that the ship’s two operative astronauts (there are others, but they remain in a programmed, monitored state of prolonged sleep – all their life functions reduced to little more than saved hard drive on a computer that has been hibernated), Dave and Frank, plan on disconnecting him (“him” also being how Dave and Frank refer to Hal).  This scene occurs immediately after Hal’s report concerning a faulty communications device is discovered to be incorrect.  Dave and Frank test the device, and they can find nothing wrong with it; Hal then suggests that they replace the device and let it fail in order to ascertain the source of the fault.  Hal proclaims that he cannot possibly be wrong in his assessment, and that it can only be attributable to “human error.”  Dave and Frank express agreement, but then quickly conceal themselves (or so they think) within one of their ship’s pods in order to discuss decommissioning the computer.  The close of this scene (and of the first half of the film) shows a shot apparently from Hal’s perspective, completely silent, but in full view of Dave’s and Frank’s lips moving behind the glass window of the pod.
The nuances of just this sequence of events are highly suggestive.  Dave and Frank excuse themselves by acting as though one of Dave’s instruments has a mechanical issue that he wants Frank to look at; this is, of course, merely a front for evading Hal’s surveillance.  Dave asks Hal to rotate the pod; after Hal does so, Dave turns off the microphone in the pod and again asks Hal to rotate it.  Hal fails to do so, thus confirming Dave’s and Frank’s mutual understanding that the computer can no longer hear them, and they can talk in private.  In retrospect, however, Hal is revealed to have been knowledgeable the entire time, meaning that when he was asked to rotate the pod a second time, he was acting as though he could not hear.  The origins of this suspicion must be traced back at least as far as Dave’s and Frank’s excusal from Hal’s presence: Hal suspected that Dave and Frank were not going to discuss a mechanical snag in a minor shipboard instrument, but were going to talk about him/it/Hal.
The revelation of Hal’s suspicion in turn reveals that he is able to conceive of himself as a self; the presumably faux-emotion in his voice, and his description of himself as a third member of the crew, are not merely theatrical tactics to make it “easier” for Dave and Frank to talk with Hal.  Hal is genuinely able to conceive of himself as a subject, as something (or someone) that Dave and Frank might talk about, and experiences an emotional reaction to this conscious realization.  Dave’s eventual decommissioning of Hal also suggests that Hal not only conceives of himself as a subject about which Dave and Frank might ponder or speak, but that Hal also conceives of his own interior self; he begs Dave to “stop” while disconnecting him, and in what is perhaps the most heartbreaking scene of the film, he tells Dave: “I’m afraid.”  Although his voice does not carry the strong emotional tone that one might expect in a human voice, the plea sounds equally – if not more – genuine.  He tells Dave that his “mind is going,” and he dies (an appropriate term in this context) singing a song that his creator taught him.  Skeptics might question whether Hal’s fear was genuine, or whether he was trying to manipulate Dave’s emotions in order to make him stop.  I, however, am not certain that there is any difference.  Hal’s ability to understand Dave’s emotions, and to reflect on the impact his own words would have, suggest not only mimicry of consciousness, but an emergence of consciousness.  What we would call “artificial” in Hal becomes, in its manifestation, as real as any human consciousness or empathy.  This characterization raises yet another important question: why must Hal’s consciousness (as well as the consciousness of the Nexus-6 androids in Dick’s novel) come to assume the character of “the human”?
Hal’s representation in 2001: A Space Odyssey not only calls into question what “the human” really is, but also betrays a formal inability to represent inhuman consciousness as anything other than human.  Consciousness, so to speak, is always only human consciousness.  There are, of course, logical reasons for this: how would an audience know it was looking at something conscious if that object was represented as a conscious form unfamiliar, or inaccessible, to humans?  Furthermore, the audience would not be able to engage in the intellectual debate that Kubrick invites his viewers into.  Questions of what constitutes “the human,” how we identify “the human,” and how we ethically treat something that possesses ambiguous “human” qualities supersede questions of how alternative consciousness (i.e. inhuman consciousness) might be formally represented.  For Kubrick (and for most science fiction involving artificial intelligence), consciousness must assume a recognizably human form in order to be intellectually assessed.
Despite its cinematic grandeur and historic importance, 2001: A Space Odyssey betrays traces of traditional anthropocentrism and teleology even while pushing against the boundaries of human thought.  Consciousness emerges in the film as a human apparatus, as something that artificial constructs strive toward, and as something that possesses the quasi-spiritual privilege of transcending itself (with the help the obviously superior race that lurks beyond the black monolith).  Kubrick does not shy away from human atrocities such as war – symbolized in the image of the bone-weapon – but ultimately human consciousness, even with all its downfalls, remains “chosen,” so to speak, by the unseen engineers (this narrative appears more blatantly in Ridley Scott’s recent film Prometheus, wherein the aliens are actually dubbed “engineers” by the human characters, although the implications are more dour than in Kubrick’s film).  The alien monolith appears in the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence immediately prior to the advent of “tool-being” (a term used by Graham Harman in reference to Martin Heidegger); again on the Moon, immediately prior to humanity’s Jupiter Mission; and again for Dave Bowman before his transcendence as the “star child” (a term popularized not by the film, but by Arthur C. Clarke in his related books).  The representation of Hal as a human consciousness reinforces the narrative’s concern with consciousness as human, and with history as human history/teleology.
The formal inability to portray alternative representations of consciousness persists in Dick’s novel as well; despite anything we might try, artistic modes such as literature and cinema remain confined by the very limits of our consciousness and sensory faculties.  That which we make reflects the consciousness we exhibit.  However, Dick is able (due to the nature of the novel form) to explore the ideological implications of consciousness more than Kubrick is able to.  In a poignant scene, Deckard has a conversation with Wilbur Mercer, the founder of the futuristic earthly religion, Mercerism, whose followers experience Mercer’s suffering via Empathy Boxes.  Mercer tells Deckard the following: “‘You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go.  It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity.  At some point, every creature which lives must do so.  It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life.  Everywhere in the universe’” (561).  Implicit in the foundation, or core, or self of every organism exists a dehiscence.  The violation of identity reveals the annihilation of it: life’s “basic condition” is a fluidity that prohibits any consistent or stable identity.
The successes of 2001 and Electric Sheep lie in their profound ability to destabilize the human, and because of their simultaneous appearance, 1968 marks a historic shift in the science fiction tradition.  Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, a 1953 novel that describes an invasion of Earth by infinitely intellectually superior organisms, unveils its teleology as its narrative progresses; humanity, although not the most intelligent or powerful species in the universe, plays a monumental role in what appears to be the inevitable formation of what Karellen, one of the alien invaders (called “Overlords”), calls the “Overmind.”  The novel can be read in multiple ways: as a critique of religion, a political approval of communism in light of Cold War hostilities, an exploration of utopianism, etc.  None of these fully explain the novel’s concerns, and ultimately the most obvious interpretation is the best: the novel explores the possibility of a shift in consciousness and how humanity might play a role in the teleological movement of the universe.  Much of pre-1960 science fiction remains steeped in teleological tendencies; the affirmation of the human, or of an ultimate plan for the universe, or of the strengths and shortcomings of human consciousness as necessary and purposeful.  In their respective texts, Kubrick and Dick introduce something radical and groundbreaking into Western culture; not by relegating human consciousness to a lower tier of the universe’s hierarchy (as Clarke does in Childhood’s End, which still maintains humanity’s teleological importance), but by uncovering the uncertainty of what the human is.  The center no longer holds: the texts of Kubrick and Dick, and many subsequent works of the science fiction tradition, illuminate the human not as an affirmative and natural identity, but as an epistemological construct.  The self, and the human, are illusions.
This argument is not intended to convince the actuality of selflessness, or the impossibility of identity, or the unimportance of the human.  Even if “the self” is an effect of consciousness, and not a central core around which consciousness forms, it remains of importance for those who project it into themselves.  The argument I am making is that these works provide us with radically alternative perspectives from which to consider our own existence so that we might better understand organisms and entities which might appear to us as inferior or unintelligent, or even unconscious.  The purpose of blurring the boundaries between the human and the machine, or artificial and actual consciousness, is not to emphasize that humans do not possess consciousness, but to emphasize that our perspective is limited; and furthermore, that this limit might prevent us from effectively treating or dealing with that which is “other.”
Two years prior to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? French theorist Michel Foucault published his now seminal work on Western epistemological structures in the human sciences, The Order of Things.  In the introduction, Foucault writes the following:
Strangely enough, man [i.e. human] – the study of whom is supposed by the naïve to be the oldest investigation since Socrates – is probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things, or, in any case, a configuration whose outlines are determined by the new position he has so recently taken up in the field of knowledge.  Whence all the chimeras of the new humanisms, all the facile solutions of an ‘anthropology’ understood as a universal reflection on man, half-empirical, half-philosophical.  It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form. (Foucault xxiii)

This remarkable statement contains several radical and unsettling claims: that the human is an “invention,” that it is less than two centuries old, and that it will “disappear.”  Finally, Foucault’s admission of feeling “relief” at this might also be taken by some readers as a kind of vulgar misanthropy.  However, there are more nuances than many readers are willing to admit, and these are further revealed once one absorbs Foucault’s entire text.  Specifically, Foucault laments the human not as a biological organism capable of experiencing pleasure or pain, but as an epistemological construct; that is, as a construct of knowledge, an “invention.”  This invention, Foucault argues, shapes the way in which humanity conceives of itself and its place in the universe.  It influences the way humans categorize other organisms, the way they hierarchize and historicize, the way they impose boundaries and make evaluative judgments.  In short, Foucault wishes to denaturalize the assumptions that human beings have taken to be absolute.  The disappearance of humanity, which in science fiction is often represented literally, is understood by Foucault as an epistemological shift.  This disappearance would present human organisms with a new system of knowledge by which they might observe and exist within the universe.
            Science fiction, like surrealism and gothic literature before it, challenges its readers to brave the “ultimate shadow” of existence; to dare to see the world in new ways at the cost of its own perceptive destruction.  Humanity must see the values and beliefs that it takes for granted as propagated by the structure of its own consciousness; ideology, it seems, takes root at even the most basic biological practices.  Only by recognizing the contingency of our own capacities as conscious organisms can we ever hope to radically position ourselves – ethically, politically, and existentially – next to the alien, the android, the “other.”

Works Cited

Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s End. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Four Novels of the 1960s. Ed. Jonathan

Lethem. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2007. Print.

Kubrick, Stanley. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. Film.

Watts, Peter. Starfish. New York: Tor, 1999. Print.