“Orphan Black” Mingling Its Own Nature With It…

orphanblack-EWCanadian science fiction thriller Orphan Black, written by Graeme Manson and directed by John Fawcett—now in Season Two—stars the extraordinary multi-talented Tatiana Maslany in multiple roles of herself—really.

Shot in and around Toronto, Ontario, the series focuses on Sarah Manning, a fringe-dweller with questionable friends, who assumes the identity of her clone, cop Elizabeth (Beth) Childs, after witnessing her suicide. In Season 1 alone, seven clones are revealed. Those still alive include suburban housewife Alison, university evolutionary biologist Cosima, corporate mogul Rachel, and crazed sociopath Helena. So far, two more have been revealed in Season 2.

Orphan Black is a slick, sophisticated and edgy exploration of human evolution that raises issues about the moral and ethical implications of bio-engineering and genetic tampering—specifically human cloning, personal identity and intellectual property.

Toronto is filmed brilliantly in a vague every-city pastiche that combines the look of London’s eastside, NYC and northern Europe all in one. Like its characters, the show is both sparsely existentialist and baroque funk. Besides Sarah’s own diverse clones there is foster brother Felix and his various friends or cronies who add significant colour to this film-noir set. Unsavory antagonists not only add intrigue but provide significant texture from sophisticated and subtle to the banal and truly terrifying. And like biology itself—perhaps the true main character here—all the characters are shape-shifters; looking for balance in a shifting world where “normal” keeps chasing itself.

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Helena (Tatiani Maslany)

The metaphoric and allegorical nature of science fiction positions itself as a major commentary art form on our nature and evolution. With its emphasis on identity, rights and intellectual property, Orphan Black has positioned itself at the forefront of evolving science fiction.

“While other stories, including Jurassic Park and H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, could certainly be categorized as biopunk science fiction, very few television shows and movies today delve into the idea of biology,” says Isabella Kapur in her article “Clones are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black.”

Mingling Its Own Nature With It…

Orphan Black

Human cloning recently made a media comeback when three different research groups created embryonic stem cells out of embryos cloned from adult cells.

designer genesIssues, brought on by GMO foods and medical genetic research, have propelled a major debate in gene patenting. The United States Supreme Court recently ruled against patenting sequences of the human genome in Association for Molecular Pathology Et Al. vs. Myriad Genetics, Inc., Et Al., reports Isabella Kapur in her article: Clones are People Too: The Science and Science Fiction of BBC America’s Orphan Black. “Myriad Genetics had patented two genes they had isolated that were identified as genes involved in increased ovarian and breast cancer risks,” said Kapur. “Companies, like Myriad, that spend money to identify nucleotide sequences want to be able to patent those discoveries. However, the patenting allows for monopolies on illness treatments and allows companies to have exclusive access to portions of human DNA. As of June [2013], companies like Myriad Genetics can’t legally copyright portions of DNA they have isolated in the human genome, but they are, according to the Supreme Court, allowed to patent synthetically created sequences of complementary DNA.”

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Transhumanist Aldous Leekie promotes “self-directed evolution”

In Orphan Black, the ownership of the clones’ genomes by The Dyad Institute would be lawful if all the clones’ DNA was entirely synthetically made. The company would also have exclusive rights to study the clones’ genome, effectively placing the clone Cosima under copyright infringement if she decided to study and apply her research (on herself) outside of the Dyad Institute. If the clones were synthetic, like the DNA created by scientist Dr. Craig Venter, then the Dyad Institute would be in a unique situation with regards to ethics and newly emerging considerations of human rights yet to be determined. For instance, how much of the clones really belong to company that made them? What even constitutes a person?

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Felix (Jordan Gavaris) at a Neolution club

The series unravels a frightening panoply of stakeholders in this biological transhumanist game, spanning from the ultra-sophisticated to the deranged fanatic. Proletheans are religious extremists, who seek to systematically eliminate clones as “abominations” against the natural order of things. Pastor Henrick, a Waco-style cult “prophet” who quotes Einstein, conducts Mengele-style “breeding” experiments to recast humanity in his version of “perfection”.

eugenics-propaganda GermanyThe Dyad Institute, a biotech corporation with arcane connections to invisible powers and eugenics, patented the clones as theirs to do with as they please—which might be anything. The Neolutionists, a transhumanist movement pursuing “self-directed evolution” evokes social Darwinism and the Übermensch. All bring to mind the early American eugenics programs that inspired the fascist sonderweg and Hitler’s aggressive application of eugenics in the Holocaust. All are frightening.

For instance, why were the clones made? Who exactly is the Dyad Institute and who is behind them? In the latest episode (2.8: Variable and Full of Perturbation), we discover that not only are the clones female prototypes (of what?) but that they were purposefully created to be sterile.

Conditions of Existence…From Perfect Human to Perfect Society

Cosima
Cosima (Tatiana Maslany)

Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818—often regarded as the first science fiction story written—the “mad scientist” has endured and evolved as an archetype in literature. Literary works from science fiction to thriller, mystery, action adventure and even literary fiction have often portrayed scientists as sociopathic, and so consumed with their experiments that they are either oblivious to or outright disregard their social consequence. Most stereotypes and cliché derive from a realizable archetype based on social experience. In reality, ambition and political motive are dangerous bedfellows in the pursuit of science (to use another cliché). A recent book jacket introduction to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, shares the following examples: “the brains behind the nuclear arms race, scientists who create super bacteria, and laboratories that experiment with artificial black holes. But most notably is the area of science devoted to gene manipulation, both in genetically modified foods and human cloning. Frankenstein has much to teach us in a world where we constantly test the limits of science and human ambition.”

Eugenics congress logoWhere do we draw the line in our tightrope walk across the sea of chaos to find the Holy Grail? When does a Transhumanist’s individual expression of “transcendence” become a movement toward the Singularity? When does a singular powerful thought encompass an entire society?

The political ambitions that wish to use science to “enhance” humanity, based on someone’s idea of “perfect” carry great social implications. Enter the pseudoscience of eugenics, a concept as old as Plato, and one that has haunted humanity since the biblical portrayal of Adam and Eve. Simply put, eugenics uses science and/or breeding techniques to produce individuals with preferred or “better” characteristics. Coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, eugenic strategies flourished in the USA in the early 20th Century when thousands of people underwent forced sterilization. Ultimately, these same principles inspired the Nazis to exterminate people with disabilities and those considered to have “lessor” ethnic or philosophical backgrounds.

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Tatiana Maslany as several clones

“Perhaps more than any other science, biology has consistently been employed as an accomplice to moral claims because it has tremendous social utility in translating scientific findings into political imperatives,” says Cosima Herter, science consultant for Orphan Black. “Deeply embedded in the public consciousness is the hope that social problems can be solved with ‘scientific panaceas’,” Herter adds. “…Science can as easily act as an ally to existing institutions and justify pernicious prejudices – racism, sexism, homophobia, and class disparity to name a few – as it can produce wondrous, beautiful, and beneficial fruits in the service of a better world.”

What is perfect and how do we measure it? What is the risk of even suggesting a recipe for such a thing? A perfect society? Isn’t a Utopia an oxymoron of unresolvable paradox? Science fiction literature has given us many visions of where so-called utopias may descend (e.g., Brave New World1984Fahrenheit 451A Stranger in a Strange LandThe Handmaid’s TaleThe MatrixThe Hunger GamesElysiumDivergentClockwork OrangeDeliriumAlways Coming Home, and so many more). The very act of being an individual provides complexity and diversity that promotes stability in change. Stable chaos.

Perhaps, what Orphan Black demonstrates the best is that even clones—who are exactly the same genetically—can differ significantly, given free reign in a diverse environment.

What Orphan Black does exceptionally well is ask those hard questions. OK. It’s not asking the questions so much as presenting the “then” scenario to some pretty important “what if” premises. It’s doing what all good art—versus polemic—does: it’s providing the seeds for viewers to engage in intelligent conversation on emerging social issues via Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other social media.

Join in.

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You Want to Go to “The Island”

island-the-movie-2005From its metaphoric title to its powerful end, Director Michael Bay’s The Island had me fully engaged. Told in the genuine style of great science fiction commentary by screenwriters Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (in 2005), The Island reflects the escape-from dystopia films of the 1960s and 70s such as Fahrenheit 451, THX 1138, and Logan’s Run. This elegant story examines a full range of human foibles—consumerist greed, racism, fascism and isolationism—through a premise that is as frightening as it is possible.

In the year 2019, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) live in an isolated community where behavior is governed by a set of strict rules. This includes the avoidance of too close contact. Everything is the same; residents all wear the same white uniform and carry out simple duties. They’ve been told that the outside world is too contaminated for human life with the exception of one island. Everyone lives for the weekly lottery, where the winner gets to leave the compound to live on the island.

It’s a simple and banal existence. We glimpse a scene of adults reading Dick and Jane out loud. When in the opening scene Lincoln Six Echo finds a shoe missing in his provided wardrobe, this becomes a major focus of his day (when greeted by a colleague with, “How are you doing?” he responds with, “I’m missing a shoe.”)theisland-clones

Lincoln can’t accept this mundane existence. In an interview with Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), the scientist who runs the compound, Lincoln naively unleashes a tirade of items that frustrate him, like why everyone wears white, who determined tofu Tuesday, and then ends with: “I want to know answers and I wish there was more than just waiting to go to the island.” He also suffers from dreams about a life he doesn’t understand—they are, in fact, memories of his ‘sponsor’, the original man (Tom Lincoln) that he is a copy of. When he discovers a moth and follows it, he stumbles into the hidden part of the compound. There he witnesses what really happens to “lottery winners”: they are killed and used for organ harvesting, surrogate motherhood, etc. for each one’s sponsor.

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Merrick (Sean Bean)

Lincoln is just an insurance policy. An ‘agnate’ according to Dr. Merrick, who describes them as in a “persistent vegetative state that never achieves consciousness” to clients, willing to pay millions of dollars for a second chance at life—and blithely unaware that ‘agnates’ are alive and fully formed with thoughts and feelings like them.

When Lincoln learns the truth, and knowing that Jordan just “won” the lottery, he convinces her to escape with him. Merrick hires Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou), a mercenary and former GIGN veteran, to find and dispatch them.

The Island received mixed reviews from critics, island-helicopterwith a 40% “Rotten” rating, based on 185 reviews. Variety’s Justin Chang called the film an “exercise in sensory overkill.” Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek lamented that when the film got really interesting, Bay seemed to think he needed “to throw in a car crash or round of gunfire to keep our attention.” If these critics found fault with this elegant action-thriller, I hate to see what they make of 90% of the so-called SF movies out there today. Unlike them, The Island provides a refreshing meaningful face to action-adventure.

Roger Ebert suggested that The Island missed the opportunity “to do what the best science fiction does, and use the future as a way to critique the present.” Again, I disagree. The Island does what the best science fiction does well: it examines the nature of our humanity through the choices we make in adversity within a future world and premise that provides great opportunity for abuse.

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Albert Laurent (Djimon Hounsou)

The theme of this parable is carried evocatively by Steve Jablonsky’s score. Like a swelling tide it sweeps us on a journey to some distant shore. From the melodic strings and yearning chorus, the music builds to a powerful conclusion at the film’s end, when it lifts us to victory, resonating with our divine evolution.

the island-Djimon_Hounsou-smileI was particularly struck by the timing of the strings and chorus with the appearance of Albert Laurent, walking among those he had just liberated. It is a pivotal and powerful moment that escalates into a resonating vibration of liberty and victory as his eyes meet briefly with Lincoln and Jordan, reunited, and he smiles—for the first time. A beautiful smile of inner joy. It is the smile of a man who has “come home” and is finally free.

Laurent’s subplot is particularly compelling and carries one of the principle elements of the film. In some ways, Laurent represents you and me, caught up in our societal ‘duties’, seduced by self-serving entrapments only to awaken to a path of courageous compassion for all of humanity. Laurent’s journey from jaded mercenary to liberating hero begins when he notices Jordan’s skin branding and, recognizing a connection with her plight, helps her free the mass of ‘defective’ lottery winners about to be incinerated. We learn that his father had been killed as a rebel and Laurent was ‘branded’ as less than human. So, there he walks, brilliantly black among the white-clad ‘agnates’ who slide down the hill after emerging from the underground bunker in which they were incarcerated.

the-island-escapeThis motion picture is ultimately about finding dignity in the face of adversity and ridicule. It is about confronting the bully and gaining victory over one’s own barriers of fear and doubt toward compassion. It is about the power of love and connection with humanity. It is about retribution and finding one’s true path through the knowledge that we are all one.

 

I am you; you are me. You are the waves; I am the ocean. Know this and be free, be divine.” Sri Sathya Sai Baba

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.

 

 

The Unexpected Protocol of “I, Robot”

irobot-coverI reread Dr. Isaac Asimov’s 50+ year old masterpiece, I, Robot, in preparation for the 2004 Twentieth Century Fox motion picture of the same name, knowing fully well that to appeal to today’s action-thriller rollercoaster-addicted audience there was no way the movie and the book could even come close. I was right. But not the way, I thought I would be.

The movie, directed by Alex Proyas, begins with the three laws of robotics: that robots must not harm a human being; they must obey human orders, so long as this does not violate the first law; and they must protect their own existence, so long as that doesn’t violate laws one and two. Apart from these three laws and the use of the same title and some of the character names, the motion picture appears to radically depart from Asimov’s book, first published by Doubleday in 1950. To give Twentieth Century Fox credit, the film does not pretend to be the same as the book; I noticed that in the credits the movie was “suggested by,” rather than “based on” Asimov’s work. But how different was it, really? I submit that the two are much more similar than they first appear.

Surficial differences between book and motion picture are nevertheless glaring. First off, Asimov’s, I, Robot, is essentially a string of short stories that evolve along a theme; much in the vein of the Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. The book is told largely from the point of view of Dr. Susan Calvin, a plain and stern robo-psychologist, who gets along better with robots than with humans. Dr. Asimov uses this cold and colorless character as a vehicle to stir undercurrents of poignant thought on the human condition through a series of deceptively mundane tales. I, Robot offers a treatise both of humanity’s ingenuity and its foibles and how these two are inexorably intertwined in paradoxes that speak to the ultimate truth of what it is to be human. Each of his nine stories discloses a metaphoric piece of his clever puzzle. The puzzle pieces successively tease us through the three laws of robotics, as ever more sophisticated robots toil with their conflicts when dealing with perceived logical contradictions of the laws. For instance, there is “Robbie,” the endearing nursemaid robot. Cutie (QT-1) is a robot Descartes in “Reason.” In “Liar,” Herbie has problems coping with the three laws as a mind-reading robot. And in “Little Lost Robot,” Susan Calvin must out-smart Nestors — or the NS-2 — model robots, whose positronic brains were not impressioned with the entire First Law of Robotics. The larger question and ultimate paradox posed by the three laws culminate in Asimov’s final story, “The Evitable Conflict,” which subtly explores the role of “free will” and “faith” in our definition of what it means to be human.

The book jacket aptly describes I, Robot this way: “…humans and robots struggle to survive together — and sometimes against each other … and both are asking the same questions: what is human? And is humanity obsolete?” Interestingly, the latter part of the book jacket quote, which accompanied the 1991 Bantam mass-market edition, can be interpreted in several ways.

Asimov’s stories span fifty years of robot evolution, which play out mostly in space from Mercury to beyond our own galaxy. Proyas’s movie is set in Chicago in 2035 and condenses the time frame into a short few weeks with some flashbacks from several years prior. This serves the film well but at some cost. What is gained in tension and focus is lost in scope and erudition, two qualities often best left to the literary field. Asimov’s tales are quirky, contemplative, and thoughtful. The film version is more direct, trading these for a faster pace, pretty much a prerequisite in the film industry toda

The original screenplay, entitled “Hardwired” by Jeff Vinter, was reworked by Akiva Goldsman into a techno-thriller/murder mystery directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City) with its requisite hard-boiled detective cop (Will Smith) and a ‘suicide’ that looks suspiciously like murder. Smith’s character (a Hollywood invention, so don’t go looking for him in the book) is a 20th century anachronism: a Luddite who wears retro clothes and sets his computer car on manual. The story centers on Spooner’s investigation of a so-called suicide by Dr. Alfred Lanning, robot pioneer and the originator of the three laws of robotics. Lanning was an employee of U.S. Robotics, a mega-corporation run by Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood). Robertson relies on the real brains, V.I.K.I, the corporation’s super-intelligent virtual computer.

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Where abandoned robots congregate

With a “simple-minded” plot (according to Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times) and a lead character who is little more than a “wisecracking … guns-a-blazin’… action-hero cliché” (Rob Blackwelder, Splicedwire), the motion picture rendition of Asimov’s ground-breaking book promises little but disappointment for the literate science fiction fan according to many critics. I disagree. I was not disappointed. This is both despite and because of director Alex Proyas’s interpretation of Asimov’s book and his three laws. Several critics focused on the surficial plot at the expense of the subtle multi-layered thematic sub-plots contrived by a director not known for creating superficial action-figure fluff. I think this critical myopia was generated from critics admittedly not having read Asimov’s masterpiece. Familiarity with Asimov’s I, Robot is a prerequisite to recognizing the subtle intelligence Proyas wove into his otherwise playful and glitzy Hollywood techno-thriller.

While literate science fiction fans will certainly recognize the names of Lanning, Calvin and Robertson, these movie characters in no way resemble their book counterparts. Dr. Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) is a robo-psychologist, but in the movie she is far from plain and her wooden performance fails to disguise that she is clearly ruled by her feelings, unlike the coldly logical book character. The lead character in the film, Del Spooner (Will Smith) is, of course, a Hollywood fabrication, along with an entourage of requisite techno-thriller components: spectacular chase and battle scenes, explosions, lots of shooting, and some romantic tension. The film is also fraught with Hollywood clichés: for instance, repressed psychologist (Moynahan), who typically speaks in three-syllabic words, encounters cynical anti-hero beefy cop (Smith) whose rude attentions help transform her into a gun-slinging kick-ass warrior.

And: ‘evil’ machine turns against its masters to rule the world. But Proyas also treats us to some of the most convincing portrayals of a futuristic metropolis, complete with seamlessly incorporated CGI-generated robots and an evocative score by Peter Anthony. Dr. Asimov fans will, of course, also recognize certain aspects of the book in the movie, such as a scene and concepts borrowed from “Little Lost Robot.”

Despite the clichés and comic-action razzle-dazzle, Proyas manages to preserve the soul and spirit of Dr. Asimov’s great creation. He does this by allowing us to glimpse some of Asimov’s elevated theme, if not his more complex questions. Indeed the most poignant scenes in the movie are those, which involve the ‘humanity’ of the robot called Sonny (Alan Tudyk). A unique NS-5 model with a secondary processing system that clashes with his positronic brain, Sonny is capable of rejecting any of the three laws and hence provides us ironically with the most complex (and interesting) character in the movie. Sonny is both humble and feisty, a robot who dreams and questions. For me, this was not unlike the several stirring scenes in Asimov’s “Liar,” where the mind-reading robot, Herbie, when dealing with the complex nature of humans, unintentionally caused its own destruction (with the help of a bitter Dr. Calvin) by trying to please everyone by telling them what he thought they wanted to hear. Sonny’s complex character (like any character with depth) keeps you guessing. Sonny asks the right questions and at the end of the film we are left wondering about his destiny and what he will make of it. This parallels Asimov’s equally ambiguous ending in “The Evitable Conflict.”

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Sonny hides among his own

Which brings me back to the foundation shared by both book and movie: the three laws of robotics, the infinite ways that they can be interpreted, and how they may be equally applied to robot or human. The laws may apply physically or emotionally; individually or toward the whole of humanity; long-term or short-term … the list is potentially endless. Asimov’s collection of stories centers on these questions by showing how robots deal with the conflicts the perceived contradictions present by the laws. Asimov’s last story describes a world run by a network of powerful but benevolent machines, who guide humankind through strict adherence to the three laws (their interpretation, of course!). Taking his cue from this, Proyas cleverly takes an old cliché—that of ‘evil’ machine with designs to rule the world—and turns it upside down according to the first law of robotics. His ‘evil’ machine turns out not to be evil, but misguided. V.I.K.Y acts not out of its own interests, like the self-preserving HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in the best interests of humankind (at least according to the machine). Citing humanity’s self-destructive proclivity to pollute and make war, V.I.K.Y decides to treat us as children and pull the plug on free-will. Viewed from the perspective of the first law, this is simply a logical, though erroneous, extrapolation of ‘good will’; and far more interesting than the workings of simple ‘evil,’ which I feel is much overdone and overrated in films these days. The well-meaning dictator possessed of the hubristic notion that he holds all the keys to the happiness and well-being of others smacks of a reality and a humanity all too prevalent in well-meaning governments today. It is when the line between ‘good-intentions’ and ‘wrong-doing’ blur that things get really interesting. Both Asimov and Proyas explore this chiaroscuro in I, Robot, though in different ways. The challenge is still the same: If given the choice of ending war and all conflict at the expense of ‘free will,’ would we permit benevolent machines to run our world? Or is it our destiny—and requirement for the transcendence of our souls—to continue to make those mistakes at the expense of a life free of self-destruction and violence?

On the surface, Proyas offers the obvious answer. He likens the benevolent machine to an overprotective parent, who in the interests of a child’s safety, prevents the enrichment of that child’s heart, soul, and spirit otherwise provided by that very conflict. Asimov is far more subtle in “The Evitable Conflict” and while these questions are discussed at length, they remain largely unanswered.

In one of his most clever stories, “Evidence,” near the end of his book, Dr. Asimov expounds on the three laws to describe the ultimate dilemma: of defining and differentiating a human-looking robot with common sense from a genuine human on the basis of psychology. Asimov’s Dr. Calvin says: “The three Rules of Robotics are the essential guiding principles of a good many of the world’s ethical systems.  Every human being is supposed to have the instinct of self-preservation. That’s Rule Three to a robot. Also every ‘good’ human being, with a social conscience and a sense of responsibility, is supposed to defer to proper authority. That’s Rule Two to a robot. Also, every ‘good’ human being is supposed to love others as himself, protect his fellow man, risk his life to save another. That’s Rule One to a robot. To put it simply, if [an individual] follows all the Rules of Robotics, he may be a robot, and may simply be a very good man.” Proyas metaphorically (if not literally) explores the question of “what is human” with his robotic character, Sonny.

In a stirring scene of the motion picture where Sonny is prepared for permanent shut down, Dr. Lanning expounds on his belief that robots could evolve naturally: “There have always been ghosts in the machine… random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul… Why is it that when some robots are left in the dark they will seek the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space they will group together rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter moat of the soul?” Near the end of the film, Sonny, having fulfilled his initial purpose (i.e., stopping V.I.K.Y.), asks Spooner, “What about the others [NS-5s, recalled for servicing and storage]? Can I help them? Now that I have fulfilled my purpose I don’t know what to do.” To this, an enlightened Spooner answers: “I guess you’ll have to find your way like the rest of us, Sonny… That’s what it means to be free.”

Proyas gives us a strong indication of what his film was really about by ending not with Spooner—his lead action-figure character who has just saved humanity from the misguided robot army—but with Sonny, the enigmatic robot just embarking on his uncertain journey. The motion picture closes with a final scene of Sonny, resembling a messianic figure on the precipice of a bluff, overlooking row upon row of his lesser robotic counterparts.

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Sonny finds a following…

We are left with an ambiguous ending of hope and mystery. What will Sonny do with his abilities, his dreams, and his potential “following”? Will his actions be for the betterment of humankind and/or robots? Will society trust him and let him seek and find his destiny or, like Asimov’s fearful “Society for Humanity,” will we squash them all before they get so complex and powerful that not only do we fail to understand them but we have no hope of controlling them? This parallels Asimov’s equally ambiguous ending in his book. In it, Stephen Byers (a humanoid AI), and robo-psychologist, Susan Calvin, discuss the fate of robots and humanity. Ironically, it is through her interaction with robots that Susan discovers a human trait that may be more valuable to humanity than exercising “free will”: that of faith. It is she who confronts the coordinator with these words: “…How do we know what the ultimate good of Humanity will entail? We haven’t at our disposal the infinite factors that the Machine has at its.” Then to his challenge that human kind has lost its own say in its future, she further responds with: “It never had any, really. It was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand … at the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war…Now the Machines understand them…for all time, all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable.” This quote in Asimov’s final story may horrify or anger some, even as it may inspire and reassure others. But, if true “free will” is largely a self-perpetuated myth of the Western pioneer movement, then we are effectively left with respect and faith in oneself and in others. Perhaps, ultimately, that is what both Asimov and Proyas had in mind.

It is interesting to note that Harlan Ellison and Asimov collaborated on a screenplay of I, Robot in the 1970s, which Asimov said would provide “the first really adult, complex worthwhile science fiction movie ever made.” Am I disappointed that this earlier rendition, most likely truer to the original book, did not come to fruition? No. That is because we already have that story. You can still read the book (and I strongly urge you to, if you have not). Proyas’s film I, Robot is a different story, with a different interpretation. And like the robot’s own varying interpretation of the three laws, it is refreshing to see a different human’s interpretation expressed.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, IROSF, and Europa SF. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published byEditura Paralela 45. Her latest release is La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), a story about water and climate change.

“Solaris”

solaris01Steven Soderbergh’s stylish psychological thriller, released November 2002 in the United States by 20th Century Fox (and recently out on video), eloquently captures the theme of Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 book. Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is an intelligent, introspective drama of great depth and imagination that meditates on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. Soderbergh’s Solaris is a poem to Lem’s prose. Both explore the universe around us and the universe within. Not particularly palatable to North America’s multiplex crowd, eager for easily accessed answers, Solaris will appeal more to those with a more esoteric appreciation for art.

When I recently saw the 2002 20th Century Fox remake of Solaris (released on video this past fall), I was blissfully unaware of its legendary history. I say blissfully because I harbored no pre-conceived notions or expectations and therefore I was struck like a child viewing the Northern Lights for the first time. The stylish, evocative and dream-like imagery flowed to a surrealistic soundtrack by Cliff Martinez like the colors of a Salvador Dali painting. It was only later that I discovered that Russian experimental director, Andrei Tarkovsky, had previously filmed Solaris in 1972 based on Lem’s masterful 1961 book of the same name. Reprinted by Harcourt, Inc. with a new cover featuring a sensual image from the 2002 film, the original book was translated in 1970 from the French version by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox for Faber and Faber Ltd.

Written almost fifty years ago, Solaris is a dark psychological drama. Soderbergh faithfully captures the intellectual yet sensual essence of Lem’s book by tempering the language and movements. Featuring a fluid and haunting soundtrack, his film flows like a choreographed ballet. There is a dream-like quality to it that is enhanced by creative use of camera angles, unusual lighting, tones and contrast, and sparse language. Solarisis not an action film (no one gets shot, at least not on stage), yet the tension surges and builds to its irrevocable conclusion from frame to frame like a slow motion Tai Chi form.

In response to his friend’s plea, a depressed psychologist with the ironic name of Kris Kelvin (played with quiet depth by George Clooney), sets out on a mission to bring home the dysfunctional crew of a research space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. Kelvin arrives at the space station, Prometheus, to find his friend, Gibarian, dead by suicide and a paranoid and disturbed crew obviously withholding a terrible secret from him. It is not long before he learns the secret first-hand: some unknown power (apparently the planet itself) taps into his mind and produces a solid corporeal version of his tortured longing: his beloved wife, Rheya (played sensitively by Natascha McElhone) who years ago had committed suicide herself. Faced with a solid reminder, Kelvin yearns to reconcile with his guilt in his wife’s death and struggles to understand the alien force manifested in the form of his wife. He learns that the other crew are equally influenced by Solaris and have been grappling, each in their own way, with their “demons,” psychologically trapping them there.

Ironically, our hero’s epic journey of great distance has only led him back to himself. The alien force defies Kelvin’s efforts to understand its motives; whether it is benign, hostile, or even sentient. Kelvin has no common frame of reference to judge and therefore to react. This leaves him with what he thinks he does understand: that Rheya is a product of his own mind, his memories of her, and therefore a mirror of his deepest guilt—but perhaps also an opportunity to redeem himself.

Lem packs each page of his slim 204 page book with a wealth of intellectual introspection. Through first person narrative, he intimately unveils the complicated influence of this arcane force on Kelvin. Lem explains it this way: “I wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.” (Author’s Website.) Such an incomprehensible entity would serve as a giant mirror for our own motives, yearnings and versions of reality. For me the contrast presented by such an arcane alien force emphatically—but also ironically—defines what it is to be human. It is only when faced with what we are not that we discover what we are. Later in the book, Kelvin cynically observes: “Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilizations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.” In the film Gibarian sadly proclaims of the Solaris mission: “We don’t want other worlds—we want mirrors.” In the book, Lem has Snow deliver a similar message, but neither Gibarian or Snow realize that these two desires may be one and the same.

Lem’s existentialist leaning is provided throughout the book and even alluded to in the name he chose for the space station: Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind for which Zeus chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver (which grew back daily). It is interesting that Soderbergh chose to send Prometheus to a fiery crash and named Kelvin’s dead wife, Rheya, after the Greek goddess, mother of Zeus and all Olympian gods. In a late passage of Lem’s book, a devastated and sorrowful Kelvin formulates a personal theory of an imperfect god, “a god who has created clocks, but not the time they measure … a god whose passion is not a redemption, who saves nothing, fulfills no purpose—a god who simply is.”

Soderbergh addresses Lem’s existential vision with several brief but pivotal scenes. One occurs when Kelvin’s dead friend, Gibarian, returns to him in a dream on Prometheus and responds to Kelvin’s question, “What does Solaris want?” with: “Why do you think it has to want something?” Another scene occurs as a flashback to a dinner on Earth, when the real Rheya, prior to her suicide, argues with both Gibarian and her own husband about the existence of an all-knowing purposeful God, which both men argue is a myth made up by humankind: to Kelvin’s suggestion that “the whole idea of God was dreamed up by man,” Rheya insists that she’s “talking about a higher form of intelligence,” to which Gibarian cuts in with: “No, you’re talking about a man in a white beard again. You are ascribing human characteristics to something that isn’t.” Kelvin fuels it with: “We’re a mathematical probability,” which prompts Rheya’s challenge: “How do you explain that out of the billions of creatures on this planet we’re the only ones conscious of our immortality?” Neither man has an answer. Gibarian later commits suicide on Solaris rather than deal with the manifestation of his conscience. And I can’t help but wonder if the underlying reason for his inability to reconcile with his “demon” is because he was unequipped to, given his nihilistic beliefs.

Gibarian also tells Kelvin (and we must remember that all this is Kelvin really saying this to himself through his memory of the character): “There are no answers, only choices.” It is interesting then that the first pivotal choice in the story is made by the Doppelganger Rheya (also a manifestation of Solaris but a mirror of Kelvin’s own mind) and it is a choice made out of love: to be annihilated, rather then serve as an instrument of this unknown alien power to study the man she loves.

Some critics have called Soderbergh’s Solaris pretentious, boring and devoid of action and intimacy. I strongly disagree. It is simply that, as with Lem’s original story, Soderbergh’s Solaris does not surrender its messages easily. The viewer, as with the reader, must intuitively feel his or her way through the fluid poetry, free to interpret and ponder the questions. This is what I think good art should do. And I feel both the original book and Soderbergh’s movie do this with enthralling brilliance.

Where Soderbergh and Lem depart lies more in each artist’s personal vision and belief. Soderbergh seems to view the forces that drive our universe as the manifestation of an arcane motive more readily known through spirituality, perceived by the heart, and existing as a matter of belief. Lem, however, suggests that these forces are random and without purpose, defined by science, and perceived by the mind. Still, Lem is not proclaiming a nihilism of his own: he believes we are defined by the questions we ask and Lem asks a great deal of questions—leaving the reader to do the answering.

Reviewer Rick Kisonak asserted that Lem’s “novel is an icy meditation on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. It poses countless metaphysical questions and makes a point of answering none of them. In Soderbergh’s hands, however, Solarisbecomes a celebration of romantic love, which culminates in the revelation of a caring, forgiving creator. At the end of his book, Lem writes [Kelvin ponders]: ‘the age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger than death, that finis vitae sed non amoris [life ends but not love] is a lie, useless and not even funny.’ The director ignores the author in favor of just such a poet” (Film Threat, [Online]). Kisonak is referring here to Rheya’s interest in Dylan Thomas and its reference throughout the movie. Another reviewer, Dennis Morton, goes so far as to suggest that the screenplay of Solaris is the first stanza of the poem, which ends with: “…though lovers be lost love shall not; And death shall have no dominion” (Santa Cruise Sentinel, [Archived online])

While I agree with some of Kisonak’s reasoning, I think he has missed the point of Lem’s book. If one continues to read from the passage Kisonak quoted above—as Kris Kelvin transcends from what he “thinks” in his intellect to what he feels and “knows” in his heart, to accept his (and humanity’s) destiny with humble fatalism—we learn that Lem ends his book in much the same way as Soderbergh’s movie: life ends but not love. The endings are physically different, in keeping with some radical alterations from the book in the movie’s setting (e.g., the original Solaris station is located on the planet and Lem assiduously describes Kelvin’s observations and interactions with the alien ocean; whereas Soderbergh’s crew virtually never leave orbit and the planet remains aloof in the background, reflecting Soderbergh’s focus). Yet, Kris makes the same choice in faith and love in both book and movie (although the choices play out differently). In matters of faith and love, here is what Kris has to say in the book: “Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? … In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation … I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.” In the end of both movie and book, Kris Kelvin lets go of his fears and lets his spirit rise in wonder at what astonishing things Solaris (and the universe) will offer next.

In the final analysis, both book and movie are incredibly valuable but for different reasons. Soderbergh paints an impressionistic poem, using Kafkaesque brushstrokes on a simpler canvas, to Lem’s complex tapestry of multi-level prose. Lem challenges us far more by refusing to impose his personal views, where Soderbergh lets us glimpse his hopeful vision. I think that both, though, come to the same conclusion about the ethereal, mysterious and eternal nature of love. On the one hand, love may connect us within a fractal autopoietic network to the infinity of the inner and outer universe, uniting us with God and His purpose in a collaboration of faith. On the other hand, love may empower us to accept our place in a vast unknowable and amoral universe to form an island of hope in a purposeless sea of indifference. Whether love mends our souls to the fabric of our destiny; enslaves us on an impossible journey of desperate yearning; or seizes us in a strangling embrace of unspeakable terror at what lurks within—surely, then, love is God, in all its possible manifestations. This is unquestionably the message that unifies book and movie. And it is one worth proclaiming.

This review originally appeared in April 2004 Issue of The Internet Review of Science Fiction.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons, and serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto Canada and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” (Starfire) were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Her newest release, The Way of Water / La natura dell’acqua (Mincione Edizioni, Rome) is a bilingual short story (and essay) on water and climate change.

“Contact”, a journey to the heart of the Universe

contact03The opening sequence tells the entire story… It is both spectacular and humbling at the same time as we begin with a view of Earth gleaming in a sunrise. An almost frantic jumble of broadcasts— news, TV shows, music—assail our ears. As we pull back from Earth and pass the outer planets, we hear older broadcasts… disco…Kennedy… the Beatles… Hitler…then ultimately the unintelligible static of all the radio stations on Earth. Then, as we leave the solar system, passing breathtaking nebulae, the sounds give way to silence. A dead silence, as we continue to pull back out of the galaxy and out of the local group of galaxies into the quiet depth of our vast universe. “It’s enough to make you feel tiny and insignificant and alone,” says Maryann Johanson of FlickFilosopher.com. “Which is precisely the feeling it’s meant to evoke.”  From that arcane vastness, we are brought back to our own “intimate” existence within it as the universe transforms into a dark reflection in a young girl’s eye.

With a powerful entrance like that, it is hard to imagine that this 1997 movie directed by Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and based on the novel by Carl Sagan, received very mixed reviews by critics.

Cindy Fuchs of the Philadelphia City Paper called it “far more mundane than its aspirations to cosmic insights might have produced.”  Kevin N. Laforest with the Montreal Film Journal said, “Contact is not a bad film, but I can’t say it’s all that good either.” Even TVGuide.com rated it a two out of four: “It’s really about [Jodie] Foster, and with her lips pressed tightly together and her hair carelessly shoved behind her ears, she’s utterly convincing as a researcher who’s subverted everything to a life of the mind. Unfortunately that adds up to a rather remote protagonist and Ellie is surrounded by a supporting cast of one-dimensional types…far too cold-blooded for summer audiences.” This is ironic, considering that the advertizing pitch calls Contact “a journey to the heart of the universe.” Finally, Christopher Null (Filmcritic.com) recommended it for its looks but not highly. Said Null: “Carl Sagan’s ode to the superior intelligence of aliens (and how us darned humans mess everything up) is consistently beautiful and interesting, but it never makes a point (except for that bit about the darned humans).”

contact-jodie-foster
Ellie Arroway played by Jodie Foster

Well, Mr. Null, I think you’ve missed the point, as have some of the critics I have just quoted. Contact—and its somewhat tortured protagonist—demonstrates much in the way of “heart” and in doing so, makes a compelling story. Hearts beat deeply inside us, and this movie is no different; its “heart” runs deep, deep beneath the surface rhetoric that seems to have distracted several critics who likely prefer to take a shallow sip of their coffee steaming hot than wait and savor the rich flavor of a dark blend in a deep swallow.

This 1997 motion picture by Time Warner examines the moral, social and religious implications of our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence through the personal journey of astronomer, Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (played impeccably and sensitively by Jodie Foster). Never knowing her mother (who died at child birth) and having lost her father when she was ten, Ellie grows into a strong-willed scientist who dedicates her life to finding alien life in the universe by foregoing a career at Harvard to join a SETI Observatory in the Puerto Rico jungle. In an earlier scene with her father, she asks the question we have all pondered at least once: “Do you think there are people on other planets?” to which her father blithely answers, “if it’s just us, seems like an awful lot of wasted space,” a simple argument that appeals to the young logically-minded Ellie and one that will dominate the perseverance of her adult life in her resolute search for life in the universe.

Ellie hears the first sounds of contact

And persevere Ellie must, because nothing comes easy for her. Shortly after she settles at the SETI Observatory her teacher (and nemesis) David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt) pays her a visit with implied threats of shutting the place down. Ellie also meets Palmer Joss (Mathew McConaughey), a man of faith, who is writing a book about the effects of science and technology on the third world. Although she is attracted to him, alarm bells go off in Ellie, who feels threatened by his faith (something she does not outwardly understand yet clings to in another form). Wanting to see him again, she introduces him to the man he wants to interview: Drumlin. And one of the most poignant conversations follows:

When Ellie challenges Drumlin’s apparent wish to do away with all pure research, he responds with, “What’s wrong with science being practical, even profitable? Nothing—”

Palmer cuts in, “—As long as your motive is the search for truth, which is exactly what the pursuit of science is.”

Drumlin counters peevishly, “Well, that’s an interesting position coming from a man who crusades against the evils of technology.”

To which Palmer responds, “I’m not against technology; I’m against the men who deify it at the expense of human truth.”

Palmer and Ellie collide from two different worlds and despite their differences, they are profoundly attracted to one another. But as quickly as she falls for Palmer, she recoils from him.

Nothing comes easy for Ellie: “small moves, Ellie,” her father is accustomed to telling her, “small moves…” Shortly after she and her colleagues have been shut down by Drumlin and have set up anew (thanks to eccentric billionaire entrepreneur, S.R. Hadden, played by John Hurt), Drumlin and others shut them down yet again. But, as though a greater force intervenes, this is when Ellie makes her momentous discovery and intercepts an alien message from Vega, a young star still surrounded by a proto-planetary cloud of debris about 27 light years away from us. The scene is scientifically plausible and elegantly powerful—as we witness the drama of this phenomenal discovery unfold in a frisson of action.

Zemeckis wisely shows us exactly how such an event would really play out. And Sagan didn’t pick Vega out of whimsy: a sphere sixty light years thick of radio communication radiates from Earth from our radio and TV broadcasts. These signals may be captured by alien technology and sent back as a “message”. In theory, such a signal could be received on Earth anytime after 1990, the round trip time for a light or radio signal to travel to Vega and back from the first global signal, which in itself is momentous and telling. In another spine-tingling scene, the scientists who have descended upon Ellie decipher the arcane harmonics of the “message” as the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 (the first truly global TV broadcast made) over which Hitler presided. In fact, in another stroke of irony, the now infamous swastika is the first icon they decipher. Later still, they discover embedded instructions to build a machine that appears made to take a human on an extra-galactic trip.

wormhole “ship” at Hokaidu

At the same time that Ellie intercepts this message, Palmer Joss experiences a meteoric rise to stardom with his bestselling book, Losing Faith: the Search for Meaning in the Age of Reason (which could well have been the alternate title for the film; it certainly describes the subtext of the story and the major thematic element: Faith & Meaning). In an interview with a prominent news show host, Palmer asks the question that most of us have avoided:  “The question that I’m asking is this: are we happier? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology?…We shop at home, we search the web—at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than any other time in human history…We have meaningless jobs, we take frantic vacations [and] trips to the mall to buy more things to fill these holes in our lives.” Ironically, Palmer touches a similar nerve in Ellie when he brings up her dead parents: “It must have been hard… being alone…” insinuating that her fanatical search for intelligent alien life may simply be filling a hole in her heart. She flees Palmer shortly after, fearing his revealing intimacy. When they next meet, years later, they fall naturally into their familiar banter and she turns the table to challenge his faith in the same way: “What if science simply revealed that [God] never existed in the first place?” She then evokes Occam’s Razor, which says that “…all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one…what’s more likely? An all powerful mysterious God [who] created the universe then decided not to give us proof of his existence or that he simply doesn’t exist at all and we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?” Both of them are saved from an answer by the intrusive rings of their cell phones.

Ironically again, it is Ellie’s lack of belief in God that causes her to be overlooked for the momentous journey in the alien craft, in favor of the crafty Drumlin with the oily smile. Unfortunately, a religious zealot sabotages the mission and Drumlin, along with the whole alien craft and construct, are blown up in a spectacular explosion at NASA’s Cape Canaveral. Ellie gets her chance after all when they build a second one. Her journey in the alien space craft, which we are later told takes up eighteen hours of her time but passes instantaneously on Earth (to the point where they all think nothing actually happened), is truly epic and elegantly portrayed. Her encounter with the aliens is also in keeping with the plot and imagery of the story. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is the one where Ellie is introduced to the incredible and indescribable beauty of the vast Universe. It is at this point that she experiences her epiphany: science is not the sole purveyor of truth in the Universe. As she gazes at the splendor revealed before her, she acknowledges that the language of science is unable to express the sheer magnitude of the breathtaking scene. Grasping at something to say, she blubbers with a scientific term then finally gasps, “No words…to describe it…they should have sent a poet…”

Upon her return, Ellie is challenged by skeptics who think she suffered a giant delusion (remember that on Earth, no time had passed during her supposed eighteen-hour voyage). Ellie offers up a strained scientific explanation (e.g., wormhole travel through space-time also called Einstein-Rosen bridges) which is challenged by National Security Advisor, Michael Kitz (James Woods) as only theory, and must finally resort to her faith; one she selflessly offers to the world: “I… had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever. A vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone.”

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality Practice said it best: “Robert Zemeckis has fashioned a truly awesome movie that celebrates the spiritual practices of listening, wonder, love, and zeal. It affirms that there are times and places where reason must yield to mystery.”

 

The SETI Institute, who currently conduct the search for alien life, have a website dedicated to the movie.

 

nina-2014-BWNina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist and novelist. In addition to eight published novels, she has authored award-winning short stories, articles and non-fiction books, which were translated into several languages throughout the world. Recognition for her work includes the Midwest Book Review Reader’s Choice Award, finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award, the SLF Fountain Award, and The Delta Optimist Reviewers Choice.

Nina regularly publishes reviews and essays in magazines such as The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, IROSF, and Europa SF. She serves as staff writer for several online and print magazines. She teaches and coaches writing online through her website Nina Munteanu. Her books on writing “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!” and “The Journal Writer” were translated into Romanian and  published by Editura Paralela 45. Nina’s latest release is La natura dell.acqua / The Way of Water, a bilingual story and essay on water and climate change (Mincione Edizioni, Rome), set in Canada.