Monday, August 24, 2009

Conclusion: Cyborgs for Earthly Survival



The concluding scene of the SciFi Channel’s revival of the short-lived 70’s TV series Battlestar Galactica shows a line of defeated but indomitable human beings, shouldering packs and trudging slowly but determinedly into a wilderness, away from their spaceships, their computers, their technologies. The scene visually tropes an earlier one, in which these spacefaring refugees from a nuked planet observe a primitive hominid family group moving single file across the plain in much the same way, unknowingly the objects of a technologically mediated, curious vision of alien kindred.

What could prompt such a dramatic and counterintuitive conclusion to a narrative of remnant humanity’s exodus from ruin, led by a faithless Moses and a dying Miriam, whose existence had depended so intimately for so long on the technologies now being decisively repudiated? What message lies in this conclusion for us, as we ponder the various possibilities, both frightening and liberatory, of the posthuman future?

The complexity of the narrative universe of Battlestar Galactica belies such a simplistic ending. For these human beings, the posthuman future has already arrived, and with a vengeance—literally. The opening scene of the series gives us a question posed by a sexy blonde machine to a middle aged, befuddled soldier/diplomat: “are you alive?” she asks. Yes, is the stuttered answer, but the machine doesn’t care, or perhaps, does not believe this answer—after all, this must have been the very question put to it, in the years that sowed the seeds of the conflict that would shortly destroy not only this man, but his whole civilization as well, in a retributive genocidal impulse.

The problem goes far beyond the pragmatic difficulties caused by the fact that “the Cylons look like us now.” The problem, in short, is that the Cylons are us: down to our very blood. And not just “us” in biological facsimile, but in nature. Violent, retributive, obsessive, sinful, human nature.

This is where the story begins: with an ontological confusion, a question of humanness not simply in terms of status but fundamental nature, and a question of what constitutes the difference between person and machine, when machines can also think and feel. The only difference seems to be, frankly, that the machines are determined to kill the humans. One can only speculate why; but, after all, machines made in imago hominis are likely to be pretty dangerously untrustworthy.

Things get more complicated when it turns out you can have sex with those machines, and get them pregnant. Beyond begging the question of the definition of species, interbreeding produces a more obvious hybrid, a child who is simultaneously threat and promise. Named for a goddess and literally a savior, this miracle child becomes blood sisters with the dying Miriam and saves the prophet’s life; revived, the leader of the human remnant rescinds the savior’s imminent execution but fakes a death to remove her from her Cylon mother’s care—machines can’t be trusted.

Things get more complicated still when it turns out that the Cylons themselves are a stratified society: Cylon fighters are bred like animals, “toasters” take orders from “skin jobs,” and everyone alike is conveyed through space by sentient ships piloted by those whom the Cylons themselves refer to as hybrids—human brains hardwired into their ships, simultaneously pilot and vehicle.

But things only get really weird when it turns out that there really are angels walking among us.

How to make sense of this strange, unsystematic, non-taxonomy of unclassifiable creatures, none of them natural, and all of them, somehow, kin? There’s no certain path through this wilderness, no telos, no heaven, and no real Earth; the only thing certain, in this narrative, is that it has all happened before, and it will all happen again. The final, looming question is, simply, will it happen the same way? Or will we, somehow, construct a path through the wilderness that aims toward making that new world a liveable world, in which anthropoids, humans, Cylons, hybrids, and angels alike, dwell?


kbeck said...

If this is the conclusion to your dissertation, then I think I will need to read the book! Wow, I'm not generally a Sci-Fi fan, but you definitely have my attention.

Best wishes on finishing your doctoral program, this is a great achievement.

JJT said...

well, hopefully, someday it'll be a real book...but first it remains to be seen if it counts as a real dissertation. :)

now it's a waiting game, while my advisor & then committee reads my draft, then I can schedule a defense. so, nowhere near officially done yet, but having a complete draft is a major milestone.

now, if i could just stop having those "oh, I should have said X in the intro" and "Y in chapter 4"...sigh.