Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The body and Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon is the huge big budget science fiction offering from Netflix. While their recent output in films has been decidedly dodgy (Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox to name but two that audiences and critics alike have panned), Altered Carbon has had a more mixed response. 

Its central premise is that, out of salvaged ancient alien technology, humans have discovered a way to download and record human consciousness in small, hard drive-like devices called stacks that sit at the top of the spinal column. At death, this stack can be reinserted into a new body. If you are poor and die young or as a result of crime, the state will spin you up into any available body (usually those of criminals whose stacks have been removed and put on ice indefinitely). Thus, in an early scene we see the parents of a seven-year-old girl who died in accident brought back in the body of a middle-aged woman. Race and gender become irrelevant – an Asian man comes back in a Caucasian body; an Afro-American woman comes back in a white male body.

Of course, the rich can afford to have multiple cloned bodies in storage to give them back their own bodies after death. They can also back up their stacks, ensuring that even if the stack is destroyed, they can still be brought back. Thus, a rich man has been murdered just before his regular backup – meaning his last 48 hours were lost. This becomes the centre of the story.

Now, there is a lot to say about this series; its huge debt to Blade Runner in visual style, and indeed to numerous other films. Actually, even the central conceit is far from original, although seldom seen in cinema and TV. Greg Bear introduced the idea of implants that could house a human consciousness  aand be re-housed in a new body in Eon. Other authors, including Ian M Banks, Ken McLeod and Peter F Hamilton have repeatedly used the idea in their science fiction.

It is a fascinating idea – not least because of its underlying assumptions. At its core is the idea that the human self is just software, the body merely the replaceable hardware on which it runs. Self is memory, personality traits are merely programmes. The real you is just data, and data can be copied, uploaded, downloaded and stored. 

The roots of this idea are Neoplatonic – the idea that the real self is a spiritual, immaterial entity, the material body merely an imperfect echo. The Gnostics took the idea one step further, arguing the spiritual self was real and good, the material self a sinful illusion – even positing two gods over each realm – the good creator of the spiritual, the evil creator of the material.

Eastern religions also resonate with this idea with the doctrine of reincarnation – the spirit reborn time and time again into a new body. And for many, the Christian idea of life after death is seen as disembodied existence in God’s presence. That however, is a travesty of the actual biblical teaching.

Science Fiction loves this idea, because it means in the godless universe that most of the genre’s authors inhabit, we have the promise of life after death. It is a secular dream, but it is a fantasy.

The actual biblical understanding is quite at odds with all of this. The body and the spirit are integral. The word for soul in Hebrew and Greek means simply the person, the self, and in Hebrew is used of the body as well as the mind. The physical and spiritual are closely linked, so much so that life after death is always seen as an embodied existence – there is no positive depiction of a disembodied after life in either Old or New Testaments.

We are fully embodied in our self. Our memories are not just seated in our brains – they are also seated in out muscles and viscera. Our hearts contain brain cells, and messages from the heart affect the brain as much as vice versa. Take us away from our bodies, we lose our self, our soul. We are not data, not software that can run in any body. We are an integrated whole. We are also constantly changing, our minds and our bodies are not the same from one moment to the next, and their changes are not separate, but intimately interlinked. Self is not static, it is in constant flux.

Altered Carbon is an interesting and fun bit of slightly OTT cyber punk with some interesting ideas that it never fully explores, not least of which is how alienated a person put into a new body that is not their own would be. Indeed, would they even be the same person?

Monday, January 01, 2018

My Films of the Year

2017 was  bit of a bumper year for science fiction films, although very few were even remotely original stories or first time adaptations. Certainly nothing as outstanding as 2016's Arrival, which to my mind sticks out as one of the best films of that year of any genre.

We've had the remake of Ghost in the Shell, which dumbed down a complex story about emergent, self aware AI and post-humans for a simple story of lost identity at the hands of corporate greed. Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2 was great fun, but is basically a comedy Star Wards clone, albeit one with real wit and imagination. The Last Jedi was a fun (and surprising) addition to the Star Wars franchise, despite plot holes, Thor 3 was even more fun than Guardians or Jedi (and as such was an delightful surprise).

I could probably add Wonder Woman to this mix, but great fun though it was, it is more a fantasy/superhero crossover than the Marvel universe films.

The less said about some of the other entries this year, the better!

So, nothing very original. Lots of sequels, reboots, additions to existing franchise 'universes' and the like. 2018 promises some more interesting material, with Ready Player One in particular generating a lot of early excitement, as is The Shape of Water. Both offer original (albeit in the former's case, adapted) screenplays that might just offer something fresh and new.

So, for my vote of the film that in 2017 stood out as the best science fiction film, I have to go back to a sequel, albeit one that was twenty five years in the making. Blade Runner 2049 managed to stand on the shoulders of Blade Runner, and while remaining hugely respectful and consistent with its forebear, managed to explore the same territory with new depth. And managed to look and sound gorgeous at the same time.

Yes, there are problems with it - particularly its rather leery camera focus on naked female bodies. I get the idea that this is a brutal, exploitative society and that this is reflected in what we see, but the decision to keep putting naked female flesh graphically on screen feels more exploitative than making a comment.

However, I also get the point that it is ultimately the female protagonists who are the main agents of change in the narrative, and this has been eloquently argued elsewhere.

So laying that discomfort to one side, I can say that, while my initial reaction to the film was that it left me cold emotionally, over the months since I saw it the ideas, questions, imagery and character arcs have continued to engage me, and I now really need to see it again. That's how I know a film is real classic - when it won't let you go. All the other films from this year that I enjoyed I would be happy to see again, possibly repeatedly. But Blade Runner I need to see again - because I know there are questions still remaining that only a repeat viewing will help me to tackle.

The biggest of these questions is around expectation. Without giving away spoilers, the story makes you start looking for a miracle, and directs you towards an obvious but powerful answer. But it is the wrong answer, and we are brought up short, along with the protagonist. As one commentator said, a the heart of this film is a very uncomfortable message, but one we all need pay attention to. We are not as special, not as unique, as we like to think we are. A very anti-Hollywood message indeed.

At nearly three hours in length, it is also a film that does not rush its story telling. Many audiences found its length and long shots, periods of silence and lack of action for extended periods both frustrating and boring. I loved them! The film is an object lesson in telling a story by showing, not explaining. Which is another reason to see it again, because it misdirects you, makes you think you are seeing one reaction, one response from a character, when it later transpires it was a quite different response. The narrative plays cleverly with our expectations.

Finally, it is a story that explores once again the use of technology to exploit and control people. It is about the exercise and abuse of power and how it is opposed. As such it is a very welcome and timely addition to the genre.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The 'Other'

My preferred genre of literature has, since my youth, been science fiction, in cinema, television, but above all in literature. Spy thrillers, crime, literary fiction, all have their merits, and I have enjoyed many of them, but the genre that seems to constantly challenge our knowledge of the world and of ourselves for me is science fiction.

There are many tropes that recur in the genre. The advent of artificial intelligence, the end of the world, invasions by aliens, and first contact with aliens in a less confrontational context.

It is the first contact stories that fascinate me the most. When Cervantes 'discovered' Mexico, or Polo traveled to the court of the Chinese Emperor, or Xavier sent missions into Japan, all presented the West with the challenge of understanding alien cultures and societies very distant and different from our own. Now that experience of the other is best explored in fiction, as most of the world is now explored and its cultures and languages catalogued and studied endlessly. And our culture is itself under the scrutiny of these cultures, as they hold up uncomfortable but revealing mirrors to us.

While your average TV and cinema first contact story usually involves essentially human like aliens, it is usually an exploration of these earlier, colonial encounters with other cultures that is being revisited and explored.

More challenging are those stories that present us with an encounter with something beyond our understanding, beyond our experience, and which cannot be mapped, discussed or catalogued by our senses or language.

The most fascinating recent example of this is Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. The first book, Anhiliation has been filmed and goes on general release in the US in January and worldwide on Netflix in February. By the looks of the trailer, Alex Garland has taken a particular direction with the story that the original studiously eschews, which is disappointing.

In the trilogy, a series of characters struggle with understanding Area X, a region of the southern US coastline that has been sealed off from the outside world by an enigmatic and invisible barrier. It is only penetrable through one, distressing doorway. On the other side is a pristine ecosystem, the signs of the previous human habitation all but decayed to nothing in a few decades, save for an old Lighthouse. But is the landscape and the wildlife that inhabit it what they seem to be? And why do all those who enter come back mad, dead or changed? Something is going on in Area X that defies human measurement and understanding.

Area X is reminiscent of another, inscrutable alien environment, the enigmatic, eponymous planet Solaris in Stanislaw Lem's classic. Solaris is a world covered by an ocean that seems to create structures and forms of great complexity, but whose purpose and function is totally inscrutable. Yet the planet (or its ocean) react to human probes and the presence of scientists hovering above the surface. The most dramatic form of this reaction are the visitors that the scientists are afflicted by - manifestations of people from their past about whom they feel and profound sense of guilt or grief. What is the purpose of these visitors ? Are they probes, lab experiments or an attempt at contact? Or are they just an unconscious response from an entity too alien to truly interact with us?

Area X similarly seems to create copies of the humans who visit - but to what end is totally unclear. And there are other things moving in Area X that do not conform to any known terrestrial form. It becomes more and more clear as time goes by that a particular form of observer effect is going on. Everything, down the cellular level appears totally normal when observed, but there is a palpable sense that the rest of the time, Area X is not at all as it appears to be.

Both the Southern Reach trilogy and Solaris do not give any final answers to the nature of the other that is being encountered. What is clear is that both Area X and Solaris are not knowable. There is a limit to human understanding, there is a boundary to our knowledge.

Martin Luther challenged the scholastic tradition of his day, which believed that all we need to know can be accessed through reason and study, arguing that reason and study can only get us so far, but to apprehend God, we need him to reveal himself. The ultimate expression of that revelation came in the person of Jesus - making that which was unknowable and unapproachable both visible and touchable.

While neither Solaris nor Area X are divine - the are finite, space and time bound entities that still elude our understanding - they remind us that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philosophies. However, it is in the encounter with that which is beyond us, the 'other' that we see a mirror into our own selves. It's not always a comfortable reflection to behold.

Friday, August 11, 2017

More Dante than you could shake a stick at!

Dante! You and your blinking Divine Comedy constantly rattling round my head. All that ‘Halfway through this journey of life’ stuff. Enough to make a grown man stop and reflect. Last thing we should be doing as men, Stopping, that is. Reflecting even less so.

But then there is this gnawing worry that I’ve got it wrong. Why am I not more successful and driving a posh car rather than a mid-range people carrier? Why am I living in a pokey, three-bedroom town house with a postage stamp for a garden in a moldy London exurb, and not a big, five bedroom detached house with a proper garden and my own study? And why am I looking at maybe another twenty years working life at tops, to retire on a tiny pension?

Well old Alighieri Dante knew the human condition when he wrote to opening verse to the Divine Comedy –

When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.

He was putting into poetic form this spiritual dark night that we now call the ‘mid-life crisis’. He then takes his protagonist on an epic journey through the realms of Limbo, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise to lead him back to the ‘path which led aright’. 

Actually, at this stage I must hold my hands up and confess that I have only read Inferno, because I found both the purgatory and paradise bits rather dull by comparison, and because I had been entranced by the 1989 Peter Greenway TV adaptation of the first eight Cantos. But this opening stanza of Canto I of Inferno has stuck with me and grown in relevance as I transitioned from youth to middle age and began to wonder whether my life was ‘lost on in a gloomy wood’.

This summer, my better half and children and I decamped to one of those huge summer, Christian festivals that involved lots of excessively loud worship (this year’s style verged between the traditional U2 and Coldplay rip offs, and new this year, Clean Bandit), lots of meetings and seminars and prayer ministry. And camping. In lots and lots of rain and mud. And dirty, smelly loos and showers. And lots of BO. 

We loved it!

The highlight this year (and there were several standout moments, including the aforementioned Clean Bandit style worship rave on the last evening – more in the watching and joining in for me) was Nick Page’s ‘Dark Night of the Shed’ seminar. With much humour and honesty, he began to explore the male mid-life crisis, dissecting its roots mercilessly, cataloguing its symptoms hilariously, and soberly beginning to re look at how we transform the narrative of our lives.

In short, Page argues, the mid-life crisis is caused when we realise that our false gods are letting us down. Be they the worship of money and consumerism, our long-lost youth, power and status or sex, these false gods all promise us much in our youth, but are revealed by middle age as worthless idols. 

You can see where this is going, can’t you?  

The way through the mid-life crisis is to re-engage with an authentic, Christ centred spirituality. To recognise it is not our power that achieves anything, but His. To recognise what the Bible says about our senior years and not what our current cultural obsession with youth says.

This is really what Dante was writing about seven hundred years ago. He understood that the mid-life crisis is a spiritual crisis. For me, to discover that there are other men (and women) who feel the same as me has been truly liberating. Even more encouraging has been to realise that they have found a way through it to a richer way of being in the second half of life.

When I started this blog on 2006, I was hoping to write about life and faith and my experiences along the way. Over the years, this has slowed down to a dribble of posts, and has been more a cultural commentary than a personal reflection. I’m not ruling out such commentary in the future, but think that there is a more interesting journey to start recording here.