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 an 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.
In one amusing scene, a cop of Mexcian descent spins up her late Grandmother into the body of a massive, tattooed and bearded drug dealer. Watching this massive man trapesing around a market choosing the choicest ingredients for the family feast on Día de los Muertos was initially amusing, then strangely poignant and uncomfortable, as this ancient festival of remembrance became subverted by new technology,

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 regularly back-up their stacks, ensuring that even if the stack is destroyed, they can still be brought back. When a rich man is murdered and his stack destroyed just before his regular backup, it means his last 48 hours were lost and the identity of his murderer remains a mystery. This becomes the centre of the story.

Now, there is a lot to say about this series, including 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 and be re-housed in a new body in Eon back in 1985. Other authors, including Ian M Banks, Ken McLeod and Peter F Hamilton have repeatedly used the idea in their science fiction.

It is indeed 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 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 a 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. Posthumansists sees this as technologically achievable within the next century at the most.

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 afterlife 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 our muscles and viscera. Our hearts and guts contain brain cells, and messages from the heart and bowels 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 cyberpunk 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, at the heart of this film is a very uncomfortable message, but one to which we all need pay attention. 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 storytelling. Many audiences found its length and long shots, long silences 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 telling Which is another reason to see it again, because it misdirects you, makes you think you are seeing one reaction, 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.


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