Others, genetics, sci fi and humanity

The concept of Othering is around difference, around making it OK to treat people as if they aren’t people. It has had a long history in war, slavery and we see it right now in the whole debate over refugees in this country. Making groups of people Other for whatever reason allows us to treat them in ways we would never want to be treated; that golden rule of  “do unto others as you would have others do to you” is put aside for these Others. Others are not only different, but essentially somehow less human that we are, and because of that we can salve our conscience when we do terrible things to them.

Science fiction has long contemplated this concept and there has been much commentary on it. In the past, much of it has been seen in the robot/cybord genre. Blade Runner is a classic in this sense – it questions what it is that separates humans from “replicants”, and even has developed a test which allows “humanity” to be determined. In Blade Runner the fear of the Other is acute – replicants are hunted down and killed if they escape from the slavery which is imposed upon them. Despite the fact that replicants are clearly shown to have the same kinds of hopes and fears and emotions as humans, their existence is a threat. This same kind of fear is apparent in Artificial Intelligence, along with the conflicting idea that these “mechas” have emotion feelings and emotions.

In recent times it appears that, while this discussion about the nature of humanity and our fear of the Other continues in science fiction, the discussion has been transferred from being focusssed on artificial intelligence to being about genetic engineering and clones. Recent examples of this I have encountered include The WindUp Girl, The Quiet War, Outcasts and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In all of these, clones or genetically manipulated and created humans are treated as lesser, as Other, than humans, even though, in most cases, they are ultimately superior.

The WindUp Girl sees cloned/genetically engineered humans developed to act as companions, or labourers, and if abandonned by their “owners” or if they run away they can be summarily killed. The “New People” are considered distinctly non-human, and the treatment of Emiko by the brothel owners who treat her as a virtual slave demonstrates the degradation they are willing to inflict. the non-human status permits cruelty and summary killings, but as we see through Emiko’s point of view, she is just as human as anyone else, a person of  compassion and emotion. she wants to be able to live amongst her people and have children, even though the pervasive conditioning makes even her doubt whether she wants to amongst her own people.  Similarly in The Quiet War, clones are developed for a specific purpose, and it is acceptable to treat them as non-humans, to train and condition them, to kill them when not useful, or just as a demonstration of power. The Quiet War looks closely at difference at Otherness as it also focuses on the genetic modifications of those who have gone to settle the colonies, and the way that these physical differences are used to accentuate the cultural and political differences – and make it acceptable to commit mass murder in wars.

The idea of clones as disposable continues in Outcasts where the clones are blamed for a virus and sentenced to death. Here an individual, who is himself unstable, sees that they are human and refuses to execute them, instead letting them establish their own colony elsewhere. Throughout the series the individual characters struggle with the idea of the clones, or ACs as human. As with The WindUp Girl the ACs are supposed to be sterile – a marker of their lack of humanity and Otherness – however they find themselves able to reproduce, and care desperately for the resulting children.

Finally, in The Clone Wars series, as with The Quiet War, clones are born and conditioned for combat. They do not have lives outside their service to the Republic and are expected to be totally loyal. What is explored in some of the episodes are the limits of this. One clone betrays the Jedi, arguing that they really do not represent him, that he is seeking his own freedom. Another clone is found, having deserted and had a family, and he argues that he should be just as entitled to personhood as anyone else. It is revealed that the clones were originally just numbered, but later given names because it seemed to work better. While they are all physically alike, the clones distinguish themselves through hair cuts. The Jedi and the Republic tend to treat the clones much as the separatists treat their droids, as expendable fighters of which there is a never-ending ready supply. While the clones are not Othered in quite the same way, they are also not quite people either – they certainly do not appear to have equal rights, or much choice about their role as frontline fodder.

These examples, and I am sure there are others, explore the notions of what makes people people, and generally argue that the personhood is not a matter of having been developed in a womb of “natural” DNA. At a time when genetic engineering is exploring and indeed, chafing, at its boundaries, these kinds of books are interesting ethical thought-provokers. At a deeper level, however, they are about the need to recognise those we Other as people, as humans who should have the same rights and needs as we do. From that perspective, science fiction has something important to say about issues such as refugees and human rights, without having to overdetermine those messages.