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.

100 sci fi women #64: Macy Minnot

Ok, so I’ve been slack. It is a long story. Hopefully the world has calmed down a bit now, so these entries can be a bit more regular again.

Macy Minnot The Quiet War Paul McAuley

Macy learnt from a young age how to make her own way in the world. Escaping from a cult as a teenager into a world where people who are not part of one of the oligarchical families are little better than serfs, Macy survives and even thrives. She is smart and brave and willing to work hard. Risking her life to save someone leads her to a world where her intelligence can be used and developed and her skills as a ecologist reclaiming the environment are recognised, providing her new opportunities. Macy understands the realities of the world, but tries to remain true to herself and to her notions of what is right, even when this puts her in further danger. She is tough enough to take a few punches and not let it get her down, but rounded enough not to be impervious to the threats and dangers, boredom and frustrations which confront her. Most of all, her practical nature helps her to find solutions, even if sometimes they are to problems which her passions have helped create. Ultimately, she is loyal to those who deserve her loyalty, and humane to those who do not. In a society where fairness is not an overriding feature, Macy finds a way through, and a way out.



Cultural Update: May

My pile of unread books is only very slowly inching down, and I really must avoid buying any others.

Today’s link-magic: Having The Talk with your kids…..

A child who has experienced that talk, may also end up with a wedding that looks like this.


The Quiet War Paul McAuley There are some fabulous things about this book. The vision of settlements on Saturn and Jupiter is probably the most wonderful settlement of the solar system I have ever read. And it fascinating to see another take on the issues of ecological disaster and genetic engineering – very different from that in The Windup Girl even coming from similar premises. Some of the characters too are great, though at times it suffers from the same problem as a number of recent books, that some of the characters aren’t quite likable enough. Over all though, some very interesting ideas and depictions; a very thoughtful book, even if I didn’t find the ending ultimately as satisfying as one might have hoped.


District B13

This film has some of the most awesome fight and chase scenes you could hope for. Brilliantly choreographed fights and parkour with a pumping soundtrack, they are an absolute delight to watch. The lead characters’ athleticism is also impressive. Set in a near future (well 2010 envisaged from 2004) it also takes on a number of issues around class and race which are prevalent in modern France, with a progressive spin, so the story itself is not bad either. That being said, some of the dialogue is woeful (although the subtitling may have been partly at fault) and the acting range of the leads is not as impressive as their fighting/jumping/athletic skills. Nonetheless, well worth watching if you are looking for a good action film – well ahead of most Hollywood types.


Games of Thrones first half of season 1 I really really really wanted to like this. While I haven’t read the books, any sword and politics type drama is worth hoping for. And I wasn’t disappointed by the first episode, especially its shock conclusion. But the next two or three episodes were a bit too ponderous, and I found myself worried that I would lose interest. The characters were a bit too stereotyped: the boorish king, the plotting queen, the arrogant prince,the stalwart loyal friend, the barbarian and his noble queen… I think that the challenge in the first half of the season is to stick with it through the slightly less compelling parts – a story this complex takes time to weave, and the pay off will arrive (as I will discuss next month no doubt).  The two most compelling characters in the first half of the season were Catelyn Stark and Tyrion Lannister – both had rounded personalities and complex motivations. I imagine that to follow the destiny of Arya Stark will be a fascinating story, but one which, most likely, I will have to end up turning to the books for, as I don’t know whether we will see the series lasting that long. Otherwise, it is beautiful to look at, and I think the couple of slow episodes in the early part of the season will be compensated for by the pay off.