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.

Flying free future

Sitting here in an airport lounge at LAX watching the planes take off is probably an apt time to contemplate  the way we take for granted  our ability  to travel, to viist other places and to do it quickly, hopping on a plane an being on the other side of the world in less than a day. It is interesting too that, despite damage to the environment  and the fact that the key requirement of air travel – oil – is a finite resource, we do not general question the fact that in 10, 20 or 30 years time we will still be able to jump on a plane and see  the world. Although this ability is a very recent one in historical terms – routine air travel overseas has only been around for 50 or so years in a manner affordable to the average citizen – it is now completely ingrained in our expectations about the world. This does not mean that everyyone has done it, but we all know it is a possibility. Even at the moments when I figure that perhaps oil won’t last for ever, those nagging doubts are replaced buy the thought that technology will have advanced, that we will have found something to replace jet fuel when we need to.

It is interesting then that two of the books I have read this year contemplate a future in which this kind of travel  is no longer routine, and potentially not even possible. In Player One by Douglas Coupland, a sharp sudden oil shock sometime in the approximate present suddenly grounds planes, leaving people stranded. While the cause is not explained, the major change in perspective is considered. Meanwhile in The Windup Girl the future seems to have run out of oil and people travel long distances on boats or dirigibles.

It clearly says something about the strength of environmental concerns that speculative fiction is now considering an energy poor future. In general much of the speculative fiction of the three decades that I have read (and I am not trying to argue that is comprehensive) have seen alternative technologies, often fusion, in the future. Or it hasn’t contemplated energy use. Future fiction, like historical fiction, does however reflect the concerns of the present in which it is created and thus oil shortages and the grounding of planes may become an increasing theme.

What would it be like to not fly routinely again? To find oneself grounded far from home, stranded in a foreign city? How would it be if we couldn’t visit friends or family who live on the other side of the world? What would it do to our cultures and economies to lose that ability? There is plenty of fodder in those ideas for many many works of fiction.

Cultural Update: February

Before we start with this short roundup to reflect this short month, here is a cool link which shows you films compressed into a barcode and gives you a sense of the overall colour scheme of the movie. The Matrix one is totally distinctive.

And now to business.


The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi Dark. The book is set in a fascinating world; I love the ideas of calorie powered energy stored in springs – but it does rather beg the question of what happened to tidal/solar/wind power and the like. The concepts around genetic engineering it introduces are also fasntastic and the ideas of the windup girl herself and the cheshire cats were brilliant. Overall though the book lacked something; too many of the characters weren’t likable (at all) and it just took a bit too much time and effort for it all to completely hang together. Parts of it were page turning and gripping and other bits somewhat less so. I also really didn’t like the Jaidee conceit in the second half of the book and didn’t think it added a lot. The book is, however, a clever and layered discourse on inclusion and exclusion, on difference and othering where none of the characters completely fit and the powers of belonging are literally life and death.


Unstoppable Simple, straightforward thriller that had me tense throughout. Strong performances in a clear storyline with an added dose of working man versus US corporate evil. A little stereotyped, but the writing and directing was enough to keep it from cliché. A well made thriller that maintained believability. An enjoyable ride.

True Grit Good but not amazing. Strong performances from the three leads – Jeff Bridges was still over-acting, but at least  the over-acting was suited to the role. Weirdly I didn’t think that the cinematography and shot composition as impressive as I would have expected from the Coen Brothers when there are fabulous landscapes to work with. There was humour and the film sustained my interest….but overall it just seemed to lack something. But I wouldn’t say it wasn’t good. It was. Just not brilliant.


100 sci fi women #60: Emiko

As you can see, am attempting to make up for lost time with a few new entries. Tonight’s is from the book I finished reading last night, which I will talk about more generally in another post. For the moment I give you…

Emiko The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi

Emiko is a New Person; a genetically engineered servant, a human who is not quite entirely human, designed and trained to serve. She has small pores to make her skin silkier and has been genetically programmed to have jerky movements to ensure she cannot be mistaken for a real person. She is the ultimate Other; fascinating and repulsive, frightening and frightened; excluded from society and disposable; readily pulped bythe Environment Agency her see her as an abomination with no soul, using calories that could be used by others. Emiko is treated little better than a slave, dumped when her original patron thought is cheaper to leave her behind, left to fend for herself in a highly hostile world. She is sexually exploited and abused, spat on even by those who wish to use her sexually. Yet despite her training and her breeding, Emiko keeps inside her a spark of resistance and a dream of something better. She loathes her obedience and her genetically driven impulses. She finds a way to maintain hope within herself, to look for a world which could be better for her. With this hope she also learns about her own power; her speed and strength and resilience. She learns to hide waht she is and deceive. Emiko survives because she finds a way, because despite what she is told and how she is treated, she is in many ways, a better human.

She stifles the urge to clean up the rice, to make things neat for Anderson-sama when he returns. Instead, she makes herself stare at the mess and recognise that she is no longer a slave. If he wishes rice cleaned off the floor there are others to do his dirty work. She is something else. Soemthing different. Optimal in her own way.