A review of I, Robot, by Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s take on I, Robot is not uninteresting: the world he presents is disturbingly on the edge between the ‘dystopian’ and the contemporary. And retro cold-war politics merge with modern-day concerns about the state control over the development of technology.

However, if I was going to rewrite any of my favourite sci-fi classics, one of the things I would leave behind is the poor characterization (and its sexist stereotypres). We have characters that are nothing more than archetypes lifted from Lethal Weapon. When the cop-hero cries, I don’t need half a paragraph dragging on about how yes, he cried, but he very rarely does this, actually it hasn’t happened since… His entire world just crumbled, he almost died, who knows about his loved ones, he cries. Not that surprising.

His 12 year old daughter is not even sexually active or anything, yet the fact that she is a daughter and not a son is emphasized virtually with every single of her appearances. We learn that she has great tech abilities and independence, but when she’s in the story she is just a helpless wee girl who needs her daddy for everything. And so on and so forth. It starts with a disturbing depiction of father-daughter bonding: well, the scene is good as an introduction, but how does the sentence “I will beat you purple and shove you out the door jaybird naked” fit into what is otherwise a realistic, tough on the outside, but tender in reality family moment?

The narrative is catchy enough, the universe describes and the political issues it raises are definitely interesting, but the bland characters are a big let-down.

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Guest review by usevalue! C (299,792 km/s)

[This week this blog gets its first guest review (huzzah!) by wordpress user usevalue, who is considering relaunching their own blog in the near future or so I heard! Exciting times.]

The following is a review of a short film, C (299,792 km/s) which was funded entirely by online donations. As I understand it, the makers of the film are always eager for more money, and are in fact selling various merchandise through their web site. So if that seems like a good idea, go throw money at them. The film is free to watch online [Trigger warning: mild violence, stunning, kidnapping], and if you’re one of those folks who is allergic to spoilers you should go watch it before reading this review.

C (299,792 km/s), a new independent film by Derek Van Gorder and Otto Stockmeier, is set in the vaguely-defined future. Due to its length (about 15 minutes) we are only given a few facts about this future. Humankind has constructed military spaceships to wage its ongoing wars; these ships are capable of achieving relativistic speeds (i.e. close to the speed of light, i.e. C); and gender equality in the military has progressed somewhat. Beyond that, the film dispenses with detailed portrayal of the world to propose a few political ideas for our consideration.

The film tells the story of a mutiny led by Lieutenant Commander Malleck aboard the military vessel the KESTROS IV. With the help of an insurgent gang of engineers, Malleck seizes control of the helm from the otherwise unnamed Captain. When a loyalist counter-insurgency forms under the doughty Second Lieutenant Kai, Malleck and her co-conspirators use the ship’s bulkheads to trap their enemies, eventually stunning them all. Malleck is keen to avoid killing any of the ship’s crew because, as she informs her rebels, the men in particular will be necessary for the gene pool when the ship arrives at its destination. At last the plot is revealed: Malleck and her team change the ship’s course, abandoning the military squadron of which it is a part, and set off on a journey through space and, thanks to relativity, time to colonise new worlds, far from Earth’s military and ecological catastrophes. These futuristic scenes are interspersed with clips from an apparent 1980s science documentary featuring Dr. Harold Newman, an obvious homage to Carl Sagan.

C is ultimately a film about the ambiguous potential of technology. As Dr. Newman’s voiceover states, there is a tendency in human development towards weaponisation, and the possibility of self-destruction through ecological catastrophe is very very real. At the same time, Dr. Newman proposes that technology offers us, ultimately, an escape from the limits of our situation. In his case, it is the eventual death of our star. Assuming you, like I, am not particularly concerned about that, we can read the event as the terrible limits imposed on us by our mode of production. The escape into the great beyond made by Malleck and the reluctant crew of the KESTROS IV, in this reading, is a secession from the coordinates of our social and political system.

The genius of the film lies in its ambiguous treatment of Malleck’s mutiny. It is undoubtedly vanguardist; surely she acts for Second Lieutenant Kai’s own good (informing him he is “a born colonist”), but she has to stun him with a rifle in order to do so. On top of this, after achieving escape velocity the engineers jettison the ship’s engines, preventing an obviously anticipated demand to return home. Leninists might not mind; the mutiny is mostly composed of engineers, and in the initial phases of the rebellion they are armed only with welding torches, giving the whole affair a nice proletarian flavour, but others might take pause. Furthermore, the film gives us no guarantee that Malleck’s plan will succeed. She asks Kai, “Do you believe a warship can be an engine for human progress?” The question is never answered. The end of the film is only the beginning of the journey of the KESTROS IV, and we are left to wonder what will become of them.

Where I see the political vision of the film (or, at least, Lieutenant Commander Malleck) failing is in its utopian, secessionist dimension. Though perhaps within a sci-fi setting Malleck’s vision is plausible, if fraught with peril, when we attempt to apply the film’s lessons to our own circumstances troubles arise. What would secession from capitalism mean for us? And where would we go? One needn’t labour the point by arguing again against socialism in one country, or declaring the interconnectedness of the biosphere. When we delve deeper into the nature of the rebellion, the problems only multiply. The Lieutenant Commander remains a Lieutenant Commander. The ship remains a military ship. It should be clear to us that existing social hierarchies and our existing infrastructure do not lend themselves to communism, as they have all been designed for the subjugation of labour, not its liberation from its status as labour. In casting its faith in the saving power of technology to escape the problems of our world, the film fails to delve into the processes of class composition and social reconstruction which any meaningful revolution would necessarily entail.

And yet for its faults, C offers us an important reminder for our political practice which is the necessary element of voluntarism in social change. We can no longer hope that the tide of history is on our side; as C hints darkly, if left unrestricted, the tide of history may carry us over the falls. In spite of all the obstacles, it does us no good to wait until the perfect moment or the perfect conditions arrive, as they never will. So while I don’t think I’d join Malleck and the hapless passengers of the KESTROS IV on their journey into what awaits, I agree with the Lieutenant Commander that we must act without delay, making creative use of the resources at hand.

And of course, if none of this political nonsense interests you in the slightest, C boasts a charming retro aesthetic, from its 1980s soundtrack, to its spurning of CGI in favour of plastic models shot against a black sheet. Watch it.

In Feminist defence of the Mystical Pregnancy trope

[Trigger warning: discussion of pregnancy, abortion, pictures from horror movies, mention of suicide]

After my rant against the Manic Pixie Dream Girl being perceived as an evil to ban from all culture forever while avoiding to think of the issue of representation of women with mental health issues in films, which proved suspiciously popular, I decided to write my own defence of the Mystical Pregnancy trope, which was also popularized by a Feminist Frequency video. Despite the fact I have, at least in both these instances, different views, I want to make clear that I still recommend that series of videos which are accessible and thought-provoking. Sadly enough, I find them also, in some cases, too consensual and superficial. The mystical pregnancy trope is summarized very eloquently by a blogger in these terms:

“Hey we’ve got this awesome independent strong lady character what sort of story lines shall we give her?”

“Oh I know, how about we strip her of her bodily autonomy and reduce her to her biology by having the bad guys make her pregnant against her will with an evil baby”

“Genius! I can’t see any problems with that story line. It doesn’t sound hackneyed and hugely misogynistic at all!”tumblr_m74kjkJM9s1rrn3uao1_500

The problem I have with “banning” such storylines is that, like many women, I see myself as, or at least I aspire to be a strong woman; like many women, I have become pregnant against my will (although fortunately not by a bad guy or, I suppose, with a particularly evil baby) and I definitely felt stripped of my bodily autonomy and reduced to my biology. I am glad sci-fi and horror exist to show us an image of pregnancy that is not the happy pregnant woman, or the woman that discovers in the end pregnancy is not that bad, even if she does not want to be a mother (thinking of Juno here, which I like for other reasons, but not the idea that pregnancy can be fun and quirky after all), or, more generally, the woman whose pregnancy changes and defines her whole life, and that’s why Deanna Troi’s adventure does not bother me so much. I actually like the “oh yeah, she got pregnant, got a weird kid that disappeared mysteriously, well that’s never going to be mentioned ever again because who cares, she has other issues” aspect of it!

Since I was young, I have always likened the prospect of ever being pregnant with what you can see in the Alien movies, and if I am such a fan of those movies (yes, all of them, even whichever one you feel is a betrayal of the franchise) and along with them, of many of the stories cited in lists of supposedly anti-feminist stories based around the mystical pregnancy trope, it is because I feel they address my own anxieties about pregnancy, body-changes, reproduction and motherhood, more accurately than other attempts to portray these issues in media.

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In the same way, I found David Cronenberg’s The Brood fascinating, despite the fact that it can easily be seen to have a Men’s Rights’ Activist subtext, especially when we consider it is a Canadian movie made 10 years before the Polytechnic massacre.

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What society in general tells me is that I am an abnormal woman, or less than a woman, to have no desire to be pregnant, have a child or be a mother, and a whole branch of Feminism reinforces that. I am the monster, when what I feel is that pregnancy and babies are monstrous. I have never found a doctor that believes that not wanting a child ever is possible for a woman. A GP actually gave me some information about what is practically grief-counselling when I planned my abortion, and mentioned that I would “not be human” if I did not feel some kind of remorse. Well-meaning, but really confusing to me. And the half-amused “oh, you will see, you’ll come round!” is in many ways a lot more insulting than accusations of being monstrous as it is basically considering me as a child.

Being pregnant made me physically and mentally sick, it was a horrible experience which I do not recommend to anyone. I really wish my body had had a way to “shut the whole thing down” and maybe in some psychosomatic way it was trying its best. During that period, I went to see Prometheus at the cinema. In this film, skip this if you are a spoiler-hater, the protagonist performs a surgical abortion (ceasarean?) on herself to extract the monster gestating in her. At which point my friend turned to me to enquire if I was okay or wanted to leave. But I found it AWESOME. It depicted exactly my state of mind at the time, and I think that is the major reason why I am almost the only person who actually enjoyed that film. Later, we discussed the numerous things which do not make sense in that film, and he listed the fact that she has to self-operate on herself, as the surgery machine does not have software for female body-types. It is true that it would make logical sense that the machine would either only work on one particular body, or all, although justifications can be found. However, the real justification for that detail, and the reason why I strongly appreciated it, has to do with the fact it addresses, in a single sentence, powerful issues about bodies, medicine and gender.

I believe that if our society puts such an emphasis on how awesome pregnancy and babies are, it is not only because of woman-hating patriarchy, it is also to try and avoid women whose pregnancy make them feel like I did (like you are no longer yourself, like your body is not yours, etc.) killing themselves. Now that safer ways exist to end a pregnancy, though, this cultural insistence has obviously lost this positive role. But if we still fight for abortions’ rights, when no abortion procedure is entirely safe, when we don’t believe that DNA is something anyone can ‘own’, or that parenthood is in any way based on it, and adoption is an available option, then we have to recognize that pregnancy in itself can be a cause of intense suffering to women.

If the mystical pregnancy trope exists and is so popular, it is in my opinion because a lot of women, whether they intend to get pregnant or not, whether they decide to be mothers or not when they are, have deep, complex feelings about pregnancy, and sci-fi and horror is a space in which to address those feelings, while putting aside what is perceived like more “normal” issues surrounding pregnancy.