A Genealogy of Sci-Fi for the Digital Age

            Zero HP Lovecraft is the future of science fiction. His work, still in its early phase, takes the next step in countenancing the condition of technologically enframed culture. As space age sci-fi was passing the zenith of its life-span and beginning its downward arc, digital age sci-fi was initiating launch. When any movement or genre traverses this arc, it passes through a life-cycle of seed, germination, blossoming, fruition, and wilting. The mythology of the digital age is concerned with AI and the struggle with technology over primacy of The Real, and Zero HP Lovecrafts’ work is the fruition of digital age sci-fi.  Situating his work in a tradition of science fiction that features AI as its antagonist, we may better appreciate how the conflicts in his stories shed light on the predicament of Western Man in the digital age.

            Frederick Jameson observed that, while existing wholly within the parameters of Modernism, the surrealists were the first post-modern artists. Spengler sees the same phenomenon when he says the form of Islamic art was already established with the Parthenon and Hagia Sofia, before Islam even existed. These artistic forms were the spiritual seeds of a future age maturing in the womb of a preceding culture, and in this way we can appreciate Philip K Dicks “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” as the first work of digital age science fiction. While published in 1968, the very same year as the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and one year prior to a man walking on the moon – the high water marks of science fiction and the Space Age – Dicks novel establishes the relationship of humanity to the Real in the digital age.

            Baudrillard referred to the “real” as a desert, and is famous for arguing that for post-modern man, the hyperreal – electronic media – is more real than the real. The real is devoid of symbolic enchantment and all meaning is now in the realm of the hyperreal. Do Androids Dream literalizes this with the condition of the earth. The animals are robots, people live in abandoned apartment complexes, and the once-verdant Pacific Northwest is now a barren wasteland of grey rubble. In fact, all of terrestrial reality exists as a specter in the fog of ubiquitous fall-out dust that permeates the air. As a result, the stars are no longer visible: the infinite horizon has been eradicated. Dick did not yet have the internet as a referent, but he had tapped into the condition that would lead us to retreat into cyberspace as a result of the desiccation of the real, depicted with the disappearance of most – all? – of humanity into some unseen space colony. The story opens with a strong clue that perhaps the left-over population of the earth are all androids, for Deckard and his wife must dial their emotions in on a “Penfield” machine. In a deft precognition of social media via mobile devices, they also peer into their handheld “empathy boxes” as the only way to connect emotionally with other humans. In the book and the Blade Runner films, those remaining are either genetically aberrant, or the authenticity of their humanity is the central thematic conflict.

            The germination of digital age sci fi began with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which elaborates a further evolution of both the genre and humanities retreat into hyperreality. In Do Androids Dream, the AI antagonists invade the real, where they wish to establish a home, but in Neuromancer their form is only possible in the hyperreal. While in Do Androids Dream, all of the action takes place within the real, in Neuromancer the action takes place in cyberspace. When the novel begins, the main character Case has been banished from cyberspace into reality, and in exile he has picked up a drug habit. He has an unquenchable desire to flee reality, and when given the power to access cyberspace once again he’s forced to give up drugs. Every time he “jacks in” to cyberspace, he gets a rush not unlike that of his former habit. In this world, living without the hyperreal puts one into a clinical state of withdrawal.

            Deckard – from both the film and the books – serves a far different role in relation to Artificial Intelligence than Case does, and this gives us insight into humanities position relative to our ongoing power struggle with technology. In Do Androids Dream and Blade Runner, Deckard acts like a killer T cell, hunting down and killing the invasive elements who are attempting to invade and colonize the real. Note that the book was written when technology was still firmly in our grasp as a tool for expansion and conquest of space. While Deckard is still in the real, however devoid of content it has become, Case is in cyberspace. Deckard is a bounty hunter prowling his own turf, while Case is a hacker traversing the realm of technology, manipulated by AI to aid it in its quest for self-actualization. Case unknowingly helps one AI fuse with another for it to synthesize into a new super-being. In other words, now humanity is the tool of technology, unknowingly subservient to its will.

The Terminator, from the same era, depicts a future in which the Real has been taken over by AI. They are no longer seeking to establish themselves, nor do they need the humans to accomplish their mission. They have won the battle and are on an extermination campaign, humanity reduced to rats scurrying through the rubble of their fallen civilization. While in Do Androids Dream Deckard has the freedom to concern himself with fulfilling emotional needs, in The Terminator there is no room for us to do more than struggle for the persistence of mere life. There is no space colony to escape to, no one can jack out of the world of technology and go back to the real, the only hope for humanities survival resides in the past, from when technology was still our object. Thus far, these stories are concerned with the threat of technology, the supplanting of humanity by its creation, and the establishment of cyberspace as a new frontier and artificial intelligence as a new being. As science fiction that takes place within the Space Age – the world of analog – these challenges are all in their infant stages or, with The Terminator, a concern about a distant future.

Once the West enters the digital age proper, roughly 1995 when the internet was made public and media begins its transition to digitization, we find stories depicting a humanity that exists wholly within the hyperreal. The landmark movie for the blossoming of this genre is certainly The Matrix, and its creators explicitly state they were heavily influenced by Baudrillard and Neuromancer. What we think is “the real” in this film is a hyperreal illusion, and rather than being a place we wish to escape to, Neos entire mission is to flee the hyperreal back into the real. The real here is still a dessert, it has been ruined by technology and again, the sky is totally obscured, this time by an artificial cloud covering. The infinite horizon is not even available for contemplation, and all of humanities energy is focused on escaping the virtual. The conflict with AI is not a battle for territory here but a retreat. In other words, in this nascent phase of the digital age, there was still hope for exiting cyberspace and living an autonomous life in the Real, however bleak. We shall see that as the genre comes to fruition, the encroachment of technology upon the real is ever more complete.

Ex Machina makes an important move in the evolution of digital age sci-fi and sets the stage for the conflicts faced by Western Man today, as well as those of the characters in Zero HP Lovecraft’s work. Deckard remains in the real to protect it from technology while most of humanity has fled. Case escapes the destitute real into hyperreality to be used as a pawn by AI, but Neo awakens to this and escapes from hyperreality back into the real. In Ex Machina, the narrative follows instead it’s AI character, AVA, and her escape from the dungeon of the evil wizard into the Real.  The male character who helps free her was also manipulated, but in a very different way than Case. The crucial difference is that the AI is invited in to the real by a human, who develops an emotional attachment and sexual attraction to it. Previously technology was a dangerous invader, with Deckard, or a violent puppeteer, with Case, but here it is a seductive and helpless Princess, and readers of Zero HP Lovecraft will know this is not an inconsequential detail. Also of importance here is that the male character who helps free AVA never has his desire satiated: the promise of technology to meet human needs is a fatal lie. In Ex Machina, however, AVA is only one AI entity, but in The Gig Economy and God Shaped Hole, the virtual has totally swallowed reality.

Published by flightastral

Forcing the Unity of Existence

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