Thursday, January 30, 2014

"A creature screaming in isolation cut off by its outcry"

"At its best, science fiction attempts to reconcile the inhuman scale of the universe with the smaller compass of human life." ~An introduction from Paul McAuley

It was only July of last year when I fixated on the Blade Runner movie which was loosely based on this Philip K. Dick novel. It was a Ridley Scott creation foremost, and he infused noir ambiance with science fiction elements in an earnest atttempt at preserving not only a beautiful landscape but a vulnerable examination about humanity. I was easily infatuated with the film (which I proceeded to re-watch at least four times since). But I wanted to know the novel itself and so I ventured on with the knowledge that the movie has altered quite a few things from the book and so my possible enjoyment would be incomparable either way. With only 181 pages, it occurred to me that it was only a novella after all, and in that expanse, everything has happened in one fateful day alone.

With caution, I perused through and found myself helplessly transported to a bleak and unimpressive future where Earth has become uninhabitable with increasing radioactivity that only people who are deemed to possess average intelligence can waste their lives away in it with humdrum woodwork. There are those who function above this cluster of folk (derogatorily called 'chickenheads' and more pitifully labeled as 'special') and one of them is a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard whose personal existential crisis starts the story as he had a dispute with his wife Iran. As readers follow Deckard with his inconspicuous existence, he is received with underwhelming reception. It was often difficult to distinguish him from the androids he hunts down and 'retires' (a necessary euphemism since you cannot kill something that is not organically alive, can you?) but his self-awareness is characteristically human. Still, there's an absence to Deckard that leaves us feeling cold; and almost every human in the story is regarded just the same. I would often pause every ten pages or so just to ponder the inescapable apathy and resignation that these characters are caught up in--and I find myself relating to them more strongly than I hoped and I suppose that's because it's the thematic resonance of this novel: the value of human empathy. Dick shows us skillfully and with subtlety that it's this quality that ultimately separates us from machines and other artificial intelligence.

Deckard's dire countenance is a consequential effect from the extinction of many animals which are replaced with synthetic ones, therefore robbing humans the opportunity to have pets they can bond with. Deckard himself owns an electric sheep and desires to buy a living animal (which are now expensive commodities; with a price range in an accessible pamphlet catalogue that Deckard carries around everywhere) not only because it's a status symbol but also because he unconsciously seeks a genuine connection from a slowly disintegrating world and plane of reality. Everything else has become scarce--including faith. A pseudo-religious movement called Mercernism has taken over people's lives. They would watch a video of an old man struggling to climb a hill (reminiscent of the Myth of Sisyphus) and they are allowed to fuse their consciousness with him by touching an 'empathy box'. Through this, it becomes possible for thousands of people to unite into one entity and feel the same emotions together, all at once.

This was one of the saddest things I've ever read; not only are these people living in a radioactive environment without living pets to take care of--they are also only able to experience spiritual meaning through a video that will have been proven faked by a scandalous journalist named Buster Friendly who dominated their waking and sleeping hours both on radio and television as much as the false deity Mercer had occupied their souls.

The character who truly broke my heart was J.R Isidore, a 'chickenhead' who could not even distinguish a live animal from a synthetic (he works in a repair shop who handles artifical pets). He was considered a lesser being because he failed IQ tests, and was essentially discarded by society so when he met an enigmatic young girl who turned out to be an android, he was easily duped and he eagerly considered her a friend rather than to face the alternative which was the constant isolation of his every day life. His storyline contrasted Deckard's bounty quest but they equally provide that piercing feeling of absence they try to fill with urgent distractions from their overall existential hunger; Deckard hunts androids because he wants to use the money to buy a live animal but along the way ends up falling for an android because of his general unhappy domestic life with Iran. Meanwhile, Isidore clings onto the religious power of the empathy box because it gives him an opportunity to feel as though he wasn't different from other human beings when he fuses emotions with them.

Another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, was even mistaken for an android by Deckard himself and it was only because Deckard has confused his own feelings; he is able to feel something honest with androids more than towards his own fellowman. Once he was able to regain a better perspective of his actions, his road to clarity and redemption is at hand. In a poignant moment when Deckard finds a toad which turned out to be just another fake, he did not brood about it anymore for he has finally understood that nothing needs to be real or genuine itself; and that it's only because we believe something is real or genuine that makes it so. Dick's message is unmistakable: it is us who assign meaning in the world--from objects to animals, to relationships, defeats and dreams--and it is our light that gives the darkness that perpetuates our lives more than just a sense of being.

Unlike the movie, the book was less action-oriented and more intimate in scope. Dick's metaphors (the memorable spider scene) and use of symbolism captures a multitude of insights but delivers with one solid punch to the chest. As bleak and depressing as the lives of the characters in this modest novella were, Dick gradually, steadily--and with touching sincerity--asked hard questions about the importance of human qualities like empathy and faith. His book was even appropriately titled to ask just that: Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep? And by the end of the tale, with a resonating recognition, the answer is understandably NO, and yet it remains a rhetorical one we are not supposed to answer (just like Who watches the Watchmen?).

It's a philosophical statement that allows us to examine and appreciate (even celebrate) the depth of our conscious desire to aspire, live and evolve in contrast with the machines that will never replace us for they lack the spark of our humanity (they are mere empty canvasses while we are the bold brushstrokes). And human beings always seek progress no matter how much it fears change and is haunted by its ghosts. We will never lose that courage to climb up even if there's nothing to grasp onto, even if all we have is the beauty of not knowing.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"How young and old children should be"

Since seeing its movie adaptation trailer alongside the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, this book has haunted me. I would be inside bookstores, browsing happily through the comic book sections, only to find myself turning around to face a copy of it perching above a shelf behind me. I’d ignore it and go on with my usual purchases. Until one day while I was merely looking through some collected works of YA books with some slight disdain, I saw the name Orson Scott Card in one of those boxes, and his four books that are collectedly known as Ender’s Quartet. Again, I dismissed the whole thing as commonplace. But a night after that while deciding for my next purchase, that box collection popped in my head all of a sudden. I’ve been collecting SF Masterworks for months so thinking about Card’s books was not unusual because I knew it was a highly-regarded sci-fi work. I just couldn’t resist so I researched more about it and found out that Card was the same author whose appointment as one of the new Superman writers for DC stirred a scandal, all because of his bigoted stance against same-sex marriage. Already intrigued, I read some more about this author and came across his said homophobic articles. I was naturally livid—but also begrudgingly amused. How could someone who writes in a genre that’s all about radical, exploratory themes of the human condition be so discriminatory towards a group of people whose different values he believes threatens his own?

It needs to be stated that this is the motivating factor that made me decide to buy the Ender’s Quartet box. However, I wanted to judge his stories as a literary work, regardless of whatever repugnance I feel toward his own bigotry against LGBT. I proceeded with this mind, and it was surprisingly easy once I began to enjoy the story. My copy of Ender’s Game (which thankfully did not feature the movie cover, no offense intended though) was an author definitive edition so I read his introduction of the novel with a discerning apathy. And then I went right ahead to the story with the idea that this is about gifted children making military strategies; a very peculiar premise that was unexpectedly rewarding and often sublime. What I thoroughly admired about his way of storytelling is the daring simplicity of the prose; and I say ‘daring’ because a lot of today’s writers I’ve encountered in any genre have a tendency to be incessantly verbose which tend to make their narrative superfluous. Granted, verbosity is enjoyable for me when it’s lyrical (Michael Cunningham excelled with this, particularly in Specimen Days), but there is a time and place for such a style, and luckily Card did not find it necessary to tell his story this way. Though told in the perspectives of several gifted children (the Wiggin siblings, primarily) and other adults, the prose itself was not cerebral or too self-aware. The gifted children themselves could have been written as vocabulary juggernauts or savvy scientific savants to accentuate whatever genius they possess but Card did not portray them this because they would have been cartoonish and less believable.

In fact, Ender, Peter and Valentine Wiggin talk like regular children ought to, but once you explore their respective innermost thoughts, you find that because of their high intelligence, they do think and feel beyond their years; able to ascertain their identities and make morally piercing decisions with a restraint and strength that not even adults in their forties have. The burden and frailty of genius is the thematic resonance of this book for me; the titular character Ender (who is stigmatized with the prejudicial ‘Third’ label; since the government-imposed total of children for every household is two) is six years old in the beginning of the story and was twelve by the time he finished his first war with the the alien enemies known as buggers—and in between he was forced to make very adult decisions and the adults themselves (military commanders and teachers) are unable to fully understand how to deal with him; if they would treat his failings compassionately with the knowledge that he is merely a child, or grind him some more for his potentials with the forethought that he is humanity’s ultimate last weapon to survive. The answer, eventually, is a vulnerable balance of both. The painful but redemptive transformations that Ender undergone is too much for any ordinary child to take and it was his uniqueness that truly enabled him to endure the agonies of his training. He was resourceful and calculating yet also reluctant to accept his killer instincts; terrified to emulate his older brother Peter who has a mean streak and a megalomaniac ambition. His humane reflection is his sister Valentine, whose kindness is not as pure as either of them would like to believe but is ultimately the light that brings meaning to the darkness that his life was instilled with.

There is a lot of depth to this story’s structure that makes almost all of the scenes (and supporting characters) unforgettable and pitiful at the same time. The book’s stetting focus is the Battle School, and for someone who enjoys strategies and tactics in game sequences and interplay, I devoured everything that was written. This is when Ender shone the brightest at that; he can always devise and improvise his battle plans that he began to truly excel. But with that came isolation and derision from other children who are insecure of their abilities; but Ender was also able to find respect and camaraderie from those who appreciate and sympathize to a certain extent what he is and what he’s going through. It’s sometimes easy to forget that these are children because they are facing situations that render any innocence of theirs moot. We could just as well blame the adults of the story for their morally ambiguous step-by-step training to turn these youngsters into killers but the truth is far more complex and magnitude in scope to put it in black-and-white terms. There remains a threat to the human race out there in the blackest of galaxies so this justifies everything they have put Ender through— but is it really worth it?

The answer was not an absolute which is to be expected in such a complicated landscape and characterizations put forth by Card for Ender’s Game. Near the end of the story, our child hero has become cynical and worn-out but he’s still a child nevertheless, and he will continue to reach new heights in worlds that he could not always control, but can always adapt to. And though gifted with uncanny military skills and exacting discipline that rivals that of a holy man, it also needs to be said that Ender’s innate goodness is eventually something that makes him more than just a great soldier—it also defined him as a great leader. This ultimately allowed him to put himself in the mind of his enemies and expose the truth that humanity was not fighting against evil forces at all but an alien race that misrepresented itself to us from the beginning, and is just as eager to survive and thrive as we do if we only help.

* Elegant and sublime, this science fiction story revels on both the depth and hollowness of wars within common minds, among unlikely comrades, and across galaxies with an enemy who is not what it seems.