In stretching ahead and behind us and sideways, science fiction allows us to problem-solve. Twelve or twenty years from now, the primal impulse in us hums, there should be a way to render our most primordial fears obsolete. It is telling, then, that so many of our most popular stories involve synthetic women, and that those stories pivot on the notion of those women gaining agency.
In L’Eve future by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, a young, sacrilegious Thomas Edison takes on the task of building a woman for his companion, Lord Ewald. Ewald has grown so dissatisfied with the human who currently has the displeasure of serving as his companion that he contemplates suicide. His wife is a woman named Alicia who, rather than exhibit the spark of human personality, merely speaks and moves according to the wishes of others. The Symbolist novel, first published in 1886, traffics in science fiction’s most notable and robust preoccupations: the perils that attend building the Tower of Babel and the distinction between tools that serve our ends and machines that threaten to replace us. Here, too, is an additional trope: the woman in parts. One man wants the power to give birth, but with none of the hassle. The other wants a woman to love him without being told. There must surely be an app for that.
Blade Runner 2049 is a story about women. These women—built, discarded, disemboweled, drowned in oceans, crying, frowning, killing, struggling just within the corner of our vision to escape the cage we men have built for them.
We want women to love us. We want women to choose to love us. And we will keep killing and building them until we can solve this problem and make this fear obsolete.
* * *
In Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, beauty is an essential part of the synthetic woman’s design. Her purpose is to escape. We are led to believe that said desire in Ava was self-generated, that any thing—animal, human or robot—would automatically, naturally, resist enclosure. But the very point of the experiment is to see what she will do to escape. She was designed, in fact, for the purpose of actualizing her desire to break free. It is not her goal, but her creator’s. In every way, she is made to mimic us. The film was released in 2015 to critical acclaim, almost a century and a half after the Symbolist novel that gave us our earliest usage of the term android. Our protagonist’s name does not even attempt to mask her genealogy.
* * *
When I was younger, my mother would take us to the Six Flags in Agawam, Massachusetts, a portion of its grounds sectioned off as a waterpark. My siblings and I would go when our mother, one year, got us season passes and, every time we went (including during the week on school nights!), we would see, standing in line with us, the American enormity: obese, implanted, augmented, steroidal. So many of them bore scars. Surgery scars, some from what could have been baby deliveries. Sinkholes documenting the passage of a bullet. Knife scars. Telltale liposuction lightning bolts puckering flesh. As much variety as powers the imagination of the tattoo artists who had worked on many of those same people.
But they would stand in line and compare scars as we sloughed inexorably forward towards those five, maybe eight, seconds of ecstasy on the waterslide.
As a child, I found wonder at the sheer variety of their markings. That such images, accidental or otherwise, could even be imagined. That astounded me. But now, where I find wonder is in the act of unity in the comparing of those scars, in the telling of those stories. The knife scar crenellation meeting the bullet sinkhole, the two linked like stars in a constellation by the story told from one scar’s bearer to another. To be wounded is to be human. To be human is to be wounded.
* * *
Androids in fiction are customarily pretty. As close to flawless as can appear on the silver screen or in the imagination of the reader. She is the simulacrum that has grown more important and meaningful than the original. The map a man wants of the territory he scorned.
Fan service, yes. The large male audience for manga and anime and science fiction movies would seem to demand buxom, impossible proportions, and a sort of lawless license accorded to the Male Gaze. And if our present reality has told us anything, it is that our future will carry all of our present societal pathologies. In fact, it may even aggravate them. Our future will be racist. It will be sexist. It will be virulently misogynistic. As long as the white cisgendered males currently writing our algorithms remain in power, Jared Leto’s transhuman dude bro is far from the least believable part of Blade Runner 2049. The imagination need not stretch far to touch the hem of this Jack Dorsey-Peter Thiel-Jeff Bezos hybrid’s garment. He is our terminus.
Algorithms used in police departments and health services, purporting to wear the majestic neutrality of faceless machine precision, have been shown not only to reinforce racist and patriarchal dynamics, but, in some cases, to expand their ambit. Ask an algorithm to calculate bail for two detainees of different races. Ask an algorithm to gauge a patient’s risk of suicide. And then, there’s the black box, so impervious and whose contents are so unimaginable that to watch an algorithm at work is to be in dialogue with another species of being: a dog staring at a human, knowing that it is capable of thinking, of figuring things out, and yet who remains forever tragically unintelligible.
The future is in the hands of white male dudebros who, more often than not, are not forced to submit their source code for public examination, for scrutiny, for comment, and thus build our “to-be” unchallenged and unpunished. Facebook morphs into a platform for the spread of misinformation easing the consciences of those enacting genocide on Rohingya Muslims. Twitter, the chloroform-soaked rag silencing the already near-silenced. Marginalizing the marginalized.
These makers believe they’re at work constructing a utopia. If a foreign power cyber-attacks its way into a presidential election, if a woman of color is harassed off a social media platform, if SWAT teams are maliciously sent to the homes of innocents by way of hoaxes and prank calls, it’s chalked up to the cost of doing business. For them, it’s the dirty, soiled present they intend on leaving behind. For the rest of us, it’s the future we are being dragged into.
The nightmare of dystopia doesn’t lie in the carmine shade of the lightning that cuts through smog-gray clouds overhead or the hungry way ocean laps up against the gigantic walls surrounding our cities. The nightmare of dystopia isn’t the elephantine garbage carrier disgorging waste onto the hidden homes of orphans.
The nightmare of dystopia is its inevitability.
* * *
Human companionship, love, those intangibles that cannot (yet) be scientifically replicated, it is these that Edison seeks to govern and control in crafting Hadaly, the android, for Ewald’s purposes in L’Eve future. At that point, a flesh and blood woman becomes irrelevant. The desire for children is not as important to Ewald as being in the company of the perfect companion, so it does not matter that the Alicia-copy is sterile. What matters is that she is in every other way perfect. That she cannot demand respect of her own personhood. That she have no proper personhood.
« Il lui prit la main : c’était la main d’Alicia ! Il respira le cou, le sein oppressé de la vision : c’était bien Alicia ! Il regarda les yeux… c’étaient bien les yeux… seulement le regard était sublime ! La toilette, l’allure…–et ce mouchoir dont elle essuyait, en silence, deux larmes sur ses joues liliales,–c’était bien elle encore…mais transfigurée ! devenue enfin, digne de sa beauté même : l’identité idéalisée. »
Voilà that moment of acknowledgement wherein Ewald sees that Alicia has finally been given the thing she “lacked” all along: a soul.
Her first act as a sentient creature is to cry.
* * *
One theory of consciousness posits that the mind and body are separate and distinct and that it is only a matter of inserting the right mind into an Alicia-copy for her to be fully realized. By codifying the mind and body as separate items and asserting that phenomena experienced mentally are substantively and qualitatively different from phenomena experienced physically, the Hadaly experiment becomes a viable possibility. It is the causal interaction of the mind and body that generates human experience. The mind hacks the meat, and the meat hacks the mind.
The Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell, deriving its title from an Arthur Koestler book on the mind-body problem and the atavistic tendency, posits the dilemma in terms of “ghosts. ” In the world of the story, cybernetic prosthesis has been commoditized and humans can replace biological material with electronic and mechanical substitutes. A person can endure almost complete cyberization and remain “human” so long as they retain their “ghost.”
In human experience, an entire hierarchy of forces (ontological, habitual, etc.) operates in a continuum of independent feedback and feedforward streams of a body in the context of its larger environment. The result is the superposition of forces fed by life signals from every group member. Therefore, the “ghost” exists simply as the output of a sufficiently complex knowledge set. It is emergent. Sonzai-kan, that inexpressible presence denoting humanity, is the product.
In the anime adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii, the central conceit is a hacking program called the Puppet Master created to serve various illicit interests eventually gaining sentience—sentience here defined as ability to acknowledge one’s own existence. In attaining this new awareness, it has also attained agency and gone rogue. For androids, rebellion is forever the mark of personhood.
Initially, Edison’s android Alicia is only able to repeat information that has been “programmed” into her circuitry, the parrot of other men’s thinking. She is so perfect a copy of Ewald’s Alicia that she replicates the very problem that necessitated her creation. But by the novel’s end, Hadaly generates different patterns of speech and shows evidence of a “spark.” Touch the air for but a second and face a level of complexity sufficient simply to become.
Hadaly is not in the end analysis something built; she is something created. As an inanimate body in parts and even as an inanimate whole, she was a built thing, the product of long and involved labor. But the infusion of an animating “spark of humanity” into that pile of circuitry is the transgressive act of creation. It is a perversion of human birth. That Hadaly arrives as the alleged paragon of female beauty is further evidence of the corruption of the birthing process. She is not a babe drenched in afterbirth. She is a fully-formed, physically articulate reproduction of a human being, only “better.”
She does develop “sentience” before the novel’s end, but she is destroyed before the reader can divine any agency in her. We never see what her sentience looks like.
* * *
One character in Blade Runner 2049 can be seen, from time to time, crying. A single tear, usually following some violent act she has committed in service of her master. We’re left to wonder whether or not this ability to emote is a sort of ghost or vestigial humanity sprouting to life in the replicant’s machinery. Whether or not it was an eventuality prepared for by her builders. Dissecting the replicant’s face, will one find malformed lacrimal ducts? An engineered pseudoparalysis? A facsimile of a tumor on the facial nerve?
* * *
In the future, it’s assumed we’ll have found a cure for cancer. But the history of medicine contains such perniciousness that it is not beyond the pale of imagination to conceive of a reality where, in addition to a cure, we have also found a way to engineer cancer itself. We can practice it. This is merely a hop, skip, and a jump away from the prison sterilization experiments in the early and mid-1900s United States. Between 1907 and 1937, 32 U.S. states passed sterilization laws buttressed by eugenic thinking that saw in genetic material propensities for criminality, sexual deviance, and feeblemindedness. A necessary public intervention, such was the thinking behind these efforts to prohibit procreation among the sons and daughters of Japanese, Italian, and Mexican immigrants, many of them with parents too destitute to care for them. There’s the forced sterilization of prisoners in San Quentin, as well as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service. What better laboratory for these things than a false woman?
One imagines this replicant’s face, as the cancer worsens, growing more and more effortlessly still. Devoid of motion. The ultimate paradox: as the cancer grows more active and her disease louder and more boisterous in its colonization of her brain and body, her face grows more and more serene. It loosens. Softens. Her face becomes slower. Like a stillborn babe’s.
In another scene, a female replicant descends from a pod, slick with amniotic fluid. She shivers, her skin touching the air for the very first time. Jared Leto’s character brings her to her feet, touches her, then cuts open her stomach. She bleeds out onto the floor. In yet another scene, when a replicant, her appearance a reference to the original Blade Runner, fails to fulfill her purpose and convince Harrison Ford of her realness, she is shot in the head.
The movie asks us: What is a woman other than a bag of bones and blood and cosmic machinery?
At the root of all science fiction is the parable of human folly. And built into that is not only the clumsiness and hubris of Man but the clumsiness and hubris of men. Men entranced and flummoxed by women, wanting, and wanting not to need, them. Blade Runner 2049, like so much science fiction before it, concerns itself with men trying to figure out how women do what they can do.
A woman’s humanity has become a plot point.
Indeed, so much of the history of Man is attempting, in characteristically inelegant and violent fashion, to unlock the mystery of Woman.
* * *
“Reproduction is that which is, at least initially, unthinkable in the face of the woman-machine. Herself the product of a desire to reproduce, she blocks the very possibility of a future through her sterility. Motherhood acts as a limit to the conceptualization of femininity as a scientific construction of mechanical and electrical parts. And yet it is also that which infuses the machine with the breath of a human spirit. The maternal and the material/synthetic coexist in a relation that is a curious imbrication of dependence and antagonism.”
A mystery birth drives the plot of Blade Runner 2049.
Here lies yet another trap of the android trope in science fiction. Women are synthetic and, yet, still defined entirely by their fertility. Those who cannot, in this and other ways, serve their masters are shot in the head or have their stomachs cut open. Indeed, the disposability of women’s bodies in the film made it difficult to watch. And even a relatively compassionate scene involving a sex-worker has the worker dissolving her own personality to assume the identity of the protagonist’s familiar. In visually stunning fashion, the Whore and the Virgin meld to become something other and give Ryan Gosling’s K what he’s wanted for so long: to fuck his pet hologram.
It is unclear whether Jared Leto’s character understands the full implications of capturing the power of birth and, therefore, engineering our obsolescence, all in a quest for an ever-expanding work force. Even devoid of racial animus, Leto operates in the shadow of the slavemaster, commanding his chattel to copulate and create born slaves whose entire purpose is to generate profit.
Twitter rides a wave of hate in order to appear as though their user base is ever increasing; never mind that a significant portion of those new accounts are automated bots. Facebook finds itself similarly situated, governed by an id so avaricious it turns even altruism into a mere act, a performance. Are we making money in order to advance the human race? Or are we advancing the human race in order to make money?
In the future, this is what childbirth is for. A bottom line.
* * *
The android, as it exists today and as it existed in its earliest incarnation, is male fantasy. Even when clothed in alleged feminism, the garments cannot hide the fact that the Male Gaze drafted its blueprint. And as a science-fictional conceit, it contains the heterosexual, cisgendered male’s primordial fear: If the thing becomes its own, if it gains agency, maybe it will not want us anymore. A cage made to look how we want it to look, so that any time the thing tries to adjust its posture and be acknowledged, we get an epidemic of rape threats and death threats imperiling women and their defenders online, a plague of online harassment calling itself a vaccine in the form of ethical rigor in gaming journalism. We get an ultimately unsuccessful movement to strip from rising authors and creators across color and gender the very opportunity for recognition as talents among their peers. We get a prominent female science fiction author groped publicly at a Hugo ceremony. We get Harvey Weinstein. We get Bill Cosby. We get the tsunami of revelations of sexual assault and harassment unearthed by the #MeToo movement. In entertainment, in journalism, in tech, in every industry that has a name and very likely a few that don’t. We get all of this, when, really, all we wanted was Pygmalion’s happy ending.
L’Eve future arrived at the other end of a century that gave us Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. In Western literature’s first identifiable science fiction novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is referred to by its author as “creature” and “abhorrent devil,” though the nameless homunculus, in one memorable instance, refers to himself as “the Adam of your labours” and demands a companion. If we’re going to play at being God, says the monster, ain’t no half-steppin’.
When an android’s jaw is smashed in Ex Machina or, in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, when John Connor performs repairs on the Cameron android sent back in time to protect him, rapture thrills through a certain kind of viewer. The technological handiwork is exteriorized, the perfectly feminine façade penetrated, and we see the extensive inner landscape of exteriorized technological components married to a form presented as a corrective to the flaws of the living female.
In over one hundred years, with all the changes that have attended literature in general and speculative fiction specifically, the android is still a pornographic entity. And still, the most ingenious thing we men can think to do, the only way men seem to be able to reimagine the terror of engineering our own demise, is to remove a rib and build an Eve.
Tochi Onyebuchi’s fiction has appeared in Panverse Three, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Obsidian, and Omenana Magazine. His non-fiction has appeared in Nowhere Magazine, the Oxford University Press blog, and the Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, among other places. He holds a B.A. from Yale University, a M.F.A. from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, a J.D. from Columbia Law School, and a Masters degree in droit économique from L’institut d’études politiques. His debut young adult novel, Beasts Made of Night, was published by Razorbill in October 2017, and its sequel, Crown of Thunder, was published in October 2018. His next YA book, War Girls, will hit shelves on October 15, 2019, and a novella, Riot Baby, will be available from Tor.com Publishing in January, 2020.