Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pedro Almodovar's Film, The Skin I Live In as Cyberclunk

Pedro Almodovars’s film, The Skin I Live In a great example of what I’ve been describing as contemporary Cyberclunk. Almodovar uses technology as a vehicle to explore ideas that the technology suggests without employing literal futurism or speculations about the literal outcome of that technology as a focus.

Almodovar uses the concept of genetic manipulation as an extension of the films central theme. Robert Ledgard is a scientist and surgeon who specializes in plastic surgery. While running off with her lover, Robert Ledgard’s wife is horribly burned and disfigured in a car accident, but later commits suicide. Here Almodovst explores the idea of how body image affects our sense of self. Despite Ledgard’s every attempt to control his wife’s environment so she won’t become aware of the extent of her disfigurement—eliminating mirrors and covering windows-- she catches of a glimpse of herself and consequently commits suicide. Here Ledgard is first and most devastatingly confronted with the fact that people can’t be changed into what he wants them to be.

After Robert Ledgard’s daughter witnesses the suicide of her mother, she becomes deeply dissociative and is institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. On her first outing from the hospital, she attends a family wedding, and afterwards is sexually assaulted. The assault has the effect of making her unable to bear human touch, and since her father was the last person she saw after her assault, she has projected the trauma of the assault onto him, associating him with her persecutor.

Ledgard, is now faced with an untenable situation—everyone he loves is lost to him in a way is unable to control---kidnaps her rapist, and slowly, through a series of surgeries, transforms him into the image of his wife. Here transgenesis is used as a metaphor for what Ledgard desperately desires but can never achieve, and the way it’s presented is as much an aesthetic concept as a literal one. Ledgard has set out to give his experiment the perfect skin, impervious to burns,or insect bites—insect bites because it does not give off the odor of human flesh. In a scene that is pure Cyberclunk, Ledgard pieces together his genetically engineered skin like a dress pattern on a manikin. There’s nothing about this that has anything to do with literal science, but it’s a key visual that relates to theme, manipulating flesh like a garment, skin as something worn rather than a part of us.

The work of the artist Louise Borgeouise is also frequently referenced. Here we see Ledgard’s victim identifying with the suggestions of human flesh in Borgeousie’s work, and how she evokes and manipulates our ideas about the human shape. Again and again in the film this theme of the manipulation of the organic is presented. At another point in the film, Ledgard is shown working on a Bonzai tree. Earlier we see someone dressing a shop dummy made of straw, alternately decorating it with artificial birds and bangles.

In the beginning of the film Ledgard mentions that he has participated in some of the first face transplants. He discusses how this transformative experience of having a new face effects the identity and self-image of the patients, and it is this idea of changing someone fundamentally and the emotional core of their being through their appearance that Ledgard believes in so powerfully. He is so heartbroken by his inability to save or change his wife and daughter that he has to believe this. In the end, he’s unable to impose this image he’s created onto the man who has become his victim. He can’t make him into the wife he wanted, or wants him to be. There’s a direct parallel here with transgenesis: what is the consequence of imposing our will onto our genetic code? Is our ignorance of nature the reason why we have decided to impose our will on nature in so specific away?

But the literal aspect of the technology is irrelevant. Whether or not he’s presented the technology in a feasible way is irrelevant. Almodovar’s film is pure cyberclunk in its willful lack of adherence to scientific plausibility, choosing an aesthetic and metaphoric representation of the science over a literal, hard science fiction model. As in all good science fiction, it is not the technology but the ideas presented by the technology that drives the story.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Why Cyberclunk Will Change How You View Science Fiction As a Genre

 Science fiction fans are often adamant in their definitions of what science fiction is. There’s “hard” science fiction, or science fiction that is an attempt to literarily portray the possibilities suggested by contemporary technology. There’s space opera-- a romance of the fantastic ideas and imagery generated by science fiction. And then there’s fantasy, or everything else, though sometimes very specifically sword and sorcery or “high fantasy” in the Tolkien mode. And for those tired of these distinctions, there’s the all encompassing, “speculative fiction,” which can describe anything and everything and all of above.

 But what if science fiction is simply fiction about science? This doesn’t mean futurism. It doesn’t mean accuracy. Fantasy involving the supernatural is fiction about physics, which is fiction about science. All fiction is speculative fiction, since the very act of imagination is speculation, even if its about what your neighbors might be having for lunch. You can dismiss this as semantics, but words shape how we think about things, so I do think these distinctions can be important in how we view the genre.

Genre is a formal tool. Fiction itself is a formal tool, as is the novel, as is poetry. They are self-imposed limitations on form and structure. Genre, though sometimes about structure, is more a formal constraint regarding content. These formal constraints offer unique challenges. Genre fiction, was, and often is still considered inferior to literary fiction. But in recent years, genre has been embraced by the academic literary community. One way this has happened is through cross pollination, mashing up elements of different genres into something new, or something less obviously recognizable as having precedent. But the work of contemporary authors who have become known for this kind of genre bending, like Chabon and Lethem, shares much in common with science fiction of the past. Authors like Phillip K. Dick who cared little about the consistency of the technology in his stories wrote stories that were arguably not about science at all. Or Ray Bradbury who described a mythic lost alien culture in The Martian Chronicles, presenting lyrical ideas about nostalgia and loss and impermanence that did not have much at all to do with science or any kind of traditional conventions of genre fantasy. But many elements of the genre remained-- the romance of it, the idea of life on other planets and cultures alien to our own. These stories were not deliberate attempts to subvert the genre, genre bending only in the sense that the genre was still being defined. But then, has it ever been truly defined, and does it need to be?

There is no list of rules or definitions that authors adhere to when they write in any given genre. Larry McMurtry subscribes to many of the genre conventions of the Western, but his stories are both Westerns and more than Westerns. But to say that they subvert or transcend the genre is again to suggest that genre is rigidly defined. Stepping out of what are considered the conventions of the genre does not by default make a story more literary than a story that stays within these common conventions. If we are to judge the quality of the content of fiction, distinctions of genre can only serve as a distraction. A story that doesn’t fall within the imagined boundaries of genre can be just as formulaic as as any science fiction story, Western or Romance. Formula is not genre, it’s simply unimaginative or lazy writing, and there’s no genre for bad writing.

I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that science fiction is first and foremost about the time in which it was written, but even in light of this, we often fail to see that futurism is not its purpose. Projections of future technology and outdated attitudes in science fiction of the past seem to us anachronistic and quaint. But all fiction, and all writing for that matter reflects the attitudes of its time. When you read a novel from the past considered now to be literary, there is language and behavior that is no longer contemporary, but we don’t tend to think of this as anachronistic so much as of its time. So why don’t we view science fiction in the same way?

Often the intention of science fiction writers is literal futurism, an attempt to take current social or technological trends and project where they might be headed in the future. This intention, when viewed retrospectively, may seem overly earnest, but non-genre fiction is just as earnest in its own way, just as much an attempt to articulate ideas about human behavior as they were viewed at the time, and in the same way, there is no way to escape those attitudes and conventions in science fiction.

Which Brings Us Back to Cyberclunk

Cyberclunk is not an attempt to subvert genre, but to embrace it. Its formal limitations are no less earnest than in any other genre, and though the suggestion of post-modernism is unavoidable in a post-modern world, post-modern irony is not its focus.

Cyberclunk is not only a genre, but an earnest attempt to view science fiction in a different light. Rather than focus on the idea that the science in the science fiction of the past is anachronistic, Cyberclunk suggests that you accept the world that the author portrays in its totality. Cyberclunk asks you to set aside your literal interpretation of science fiction as futurism and accept the world that the author presents for what it is--not only a reflection of its time but a world in a bubble, a place that the author transports you. As compelling as futurism is as a concept, it can be a distraction if you view it as simple anachronism. Cyberclunk is meant to demonstrate that futurism is not what science fiction is at its center. While Cyberclunk references the technology of its time, it is not a literal projection of how that technology might evolve from contemporary technology. The technology is deliberately implausible in the literal sense. To further emphasize this fact, the consistency in the details of the era are similarly ignored or satirized. Sinatra might exist in the same world as Justin Bieber. Early computing involving magnetic tape might be used in the same environment as the internet.

The goal of Cyberclunk is no less than to change how you view science fiction in general by demonstrating the irrelevancy of the literal scientific relevance of science fiction. The goal of Cyberclunk is no less than to enrich your appreciation of the genre as a whole.

This is cyberclunk. And it’s going to magnificent. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Translation Software an Aid and Impediment to Understanding Other Cultures, or How Translatey is Translation Software really?

I recently had a short dialog with a man from Brazil using a translation site called "Babylon." I've used translation software before, but never to have a dialog with an actual person. It was an enlightening experience, and one that posed a number of questions. In my last correspondence, I discussed what I thought about the software and it's future repercussions. Here's a piece of that dialog:

This is the first time I've attempted a dialog using this kind of software. I think translation software has improved considerably since I last attempted to use it. In the beginning the results were often comical. I do think that the translation software of the future is going to have to be a lot smarter, not only, as you mention, because of colloquialisms, but phrasing, conventions of speech, grammar, and culture.

Portuguese, as a latin based language probably translates a lot better than Japanese, for instance. I think translation software is not only going to have to translate but interpret, and interpretation is an a little bit of an art. Computer-based translators are going to have to have some form of artificial intelligence behind them to do their jobs more effectively. Maybe they'll use search technology to compare and choose what's going to be the most frequently used and appropriate phrasing. Somehow it's going to have to be more of an open system, and each translation app is going to have its own distinct voice.

Still, no translation is perfect, and the risk is that we all become just a little more lazy about understanding other cultures. If we can put our own cultural "skin," so to speak, on another person's language or culture through either online translation or some kind of real time, on location, augmented reality technology (Google Glasses), we're not only translating but imposing our culture onto the culture of someone else. Words and their use have specific cultural meaning in a cultural context. We don't want to lose that. Understanding enough to communicate on a basic level is not the same as full comprehension, but it can give the illusion that you understand more than you do. Translation of any kind is a expedient, not a solution, an is often as much an impediment to understanding as it is a aid.

But this is still all in the future, when tourists will visit other countries and have real time translations of their discussions and everyone will be able to make their basic needs understood when traveling abroad. Since there's no way (or method in the perceivable future) to fully understand every language we encounter, translation software will aways be a half measure. Still, it's a remarkable gift to be able to have this discussion. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance!

I have no idea how accurate the translation is (I'm pretty sure the punctuation is just a little off, among other things), but if it's anywhere near as accurate as what I've been getting from him, we've been able to make one another understood amazingly well. This software has a lot of potential, but I also fear that translation software and augmented reality technology, may only increase the gap between genuinely understanding another culture. As I described earlier, augmented reality as presented by Google provides a "skin" of information over everything we see, and that skin gives the illusion of understanding. Add translation to this technology and the illusion is even greater. Without it, the gap between this illusion of understanding and the reality is more apparent. With the advancements of translation software, it may be hard to allow ourselves to discard this illusion and learn about other cultures in a genuine way. To understand another culture on a deeper level, we first have to concede to the fact that we have no idea of the true context of the translation.