February 17, 2012

On Being Human: An Introduction

Being Human (UK), Season 1

On Being Human: A new essay series by Karl Wolff

What does it mean to be human? These are two loaded words that need some unpacking. What is Being? What is Humanity? As we stew on these words and puzzle over their meaning, we will realize that being human comes along with many presumptions. I will examine this question using twelve fictional works that span different genres and media. While Big Questions such as this get treatment in genres like science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy, I won't limit myself to the realm of speculative fiction. Included in my list are works by French Modernist Samuel Beckett, Austrian Decadent Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and hard-boiled writer Jim Thompson.

The BBC series Being Human deals with issues of assimilation and "passing." While the premise sounds like the set-up for a joke (a vampire and a werewolf live in a house occupied by the ghost of a dead woman), the series has explored the three protagonists' attempts at "being human." It becomes a struggle for normalcy and acceptance. Being a werewolf, vampire, or ghost is far less fun than previously thought.

Each of these works approaches the question of being human from different angles. Is being human purely about the human species? In the UK-based military role-playing game Warhammer 40,000 (essay coming April 6), the Imperium of Man fights off all sorts of intergalactic nasties to preserve the human race. On the other hand, Iain Banks's "Culture" novels (May 4) have a multi-species pan-galactic government ruled by super-sentient AIs, called Minds. The government is based on post-scarcity anarchism and is surprisingly egalitarian.

The question of the human species is again questioned in Storm Constantine's fantasy series Wraeththu (June 1). In the series, a hermaphroditic race called the Wraeththu usurps humankind's dominance. As an ascendant being, are the Wraeththu still technically human...or something more? Is this biological distinction even an important question? The proponents of Prop 8 and "traditional marriage" seem to think so, since they regard non-procreative citizens -- the elderly, sterile, or vasectomized excepted -- as second-class citizens undeserving of certain inalienable rights.

Is being human purely a biological matter? Battlestar Galactica and Caprica (June 29) dealt with political, military, cultural, and religious issues arising from the co-existence of humanity with sentient machines. While I'm skeptical about the nearness of the Singularity, these TV series raise some important issues. With technological leaps and advancements in data storage, humanity is dealing with machines that are smarter and smarter. Treating machines as political equals may be a futuristic notion, but how many of you reading this get purchasing advice from Amazon's algorithms and Netflix's suggestions? What's unsettling isn't that behavior, inasmuch as how accurate some suggestions have been. Both Battlestar and Caprica offer us situations where mankind is forced to negotiate with sentient machines, or as a character stated, "the differently sentient."

Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin (July 27) looks at how the concept of being human is tied to the issues of gender and power. Written in the 1930s, it takes place in a future Europe 500 AH (After Hitler). The future Europe seems similar to medieval Europe, except that Christians are persecuted and women are turned into second-class citizens, used as nothing more than a means of reproduction by gay Nazi knights. Burdekin, a feminist science fiction writer from Britain, undercuts the macho ideology of Nazism by exposing its bizarre Nordic homoeroticism and medievalist romanticism.

Hellboy by Mike Mignola (August 24) also has Nazis. In this case, it has the eponymous demon hero fighting for humanity. The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD) also employs Abe Sapien, a very old sentient amphibious creature, and Liz Sherman, a human flamethrower.

Similarly, Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (September 21) has the narrator Severin sexually humiliated by the dominant female Wanda. However, does sadomasochistic behavior really dehumanize people? Or is this simply a prejudice espoused by those ignorant of such things? Is humiliation the same thing as dehumanization? Like gay fiction written before the Stonewall Riots, Venus in Furs has notoriety because of its sensational topic. Since times have changed radically since its original publication, what does this book reveal about the peculiarities and possibilities of being human?

The Trilogy by Samuel Beckett (October 19) poses challenges to the question about being human. The three novels -- Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable -- can be seen as fables of identity. At a superficial level, Beckett can be dubbed a minimalist. In truth, his work is less minimal than barren. Throughout his career in theater and fiction, he has sought to strip traditional narrative of nearly everything: character, plot, setting, etc. But what's left? If fiction is an exploration of humanity, what's left of humanity if there is no character? Unlike other people, I think Beckett struggling to answer these questions make him a science fiction writer, albeit one without green men and spaceships. (I would also lump other writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon in this category, since they have works that could be thought of as science fiction or fantasy. The difference is less one of content than marketing.)

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (November 16) poses a different situation. In the novel, the narrator, is a small town Texas sheriff. He isn't a sentient robot, a demon, or an alien. By every account, he is a man, except for his "sickness." This sickness makes him a killer. The book, published decades before Dexter, challenges us to understand him. His murderous actions is what separates him from other human beings. What makes being a human so
hard that one has to kill?

I also look forward to writing about works with which I am less familiar. Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh (December 14) and The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by Nicholas Roeg (January 11, 2013), are works I have not yet read or watched.

I'm curious to know what readers of CCLaP think about my essays and the issues raised by the question, "What does it mean to be human?"

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, February 17, 2012. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Movies | Reviews |