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Liu Cixin’s Deaths’s End

“Weakness and ignorance are not barriers to survival, but arrogance is”

Liu Cixin’s final instalment of the Three-Body Trilogy, Death’s End, takes our nice normative homilies and throws them at a dark yet mostly scientifically-correct universe to see what sticks. The end result is surprisingly less pessimistic than one would expect. If one were to novelise Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, the Three-Body trilogy would be it. I would compare TB to Rick & Morty. Morty is the well-intentioned leftie that spouts the homely normative claims about how civilisation should be, cooperative vs competitive, market competition vs socialism, etc, but his claims are too parochial, too constricted historically. When these claims are examined through the temporal and spatial scales of the actually existing universe, they’re completely ridiculous. They’re not even worthy of contemplation by the Trisolarian aliens, whose fitting response in the first book is simply: “you’re bugs”.

Rick knows all of this already, he’s travelled a fair bit around the multiverse and easily destroys Morty’s moral positions and normative claims for the puerile idiocies that they are. Rick, like Liu Cixin, knows the universe is cold, bleak and indifferent, driven by natural forces of immense power, and, by short SF extrapolation, very possibly inhabited by extremely powerful and advanced alien species, for whom committing mundicide is as routine as scrubbing bugs off a windscreen. Yet, in these depictions of the universe there is still place for hope, cooperation and love. Which is granted a much higher status as these are recognised as being all the more rare and therefore worthy of treasuring and defending.

“Mere existence is already the result of incredible luck. Such was the case on Earth in the past, and such has always been the case in this cruel universe. But at some point, humanity began to develop the illusion that they’re entitled to life, that life can be taken for granted.”

The 100 and Looper – Notes on American Violence in Action/Sci-Fi

The 100 is a remarkable piece of reactionary TV propaganda. Within it, one sees an on-going apology for violence, of American imperialism wrestling with its conscience and always returning to find justification for its heinous acts under the banner of necessity.

 

“I’m so, so very sorry, but I just had no choice, I did what I had to do to protect my own”

 

While this reactionary justification for violence is common to most violent regimes, The 100’s version of it specifically American for a number of reasons I will examine in in this post. The narrative premise of The 100 begins with the story of a few thousand survivors of a global nuclear apocalypse living in a cobbled together space station. The nuclear conflagration event has supposedly made the earth uninhabitable for 100 years, and story begins just a few years shy of this date. The space station is not able to support the survivors for much longer. For almost 100 years the survivors have lived under a disciplinarian regime – in the name of necessity – where the only punishment, for even minor offences, is ‘getting spaced’.

 

The space station has a number of imprisoned juveniles (100 of them, to be precise), who thanks to their minor age are spared the capital punishment that would otherwise await them. The space station leadership decides to use them as human lab rats by sending them down to earth, thus delaying the immediate problem of too many mouths to feed, and also exploring the survival of Earth. Once on the ground, the youths discover two things. Firstly, the surface of the earth is survivable. Second, they are not the sole survivors. The other surviving humans have reverted to a hunter-gatherer state, with various warring tribes. They come to be known as ‘grounders’. With thoughtless ease, the photogenic youths enter into conflict with the grounders. Although hugely outnumbered, their superior weaponry and technical knowledge allows the space youths to just manage to survive.

 

One key narrative element that makes this dystopian SF specifically American is its conflicted relationship to history. The notion of a clean break with the decadence of the past, here portrayed by the global nuclear event, is a key part of the premise. The ‘clean’ future that awaits is one in which youth, full of vigorous good intentions, is bound by tribal loyalty to protect their own against the Other. They have no choice but to make decisions which result in the deaths of dozens of grounders. Moderate characters on both sides attempt to find alternatives to violent conflict, but the writers continuously place even these moderates in situations where it is necessary to kill a few hostiles for the good of the many.

 

In true puritanical vein, violence is purifying and the erasure of history necessary for the western frontiersman fantasy to continue. The global nuclear event purified and liberated the 100 from history, and the violent acts they commit are necessary to expunge the evil in the Other. This conception of evil is also distinctly a feature of the protestant American subconscious: evil as something real and external, which is not only possible to expunge, but morally necessary. This insight is not new and has long been noted as a key feature of American culture, but it is interesting to see this notion of evil justifying war and violence continue so prominently in contemporary SF given the important place that SF has in speculating about possible futures.

 

While the characters in The 100 are torn by guilt and remorse, yet continue to be forced by necessity into further violent actions, Bruce Willis represents the remorseless avatar for American violence in film. Nowhere is this this better characterized and problematized than in Looper (2015). The Bruce Willis character does what we all expect him to do – kill bad scores of bad guys – but in Looper the violence is never redemptive. His character’s narrative, taken on its own, could easily have been the story for a typical Bruce Willis action film: tough, violent guy redeemed by the heteronormative love of a beautiful woman, who ekes out revenge on the bad guys who take him from her. As with all action films, the bad guys never have children, lovers or parents who are affected by their deaths. At the forefront are the heroic actions of redemptive violence of the protagonist, all the rest is mere backdrop to the hero’s quest. The hero and his woman, of course, who is also nothing more than the nurturing female support to the master signifier of the narrative.

 

Looper problematizes this by making us aware of the consequences of violence, regardless of who is performing these actions. Actions have consequences, we are affected by history. There can be no clean break with history, and there is no such thing as clean violence. Every drone strike creates more ‘extremists’, every violent action has devastating consequences on the survivors. There is no walking off into the sunset, Looper reminds us.

 

You want me to shoot some bad guys?

 

Bruce Willis does just as we expect him to, for the love of his woman, his property, he kills a bunch of bad guys and then goes into the past to continue the cleaning operation. But in Looper, the bad guys are never portrayed as simple gun fodder. They are themselves the traumatised victims of violence, and the violence they mete out creates more lost, traumatised kids, who in turn commit more violent actions. The redemptive violence is shown in Looper as either the cause of future problems, or it is portrayed as completely ridiculous. The ridiculousness of justice, Bruce Willis style, is clearly shown in the scenes where he escapes capture and imminent execution by killing the entire gang and its leader. There is no moment of glory, no granting of satisfaction to the audience that the nemesis has been vanquished, no gloating over the corpse of the boss, what remains is the protagonist and his personal trauma, still unresolved through the inflicting of yet more violence on others.

What to do with freedom?

One of my favourite films is La Grande Bellezza, even if it portrays haute bourgeois life in Rome beyond the reach of most of us. This is a valid criticism of the film and the director, who is not known for being particularly progressive. Any yet, imagine for a moment if you could live off a sizeable income, the kind of life mostly found in depictions of 19th century aristocrats. Imagine if you were given the complete freedom from material necessity to pursue the things life is supposed to be about. No more alibis for delaying and no more material constraints holding you back from the labour of self-actualisation.This is the state of most of the characters in the film. Sorrentino’s view is that even these elites, and not mere elites financially, but those few who manage to get to that economic position their due to luck and skill as writers or artists, are pathetic humans. Their desires, insecurities and longings are profoundly pathetic. This film makes a speculative proposal, it asks, what would you do with freedom once you aren’t struggling with necessity?

 

 

Just getting started..

I’m happy to see a film review I wrote last year being cited by David Roden in an edited book, my first published citation. **happy face**

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I’m fascinated by David’s work on the philosophy of the post-human, here’s the book he published on the topic and his academia.edu profile.