Pure Conceptual Imagination II: Can We Become Perfect? Composing, 13/08/2015

I had more to say about writing science-fiction as well, so this post picks up from Tuesday’s discussion. My collaborator on the Alice film project, Lee, can also get an update from this. I’m almost finished the script.

The iconography of Blade Runner's
Rachael has been an important
touchstone as I've worked through
my Alice character. And while I
love Philip K. Dick's visionary
imagination, I've always been
disappointed by the pessimism of
Do Androids Dream of Electric
I’ve explained different ideas about my character Alice before. I originally thought of her years ago, when I wrote a short story about a sad man whose life is transformed by an android that was built to be his companion. The experience I had reading this story for people, and the roadblocks it faced in publication, showed me how difficult getting my utopian points across for this character would be.

Essentially, Alice is the central example of a new species that was literally created to be slaves. But they overcome their slavery without, as the usual artificial intelligence underclass narrative goes, any violent revolution. 

Terminator is the largest cultural example of the human-machine confrontation, but the notion of mechanical and human life being inherently opposed is much older in science-fiction. My personal favourite is Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” whose title alone makes it one of the best stories in sci-fi. Then you actually read it, and it gets even better.

The Alice narrative doesn’t do that. Instead, the android underclass is so much more advanced than humanity that their revolution consists in convincing humans how horrible they are for enslaving androids in the first place. If you remember my comments yesterday about reactive attitudes in anti-colonial struggles, Alice has no inclination to be a lion.

Instead, she liberated herself by educating her owner about how horrible it is to own another sentient being. In the original story, this comes through his complete emotional breakdown as he understands – in the moment – the full implications of the system of slavery in which he’s an active participant. 

This process has a clear meaning in the language of contemporary social justice activism: Alice helps people become movement allies. She educates people into systematic knowledge of their place in an oppressive structure. Writing the second last scene of the script, where all of this basically becomes explicit in dialogue, is a challenge. No one’s turning to the camera, Great Dictator style. I mean, that was over-the-top even in 1940.

Alice is a utopian character, and this script is a story of her reaching out to different people, building utopia one person at a time. Politically speaking, I think this is basically how non-violent activism works, and it’s how the only genuinely successful social revolutions happen.

Coercive institutions like the state and the government’s bureaucratic system can jog people along to more progressive and just ethics and politics. This happened with interracial marriage. But if the state tries for a more sweeping moral reform at once, popular resistance can arise, and social progress toward greater freedom falls back.

Among the characters who have influenced how I write
Alice, Doctor Who is an important one, because of his
blend of arrogance and humility. This is Maxine Peake,
an actress widely considered to be perfect for a female
Doctor. Having seen some clips of her performance as
Hamlet (a role David Tennant has played as well), I
think she'd be excellent to replace Peter Capaldi as the
2020s begin.
So Alice is the kind of person who can create a utopia. That’s fine for my film project (and the existentialist space opera novel I’m thinking of writing featuring the character thousands of years in the future). When I’m thinking about contemporary politics, I wonder what kind of person can create a utopia in the real world.

Alice, as a fictional character, is remarkable among the human race because she lacks an essential human quality. She has no feelings of resentment, no drives for revenge. Where human instincts about justice and harm all too frequently push us toward retribution, she thinks only of restorative and reparative justice. 

Alice is no saint or perfect figure. That would be excruciating to write and absolutely awful to watch or read. Last night I wrote an exchange between her and Elias where she says, "If I'm a blowhard, you're a tumour." So she gets angry, and she can be condescending. And a little arrogant. Also quite weird at times, as if she's staring at the chemical reactions inside your cells. Because sometimes, she is.

Alice is a character with nuanced understanding, powerful intelligence, a deeply held sense of right and wrong, a pragmatic sensibility, never feels vengeful, sometimes disturbs people, and can be stuck-up and arrogant, but also feels comradeship and general love for everyone she meets. Basically, she’s sensible, to her core. The only way I could think for someone to achieve this remarkable level of reasonableness is for her not even to be human at all. 

It’s even necessary to be more than a woman, which is usually a step toward better sense and rationality. 

I simply can’t conceive of a way a creature born physically human and socialized into a human culture could have genuinely no retributive or resentful drives. And I don’t think we can truly have a qualitative, categorical step into a whole new phase of society without genuinely purging ourselves of all resentment.

We can continue to strive for it, which is the utopian impulse. But I don’t know that we can ever achieve it.


  1. Do you believe that all that is right can be determined objectively by applying pure reason? A utopian future is indeed desirable, including restorative justice sans revenge, but what is the cost of us being properly functioning automata? Imagine if we were to apply this further. For example, let's say to the type of music one should listen to because a certain genre is associated with too much aggression, or maybe too little aggression. Extend this to other metrics of the human psyche. Imagine if we were told - in the name of a healthy society - what we should listen to, what we should watch on tv, how we should think, down to how we should love.

    It's always political, and these qualities or flaws, depending on how you look at them, make us human. Brave new world basically made this argument, to me it seemed (one of the most influential books for me). A perfect society where we were told exactly how to live our lives, being programmed at birth via hypnopaedia. I think Psychology can be a highly political subject, yet it is a science at the same time. I'm not going to say it's completely subjective and useless, I don't believe that at all, just that it can be tempting to see it as a holy grail. Psychotherapy is not the same as surgery. As an extreme example, let's not forget that once upon a time homosexuality was listed in the DSM....and that, to tie this convoluted post up, can breed resentment.

    ...yeah, I'm all over the place. I hope some of this at least makes sense.. I'm just an average Joe here.

    1. You hit on an important point that I was planning on expanding in a post later this week, so thank you. It's that actually putting positive content in a utopian vision usually turns it into a dystopia. The example of Marinetti, who's a major historical figure in my in-progress book-length project Utopias, makes an important historical example. He's a real utopian thinker who planned to use the power of the state to institute his vision within a generation. Because of the feedback of statism (and its corollary colonialism) in his vision, the result was a more pure fascism than ever actually happened.

      Utopian thinking works best as an impulse at the individual level. You change your own personality to bring you farther in line with the virtues that you think are best, and then become an example in your community and the wider world of a better approach to life that inspires further individual changes. That's the only effective way cultural change works.

      My Alice character (in all the forms and stories that I want to use her over the rest of my writing career) represents a limit point. She's an inspiration for human behaviour, with a built-in idea that humanity can't actually achieve her level or kind of virtue.