A New Grammar for Science Fiction

Science Fiction is no longer a novelty.

We do not want to read Science Fiction because it is set in the future. Science Fiction must offer some deeper, truer view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.


Filtering by Category: "Ridley Scott"

You Devil, You: Prometheus in Three Assessments (Part Three)

Assessment Three: Xenomorphology and The Horror of Change

Nathaniel K. Miller

Amidst its many messages, one gift Prometheus gives us is the origin of the Xenomorph. On the surface, this may only interest fans of the franchise, but I believe it gives us something much more than cosmetic. It turns a clever and well-conceived movie monster into an Oedipal icon of spiritual, psychological and metaphysical horror.    

One of the tragic truths embodied in the Xenomorph, and in the schisms which define all the interspecies, parent-child relationships in the films, is that while we always survive, we never survive. The deal the universe makes in exchange for the endurance of the species (or something even more fundamental) is the annihilation of the individual. But worse yet, lest there be equity, it seems to promise that our offspring will be incomprehensible horrors to us. If we could see that which we most identify with ourselves in them, perhaps we could accept that annihilation, but we are forever blind, unable to extend our empathy - androids, in the Dickian parlance.

Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe we are doomed in seeking our own individual immortality to look past the variety offered to us in our offspring, to resent its glaring incompleteness. After all, when death stands gaping before us, everything is alien, and that deal looks rotten indeed. Those who survive do so at our expense; without them, the deal is off.

Weyland stands before the Engineer, the father who abandoned him, and has his son David ask for more life. Here he echoes the demand of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, who is like David in construction perhaps but without the active parenting the latter receives. David, of course, is Weyland's immortality, but even as he dies,Weyland cannot see this amazing creature as a worthy successor. "There is nothing," if we are committed to the preservation of the self in its precise form; but if we can look beyond it, there is David.

There is also the Xenomorph. If we accept David, we have to accept the monster as well. David might stretch our empathic system, but for most of us, the Xenomorph shows it to be foundationally broken. That's the point.

The Xenomorph is always changing. It is a confusion of human sexes, social roles - it is the horror of the other, which is really the horror of the self, and now we know that it is born equally of our forebears and ourselves. This is the deep, tragic truth of the Alien mythos: the universe is stranger than you can imagine, harsher - and yet more intimate. It knows your name. It isn't some void where you shrink into insignificance - you are an author of the horror, a parent and a child of your own cyclical fate. And throughout that dark samsara, the monster which is the icon of inescapable damnation is also an icon of mutagenesis, of change itself. It is the distance between parent and child, between you and the closest person to you.

The horror of the Alien universe is not entropy, but plasticity, adaptation; there's nothing you can become which it cannot match in shadows.

You Devil, You: Prometheus in Three Assessments (Part Two)

Today we feature the second of three short pieces on Ridley Scott's Prometheus.
Assessment Two: Myth, Maker and "Creation"
Nathaniel K. Miller

There are resonances in Prometheus beyond the Oedipal, of course. The deft layering of meanings and references Scott employs is the real influence of Kubrick here, moreso than the specific shades of 2001 - though those exist, too, particularly in Weyland's framing and in David's uneasy assimilation. The religious imagery, especially surrounding Christianity and Jesus, is much more controversial than it's been recognized to be, and in the absolute opposite direction.
It's not in the film, so I hesitate to include it, but Scott did mention the idea that Jesus was an Engineer sent to pacify humanity. That would cast Christianity in the light of a mere control mechanism - something which many believe true of religion even without alien interlopers. That's an important bit of apocrypha, and it tells us something about the messages and themes at work here.
Just before we see Shaw play out her own horrific variation on the virgin birth, David tells her he has to take her necklace (and by implication her faith) because it may be contaminated. That's powerful stuff, and far from the wholesale endorsement of religion some seem to see in the film.

But there's religion and there's religiousness, and Scott is sharp enough to know the difference - unlike so Many of the reactionary viewers who rushed, idiotically, to accuse the film of some kind of formal endorsement of religion. Some even suggested Scott was attempting to give us a believable creationist situation in Prometheus. One might think, if this were the case and it were an endorsement, it would be a slightly friendlier, marginally more desirable universe - one, perhaps, in which something other than abject horror is reflected in the very means by which life exists.
Scott understands that the human capacity for religious belief is part of something much more complex, interesting and deserving of reckoning in the arts than a simple question of logic or even truth. But I think he's also given us a film in which basically all the consequences follow from that drive. While Shaw's faith is not anything so crude as a character flaw, and she is much more complicated (and, at least from a Gnostic perspective, in the end less enlightened) than a mere stand-in for Eve, it is her vision, her desire to "meet her maker," which drives the story. I don't believe she's being punished for her faith - at least, if she is, it is the arbitrary punishment of the void, a mere casualty of causality and not a reflection of some kind of cosmic justice, which doesn't seem to exist here at all. However, she does suffer in the prison of her own making - in her blindness to the unity which could be the lot of all creatures if only they could see it as possible.

Let's consider, for a moment, Shaw's self-administered abortion. Are we to believe that she intuited the nature of the thing in her womb? This is a character plagued as much by the absence of her potential offspring as by the absence of her theoretical creators. And yet, in the face of this "miracle," she doesn't hesitate to excise the thing from her body in the most extreme way. The scientist who wears the cross around her neck doesn't pause to see the ramifications. This is not accidental - Shaw, like the rest, can't square her fantasies and myths with the reality of the universe. But once more the horror here is of self-delusion; she still sees the story of her savior as part of a different universe, one in which miracles cannot be mistaken for parasites.
Of course, she's right - she writhes away from the thing she extracts, the white worm, the trilobite. A thing made for darkness. What does this say about her faith? To her, of course, it says nothing – that’s part of the overall theme here, of blindness and self-delusion. What about to us?

In the end, pursued by the Engineer, she eventually closes the circle, throwing the rejected god to the rejected child. She screams at the Engineer to die, a final act of Oedipal rage as she sees the abomination fulfill its role as savior. The progeny eats the progenitor - Ouroboros.

But this is not a universe where parsimony reigns, where balance is encoded in the life-cycle; this is an Alien movie, and the tidy circle, the taut belly of the snake, bursts open, and something even more horrible emerges.

It seems that Scott's relationship with this more heavy-handed human history is anything but laudatory. He wants to show us that such a universe isn't nearly as comforting an idea as we've been taught to think. Oh, for the peaceful dissatisfaction of a purely natural world! In the face of these terrors, one thinks of Darwin as a kind of Santa Claus - a giver of gifts, unburdened with gravity or agency.
But that's the flip-side of this rhetorical world. Scott is also telling us that we cannot understand the universe with science alone - because it is a universe with human beings in it, and human beings are irrational, emotional, self-destructive and self-deluded. That's not an indictment of science, but of human nature.

Despite all that hopelessness, Scott isn't committed enough to the dystopian aspect that he completely disavows those qualities in human beings. It's also a film in praise of faith, persistence, curiosity. That isn't a plot hole, and if it's a contradiction, it's an honest one.

You Devil, You: Prometheus in Three Assessments (Part One)

We're going to make a fresh start of it here at Pravic. With issue 4 now available, and issue 5 in the works, we'd like to make this whole endeavor a bit broader. As much as we like being the grumpy old folks who run a print mag in the 21st century, our relative absence on the web is starting to seem like a waste. So from here on out, this blog will be revived, rebuilt, resurrected - like a certain fictional monster. And we, your humble editors, will serve our parts as mad scientists.

We would very much like to feature works of non-fiction by other writers as well, so please send us what you have if you'd like to. And remember, we're always accepting fiction submissions.

Here, to kick things off, is the first of three essays on the Ridley Scott film Prometheus.


Assessment 1: Oedipus Rex, or The Premodern Prometheus
Nathaniel K. Miller

Ridley Scott's Prometheus is a divisive film to say the least. Lamented as muddled by many, I believe it to be not only an excellent film, but a relatively clear one as well. It's nuanced, and, like the similarly-decried ending of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, it makes enemies of fans by doing philosophy in a framework many moviegoers have decided is the home turf of "hard" SF. But while its messages may require work to uncover, it's the work a good audience should want to do. And its rewards, though bittersweet, are insightful.

In large part, Prometheus is a psychodrama. In some ways it is arguably a single piece of a larger, career-spanning meta-film which is predicated on the same threads of Oedipal and inverse-Oedipal neuroses (compare this to the "meta-novel" which Philip K. Dick, upon whose work Scott's Blade Runner was based, claimed to have written).

The psychological dialectic Scott employs is clear and familiar to most viewers - both from his previous work and in a general sense, as people living in a post-Freudian world (or a post-Sophoclean one, for that matter). Children resent and want to usurp (or murder) their parents; parents fear and want to suppress (or murder) their children.

But there's a deeper schism at work here. David is the well-reared child. He knows his father, understands his "generation-" humans generally - and is disappointed. He's disappointed by how little credit he gets, by how he's written off as "merely" what he is; his unique nature is seen as a novelty, an accomplishment of his creators, or a threat. David, who has an ongoing relationship with his "father" Weyland, is free to seek self-realization - and thus is resentful and bitter when he is unable to access it. Notably, he takes this out on other humans while remaining devoted to Weyland himself - this is not a plotting or character-development mistake, but rather an indication of complexity in David.

This is also a notable, even central difference between his character and that of Roy Batty, to whom he is often compared. They may be alike in construction, but in Prometheus, their roles are inverted, as are the roles of their fathers. This is because their histories are also inverted.

It's also notable that David communes with Weyland in the latter's state of preservation - in some sense, Weyland comes from beyond the grave, instructing his progeny to act on his behalf. In this way, David is Hamlet as well as Frankenstein's monster, making the layering of parent/child issues which Scott plays on in our public awareness that much thicker.

We humans, on the other hand, are the abandoned children. We never knew our parents, so we flail about endlessly searching them out, totally unable to assert ourselves in a mature way. This is the Scylla and Charybdis of Scott's psychology: if we know our parents, we know disappointment because their flaws are evident. If we live in their absence, we are damned to imagine their virtues and motivations, and to lose our freedom, our innocence, and our sanity in that endless, fruitless speculation.

This leads us right to the bitter, cynical core of the film I think most viewers have missed. Just as Dick used androids to show us how conditional our own humanity is, the answer - the big one - is done subtlety through David's humanity as illuminated by Shaw's roboticism. When Shaw is about to put David's head into the bag - an act of extreme suppression, of total imprisonment  - they have this exchange:

David: The answer is irrelevant. Does it matter why they changed their minds?
Shaw: Yes; yes it does.
David: I don't understand.
Shaw: Well, I guess that's because I'm a human being, and you're a robot.

After all she's just seen, her righteous demands for answers from the gods - Shaw still doesn't understand that David is, in the deep sense which is not about genetic overlap but rather about essential realness, human. She remains totally blind to the cycle in which she is enmeshed. David understands how things work, which is why he doesn't understand her motivations. He knows it's irrelevant, and beyond that suicidal. David wants nothing more than to assert himself separately from humans. His curse, of course, is that he is a head in a bag.

The Engineer had no interest in answering Shaw's questions, because it fundamentally failed to recognize her as human - as a viable, worthwhile life form. Her differences signified a total removal, a degradation instead of an inheritance, of the essential nature of the parent. And so, despite her "faith," despite the desperation with which she commits to continuing her journey, she does not even pause to see in her own hypocritical attitude toward David the very answer she seeks.

What humans "did wrong" was what David did wrong - existed, were alien; were a pure, existential threat to a creator who saw them as an abomination, if a sometimes useful one.

The point seems to be that we are doomed by our inquisitiveness, by our need to connect with the past - we can never win so long as we remain engaged in that cycle with our progenitors or our offspring. Perhaps we can escape the cycle if we let go of it entirely, attempt instead to assert ourselves as ourselves - or perhaps our very nature precludes the possibility.

It's in that cyclical nature that Prometheus is truly an Alien film. The resonances are too many to ignore. David, Ash, Bishop; the continual attempts by Weyland to procure (capture) and in theory bend to their own purposes the Xenomorphs (in essence, our children as well as our parents). There are innumerable other echoes here which make for a story which is, in its iterations, essentially cynical. I think once more of the much-despised ending of Battlestar. The endless self-damnation of humanity we see there is not far off spiritually from the one Scott has given us.

A final note on David: I've heard people espouse the belief that David is the “real monster” of Prometheus. To see David – or Roy Batty, or the android characters in Dick’s fiction – as the literal other, as mere warnings about the likelihood that our creations will indeed usurp us, is to miss the point entirely. David is our avatar in the film; if you’re not sure what’s important, where you should look, look to David. If he is the real monster, it’s because he is us, the us we cannot recognize. But there’s the rub: in Scott’s world, we are all simply versions of the same thing, unable to see each other for what we are. And that makes monsters of us all.