27 January 2012

Firefly and the Human Condition

When I fall for a TV show, movie, artist or novelist…I fall hard. I become a loud, pushy advocate. Ask any of my loved ones upon whom I have foisted all my favorites (Community! Gregory Alan Isakov! Brick!)…forced all but at gun-point. Minimal complaints so far, if I do say so myself.

Well once upon a time someone did this for me. They told me to watch some random movie called “Serenity” with them at the theater (Sci-fi? I was skeptical. Aliens aren’t my thing). This excellent movie was born of a short-lived TV show called Firefly, which concerns us here today. The show and the film both have a lot to say about the human condition, and so do I, so it naturally follows that we took to one another.

Truthfully I could use an awful lot of space detailing all the things I love about Firefly but I will try to be very conservative in both my summary and advocacy, because the themes are the thing here (Nevertheless you should watch firefly):

Notice the clothing implies psuedo-Western, but there transportation is space-ship, not stage-coach.

Firefly is a great genre masala—western, sci-fi (but no aliens!), action, drama, comedy, caper—and its basic premise is as follows: humanity spread out onto other planets which are made to be like Earth-that-was (as Earth is then called). A war arose between the Independent planets and “The Alliance” the former of which, as the name suggests, wanted to remain independent settlements, and the latter of which wished to unite all the planets in a progressive and regulated society. The Alliance won, and has become the central government of all inhabited planets—both their high-tech cities:

And their countrified back-waters:

Two of the protagonists of the story fought for the Independents during the war and have moved on from their loss to do smuggling and thieving work on the fringes of ‘the system’.

Zoe and Mal

The difference and tension between the outer planets (quite analogous to rural populations)—with the distant control/neglect they experience from the government—and the inner planets (rather like urbanites) and their appreciation for the government’s facilities and efficiency is pervasive throughout the show.

The excellence of the premise is that, although it shows “The Alliance” through the eyes of those that do not love it, it never claims that The Alliance is evil. It is real modern society in fiction: it provides roads, oversight, security (in the central areas at least), education and medicine. It is not precisely dystopian in nature in that it does not oppress groups, it does not ban art or literature. It has a high degree of physical authority, but it is not a police state. In fact, it is made rather clear that the Alliance truly does do many good things for the people. It is as though the UN were actually effective—moreover helpful—and set in space! It is based upon the most idealistic and humanitarian notions that mankind could bring to bear. The Alliance is, in most of the ways we tend to gauge political purpose and efficacy, a good government with good intentions.

But one of the themes of the show is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that human nature is not easy to keep in check; indeed our attempts to constrain or modify the worst elements of human nature may backfire. This is because the constraints are external, and the modifications superficial. And perhaps the most dangerous dystopia is one that believes utopia can be finagled…one that either refuses to acknowledge mankind’s fallen nature, or genuinely believes that by his own hands man can fix himself.

(I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, so I will be as vague as I can…but be warned, details of show and movie are to be found here):

The Alliance does what many peoples and cultures have tried to do throughout the ages: to “weed out aggression in the population.” They want to make human nature better. They do it very benignly…as best they can, with no intent whatsoever to cause harm. If the image that pops into your head is that of a cop restraining an assailant and carting him off to jail, that is one legitimate way of weeding out aggression. So are anger management classes. Prisons, court systems, reform…these are all in that category.

So, too, is chemical behavioral modification. Likewise eugenics. Also, abortion. And massacre…and genocide.

If it seems like I’ve made a leap too far, I’m sad to say that I haven’t. We—society—like to believe that we can make ourselves better through sheer force of will: adopting this practice, excising that one. One would not say “survival of the fittest” any more, for social Darwinism has become scandalous for good reason…but this nevertheless remains the underlying principle in how societies, governments, laws, medical care and schools are built up. Or cultivated, rather. It seems like such an innocent aim until you realize that the holocaust in WWII—cold, systematized genocide of European Jewry—was derived in large part by a belief that Germany was eliminating that which was dangerous or unhealthy to it. In the minds that conjured the “final solution”, the Germans were “weeding” and “cultivating”, full stop.

Scholar Zygmut Bauman wrote chillingly and convincingly on the subject, showing good evidence that the distance between our desire to reform (which can, remember, be done benignly OR oppressively) and our willingness to do harm is not as far as we like to think. (I reference him here, because it is his eerie garden metaphor that I have just used.)

How does this relate to Firefly/Serenity? In the end of the tale about the Alliance’s attempts to improve human nature, the Alliance—via its great scientists, and its bright young social engineers—ended up causing a certain large percentage of the population to become overly complacent, and another small percent to become overly aggressive, exposing extreme reactions in human nature to these human attempts to modify it.

I must be clear. The complacency was such that, in the end, all those who reacted in that manner died of it. The aggression was such that it became violent madness. Blind suicidal pacifism on one hand and blind homicidal rage on the other. The pendulum swings. In this case a catalyst made it happen, but society does it all the time. We are pendulum swingers. Extremists. Reactionaries. Of our own devices, our reforms are normally just returns from whence we came and back again.

In Pilgrim’s Regress, as C.S. Lewis explores the spiritual and intellectual experiences that either waylaid or led to his conversion to Christianity, he discusses “Northern” and “Southern” ways of behaving—equal and opposite evils. He means by these directional terms metaphors for opposing tendencies of human nature…a thing which will automatically go awry to one of them unless anchored in God.

“Nature, outraged by one extreme, avenges herself by flying to the other”

-C.S. Lewis

We—people, art, literature, pop culture—are always trying to say “something” about the human condition. But in the majority of films and books, even the most poignant illustrations of life and death are merely a sober recitation of either that snide phrase; “life sucks and then you die” or that indulgent one “do what you feel while you can.” The former of these would be Lewis’ “Northern” fall from Grace, and the latter would be dubbed the “Southern” one.

Clearly neither of these are sufficient, but if there were no God, I think there would be no other conclusions to reach. I have several parts the cold-blooded rationalist in me and God is the only thing that renews me and keeps me from turning into what—in any story worth its salt—would be an outright antagonist. My very own nature gives me myriad reasons to be skeptical about human nature broadly speaking, and plenty of the things I’ve seen could make me one of those “life sucks and then you die” types.

This is part of why I like it best when the arts portray human nature as it is: broken and in need of repair; awry and in need of calibration; fallen and in need of salvation. The latter description may seem explicitly religious, but one can portray fallenness without asserting salvation (as is done all the time in popular culture), but at least this—in my opinion—is half the battle and far better than the other alternatives of either white-washing our nature or yielding to its worst vagaries.

That is why the story told in Firefly and Serenity strikes me so. It readily acknowledges that human nature is pretty well awry, but that us trying to doctor ourselves without the real surgeon present, presiding, and acting, is going to get us killed or worse. And human nature tends to toss back and forth, not quite understanding where on earth the solution is.

(Above) Captain Malcom Reynolds: “They’ll swing back to the belief that they can makepeoplebetter, but I don’t hold to that.”

These wounds are much too deep to staunch through our own means. We often end up doing ourselves damage because our efforts are entirely unanchored. But we don’t give up and stop helping, caring, working, fighting, protecting, building…because when anchored in the Lord, it’s a whole different story. That’s the center passage, the plumb-line and it’s anything but some mere compromise or happy medium. It’s the Way, the Truth and the Life. In Lewis’ allegorical metaphor, everything “North” of it is frigid, barren rock, and everything “South” of it is fetid, seething swamp.

Thus it’s the only real, solid ground at all.

12 January 2012

Our Dystopia

There appears to be a fear and curiosity surrounding the idea of things we (mankind) make getting out of hand. There are numerous ways in which this curiosity manifests itself in film and literature and, it being a hearty and prevalent topic, I’ve begun to wonder why it resonates.

It starts with Pygmalion and progresses to Frankenstein; exploring the idea of falling into obsession with the work of our own hands until we lose touch with reality, or finding what we have made to be a danger to others or even to ourselves. Did we tamper with forces we cannot control? Is everything we make doomed to go awry? There is a simultaneous fascination and dread with something created by our very own selves becoming independent of us and our intent.

The trickiness of the situation isn’t revolutionary; many have commented on it. Technologies of advancement and convenience develop right alongside technologies of destruction and manipulation and we don’t always have control of how what we make will be used or developed. It’s good, it’s bad or it’s ugly, and everyone has something different to say about it:

I have an almost religious zeal…not for technology per se, but for the Internet which is for me, the nervous system of mother Earth, which I see as a living creature, linking up.
-Dan Millman (self-help guru)

If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.
-Frank Lloyd Wright (Architect)

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.
-John F. Kennedy (President)

Men have become the tools of their tools.
-Henry David Thoreau (Poet)

A small sampling, and it is Thoreau’s take which so often fascinates us in literature and film: what happens when the brain-child of man—be it a piece of technology, or a form of government—turns on its maker?

There are two main versions of this: The A.I. tale (Robots and machines on the rise!) and the Dystopian tale (We thought it was for the best! But the perfect government turned out to be even worse than what we had before!)

I could make a very long list of examples, but instead I will make short ones which highlight the central themes which seem to so strike us. The main ones for A.I. start with the Terminator, in which man-made machines battle humans for control of the world. That which we made to do our bidding now seeks to destroy us and take our place.

In i, robot, a similar thing happens, but with a twist; the robots are not out to destroy humans…they are trying to protect us by efficiently eradicating our flaws. We have wars and violence, and in order to fully protect us (as their protocols dictate) they must choose how to cultivate us “for our own good” which may include killing some of us and removing from us our freedom.

Finally the most obvious one, which surpasses all the prior stages: the machines we have made no longer battle mankind. They have long since won, and now control humans, mind and body. They make use of us as we once made use of them. The story has become a  modern classic: The Matrix.

The list goes on, well into children’s films: the too-clever robot in “The Incredibles” and the atrophied bodies (due to over-reliance on technology) of the humans in the brilliant robot-centered cartoon “WALL-E.”

Dystopian tales are a slightly different beast, but they ask the same questions: what happens when our best plans eat us alive?

In the Hunger Games books (a young adult series), the government demands children from each district as tribute to take part in a battle to the death for the simultaneous sake of entertainment and retention of control. It’s Battle Royale, Gladiators and Reality TV all rolled into one. As the story progresses, the theme arises that the cure (revolution!) for the ill (oppressive government) quickly becomes a disease in and of itself (i.e. the French Revolution).

(the hunger games heroine in the film version)

Dystopians are popular now, so the young adult literary list in particular could go for miles. In the film Equilibrium, art and affection are considered inciters of violence and instability, so they are suppressed.

In Fahrenheit 451, literature is deemed the chief danger to society, and books are to be burned.

In the book Divergent, society is formed—and deeply divided—around each individual’s belief regarding how to prevent war. Five factions separate five belief systems regarding what society most needs—courage, peacefulness, selflessness, knowledge and honesty—and from the divisions grow mutations of every virtue. Courage becomes violent recklessness. Peacefulness becomes withdrawal/inaction. Selflessness becomes suppressive stoicism. Knowledge becomes pride and power-hunger. Honesty becomes cruelty and moral ambivalence.

In V for Vendetta, a crisis ushered in an extreme government (blatantly reminding the viewer of Hitler’s rise in Germany due to financial crisis) and the government controls the arts, objectives and morals of the people. Moreover it is the extreme example of one classic definition of ‘the state’: monopoly on violence.

(the vigilante and his protege)

On and on the list goes: governments that control the arts, conventions, technology, marriage or religion. The point here—which seems peripheral to these stories but ought not to be—is that these governments were not formed by one all-mighty Lex Luther-style bad guy. Most of the governments in these stories were formed by either the will or at least the consent of the people. The people in these books and films demanded safety, security or stability in some fashion, and the government responded accordingly. But then, like all these other man-made aspirations towards man-made ideas of perfection, they went badly, badly awry. Why we all assume the ‘awry’ part to be inevitable is another discussion entirely. Why we are so interested in the concept of our own creations turning on us is the crux of the thing.


Because we are the made things that have run off and tried to make ourselves like unto our maker. We are the created servants hell-bent on usurping the creator’s place. We’re the ones set in a position to rule, who rule so ruthlessly, and so very far outside of the original intent.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is us. Except, unlike robots or governments, we are actually lit up with the divine spark (should we choose to live in the light of that fire) and that means the comparison to bureaucracies and machinery stops pretty well short of the full effect. We do not love tyrannical governments or violent robots. We do not vie for their salvation. We want them dead and destroyed…by machine guns and grenades if at all possible. We want them toppled, dissembled and unable to recover.

God seeks our recovery from misguided usurpation and self-dictatorship. He wants to fling us the rope, pull us up and mend us. He gives us the very strength we use to either fight him or seek him. So this is the crucial difference between our approach regarding when the things we make go awry (pull the plug?) and when we go awry:

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This is a fact which, quite honestly, I can scarcely begin to grasp, and from which springs restoration. Since I'm pretty troublesome and often awry of God's best and have trouble balancing judgement and mercy this is befuddling to me. But it's so. We are not glitchy products but rather, He tells us, a labor of love.