We are not so different
“I’m not an answer,” she said. “I’m a question.”Book 3, Southern Reach Trilogy
She might also be a message incarnate, a signal in the flesh, even if she hadn’t yet figured out what story she was supposed to tell.”
Ghost Bird to Control
Since the first time I saw the Blade Runner (1982) movie, I was fascinated with the world that it replicated and built, with the characters and also with the questions it posed to the viewer. I have seen both the original Blade Runner movie and the various different versions of it. I’ve also seen the new Blade Runner 2049 (2017) film and the three short films (Blade Runner Black Out 2022, 2036: Nexus Dawn and 2048: Nowhere to Run ) that bridge the “gap” between the two films. This being said, Blade Runner has not been the focus of my attention the last week or two. Rather, the Southern Reach and Area X has occupied me. But, strangely enough, by reading the Southern Reach trilogy, I have also been thinking about Blade Runner.
One specific thing has triggered my thinking, while reading the Southern Reach trilogy written by Jeff Vandermeer, namely the so-called “copies” or “false doppelgangers” created by Area X. (See below for further explanation.) In turn I have been thinking about the replicants in the Blade Runner Films. (The Annihilation-film, although very good, does not follow the same trajectory as the books.) I have been wondering if the “copies” made by Area X and the “replicants” in Blade Runner does not lead us to ask similar type of questions?
For me these questions circle very much around identity, our relation to the world and memories of it. I have been thinking of three type of questions, which I would like to discuss in this blog posting:
(On a more personal level, in some way I can relate to the replicants in Blade Runner, and the copies in the Southern Reach trilogy, as a trans person. For many, I am as a trans person just a “skin job” and my experiences are viewed suspiciously. Aren’t we also talking in some way about “passing” here? )
1. Question about the World: Who made them? Where did they come from?
In the first Blade Runner we are introduced to a futuristic and dystopian Los Angeles. (I am not sure if cyberpunk is the correct description, so that is why I keep with futuristic and dystopian.) An earth that has fallen in decay, and living “off world” is probably a more sensible option. Personally, I find that the cinematic world of Blade Runner is different from the world in the Philip K Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Philip K Dick’s world is empty and has a feeling of complete desolation caused by World War Terminus. Within Blade Runner, the world feels so busy, specifically the scenes in the streets. (For me the area where Deckard stays / hides in Blade Runner 2049, is more similar to the world of Philip K Dick’s book. Have a look at the following compilation of art of Blade Runner 2049.) Within the first and second Blade Runner movies, corporations play a very important role, respectively the Tyrell Corporation and then later the Wallace Corporation. Both corporations make replicants that fulfil various functions and are specifically important for “off world” living and colonising new worlds. These corporations are central to the survival of the human species, whether we want to recognise it or not.
The Southern Reach trilogy takes place on the Forgotten Coast (image of the Forgotten Coast). After a certain event Area X is created that encapsulates a part of the Forgotten Coast. There is a border between Area X and the world around it, with initially one opening. Area X is studied by a government agency, called the Southern Reach. Their headquarters is situated not far from the entrance to Area X. Over the last 30 years, this government agency have been sending expeditions to Area X to study it. Within Area X certain geographical areas play central roles within the story. Namely, the topological anomaly, where the Crawler is situated, the two light houses, and Failure island.
“You draw a map, too, of all the landmarks in Area X. There’s the base camp, or as you call it now, the Mirage. There’s theBook 3, Southern Reach Trilogy
lighthouse, which should be some form of safety but too often isn’t, the place that journals go to die. There’s the topographical
anomaly, the hole in the ground into which all initiative and focus descended, only to become hazy and diffuse. There, too is the island and, finally, the Southern Reach itself, looking either like the last defense against the enemy or its farthestmost outpost.”
Cynthia / Gloria describing Area X
The twelfth expedition has just returned. Control, the new director of the Southern Reach replacing the long standing Director Cynthia / Gloria who has not returned with the twelfth expedition, is trying to determine what has gone wrong, because it seems like the Southern Reach has fallen into disrepair, rife with personal power struggles and agendas. Also, up to now, the Southern Reach has not really been successful in determining what Area X is. Many of the expeditions have been unsuccessful, with some not returning or bringing back any useful information. To some extent the efforts of the Southern Reach to make Area X react to them has been unsuccessful. Reading the descriptions and about the experiences of the characters, it almost seems that some (un-) natural disaster has taken place which has caused devastation within Area X. But different from the world of Philip K Dick and the Blade Runner movies, paradoxically is the world (-s) within Area X full of life and life in new forms … What one finds out is that Area X creates copies of some of the expedition members and they return to the world outside Area X in different ways. Ghost Bird, who is the copy of the Biologist, a member of the twelfth expedition, returns and plays a central role in the story. Interesting enough some humans are also transformed by Area X into other creatures, while their copies live on. We see this with the Biologist and the Biologist’s husband.
What is important to recognise is that humans created the replicants in Blade Runner, while in the Southern Reach trilogy Area X is responsible for the creation of so-called copies of humans. The replicants in Blade Runner serve a human purpose, and the copies from Area X do not. The latter catches us off-guard, because they were created by the unknown with an unknown purpose. Are they here to help us? To destroy us? To mess with our data?
2. Unique Characteristics: How is a human distinguished from a copy or replicant?
Because the copies or replicants look and act (mostly) in the same way as we do, it is not always certain who is a replicant / copy and who is human. Various tests are therefore devised to determine if a person is “real”.
At the beginning of Blade Runner Deckard is introduced to Rachael. He performs a test with the Voight-Kampff machine to determine if she is a replicant. He does not know that she is a replicant, and, at the same time, Rachael also does know that she is a replicant. A normal intelligence test would not be enough, because in many ways replicants have surpassed normal human intelligence. For that reason other things are tested (for example empathy, unique memories etc.), that are more characteristic of human beings and the absence of this would reveal a replicant. It is easier to spot older replicant models, but more advanced tests are devised for newer models.
“Over fifty of the T-14 androids as he recalled had made their way by one means or another to Earth, and had not yet been detected for a period in some cases up to an entire year. But then the Voigt Empathy Test had been devised by the Pavlov Institute working in the Soviet Union. And no T-14 android – insofar, at least, as was known – had pass that particular test.”
Deckard in Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?
In Blade Runner 2049, interesting enough, Officer K, is put through a test after each work assignment. But here it is not really to determine if Officer K is a human, but to determine if the experiences of K is causing him to become more human. Calling forth human responses, that would possibly prohibit him from fulfilling the purposes he is designed for. So although the Voight-Kampff test does not feature in Blade Runner 2049, you have a different type of test with the baseline test which K has to undergo.
With the Southern Reach-trilogy you have an interesting dynamic. It seems in most cases that the copies know that they are copies, for example Ghost Bird knows that she is a copy and that the memories she has are the memories of the Biologist. (I do think some copies decide to disclose it, and some don’t.) She is generally still viewed with suspicion and therefore interrogated, which in some sense is also a kind of test. Maybe, to some extent, it is to determine the purpose of the copy. The latter is however not always the case with copies, which is evident with Whitby. Whitby went with the previous director secretly into Area X, and had a fight with his copy in Area X. We are however not sure which one overcame the other and returned with the director; he does not undergo the same type of interrogation as Ghost Bird does.
“Test me,” she said, a snarl from deep in her throat. She stopped, faced him, threw down her pack. “Go Ahead and test me. Say it. Say the words you think will destroy me.”Book 3, Southern Reach Trilogy
Ghost Bird to Control
Before the Biologist was selected for the twelfth expedition she was interviewed by the Director, who was also a psychologist, to determine if she would be a suitable candidate for the expedition. Here we have here a different kind of test. She asks general questions to see what type of responses will be evoked with the Biologist. And because of the biologist’s responses, she is deemed suitable for the expedition. But her responses is very different from the other human participants. She is much more distanced, and in some sense more inhumane. The director was hoping that this “inhuman” biologist would call forth a response from Area X.
All of the above “tests” are interesting, because they try to determine who is authentic and who is a fake. In some scenarios the person who is tested and interrogated, prompts their inquisitor to reflect on the nature of the test. They asked them if they would pass the test? Would you pass the test set for an ideal human? An ideal man? And ideal woman? I am not so sure. And in many cases these questions causes existential crises with the questioners. This we can definitely see with Deckard, and to a lesser extend with Control.
3. Memories: How does one deal with memories that you know, or suspect, is not real?
Memories in Blade Runner and in the Southern Reach trilogy are very important. They explain certain actions of characters, but most importantly, memories are strongly embedded within the identities of the characters. If the memories of the characters become suspect, the identities of the characters become problematised. The following questions become pertinent: Who am I? What am I? What is my purpose? We see this with the different responses of the characters to their own memories
Rachael: After she is tested and confronts Deckard, she realises that she is a replicant. Which by implication means that her memories are implants. She shows a picture of her and her mother to Deckard, only to realise that it is not real. This has a radical disarming impact on Rachael.
Ghost Bird: She knows that the memories she has are those of the Biologist. They don’t feel like her own because she has not lived them. Because these memories are not her own, she is sometimes critical of the Biologist and the choices she made. Sometimes she wants to confront the Biologist about these choices. And at the same time, one finds that there is a drive within Ghost Bird, to create her own memories. For example, when she escapes from Central, she goes to a place where she knows the Biologist used to go. In such a way she makes the memory her own, or new. Also, she becomes very fond of Control, because he forms part of her real memories until he is annihilated / transformed by Area X.
Officer K: Officer K is a replicant and he knows his memories are implants. But due to various incidents and findings he comes to doubt the inauthenticity of one of his earliest memories (namely, being a boy in an orphanage), and therefore suspects that he is a human. He confronts the maker of the replicant memories and she (Dr. Ana Stelline) confirms that this memory is real. Later however he finds out that although the memory is real, it is not his memory: it belongs to someone else. One would expect that he would then discard the importance of the memory, but this does not happen. Rather, this memory – the only real thing he has – drives his actions to save Deckard among other things. This real memory also forces him to act humanely. For example, he starts to lie to his superior to keep others safe. The memory almost act as an infection and he undergoes a transformation in the process.
“If you have authentic memories you have… real human responses. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Dr Ana Stelline from Blade Runner 2049
Control vs. Deckard: Control is human, but at some point he realises that he was brain washed and his actions were under hypnosis steered by his superiors (which includes his mother). When he realises this, he starts to question some of his old memories: were they hypnotic suggestions to cause him to act in a certain way? (Control keeps a carving of his dad with him at all times, it becomes a reality anchor, confirming that some of his memories are real. With Officer K, ironically enough, there is also a carved wooden horse he finds in the orphanage and keeps with himself, but this acts as a reality distractor. It causes him to start questioning the inauthenticity of his own memories.) Like Control, Deckard also starts to question some of his own memories through his interactions with Rachael. That is why, in some way, I think that Control and Deckard are very similar characters.
The above experiences of problematic memories is interesting because it asks questions about who we are. Sometimes it almost seems that we are merely a conglomeration of memories. Consequently, shake the memories and you shake the foundations on which your identity is built. Anyway, all of these characters in some way signify a philosophical thinking experiment and this is why I think the character building of Blade Runner and the Southern Trilogy is so interesting. Personally, I think a philosophy semester course can be presented on identity using the examples from these fictional worlds.
I don’t have much else to say, these were just some general remarks and I have already said too much. Maybe, as a closing, I just want to return to what I said regarding me being a trans person and identifying with the experiences of the replicants and copies. Although, I am a real human (not created by some corporation or Area X), my identity as a queer trans person disqualifies me in the eyes of some people to be human. This suggests to me that what is seen as human is to a large extent normative – which implies that instruments like the Voight-Kampff machine (and many other tests) are normative instruments. In some way I think the questioners of the replicants and copies finds this out, and starts to question the world around them. Some of us are just luckier by knowing this earlier.