A Nobel Laureate of the Floating World

Last year, when Bob Dylan was named winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was surprised. I had never really noticed the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature before, although several of my friends had been involved in scientific or political projects that had been recognized by their respective committees. An even bigger surprise came last week, when Kazuo Ishiguro was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. It seemed that, in recognizing Dylan and then Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize committee had finally decided that instead of getting me to read the works of Laureate’s past they should just award the prize to whomever I happened to be reading or listening to in the mid-’00s.

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Three (and a half) Ways of Looking at Rey’s Lightsaber

In a move somewhat pre-empted by her using it in all of the promotional material, Lucasfilm have announced that as of The Last Jedi, the lightsaber formerly owned by Skywalkers Anakin and Luke officially belongs to Rey. [1] While I had assumed that this was the case as of The Force Awakens – Luke has the lightsaber he built himself, after all – I did start to wonder what this actually means. You see, since watching The Force Awakens and seeing that lightsaber I had been thinking about how it functioned as an entangled object. The term ‘entangled object’ originated with the “material culture turn” in anthropology around the turn of the millennium, but I know the term through its use by James Whitley as a concept in relating ideas in the Homeric epics to the archaeology of Early Iron Age Greece – that is, the way in which objects drive the plot through their entangled relationships with characters. [2] Whitley illustrates his argument with an example from a different epic, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings:

“Artefacts can exert a malignant force, as in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings […] It is the Ring itself (the object that links this tale with all the earlier tales, including the Hobbit [sic]) that, in many ways, drives the narrative, and has greater agency than many of the human (or hobbit, elven or dwarvish) characters.” [3]

How, then, does this lightsaber function as an entangled object? It exerts a Force (pun absolutely intended) in that for Rey touching it triggers a vision; it shows agency in choosing Rey over Kylo Ren. To a degree, it binds the three Star Wars film trilogies together (if not each individual film); but in doing so it passes between those we might consider the principal characters or the heroes of the films – Anakin, Luke, and Rey. If we think about the lightsaber itself as a character, we can look at the role it plays in the stories of Anakin and Luke to see what Lucasfilm might intend by announcing that they now consider the lightsaber to be Rey’s.

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Little Sister

Nearly a year after it originally aired, today I finished watching season 1 of Wynonna Earp, the television show based on the comic book series of which I had never heard. One of my favourite things about the show is that it is not pretentious or smugly confident about its own quality. I had been watching Riverdale, a show that is so completely convinced of its own cleverness that even the prettiness of Cole Sprouse can’t save it; although I associate this smugness more with Doctor Who and Sherlock and it is precisely what led me to give up on those shows. Wynonna Earp seems to have accurately approximated how good it is – a bit silly, low budget, but fun and with a solid story – and to have embraced that level of quality to allow it to have both a sense of humour while taking its ridiculous core concepts seriously. It’s a balance that I haven’t felt a genre show has got quite right since Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with the possible exception of Hannibal, if you consider it to be a genre show). It’s not the only comparison one can make between Wynonna Earp and Buffy, and part of the reason I like Wynonna Earp so much is because it comes out of these comparisons surprisingly well.

This post contains spoilers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (primarily season 7); I don’t think anything I say about Wynonna Earp could be considered a spoiler.

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Brave Old World

“An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan,” my father wrote. “Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us … [but] who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?”

It’s not new to argue that Brave New World is a more threatening and likely version of the future – or our present – than Nineteen Eighty-Four, although the latter gets more attention. The above quotation comes from an article in The Guardian from earlier this week in which Andrew Postman points out that his father predicted our current state in the mid-1980s. I first encountered the argument when I was listening back through the archive of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time, before I had even read Brave New World, but a while after I’d read Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley, of course, thought so himself, and told Orwell as much.

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Robot Uprising

In the aftermath of 2016 the world is coming to resemble a dystopia. Parallels with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are easy to come by, hence the book’s surge in sales over the past week. But aside from the more obvious rise of authoritarian governments there is a creeping apocalypse that has long been on the horizon: the rise of the robots. It first came to my attention in the morning email by New Statesman columnist Stephen Bush, who mentioned the ascent of Benoit Hamon as a presidential hopeful for the Socialist Party in France. Hamon’s campaign promise (as reported by Bush) is that the rise of robots will fundamentally change the world of work, necessitating a tax on robots and universal basic income.

The rise of robots is far from a new story. I first encountered it in the mid-1990s in the pages of Sonic the Comic. In an early storyline based heavily, I later realised, on the Terminator franchise, the Sonic-like robot Metallix travelled through time, changing history so that they ruled the planet Mobius without contest. But this storyline, those from which it was derived, and subsequent robot conquests such as The Matrix Trilogy are not quite the story that is playing out in the modern world. These stories posit that artificial intelligence will turn on its creators and overthrow humanity, either trying to wipe us out or using us as batteries. The robot uprising against which Hamon is fighting is the mechanization of the workforce. It is much more similar to the original robot story, Karel Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots.

The 1920 play is not subtle. It begins with universal robots in use all over the globe as they dramatically reduce the cost of production. The robots were created by the elder Rossum in defiance of God; they were commercialised by his nephew to make money, though some allies dreamed to “shatter the servitude of labour”. But the robots, guided by the newly designed Radius, rise up against their creators. With the robot uprising underway, their creators lament the fact that they did not create “National Robots”, in different colours and speaking different languages, who would not have been able to unionize. The robots, having defeated the human race, continue to work without orders – it is, after all, their purpose.

Many of R.U.R.’s themes remain prescient. International solidarity has always been the stumbling block of labour movements, exploited by capitalists stoking anti-immigrant sentiment. It lies behind the U.S. and Canada’s celebration of Labor Day in September instead of International Workers’ Day in May with the rest of the world. More immediately, the ‘freedom from servitude’ offered by robots necessitates the universal basic income proposed by Hamon. But workers in the modern world are not only forced to compete with robots that can produce things at half the cost. The increased surveillance made possible by other advancements in technology mean that human workers must operate like robots and limit their human interactions – eating, resting, talking – as outlined in this article by John Harris. Again, only solidarity between workers and unionization can challenge these demands.

In R.U.R., the robots are workers, unionized, international, and thus threatening to their overlords. In the modern world, workers are forced to become robots or to be replaced by them, with their every action controlled by their employers. Like many other stark and horrifying visions of the future science fiction has to offer, this one is coming true. To challenge it, we must be universal, not national, robots.