One of the curious features of Guillermo del Toro’s films thus far is that they all contain characters with disabilities or who become disabled through injury in some way during the course of the action – most often people with legs that are damaged or only partially functional. This ranges from De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), the billionaire villain seeking immortality through the eponymous device in Cronos (1993), who lives in a sterile environment and spiders around on a pair of crutches to signify his waning powers as a form of castration (but also because at least since Shakespeare’s Richard III ‘being crippled’ signifies villainy), to the Republican guerrilla who, injured by fascists, has his leg amputated in El laberinto del fauna/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).
Although such characters are usually not particularly well thought through, what makes them interesting is that they are often situated among monsters, which by their very nature raise questions about what are considered normal or normative bodies and abilities.
Far and away the most interesting of these characters is Carmen (Marisa Paredes) in El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (2001), who runs a remote boarding school/orphanage, sheltering the children of those fighting for the Spanish Republic or whose parents have been killed by the fascists. A woman in her mid-fifties, she regularly has sex with Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a handyman half her age. She has no feelings for him – it is just a matter of her sexual pleasure – and he goes along with it in order to gain access to her set of keys, one of which will unlock the hidden safe in which she stores gold to fund the Republican cause. She also has lost one of her legs at the knee, and we several times see her remove or replace her prosthetic lower limb.
Jacinto finally blows up the safe, only to find it empty. Later, Carmen’s body is found among the rubble, the gold concealed within her artificial leg. It is a fascinating image, this gold among the rubble, this hidden fold within which treasure is found, this older sexual woman who is not at all an object of repulsion or criticism.
Blade (Wesley Snipes) can be understood in terms of disability (he is part vampire and thirsts for blood because of this condition, for which he self-medicates) and of extra ability (he is a vampire, with all the powers that implies, but he is unaffected by sunlight). In the Blade (Norrington 1998), a film in which del Toro was not involved, a potential genetic cure for Blade’s vampirism is extrapolated from experimental treatments for sickle-cell anaemia. Blade ultimately refuses it, in a heavily coded moment that is also all about staying black. In Blade II (del Toro 2002), the vampires conduct genetic experiments to ‘cure’ themselves of their inability to go out in daylight.
Blade’s peculiar situation – a person with a disability, a person with superpowers – is really useful for beginning to think through superhero narratives, which, whatever else they might do, profoundly relativise ability. As Scott Bukatman wrote, in an essay on Superman and Spider-Man (among others), ‘Through the superhero, we gain a freedom of movement not constrained by the ground-level order imposed by the urban grid’ (188). That is, only the superhero is adequate to the environments we build for ourselves; the merely human – regardless of ‘ability’ – is not.
References Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 21st Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.
This post and the related ones, ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ and ‘On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim’ are extracted from ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many questions.
Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).
In 2011, the British Con-Dem coalition government imposed massive cuts to public spending, ostensibly to reduce the national deficit. The funding shortfalls produced by this austerity programme were to be met by opening up public services – schools, hospitals, universities, hospitals, libraries, and so on – to corporate investment and, where the profitability was likely too be too small or too distant in time, voluntary work within the affected communities. This latter option, known as the Big Society initiative, met with little success and was quietly dropped from political and news agendas. Not, however, before introducing the country to an array of costumed crimefighters and, eventually, a handful of genuine heroes.
Memos and recordings of secret high level meetings leaked to the press in 2015 show that, in an attempt to reduce the cuts to the police service, senior officers conspired to provoke the wave of protests sweeping the UK into violence. They reasoned that the greater the threat to property – one tape reveals officers agreeing to use ‘public order’ as a euphemism – the more likely corporate bosses were to pressurise politicians into maintaining, perhaps even expanding, the police budget.
This strategy proved disastrous.
Many aspects of police work were suddenly opened up to competitive tender, with tax-payers’ money diverted into the coffers of multinational security consultant companies. The size of the police force was massively reduced. Many former officers found themselves employed by these new ‘security providers’ as freelancers or on short-term, zero-hour contracts, doing the same work for minimum wage or less. Only the least profitable of police work – crimes against people, particularly in the poorest sectors of society – were left to the barely funded police force.
Meanwhile, the tail-end of Big Society state initiatives encouraged neighbourhood watch schemes and other community groups to police their own streets. And while many people were concerned about the violence and injustices this introduced, the media lapped it up.
Steven Seagal presented four seasons of the reality TV series Have-A-Go Heroes, a ratings hit that inspired numerous imitators, including Ross Kemp’s Britain’s Hardest Heroes and Danny Dyer’s Village Vigilantes.
Richard Branson, Simon Cowell, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Alan Sugar joined forces to produce Britain’s Got Talents, a show which uncovered the nation’s would-be superheroes, and The X-Factory, which followed each season’s finalists through superhero boot camp. For a while, their names were on the lips of school-children everywhere. Wicca Man. EastEnder. White Van Man. CiderMan, the west country cyborg.
General Dodd, the former head of Britain’s top-secret Meta-Human programme, came out of retirement and once more summoned his Diddy Men – a veritable army of forgotten bullies in long underwear – from the obscurity of their seniors’ villages and sheltered accommodation. Colonel Bogey, Boy’s Own, the Dandy, the Minx, Brown Owl, Victor, Hotspur, Warlord, Bullet, Starlord, the Space Hopper…
But things were already going badly wrong.
Austerity measures intensified, driving the country ever deeper into poverty and despair. Workhouses returned, called Job Centres now, and in the Brutal Parishes peonage too root. Private police forces, security contractors and criminal gangs – the differences between increasingly nominal – carved up cities. No-go zones and exclusion zones proliferated. Emergency powers were declared. Black-shirted militias were formed. Labour camps opened. Cities burned. People died. And so did civil liberties.
At first, only a handful dared to raise their voices in opposition.
Banned once more, and once too often, from a Liverpool mall because she refused to uncover her face for security cameras, a sixteen-year-old girl decided enough was enough. She burned down a militia R&R centre in a former library. She called herself Hoodie.
This first act of heroic resistance attracted others, and soon she was joined by Bradford’s The Muslamist. Then Wolverhampton’s ASBOy. Glasgow’s Northern Emergency Defence System. Billericay’s Counter-Hegemonists Against the Violent State.
And Citizen Media was everywhere, breaking the corporate stranglehold on information. ‘We are not the heroes,’ his broadcasts would conclude. ‘The people are the heroes, and it is time to get heroic.’
This is the promised follow-up to my recent post on the Hellboy movies; there is one more after this.
Complex images of emergent intersubjectivity such as those I identified in ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ can also be found in Pacific Rim (del Toro 2012).
In 2013, creatures from another dimension open a portal in the gap between tectonic plates in the Pacific, and from this Breach giant monsters – kaiju – emerge. Humanity responds by building giant mecha – piloted robots known as Jaegers – with which to fight them.
Piloting a Jaeger requires a direct link between the human brain and the mecha body, but a single human mind cannot cope with the neural load. So pairs of ‘drift-compatible’ humans undergo a technologically-enabled mind-meld with each other in order to control the machine. This is initiated by a process known as a ‘neural handshake’, but obviously reaches far deeper than such a formal-sounding gesture implies.
Each pilot shares the memories of the other, their feelings and thoughts, without, it appears, exception. It is extremely intimate. It can be profoundly traumatic.
The process leaves us with a single consciousness, albeit one that is comprised of two parts, both of which seem to retain some level of distinction from the other even though they become as one. And it leaves us with two separate bodies over which each of them seems to retain individual control, and a third body, that of the Jaeger, which they jointly control.
While the compatibility of the pilots tends to rely on some kind of family or intimate relationship – brothers, father and son, lovers – sadly we are given no insight into how this works with the Wei Tang triplets (the pilots of the three-armed Jaeger Crimson Typhoon) played by the Luu brothers, themselves identical triplets. If identical twins represent an uncanny doubling of the selfsame (Shildrick 56), the further ‘excess’ of identical triplets surely extends this, undermining even further any sense of the security of selfhood by implying not just doubling but seriality.
Furthermore, when they pilot Crimson Typhoon, they become conjoined, concorporeal, even though they can in some ways be told apart.
The kaiju also trouble the notion of a singular identity. To begin with, each creature is so massive that it requires two brains: the main brain in the head and, located somewhere towards the other end of its spine, a secondary brain. The arse brain. This hierarchisation of corporeal control echoes, perhaps unintentionally, that of the pilots of the Jaeger Gipsy Danger: Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), the experienced white male brought out of retirement for one last mission; and the novice, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a small Asian woman at whom – despite their mind-meld – Raleigh still feels the need to shout orders. (Though if there is an arsebrain among the Jaeger pilots, he is well in the running.)
When Dr Geiszler (Charlie Day) mind-melds with a fragment of a kaiju brain, he discovers some other things about them.
First, they have been here before. In a throwaway line, it is revealed that the dinosaurs were kaiju from this other dimension. But they could not survive in a terrestrial environment until the Anthropocene era rendered the world habitable for them. Of course, this is nonsense. Dinosaurs existed quite happily for about 165 million years and were the dominant vertebrates for 135 million of them; humans have only been around for about 200,000 years, about one 825th as long. But this absurdity at least suggests the extent of the ongoing devastation for which we humans are responsible, the mass extinction event and global climatological transformations over which we blithely preside.1
Second, although each kaiju is physically unique – each one looks like it is from a separate species – they all have identical DNA. So what appears to us as speciation is actually individuation within a single species.2
Third, they are all actually clones of each other. The film implies that they are a particular kind of soldier species created and deployed by some other, as yet unrevealed, monsters intent on colonising the Earth.
Fourth, despite all this variety or instability of form, the kaiju share a hive-mind, which implies that despite their many bodies they are effectively a single individual.
Sadly, Pacific Rim does not explore these potentially troubling seams of gold but, as one might expect of a film with a budget of $190 million, buries them in rubble. They are worth excavating, however, and transvaluating, turning into something positive.
For example, they speak to the politics of the contemporary moment which needs urgently to move beyond neoliberalism’s competitive individualism as the model of how humans are and how we interact, that treats ‘all creative agency and potential rationality as properties of individuals rather than of groups’ (Gilbert viii), that everywhere undermines democracy by treating collectives as irrational mobs or dupes under the sway of demagogues, that treats the social realm as a space of antagonism rather than an intersubjective field from which we all arise and through which we all mutually form each other.3
The habitation of monsters is utopia.
Those who tell us how horrible utopia would be, and all that we would have to give up, ignore that the majority world lack so much that utopia, even if it is a place of monsters, is better than what we have.4
And if we do indeed turn to such monsters as these – human, alien, animal, machine – as figures of utopia, we again find that Derrida has done some of the groundwork for us.
the future is necessarily monstrous: the figure of the future, that is, that which can only be surprising, that for which are not prepared … is heralded by species of monsters. A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, … to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange. (386-7)5
With this in mind, I will conclude with a monster not of del Toro’s making.
In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), the deranged vivisectionist is on one occasion diverted from his attempts to surgically uplift beasts to human status, to move them from zöe to bios, by trying to create life itself, a pure beast – what appears to be the quintessence of zöe:
[a] writhing Footless Thing … a limbless thing, with a horrible face, that writhed along the ground… immensely strong, and in infuriating pain. (77)
This creature suggests that the monstrous other is always also the utopian trace, the barely glimpsed signifier of a radically alternative space and time struggling to emerge into the text.
It is a place where such a creature could be at home, and so could we.
Notes 1 The original context for which this paper was written was a symposium on disability and sf, a context not present in these blog extracts. However, I did argue at this point that this history of the kaiju offers us a way to think about the Jaegers. They function as prosthetic ‘cures’ for the ways in which the kaiju presence relativises human ‘ability’ by abruptly rendering our world rather less habitable. This indicates the extent to which ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ can be understood as being constructed by the environments – here primarily physical, but also clearly social, cultural, political, economic – in which we attempt to live. Rather than let this note get any longer, I will post a final few comments on del Toro and disability in a couple of days. 2 This could be read as implying that each kaiju represents a stage within a life cycle which includes multiple, radical morphological changes, and that we are seeing a single species at different stages of its development. Though the film does not seem to mean this. 3 One might point to political philosophies building on the work of Alfred North Whitehead, Deleuze and Guattari, such as the vital materialism of Jane Bennett (see Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010)) or William Connolly (A World of Becoming (2011)). 4 Or perhaps the habitation of monsters is merely the threshold of utopia, something through which we must pass in order to achieve full-on communism. Not merely the full-communism for which so many of my friends on the left call, often ironically, but a communism that is full-on: radically decentred and radically democratic, as green as it is red, as queer as it is feminist, as beyond racism as it is beyond ableism; just and libidinal and joyous. 5 Observing how culture tends to work, he notes that it will also be domesticated, but at least sees that as a negotiated process, in which it learns our habits and we learn new habits.
References Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism. London: Pluto, 2013.
Jacques Derrida, Points…Interviews, 1976-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage, 2002.
This and its associated posts are extracted from a paper, ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many questions.
Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).
The 28 year old Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (Kevin Trainor), paranormal advisor to the US President, is on a classified mission to an island off the Scottish coast. There, in a derelict Abbey built on the intersection of leylines – ‘boundaries between this world and the others’ – Nazis are opening a portal to another dimension. They are assisted by Grigori Efimovich Rasputin, occult adviser to the Romanovs who somehow survived that night in 1916 when he was ‘poisoned, shot, stabbed, clubbed, castrated and drowned’. Their shared goal (although Rasputin clearly has a different agenda) is to free from their crystal prison the ‘monstrous entities’ known as the ‘Ogdru Jahad – the Seven Gods of Chaos’, who are destined to ‘reclaim the Earth … and burn the heavens’.
Hellboy (del Toro 2004) then gives us a brief glimpse of this infernal otherwhere and, within it, of a monstrous eye becoming aware of the portal, of the Earth. Then the Americans attack, and Rasputin is dragged into the portal by energies beyond his control. Broom manages to close it, but not before something comes through.
There then follows a peculiar sequence which reworks an old gag I first saw on 27 December 1973 at the end of ‘The Baby Arrives’, an episode of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em; others may recognise it from the 1995 Simpsons episode, ‘And Maggie Makes Three’. It goes something like this: A proud father holds up his newborn infant, glimpses beneath the blanket in which it is wrapped, and proudly boasts that this well-endowed child is indeed his son. ‘No,’ the doctor steps in to explain, ‘it’s a girl – that’s the umbilical cord’.
The US soldiers comb the ruins. Broom and his escort, Cpl. Matlin (Jim Howick), find themselves in a damp, dark crypt. It is decorated with ancient relief sculptures that depict entities – they look as much like monkeys as demons – fanning the flames beneath a hellish cauldron. There is a scuttling noise. Something is in there with them. Matlin glimpses it in the beam of his torch and fires wildly. Broom tells him to lower the torch. The light is scaring it.
It is something small and strange. Like a red ape.
More soldiers rush into the crypt.
It has a big stone in its hand, says Matlin.
No, Broom corrects him, that is its hand.
Look at the size of that whammer!, exclaims Sgt Whitman (Angus MacInnes). (The shape of the creature’s giant hand recalls that of the massive device Rasputin wore on his forearm to open the portal, though no-one notices or comments on this.)
The soldiers raise their weapons, but Broom intercedes. With a couple of Babe Ruth candy bars, he lures the creature down into a blanket, into his arms. He turns to the soldiers, like a new father.
It’s a boy, he explains.
It’s just a baby boy, says Matlin.
Some time later that morning, once the sun is up, the soldiers stand in a group around the creature so Matlin can take their photograph. Broom’s voiceover – spoken by John Hurt, who plays the older Broom through the rest of the film – says: An unready father for an unwanted child. The boys gave him a name that very night – in retrospect, perhaps not the most fortunate. But nevertheless a name we all came to use. We called him Hellboy. The picture is taken. The image freezes, turns to black and white, and blows away into the movie’s title sequence.
No intersex or other sex here, just plain old biological dimorphism and the hysterical overdetermination of masculine identity. A masculine identity confirmed not so much by those phallic appendages – the horns, the stone fist – but by an urgent insistence on placing this creature in a patriarchal order as, effectively, Broom’s son in an effort to overcome the unease that might arise from its vivid alterity. Like rights legislation and other measures around disability, this naming and adoption seems ‘designed to minimize or cover over’ corporeal differences and their effects instead of fully acknowledging them (Shildrick 53).
Margrit Shildrick, glossing Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (87), writes:
the initial response to the unknown stranger may be no less than murderous; we would kill what seems to threaten us. Such a reaction chimes with the encounter with the monstrous, but the point Levinas wants to make is that the threat is apparent only, the violence is all mine. Though the other infinitely exceeds my power, it arises not through the exercise of force, but by the overflowing of every idea I can have of him. (91)
Broom’s persuasive defence of the monstrous infant is a remarkable sleight of hand, situated as it is between the massively overdetermined evil of comic book Nazi occultists and a white – and whitewashed – US military.1
In biopolitical terms, Broom’s apparent refusal of violence towards this other draws the monster from the realm of zöe (the mere biological life shared by humans and other species) into the realm of bios (the life of the citizen, of those judged to be properly human). It is precisely the opposite of the gesture which climaxes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves 2014), in which Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, reaffirms the importance of ape society’s foundational rule, ‘ape not kill ape’, before telling the rebellious ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), ‘you are not ape’. This declaration of a state of exception ‘justifies’ Caesar’s decision to execute Koba, letting him fall to his death, without jeopardising his own position within the lawful community of apes.
Broom’s generous hospitality towards the red demon monkey infant exceeds that extended to many of Jim Crow America’s own citizens of colour, and to others whose embodiment ‘failed’ tests of normativity. But although his welcome and saving of the stranger seems like a refusal of the violence within himself, it is ultimately only an apparent refusal. This other is too capacious and heterogenous, too large, too excessive for the ideas with which Broom would constrain it; and yet, that is what Broom does. It is a boy, he declares, transforming it into his son, asserting and assuring masculine and patrilineal privilege. The poor thing is no sooner in the human world than it is interpellated, has a subject position foisted upon it.
This is, in part, what Donna Haraway means when she writes that
Organisms emerge from a discursive process. (298)
Later in the same essay, she teases human beings for using
names to point to themselves and other[s] (313)
and for so
easily … mistak[ing] the names for the things. … But the things … do not pre-exist as … fully pre-packaged … referents for the names. … Boundaries take provisional, never-finished shape in articulatory practices. (313)
Jacques Derrida describes this process in a similar way. He describes the monster as
a composite figure of heterogeneous organisms that are grafted onto each other. This graft, this hybridization, this composition that puts heterogeneous bodies together may be called a monster. (385)
And the monster cannot help but make
one aware of what normality is
and of the history and contingency of that normality:
But a monster is not just that, it is not just this chimerical figure in some way that grafts one animal onto another, one living being onto another. A monster is always alive … The monster is also that which appears for the first time and, consequently, is not yet recognized. A monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name, which does not mean that the species is abnormal, namely the composition or hybridization of already known species. Simply, it shows itself … But as soon as one perceives a monster in a monster, one begins to domesticate it, one begins … to compare it to the norm, to analyze it, consequently to master whatever could be terrifying in this figure of the monster. (386)
We can see another version of this naming/interpellating scene in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (del Toro 2008).
After a running battle in the troll market hidden away beneath New York, Hellboy stops to pet an infant held at its troll mother’s breast, patting it and saying, ‘Nice baby’. The baby turns to him and responds, ‘I’m not a baby, I’m a tumour’.
It is a curious moment, as this being evades the identity imposed on it not just by Hellboy but also by our perceptions, only to speak another identity – a pathologising one from medical discourse, which it also clearly exceeds: tumours are not sentient, do not speak.
A more unnerving version of this process can be observed in the Pale Man from El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). This creature has no eyes in his head; instead, they are located in the palms of his hands. Yet at key moment he raises his hands to his face so as to position his eyes where they would be, approximately, if he were a human. This uncanny semblance of humanity signifies the sheer potency of normativity, how it domesticates and distorts the other.
Donna Haraway points out that
the world has always been in the middle of things, in unruly and practical conversation, full of action and structured by a startling array of actants and of networking and unequal collectives (304).
So we should not assume that the imposition of identity is a singular or ever-complete occurrence; it is an always-ongoing negotiation between multiple agents on a never-level playing field.
We see the open-ended negotiation of identity as the Hellboy movies unfold.
Hellboy, coming from Hell, is fireproof. One of the other agents in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), is a pyrokinetic – able to generate fire, and shape and control it, except when emotion (the silly woman!) causes her to lose control. Then, fires rage.
These complementary abilities make their heterosexual union seem natural, normal, preordained. Which, as much as Hellboy’s tendency to be a jackass, might be the reason Liz resists being in a relationship with him.
Liz is visually coded as a lesbian (although the only other person we see her consider dating is a man), and depicted as a self-harming neurotic suffering from depression. Until, that is, she fulfils her destiny, and is fully domesticated as the mother of Hellboy’s child – just as Hellboy himself is recovering from the death of Broom, his surrogate father, and taking on the mantle of paternity implied by Broom’s initial recognition of the red monkey demon as ‘a boy’.
Actually, though, Liz is pregnant with twins. Which returns us to that troubling, but potentially utopian, excessiveness of the other, which throughout western history has been strongly associated with women’s bodies. For the twins to survive the womb, and for Liz to survive the pregnancy, they must presumably share a complementarity – akin to that between Liz and Hellboy – so that none of them destroys the others. They are (or, perhaps, it is) a becoming, chaotically organised around multiplicity. This emergent cluster of bodies, and at some stage subjects, mutually developing in relation to each other exceeds the rigidly demarcated monadic subject – as with any pregnancy.2
When the twins – whether male, female, one of each or two of something else, or just one being distributed across two or maybe even more bodies – are born, how will they (or it) emerge into the world?
How will these new others be greeted?
And will their inherited powers and complementarity be such that the only partners they can find who are capable of surviving sex with them are – as with Hellboy and Liz – each other?
If they do take male and female form, how will the heteronormative sense of being a preordained couple because of their complementarity work if, in their case, it breaks incest taboos (just as Hellboy and Liz break taboos about interspecies sex)?
As long as Hellboy 3 remains a vague plan, these problems and possibilities remain open-ended – like the world, in the middle of things.
Notes 1 President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 desegregating the US military was not issued until 26 July 1948, and other major civil rights legislation overturning Jim Crow in the US is still a decade or more in the future of when the film is set. 2 Remember the troll baby who is really a tumour? Jackie Stacey, among others, has noted that the cancer cell, like the fetus, is ‘produced by the body’, is ‘Neither self nor other’ but ‘both the same as and different from its host’ (77).
References Jacques Derrida, Points…Interviews, 1976-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Donna Haraway ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’. In Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler, eds, Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992. 295–337.
Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh” Duquesne University Press, 1969.
Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage, 2002.
Jackie Stacey, Teratologies: A Cultural Study of Cancer. London: Routledge, 1997.
This post is extracted from a paper, ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many smart and useful questions.
Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).
I will post another extract – about Pacific Rim – when I have time to write it up a bit.
This is one of those books that’s been lying around the house unread for a couple of decades. I bought it on the strength of a positive review in Interzone, probably, or perhaps SF Eye. It has made at least two previous trips to the US and back with me, and tomorrow it will be on its way to the charity shop. It is not a great book, or even a particularly good one, but it is odd in an interesting way. Or interesting in an odd way. In the opening years of the 21st century, Gorbachev aborts a Soviet moon-landing in favour of a mission to divert a near-Earth asteroid, Sinuhe, into a cislunar orbit, using nuclear bombs for propulsion. There, it can be mined for materials with which to revitalise the Soviet economy, build a lunar base, stage missions to Mars and generally open up the solar system. The US, however, views it as threat to the pax Americana established by their successful SDI programme. Fellow Traveler is hard sf of a particular engineering kind, a thriller rather lacking in thrills. It reads like one of the mission checklists its cosmonaut characters religiously plod through. And the cosmonauts themselves are largely ciphers, something they seem to acknowledge about themselves when discussing problems with a pair of cabin-feverish mission specialists who threaten to contaminate the novel with melodrama:
Neither one of them’s had any training in how to hold things in. They . . . can’t suppress themselves like we can. Emotional bullshit. Not pilots. Not engineers. … What can I say? They’re wet inside. (188).
Barton and Capobianco attempt to counter this flatness by interlarding into the present (in)action flashbacks about growing up in the Soviet Union and becoming involved in the space programme. In this regard, Fellow Traveler recalls novels from Gregory Benford’s ‘when he could be bothered’ phase – In The Ocean of the Night (1976), Timescape (1980), Against Infinity (1983), Across the Sea of Suns (1984) – which imported some of the lessons of the American new wave into hard sf, but it is far less successful. What makes Fellow Traveler most worthy of comment is its rather peculiar politics. It is deeply critical of the path taken by NASA since the 1970s, arguing that the visionless, military-dominated, mission-by-mission status quo needs to be replaced by an expansive and exploratory space programme. However, it does so by giving that grand old upwards-and-outwards vision at the core of what John Clute calls Agenda Sf over to the Soviet Union, lock, stock and barrel. When Gorbachev addresses the Congress of People’s Deputies (78-9), he could be a huckster shilling for Wernher von Braun or Willy Ley on a 1950s Disneyland episode. Later, in private, he says of the Sinuhe mission,
It is not only a beautiful idea, as the torso of a woman is beautiful, it is simplicity itself. Mankind will have made a genuine leap, not the paltry step the Americans made so long ago. (91)
And, according to the first of the novel’s appendices, this mission was in 1991 ‘possible – though just barely possible – using … off the shelf technology’ (382) the USSR, but not the US, possessed. Barton and Capobianco attempt to shame the US into colonising the solar system. Furthermore, their general critique of the shallowness and tawdriness of American consumer culture implies they would prefer limitations to democracy and a degree of autocratic centralisation if it got the US an offworld foothold. While the American president, government, military and media are depicted as, respectively, weak, ineffective, paranoid and carelessly sensationalist, overt approval of autocracy is only expressed by non-American characters. One of the cosmonauts, for example, thinks
Kruschev had been such a crude old peasant, embarrassing on the world scene and, in the end, cowed by a handsome American boy. But, like Mussolini, he seemed to have the knack of making things work. Maybe that was important. (17)
And the novel is so incapable of imagining cultural difference that it repeatedly defines characters in absurdly nationalist terms. The Italian Anselm Bustamonte, contemplating the way the Soviet mission renders the Piazzi II probe to Sinuhe redundant, thinks:
It was a miracle of engineering, and would have thrust Italy into a central position within the newly reformulated ESA overnight. Certainly the country’s prestige within the EEC would have been strengthened as well, reclaiming the technological lead she had lost during the late Renaissance. (166)
Elsewhere, the stereotyping is less overtly nationalist, but every bit as hilarious. Russians, for example, are given to saying things like
Hegel would be proud of you, Academician. (23)
and (in 2002!) of a Moody Blues (!) track:
It is bourgeois and repetitive, performed by cretins with the skill of dancing bears, and, worst of all, encourages the most antisocial of behavior. (186)
Which is, come to think of it, pretty accurate, if hard on ursus terpsichoris. Russians also tend to think in terms like these:
It was May, but the winter had held its iron grip on Moskva like a true bureaucrat, deferring any real changes until the last possible moment, afraid to take responsibility for anything new. (70)
This nationalist stereotyping tendency is best captured, however, by Hermann Oberg, the imaginatively named German director of the European Space Agency.1 The voice of reason trying to mediate between Soviets and Americans, he sometimes adopts what he considers a more French approach, since French is the language of diplomacy, but other times he is a lot more, well, ‘German’:
What was it Hitler had said? Yes, on the occasion of the first V-2 launch, he said, ‘Es war doch gewaltig!‘ Too true … Bastard had the soul of a poet. … After all, anyone who loved dogs and blondes couldn’t have been all bad. (37)
And, directly before addressing the (privately disdained) UN,
He was imagining himself standing before an outdoor amphitheater, filled with thousands of black-clad, torch-wielding young men. Iron Christians. The crowd was chanting something, Horst Wessel Lied, perhaps. (148)
By the time of the novel’s epilogue, fifteen years after the principal action, Oberg is President of the Federal Republic of Europe, and the Scandinavian states have joined a renascent USSR, while the US, whose unilateral intervention nearly destroyed the world, languishes in decline. Clearly what Americans needs is a collective goal. And a vastly more ambitious space programme. And a dictatorship. That way they can get to live in space and have a thousand year Reich all of their own. Or something like that.
1 It it difficult to tell whether this is laziness or homage. Other minor character names include Zarkov (yay!) and, more peculiarly, Jo-Lee Hooker and George Buckminster Smiley.
The first major international organisation to fall victim to the global recession was WASP, the World Aquanaut Security Patrol. Funding cuts saw it broken up into smaller national units, many of which were immediately disbanded. Marineville, that icon of postwar internationalism and sixties design, was auctioned off to International Leisure, a division of Tracy International. It now combines a high-tech gated community with an exclusive resort. Its successful hosting of G7, G8 and G10 meetings, far from the media and even further from protestors, only enhanced its reputation among business elites. A retirement village for the super-rich is currently under construction.
ASP-UK, advised to expand its range of activities while right-sizing its operations, diversified into pollution monitoring, landfill management and recycling facilities. Around this time, mute amphibian beauty Marina became a subject of interest to Immigration Services. Sans papier and facing internment, she quietly disappeared, apparently preferring to return to life beneath the seas as one of Titan’s slave-girls. Six months later, Captain Troy Tempest, fresh from rehab, married Lieutenant Atlanta Shore. Acrimonous divorce followed within the year.
Spectrum also suffered massive cuts as European governments shifted military funding away from international collaborations. Angel Interceptors were replaced with ill-suited Eurofighters, and the cost of retrofitting them to Cloudbase’s unique launch systems became just one more reason to scrap this ‘airborne monument to Keynesian folly and excess’. When irreconcilable differences in management styles saw attempts to share resources with SHIELD collapse, the fate of Spectrum was sealed. It slowly shrank to a clearing house for commissioning Private Military Contractors before formally disbanding.
Captain Scarlet, once the heroic face of this proud organisation, spent his final years as a Spectrum agent attending corporate events in a desperate bid to find alternative income streams. The extent of this desperation only became apparent when footage of a five-thousand-dollar-a-plate event was leaked onto youtube, showing Scarlet being shot and killed – over and over again – by drunken executives at ten thousand dollars a bullet. You can see in his eyes that he knows it will never be enough.
In later years, Scarlet became the repeated victim of Joe McClaine, a stalker suffering from multiple personality disorder. As a child, Joe was the subject of systematic abuse by his scientist father, apparently condoned – and certainly covered up – by his employers, the shadowy World Intelligence Network. During the course of his trial, Joe manifested as many as 90 different personalities. Ironically, Scarlet and his would-be killer are currently in separate wings of the same asylum.
One figure to ride out, and indeed profit from, the recession and era of austerity was billionairre Jeff Tracy. His reputation, however, took quite a beating. Media outlets controlled by Tracy International depict him as a very private man, withdrawn and introspective. Critics, however, insist that he no longer dare show his face in public after the scandals that rocked International Rescue. Did the CIA really subcontract extraordinary rendition abductions to International Rescue? Was Thunderbird 2 being used for human trafficking? What exactly happened to that refugee flotilla that sank without a survivor less than a mile from Tracy Island?
Jeff Tracy sporadically attempts to win back public support, philanthropically endangering the lives of his poorly-trained sons (and bystanders) by disregarding health and safety regulations in emergency situations. Courtesy of striking firefighters and ambulance crews, the once-lauded Tracy brothers are now commonly known as Scab Rescue.
Have you ever wondered why the British Experimental Rocket Group never got us to the Moon?
Nigel Kneale, authorised biographer of (and chief propagandist for) Professor Bernard Quatermass, was always quick to blame it on the militarisation of the British Space Programme, while American analysts tend to pin it on the UK’s lack of frontier spirit and yankee know-how (and there is certainly evidence that Britain tried to recruit some of that – though they ended up with a washed-up alcoholic who spoke so quickly you always had the sense that he was impatient for any conversation to end so he could get to the bar).
The truth, however, is revealed in Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed (1998).
On p.451 of a 534-page novel, we read that a US astronaut, who has landed on the Moon in a jerry-rigged emergency mission to save the Earth,
sipped her … tea. Even freshly made, it did not seem hot enough. One of the old clichés of lunar travel, she thought: water boils at lower temperature in low pressure.
And, as this model and the Winnerton Flats prototype reveal, the lunar domes Quatermass intended to build would not have solved the problem.
Basic physics robbed us of the Dan Dare future we were promised. Once it became clear quite how rare a nice cup of tea would be in space, we as a nation – an entire nation – just lost the will to go there ourselves.
However, the story does not end there.
A careful reading of Baxter shows that it was Britons who unleashed the planet-destroying Moonseed, thus forcing the US and Russia to co-operate in the mission that would ultimately lead to the rapid terraforming of the Moon (and then, it is implied, human expansion across and beyond the Solar System). And should anyone doubt that this is ultimately a British triumph, observe what happens on pp.489-90. Henry, the American responsible for setting the lunar expedition in motion and for sneaking along the equipment necessary to make the Moon habitable at the speed (if not quite the absurdity) of Total Recall, knows that his crazy plan has worked the moment it starts to rain on the Moon.