Zombie narratives try to make us side with the worst of us against the most of us. (Accumulation by) dispossession shall be the whole of the law.
Zombies are the twenty-first century’s bomb-throwing anarchists, its beardy dirigibilists raining incendiary terror from the air. Destroy destroy destroy so a new world will rise from the ashes. But, as always, the destruction is welcomed by the architects of perpetual immiseration. Ultimately, the zombies work for them.
Zombies who struggle to retain or regain their humanity lack ambition. When zoe is all you are, why settle for the same old bios?
Zombies are metaphors, and zombie metaphors hang around long after they should have been shot in the head. Beat ’em or burn ’em, they go up pretty easy.
‘No Place Like Earth’ was not producer Irene Shubik’s choice for Out of the Unknown’s opener. She was concerned about its languid pace and, following the recent Mariner 4 flyby of Mars, about its old-fashioned representation of the red planet (and it was apparently taken to task over this when reviewed on the BBC’s discussion programme, Late Night Line Up (1964-72)).
Shubik would have preferred the adaptation of Alan E. Nourse’s ‘The Counterfeit Man’ (1952),1 and David Campton’s original teleplay ‘Stranger in the Family’ was also ready to air. But Sydney Newman,2 the Head of Drama, selected the episode based on a story by John Wyndham, by far the most famous of these authors…
Although as far as I have been able to determine, the story had still not appeared in print anywhere under Wyndham’s name.3
Wyndham’s story follows Bert, one of a small number of humans on Mars after the complete destruction of the Earth fourteen years earlier. Unlike the others, who have settled into a life of hopeless dissolution, Bert is an itinerant tinker, travelling the Martian canals from place to place, fixing pots and pans and basic mechanical devices for the indigenous population, who are unskilled at such things. They live lives of quiet contentment, without regret or strife, long after the decline of the ancient Great Ones, whose ruins dot the landscape. The gentle Martians offer Bert a home among them, even a wife, Zaylo, but he cannot bring himself to abandon his memories of Earth, his sense of difference, of human ambition. He is incapable of embracing a world he knows is dying.
Abruptly, a ship from Venus arrives. There, other human survivors are racing to transform their precarious colony into a new Earth before the Slav settlement, at the other Venusian pole, expands to threaten them. Venus, however, turns out not to be what he’d been led to expect. Behind the façade, there is a strict hierarchy of privilege, and he is put to work as an overseer of indigenous slave labour. He revolts, escapes to Mars and, after ensuring there can be no future contact between the two worlds, returns to join his new Martian family.
Such a mixture of introspection and exposition, with only a little violent action, must have seemed quite manageable for a more-or-less studio-bound production, but for the need to represent two very different alien worlds – the declining Mars and the jungle Venus of pulp sf. But the staging is quite ingenious, involving maybe half a dozen sets. The ruins of a Martian building, vaguely resembling a classical temple, appear differently dressed as the two key Martian settings. Venus is represented by a pair of enclosed spaces, a kind of train station and a small train carriage; there is also a quarry set, and two other sites which might actually be part of the same set. And there are a couple of rooms in the spaceship. A brief location shoot at Loch Lomond provided images of the canals, with Martian mountains matted into the top half of the frame; a single shot of what appears to be a quarry was presumably filmed somewhere nearby. There is also a briefly glimpsed effects shot of a spaceship blowing up in the distance, and a stock shot of quarry blasting. And when Bert (Terence Morgan) first hears of the Venus settlement and fantasises about the new and ultramodern human society being built there, an image of the Martian ruins fades into a view of a skyscraper at a sharp angle that emphasises its height, and shots of the moderne arched vaults beneath – I think it is Centre Point, constructed in 1961-66, and at the time one of the tallest buildings in London.
One of the most interesting aspects of Wyndham’s story is the way in which it thinks about colonialism, drawing on and overlapping British and American traditions, stereotypes, clichés and expressions, while also offering a gentle, if deeply compromised, critique.
Bert recalls the first human encounters with the Martians:
They were a gentle, sympathetic people, and sincere. It was a tragedy, one of a string of similar tragedies that the first Earthman to ground on Mars had seen them as a weak, effete race; the ‘natives’, inferiors, to be kicked about, and exploited when convenient. … Their quietness, their lack of hurry and their calm philosophic ways were a soothing antidote to [Bert’s] sense of drive and thrust. He found out quite soon that what his companions had called their laziness and effeteness was a misunderstanding of minds that worked differently in some ways, and certainly saw life differently; whose conception of the virtues was altogether alien, and he found out how his abilities could help their deficiencies in exchange for the foods they knew how to grow. (12, 15-16)
Despite his profound sympathy for the Martians, Bert still sees humans as the norm – he does not see his mechanical orientation or his lack of agricultural knowledge as deficiencies. And British colonial idioms recur:
The Martian grapevine wasn’t any more reliable than other bush-telegraphs. (24)
Some of the other humans
had taken Martian girls and tried to go native (13)
because almost all the humans working in space were men, and therefore the survivor settlement on Mars is all male – although briefly, and in the story’s most overtly misogynist passage, Wyndham seems to have imagined it more as a wild west town:
There had also been two women, hostesses or stewardesses. Good enough girls, and amiable at first, though no great beauties. But circumstances were against them, and the pressure was great. They had gone quickly to the astonishing depths of badness good women can reach once they start. It was reckoned they had caused a score of murders each before they were found to be susceptible to the same method of disposal. Things were quieter after that, with drinking the main amusement.
Later, as Bert contemplates leaving Mars for Venus, he hears men singing, not
drunken bawling … but men singing lustily, cheerily, with hope in their hearts … (30)
And what do they sing? A song about prospecting for gold on the banks of the Sacramento river.4
Shades of the forty-niners, ghost of covered wagon trains crawling, crawling across prairies and deserts, over mountains, forging on against hardships and hunger. With not much gold at the end, perhaps – only an arid land. But a land which their sons would make to bloom like a garden there beside the Pacific. . . . (30-1)
The episode presents the Martian women and children as somehow Mediterranean-ish. Their faces and exposed skin are in swarthy but not too dark blackface; their hair, make-up and jewellery recall stereotypical images of ancient Greece (or maybe Rome or Egypt). Their simple dresses are suited to labour rather than elegantly draped robes, and this semiotic confusion is extended by their clearly unskilled pounding with large mortars on maize- or corn-filled pestles. (They also seem to have white mouthguards in place, smoothing out their teeth, but it is quite a subtle alien effect.) I don’t think we ever see an adult Martian male, which is one of the ways in which the episode develops the differences between the two worlds. On Venus, no-one wears natural fabrics, and the setting is all male. There are said to be women – fewer in number than the men and protected from the vicissitudes of life on the planet in the compound reserved for officers and the government – but we never see them. The Venusian settlers are promised wives in the future, once they prove themselves, but somehow that day never seems to come.
Soon after Wyndham’s evocation of manifest destiny, and now on Venus, British orientalism and idiom reassert themselves:
long leaves rippled in the Wind, writhing like Medusa’s hair. Crowning the central rise of the Settlement stood the massive palisades of the seraglio. (31)
which an unnamed settler labels
Jam tomorrow (31)
(The expression, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), had gained fresh currency as a term for politician’s promises following John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 essay ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’.)
This unnamed character, out of favour with the Venusian ruling class, explains how the system works, in terms that resonate with immigrant experience (in 1948, Empire Windrush had brought the first group of post-war West Indian immigrants to London). Bert will be given full citizenship if his work proves satisfactory, but reasons will always be found to test him just one more time. If and when he does become a citizen, he will discover there are no women available for him to marry, but he will be put on the waiting list. If he makes a fuss, his citizenship will be revoked. If he becomes a problem for the regime, he will just disappear.
Visually, the episode’s vision of the Venus settlement owes more to the 1954 Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). The walls of the futuristic waiting room at the railway station are adorned with slogans:
VENUS IS THE FUTURE
WORK OBEDIENCE PROGRESS
STRICTER CONTROL GREATER OUTPUT
Bert’s interlocutor, named Freeman (Joseph O’Conor), drapes a coat over a surveillance camera, adding something like ‘they can watch us through these, too’, even though it is clearly not a telescreen.
In both story and episode, their ensuing conversation about the ways in which humans are failing to build the best possible world on Venus draws upon the Gettysburg Address, citing the line about ‘a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’. Obviously intended by Wyndham as part of the Americanisation of his mid-Atlantic voice, it has an acute resonance, given that Venusian civilisation, such as it is, is built upon slave labour (in the episode it stands out as implying a US pulp vision of a future populated by inevitable and endless Americans, but is contradicted by the cast’s obviously British accents). The name ‘Freeman’ also evokes the immediate post-bellum context, though it does not appear in the story, only the episode. And although the episode does include two actors of colour,5 neither is cast as Freeman; intriguingly, though, he is played by an Irishman.
Of the slaves with whom Bert is charged, he thinks:
They were intelligent little creatures, but the general opinion was that they were dead lazy. … that just showed narrow thinking. Laziness is a relative term to be measured against work. Nobody called a flower or a tree lazy. The point was that a wild griffa never had any conception of work. When it was caught and shown work, it didn’t like it. Why should it? The captives netted by a drive in the forest came in as sad-eyed, bewildered little figures, of whom a number promptly went into decline and allowed themselves to die. The rest had no great will to survive. Life in captivity was very little better to them than no life at all. The only thing that made them work at all was the desire to avoid pain. They were intelligent enough to be taught quite complicated duties, but what no one had been able to instil into them was the sacred idea of duty itself. They could not be brought to the idea that it was something they owed to these human invaders of their planet. … There was also the uneasy feeling that his position in Venusian society was not all that different from theirs. . . . (37-8).
Despite the common deployment of stereotypes about laziness, this seems to reflect British colonial thinking rather than American slavery and Jim Crow discourses.
The episode does not convey much about the Venusian griffas. Slighter than the humans, they are vaguely simian in their demeanour, but in a neat bit of cost-cutting they are invisible beneath synthetic overalls and head-encompassing helmets. Instead, it focuses on Bert’s immediate and utter revulsion at slavery while also evoking the Holocaust labour camps (remember those slogans, remember ARBEIT MACHT FREI). Bert is under the command of Khan, played by the Cypriot actor George Pastell, who was regularly cast as Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, Latin Americans, Russians, Italians, Spanish, and so on.6 Here, his Mitteleuropan accent wavers in and out of sounding German, and his costume is clearly intended to invoke some kind of Venusian fascist. Later, when Bert is called upon to explain his presence on the spaceship back to Mars, he deadpans that he is ‘just obeying orders’. However, the image of the Middle Passage is perhaps evoked when, having lied about a mission to round up Martians as slaves, an Officer – played by Geoffrey Palmer! – points out that the difference in gravity between the two worlds would make them useless.7 Bert shrugs off this ‘wastage’.
Ultimately, my dissatisfaction with the episode is the same as with the story. Both versions hinge on Bert’s recognition that his memories of Earth are actually of the better world humans imagined, not of Earth as it actually ever existed. But in both, like some Candide-lite, he opts to let Venus (and the remaining humans on Mars) go to hell and settles for tending his own garden (and beautiful indigenous bride). Grrrrrrrrrrrr.
Other things to watch out for — Hannah Gordon as Zaylo, the Martian hottie
— disgruntled Jack Russels in furs as Martian bannikuks
— brief glimpses of Bill Treacher – Arfur from Eastenders — the human salute, which comes across as kind of premature, extremely white and rather awkwardly constrained black power fist
Originally published as ‘Counterfeit’ in Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1952), it was anthologised in the UK in Brian Aldiss’ More Penguin Science Fiction Stories (1963).
He had been poached by the BBC in 1962 from the commercial channel ABC, where his major successes included Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and The Avengers (1961-9), and where he had also produced the series of sf serials, Target Luna (1960), Pathfinders in Space (1960), Pathfinders to Mars (1960-1) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). Shubik worked with him as a story editor on Armchair Theatre and on an sf anthology drama series Out of this World (1962). At the BBC, Newman soon initiated The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Doctor Who (1963-89). Shubik joined him, becoming story editor on the contemporary drama anthology series Story Parade (1964-5) before proposing Out of the Unknown as a science-fictional companion; later she would oversee the transformation of The Wednesday Play into Play for Today (1974-80).
Wyndham published under a variety of monikers (John Beynon Harris, John Beynon, Wyndham Parkes, Lucas Parkes and Johnson Harris), all derived from his own rather lengthy name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. The publishing history of ‘No Place Like Earth’ begins with a short story, ‘Time to Rest’, which constitutes roughly its opening third. ‘Time to Rest’ was published in two magazines: in the US, as by John Beynon Harris, in The Arkham Sampler (winter 1949), edited by August Derleth; in the UK, as by John Beynon, in New Worlds 5 (August 1949), edited by John Carnell. Derleth reprinted it in a US anthology, Far Boundaries (1951), and in the UK it was included in the Wyndham collection Seeds of Time (1956), published in hardback by Michael Joseph and paperback by Penguin. Beynon’s direct continuation of ‘Time to Rest’, the longer and rather less elegiac ‘No Place Like Earth’, appeared in Carnell’s New Worlds 9 (Spring 1951) and in the US, under the misleading title ‘Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus’, in Donald A. Wollheim’s 10 Story Fantasy (Spring 1951). In October 1952, Carnell joined the two stories together as ‘No Place Like Earth’ as the lead story in an anthology of British sf, No Place Like Earth (Boardman), still as by Beynon, which enabled him also to include a John Wyndham story, ‘Survival’ (1952); the anthology was reissued by the Science Fiction Book Club in January 1954, and published in paperback by Panther in August 1961. (Joined together as a single story in this way, ‘No Place Like Earth’ also appeared under Beynon’s name in the first of an annual anthology series, Out of this World (Blackie), edited by Amabel Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen; it reversed the order of the two opening stories in Carnell’s anthology, beginning instead with Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Breaking Strain’ (1949), but otherwise the contents do not overlap.) At least, this is the publication history I have been able to cobble together from internet sources. Shubik was, by all accounts, well-versed in sf, so it is hard to tell when she might first have read the story. However, the Panther paperback would have gone on sale around the time she was starting to look for stories to adapt for ABC’s Out of this World.
There is no direct equivalent in the episode, although Bert does sing snatches of the very British ‘A-Hunting We Will Go’ and, if I recall, the ‘Eton Boating Song’.
One of them, uncredited and apparently Asian, is seated among the group of humans on Mars; the other is the Jamaican Roy Stewart who, as a Venusian security guard, actually gets to speak a line of dialogue (badly). A stalwart of British film and TV throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he is perhaps best remembered as Toberman in the 1967 Doctor Who serial, Tomb of the Cybermen.
Pastell also appeared in Tomb of the Cybermen, as Eric Kleig.
In the story, Bert merely hopes that no one will raise this objection – maybe this addition is evidence of Shubik’s anxiety about the story’s badly dated planetary science.
Sources Beynon, John, ‘No Place Like Earth’, in John Carnell, ed., No Place Like Earth. London: Panther, 1961. 9-42. Out of the Unknown boxset.BFI, 2014.
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) is that part way through they replace Ryan Gosling with Bradley Cooper, just so you know you can get up and leave and no one will mind…
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).
We came from Apache Junction, over the Superstition mountains, along state route 88, which owes much of its construction to the New Deal. It follows the old Apache trail, and most of the crews working through the mountains from either end to meet in the middle were Apaches and Yavapai from postage stamp reservations at Camp Verde and the like. There is still a 22-mile stretch of unpaved dirt road clinging to the curves of the mountain, with a precipitous drop on one side or the other.
The 88 passes the Roosevelt Dam. It takes you past Roosevelt Lake, back in 1911 the largest man-made lake in the world, and past the Salado cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument, which date back to the 13th century.
History here feels strange.
If you ignore Whitey’s scarrings and other transformations of the landscape, there is a sense of a deep past, its traces light and often eradicated, but on a timescale that makes sense to a European. Its preservation by state agencies feels like a disavowal. There is a tangible disjunction between that history and the anxious celebrations of people and places and events from less than a couple of hundred years ago. They are tenuous, impermanent. Unpersuasive. Improper. You can feel the year-zero, like some endless mall car park, stretching beneath them.
We turn onto the 60 and stop at Miami for a late lunch at a Mexican diner. It seems to be doing okay, but all along the main street the stores are closed or closed down.
There used to be mining here. Now there is nothing.
It is a long time since anyone stayed at the Traveler’s Hotel.
Some believe that on 27 January 1864 a key battle in the Arizona Apache Wars took place nearby; others locate it in Fish Creek Canyon, back in the mountains. An expedition, led by King Woolsey, invited native leaders to a parley; and once they were seated, Woolsey ordered the killing of every Indian in sight. It is said the stream ran red with their blood, which is why it is now called the Bloody Tanks Wash.
But banners invite you to take part in the Bloody Tanks Riverwalk in Historic Downtown Miami.
They’re a couple of years old, it seems.
The sun has faded them.
Around the corner, on Inspiration Road, there are No U-Turn signs.
It is all there.
PS Someone just told me that the skew-eyed, crumple-faced Jack Elam, rubbish heavy turned grizzled sidekick, is from Miami, AZ. Which seems appropriate. If not to this post, perhaps, then certainly to the town.