Under My Skin: defining the human in science fiction.

Lying at the heart of most science fiction, it seems to me, is the attempt to define what it means to be human. Authors from Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson to modern darlings like Alastair Reynolds and China Miéville are, beneath their paranoid technicolour or cyber- or gothic steam-punk surfaces, offering an exploration of the human condition.

A recent episode of cult television series Dr Who caused viewers to complain to the BBC about the racy scenes between the Doctor and Amy Pond, admitting a previously, if not unadmitted then unexplored, sexuality into the canon: resisting the lavish advances of a mini-skirted Pond, the Doctor declares ‘I’m nine-hundred and seven years old: think what that means!’ Even here, science fiction is exploring the difference between Time Lord and human and the implications for their relationship.

As Dr. Tyrell, head of the replicant-manufacturing Tyrell Corporation in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, remarks; ‘More human than human is our motto.’ The famous speech Batty gives at the end of the film is all the more poignant because, like all the replicants, he is aspiring to be human and his experiences, whilst short-lived, define his humanity: ‘I’ve seen things…attack ships in flames off the shores of Orion.’ There’s poetry here, as well as a lament for the loss of his all-too-brief glimpse into the human condition.

Ray Bradbury’s haunting short story ‘The Pedestrian’ from his brilliant 1982 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun, is set in 2053: the narrator, Mr. Mead is the only one walking the streets at night, everyone else is indoors being indoctrinated by their television sets. Arrested by a robotic police car, he is driven past a house – the only house with all its lights on. ‘That’s my house,’ he declares. The computer-controlled car cannot understand what he is doing: ‘Just walking, Mr Mead ?’ it asks him.

In the Matrix-indebted Equilibrium, the suppression of human emotion using controlled drugs in pursuit of a society without crime and violence results in a society stripped of its humanity.

As the hybrid being that is Lieutenant Ripley remarks in Alien Resurrection, as the good ship Betty heads towards the Earth: ‘I’m a stranger here myself,’ articulating a sense of isolation that we have all perhaps felt to some extent at some point in our lives.

It’s what Batty and the other doomed replicants are fighting for, what the robotic police-car can never understand, and what science fiction, in its myriad incarnations is expressing: it’s what makes us human that counts.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Author: Daniel Harding

Head of Music Performance, University of Kent: pianist, accompanist and conductor: jazz enthusiast.

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