Thinking Points (II) – Delta Minus Killable Unpersons

Vested Interest Warning: I am writing this article as a writer myself, who is currently working on a young-adult novel, “Garden of Eden.” It does not contain vampires, werewolves, faulty neuroscience, child spies or indeed much of anything that is currently selling.

At the moment, I am watching the 1994-5 TV anime Macross 7. It is a singularly ridiculous series, with an utterly bizarre premise that it none the less plays entirely straight and normal within its setting. Its plot centres around an unlikeable wannabe rock star who discovers that his music has the power to save the human race because he is filled with a kind of alien energy. It’s lurid pulp sci-fi dressed in glam-rock trappings and I like it precisely because of this – the story zips along often secondary to a close focus on the daily lives of its larger-than-life characters, and it uses its showbiz setting to justify a great soundtrack.

However, despite being entirely ridiculous, it does one thing very well; much like the far better (in terms of being a television series to watch) Eureka Seven, it doesn’t try to justify its speculative elements (the idea that music can have some kind of psychic effect on aliens) to any extent other than “this is a phenomenon in this SF universe.” – indeed, it makes into a plot point the fact that nobody is willing to accept what they’re seeing could be true. It doesn’t pretend to be realistic by talking about endorphins, or the nature of pleasure responses, or anything like that and if it did, it would be all the weaker for it.

How, then, does a 1994 anime about the futuristic band whose music has the magic power to excite space aliens into a state of Beatlemania relate to a blog title about dystopian fiction? The answer is in science. Modern young-adult fiction, when one rules out the child-soldier fantasies and paranormal romances, is experiencing a boom of dystopian settings. The phenomenally successful Hunger Games trilogy has set the scene, and the imitators are following. One such is Gemma Malley’s The Killables, which well sums up what I see as a flaw in modern dystopian media. It is reduced to a simple formula; imagine a world where something has been outlawed in order to further the interests of the state in the name of protecting people from the misunderstood other. In Malley’s case, what is outlawed is some nebulously defined midpoint between emotion and evil (ignoring of course the idea that this presupposes “evil” is some inherited thing like hair colour).

Malley talks about her writing thus, interviewed in The Guardian on 4/5/2012:

“Imagine someone identified the part of the brain that was responsible for every bad thought, every bad deed, every act of terror and every brutal crime. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to, well, whip it out? That was the starting point for my latest book, The Killables. Because scientists have identified the bit of the brain, the amygdala, that seems to be where lots of dark thoughts originate, the bit that is enlarged in psychopaths, the bit that many scientists are investigating further as the possible root of human evil.

The trouble is, mass brain surgery probably isn’t entirely sensible or practical. I mean, there aren’t enough hospitals, for one thing. Or enough brain surgeons. Certainly not enough money to do everyone in the world, and you’d have to operate on everyone, otherwise there’d be no point. And then there’s the tricky issue of getting some volunteers for the brain surgeons to practice on. Anyone game? Thought not…

Then again, the great thing about writing fiction is that you get to change reality if you want to. So I got to wondering, what if we fast-forwarded into the future a few years?”

The first thing that comes to mind is that this is a harebrained combination of Equilibrium, a pretty laughable action film from 2002 in which humanity is conditioned by drugs to lose their emotions, with We, the 1921 science fiction masterpiece by Yevgeny Zamyatin, in which workers are lobotomised to remove the potential for revolution, and elements of Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman’s 1997 novel concerning the potential to remove mankind’s warlike aspects.

Malley, however, is taking a far more pseudo-scientific approach to this; her interview and novel focus on specific pieces of known scientific theory (the links between development of the amygdala and heightened aggression responses). One can accept Zamyatin, writing in 1921, using targetted microwave radiation as a means of shutting off parts of the brain since We is as much a fable as a piece of hard SF and neuroscience in 1921 was not the same as neuroscience in 2011. However, Malley is writing in 2011 and claiming to be writing scientifically plausible SF in which mass lobotomisation of the populace is a way of eradicating some kind of ill-defined “negative emotion.” “Fast-forwarding into the future” is unlikely to change in any meaningful way the way the human brain works.

The Killables begins with a lengthy quotation from Wikipedia about the function of the amygdala which has been carefully selected to support Malley’s arguments and give them a veneer of credibility; however, this undermines its intended end. The belief that removing one part of the brain will affect only one thing (the removal of this innate “evil”) is simply ludicrous. Wikipedia does claim that damage to the amygdala limits aggression and fear responses, all to the good. But it also lists a vast number of other equally likely functions for it that Malley appears to ignore from reading her book.

To use her own words, the joy of writing SF is changing reality; this is undeniably true. However, there are limits to what can be changed to keep a novel credible and human biology is for sure a leap too far in order to press a socio-political agenda. Dystopia should be a fable-like genre; exploring the effects of societies on their people. Rewriting known neuroscience and ham-fistedly applying it, and then trying to claim it adds some form of authenticity and “this could happen to you” themes is hardly good SF. Macross 7 has its whole “power of music” plotline work and seem credible because it’s being applied to aliens – a non-human species reacting in a non-human way to human stimuli. Malley is trying to tell the reader the human brain works one way when evidence suggests that while it might, it also might not (and also might but also not in the way she thinks).

To close, then, compare The Killables with 1984; the former takes immense liberties with known neuroscience and tries to make them appear well-researched in order to hinge its entire narrative around what is ultimately a faulty premise. 1984 on the other hand has minimal science-fiction elements and does not require selective interpretation of science to explore the capacity for mankind to oppress and subdue. Orwell’s world of prolefeed, doublethink and unremitting austerity has all the exploration of how to quash revolution and smash emotion and individuality that has inspired so many imitators, but without the need for bizarre science that was unconvincing in 1921 and swathes of Wikipedia.

PS: This article circles round on itself again; Macross 7 is part of the Macross franchise, on which Shoji Kawamori worked. Kawamori is now working on AKB0048, a science-fiction anime about a world where light entertainment is banned in order to increase the control of the state over its people. It’s the perfect parody, perhaps unintentionally, of this trend in dystopian sci-fi – especially once it begins bringing in elements of selective breeding, personality conditioning and so on as desirable ways of perpetuating an image…

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2 comments

  1. Dan Holloway

    There was an excellent Horizon recently that examined the fMRI scans of psychopaths and then further examined the prevalence of such brain function amongst the general population, suggesting that psychopathy is fairly widespread and can often have beneficial effects (for the psychopath), with criminal psychopathy being triggered by a much more complex matrix of factors in addition. Ian Rankin also did an excellent series on Evil that ended with fMRI technology.

    That’s an aside – the thing is science (mis)used in this way can work very well but not in the way it sounds like Malley is using it. One can imagine such a hypothesis on the desirability of removing the “centre of evil in the human brain” in the hands of a benevolent, idealistic scientist (possibly unwittingly under the sway of Dark Forces) in a Michael Crichton or David Cronenberg work. The book/film would follow through its implementation precisely to show that science doesn’t work in this way and that humanity is more complex than the protagonist’s (almost certainly said protagonist to be seen in the last reel shouting at the heavens wishing they’d not been so foolish as their lab burns around them) naive reductionism. It’s not even Crichton and Cronenberg, it’s Mary Shelley. An author using science in this way is acting just like one of these gullible protagonists rather than using their work to commentate on such gullibility.

    • r042

      Absolutely; indeed, Forever Peace considers this – there’s a constant debate between idealistic scientists who are prepared to accept a 10% mortality rate in a similar situation and more reasoned ones who say that’s unacceptable.

      Then there’s also the Ludovico Process in A Clockwork Orange, which also considers the idea of removing the aggression/evil response in a more interesting way than an unsubtle “now having emotion is a bad thing to stop revolution”.

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