Scientism and Optimism in Giant Robo

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The future has shone upon us with its glorious brilliance! The time to seize our destiny and conquer all our fears is now! In ancient times man rubbed sticks together to create fire. Then they slaughtered the whale and battled one another for oil! After that came the atomic age! In every chapter of our history we’ve danced with danger but now it will be different! For the first time in the history of existence we will be delivered from fear! Finally, we will escape the prison of our illusions and the beautiful night will embrace us all!

 Franken Von Vogler, from Giant Robo episode 2

The search for plenty and the obviation of resource shortages is a preoccupation of science fiction; the main obstacle in the way of unrestricted progress in reality is the scarcity of materials on which the modern age relies. As a result, the science-fiction utopia must either embrace a post-scarcity world in some fashion, or accept that the future must be a more frugal and responsible one. This former solution can come either through the colonisation of other planets and thus the assumption that new resource stockpiles may be found, such that the current rates of consumption may be maintained indefinitely, or through the assumption that science will provide for society with a method of obviating the current reliance on specific natural resources. Giant Robo, in its optimistic, pulp-esque opening narration filled with atomic-age optimism, describes the “third energy revolution”, predicated on the Shizuma Drive, a miraculous invention which overnight ended mankind’s need for natural resources thanks to the sudden cheap availability of free energy. Even the core conflict laid down in this opening – that between the almost naively titled Experts of Justice and the villainous Big Fire Society – is straightforward. Science has provided humanity with limitless power in the most literal sense, and it is inevitably abused by evildoers.

This world is a scientist one. Scientism is, effectively, the blind optimism in science as a way of providing for mankind and obviating society’s mistakes which has been compared to the naivete of Voltaire’s Candide by playwright Mark Ravenhill. Ravenhill argues, in his explanation of his stage adaptation of Candide, that the text serves as a counterpoint to Leibniz’ theory of the “grand designer” and the idea that man occupies “the best of all possible worlds.” He continues by explaining that – through gathering anecdotes from members of the public – the prevailing attitude in 21st century Western society is a blithe acceptance that society must change and the status quo is unsustainable, without any kind of willingness to make those changes. It is not an easy view to accept, and the conclusions he goes on to draw are quite contentious – yet at its core there is a wholly reasonable critique of a societal attitude enabled by scientism. What Ravenhill identifies as potentially dangerous is the belief that “science” – as an ill-defined object in the public consciousness – will provide for society without much need for change on a personal level. This is an attitude that on the surface seems hard to challenge – to stand against “science” and “progress” is in the popular perception to be a loom-breaker or doubter. After all, scientific progress has enabled mankind to live longer, healthier lives, has permitted more food to be grown on less land and has enabled computers, cars and more. Yet one can approve of science, and support research into world-changing developments, without embracing scientism, and it is scientism that is being criticised here. When believing that research and invention will undo the world’s problems, will serve as a magic bullet to make everything right and allow destructive behaviours to continue consequence-less, supercedes the belief that science can help society understand what it is doing wrong and correct those behaviours, love of science has turned into worship of science. It is a belief that if one fixes the “symptoms” of the Earth’s problems, one cures the problem completely. The scientist worldview seems to be based on stop-gaps and symptom management rather than actually fixing the world.

To return, then, to Giant Robo‘s Shizuma-powered world of scientism, armed with this understanding of the matter. The Shizuma Drive is the ne plus ultra of scientism and the naïve popular understanding of “science”; in the films it is embodied by the straggly-haired, manic figures of Shizuma and Vogler, its two main inventors. The pulp aesthetic of the series fits this message perfectly – the scientists are Germanic maniacs with Frankenstein-esque machinery that saves or dooms the world. Scientists have saved the world and now – as Vogler destroys Paris to the strains of Verdi in episode 1 – turn on it out of apparent spite. Society is prepared to forgive the destruction of the country of Bashtarle and scapegoat Vogler for it because it has solved the energy crisis and allowed them to live as they have come accustomed. Consider again the “Beautiful Night” speech, quoted above, in this light. It stands as a warning against “illusions” created from a fear of darkness (in a very literal sense the loss of all light coming from the exhaustion of natural resources) – that society must eschew quick fixes and patches over the deep-rooted problems. It is not pique, no matter how Shizuma tries to frame it in his traumatised ramblings, and it is not the simple black-and-white villainy that the opening narration paints the conflict as. As Giant Robo progresses, the nature of its conflict – and the nature of whose side Vogler and Shizuma were on in the first place – changes, but these initial scenes of the destruction of Paris and the tragedy of Bashtarle remain immensely significant. As it transpires, Vogler is not the villain he appears to be and this has been made clear from his monologue. Whatever he did or did not do at Bashtarle, his motivations as stated here are a direct challenge to the scientism that the series is highlighting. The real “problem” he depicts is not that the oil is running out, it is that society is so reliant on energy that it is afraid of the dark. He stands opposed to the “Experts of Justice” – an organisation who apparently do nothing save fight him and Big Fire. The introductory narration sets up the Experts as agents of the International Police Organisation, and implies a greater-scale conflict – yet Big Fire are never properly established as anything more than a single-issue villain with the sole mission of making the “truth” of Bashtarle known to the world.

The series continues its blind optimism as shown in the opening narration throughout – the viewer is reminded again and again until they believe it that Giant Robo is an agent of justice, that to be a part of Big Fire is to be evil and unjust, and that the Shizuma Drive has solved the energy crisis. As the plot develops the incongruity becomes cruel; everything, from the Shizuma Drive to the Experts themselves, is just a stop-gap, a way of masking the symptoms of a society fallen to scientism over sense. Obviating the energy crisis permits the world to continue without ever understanding what its problem was. This is clearest when one considers how the Experts consider the initial resurgence of the spectre of Bashtarle; Vogler is a loose end, someone presumed dead and a reminder of the darkness behind the supposed saviours of Earth. Early in episode 2, Daisaku – the child protagonist – tries to shut out from his mind the possibility that Shizuma has been involved in wrongdoing, and this is particularly fitting. The “hero” of Giant Robo, the one Expert of Justice completely separate from the tragedy of Bashtarle, is completely naïve to the idea that there could be anything but an us-versus-them conflict. Daisaku is thus the embodiment of naïve scientism; he sees a world where Giant Robo saves the day, where there are no wars for resources, and cannot understand why anyone would oppose this.

References to Candide taken from: Candide and the Best of All Possible Tweets, Mark Ravenhill, The Guardian, 4/9/13

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One comment

  1. gunlord500

    Good point about Daisaku and his childish way of thinking–IIRC in one of the later episodes one of the Chinese guys outright asks if Daisaku’s father gave GR “to a child to play with.”

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