From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Surrogates: Sci Fi’s Power to Make You Go Hmmm

While the movie Surrogates has its flaws, it nonetheless represents exactly the kind of film we need more of: science fiction with both action and brains.

Because going to see something like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is like saying you’re really hungry, and getting a Snickers bar. Sure, Snickers will satisfy you—for a minute. But it’s not a very deep satisfaction. Wouldn’t you rather have an actual meal at your favorite restaurant (perhaps with a snickers bar cheesecake dessert)?

Don’t get me wrong. I love me my popcorn action movies. But there’s also no reason that more of them can’t take advantage of the genre’s particular strength at exploring deep social and human themes to add a little substance to the fluff, as movies like Surrogates and District 9 have done.

Let’s take a look at how much this 88 minute action flick made my little brain actually exercise.

SURROGATES SUMMARY

For those who don’t know, Surrogates is an exciting sequel to Juno, but with robots.

Okay, not really. It is actually a sci fi thriller with Bruce Willis set in a future where 98% of the world’s population now stay in their home and only interact with the real world through a robotic avatar that is physically ideal and insulates the user from physical harm or danger.

There are of course enclaves of Luddite humans who are opposed to this technology, seeing it as distancing and detaching its users from real human interaction and experience. They create tech-free reservations within every State where surrogates (and apparently hygiene) are shunned.

AT LEAST THERE IS SOMETHING TO NITPICK

There are plenty of things to nitpick about the underlying premise of this movie, but let’s keep things in perspective here—even with these nits, Surrogates is better than similarly themed films like Gamer or Terminator Salvation, not to mention classic robot movies like Deadly Friend with Kristy Swanson. At least you’re picking at nits, not elephants.
More importantly, the very act of nitpicking this movie is itself a good thing when what this really means is that the movie has succeeded in making you seriously consider the repercussions of a future with robot surrogates.

A Nit Sampler (Enjoy):

  • Not everyone could really afford or use a surrogate, certainly not 98 percent of the world’s population. In North Korea? In the jungles of Vietnam? In Darfur? In the bible belt of America?
  • Surrogacy wouldn’t turn off human nature, so there’d be plenty of people taking advantage of all those vulnerable human bodies around them who are plugged in and tuned out.
  • Surely there’d be about a million Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitts walking around. Not to mention all those people who would want real body modifications. What about the folks with purple skin and cat ears, for example?
  • There’s not a commercially released system yet that can’t be hacked.
  • And the movie completely glosses over the questions of sex and procreation.

However, it is understandable that a sci fi action movie would not have time to address every nuance and implication of its technology. Surrogates chose to gloss over a lot.

WOULD YOU REALLY SWITCH TO A SURROGATE?

Obviously, a big part of this movie is the plausibility of its cautionary tale. We are already an increasingly online society, with people telecommuting and interacting today through the interwebs more than in person, spending ungodly hours playing as avatars in games like World of Warcraft and SIMs, and texting or tweeting persons who are just in the next room, let alone down the street.

More than that, as the movie progressed, I almost felt as if I were being sold on the idea. By the time Bruce is strolling through a lobby full of ads for surrogates, I could definitely understand the appeal. The ads were actually selling me. Evil.

Imagine having an idealized, unkillable version of yourself to send out into the big, bad, dangerous world. Life becomes a video game. And you would never have to worry how you look before you go out, you would never have to worry about getting in a car accident or catching the flu or being mugged. The worse that would happen is somebody harms your surrogate, and you have to get it replaced.

Yeah, if faced with an actual, affordable choice, I wonder how many would really say no.

AND THE QUESTIONS KEEP A’ COMING

Beyond the essential question of how extensive our adoption of surrogates would really be, the movie raises a number of other questions for me.

War Without Human Cost

If war could be fought entirely using robot surrogates so that no actual human life is lost, what would be the result? The classic Star Trek episode where people voluntarily went to disintegration chambers when their location was virtually hit comes to mind. I should think the public concern and pressure to avoid or stop wars would be reduced, leading perhaps to more and longer wars. Corporate armies might play an even larger role than they already do. Hackers would become weapons, turning entire armies against their own masters. And Xbox would become a recruiting and training platform.

Keeping It Classy

Would surrogates further stratify societies along class lines? Would those who could afford better surrogates with higher dexterity, feedback, reliability, and attachment options get better jobs? Would there be make and model discrimination?

Cultural Decay and Homogenization

If persons were able to have surrogates in any shape and color, how many would choose something that did not resemble their true self? Either by choice (transgender, aesthetic choice, to be fantastical or copy a celebrity) or due to potential discrimination pressures? How would the user’s isolation affect minority culture identity, unity and perpetuation in the face of the dominant culture?

Population Impacts

What would happen if everyone in the world used surrogates? Would the world population rise even faster because so fewer people are dying from accidents, murders, natural causes, et cetera? Or would the lack of physical activity lead to shorter lifespans? Would surrogates lead to a vast reduction in actual baby-makin’ fun time and thus to far fewer births?

Trolls Walking the Streets

Wouldn’t surrogates lead to trolls stomping around in real life? No, not big ugly creatures fond of bridges, but internet trolls, those who use the anonymity of the internet to be complete jerks without fear of real consequences? Even without the shield of anonymity, the detached and virtual nature of interacting online tends to lead people to say and do things they would never do in person. How would the social rules and behaviors of a society that entirely interacts through avatars be transformed?

No Physical Consequences

There’s a scene in Surrogates where Bruce is beating the crap out of a surrogate, and the surrogate and everyone watching just laugh at him because the surrogate feels no pain, the surrogate cannot be wounded, only made to require repair.

What would the utter lack of real physical threat do, especially when combined with the online troll factor? I mean, if I called you every name in the book and treated you like a complete jerk, what could you do about it? Especially if any damage to my surrogate might be covered by an insurance policy? There are, of course, non-violent ways for conflict resolution, but what would the certainty that there would be no physical repercussions to one’s actions do to a society?

BEYOND SURROGATES

Despite all of the questions the film might raise, it is certainly not the first or the best piece of science fiction to explore similar themes. Practically every movie based on a Phillip K. Dick story has done so. Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, even The Matrix—say what you will of Keanu Reeves’s “whoa dude” character—explored the nature of reality and the question of whether it was better to be relatively happy and ignorant in a virtual world (but enslaved), or struggling in a harsher real world. And the film eXistenZ takes an even darker look at similar themes, as well as online addiction.

One nice thing about Surrogates is its break from the more common robot-related themes: robots rebelling against their human masters (from Westworld to Terminator to I, Robot, and the seminal work Runaway with Tom Selleck’s moustache), or robots struggling to become the equivalent of human (from Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data to Bicentennial Man to the incredible Short Circuit).

And of course science fiction film is often a thin and paltry hint of the depth to be found in science fiction literature on the same topics.
Those who like Surrogates and its themes might wish to check out David Brin’s Kiln People, which has many similarities to the film (although the kiln people are temporary and autonomous golem clones, not user-controlled robot avatars).

You might also like the short story “The Body Builders” by Keith Laumer, which can be found in his collection “The Lighter Side” and also has a large number of similarities to the Surrogates story, including the use of robot avatars.

Finally, there is E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” originally published in 1909, which demonstrates not only science fiction’s ability to address meaningful issues, but also its power of predicting possible futures. In this classic story, people live in personal vaults underground, where they are kept alive and managed by a master Machine, and interact only by means of videoconferencing, although there are some who desire a life outside their cell.

And then there’s always The Surrogates, the graphic novel by author Robert Venditti and illustrator Brett Weldele on which the film was based.

CONCLUSION

One of the things that science fiction does exceptionally well is to explore social and philosophical themes: racism, sexism, xenophobia, colonialism, the impacts of technology, the nature and costs of war, government control, freedom of knowledge, what it means to be human, the relationship between memory and identity, and more.

Yet a lot of what is labeled science fiction in film and television fails to offer more than special effects–laden thrills, often served with horrible dialogue, clichéd storylines, and extra cheese (*Cough*SCIFIoriginalmovies*Cough*).

This not only hurts the credibility and respect of the genre, but also tends to feel like a waste of one’s time and money to have consumed it.

And after all, science fiction movies that have some kind of deeper theme tend to stick with us, and usually fill the top spots in best of lists, from “Blade Runner” to “The Matrix” to “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

So why can’t studios stop “misunderestimating” their audiences and put a little quality and brains behind more of their scifi? Granted, you can’t expect too much from the marketing geniuses who thought Syfy was a better choice then Scifi (because, what, being the syphilis network has wider appeal?), but let’s try to convince them anyway.

So be sure to seek out and support science fiction (and fantasy) that not only entertains, but has a bit of thought behind it as well. Your brain will thank you.

Randy Henderson stays crunchy in milk. His fiction has appeared in Alienskin Magazine, The Harrow, and From the Asylum. He likes milkshakes. He recently graduated from Clarion West. He has a robot monkey army. And most importantly he has won the prestigious “Fantasy Friday Blog for a Beer” award five times (to date). For his genre-related musings, go to his blog.

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