Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Second Variety

Well, I was going to do a TNG episode review tonight but as it turns out there's very little to say about The Arsenal of Freedom. It's a character development episode meant to flesh out various crew members' interactions but unlike the previous such attempt, 001...0...something, the bynar episode, you know the one with the bulb-heads, the interactions in this one come across as contrived and overextended. Aside from a well-played pseudovillain who embodies every sleazy, line-spewing "pusher" and the thankfully toned-down Data scenes, it's kind of a wash. Not terrible by the abysmal standards of television but not worth mentioning.
Eeeeeexcept that it did remind me of something, as most things do. See, the episode concerns a planet of weapons manufacturers who were wiped out by their own automated creations. The cold war yielded scads of such cautionary tales which we are now forgetting, to our detriment. However, the topic of humans fabricating their own death by machines comes up more famously in robot-themed stories, and the robot uprising in fiction predates Terminator (the first movie of that series having come out three or four years before TNG started) or even Isaac Asimov's robot novels. It's been a central feature of robot stories since the word "robot" was coined by Karel Capek in 1920 in Rossum's Universal Robots, and arguably before robots were even robots. To stand out when addressing such a crowded thematic milieu you have to come up with something extra, and for the like we must turn to that peerless master of paranoia, Philip K. Dick. Now, as a general rule you should read a story before discussing it so I would encourage a perusal of Second Variety so I don't have to worry about spoilers.

As I watched The Arsenal of Freedom's ending I kept thinking "they could've done more with this" and that the half of the episode dedicated to soulful tete-a-tetes between Troi and LaForge or LaForge and the redshirts or Picard and Crusher (the good Crusher, not the good-Crusher) or Riker and Yar would've have been better spent fleshing out the planet's fate and the nature of the (non-sentient) robots' programming. There's even a very PKD-ish vibe to the initial scene in which the crew is greeted by a hologram masquerading as Riker's long-lost Starfleet Academy friend - and even that goes nowhere, abandoned by Act 2. But back to the main topic.

Ah, yes, the good Mr. Dick loved his impostors, impersonators and other doppelgangers. Second Variety exemplifies his trademark late-game character reveal plot twists which have made his stories so ripe for adaptation (usually with predictably disastrous Hollywood-style results) but more so than most it piles three reveals upon each other, the crucial one snuck in so masterfully under the reader's radar that by the last paragraph we're hit with the same revelation as the protagonist himself.
1) Robots are wiping out humanity, partly by infiltrating our last strongholds (revealed relatively early on)
2) Humanity is doomed because Hendricks was fooled all along (the sort of twist ending we might get from a good Twilight Zone episode)
3) The robots are also wiping each other out. The extra stroke of genius which made that admirable nutjob one of the best SF writers in history.

Now, Second Variety was adapted into an action flick called Screamers which flopped largely based on its own lack of merit. As with most adaptations, it threw out the story's best features in favor of the screenwriter and director's own ramblings and some generalized action-movie tropes. Aside from minor details, two central issues kill the story's effect.
1) It's no longer set on Earth.
2) Twue wuv. Robot falls in love with the human she's supposed to kill. Hilarity ensues. Well, actually nothing ensues.

Both changes were blatantly made to soften the blow of Second Variety's original nihilism for a public presumed too weak-minded to take it as-is, to dumb it down for middle America.

Setting the story on Earth with the moon-base as humanity's last desperate retreat is diametrically opposed, intuitively, from setting the plot on some mining colony with Earth looming grandiosely in the background. The tone of desperation in the story depended on our growing realization that Earth, the cradle of humanity and our only hospitable environment, has already been lost, that the moon-base represents a species already in retreat with slim chances of long-term survival anyway, killer robots or not. We're not supposed to be left with some vague hope that mighty Terra will rally and repulse the android threat. There is a sequel to Screamers (which I haven't seen and refuse to) but the whole point of Second Variety is that there can be no sequel. Humanity is finished and the sequel to humanity has already started making bombs to destroy itself.

Worse still is the utterly moronic "love" angle, the cheesy romantic sub-plot which Hollywood hacks insist on cramming into every single movie regardless of its topic. The absolute sense of doom at the end of Second Variety encompasses not only humanity but sentient life as a whole. Not only will we not survive but nothing will because the robots are headed down the same path as us, only with assembly-line speed and efficiency. This effect hinges on their being utterly, implacably, single-mindedly merciless killers. The gynoid's cold-blooded (no-blooded?) manipulation of Hendricks is crucial to achieving this effect. It can admit no digressions or exceptions.

There's one last twist to consider:
"He felt a little better, thinking about it. The bomb."
This is Hendricks' last thought. This is the note on which the story ends, the hero's parting shot. After erasing every last shred of hope, Dick insisted on nullifying even our moral justification for hope. Hendricks realizes that the robots will destroy each other, and he's glad. We find no magnanimity in him, no high-mindedness, no noble last-second beatific forgiveness of his executioners, no hope for sentient life beyond humanity. He is witnessing the end of all things, the end of thought, and he's glad.

Because of course the first and second varieties, human and robot, were never all that different - wind-up toys acting out their pre-programmed destructive patterns. The means by which the second variety manipulates the first entail no objective ethical principles but basic programming, or in other words human instinct: tribal loyalties, protection of the young or a potential mate. Beyond that, the first variety proves just as ruthless and ethically incompetent a killer as the second.

-and if this is all sentience amounts to, then by all means we should embrace nihilism just as Hendricks did. Learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Writing one of these posts is more work than it might look like. It often entails five to ten or more browser tabs' worth of references, especially if I'm looking for a song tie-in. So for the first time I ran across Second Variety's publication date: May 1953.
1953. Fucking hell. The Cold War had barely started. Stalin had only just died two months earlier. Forget moon-bases or even moon-landings. Even Sputnik wouldn't be launched for four more years. Yet everything in the story flows so naturally that it may as well have been written in the '80s. Philip K. Dick, you freaking genius bastard, I both hate and salute you

My music playlist for once contains nothing with truly apt lyrics for this story. You just don't run across much good music about killer robots. I do however find Apocalyptica's Delusion thematically appropriate.

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