Code 46 and the dearth of thoughtful science fiction

I recently watched Code 46 again.  When I first saw it a few years ago I didn’t like it very much, but this time it seemed more interesting.  The storyline doesn’t hold together very well, and from a scientific point of view there are some painful gaffes, but it’s at least attempting to explore some important present and near-future issues, which is more than I can say for most science fiction films.  That makes me sad, since I feel at its best, science fiction helps us understand how we interact with and relate to technology, and how technology changes the way we interact and relate to each other.  The fact that there’s so little mainstream science fiction trying to do this today is frightening.  We’re just blindly stumbling forward into the darkness.  Maybe the best thoughtful sci-fi I can recall from the recent past is Gattaca, which depicts in a very stylized way a future society which is starkly divided between those who are genetically enhanced and those who are not.  Gattaca is pretty clearly unconcerned with the details as opposed to the implications of its premise, and that makes it easier to gloss over whatever issues it has.  It’s less clear that Code 46 is this self aware, but at least on a second viewing, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.  Be warned, there are spoilers below.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/zane/18504380/

Kabul is outside… all the way outside.

SIngapore

While Singapore is about as far inside as you can get.

One of the main themes in the film is the division between those on the inside, with access to technology, security, and economic opportunity and those who live afuera — outside.  We have this division today of course.  Downtown Kabul looks very different than central Singapore.  The difference in the film is that instead of having to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see that contrast, the two exist side-by-side.  And instead of being able to delude yourself that you are on the inside because your nation is better, or your culture is superior, anybody can be exiled.  Those on the inside and the outside are diverse ethnically and culturally.  Arabs, Indians, Europeans, Chinese, Latin Americans, with little linguistic and cultural bits leaking between all these phyles.  It’s a kind of inverted prison system.  Everyone wants to be on the inside.  If you break the law, you’re sent afuera, like in medieval Iceland — those who violate the law are no longer given protection under it.  However, it’s made somewhat unclear whether this inside/outside division is legitimate.  It’s apparently justified by potential biocompatibility issues.  Many people, especially on the inside, have been genetically altered.  There are good reasons occasionally illustrated, like disease susceptibility, why some people cannot go to some places, but the system is opaque and appears arbitrary to the everyman — certainly to those without privileged access to inside information.  It seems clear that it could be manipulated by the state to control who goes where and when, and so many people seem not to entirely trust the system.

Another thing that comes up is the use of performance enhancing drugs in the course of ones everyday work, except instead of just ingesting chemicals, you can purposefully infect yourself with a virus that causes your body to produce the desired substance until it’s cleared by your immune system.  So instead of a high that lasts hours, it might be days, or a couple of weeks.  William Geld, one of the protagonists, uses a virus with MDMA-like symptoms to increase his empathic connection to the people he interviews in the course of a criminal investigation, helping him tell whether they are being truthful.  An unintended consequence of this drug use is that he very quickly forms a romantic bond with one of his interviewees, Maria Gonzales, whom it turns out is genetically identical to his own mother — she was one of a batch of several dozen cloned embryos, some of which were frozen.  However, William never met his genetic mother.  It has become entirely normal in this future for a person’s biological parents to be different from their nurturing parents.   Given the burgeoning womb rental industry in India, and fact that a fairly ambitious friend of mine recently got the “IVF twins could minimize the effects of reproduction on your career” pitch at her annual ob/gyn exam, it sounds like this kind of thing might be the up-and-coming equivalent of tooth whitening, or a boob job.  Who knows, once George Church posts my genome on the web maybe I’ll even end up being genetic fodder for this kind of bizarre experience.

But before any of this is revealed, William and Maria descend into a tryst.  I mean, what do you think would happen if you were totally high on E and met a young sexy copy of the mom (or dad) you never knew?  Would you feel strangely connected to them?  He creepily abuses his powers as an investigator to track her, and avoids fingering her as the perpetrator of the fraud he’s investigating because he’s infatuated with her, creating a disturbing authoritarian kind of love or lust.  Come to think of it, their relationship parallels the one that exists between the residents of the city states, and the semi-benevolent, manipulative, corporate-authoritarian government that apparently rules over them.  You have power over me and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I might as well decide to find it attractive.  The adoring citizen submissive.

Because this kind of accidental incest is possible, all pregnancies must be screened by the state, and those found to be in violation of the eponymous Code 46 must be terminated.  This is another almost certain to be abused information asymmetry.  The state-run clinic says you have to terminate your pregnancy based on genetic tests that it performed and which you cannot necessarily verify.  Add a little Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and you need never know there was an issue.  I’m sure nobody would ever abuse that kind of power (thankfully read-write-delete access to human memories still seems a distant prospect in the real world).

Another thing I think the film did well was portray climate change not as a The Day After Tomorrow style apocalypse, but rather as dramatic change on the timescale of a couple of human lifetimes, which most people at any given moment will simply treat as the new normal, due to their shifting baselines.  Much of the film takes place in a coastal Chinese city… which is surrounded by desert.  Society has become largely nocturnal, as there is apparently little ozone left to shield people from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation during the day.  But this isn’t a big thing for anyone.  It’s just the way the world is.  We are magnificently adaptable, for better or for worse.  Most of the time, no matter how much change takes place, we can tell ourselves it’s normal.  It’s a rare moment in history when we realize the world is shifting around us, and even rarer that we choose to do anything about it.

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