Code 46: Futures, High and Low

September 20th, 2011 § 0 comments

So, this fall I’ve been lucky enough to have Henry Jenkins let me into one of his graduate seminars. I’ve been an avid follower of his blog since visiting MIT in late 2007, so imagine my joy, on getting in to USC last year, at finding he’d moved there.

This particular class, Science Fiction as Media Theory, has a dream reading list. The stated aims are “looking primarily at science fiction texts (mostly literary) as ways of thinking through the implications of media change” and “looking at media theories for the implicit utopian or dystopian claims they make and for the ways they have drawn on metaphors from science fiction.”

Responses to weekly reading are posted on a class discussion board accessible only to those enrolled. I’d considered cross-posting my thoughts here, and still might, but in the meantime, I’ll be going ahead and posting parts of my first paper, which examines an overlooked 2003 movie I’ve always liked, Code 46.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Code 46 (2003) is a SF-inflected retelling of Oedipus with a double-helical twist (so to speak). However, the film’s more lasting impact may lie in the near future it posits than in its plot. In look and language, Winterbottom and Boyce create a future collaged from disparate parts of the present, which serves to update the hoary SF concept of “the standardized future” and, more subtly, to critique contemporary social and technological trends.

Utopian or dystopian, science fiction—twinned at birth with a technological dream of universal automation—has often posited a future of uniformity. In whatever future is pictured, everything will be of a piece. This is because we will have superseded inefficiency (perhaps at the cost of humanity), because we will have harmonized the paraphernalia and developmental paces of various technologies, and because images of the future brought to us by science fiction are the ultimate form of advertising. As John Berger notes, “The publicity image, which is ephemeral, uses only the future tense.” (Ways of Seeing, 144). That table will go with these chairs in the glass room overlooking the city, and we, whether executive or drone, will be in matching attire. This was for a long time the case in SF.

These days, the future is less monolithic. No more does it beckon, our millennial fate, like Kubrick’s enigmatic menhir, but comes into being by dribs and drabs. It is, as William Gibson has famously said, “already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Code 46 reflects this economic reality by postulating a bifurcated future: a first-world network of sprawling, yet contained, ultramodern metropolises and the unregulated, technologically deprived wastelands that take up the rest of the planet. The first is known as “inside,” and the other as “afuera” (a choice that both reflects the movie’s use of a fabricated multilingual argot, and the place of Spanish in that argot: a language’s “class” associations). Transit between cities as well as to and from “afuera” is regulated by “papelles,” a word derived from the Spanish plural of “paper.” The movie opens with William Geld (Tim Robbins) in a taxicab crossing the stretch of desert afuera between Shanghai’s airport and the city. At the papelles checkpoint, clamoring vendors in vaguely Arab rags mob his car. He buys some candy for his child from one, but is advised by the driver not to “encourage them.” This will hardly seem exotic to anyone who’s been to the Tijuana border crossing, or who, trapped in traffic, has been the victim of non-consensual windshield washing, but Boyce and Winterbottom, pushing the envelope of the plausible, nudge trends each in a small way toward strangeness, making us see our own times with new eyes. Papelles—also called “cover,” we learn—are a form of visa, passport, and health insurance all rolled into one. The taxi passes through a tunnel with a decontamination shower before entering the city.

We may speak of these two worlds, “inside” and “afuera,” as the high and low future. Whether viewed as utopian or dystopian, the high future resembles the future we have come to expect, the official future SF has bequeathed us: gleaming, impersonal, standardized, everything in its proper and picturesque place. The low future looks like our modern day third world, where technologies, unpredictably and sometimes surprisingly available, are displaced from the context in which they were invented (a man with a cell phone sidesteps hens down the dirt main drag of a shanty town).

More next time…

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