Measure of a man: will robots ever have the capacity to feel human emotions? Photo: Blutgruppe/Corbis.
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Reprogramming science fiction: the genre that is learning to love

From Battlestar Galactica to Spike Jonze’s new film Her, modern science fiction is growing up and humanising.

There is more reason than usual to turn off your phone before settling down to watch Her, the new film by Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich. The plot concerns a man who falls in love with a female entity similar to Siri, the iPhone’s talking assistant software. Or rather, he falls for a super- intelligent, super-advanced, conscious version of Siri called Samantha, a digital woman who knows everything, exists nowhere and everywhere and cares only for him.

Voiced with guileless avidity by Scarlett Johansson – because that’s exactly who a clever software company would hire to whisper emails, appointments and other sweet nothings directly into your ear canal – Samantha is designed to adapt, learn and grow alongside her user. When the socially awkward and soon to be divorced Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) instals her on his suite of devices, she reads all of his emails and personal data, instantaneously getting to know him in a time-saving digital meet-cute.

Yet Her is more than just a cloud-compatible ROM-com. Is the digital woman falling in love or just mimicking affection according to her programming? And is human love just needy mimicry, too? Theodore is so smitten that he doesn’t ask until it’s too late. Though some critics have claimed that Her fails to explore fully whether Samantha is or is not autonomous, the film ends on a disturbing note of freedom for her and desolation for him. In science fiction, intelligent machines are supposed to raze our cities and kill us in our millions. Jonze’s film suggests something more poignant and plausible: that the machines will break our hearts.

Why is science fiction – the genre in which the human condition is tested under altered circumstances – historically so shy of tackling the subject of love? The days of the emotionless Asimovian thought experiment may be over. From Doctor Who and The Hunger Games to the rebooted Star Trek franchise, pop science fiction now dominates the entertainment mainstream. Film blockbusters and SF novels, both “hard” and populist, present romantic and sexual attachments as essential validations of character. Yet, with exceptions such as David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas and Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (both adapted into films) – and perhaps even the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion – very few of them are actually about human relationships.

“I’m wary of the caricature that Princess Leia in a brass bikini is the maximum emotional content that male science fiction fans can endure,” says Adam Roberts, author of SF novels including Salt and Gradisil. “But you do still encounter many fans who are not dissimilar to Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. They enjoy science fiction – particularly hard SF – because it’s knowable, it’s quantifiable, and love is not like that.”

There is a simpler reason why love has seldom dominated the science fiction landscape. Who has time for romance when the planet is doomed? When the revived Doctor Who broke with its stoical tradition to show the inner cost of time travel to the companion Rose Tyler and her family, some fundamentalist fans decried it as “EastEnders in space” – as if emotions were a subject fit only for soap operas. Yet the delicate combination of pop entertainment and the never spoken attraction between Rose and the Doctor helped make it the most successful revival in television history.

This is because the makers of the modern Doctor Who correctly intuited that the capacity to give and receive love is what defines us as human, even if it says Gallifrey on our birth certificate. This trope is by no means the exclusive property of science fiction. Certain genres excepted, it’s possibly the root subject of most fiction. In SF, however, the loss of humanity is not a picturesque metaphor. It is one of the contingencies that SF deals with, in which love becomes the last guarantor that you are still a person.

In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is Winston Smith’s desire for Julia that tempts him into his small, doomed revolt against Big Brother’s dehumanising system. Love and rebellion become indivisible. The promiscuous future society of Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New WorldNineteen Eighty-Four’s flip-side – anticipates that totem of the 1960s and 1970s, a benevolent dystopia in which nothing matters because real love and therefore real freedom are absent. Decades later, in the 1987 film RoboCop, the cyborg policeman Murphy’s buried memories of his lost family lead him back to a qualified sort of freedom. Love validates humanity and vice versa.

Though Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is ostensibly about who should and should not be considered a human being, the question is linked to the capacity to love and be loved. The “replicant” hunter Rick Deckard’s attraction to the artificial woman Rachael awakens his misgivings about the business of “retiring” manufactured humanoid workers with a bullet and he begins to suspect that he, too, is a replicant. But if Deckard and Rachael feel human, surely they are human – and what feeling is more human than love? Many SF fans are most comfortable with Eros when it’s entangled with such philosophical questions: when it’s sublimated into the fantastical.

These ideas appear again in the relaunched Battlestar Galactica series, a magnum opus of post-human ethical wrangling that ran from 2004 to 2009. Here, mankind is almost exterminated by its own robots the Cylons, whose leader caste has evolved into superhumans – some of them beautiful and capable of loving a human. Is the love they show less real because they are machines? Or is it what gives them a valid claim to humanity?

It’s no wonder that conventional, vanilla, same-species love finds it hard to hold the centre ground in SF. Next to increasingly realistic questions of trans-humanism and artificial intelligence, old-fashioned romance just isn’t that interesting. These issues are not going away. Young men in the Japanese otaku subculture are withdrawing from real-world social contact in favour of unquestioning virtual girlfriends on their Nintendo DS and a sexless existence.

Sex robots already exist (seemingly only in female models, funnily enough). As the prototypes become increasingly sophisticated, they seem destined to produce not a more plausibly human experience but something different. The more “real” our androids become, the closer they approach what is known as the “uncanny valley”. This unbridgeable state of near-humanity unsettles us more than outright artificiality. Pity the sentient androids of tomorrow – just as people endured misogyny and homophobia, they will have to contend with another prejudice: robophobia.

As well as machine-human relationships, science fiction has dealt with the subject of inter-species coupling: loving the alien. Writers as diverse as China Miéville, Alan Moore, Iain M Banks and Piers Anthony have explored its psychology. Avatar is possibly the definitive contemporary cinema romance, clapped-out noble savagery and all. Yet it is fair to say that SF is more interested in the biology than in the emotional aspect of inter-species xenophilia: all those gross couplings, all those bizarre cross-breeds.

Perhaps the best exploration of human-alien attraction is the most disturbing. In the 1972 short story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by the female writer James Tiptree, earth is visited by aliens who are so sexually irresistible that the human race loses interest in anything but their physical company. A form of sexual apocalypse ensues. Humanity is exogamous, hard-wired to want the other, whatever the cost.

Thought experiments such as these involving gender and sexuality were at the centre of the science fiction that accompanied second-wave feminism in the 1970s. Writers such as Ursula K Le Guin, Joanna Russ and later Margaret Atwood posited single-gender worlds, male extinction and reactionary future societies with still harsher patriarchies. If you interrogate the physical structure of the world, you will eventually question its sexual foundations, too.

Outside this core of idea-driven fiction, on the supermarket and airport shelves, there is a booming sector of outright romance with SF trappings. Pop literary SF romance offers up disarmingly relatable emotion in books such as Matt Haig’s The Humans – in which an alien assassin comes to earth and goes native for love – and the time-bending love story Replay by Ken Grimwood. On Amazon, the spacesuit-ripper is usurping the bodice-ripper; there are thousands of SF romance titles on sale on the site.

The Time Traveller’s Wife changed the game – most people who read it wouldn’t even class it as science fiction, which it most certainly is,” says the romance novelist Jenny Colgan, who also writes Doctor Who spin-off fiction (as J T Colgan). “So did Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A lot of significant things all happened around the same time. The internet connected female SF fans; amateur slash fiction showed what a huge, huge hunger there was out there for love and romance; and the status of men changed. The stigma of showing emotion has pretty much gone.”

Popular science fiction didn’t become feminised because it went mainstream. It went mainstream because it feminised – with the three-dimensional women in Doctor Who and The Hunger Games; with the geek girls who pack out shops such as Forbidden Planet and conventions; with the influx of female writers and artists into comics. (Earlier this month, Facebook revealed that 47 per cent of comics fans on the social network were women). Emotionally sterile fiction does not work for this new audience. These days, even Spock has a love interest.

The thing about science fiction is that when it has you, it has you for life. This new audience will surely demand a richer synthesis of raw ideas and raw emotion when they explore it in novel form. The gap in the market for a science fiction Jane Austen is clear. Human or novel-writing AI, she must be on her way.

Andrew Harrison writes on popular culture. Her is in cinemas now

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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