The Nature of Androids and Humans: Criticism of Anthropocentrism and Class in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

 

Traditional literature and poetry can do a lot to help humans comprehend the meaning of minutia surrounding them, but some issues are to complex for a world that resembles our own. That is where Science Fiction comes in. SF (“SF” is a  common literary abbreviation for “Science Fiction” not “San Francisco,” the setting of the novel) serves as a means to take questions to the extreme for analysis at their logical (or sometimes illogical) final state. At the core of good science fiction is an examination of complex and real questions through a means that can not exist in the world as we know it. Indeed, we really should listen to Nigel Wheale’s statement, “[i]t really is time to take science fiction seriously” (297). By taking advantage of this newly validated suite of tools, authors can examine large issues about the essence of humanity and its interactions. One of the best examples of this is Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, “a classic in the genre. […] It works on many levels and addresses a range of humanity’s most pressing concerns” (Axelrod, 84). Dick uses androids to examine the concepts of nature and artificiality in order to dissect the false privileged binary between the two.

A very basic question one might ask looking at Do Androids Dream? is whether or not Dick thinks of Androids as living things, but that question is far too reductive. Do Androids Dream? makes it clear that electric things are also alive through the protagonist Rick Deckard’s observation “The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are” (Dick 241). This sentence provides a good starting point for the scholarly work done around the novel. The issue of existence and of consciousness are taken as given. With the novel’s advancements in making robots more “human” there is no way to tell an organic human apart from a functioning android until they have expired to have a bone marrow test taken. Because it is so remarkably difficult to tell the difference between the two, the novel takes their consciousness and even sapiency as a given. The question is not whether robots are lives, but how they should be considered.

What makes a human? Perhaps it would be easier to define man vs. not-man if we were able to communicate with things that are not human, but at this point such conversations are beyond the realm of possibility. So we, as a species, are forced to discuss the issue among ourselves. By only being able to experience the concept of intelligence with itself, humanity was led to an anthropocentric worldview. This is a belief of human supremacy Per Schelde best summarizes as the feeling humans are “specially created with a purpose: their salvation and final happiness. Tied in with this purposefulness is the notion of a free will” (125). The ability to actualize desires is a central point of differentiation between what makes something living with a conscious and what is not, and therefore lesser.

This thinking establishes three levels of privileged class: human, animal, and other. This notion is one of the traditional ways that man has distinguished himself from machine. Dick upsets this balance with the introduction of intelligent machines that resemble the top caste (humans), androids. Through this unsettling, androids seek to leave the lowest caste, the other, to function among the hegemonic beings. So, asks Wheale, “what would be the difference between a physically perfect android kitted out with memories and emotions passably like our own, and a person nurtured through the usual channels,” and furthermore “what is an authentic human psyche” (298)? For centuries, the question was as simple as attempting a conversation (Similar to the traditional “Turing Test” to differentiate between a human and a computer consciousness).

In the real world, it is fairly safe to determine an entity’s humanity by looking at it. In Do Androids Dream? it may not be enough to isolate humanity at a glance. Mark Axelrod notes the difficulty wherein “androids have been reproduced to be exact replicas of real humans; therefore, they are difficult to tell them from real humans” (86). By using such a simple test to determine what is human for so long, mankind constructed what Christopher Sims names the “binary [of] natural/artificial” (68), wherein humans can converse, animals can react but not converse, and that bottom class, the other, which has no ability to recognize humanity, plants and inanimate objects (At this point in reality robots, largely incapable of intelligent thought, would belong to this category). Why are animals privileged above the other? Tony Vinci explains animals are granted a special status “for their ability to register human existence, but non-intersecting gazes between humans and animals position them as objectified commodities” (100). Within this critical theory not all animals are equal in their value to humans.

For example, many humans would value a dog over a fish for its ability to interact with, and even assist in human life. Dog is “man’s best friend” because it possesses enough intelligence to directly make man’s life better, and recognize our existence in contrast to that of other beings. Still, they are clearly lower because virtually all cultures will refer to other humans as various kinds of animals (English examples would include: pig, ass, cow, bitch, etc.). Many humans become greatly offended that they could have some distant evolutionary relations to primates. Though not human, humans value animals for their ability to enhance humanity. This leads to the third class, the other. The party of concern in the novel are the electric beings, both the artificial pets as well as the human mimicking androids. This is where the natural/artificial binary starts to become apparent.

Up to this point this essay has focused on what differentiates between the three castes in relation to their positions in Do Androids Dream?. I will turn now to look at how humans in the novel reinforce their position atop the arbitrary hierarchy. An iPhone has more utility and use for the average human than an elephant. The prior can serve any one of millions of functions for any modern person with at least one functional hand, whereas the elephant is a variant of nature that some humans find aesthetically pleasant. Yet, anyone who would choose to save an iPhone over an elephant would be looked at as a monster. So, humans will place some value in the “other,” for its utility, but its inability to recognize humanity makes it a cut below animals. Sims explains that this is because “modern Western cultures hierarchize the natural and the artificial” (85). This “difference” is an illusion, there is nothing between the two but human opinion. Those concerned with preserving the high station of the natural can not stand to see this change in the ancient balance of power. So, what then of the intelligent android?

Rick Deckard’s San Francisco exists after “World War Terminus,” a nuclear armageddon that killed most life on earth and left the rest irradiated beyond reproductive capability or, for the rich, fleeing to the safety of Mars with android servants. Where many real-life humans cherish their animals as a friend and companion, a pet is less of a companion to the post-apocalyptic person and more of a prized possession to convey social status, in part because of their rarity. Because the radiation has made it impossible for any species to reproduce in a fashion that would keep up with demand, only the rich can afford to have a genuine animal and everyone else can get electric mimicries, such as Deckard’s titular electric sheep, to try and convey status. In this society, “crimes against animals which universally horrify humanity” (Wheale 300) are fundamental to the maintenance of status quo. If humans are unable to have their reaction to violence against another living thing, how would they know they are human?

Drowning in anthropocentrism, humans promptly place themselves at the top of the organic/inorganic class system, and make moves to bring greater hegemonic status. In explaining the violence of humans toward androids, Axelrod explains “There is a fear that [androids] will create some kind of havoc if not eliminated, […] what kind of havoc they would wreak is not exactly detailed though” (86). Because they can be so hard to spot, humans need something to draw a line with. To this end, the humans of Dick’s imagination develop the “Voigt-Kampff” empathy test, administered by the protagonist Rick Deckard to suspected androids. The goal of this test is to detect empathy, which is decided to be the paramount human virtue by post-apocalyptic society. The primary reason for this premium on both empathy and  the testing thereof is that robots do not feel empathy, or at least not in the way that humans recognize.

The novel’s humans are very concerned with empathy, they even make it into a religion called “Mercerism.” In this newly founded devotion “Empathy is the paramount tenet of Mercerism” (Sims 74). That is where the value of animals is relevant. Vinci argues animals are able to produce empathetic emotions and comfort, but really “what humans are ‘with’ is not animals but the imagined lack of their own lack” (100). Counterintuitively, the humans of Do Androids Dream? rarely empathize with one another.

Axelrod describes the situation “Deckard’s thoughts, mediated by the narrator, are often insightful for Deckard himself; however, we know very little about his wife’s, Iran, thoughts and concerns on more than a superficial level” (91). By contrast, Wheale notes that in the 24 hours required for the novel to unfold, “Rick Deckard’s infatuation with Rachael [a Nexus-6 android]  is the most troubling instance of this problem. In the novel, bounty hunter and android sleep together” (304). Deckard has an intimate and emotionally meaningful connection not with the woman he has agreed to spend his life with, but a Nexus-6 model android he was sent to examine for signs of empathy just hours before. As Rachel notes, “You’re not going to bed with a woman […] don’t think about it, just do it. Don’t pause and be philosophical, because from a philosophical standpoint it’s dreary. For us both” (Dick 194).  In a world concerned with empathy on a religious scale, people don’t seem overly concerned with their fellow humans.

Wheale explains the “Do Androids Dream? employs this idea of ‘affect’ to distinguish between a ‘person-Thing’ and a human entity: humanity experiences affect (and affect-ion), robots don’t” (299). Some of those biological people don’t meet this definition of humanity as empathy. Wheale further describes this dilemma of people whosuffer from a ‘flattening of affect’, and in the test situation could be mistaken for robots” (299) because they are not mentally able to feel empathy. Though they are traditionally born and raised humans, they are incapable of the primary characteristic assigned to humanity by the global religion.

This isn’t the only criterion that can disqualify people from humanity, and empathy for these people seems to be in short supply. One of Do Androids Dream?’s major characters, John Isidore “had failed to pass the minimum mental faculties test, which made him in popular parlance a chickenhead” (Dick 18). Isidore is capable of some amount of empathy, as illustrated by his interest in animals and his android companions, but is not of high enough intelligence to be granted full and legal personhood which would allow Isidore to get a better job, own an animal, and/or flee the irradiated landscape of Earth for the safety of Mars. Both those with a flattened affect and sub-par mental facilities are biologically and genetically humans, but they are not considered such. So humanity isn’t even tied to biology as would be suggested by privileging animals over robots. Humanity is tied to power.

Having reviewed the negative consequences of using empathy as a means of differentiating mankind above all else, I will now show why this is a flawed test and a false construct. There is the “empathetic” practice of Mercerism itself. Iran Deckard demonstrates this in the novel’s opening scene when she connects to the Mercerist “empathy box” which shows the object of the religion, Wilbur Mercer going through trials and tribulations to spark empathy among his followers. Wheale describes this process as “tuning in to an ’empathy box’ each individual shares in the Ascent of Mercer, and shares the antagonism directed to their god-figure by some unknown enemies” (299). This allows for humans to share in the experience of suffering together with Mercer, virtually the definition of empathy; however, this experience is being delivered in an artificial manner. Galvan goes as far as to say “the empathy box, which despite its name more undermines than facilitates the experience of emotional community” (418).

Humans do not go to an event occurring live and/or in person, they are essentially watching a rerun on TV. It is still given to humans by the use of a human creation that artificially delivers an experience that is not actually happening in the moment. Optimistic skeptics might argue that it is inconsequential to receive in an artificial way because the “feeling with” of empathy is still natural. This would be a valid argument within the context of Do Androids Dream?, except the full experience of Mercerism, that world’s primary religion and inspiration of empathy, is fundamentally false.

Wilbur Mercer, believed to be an actual person, is revealed by Buster Friendly to be a man “named Al Jarry, who played a number of bit parts in pre-war films” (Dick 207) and then acted as if he were being persecuted for the scene before resigning to a secluded life in Indiana. This “empathy” was not with a real person or even a real event, but a purely synthetic experience Jill Galvan argues is primarily a means of the government to keep people from rebelling against the structure (417). Not only is the means of experiencing artificial, not only is the experience conveyed synthetic, the purpose of the storytelling is not organic and grassroots in nature, it is a means of the oligarchs within the hegemonic class to guard their power. This leads to the conclusion that either empathy can be artificial or is not any great virtue of humanity. Either way this outcome leaves humans without a jewel for their crown of anthropocentrism. Even worse, the androids are gaining ground in empathy. So, let us review the moral implications of differentiating humans as a uniquely superior and moral class.

In some SF it is easy to spot an android, they just look fake to even the unobservant eye. As previously noted, this is not at all the case for not so in Do Androids Dream? where a living human and function android can not be differentiated fully. Where Wheale notes “the latest generation of Nexus-6 ‘andys’ approaches nearer and nearer to human” (300) it becomes more and more difficult to tell a difference at a glance. That is where the protagonist, Rick Deckard, introduces the Voigt-Kampff test. One of the first conflicts presented to Deckard is testing the Nexus-6s. In this scene, Dick reveals that the Voigt-Kampff test was not the first of its kind, it is part of a series of ever more difficult tests. So, the definition/idea used in defining empathy, and consequently humanity, is not fixed, it has changed over time as the hegemonic humans have moved the goalposts and keep the number of privileged people to a minimum. This is not merely a group of people sticking to what they know for fear of the new, it is a concerted effort to suppress groups, both organic and mechanical.

Tony Vinci writes “The post-apocalyptic culture depicted in the novel is based upon anthropocentric values constructed in such a way as to belittle and disempower human and nonhuman others (‘specials,’ androids, ersatz animals) by defining the human as a specialized category of being that has exclusive access to empathy” (92). In this situation, the androids are not treated as people, but slaves. Perhaps androids might reach the same status as humans if they can meet certain conditions, specifically meeting the current definition of empathetic, but every time they are able to meet these standards of humanity, the powers that be change their definition so they to keep their club closed from anyone looking to climb the ranks. This includes some androids that would classically meet the definitions of humanity with flying colors.

Luba Luft is one of Deckard’s android targets found at an art exhibition and posing as an opera singer, a very bourgeois art. To be deconstructionist for a moment, arts are also called humanities meaning that someone who can perform a humanity on a high level should most likely be considered human. Luft is operating as a very talented human artist meaning she is not only expressing her own form of humanity, but also potentially helping organic humans achieve a more fulfilling life. In this scenario, Luft should be considered a human, or at least something on the order of an animal; however, Galvan writes

In effect, it is not the scenarios that Rick posits that might prove Luba Luft guilty; rather, it the resolute relationship of signifiers and signifieds-the vise-like stability of the dialectical code-that proclaims the law’s authority and thus already brands her a criminal. Deputized to administer the test, Rick insists repeatedly upon Luba’s “response,” but in Baudrillard’s view, of course, that response would only confirm the operation of the hegemonic code (421).

What this means in a power structure is that the signifiers are being perpetually changed to keep specific signifiers held in a position of lower power. The androids are trapped as slaves by this hegemonic sign.

Typically, the androids do not do much to resist their bondage, but Sims says “Rarely, an android slave will kill its master and flee Mars for haven on Earth” (67). Throughout the novel, Deckard, a bounty hunter, stands as a forceful means of differentiating between the natural/artificial binary, humans and androids, respectively. Just as the Fugitive Slave Act permitted white men to hunt after escaped slaves looking for a way to leave their masters. Humans are very concerned to see their position challenged on the top of the pyramid, and so they assert the whole of their power to suppress the rising forces of intellectual opposition following the model of Marxist theory.

Androids are transformed into the other, and, as Axelrod notes even largely resembling a traditionally marginalized European ethnicity. “Unlike the nonandroids, each android […] has Euro-Slavic names or features” (86). The hegemonic forces are using their privileged rank to exploit and oppress the lower classes from removing their privilege. Istvan Csicsery-Ronan argues “Hypercapitalism labors to replace them with the ‘multicultural’ coexistence of irresolvable, irreducible, and intractable differences that must never develop into serious challenges to imperial sovereignty. The utopian ideal of universal right and law is replaced by the imperial practice of corruption” (242). Once again, even looking beyond the abuse of androids, there is a good number of natural-born humans, like John Isidore, that are not being allowed to interact with more respected humans recognized as intelligent, empathetic, and generally better. It is just another way for the powerful to oppress the powerless.

Class relations are a very difficult thing to discuss in America. Csicsery-Ronay states “This is one reason why some Marxist critics consider the genre to be inherently critical, despite the fact that careful social analysis rarely plays a central role in sf narratives […] the way global capitalism prevents dialectical historical awareness from coming to revolutionary consciousness” (242). No one likes to acknowledge that people of a higher station do not view them equally as a result of class. That is really the brilliance of Do Androids Dream?. In this instance, Androids are used as a powerful equal to stand aside organic humans to show the violent hierarchies mirrored in nature and human society. Regardless of whether or not the work is explicitly, implicitly, or not at all Marxist, Dick forces readers of Do Androids Dream? to confront the fundamental power structures and assumptions of human identity.

Works Cited

Axelrod, Mark. I Read It at the Movies: The Follies and Foibles of Screen Adaptation. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007. Print.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, Jr. “Science Fiction and Empire.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 30, no. 2 (2003): 231-45.JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. New York City: Ballantine, 2008. Kindle.

Galvan, Jill. “Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 24, no. 3 (1997): 413-29. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

Schelde, Per. Androids, Humanoids, and Other Science Fiction Monsters: Science and Soul in Science Fiction Films. New York, NY: New York U, 1993. Print.

Sims, Christopher A. “The Dangers of Individualism and the Human Relationship to Technology in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”.” Science Fiction Studies vol. 36, no. 1 (2009): 67-87. JSTOR. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.

Vinci, Tony M. “Posthuman Wounds: Trauma, Non-Anthropocentric Vulnerability, and the Human/Android/Animal Dynamic in Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association vol. 47, no. 2 (2014): 91-114. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2017.

Wheale, Nigel. “Recognising a ‘human-Thing’: Cyborgs, Robots and Replicants in Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’.” Critical Survey vol. 3, no. 3, (1991): 297-304. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

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Only a few bits left

There was a time not so long ago I was obsessed with media. Well, to be specific, I was obsessed with owning media. Boxes of books, movies, video games, CD’s (mostly of bad bands) and all other things I had piled everywhere just taking up space in the off chance I wanted to revisit Underworld: Evolution. Okay I did that a few times (I CAN MAKE BAD CHOICES) but still, the vast majority of my possessions were just things that never saw use.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t hording things, I was happy to loan things to people I and we always were good about spring cleaning. I knew how to give up things, but I was really good at holding onto things that I thought had value. That’s started to change.

I couldn’t tell you the exact time I wanted to own less, but I think it is related to the desire I had to change myself after I left Mines. I was fundamentally very unhappy, and I didn’t know why. So, I basically hit resent and started making major changes to my life.

Step one was when I shaved my head. Say what you will, I looked good. Then I started to get rid of crap. I sold video games initially and then started to donate them because I don’t really value money. I donated books and movies. Not my usual two or three here and there, I got rid of almost all of them. I don’t own a DVD anymore, certainly no CD’s. No more physical video games. The word physical is where things really pick up here.

Who buys DVD’s? No seriously, the only people I know who buy movies are people who either don’t get the idea of streaming or….. okay they’re actually the only ones. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Now, I can cheaply watch more good shows and movies than I could ever possibly hope to watch. Music? Google Play Music is my personal choice. I’ve been on digital music for a while, but streaming is just frankly easier and more unified in a lot of ways. I still have physical copies of the Bible, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter, but that’s mostly just a bit too much nostalgia to give up. Besides that, Kindle books are cheaper anyway. As for video games, I’ve grown to prefer PC gaming anyway, and what chump buys physical PC games?

Here’s the thing, it feels truly liberating to have less stuff. Obviously I’ve been out of the house for some time now that I’m in college, but I used to just keep a bunch of stuff at home. I wanted nothing to do with that anymore. It’s seriously just stuff I have no intent of using anymore. I literally don’t have a room at my family’s house anymore (it’s not sad like it sounds, there’s just a lot of people in a small space).

Does any of this mean I am consuming any less media? Not at all. I don’t buy as much anymore, but I’m getting as much or more joy from entertainment than I ever have. I just spend less and own less. I really like it. I can get things I like anywhere I happen to be I have what I want. Travel has been my goal for as long as I can remember, and owning less makes that seem a lot easier. I’m hoping to spend a year in Russia soon, and if I were to go today, the computer I’m currently typing on already has everything I would possibly want ready to go. Nothing I’d have to entrust with people while I’m gone or try to stuff together. Just the freedom from being owned by possessions. It’s kind of like Fight Club.

I would not quite call myself a minimalist yet, but I’ve gotten to really enjoy owning less. There’s a great documentary on Netflix that is made by podcasters and bloggers who are hardcore minimalists. They didn’t get me started on getting rid of possessions but they sure have helped me along the way. The main idea that I am trying to embody is only buying things that add value to my life. They have a phrase I’ve been trying to keep in mind. “Love people and use things because the reverse never works.”

Realistic escapism

For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to escapist expressions. At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I have always loved fantasy, comics, sci-fi, video games, anything that lets me escape to somewhere more fantastical than the world I live in. So, in the stressful media world of Trump’s America, I must ask myself why I can’t seem to lose myself in the worlds I love so much.

My Steam library is packed to the gills, I have a significant reading list on my Kindle, and there is a ridiculous amount of good content on HBO, Netflix, and Amazon. So much, in fact, that I needed to get an app to sort through it. There’s a really great app that aggregates movie and TV choices called Mighty, they describe themselves as Tinder for streaming. I made sure to input a lot of my favorite things so most of the recommendations are off the charts good. Things I wanted to see I didn’t know were available to me, and things I really like were appearing with my having no prior knowledge of their existence. Here’s the thing, none of them are the sort of escapist show I have been previously drawn to, Westworld, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stranger Things, and any number of other shows I have enjoyed throughout the years. I have watched almost exclusively documentaries.

At the beginning of the semester, I once again read Book X of The Republic for my Introduction to Literary Criticism class which gives a blistering attack on the nature of art and literature, the harshest criticism possible, for art as a whole.. I don’t agree with it by and large, but Socrates largely argues that reality is hard to perceive so having multiple lenses to distort a vision of the world can make it exponentially more difficult to see the truth. In a world of alternative facts, I am turning to the entertainment with the fewest lenses to find my joy.

Want to know what I just watched? A documentary about government surveillance. That’s not as light as In Search of General Tso, but it shows some truth. Of course everything has its own flaws and distortions applied by its makers, that goes without saying. That’s kind of the point of Socrates argument in The Republic. That doesn’t matter.

It is impossible to be a proper citizen of an Advanced Liberal Democracy without exposing oneself to the news. That is quite simply essential to functioning in the world, but frankly, it really sucks in the last few years. Real and legitimate news is under assault, and those attacking it won’t even allow us the courtesy of marking it as such. Of course right leaning sights were more problematic in the election, but its not lack of center right news available to them from reliable sources, look at The Economist, Forbes, or The Wall Street JournalThey all have political angles that do not align with me, but they have reliable records. They made their names on reliability, not on clicks.

So I turn to documentaries. True, reliable, and entertaining. Even the darkest ones are infinitely better than what I get in the New York Times everyday. Top notch reporting, but it makes me feel like I’m going to have a nervous breakdown because the truth is so much stranger than fiction with the Whitehouse acting as a reality TV show. It’s just not the strangeness I like.

Slow and steady

Before I begin let me say that I am aware that as a white man I am not in a good position to discuss diversity. Though I would say I am a hard worker I see no alternative but to acknowledge the many privileges I have had all my life. While I do my best to expand my understanding of the world and see things through the broadest lens I can find, please remember that everything I write comes from this limited perspective, so take it with a grain of salt.

Initially, this topic came to mind when my dad, a very open-minded man, told me that he did not quite understand what the big deal was. I confess, when the 2015 Oscars rolled around with major diversity issues (though I would note the Best Director winner Alejandro Inarritu is Mexican) I was of the mind that it was merely unfortunate. Yes, it was very, very bad that there were no people of color nominated for their role in the film, and a continuous lack of women among the ranks of directors, rather than behind the camera, but it didn’t seem impossible to me.

Though minority populations (and particularly Latinos) are rapidly growing, and on pace to create a scenario where white people are either a minority or races become mixed to a point that it doesn’t matter anymore, we are still the largest portion of the United States’ population. While people of color go through their growing pains in both population and socioeconomic growth, it seemed possible that we would have one year to eventually look back on with cringing laughter in a post-racial year. Heck, the year before had been a great year for people of color with 12 Years a Slave. Maybe that day will come, but I fear it may be further off than I anticipated.

At last year’s 2016 Oscars, there was the same pale domination of every category with the same solitary exception. This in a year with both Creed and Straight Outta Compton representing compelling and quality movies with primarily African-American casts (still not perfect representation, but take the victories we can get). Unfortunately, the only actor nominated from either film was Sylvester Stallone, who is certainty a competent actor, but it seemed like a wonderful example of the absurdity of the situation.

At the root of Hollywood’s diversity problem is the seeming inability of the institution to produce good rolls for people of color. While still an issue, and most likely an issue for years to come, the situation is slowly improving. While we still get horribly white-washed rolls like those in Gods of Egypt (though that was honestly the least of their problems) we do see some progress with purposeful diversity elsewhere. But even in a movie like Creed with a talented black man at the lead, the white supporting actor was the only one nominated.

So, maybe they didn’t want to pick a character who had race as a major facet of their identity, fair enough, I’m not fond of that sort of casting anyway and there have been recent awards for characters focused on race. I (as a middle class white man) am much more fond of characters like Trenton in Mr. Robot who is definitely a woman of color and practices Islam, but all of that is just a component of her identity as a tougher-than-nails hacker who helps bring about amazing wealth redistribution. While not exactly colorblind casting, it is a template for sophisticated portrayal of race.

So the only conceivable option beyond a race issue is a strong preference for colorblind or pseudo colorblind casting. Here’s the things, there was still some good options with colorblind casting last year. In 2015/2016 I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens six times in the theater. Yes, I know that is too many.

Obviously I don’t expect Star Wars to sweep the Oscars right after the series gets a fresh face, but I think it is worth noting that two of the three new main characters are men of color. Obviously John Boyega (Finn) is of African decent, more specifically his parents are from Nigeria and didn’t know what Star Wars was when he was cast. With both a strong performance in the mega franchise and a strong acting pedigree, Boyega would make a good fit nominated as Best Actor. If I’m being honest, his snuff isn’t the one that really upsets me.

While Star Wars was barely a blip at last years awards, want to know what wasn’t? Ex Machina. The light sci-fi film got acclaim both for its core concept as well as its underlying thread about the objectification of women, particularly women of color. The film was nominated for Best Screenplay and won Best Visual Effects, but I get a bit angsty that the common actor between Ex Machina and The Force Awakens, Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron in Star Wars and Nathan in Ex Machina).

As far as mass-appeal movies went, last year was clearly the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, and sometimes the Academy gets a bit full of itself and doesn’t want to acknowledge films that aren’t artsy enough. That’s fine, they want to keep a certain amount of prestige. But Isaac was also in Ex Machina. Though he is from Guatemala, Isaac falls into the category of “racially flexible” in a roll that has nothing much to do with any race and did a damn good job, he was even anticipated by some publications to be a contender to win Best Supporting Actor. But he wasn’t even a blip on the radar.

I apologize to all of my friends in minority communities for not understanding this sooner, I could blame it on the privilege, but that doesn’t absolve the guilt. One might have been viewed as chance in a certain light, but two shows a real problem. It is partially on the industry for not producing better films, but it is also partially on the Academy, they hold real power to make and break stars and hits that they do not share enough with marginalized communities. Before anyone accuses me of being a SJW, of course I don’t want a general awards show devoid of white people, that’s stupid. I want fair and well balanced representation of all sorts of communities. Numbers and percentages will inevitably ebb and flow over the years, but the previous state of affairs was a disgrace. This year represents another step to fairness and equality, and I won’t see another white gold Oscars as anything but discriminatory. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Silver linings

I won’t beat around the bush, 2016 was a bad year. I refuse to believe that it is just media coverage, this was a bad year. But there were a few things this year I really liked (mostly entertainment stuff for the purposes of this Post) and got me through, so I want to talk about them.

Music

The first thing is actually tied to an early unfortunate event, and that is Blackstar by David Bowie. I remember the moment I read about his death. I had “Lazarus” playing on Spotify when the Rolling Stone headline showed up on my Twitter feed. If you haven’t heard the song, it is Bowie’s song that kind of acknowledges mortality. That’s been read into plenty, but at least I’ve had something to listen to from the get go.

I really can’t mention 2016 without mentioning Kanye’s new album. I adored The Life of Pablo by Kanye West. I’ve written about Kanye already and recent events have shown some interesting turns in his persona, but Pablo gave me a lot to identify with and lean on for strength. Also, just go ahead and lump his concert in there because I’ll remember that little trip with Grace for years to come.

I actually saw quite a few concerts in the second half of my year. After I saw Kanye, I also got to see MC Lars, a longtime favorite of mine. He was every bit as nice as I could have hoped and the show with Mega Ran and mc chris was high octane and unique.

This year I had the habit of getting tickets to concerts as Christmas presents, the final show I went to was a Christmas show from Trans Siberian Orchestra. They make an incredible spectacle, but the highlight for me was when they had a tiger change into a dragon change into an attack helicopter. I still don’t know why they did that, but that has yet to affect the degree to which I care.

Film

The next thing I loved was the new Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar! which really shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s on HBO at the moment, and that’s good because it’s hard to explain all the reasons I like this venture without ruining a lot of things, not by killing plot points, just really cool and odd jokes. If nothing else, the sheer amount of incredible names should speak about why I’d be so thrilled by a period movie like this.

Sandwiched between the album and the tour, I binged some serious TV and I have to say, Netflix had a good years. Bojack Horseman has been going strong for a few years, but that blend of flippant humor with serious and potent commentaries on sensitive issues (i.e. mental illness, abortion, nontraditional relationships) is something that I can’t get enough of. Also, I didn’t expect to like Stranger Things, but there are few things made that so perfectly fit with what I live. I know I’m not from the 80s, but I don’t care. Just as I liked the setting of Hail Caesar! I adore that aesthetic that permeates so many things I love.

The other source of TV that entered my life was HBO. My family never paid for the cable subscription. We still don’t. But I subscribe to HBO Now so I’ve gotten to enjoy what they’ve put out, and it has been some wonderful stuff. I enjoyed Westworld and Veep but my favorite has to be Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. I’m impressed with the sheer variety they can produce and there has yet to be a time I could not get out of a funk with those three magic letters.

Games

Before I say anything here, I must acknowledge that I’ve been playing a lot of older games this year. For instance, I’ve only recently gotten into Skyrim. Not the remastered on on consoles. The PC version. No special mods. I just finally found what makes it fun. If you want to know what has had a major emotional impact, look to Spec Ops: The Line. It incredibly subverts expectations to show what war is like. To be fair, I haven’t been to war. I probably never will. But I definitely can understand the stress there. That’s just the beginning of my list of older games I liked this year.

Another thing that was incredibly cheery was Stardew Valley. I love that game. I have never experienced something that so easily made me feel comfortable. When I think about the gameplay itself or the story, there’s nothing all that impressive. But the loop always makes me feel productive and relaxed. When paired with the incomparable soundtrack, it’s basically a digital blanket I can cuddle into.

In terms of time sinks, there has been little that could compare in my life to Sid Meier’s Civilization series, and Civ VI is not an exception. I don’t know if I like it as much as IV yet, and I certainly haven’t spent as much time with it. But its on its way. That could easily get to be my most played game. Full stop, It’s going through the roof as we speak. Twenty hours in a week, thanks to winter break. Life is sad sometimes.

Tech

I need to give a shout out to my phone here. I’m on my own phone plan now, and I adore the phone I have for it. While I don’t have the brand new OnePlus 3T, that wasn’t announced until a few weeks after I got mine, but I don’t care. I love my OnePlus 3. In our society, our phones have gotten to be an expression of who we are. My iPhone was fine, but I think this represents who I am better. It’s a smart buy when considering value. It’s unique because no one else has it. That’s my problem with Apple products. They all blend in. They look nice, but boring. Where my phone is concerned I want to feel unique, and it is.

Person

I can’t mention Stranger Things, Westworld and trashing on Apple without thinking about the person who spurred me to watch it, my wonderful girlfriend Allie. I try to keep an air of professionalism with this silly blog and not directly address her, but she is definitely my favorite thing about 2016. I’m not an easy person to be with, but she seems to be sticking it out. She leaves for Canada soon, but I know I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have her. She makes me happy. I love her, and she’s my favorite thing of the year.

A galaxy of possibility

With the arrival of The Force Awakens, I was thrilled to see back into my favorite end of the universe. I won’t say that it was perfect, I understand the argument that Ray & company basically recycled good parts of previous entries in the franchise, but there was still enough to look to justify six trips to the theater on my part. Okay, maybe not justify, but at least satisfy. There’s a whole argument about how this actually falls in the tradition of Star Wars cyclical nature. So let’s not talk about that right now, let’s talk about why I’m super excited by Rogue One.

Rogue One is easily better than the prequels, but that is a low bar to leap. My personal rankings (from worst to best) would go: Attack of the Clones, Phantom Menace, Revenge of the Sith, Rogue One, New Hope, Force Awakens, Return of the Jedi, and Empire Strikes Back. So, the brief adventures of Jyn (Felicity Jones) didn’t rock my world. Why am I writing about it? Because I love Star Wars and now I have a lot of hope for the future of the series beyond the central canon.

Member when Star Wars had a widely sprawling canon across multiple mediums? If you do, you almost certainly member when Disney reset the whole canon of the series beyond the films. Well, now we’re getting more non-movie additions, but there is still a massive graveyard of stories (mostly books and video games) that can still be drawn upon. Now, there is a chance to introduce them to the canon on a larger scale.

In spite of the fact that many Star Wars books (i.e. Darth Plagueis) and video games (i.e. Knights of the Old Republic) had great and well crafted stories, most people never paid attention because that was a bridge too far into nerdiness. If the Marvel movies, also under the helm of Disney, have proven anything, it’s that movies can make the really obscure and nerdy the very definition of mainstream.

The galaxy of Star Wars is (or at least was) far more consistent than the one from Stan Lee, but no less interesting. Still, I talk more about Marvel’s movies, just because the films have made it an easier discussion point. That’s where I can see Star Wars going.

I don’t want the stories to be churned out, but having a self contained story gives the universe a chance to produce more stories. A lot of the novels are games aren’t Star Wars in much but name and aesthetic, but that’s just fine by me. If that makes my favorite genre more wide and accessible to more people spurring more information and more discussion for me, that’s awesome. Is it possible this will go horribly wrong? Yup. Is it possible we’ll see more prequel-esque movies? Uh-huh. Is it possible we’ll get a Jar Jar Binks spin off? I choose not to think of it. But Rogue One gives me hope for future installments, especially with Donald Glover cast as young Lando.

Marvelous diversity

I’m writing this after seeing Doctor Strange, and I’ll be honest, I’m still not tired of Marvel’s movies. Ever since Birdmam it seems trendy to hate on the blockbuster superhero movies, but I still find them to be quality content. Every movie has some similarities, sure, but most of those, good dialog, interesting effects, Easter eggs, etc. make for a good movie. Beyond that, Marvel has just done a good job of building a broad genre.

As time goes on and Marvel continues to dominate the subgenre, every movie, and even their growing catalog of TV shows are thematically different. For example, Antman was a heist movie, Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera, and Doctor Strange adds wizard to the mix. Thematic diversity isn’t what I’m concerned with here.

The unfortunate paradox of comic books is that the movies own Hollywood, but books are selling as bad as ever. So, in the last couple years, we’ve seen Marvel do some bold things with bug characters, like name Thor a woman and Captain America black, and then later a member of Hydra. You couldn’t do that in most mediums without a lot of confusion, but by nature comics are absurd, so it makes some amount of sense. That has carried over to the film division.

I don’t say Marvel hasn’t had missteps, like making the Mandarin white in Iron Man 3 (spoilers, but that movie sucks anyway). They’ve really done more to progress the medium than they’re given credit for.

Amidst the overwhelming white domination of the Oscar’s the last few years, there’s been renewed controversy over diversity in Hollywood. Liberals point to a desire and necessity to show more of the American experience, and conservatives insist on fighting PC culture.

The fight is ugly, but by cleverly raising obscure characters to prominence, Marvel has made some really cool moves. I’ll start with the most high profile example I have. Samuel L. Jackson is one of the most famous actors in the world and as Nick Fury, he represents a prominent and widespread influence throughout the Marvel universe.

Here’s the thing, until Jackson took on the roll, the comics always featured a white man in the comics. As a character emerging from the Vietnam era, it shouldn’t be any surprise he was white, but race was never important to the character. Marvel could have stuck with cannon (maybe use Tom Hanks) and people probably wouldn’t have cared. Instead, they added some color to a remarkably pale industry.

This push for diversity went unnoticed,  but it shouldn’t. Sure, he’s still a big star, but they still succeeded in inserting a diverse character into the universe, but that wasn’t even the first instance, look back to Thor for a larger example.

Thor is, obviously, based off traditional Norse mythology, and so a Frozen approach where the characters are traditional Scandinavian people would be logical. Instead, the studio acknowledged that gods operate on a different level and mysterious ways.

Is this perfect? No. But it’s progress. And I’m grateful to have something.