Aug 5, 2013

Sentient Settings

Today a student, who is reading Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (in which a team of scientists come into contact with a sentient body of water) asked me if I knew of any other stories that took place within a living, thinking environment. Since we were already talking about space stations, my mind went immediately to HAL 9000, and then to a list of other space narratives in which heroes become trapped within a misbehaving vessel, a list that includes almost every long-running science fiction TV-show ever. (Even The X-Files, which never really took place in space, managed to trap Mulder and Scully in a malevolent elevator.)

The typical evil-spaceship story involves an artificial intelligence system that is either secretly programmed with a sinister agenda by someone high up in the military/corporate chain of command or, through some sort of Skynet-esque leap in robo-logic, decides that the best way to satisfy its directives (whatever those may be) is to kill off its inhabitants. Star Trek: The Next Generation told this story a number of times, but always managed to find an interesting way to do so. In the episode “Emergence,” the Enterprise runs amok when it becomes, for lack of a better word, pregnant, while the episode “Tin Man” tells the story of a lonely, last-of-its-species bioship attempting to commit suicide.

What’s interesting is that many of the series that have evil-ship episodes also have biological ships, and yet with the exception of “Tin Man,” it’s always the purely mechanical ones that go nuts. This is because the psychotic AI antagonist is representative of our mistrust of our own technological advancement and the hubris of creating even simulated life. The ships gone awry are just shinier, bleep-blorpier versions of Frankenstein’s monster, their futuristic engineers the post-post-post-post-post-modern Prometheuses. (Promethei?)

But space ships are not the only settings that come to life and try to kill their inhabitants, and before we had such things as misbehaving computers, we had haunted houses. The earliest literary haunted houses were the crumbling gothic castles of works like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, or Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” These are not just houses, but ancestral homes, and their supernatural states are closely tied to corruption within the lineage. As the horror genre evolved, haunted houses began to develop their own primitive psychologies, most of them suffering some sort of post-traumatic stress. From the House of Seven Gables to the Overlook Hotel, most modern haunted houses have been the site of some great evil or injustice, which the heroes of the story are made to relive, usually to their demise.

What connects these narratives to their forebears, and separates them from their space-age cousins*, is their sense of the past. Where the evil spaceship story looks to the future and frets at where we might go, the haunted house story ponders the cost of where we have already been.

*I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up Event Horizon, which manages to be both an evil-spaceship story and a haunted house story at the same time.