The Virginity of Androids, part 1


Ridley Scott’s Prometheus: ‘a ruinously incoherent, inept dustbin of bad sf ideas, and in Clute’s words, a real shaggy God story.’ That’s what I wrote on Twitter after seeing the film, which was a very great disappointment for someone who loves both Alien and Blade Runner and teaches both on a course on science fiction. I’m not going to recapitulate what has already been written about the film, and in particular will avoid (a) its Lovecraft-via-von Daniken story (b) the atrocious editing (c) the gaping plot holes (d) the ludicrous portrayal of scientists (e) its seeming validation of Creationism (f) the appalling and nonsensical ending (g) the risible deaths of many of its characters, particularly poor old Charlize Theron who (h) had absolutely nothing to do in the film but be the shoulder-pad-bitch, one of many under-written parts which only served to highlight the deftness and skill with which Scott once presented an ensemble cast in Alien, but which was entirely lacking here. I can only presume, for instance, that Benedict Wong was cast as some kind of nod to Sunshine, which I have grave misgivings about (see previous post) but which is a work of genius compared to Prometheus. Michael Wood’s recent reviewof Prometheus in the London Review of Books offers an insightful reading of the film and is more positive about it than I ever could be; in this blog post, I would like to concentrate on Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the android David, and the failed opportunity to do something interesting with the condition of the android which is symptomatic of all four Alien sequel/prequel films proper (not counting the dire Predator crossovers).

Parker, Ripley and Ash in AlienIn Alien (1979), the android is Ash, played by Ian Holm as the ‘science officer’ (shades of Spock) who, as the film nears its climax, is revealed to be a totally amoral agent of the Company, pursuing the delivery of the alien species and mindful of the necessity that all ‘other priorities’ (the survival of the human crew, for instance) have been ‘rescinded’. It is Ash who countermands Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and allows the ‘impregnated’ Kane (John Hurt) back onto the ship, in direct contravention of protocol; it is Ash who researches the creature and declares it to be ‘perfect’ in its hostility. That Ash is an android is a shocking revelation in Alien: he is presumed by all to be human (even if a Company man). The scene where Ash’s true otherness is revealed is when Ripley threatens to blow up the ship after the death of Captain Dallas: he attacks her physically, then attempts to choke her by inserting a rolled-up pornographic magazine down her throat, in an act which is at once a recapitulation of what the face-hugger does to Kane, and a symbolic oral rape. As the two struggle, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) tries to stop the violation, eventually smashing the back of Ash’s head with a gas cylinder, decapitating him. Ash oozes white liquid, an echo of the white milk he drinks but also a sign of his otherness, his abjection: his internal structure is non-human, repellant. ‘Ash is a God-damned robot’, shouts Parker, though this is a word that (to me) signifies a mechanical entity, and a word that recurs in Prometheus; while Ash differs from the flesh-and-blood replicants of Blade Runner, he is clearly a fleshly rather than metallic being, even if that flesh is other and disgusting.

In ‘The Virginity of Astronauts’, from which I have stolen the title of this blog entry, Vivian Sobchack writes about the sexlessness of science fiction. This has a double dynamic. Women and sex are ‘denied all but a ghostly presence in the genre ... as if such a potent semiotic relation poses a threat to the cool reason and male camaraderie necessary to the conquest of space, the defeat of mutant monsters and alien invasions, and the corporate development and exploitation of science and technology’ (103); at the same time, the ‘male heroes who dominate almost all science fiction films are remarkably asexual ... about as libidinally interesting as a Ken doll’ (107). Sobchack reads Alien as a text that erases gender in the figure of Ripley, ‘not marked as either woman or sexual’ until the very end of the film, when in a ‘disturbing and horrific’ sequence Ripley believes herself to have escaped the alien threat when boarding the ‘lifeboat’ and undresses, down to skimpy pants and t-shirt, before realising the alien is also on board. I have always found this scene deeply uncomfortable and seemingly out of keeping with the rest of the film in exposing Weaver’s body to the camera’s gaze, but the logic of presenting the body of the mother at this point in inescapable, particularly as a means by which to reassert normative human reproductive biology in the face of the monstrous reproduction (Kane’s ‘chest-burster’, the ‘rape’ of Kane and Lambert) found elsewhere in the film. Sobchack argues that Ripley ‘exchanges one kind of power for another, her sudden vulnerability at the narrative level belied by her sudden sexual potency as a visual representation on the screen’ (106). In becoming a woman at this point, Sobchack states, Ripley becomes a victim; but she also becomes ‘an irrational, potent, sexual object – a woman, the truly threatening alien generally repressed by the male-conceived and dominated genre’ (107). 

In Sobchack’s Freudian reading, the film here tips its hand: the symbolic relation between the abject otherness of the body of the alien and the abject otherness of the body of the woman is revealed. (Barbara Creed has persuasively investigated the film in Kristevan terms in a number of well-known articles.) I’d like to add to this reading; if Ripley is rendered sexless or genderless by costume choices, the way the character is written, and the sexist and homosocial environment of the Nostromo, then there is also an uncoupling of gender/ sexual biology and assumptions about power and victimhood: Kane’s male body is the first victim of rape. The most significant markers of difference in Alien are not between male and female human bodies, but between that of the human and that of the android. Alien’s Ash and Prometheus’s David are both agents who abet the impregnation of human bodies by alien embryos; but they do not experiment upon themselves. Unlike the human body (male or female), the android body is not a womb.

Ash's decapitated head in Alien
The android, then, is the emblem of what Sobchack identifies as the sexless techno-body of the astronaut, the embodiment of the libidinal economy of the genre: ‘science fiction denies human eroticism and libido a traditional narrative expression and representation’ (103). It’s interesting, therefore, that in her article, Sobchack analyses Ripley, but not Ash: the android’s body is itself repressed, even in Barbara Creed’s essays, where Ash is mentioned only in passing (for his eulogy for the alien’s purity and perfection). Ash’s body is a third term that disrupts gender binaries in terms of reading Alien, aligned neither with the terrifying potency of the alien nor with the reproductive vulnerability of the human, even if Ash acts to sacrifice the human crew to ensure the predator’s survival. Ash seems to signify an in-human and obscene logic that takes no compass-bearings from human ethics; indeed, the alien’s very absence of ‘conscience, remorse or delusions of morality’ is something that Ash confesses he admires. When Ash, with the blackest irony, offers the remaining crew his ‘sympathies’ in their fight against the perfect killing machine, Parker demands that they ‘pull the plug’, and returns to incinerate Ash’s decapitated head. This faked inhabitation of human emotion is, for Parker, even more obscene than the physical fact of Ash’s bodily abjection, and he attempts to erase both with fire.

Like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, then, Ash seems to occupy a position of otherness-to-humanity that is threatening and destructive, because he operates according to the dictates of a logic that bears no signature of human emotion or sympathy. Like HAL, too, though, to see Ash as simply a version of The Terminator’s Skynet or The Matrix’s machines, implacably hostile non-human ‘machine’ entities bent on the destruction of the human race, denies the possibility of desire, libido, want, even subjectivity itself. For Ash, a (dangerous) libido is hinted at in the sexualised attack upon Ripley. It is impossible to ask the question ‘what does he want?’ of Sobchack’s astronaut, as libido is repressed to an extent that evacuates desire; is the same true of the android? What does Ash want?

One answer is, of course, that he only wants what the Company wants: the return of the alien to the Company’s R and D division. Desire and agency is thereby external(ised), introjected into Ash as a set of commands. Ash would be no more than a marionette, operated from a distance. Little wonder, then, that Parker calls him a ‘robot’. But we might wonder that the crew had no suspicion that Ash was not human before Parker decapitates him. Either his own masquerade as human is near-perfect, or the other crew members also occupy the same sexless condition of Sobchack’s astronaut, so cannot tell the difference. In terms of the dynamic between the characters in Alien, I don’t think this is true: there is clearly some kind of relationship between Dallas and Ripley, and Lambert is the ongoing recipient of crude innuendo by Brett and Parker throughout the early part of the film. Ash might seem uptight and buttoned up, but no more so than Ripley: they wear similar jump-suits at one point in the film. If Ripley is returned to the economy of libido at the end of the film, indexed by her nakedness, does Ash remain outside desire? One thing that Ash does not want is to be human; Alien does not trade on the Pinocchio trope (unlike AI, or Star Trek:TNG’s Data). This certainly marks a difference in conception between Ash and Prometheus’s David, and also a difference to Blade Runner’s replicants: Ash has no need to meet his maker, to demand ‘more life, father’ (or ‘fucker’, depending on which version of Blade Runner you’re watching). Ash seems to accept his fate while also accepting the deaths of his crew-mates. His ‘evil’ is that of an absolute empathic blankness.

While both Aliens  and Alien Resurrection attempt to develop the figure of the android, it is only with Fassbender’s David in Prometheus that a really intriguing revision takes place, although, as I will argue, the opportunity to do something radical with him is lost. In the second part of this entry, I will turn in detail to David and Prometheus.

Vivian Sobchack's 'The Virginity of Astronauts' and Barbara Creed's 'Alien and the Monstrous Feminine' are both collected in Alien Zone, edited by Annette Kuhn (Verso, 1992).

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