Slavery, racism, and Orientalism form a continuum from past to present, and sci-fi is no exception.
It is the centennial of the “robot” entering our lexicon, a term that comes from Czech word robota, meaning “forced labor,” coined in K. Capek’s 1920 book R.U.R.: “Rossum's Universal Robots,” that was turned into a play the following year.
In 1921, the Ku Klux Klan engaged in a killing spree in an affluent African-American neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
What is the connection?
Science fiction projects into the future, while forcing a reappraisal of the past. Two sci-fi works that deal with race and slavery in history are Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner and the 2019 HBO alternative-future series Watchmen.
The killing of George Floyd has led to a reckoning with the past, particularly with massacres and statues that serve as a painful reminder of the history of slavery. His death at the hands of law enforcement has reignited interest in Watchmen, which deals with race and policy brutality.
The series opens with the 1921 massacres in Tulsa, an episode neglected in American history textbooks - highlighting the insensitivity of the Trump administration choosing it as the site of his rally last week.
While Blade Runner invokes the history of race and slavery, unfortunately it also is embedded in the times in which it was produced, including orientalist tropes that were rife in the cinema of the Eighties.
Slavery and Sci-Fi
Blade Runner opens with earth in the throes of an environmental cataclysm, resulting in humans moving to off-world colonies in space. In Los Angeles, Deckard, a Blade Runner police officer played by Harrison Ford, is tasked with killing renegade “replicants,” the archetypal robot, artificial lifeforms that look like humans, created as slaves to work on the planets and forbidden from returning to earth. Their presence on Earth is illegal, following a replicant revolt on one of Earth’s off-world colonies.
Replace earth with the European “Old World,” and the off-world colonies to those in the “New World,” and Blade Runner serves as an allegory for the slave revolts that sparked the Haitian Revolution of 1791 or the Male Revolt of Muslim slaves in Bahia, Brazil of 1835.
Blade Runner is set in 2019, a fictional date that coincided in real-time with the 1619 Project on the Transatlantic slave trade, which generated a contested debate in the US, setting the stage for the 2020 debate on the subject in light of Floyd’s death.
In the film, replicants are given four-year lifespans, while the life expectancy of an African slave on the New World plantations would have been seven to nine years if they survived the treacherous Transatlantic journey.
Deckard is essentially a bounty hunter of fugitive slaves, with no limits to the violence he can use against replicants.
The “Orient” in Bladerunner
In the film, Deckard stumbles upon a clue, an artificial snake scale belonging to a replicant. The search for the snake maker and its owner is accompanied by Vangelis’ haunting rendition of “Damask Rose,” combining futuristic synthesisers and Arabic vocals in the background.
In order to hunt down the owner, he interrogates Abdul ben Hassan, “the Egyptian,” the manufacturer of synthetic snakes.mWithin an Asian ghetto mimicking LA’s Chinatown, Deckard finds ben Hassan, who is fat, wears a cheap suit and Fez. He is the modern equivalent of the stereotypical bazaar peddler featured in the 1990s Aladdin, and only after he is roughed up by Deckard during the interrogation, is he forthcoming with the name of the snake’s owner.
The producers of Blade Runner might be forgiven for the stereotypical details when Hollywood films were rife with these in the eighties. However, in the 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, a series of short films were released to give background to the main feature.
In 2048: Nowhere to Run, also set in Los Angeles, a replicant haggles with Sultan, an unshaven merchant, dressed in a similar suit, bedecked with golden rings, in a bazaar-like setting with Arabic music in the background.
The snake charmer and sexual slavery
Deckard traces the owner of the “snake” to Zhora, who goes by the stage name “Salome,” a reference to the biblical Salome, whose seductive dance bewitched Herod of Galilee, who ordered the death of John the Baptist afterwards at her request.
Blade Runner’s Salome dances nude with the snake wrapped around her body, reminiscent of the cover image for 1980s Penguin paperback edition of Edward W Said’s Orientalism.
The cover of Said’s book is from Jean-Leon Gerome’s 1879 painting “The Snake Charmer.” In both painting and film, a group of male voyeurs gaze at the decadent Orientalist trope of the nude snake charmer. Vangelis’ Arabic rhythms continue in the background.
Zhora, realising Deckard is Blade Runner, tries to flee but is “retired,” killed on the street as she tries to escape, reminiscent of the most recent incidents of policy brutality.
While the orientalist element is an unfortunate fault, it is a minor part of the plot. The entire sequence that began with the snake maker and the snake charmer lasts ten minutes. The cinematography may have been an inadvertent homage to Gerome’s painting.
Regardless, the “E”s of Orientalism, the East as the Exotic, Erotic, and Enigmatic, all are communicated within this sequence.
The Digital Gothic
The dystopian neo-film-noir cinematography of Blade Runner ushered in the Digital Gothic, with similar aesthetics found in Watchmen. The 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica or the Netflix series Black Mirror also fall into this genre.
The Digital Gothic reveals our societies’ dark past and current phobias over technophobia, race. It serves as a fictional means of talking about futuristic slavery as in the present, any debate on the issue is shut down.
At the end of Blade Runner, Roy, the last replicant to be retired, tells Deckard, “Quite an experience to live in fear isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.”
In Battlestar Galactica the Cylons are robotic slaves built to make life easier for humans, but then rebelled.
Black Mirror reverses the equation, as humans become slaves to the technology they create.
And Watchmen reminds the viewer that slavery, racism, and police brutality form a continuum from past to present. One hopes it will end in the future.
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