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Dark Side of The Moon: NieR Automata & Dune on Bringing Back Humanity, Buncha Spoilers for Both

Posted 10 Months ago by flying (b)aeris

(I posted this to my now-defunct Medium account like a billion years ago. It's suddenly culturally relevant and also I'm not paying to renew my Medium subscription, so here you go.)

Ten thousand years have passed. The earth has been stopped on its axis, and started on its spin anew. The time of man is over; the time of machines is now. The last bastions of humanity orbit a captured planet. Glory to Mankind.

According to series auteur producer Yoko Taro, the cities players see dotting NieR: Automata’s beautifully desolate landscape have never been touched by human hands. In fact, he says, it’s the androids who rebuild human cities in expectation of their return, and then various wars against the machines reduce them to rubble again. They aren’t humanity’s ruins, not really; they’re ruined copies of copies of copies of humanity’s cities, half-remembered, no doubt adapted to account for YoRHa’s failures and the machines’ successes having rearranged the landscape through devastating weaponry; and though they defend them, ultimately in vain, against the machines, they don’t ever seem to make much of an effort to live in them. They are the planet’s largest-ever set of good china, to be reserved for the special occasion; the return of humanity, from whence they live in hiding on the moon; the return of the deserving.

In nearly every way, Automata’s androids *seem* human. They express joy, fear, love and pain (and are often reminded that they shouldn’t). They can eat and drink. They are healthier and more conventionally attractive than the humanity we know, and their medical care is done with a wrench rather than a scalpel, and so there is a repeated insistence that they are not, in fact, real humans, but servants of humanity. The frequently blurry, frequently arbitrary distinction between what constitutes “humanity” and “machine-ness” is, roughly, the entire history of science fiction concerning artificial intelligence. The word “robot” originated in a 1920’s Czech story called “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” wherein machines barely distinguishable from humanity in origin or function are made into an alienated underclass and advertised as a capitalist product. The robots in R.U.R. are certainly told that they aren’t human by the overclass, but as proven by their revolt by the story’s end, they don’t fully accept that explanation for their subservient lot; it’s just enough of an excuse to inflict cruelty on them for profit’s sake. This is not a particularly subtle message. What happens in NieR is actually a bit more sinister, but it draws heavily on another sci-fi classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Dune (the original book, at least) is a lot like NieR in that much of it appears to be a posthumous story, with an enormous timescale — the important, earthshaking things already happened and we, appropriately enough for mythopoetics, live in the aftershocks — though this isn’t strictly accurate. Once upon a time, humanity was “enslaved to machines,” a condition that rendered the human spirit base and animal, atrophied it. In a religious revival termed the Butlerian Jihad, humans overthrew their oppressors and outlawed thinking machines — artificial intelligences, in other words. To be clear, though, the machines are not — outside of Brian Herbert’s perhaps ill-advised prequels — tyrannical robot overlords. In the elder Herbert’s original, it is fairly clear that the machine is a societal one — a technocratic, obsessively data-driven system of governance that enforced hyper-efficient cruelties on mankind in increasingly automated ways. Humans were treated as interchangeable (and thus utterly replaceable) by such a system, their personal differences less and less important as the iron cage of rationality closed around them; it goes without saying that the freedoms and protections and their standard of living would slowly be curtailed as well. In the end, the machine-tyrant that humanity overthrew wasn’t quite a Skynet — it was more like Peter Thiel’s Palantir.

And then, freed from the shackles of thinking technology, mankind began their wagon train to the stars. Of course, there are limits to what the human mind can achieve alone, which presented a technical problem — high-speed deep-space travel was impossibly dangerous without the aid of computers. Enter the Mentat, a kind of human calculator trained from birth and raised on a drug called sapho, and later Spice, which stimulates the mind to spectacular feats, but is addictive to the point that withdrawal is certain death. A Mentat could direct a starship through the perilous void of space, effectively replacing that navigational computer, with his altered mental state meaning his life is ultimately shackled to one of the few roles only a Mentat can perform, his addiction ensuring he cannot simply fail to perform. The Princess Irulan, too, is rendered a less explicit kind of machine by miracle-drug spice and training, raised from birth for a singular role that, when denied her chance to fulfill, she is left to contemplate murder over; to say nothing of the later books’ axolotl tanks — cloning machines that, indeed, are simply women’s bodies modified past sentience for the purposes of growing bespoke clones. And the central conflict revolves around control of the precious resource, spice, to which all activity in the universe is politically and economically shackled, since its loss would not only mean death for the overclasses, much of which relies on it for life extension, but also make space travel impossible. The author’s point is clear — the spiritual struggle is not a one-time event, but an ongoing resistance to the forces that strive to strip us of our humanity. It’s smoother to operate according to the principles of “rationality” as handed down by the technocrats; it doesn’t critically disrupt the hierarchy, and we are taught to read this as efficiency. In the end, we make ourselves this way, rendering our lives and others’ down to narrower, more specialized paths in the name of whatever substance composes the economy’s lifesblood. (Feel free to fill in the blank, readers of the future.)

It’s important to understand that the accurate translation of “jihad” in Butlerian Jihad — so named in the sixties prior to the United States’s grand imperialist project due to the clear Middle Eastern influences of the religious revival, and after a close friend of Herbert’s — is not holy war, but more akin to “spiritual struggle.” Yet, much like our politically-motivated misunderstanding today, by the time of the events of Dune the Butlerian Jihad was thought of as a war, fought and won in the distant past, and not as it was intended in that time: daily resistance to the nebulous forces seeking to render mankind down. What humans thought of in Dune as technology was not necessary for technocracy. When capital seeks to privatize and enclose goods that have always belonged to the public, to disrupt industries that comfortably support workers, and when more and more people find themselves outside the circle of “the deserving,” this is what occurs. Compassion atrophies, in others and the self. The final form of this atrophy, of course, is when “the deserving” are only defined as that mythical ingroup that lives only in history, but that the rulers, entrusted with the goodwill (and riches) of the people, eternally strive to bring back. The most elegant form of slavery is to be enslaved to a party that doesn’t exist. But If Dune’s central message is that forbidding machinery doesn’t prevent mankind from rendering ourselves into machines, NieR’s is just the Jeopardy! version — the theme is that even making ourselves physically machines can’t strip us of our humanity — for that, you need governance.

The sexualized fascist-chic aesthetics of YorHa are not accidental — they deploy to Earth in beautiful bodies that continually fetishize youth, purity and fairness of complexion, accentuated by somber, black period-piece uniforms — but the far greater diversity in appearance of the android and machine communities makes it clear that there is an divide in strictness of ideology, appearance and lifestyle. For every ruthless YoRHa supersoldier there are ten ordinary, quietly laboring & living (if complicit in the system) artificially-bodied humanoids going about their errands on the surface, living life largely the way their organic forebears did. Although the human condition has radically altered in the last ten thousand years, “humanity” never left, but it is continually suppressed through proximity to YoRHa, and the supposedly mindless, toylike machines are no more and no less human than the beautiful YoRHa combat-dolls devoted to their wholesale slaughter. In the end, the Machine Consciousness reveals explicitly the truth that the narrative has been just barely veiling for three acts, which is that there are no organic humans on the moon, and there probably haven’t been since 1972 A.D. Humanity has been gone for ten thousand years. Much of YoRHa probably always suspected the lie, but the lie was all that kept the fight in them — the belief in a humanity “realer” than themselves allowed them to endure the grind of hopeless struggle. In truth, each machine is and was as real as it is possible to be.

We, humanity, in this the Year of Our Digital Lords 2020, are the machines waiting for our humanity to come back; yet, the myth of The Time When We Were More Human drives the nationalistic command to render ourselves more machine-like — to submit ourselves to the glorification of the state, or even, explicitly, the race — to bring it about. To be clear, this *is* the root from which fascism grows; a misremembered purity, strength, and trueness and the belief that we have strayed from it. “Regaining” that strength is a lost cause specifically because the commanded action is artificial. We dehumanize ourselves continually, subordinating more and more of our lives to the state or capital, all the while blindly insisting that, because it provides for a future with an implication of family, it makes us more human, or, to put it another way, that it will in some way bring humanity back; if not from the moon, whence they dwell in anticipation of the end of the struggle, then from some fictionalized past when purpose was clear and life made sense. From the cryptofascist whisperings of NPC Theory to the zombie-apocalypse imagery evoked by press photos of the US’s migrant concentration camps, from transphobic musings about mutilation and mimicry to the resurgence of skull-measuring in what passes for academia, minds adrift in the digital discourse are steered towards an ever-narrower view of who counts as a human person, and who does not; sooner or later, it may be that no one meets the qualification at all. We are encouraged to strive endlessly, but told so loudly and clearly that we, collectively, aren’t deserving of a better world. Some imagined, fictional version of us, of humanity, deserves all the beauty and wonder and utopian society we’re capable of creating — but it isn’t the version you or I belong to. Or at least, that’s what the broadcasts from the moon say.

Glory to Mankind.

There are 1 Replies

Wonderful read, thank you.

When I first read Dune, I was too young to understand themes or much of that sort. I've thought about coming back to it several times, but I've never taken the chance.

This also reminds me of a piece that I want to write about humanity and ethics (and, to a lesser extent, the archetype of the sadboy) in Blade Runner.

10 Months ago

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