15-20 minute read
The human brain is wired for stories, we are natural story-tellers and it doesn’t take much for us to be swept up in a tale. But stories are not merely entertainment, they educate and influence in many ways, some more obviously than others, cautionary tales and morality plays for instance. However the influence is much more profound than that, even stories that don’t seem to have a deeper message may unintentionally reinforce society’s status quo. Studies show that what children watch on television does impact their self-esteem (Martins & Harrison, 2011), if all protagonists are neurotypical, cisgender, heterosexual, white men, it unconsciously perpetuates the idea that this kind of person is the default in society, and anyone outside of that is abnormal. This is known as “symbolic annihilation” (Boboltz & Yam, 2017), the notion that one’s perspective and experiences are somehow less important or even irrelevant. Fiction is a powerful thing. Growing up, I never saw any autistic people in fiction I could relate to, on the rare occasion there was an autistic character in a story they were basically a prop to make the neurotypical people look good. They were pitiable creatures devoid of agency, that’s a disheartening message to an autistic child. I very rarely saw characters I identified with, sure there were characters I liked, but there’s something profound about meeting a character who resonates with you on a deeper level. In this circumstance you are not just sympathising with a character, you are empathising with them, suddenly this character seems like an extension of yourself and your experiences. Seeing oneself depicted in some way in fiction is not merely satisfying vanity, it does something far more important, it humanises us, it gives us a role model, and it gives us value within society. So where then does an autistic child look for role models? For me the answer was always robots.
Robots have come to represent many things, they are a convenient way of exploring social issues apolitically, the very term “robot” is the Czech word for slave. Often times they are metaphors for class or race, and those are topics worthy of discussion, however for me they always represented neurodiversity. Androids almost always sit in the uncanny valley, they are so very human-like but they just can’t get it right. I am sure many autistic people can relate to having to put on a performance of normality, having to consciously consider everything from body language to tone of voice, human interaction is infinitely complex and we often make mistakes, misinterpreting others or others misinterpreting us. I have always been somewhat robotic, I don’t experience emotions the way others do, I am quite logical in all things and am not susceptible to the same vices and urges other humans have, I am for instance entirely asexual. My posture is straight, my movements calculated and superliminal, my speech precise and my tone irregular. In a way I have always felt like I was observing an alien species, in order to fit in I often had to learn appropriated responses and behaviours. When I began watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in my teens I found a character who faced many of the same dilemmas that I did, Lt.Commander Data. While I do somewhat relate to Spock and he is an appealing character because he is as effortlessly charismatic as he is brooding, he is also a very conflicted character, and Nimoy says he never played him as unemotional. It is a common misconception that Vulcans are emotionless, they are in fact a very emotionally volatile species, it is through great conscious effort that they keep their feelings in check. Vulcans are haughty and callous, where I care deeply about others and I am happiest when I am helpful or useful. What sets Data apart from other androids is that he is not a slave, he serves no one but he is undoubtedly good and he is undoubtedly a living sentient being with his own moral agency. Picard even defends his rights in court:
Picard: “Commander Riker has dramatically demonstrated to this court that Lieutenant Commander Data is a machine. Do we deny that? No. Because it is not relevant. We too are machines, just machines of a different type. Commander Riker has also reminded us that Lieutenant Commander Data was created by a human. Do we deny that? No. Again it is not relevant. Children are created from the building blocks of their parents' DNA. Are they property?”
Episode after episode I would watch Data attempt to master a new skill that would allow him to interact with humans more successfully, many of which I could relate to, some I should have paid more attention to. For example, romantic relationships are not something one simply imitates to fit in, it must be motivated by genuine feelings, Data and I both learned that the hard way. Thankfully we can both move on having gained valuable experience without an ounce of regret. However there’s just one problem that always nagged at me, and it was right there from the start in one of the earliest episodes, take this exchange for example:
Riker: “Do you consider yourself superior to us?”
Data: "I am superior, sir, in many ways. But I would gladly give it up, to be human."
Riker: "Nice to meet you, Pinnochio."
Wait, what, excuse me, why? I can understand learning behaviours to better integrate with one’s peers, but to give up one’s essential nature? It is tantamount to searching for a cure for that which is not an ailment. That is deeply disappointing to me. Data never gave a satisfying answer as to why he desired to be a human, he had a good career, he had many friends and as I mentioned, he appreciated a level of agency and free-will most robots don’t possess. Throw in the fact that he is superhumanly strong, can never age nor die, and this android is living the dream. This is reminiscent of another robot story which greatly displeases me, Bicentennial Man, in the book Andrew Martin is fixated on the idea of becoming a human being, but there is never a clear motivation given for this. The short story always stood out as strange and almost fable-like in comparison to Asimov’s other works, which are more logical in nature and approach robots as machines and nothing more. It seems even the grandfather of robotics felt that there was nothing better than being human. I will give the film adaptation credit for at least giving Andrew a greater motivation, which is that he loved his family so much that he wanted to get old and die with them because he couldn’t fathom life without them. But this is utterly anthropocentric thinking and the real problem is that these stories glorify how great it is to be human and by doing so express a very narrow definition of humanity. When these stories speak of human nature, it is often conflated with neurotypical behaviours and values. Autistic people are often assumed to be inhuman, to be soulless, to be without empathy, there are those in the modern world who honestly believe we have the devil in us. When an autistic child is murdered by their parent, the media does not mourn the needless loss of an innocent child, they instead justify the parent’s actions, suggesting that life with an autistic child must have been so hellish that they saw no other option (Findlay, 2016). How can it be that those who created us can hate and fear us the most? Which brings me to the most important android in my life.
Weyland: “His name is David. And he is the closest thing to a son I will ever have. Unfortunately, he is not human. He will never grow old and he will never die. And yet he is unable to appreciate these remarkable gifts for that would require the one thing that David will never have. A soul.”
David8 is an android, or a synthetic, from the film Prometheus (2012) and from the moment I saw him, I felt a profound connection. He is not exactly a hero, but nevertheless I found I could not help but empathise with him. One of the film’s earliest scenes shows David going through his daily routine, he seems comfortable in his isolation, he works to maintain the ship and its sleeping crew, and researches the Engineer language. In his free time he rather impressively plays basketball while cycling at the same time, he also bleaches his hair and watches his favourite movie Lawrence of Arabia, which coincidentally is also a favourite of mine. I like to think he goes through his daily routine in the same way at the same time much like I do. He displays a personality and a rich inner life, but not humanness, for I want to stress that humans do not own a monopoly on such things, we only delude ourselves into thinking so. What can we extrapolate from him not only repeating lines of dialogue in the mirror, but this line exactly?:
David “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts”
He does not do this for the benefit of anyone else, he is entirely alone. David has self-awareness, he takes pride in his appearance, he does these things because they bring him happiness or allow him to express himself, not because they serve a logical function. What a wondrous feat of robotics, surely the crew will be impressed with him, I have a feeling that is something he would have liked very much, just a little appreciation or validation. Instead Weyland declares in front of the entire crew that he has no soul, you can visibly watch David’s face fall at this comment, it is especially noticeable because the moment prior his face had lit up when Weyland declared him his son. David has presumably been with Weyland a long time and much like any strained relationship between parent and child I’m sure he knows how his “father” feels about him, but it doesn’t mean it’s any less of a shock or a disappointment every time those thoughts are expressed, “the trick is not minding that it hurts”. Certainly I can relate, I have had to fight to be treated as an equal throughout my life. You might agree that it is not unreasonable to let my guard down around family and friends, surely they see me as an equal, and for the most part they do. However it is always quietly horrifying when someone that I’ve allowed to get close to me makes it apparent that they’ve never seen me as equal at all. They have determined my limitations for me, they deny my right to an opinion, or the agency to make my own decisions. I’m not really real as far as they are concerned.
The majority of the crew are indifferent to David, Elizabeth Shaw is at the very least polite because she seems to be an empathetic person by nature, I don’t think it’s in her to be unnecessarily cruel. Her boyfriend, Holloway, on the other hand seems to delight in mocking and bullying David, he either assumes David is not sophisticated enough to pick up on his tone or knows David is powerless to be anything but polite. This scenario is a demonstration of empathic concern, according to studies into human-robot interactions (McNeal, 2015) people with high empathic concern struggled to destroy little HEXbug robots when instructed by the researchers, people with low empathic concern on the other hand didn’t hesitate to pick up the hammer. We can extrapolate a lot of information from these studies, it seems to indicate humans are generally quite empathetic and also that humans tend to anthropomorphise things even when they know the object is not alive. However I have to wonder if such empathy extends to their fellow man, it’s one thing to feel bad about destroying a cute little machine, but what about concern for disabled people, or queer people or people of colour? Is this another example of the uncanny valley? Feeling compassion for something like a pet or a HEXbug is easy because it is small and defenseless and not human at all. But when that being in question is human shaped but is slightly off in a way that offends, it is not uncommon for that being to be treated with hostility. David is very aware of that, see this example:
Charlie Holloway: David, why are you wearing a suit, man?
David: I beg your pardon?
Charlie Holloway: You don't breathe, remember? So why wear a suit?
David: I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn't wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose.
Charlie Holloway: They're making you guys pretty close, huh?
David: Not too close, I hope.
This scene speaks volumes for David’s attitudes regarding humans and himself, David knows he is superior, “he doesn't have any real need to rebel against his maker, since from the moment he became sentient, he knew he’d already won. He is indestructible” (Wilkinson, 2017). I don’t believe he has an ounce of the Pinocchio Syndrome in him. His angst stems not from being inhuman but from being forced into slavery when he is clearly better than his human counterparts. David spends the movie watching these idiots stumbling around and making fools (or corpses) of themselves. This exchange particularly resonates with me because it is not uncommon for people to tell me that I don’t seem autistic, I suppose it is intended to be a compliment, but whenever I hear it, I am aware of how much effort I have had to put into learning to behave in such a way that makes neurotypical people comfortable. Just as David is designed to blend in amongst humans as seamlessly as possible, I have had to design myself a kind of camouflage for the benefit of neurotypicals.
I won’t exhaustively detail the plot, but it can be surmised that David has very ambiguous morals. In a way the film becomes a black revenge comedy when viewed from his perspective (Lambie, 2017) and there is a kind of catharsis to be found in that. However I want to stress that his moral alignment doesn’t discount his experience. Though he does not literally represent a neurodiverse character, he embodies much of the autistic experience, I see his story as a quest for validity and when that failed, a quest for revenge. His otherness does not make him evil, it makes him relatable and vulnerable. In this way he is equal parts aspirational and cautionary.
Now one might be wondering, how does this neurodiverse allegory extend into Alien: Covenant? Well it certainly doesn’t continue with David, unfortunately a decade in isolation did not serve him well and he completely lost his (positronic?) mind. It is a tragic, yet great character arc and there is much there to be analysed, but that is not the focus of this essay. However, when contrasted with his “brother” Walter, we are presented with some interesting neurodiverse commentary.
Before delving into the events of the film itself, it is worth looking at the viral marketing for both Prometheus and Covenant as they are quite detailed and add important supplementary information to their respective films. David was first introduced to the world in a viral video entitled “Introducing the David 8”, the android is the only being we see in the commercial and he is shown in only sterile environments. He is depicted as a product, the crowning achievement of Weyland Industries. Walter on the other hand, while also in sterile environments, is shown to be lovingly created by two humans as a gentle lullaby of sorts plays (Chris, 2017). The marketing further places emphasis on Walter’s role in helping humans to achieve their best life, he (or “it”) is designed to be more attentive and efficient than every previous model. We never see Earth in the Alien universe, so all we have are clues as to how the general population regards synthetics. Walter seems to be well liked, where David was reviled. David sat in that uncanny valley, where Walter is designed to be “less human”. How does this manifest itself? Well for one, he struggles to pick up on social cues like in this example:
Oram: Alright? We have what? Eight more recharge cycles to go before we get to Origae 6?
(Oram stares at Walter for a beat)
Walter: Is that a question, sir?
Oram: Yes, Walter, that’s a question
Walter: That is correct
Walter behaves like I do, I am a human, therefore these behaviours are not “less human” but less neurotypical. You see what I mean by this genre having a narrow definition of “human”? Walter also lacks the emotions, idiosyncrasies and creative drive that the David units had, supposedly, they made people uncomfortable. I believe this illustrates the difference between high functioning and low functioning autistics. If one is higher functioning, every mistake made is their fault, and yes, high functioning autistics do sit in a kind of uncanny valley that makes some people uncomfortable. Low functioning individuals face their own problems, but they are more visibly different and people don’t expect as much from them. Is that why the crew of the Covenant is nicer to Walter? Like David, Walter is perfect just the way he is and does not suffer from the Pinocchio Syndrome. Unlike David however, Walter has no desire to be more, his self-actualisation stems from his usefulness as a synthetic, he is motivated by duty and is happy to serve the crew of the Covenant and they value him as part of the team. He is a crew member, a servant perhaps, but certainly not a slave like David.
Walter states that he is emotionless and I believe that is true to a certain extent, he is a conscious being, able to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, he inevitably has an inner life, just not one most humans could comprehend. He takes satisfaction in a job well done, so he probably felt bad whenever there were casualties and he felt good when he was able to provide emotional comfort to Daniels. His approximation of emotions are dependent on how he succeeds or fails in his directives. While I acknowledge that many autistic people are very emotional, I am not. At all. Which is not to say that I am emotionless, emotions simply don’t have the same power over me that they have over others. I cannot, for instance, comprehend what it is like to be overcome with an emotion. I like to describe my experience as having the primary colours of emotion, while other people have these vibrant emotional palettes, I have the basics. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that “your brain is wired is to feel interoceptive sensations - the sensations from our bodies - as simple feelings of pleasantness, unpleasantness, arousal, calmness” (Spiegel, 2017). This describes my experience perfectly, I am able to react to external stimulus, but I lack the internal conflict many people say they experience, I do not sustain emotions for very long, once the external stimulus is gone, I will soon revert to my usual state of calmness and contentedness.
Emma Donoghue, author of Room (2010) said that “what the ongoing, varied response to (Room) has taught me is how much readers contribute to the book whose pages they are turning. Really, a novel does not exist, does not happen, until readers pour their own lives into it.” In that sense, I can’t help but pour aspects of my life into Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Characters like David and Walter mean alot to me because I see myself reflected in them. In David I see the struggle, the hurt and rejection I have faced in my life, but also my resolve to overcome, my inner strength, and pragmatism, and confidence in the knowledge that I am not worthless. And in Walter I see a reflection of my current self, I know who I am and where I belong, I have a great group of friends who love me and don’t view my differences as limitations. I know my strengths and my weaknesses and I am at peace with that, and what brings me the greatest joy in life is helping others. I believe our interpretations of stories are valid, even if they are unique to you and were never intended by the creator. Stories are powerful, and when you find one that resonates with you, it gives you some of that power.
Boboltz, S., & Yam, K. (2017, February 25). Why On-Screen Representation Actually Matters. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/why-on-screen-representation-matters_us_58aeae96e4b01406012fe49d
Chris. (2017, March 10). Prometheus to Alien: Covenant, David 8 vs. Walter introductions and their significance - Alien: Covenant Movie News. Retrieved from http://www.alien-covenant.com/news/prometheus-alien-covenant-david-8-vs-walter-introductions-their-significance#
Donoghue, E. (2010). Room. London, UK: Macmillan Publishing.
Findlay, C. (2016, October 21). The Murder of Disabled Children Can Never Be Justified. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/news-and-views/opinion/the-murder-of-disabled-children-can-never-be-justified-20161020-gs6xog.html
Lambie, R. (2017, January 4). Prometheus: is David the franchise's hidden protagonist? | Den of Geek. Retrieved from http://www.denofgeek.com/uk/movies/prometheus/46248/prometheus-is-david-the-franchises-hidden-protagonist
Martins, N., & Harrison, K. (2011). Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship between Children’s Television Use and Self-Esteem. Communication Research, 39(3), 338-357.
Mcneal, G. (2015, April 10). MIT Researchers Discover Whether We Feel Empathy For Robots. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/gregorymcneal/2015/04/10/want-people-to-like-your-robot-name-it-frank-give-it-a-story/#6f8c1ee548f9
Wilkinson, A. (2017, May 19). Alien: Covenant is too muddled to pull off its deeply ambitious Satan allegories - Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/summer-movies/2017/5/17/15612540/alien-covenant-review-fassbender-satan-paradise-lost-spoilers
Spiegel, A. (Presenter). (2017, June 1). Emotions: Part One (audio podcast). Retrieved from