Tuesday, May 7, 2013

An Exploration and Analysis of Humanity, Subjective Reality, and War in Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

In my previous installments in this series, I looked at the individual volumes of Naoki Urasawa's transformative masterpiece Pluto. (Click here for my other reviews in the series.) Here in my eighth and final review (split into three parts), I look at the themes, story and art in the series as a whole. 

In the first part of my treatise, I examined The Role of Hatred, Redemption, and Evolution in Pluto. In the second part presented here, I look at The Inhumanity of Humans and the Role of Memory in Subjective Reality in Pluto. I also examine the Effect of War and Urasawa's commentary on the Iraq War and American Imperialism.  

Please note that unlike my earlier reviews, there are spoilers ahead!

Robot Rights and the inhumanity of human beings

The robot rights movement presented in the story is touched on lightly but is an important aspect of the work. Robot rights are presented as a recent development, but in light of the emotional and intellectual heights achieved by robot kind, an absolutely necessary one. Robots have only recently been granted civil rights, but many humans still see robots as thralls to human desires or as objects meant to be used and disposed. The fury of Gesicht's superiors when he refuses to take out Pluto is as much at Gesicht's insubordination as it is in their view that robots are only meant to follow human orders and desires, to fulfill the function of their creation and nothing more.

The body of Robby, the police officer-bot who fell in the line of duty, is unceremoniously dumped in the trash, and only Gesicht marks the passing by salvaging Robby's memory chip. Indeed, Gesicht recovers his first child, Robita, in a dump. Robita's discovery is not treated like a found object but like finding a living human child in a pile of corpses. The moment Robita reaches out to Gesicht is a moment of seismic power. Gesicht is moved to action to save her life, the human recycler is moved to profit, her body an object to be sold. The inhumanity of the human willing to dispose of her and the humanity of Gesicht in willing to save her is a significant illustration of the gulf that still exists. The events leading to Robita's adoption can be seen as commentary on everything from slavery to genocide, and is a good illustration of the unique power of Pluto as a humanist work of transcendent science fiction.

A human presented to be more robotic than his creations is Tenma. He is presented consistently as cold and inhuman. Despite being kidnapped by the most advanced robot alive - an insane murderer he essentially created - and presented with evidence of the eminent end of the world, he is nonplussed. After creating Atom to replace his dead son, Tobio, he coldly analyzes Atom's failures as a copy and sells him to the circus. Into slavery. It is his loss of Tobio, the recurring theme of the death of a child that resonates with many characters throughout the story (Abullah, Gesicht, the nameless victims in Persia, the multiple survivors of the evil Haas's victims), that presumably creates this cold inhumanity in Tenma. The robots in the story are shown to react with grief - even if they couldn't fully express it like the parents of Haas's victims - to anger and revenge, in essence human reactions. Tenma, on the other hand, is so broken by his loss that he becomes frankly inhuman. His descriptions of the anger he sometimes felt towards Tobio are like the cold analysis of someone else entirely, a robot describing human emotion. And from the unethical and questionable sanity of trying to create a robotic substitute for his lost son to his unceremonious dumping of that failed project, Tenma is the most inhuman character being presented. He is too far gone, too lost.

Thankfully for Atom there is Ochanomizu. It is telling that Uran, Ochanomizu's creation, is such a powerful empath, a being of pure kindness who can sense emotion, be it from animals or humans or robots, even from kilometers away. Ochanomizu is shown to be kind to robots and humans and animals alike, going to great lengths to save a discarded dog-bot in one of the series most emotional sequences. Despite his own losses - he is a widower - he maintains the core of his humanity, the kindness that marks his character also marking his great creation, Uran. And it is Ochanomizu who saves Atom from a life of subjugation to live out his life like any boy his age.

Just like Robita's disposal, that Atom - not just one of the most powerful artificial intelligences and advanced robots alive but a sentient being - could be so casually disposed of, sold into virtual slavery, is another telling example of the gulf of inhumanity that exists among humans in their interactions with robot kind and the lengths that still must be traveled to achieve some semblance of equality.

The role of memory in subjective reality

Memories make us who we are. Our entire experience as human beings, our interaction with objective reality, is in the subjective reality of our minds, in the constant stream of the past, of memory that builds and constantly flows. The human perception of time, of reality itself, is subjective and memory-focused. There is no "now" but the "just-now." Experience as memory.

Our memories and our experience of subjective reality are locked away in our brains, inseparable from our being (though Abullah with Tenma, the supreme geniuses that they both are, find a way to transcend those limitations in Abullah-bot's creation). Our locked subjective reality is unable to be shared except through literal description or artistic expression. But the robots in Pluto do not share this limitation. They can share not just their memories, but their very subjective experience of objective reality, even exceeding the bounds of death.

We see several memory chip swaps in the series, once between Gesicht and Brau. Brau (like Atom when he examines Gesicht's memory chip) is able to see Gesicht's hidden memories of what really happened in the replaced time in his memory. Gesicht sees Brau's subjective reality, one defined by abstract images of blood and numbers and warped reality and horror beyond Gesicht's ability to handle.

Robots are also in the position of erasing their memories, or in the case of Gesicht and Helena, having their memories replaced entirely against their will. When Gesicht killed the murderer Haas, to protect their investment and to cover up what would certainly be a society-shaking scandal, Europol erased Gesicht's experience and everything that led up to it and replaced it with false memories of a vacation. Helena and Gesicht's memories of that time are so vivid and specific, but this reality which their subjective experience tells them is real is entirely fabricated, not reflected in the objective reality of the time period. Gesicht and Helena slowly come to this revelation, but ultimately it is only Gesicht who finds out the whole truth.

There are two powerful and important moments in the series, mirrors of each other, regarding the option of erasing memory. In both, the widow of a fallen officer is given the option of erasing their memory of their dead love, and in both, the widow rejects the offer. Better to live with the pain than to forget the good of those they loved. Because for robots (and one could argue, humans) erasing of memory equals erasing their loved one from reality itself. For Robby's wife, she goes one step further by inserting Robby's chip into her. Despite the pain that reliving his final moments may cause her, she takes the risk to experience her husband's memories, his subjective reality, him. In just one of many breath-taking moments in the series, she puts her hand to her heart: "He's... He's right *here*" 

One of my favorite films is Steven Soderberg's Solaris, itself a superb modern adaptation. In it, a sentient world reaches into the minds of several human beings and uses their memories to create simulacrums of people from their past. These entities are nothing more than the memories of the individual from which they sprang, and are even aware of their nature. But more importantly, at the very end one human chooses death on the alien world where in the final moments of his life he is preserved in a time loop where he can live with the memory of his deceased love, both nothing more than constructs, shades of humans now passed. In Robby's widow's accepting Robby into her being, she achieves something similar though less fatalistic, to be with her husband, the very essence of him, even if he cannot be alive. The profound effect on her is something far outside the frame of normal human reference.

There is a similar moment involving Atom and Helena. Atom sees Helena before he meets what may be his final fate. In moments loaded with meaning, silent panels of extraordinary and profound power, Helena is moved to tears at Atom being alive and Gesicht being a part of him. And it is through Atom that Helena is told of the power of Gesicht's love for her. "And he wanted to tell you that no matter what happened to him, you would never be alone." Not in the literal sense of what Robby's wife does, but in the deeply human sense of subjective memory and experience that we all share. That she felt his love for her, and through her memories of him that she continues to carry, she will continue to carry her memory, her subjective reality, with her.

Commentary on the American-Iraq war and American Imperialism

Pluto was produced and released in a six year period from 2003 to 2009, a period notably marked by the United States invasion of Iraq. America under Bush was - though some would surely argue America in general is - a country marked by imperialistic tendencies, subjecting the world to unnecessary war. The American claim of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the subsequent invasion ostensibly based on those fears, the revelations that there were no WMDs and no reason to invade a country that had no role in the terrorist attacks that had ignited the American War Machine play a major role in the world's current opinion of political America. It is really quite clear reading Pluto that Urasawa was absolutely furious at America for the War, and so much of the geopolitical elements in Pluto are a thinly veiled attack of Bush doctrine, the war and occupation of Iraq, and on the very idea of American exceptionalism.

Every country represented in Pluto is literal - nations throughout Europe and the Pacific rim are name-checked without obfuscation - with the exception of America and Iraq. This is very telling. It is quite obvious that the United States of Thracia is meant to represent The United States of America, that Persia is meant to represent Iran as much as Iraq. To actually use America and Iraq might have been too literal, too representative of the conflict raging at the time, so Urasawa and Nagasaki resort to invention. This obvious allusion allows Urasawa to absolutely let loose his anger and disgust. It is very, very clear that Urasawa is against the war in Iraq and the 39th Central Asian War of the story is an obvious commentary on the Iraq War. His anger at America is white-hot. He repeatedly shows the human cost of the War on the civilian populace of Persia. When we flash back to Gesicht's role in the War, we see him confronted by a father whose children had been killed in the bombing. Noting the human loss, Atom calls the conflict a quagmire (a frequently used term to describe the American occupation of Iraq). And if not for the War, then maybe Sahad's dream of a verdant Persia would have seen fruition. If not for the war, Abullah would not have lost his family.

But Persia is not without fault and thus the analogues are not quite that clear-cut. It is not simply an unjust invasion of Persia by the United States, the realities of the conflict that was the 39th Central Asian War are far more complex. In Iraq, the U.S. simply accused Iraq of having WMDs and simply invaded and occupied. Where Iraq had a natural resource that American powers wanted access to - oil, of course - there was no such analogue for Persia. Rather, at the very end of the story we finally see the (unnamed) Thracian President admit that his reasoning wasn't robot WMDs but Persia's massive robot army, which Persia did have, and which Thracia - advanced in every area except robotics - could not match. And there are other complications. In the lead-up to the war, Darius XIV is shown to be actively destabilizing the region and invading neighboring countries. This alone might justify an international response, but the United States went to the steps of legislating against the creation of superpowerful robots, then accusing Persia of harboring them. Like with Iraq's alleged WMDs, no evidence is found of WMD robots, but the irony was that Persia not only was trying to build one, but succeeded in creating one when Abullah input his personality into Tenma's failed creation. And on top of that, Persia had in its arsenal Pluto, a climate-effecting robot capable of massive destruction itself, and Bora, a world-shattering robot with an anti-proton bomb at its core.

And Darius's offenses against his own people were extreme. Although he put on an air of protecting robot rights, the robot graveyard that the Bora Survey Group uncovers and Epsilon must dispose of certainly showed the opposite. But despite these complicating factors, America, as Thracia, is still shown to be a force of, if not necessarily evil, than certainly ill-intent and incompetence in clear commentary on George W. Bush. The Thracian president is shown to be a direct puppet of the most powerful AI on Earth, Dr. Roosevelt. The War and the Pluto Murders are shown to be part of Roosevelt's overall plan to achieve Robot domination of Earth, with Roosevelt as the eventual leader of both Robot and (through the Thracian President) Human kind. Naturally, the Thracian President is oblivious to this. He is shown to be a simpering thrall to Roosevelt, assured of Thracia's righteousness. Towards the end, when threatened by Darius who most definitely knows of Abullah's plans to use Bora to destroy the world, the Thracian President smiles, "Sorry to tell you, pal, but that stuff doesn't apply here. The only thing we have here is Prosperity! And the good ol' United States of Thracia will prosper forever!" This is a clear attack on the idea of American exceptionalism that was posited by so many of its representatives and leaders during the Iraq conflict. And in the end it is Thracia that suffers with vast swaths of the continent and many of its cities in ruin.

And something of note is the thematic similarity to Ronald D. Moore's version of Battlestar Galactica in the commentary on Bush era American foreign policy. There are other similarities - both were produced in the same exact time period, both are stories involving humanoid robots, both are adaptations of earlier work that far transcend the source material. But there the similarities end, especially in quality. (Battlestar Galictica is an entertaining television show that is hampered by consistently inconsistent characterization, a sprawling and uneven story, and a terrible ending.) Battlestar Galactica excels in its commentary on the U.S. War on Terror and the Occupation of Iraq, but it never specifically references either, increasing the power of the story and allusions. It's hard to say if Pluto would have been strengthened by loosing the specificity of allusion to the United States and the War in Iraq, and at times the obviousness of it risks taking the reader out of the story. But, as the story is not about the specifics of the war but uses the specific war as a springboard into commentary on the scars of war itself (while expressing anger at that specific war), 

The scars of War

So we've seen that the 39th Central Asian War was Urasawa's response to America's invasion of Iraq, but there is more than just geopolitical commentary at work. It's not just the specific war that Urasawa is commenting on, but the very idea of war itself.

The scars of fighting in the War effect everyone who survived it. Several robots are shown to be suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. North No. 2 suffers nightmares of his time in the war. In a powerful and moving flashback, at the height of the War Hercules comes across a robot who is constantly washing his hands. And no matter how hard that robot tries, the blood - virtual because the victims are other robots, but no less real to him - will not wash off. As much as everything that Hercules went through in the war, it is this memory that disturbs him. An astonishing visual and a moving example of the way that war can leave behind a legacy of pain.

In one of the first flashbacks to the conflict, Mont Blanc is shown in a field of robot corpses. He takes no satisfaction in what he had to do, and the killing fields before him, the vast majority of bodies lying there at his hand, give no joy. Brando asks him how many he killed. In a nonspecific response uncharacteristic of a robot, he can only manage "A lot." He sits in stunned silence. There is no sense of winning in the victory, not when there is so much death. And humans suffer greatly in the conflict. Thousands die. Abullah loses his family, their lifeless bodies limp in his arms. It is the power of this loss that drives him into revenge, a vengeance so profound that even death will not hold him back. It is what he went through in the War, what he lost, that drives him mad, that puts him in a robot body and splits his personality between Abullah and Goji and eventually Bora.

The revenge that Abullah and Darius seek are part of a cycle of hate that started with the War and continues to echo down through the years. Epsilon recognizes the cycle of hatred before it begins and does everything within his power to counteract it. He refuses to fight, he raises war orphans, he even avoids conflict with Pluto until the very end. But even he ends up a victim to that cycle, and the vengeance of Abullah.

There is no victimless war, and it is shown to effect of those who waged the war on the front lines and those who felt the wrath of weapons and manpower. And while the Thracian President was shown to be aloof and above the effects of the war, in the end his country gets its comeuppance, wrecked as the last echo and the last aftershock of the war he started.

My treatise concludes in part three with a look at Urasawa's craft, Pluto the adaptation as a fiercely original work, and my final overview of the series.

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