Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

In the realm of speculative fiction, the posthuman creature is a regular visitor. Whether it be a manmade android or the reanimated dead, we are fascinated with those that appear almost—but not quite—human. Upon initial inspection, this fascination appears to stem from a desire to determine what it means to be human, and to celebrate this identity. By contrasting our own individuality, spontaneity, and emotional complexity with the passive posthuman creature, we can feel increased appreciation for our own humanity. 

In Charlie Brooker’s Be Right Back and Ling Ma’s Severance, multiple characters come to this emotional resolution when faced with the posthuman. In Be Right Back, Martha, a grieving widow, consults a service that allows her to create an android replica of Ash, her deceased husband, based on his digital footprint. However, as the replica is based on a static, carefully curated digital persona that cannot be further developed after its creator’s death, it is unable to develop an identity beyond its simplistic pre-programmed one, causing Martha to become disillusioned with it and to grieve more deeply for the loss of her husband’s complex self. In Severance, Bob, the leader of a group of survivors who have avoided succumbing to the rapid spread of Shen Fever, believes that the fevered humans—who become trapped in patterns of repetitive behavior due to the fever—are mere remnants of their formal identity, and are so fractured that the humane action is to kill them. Conversely, he exalts the un-fevered as the divinely chosen leaders of a new era of humanity.

While these characters believe that their repulsion towards the posthuman stems from the posthuman creature’s difference from humans, in fact, their aversion appears rooted in a subconscious awareness of the creature’s similarity to themselves. According to the psychological defense model, when others’ behavior reminds us of despised, repressed aspects of ourselves, we then project these aspects onto the Other, in order to distance ourselves from these uncomfortable associations (Cox 80). Characters like Martha and Bob showcase this model in action, as they attempt to separate themselves from that which reminds them of the self’s least desirable qualities. Beyond simply offering an interesting lens for reading speculative fiction, examining this psychological defense mechanism and the connection between ourselves and the posthuman is valuable because this same defense mechanism is used to justify the Othering of people in contemporary society. By noticing patterns of prejudiced judgment in our fiction, we can hopefully recognize and avoid perpetuating these patterns in our daily lives. 

When the human characters of Severance and Be Right Back encounter the posthuman, the first aspect of them that they find unsettling is their uncannily human appearance. In Be Right Back, android Ash (A-Ash) appears almost identical to Ash, but he lacks certain characteristically human traits. He does not breathe, eat, sleep, or bleed, and details of Ash’s appearance that were not posted online, such as a mole on his chest, are not replicated on the android’s body. When Martha points out inconsistencies, A-Ash tries to accommodate; he pretends to perform various human functions, and he alters his appearance to include the mole. Initially, Martha tries to ignore these unnatural alterations, but over time her unease with them grows, contributing to her eventual decision to lock A-Ash in the attic. Part of this unease can be explained by the “uncanny valley,” a concept coined by Masahiro Mori which suggests that we find the uncanny, that which is “ambiguously familiar and unfamiliar at the same time,” unsettling due to its ambiguity (Panka 310). A-Ash’s human appearance contrasts disturbingly with his departure from the biological behavior of humans. However, Martha’s repulsion towards A-Ash’s behavior is not based on mere differences in physicality; after all, Martha initially dismisses these differences as strange but insignificant. It is not the differences themselves, but rather A-Ash’s willingness to change his behavior to suit her, that deeply unsettles Martha. This appears to be because A-Ash’s obliging behavior subconsciously reminds her of her own tendency—and by extension, a general human tendency that even her beloved husband was susceptible to––towards altering ourselves to please others. By changing his physical appearance and pretending to behave differently than dictated by his biological needs (or lack thereof), A-Ash is providing an overt example of a practice that both Ash and Martha have been subtly guilty of. For Ash, we see this in the scene where he posts a childhood photograph online, in which he is wearing a fake smile to appease his mother during an outing following the death of his brother. Upon hearing the story about the fake smile, Martha remarks “[s]he didn’t know it was fake,” to which Ash responds “[m]aybe that makes it worse,” a comment that highlights the repulsion Ash feels at the thought of his insincere behavior successfully convincing his mother that he was happy (Brooker). This behavior is mirrored by Martha when her sister comes to visit after Ash’s death. When her sister arrives, Martha avoids revealing her complicated feelings and emerging relationship with A-Ash, instead trying to showcase the strong, cheerful image of herself that she believes her sister wants to see—a choice that limits her ability to work through her grief and have an honest relationship with her sister. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Martha realizes that her behavior is similar to the behavior that her husband despised in himself, and this causes her to feel disgusted by her own inauthentic actions. To distance herself from these actions, she projects them onto A-Ash. By claiming that he is too passive and accommodating, and that these traits are a mark of his lack of humanity, she can avoid confronting the behavior she despises in herself. 

In Severance, the surviving humans are also disturbed by the ambiguous familiarity and unfamiliarity present in the novel’s version of the posthuman creature: the fevered, zombie-like victims of Shen Fever. The mundane repetition practiced by the fevered makes them unsettling; their repetition of normal daily actions, such as folding clothing or laughing at a television show, is sharply juxtaposed with their decaying bodies. The behavior suggests that they are continuing with their lives as usual, but their decayed forms and the lack of variety to their actions reveal that they are deluded in their belief that they are in a state of normalcy, and that they are past the point of being able to return to a lucid condition. As with Be Right Back, the posthuman creature initially appears unsettling because it possesses traits that contradict our vision of a normal human. But when we look deeper, we see that it is these traits’ similarity to humans that disturbs the uninfected survivors and encourages a distancing from these beings. The fevered act as embodied metaphors for passivity. Their repetitive behavior, in conjunction with their literally decaying bodies, embody the fear that many people hold of wasting their lives away through passive, repetitive actions. This fear is rooted in truth; we are creatures of habit. Freud suggests that even with unpleasant acts, we are compelled to repeat ourselves, as this allows us to defend our consciousness from overstimulation and to feel in control of our circumstances (Botting 45). Bob feels repulsion towards these creatures because they remind him of his own repetitive nature; their presence makes him question the value of his monotonous life. By demanding that the group of survivors kill the fevered that they encounter during their scavenging trips, and referring to this action as a “release” rather than a killing, Bob attempts to emphasize the fevered’s lack of humanity, and thus to sever the mental association between their compulsive, fragile bodies and his own. 

The two examples above support the idea that the characters practice psychological defense by distancing themselves from the posthuman, as the aforementioned undesirable traits mirror our human tendency towards passivity and compliance. However, Panka outlines another important trait of the posthuman that potentially contradicts this theory of psychological defense, as it is a characteristic that is arguably decidedly unhuman: a transparent identity. Because human identity is treated as a complex (and therefore opaque) thing, Panka argues that posthuman creatures are often expected to possess a level of unknowability for their identity to be viewed as equally valuable to that of humans (Panka 316). This opacity is unachievable for A-Ash and the fevered. For A-Ash, this is because he is based on a digital identity that cannot develop further in the wake of its creator’s passing. This is emphasized by the motif of Bee Gees music, which Ash tells Martha he likes, to which she responds in surprise: “Ten years, you haven’t played them once” (Brooker). After Ash’s death, when a Bee Gees song comes on the radio again, A-Ash refers to the music as “cheesy,” a framing repetition that emphasizes that Martha “can never learn something ‘heretofore opaque’… about Ash in the future,” as A-Ash knows nothing of the secrets that Ash kept offline (Panka 312). As Martha is the one who activated A-Ash, she is his administrator, and he is programmed to follow her directives. This further limits his ability to be unknowable, as he models his behavior after what she wants, rather than internal desires. 

For the fevered, unknowability appears unachievable because they have lost the capacity for many complex functions that allow for opacity; for instance, they cannot speak, much less lie and thus purposefully maintain secrecy. The behavior they do manage to conduct is repetitive and therefore predictable. In both works, the transparency of the posthuman elicits repulsion, as seen in the climax of Be Right Back, where Martha tells A-Ash that “You’re just a few ripples of you. There’s no history to you” (Brooker). Likewise, Bob states that the fevered “loop indefinitely”––the adverb “indefinitely” suggesting that this goes beyond the natural limits of human behavior––and therefore killing them is “the merciful thing to do” (Ma 146). In these cases, the repulsion felt by the human characters appears less clearly linked to repressed internal traits, as the human characters do possess complex, opaque identities, marked by rich stores of memory and lucidity that these posthuman creatures lack. Furthermore, the issue of transparency appears to limit the applicability of the psychological defense model to fictional posthuman contexts. After all, if this despised transparency is a result of posthuman characteristics that, as of now, do not exist in our world, how useful can a real-world psychological model be for examining our aversion to these speculative creatures? 

Still, even if this transparency appears decidedly different from general notions of human identity, the knowability of the posthuman creatures may cause the human characters to question their own complexity and free will. Because the template that gave rise to these creatures was a human one, as A-Ash is based on a person’s digital profile and the fevered were once healthy people, their transparent nature may suggest that human identity is not as unknowable as the human characters would like to believe. In this way, distancing from the posthuman creature still acts as a method of psychological defense, as human characters draw barriers between themselves and the posthuman in order to avoid repressed interpretations of the nature of human identity. 

In both works, the validity of the psychological defense model as a way of interpreting the treatment of the posthuman is supported by the presence of characters who do not react to the posthuman with the same level of aversion as their fellow humans. By showing that characters who have less repressed despised traits are more empathetic towards the posthuman, the psychological defense practiced by the other characters becomes apparent. This deviation emphasizes that our Othering of the posthuman, or of other groups in real life, is not an inevitable response to that which reminds us of repressed aspects of ourselves. This can be better understood by examining two characters from Severance and Be Right Back who highlight this divergence from the general defensive practice: Candace and Martha’s daughter.

Candace, a member of Bob’s group of survivors, approaches the posthuman with significantly more empathy than her group’s leader. Before the pandemic, she lived a rather passive life, wherein much of her time was focused on repetitive work and observing places and people through photography. She finds comfort in repetitive behavior that allows her to disconnect from the world, a tendency that she admits when repeating her routine scavenging duties during one of the surviving group’s missions: “It was a trance. It was like burrowing underground, and the deeper I burrowed the warmer it became, and the more the nothing feeling subsumed me, snuffing out any worries and anxieties. It is the feeling I like best about working” (Ma 65). Candace’s appreciation of routine, and acknowledgement of this tendency within herself, causes her to respond quite differently to the fevered than Bob. While she is occasionally overwhelmed by the fevered’s decayed appearance and understands that they cannot be returned to their former selves, there are also moments where she empathizes with them, or they offer her comfort. When Candace finds a fevered child looking at books, Candace remarks that “[s]o many were ones that I had read myself as a kid” (Ma 69), linking her own experiences to the child’s. When Bob enters the room, she tries to hide the girl from his sight to keep him from killing her. This attempt at protection shows that Candace understands that memory and repetition are essential components of human life and identity. Later, Candace explicitly considers this idea: “But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat” (Ma 160). According to philosopher H.P Grice, “the self is a logical construction and is to be defined in terms of memory” (Grice 340). If we follow this view, which suggests that we form our identity based on our remembered experiences, then fixating on memory is a natural—and arguably even essential—part of human behavior. Therefore, as Candace appears to reflect on through the aforementioned quote, the fevered’s focus on their memory is a mark of their humanity, not the lack of it. 

In another instance, when Candace sees a fevered saleswoman continuing to tidy up the store, she remarks that “[h]alf her jaw was missing. But the way she folded each garment, with an economy of movement, never breaking pace, generated a sense of calm and ease” (Ma 258). The woman’s ambiguous combination of decayed appearance and regular behavior is not unsettling to Candace, but a comfort. As “goals and values may be integrated into one’s self-concept” (one’s personal identity), habits that reflect these areas can be strongly linked to a sense of identity (Verplanken and Sui 3). The jawless woman’s behavior suggests a sense of purpose that may remind Candace of the habits that are important to her own identity, such as her role as a recorder who documents New York City through photographs in order to record how the city changed during the pandemic. Moreover, the fevered woman’s perseverance in her habit despite her decreased brain function emphasizes that a sense of purpose can transcend beyond the body’s decay, which may be a reassuring thought to Candace. As with memory, Candace seems to recognize that routine is an important part of our identity as humans, and that this aspect is shared between the healthy human and the fevered. Candace’s response to the posthuman shows that when we examine our own tendencies, and embrace them as an integral part of ourselves rather than a bad habit to be shaken off, we find more room to empathize and feel solidarity with those that share these traits. 

In Be Right Back, we see this more empathetic, positive approach to the posthuman in the character of Martha’s daughter. After Martha permanently moves A-Ash to the attic, she appears to treat him as a somewhat unwanted pet, one that lacks the complex personality of her deceased husband, but still enough of an individual that she cannot bring herself to dispose of him through harsher means. Conversely, her daughter, who is Ash’s and is born months after A-Ash’s arrival, treats A-Ash as a friend; the two talk casually together, and she actively requests to spend more time with him. Rather than treat his android nature as something odd, she sees it as a unique quirk that has positive effects. For instance, when she visits him on her birthday, she remarks, “I brought you some cake. I know you don’t eat anything. I’m just using you as an excuse so I can get an extra slice,” to which A-Ash teasingly responds with “devious” (Brooker), emphasizing the playful nature of their relationship. Perhaps because she never knew the original Ash, Martha’s daughter is unphased by the android’s behavior; his differences are treated as a given fact, and his similarities, such as his sarcastic sense of humor, allow him to be an important companion to her. Moreover, whether because she has had less time to develop self-consciousness or because her mother has helped instill a greater sense of confidence in her, Martha’s daughter appears more self-assured than her mother. For instance, she repeatedly requests to see A-Ash despite her mother’s clear hesitance, suggesting that she recognizes that her wishes should not be suppressed, and are worth advocating for even when met with opposition. This self-assurance suggests that she possesses fewer repressed traits than her mother, and thus is less likely to respond negatively to others due to shared undesirable attributes. Overall, Martha’s daughter’s friendship with A-Ash suggests that when the posthuman are treated as a regular fixture of life and introduced from an early age, then they are not relegated to the realm of Other, but instead seen as individuals whose similarities offer a sense of comfort and companionship. 

Ultimately, Severance and Be Right Back offer narratives that showcase posthuman creatures who, although outwardly different from humans, possess certain traits that mirror those of the human characters. This mirroring disturbs the human characters, as it reminds them of repressed aspects of themselves; to limit this unease, these characters practice psychological defense and label the posthuman creatures as the Other. Admittedly, applying real psychological concepts to fictional contexts is limited, in part because certain aspects that we feel aversion to in a speculative context lack a real-world counterpart. Still, by showcasing self-conscious human characters who show aversion towards these creatures, as well as human characters who appear more accepting of themselves and the posthuman beings, these works emphasize that, while we have a tendency to distance ourselves from those who remind us of our own repressed traits, this reaction is not inevitable. While it is unlikely that we will encounter a real-world equivalent to A-Ash or the fevered any time soon, these works remind us to reflect carefully on our own insecurities and our tendency to Other those who negatively remind us of ourselves. By examining our undesirable traits more closely, we can hopefully realize that these traits are a natural part of being human—and, in accepting them within ourselves, we can learn to foster a sense of connection with those who share them.

Works Cited

  • Botting, Fred. “Zombie Death Drive: Between Gothic and Science Fiction.” Gothic Science Fiction: 1980–2010, edited by Sara Wasson and Emily Alder, Liverpool University Press, 2011, pp. 36-54. 
  • Brooker, Charlie, writer. Be Right Back. Zeppotron, 2013. 
  • Cox, Damian and Michael Levine. “‘I am not living next door to no zombie’: Posthumans and Prejudice.” Asian American Philosophy and Race, special issue of Critical Philosophy of Race, vol. 4, no. 1, 2016, pp. 74-94. 
  • Grice, H. P. “Personal Identity.” Mind, vol. 50, no. 200, 1941, pp. 330-350. 
  • Ma, Ling. Severance. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. 
  • Panka, Daniel. “Transparent Subjects: Digital Identity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Charlie Brooker’s Be Right Back.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 45, no. 2, 2018, pp. 308-324.
  • Verplanken, Bas and Jie Sui. “Habit and Identity: Behavioral, Cognitive, Affective, and Motivational Facets of an Integrated Self.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 10, no. 1504, 2019, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01504. Accessed 10 Dec 2020.

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