The Matrix: The Human Energy

Whenever I watch the Matrix I think of this commercial:

 

What they weren’t thinking of was this:

The human pods in the Matrix. Photo from Matrix Wiki.

 

Many years before the Matrix is set, future humans create machines with artificial intelligence. The machines get tired of serving humans and so they rebel. The humans fight back by attacking their energy source, the sun. The machines strike back by growing humans and using their bioelectricity as a source of energy. In order to keep the growing humans under control, the machines created a virtual reality called the matrix. The humans are plugged into the computer program and experience full lives as if they were living in the early 21st century.

The humans outside do not have the resources to wage war against the machines and so they hack into the matrix to try and rescue humans who start to disbelieve.

We don’t know who struck first, us or them, but we know that it was us that scorched the sky. At the time, they were dependent on solar power, and it was believed that they would be unable to survive without an energy source as abundant as the sun. Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines for survival. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. The human body generates more bioelectricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTUs of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. There are fields, Neo, endless fields, where human beings are no longer born. We are grown. For the longest time, I wouldn’t believe it, and then I saw the fields with my own eyes; watched them liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living. And standing there, facing the pure, horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this [holds up a coppertop battery].

–Morpheus

 

The idea that human beings can literally be used as energy against their will is immensely disturbing, and so is the idea that our reality is not reality but rather a system of control. Of course, my mentioning these two facts about the Matrix is not at all a subtle way to say that these two facts are a comment on the energy industry today. People in Nigeria, for example, are forced to work for very little money in outrageous conditions because they have no other opportunities and know no other reality. They are the energy that powers the energy industry. They are human energy.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

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Avatar: an Alien Invasion Film

“This isn’t a war,” said the artilleryman. “It never was a war, any more than there’s war between man and ants.”

― H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

 

The plot behind Avatar is simple: aliens leave their home planet, which they have depleted of natural resources, and invade a new planet with the hope of stealing its natural resources. Luckily, the people rise up and kick the aliens out with the help of a handy computer virus and the President’s kick-ass fighter pilot skills! Oh, wait a minute, that’s Independence Day… Joaquin Phoenix melts their skin with water and beats them with a bat? Nope, that’s Signs. Right, right, this movie is where the cowboys blow up the aliens that are searching for gold.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Avatar is just another alien invasion film, except that this time, humans are doing the invading. And what are they invading for? Energy resources of course!

The corporation that is inspiring the ruthless invasion in this movie is referred to as “the Company,” as James Cameron is rarely a fan of subtlety. The Company is after a super-conductive mineral named unobtanium, which is used for all sorts of things, including energy production. They fund an expedition to a moon, referred to by the humans as Pandora. Pandora appears to be a giant rainforest and is inhabited by the Na’vi, giant, blue-skinned humanoids with cat-like features and cat-like reflexes. The Na’vi live in complete balance with nature, so naturally they are upset by the idea of humans mining their world for unobtanium. The Company funds a project called the Avatar program, where scientists mix human and Na’vi DNA to create Na’vi bodies that humans can “drive”. Being inside an avatar allows for humans to explore Pandora since its air is toxic to humans and its environment is difficult to navigate. The Company, who is represented on Pandora by a character named Selfridge (more subtlety), also hopes that humans who appear to be Na’vi will be more effective in convincing the Na’vi to allow humans to mine on Pandora.

Selfridge to Grace Augustine (lead scientist in the Avatar program): “Look, you are supposed to be winning the hearts and minds of the natives. Isn’t that the whole point of your little puppet show? You look like them, you talk like them, and they’ll start trusting us. We build them a school, we teach them English. But after, what, how many years, relations with the indigenous are only getting worse.”

Augustine: “Yeah that tends to happen when you use machine guns on them.”

Selfridge: “Right. Come here. [holds up mineral] This is why we’re here. Unobtanium. Because this little gray rock sells for 20 million a kilo. That’s the only reason. It’s what pays for the whole party. It’s what pays for your science. Comprendo? Now those savages are threatening our whole operation, we’re on the brink of war and you’re supposed to be finding a diplomatic solution. So use what you’ve got and get me some results.”

The Company recruits Jake Sully, a paraplegic former marine, to take over his late twin brother’s avatar. Sully is approached by the head of security on Pandora, Colonol Quaritch, and asked to spy on the scientists, whom he believes to be less and less accepting of the idea of mining unobtanium. Sully becomes a bodyguard to Dr. Grace Augustine, the lead scientist in the Avatar Program, and her assistant, Norm Spellman. While Augustine and Spellmen are out researching the local flora, Sully’s avatar is attacked by the local fauna and is forced to flee into the forest. He is rescued by Neytiri, the Na’vi chief’s daughter. Neytiri determines that Sully is protected by the Na’vi goddess, Eywa, after Sully is touched by a seed of the Eywa tree. She then takes him to her her mother, Mo’at who is the clan’s spiritual leader. Mo’at says that it is the will of Eywa that Sully learn the ways of the Na’vi. As Sully becomes more and more integrated into the Na’vi’s society, he begins to regret his mission to spy on them for Quaritch. Sully learns that Selfridge and Quaritch want to mine directly under the Na’vi’s village, (called Hometree). Quaritch becomes impatient and threatens to use force to remove the Na’vi if Sully does not convince them to move in a timely manner:

Selfridge: “Sully, find out what the blue monkeys want. You know I mean, we tried to give them medicine, education, roads. But, no, no, no, they like mud. And that wouldn’t bother me, it’s just that their…their damn village happens to be resting on the richest unobtanium deposit within 200 klicks in any direction. I mean, look at all that cheddar.”

Sully: “Well, who gets them to move?”

Col. Quaritch: “Guess.”

Sully: “What if they won’t go?”

Col. Quaritch: “I’m betting that they will.

Selfridge: “OK, OK, OK. Look. Look. Killing the indigenous looks bad. But there’s one thing that shareholders hate more than bad press, and that’s a bad quarterly statement. I didn’t make up the rules. So, just find me a carrot that’ll get them to move. Otherwise, it’s going to have to be all stick. OK?

Col. Quaritch: “You got three months. That’s when the ‘dozers get there.”

 

Instead of convincing the Na’vi to move, Sully takes out a bulldozer that is set to destroy a sacred sight to the Na’vi and Quaritch manages to catch it on film. Quaritch also raids Sully’s personal video logs and shows Selfridge one of the logs where Sully admits that the Na’vi will never leave Hometree, so Selfridge, somewhat reluctantly, orders a raid on Hometree.

Col. Quaritch to Sully: “You let me down son. So what, you find yourself some local tail, and you just completely forget what team you’re playing for?”

Augustine: “Parker, there is time to salvage the situation.”

Col. Quaritch: “Shut your pie hole.”

Augustine: “Or what, Ranger Rick? You gonna to shoot me?”

Col. Quaritch: “I could do that.”

Augustine: [to Parker Selfridge] “You need to muzzle your dog.”

Selfridge: “Yeah, can we just take this down a couple notches, please?”

Sully: [to Col. Quaritch] “You say you want to keep your people alive? You start by listening to her.”

Augustine: “Those trees were sacred to the Omaticaya in way that you can’t imagine.”

Selfridge: “Aw, you know what? You throw a stick in the air around here, it’s going to land on some sacred fern for Christ’s sake.”

Augustine: “The wealth of this world isn’t in the ground. It’s all around us. The Na’vi know that, and they are fighting to defend it. If you want to share this world with them, you need to understand them.”

 Col. Quaritch: “I’d say we understand them just fine thanks to Jake here…

[Sully on tape]: “They aren’t going to give up their home. They’re not going to make a deal. For what? For lite beer and blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time. They’re never going to leave Hometree.”

Col. Quaritch: “So, since a deal can’t be made I guess things get real simple, Jake.”

Augustine, Sully and Spellmen are able to escape from the base, with the help of helicopter pilot, Trudy Chacón. Sully is able to rally of the clans of the Na’vi to attack the Company forces, in an attempt to drive them from Pandora for good.

Sully prays to Eywa to join their fight against the humans. The Na’vi fight against the humans and just when it appears that all hope is lost the animals of Pandora launch a concentrated attack and take out the remaining humans. The humans are forced to leave Pandora with the exceptions of Sully, Spellmen and a few other scientists. Sully says: “the aliens went back to their dying world. Only a few were chosen to stay.”

The plot’s similarities to an alien invasion film are a metaphor for how ridiculous it is for a company to come in and take a society’s natural resources. The audience is always behind the humans in an alien invasion film and feels a sense of global pride when they work together to kick out the invaders. So why do we think it is okay to send a company to a foreign country to drill for oil and commit atrocities to the people and the environment there in the process? Sully claims that the Company was able to do this by making the Na’vi their enemy: “This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on s*** that you want, you make them your enemy, then you’re justified in taking it.” The humans develop a convenient racism towards the Na’vi, calling them blue monkeys and referring to them as if they were animals, and so they feel justified in destroying them. Fortunately in this narrative, the weaker force is both able to revolt and win their revolution (with aid from nature herself!) against the invaders, even if that is not the way it is in real life.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation and destruction, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Doctor Who: The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe. How Do You Melt a Forest?

This episode happens to be another example of sentient environment being threatened by the universe’s expanding needs for fuel. It’s Christmas and the Doctor has taken it upon himself to cheer up a 1940s wartime family. As a special present for Christmas day (literally wrapped in a box and tied with a bow), the Doctor intends to take the family to Androzani, where there are naturally occurring Christmas trees (ornaments and all!). However, the family gets a bit too curious about the giant present in their living room and the little boy opens it early. The Doctor, big sister, Lily, and mother Madge, all follow Cyril into Androzani one by one. The Doctor realizes that there is definitely something that is upsetting the trees, and Madge runs into three miners during her search for her children. The miners tell her that the forest is about to be harvested for fuel and that the surface of the planet has been evacuated for the incoming acid rain.

Madge: “I’m looking for my children.”

Miner 1: “There’s nobody else in this forest. There can’t be.”

Miner 2: “Well, she found a way in, maybe her kids did too.”

Miner 3: “Then God help them.”

Madge: “Why do you say that?”

Madge: “Why did you say God help my children?”

Miner 3: “This forest is about to be harvested.”

Madge: “Harvested?”

Miner 3: “Androzani trees: greatest fuel source ever. The entire area is being melted down for battery fluid.”

Madge: “Melted down? How do you melt a forest?”

Miner 3: “Acid rain. The satellites are in position. Anyone still out there in five minutes is going to burn.”

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Lily find Cyril in a mysterious house in the middle of the forest. The house contains animate wooden figures of a king and a queen. They also discover that the souls of the forest are evacuating the trees and surrounding the house. Madge is able to reach Lily, Cyril and the Doctor just in time. Upon Madge’s arrival the house reveals itself to be a space/timeship that requires a mother to pilot it. Madge absorbs all of the souls of the forest and pilots the ship to earth where the souls are able to disperse among the trees.

Sadly, the trees do not actually fight back in this episode but the episode does still contain several aspects of an energy narrative. First, a weaker force is subjugated by a stronger force because they have a energy resource, namely the trees are destroyed by the miners. Second, there is a life for energy exchange. The trees are sentient beings and they have to die for the miners to receive their energy. Third, the miners are unable or unwilling to shut down the acid rain process to save Madge and her children. Thus, they once again justify the exchange of life for energy.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life= energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, corporate ruthlessness, nomadic existence.

Doctor Who: 42. Humans! You Grab Whatever’s Nearest and You Bleed it Dry!

The Doctor and Martha land the TARDIS onboard a cargo ship that is going to crash into a sun in 42 minutes; exciting, huh? One of the crew, named Korwin, has been infected with a parasite that causes his body temperature to skyrocket to an impossible level. He slowly picks off the crew one by one by burning them to death with heat escaping from his eyes. During this time, the Doctor realizes that the captain ordered the crew to mine energy from the sun. In an attempt to save Martha from Korwin, the Doctor becomes infected with the same parasite and realizes that the parasite is part of the sun from which the captain mined energy, making the sun a living thing.

 

Doctor (Infected): “You mined that sun, scooped its surface for cheap fuel. You should’ve scanned for life…that sun’s alive—a living organism. They scooped out its heart and used it for fuel, and now it’s screaming!

Cpt. McDonnell: “What do you mean? How can a sun be alive?” (to Martha) “Why is he saying that?”

Doctor (Infected): “Because it’s living in me. Humans! You grab whatever’s nearest and you bleed it dry! Aah! You should have scanned!”

Cpt. McDonnell: “It takes too long. We’d be caught. Fusion scoops are illegal.”

The sun is desperate to get the parts of itself back that are still remaining in the ship’s fuel tanks. The crew is able to vent the fuel back into space and so cure the Doctor and save themselves.

Episodes like this are one of the reasons for my love affair with science fiction. Writer, Chris Chibnall is able to create both a unique moral/ethical issue and one that is eerily familiar. It is unlikely that humans are going to discover that oil, coal, water, sunlight or nuclear energy have been sentient beings all this time and so using a sentient being as an energy source is a unique problem found in science fiction, one where, once again, life is payment for energy. However, if we assume that the sun found in “42” is a metaphor for the environment itself, then this narrative becomes an exercise in personification. The environment is speaking up for itself and fighting back, which is a common characteristic for an energy narrative. So think of it this way, if the earth could speak about fracking, deepwater drilling and climate change, what would it say?

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life= energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, corporate ruthlessness, nomadic existence.

Doctor Who: The Impossible Planet. We could revolutionize modern science. We could use it to fuel the Empire. Or start a war…

The Doctor and Rose travel into humanity’s future and discover a space station that is sitting on top of an “impossible planet”. The planet is orbiting a black hole without falling in. The team of scientists in the space station discovered that a power source deep inside the planet is causing the planet to counteract the black hole’s gravity, in addition to creating a gravity funnel, which allows for a spaceship to safely travel to and land on the planet’s surface without being pulled into the black hole. The scientists are drilling down into the planet to learn about the energy source so that they could potentially harvest the source and use it to power the Human Empire.

Chief Science Officer: “We could revolutionize modern science.”

Chief Security Officer: “We could use it to fuel the Empire.”

Doctor: “Or start a war…”

 

The humans in this narrative intentionally put themselves in a dangerous situation in order to research and potentially harvest a power source, because this power source is potentially worth their lives. Here again, is an example of the life and energy equivalency in energy narratives. In addition to putting themselves in danger, the scientists are using a race called the Ood to do the drilling. According to the scientists, the Ood presented themselves to the humans and asked to serve them saying that that is their desired purpose in life. While, we never see the crew members abuse the Ood, they tend to treat them like cattle as a result of their convenient racism.

Of course, the power source is something much more dangerous that it appears. The humans discover that it can never be harvested and only some of them make it off the planet with their lives, which is more than can be said for the Ood.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this episode: life= energy, religious element, political oppression, convenient racism.

The Sale of the Century: Doctor Who: World War Three

 

Doctor Who Introduction

Doctor Who is a British television series that was first created in 1963 and was revitalized in 2005. The series follows a humanoid alien called the Doctor, who travels through time and space in this ship called the TARDIS (time and relative dimension in space). The Doctor can travel anywhere in space and time and therefore he meets several technologically advanced aliens including future humans. These aliens all require various types of energy to fuel their space travels as well as their everyday planetary needs.

 The Sale of the Century: Doctor Who: World War Three

 In this episode, the Doctor discovers that a group of aliens, called the Slitheen, have been occupying Downing Street, disguised as members of Parliament. The Slitheen reveal that they wish to start a nuclear war on earth so that the planet becomes so radioactive that they can destroy it and sell chunks of the planet as fuel for space travelers:

Doctor: “You get the codes, you release the missiles, but not into space because there’s nothing there. You attack every other country on earth; they retaliate; fight back. World War Three—whole planet gets nuked.”

Slitheen Leader: “And we can sit through it safe in our spaceship, waiting in the Thames; not crashed, just parked, barely two minutes away.”

Harriet Jones: “You’ll destroy the planet, this beautiful place, what for?”

Doctor: “Profit, that’s what the signal is, beaming into space, an advert.”

Slitheen Leader: “’Sale of the Century.’ We reduce the earth to molten slag, then sell it, piece by piece. Radioactive chunks capable of powering every cut-price star liner and budget cargo ship. There’s a recession out there, Doctor, people are buying cheap. This rock becomes raw fuel.”

Doctor: “At the cost of five billion lives.”

Slitheen Leader: “Hmmm. Bargain.”

Human life is a bargain. This episode of Doctor Who also contains the life and energy equivalency similar to many of the narratives I have written about of late. The Slitheen happen to be the stronger force in this narrative since they have the technological advantage. The Slitheen view the lives of the weaker force as expendable, and the weaker force, led by the Doctor, revolts against the stronger force and overthrows it. Revolution is also one of the common characteristics of energy narratives.

I Can’t Fight What I Am: Star Trek X: Nemesis

Energy use is not the primary focus of Nemesis. Its plot consists mostly of a megalomaniac obsessed with destroying the United Federation of Planets. However, the primary motivation for said megalomaniac is his history of abuse at the hands of the Romulans as he worked in the Reman dilithium mines. The treatment of the Reman minors is meant to parallel real life labor abuses by major energy corporations.

The film opens with the assassination of the Romulan senate after hearing a report from the Romulan military urging them to accept an alliance with one of their colonies, Remus. After the Praetor (the Romulan prime minster) refuses to accept the proposal of the military, a radioactive devise is detonated, killing everyone in the room. Just before the devise activates, the Praetor announces that Remus is not meeting their mining quotas. The film later explains that one of the primary exports of Remus is mined dilithium, which Remus is forced to deliver only to the Romulan Empire.

Starfleet informs Captain Picard that the new Romulan government has asked to parley with Starfleet. Picard expresses surprise that the new Praetor is a Reman named Shinzon, because according to Cdr. Data, Remans are considered an undesirable caste in the Romulan Empire. It is this convenient racism that causes the mistreatment of the Reman miners. Picard meets with Shinzon and discovers that he is a clone of Picard. Shinzon explains that he was meant to replace Picard and infiltrate Starfleet but the plan was abandoned when a new Romulan government took power. Shinzon was then sent to the dilithium mines on Remus because it was thought that no human could survive working in the dilithium mines let alone a child:

In those terrible depths lived only the damned. Together with the Reman slaves I was condemned to an existence of unceasing labor and starvation under the brutal heel of the Romulan gaurds. Only the very strongest had any hope of survival. –Shinzon.

Shinzon said that a male Reman took care of him and thus he became brothers with the Remans. Shinzon claims that the motivation behind everything that he has done was to liberate the Remans.

Of course, Shinzon is not as he seems and secretly wants to destroy the Federation, and the real reason he wanted to parley with the Enterprise is because his survival depends on an injection of Picard’s DNA, as the result of a defect in his cloning process. However, the reasons for Shinzon’s madness can be directly linked to his abuse at the hands of Romulans.

 

Clearly, in Nemesis the Romulans’ racism against the Remans was the cause of the abuse that created Shinzon. However, the linking racism to resource extraction is not the invention of science fiction. Racism is a theme in energy narratives from Star Trek to Munif’s Cities of Salt to The Hunger Games novels.  Therefore, I’d like to pose the question: “Are crimes against race inherit in today’s energy resource extraction? Does the desirability of the resource create a convenient racism or is racism an underlying condition that resource extractors take advantage of?” Are the Romulans racist against the Remans because the Remans have dilithium or are the Romulans using a racism that already exists to justify forcing the Remans to work to extract their dilithium?