Our responsibility to the past, a war of words, and sex with machines

WARNING: This post contains vulgarity in quotes from the source material. Some of Spider’s more colorful metaphors have been omitted, but conventional swear words (S, F, etc.) are depicted as originally written. Also since this is a post about a comic that started in 1997, I’m not especially careful for the spoiler sensitive, as a discussion of the plot is necessary in many places.

When history looks down its weird evolved vestigial stump of a nose at us, it’ll have a lot of very shitty things to say. But it will eventually have to admit that the Reservations justify our existence.” ~Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #9)

The world of Transmetropolitan has a tenuous relationship with the past. They preserve history but they also want the past to leave them alone. Issue #42 will later reveal that the people in this time don’t even know what year it is, instead noting the past in relative terms (5 years since that famous rocker died, 10 years since the big fire, etc.). This allows for a culture in which Nazi fetishism is just a fashion choice, with no greater context because nobody really remembers who Hitler is.

Our relationship to the past can be just as tenuous. Our nation has a document of founding principles written by white men who owned people hundreds of years ago. When it suits our political view we are strict constructionists or liberal with what the constitution actually means, and the intentions of these founders who somehow possessed greater wisdom than the sum total of humanity that followed. More recently we’ve created a view of Ronald Reagan that at times is the opposite of what the man actually thought and felt. We talk about the good old days when America was great without realizing that maybe it was only great for people who looked like us.

Transmet Volume 2 addresses the past at the individual and the cultural level. Issue #8 is told in form of one of Spider’s columns for The Word. Spider tells the story of Mary, a “revival,” a head in a jar thrown into the future through cryogenic suspension. Mary was a photographer in her previous life, chronicling wars and revolutions of the 20th century.

There was history in Mary’s head; hard history, hard-lived and loved. And all Mary wanted was to keep seeing history.” ~Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #8)

Spider spends a third of the issue describing the stages of the revival process, from nano-machines repairing her frozen brain to retrieve her thoughts and memories, to her new body being grown in a vat, to waking up wet and alone “in a stiff body that felt like a glove too small.”

buildaneye

The people they’re growing all signed contracts. They get new bodies made to whatever ridiculous specifications they can think of. They get to live in a new and exciting future, and even get the money they paid back. Most of them step out the door, take one look at the world, and something breaks inside them. Culture shock of a kind we can only imagine, being thrown into a future you no longer recognize. And this world does not want the revivals. They’ll fulfill the contract, then stick you in a hostel or out on the streets with donated clothes and a hundred year lifespan.

Though the exact year for Transmet is never stated, the rough estimate is sometime in the 23rd century, so 300 years in the future. A lot of sci-fi (even sci-fi comedies like Futurama) like to think about what would happen if we took someone from 300 years ago and plopped them into today. Besides Transmet, I don’t know if I’ve seen a version of this story where the person suffers irreparable psychological damage from the experience but I wonder if that’s a little closer to what it would actually be like. And the pace of acceleration is only increasing. I suspect you could take someone from 300 years ago and the world would look more familiar to them than it would if we went 300 years forward. Hell, I’m not sure if I wouldn’t get a bit of a shock going from floppies to smartphones and that’s only about 20 years.

The sad part of this particular tale is that Mary is an extraordinary person. She has a lot of things she could tell the future, from first hand experience. And no one’s interested in listening, except for Spider.

The next issue deals with history on a macro scale, in the form of the “reservations.” The reservations are compounds in which current humans are stripped of their memories and genetic traits to live out a culture of the past, from Mayan cities, to ancient Japan or Islam. The past is preserved “as-is” with all of the horrible cultural practices from beheadings to FGM preserved without judgment. In the case of the Tikal (Mayan) reservation, this has meant having to create a new reservation five times because each civilization dies out from drinking from the same water where they toss the heads.

Again the future’s only true relationship to these reservations is to watch “Republican Party Compound” on TV. The rest are like national parks on an island nobody ever visits. The most interesting of these is the “Farsight” compound, dedicated to letting technology evolve faster than societal norms would be able to keep up. A glimpse of a possible human future preserved in a biodome.

It can seem grotesque to have to relearn the lessons of history by letting them play out in all over again, but I wonder if this is something we do anyway, making the same mistakes again and again. They say the mark of insanity is to try the same thing over and over again and expect a different result, but this often feels like what we’re being offered by both parties. But it’s something we do on a smaller scale as well. Taco Bell doesn’t agree with me, but every 6 months to a year I need to remind myself of that fact. It’s not human nature to try something once then go, *whew* never again.

Issues 10-12 cover an attempt on Spider’s life by people he pissed off with his columns, ranging from genetic trait farms, to former assistants, to the French. This last stems from Spider’s coverage of “The War of Verbals” five years prior which involved the French fighting to preserve their national language only to have speaking French rendered illegal. The main takeaways from this passage (other than a headless exploding Enfant Terrible sent to assassinate Spider) are these two little gems:

The paying masses never gave a shit about ‘The Miserables’ until it became an anglophone musical.

I can assure I don’t give a crap either way. I find ‘The Miserables’ to be my least favorite musical. I mean, it tries to warn you with its title! 🙂

English is an ugly, lurching fool of a language.

But it communicates hate well.

We’re certainly seeing examples of that every day lately.

I’ll end today’s post with beginning of Volume 2, Issue 7, which finds Spider’s assistant, Channon Yarrow, mourning the scheduled death of her boyfriend Xiang. Or rather, the uploading of his consciousness into a cloud of nano-machines. This story takes the idea of transferring our consciousness into an immortal vessel a step further into something that doesn’t even retain the human form. It’s the technological equivalent of being transformed into pure energy.

The “Foglets” as they are called, live as dispersed clouds of millions of tiny machines, unless they pull themselves in tight enough to be seen as a pink cloud with a false face. The issue deals pretty rawly with the emotions involved in someone making this choice, whether it’s death or rebirth. The process has a certain beauty, the chemical energy of the body being used to start up the machines. And it is clear from the presence of Tico, a Foglet friend of Spider’s, that these Foglet humans maintain aspects of their previous personality; they can be just as arrogant and self-centered as the rest of us.

faceicouldhit

Overall this volume covers ground that are staples of cyperpunk and science-fiction, but does so with a unique bent that at times feels more plausible than the clean future of Star Trek (or the idealized democracy of The West Wing which kicked off this whole marathon diary in the first place). The next volume, Year of the Bastard, dives straight into the middle of a political convention and a contest between two candidates that nobody really likes. And prepare yourself for those last pages, because you’re in for quite a shock.

Next post on Friday, probably.

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