Red Lung

Lyrics adapted from Hazel Dickens’ song “Black Lung” by “Irene,” believed to be among the first terraform workers sent to Mars during its initial colonization in the late 21st century. 

He’s had more bad breaks than most settlers could stand 
This planet’s his first love but never his friend 
He’s worked a hard life and hard he’ll expire 
Red lung’s got him, set his breathing on fire 
 
Red lung, red lung, you’ve stolen my time 
Soon all of this suffering I’ll leave behind 
I can’t help but ask what the Angel had in mind 
To let the dust devils claim this breath of mine 
 
HMO TerraCare won’t return his calls 
Your medicine’s radiation or it’s nothing at all 
Your dignity is nothing when it’s air that you lack 
The silence of deep space is calling you back 
 
Down here in Cowtown, on Elysium’s rim 
The broken are accepted, but futures are dim 
His veins and his bronchioles both stopped up with iron 
All that awaits him is the industrial pyre 
 
Red lung, Red lung, your hand’s like a flame 
You fill me with fever and boil my brain 
Red hot like the scorched sky while the atmosphere grew 
Where I sweat my blood out, made this planet new 

The CEO’s letter is hollow and staunch 
Tells us he died nobly, as his ashes are launched 
Take back your bluster, take back your false hope  
He’s no more than dust now, like what choked his throat 

(The verse below was added by an unknown author during the rebellion that is now referred to as the “Martian Commune.”) 

Within the Commune, no bosses endure 
Their winter’s the sickness, our Spring is the cure 
No more will our lungs burn, no more will our veins 
Only our hearts now; a new future’s made  

Painting by Adam Turl

Time to Die

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. 

Rutger Hauer likely had no idea he was presenting humanity with its own perfect eulogy when he said those words. According to Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Peoples, Hauer made several last-minute changes to the soliloquy he was about to deliver on the set of Blade Runner.  

The original text of the monologue, though about the same length, included a few more oblique references to the film’s universe. Roy Batty was to have watched “C-beams glitter” from “on the back decks of a blinker.” He burning attack ships were to be described as “bright as magnesium.” 

Hauer removed much of this, describing it as “opera talk,” adding nothing to the film. And then he added “All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”  

His delivery similarly struck the balance between the marvel of being human and the vast destructiveness of a world that has grown so violently beyond the limits of a single planet. Though the other replicants simply and understandably are afraid of dying, of having their short consciousness snuffed, Batty stands apart as a lifeform in deep and unrequited love with his ability to live.  

Even the manner in which he says “tears in rain” is that of someone who has just discovered that he is able to come up with such a simple yet sublime metaphor. And though we’ve seen Batty do brutal and gruesome things to others throughout the film, we have also rooted for him as he spends his last moments thrashing against the inevitability of his own death. We have to regard the unfairness of seeing his consciousness slip away while the world that teased him with it gets to continue. 

Of course, that world isn’t continuing. It’s ending. At the time of Blade Runner’s release the idea that a society would so willfully and cruelly design itself into its own doom was a controversial one. Words like “cyberpunk,” “global warming” and “neoliberalism” were still only edging into wide consciousness.  

The film flopped at the box office. Years and decades were spent re-cutting it. Scott rightfully knew he was on to something with Blade Runner, but finding the right way to end and tell the story, the perfect way to articulate the something, was a challenge. 

We know very well what he was onto now. In 1982, viewers still had to imagine such a bleak world. Today we are seeing it converge into reality. David Harvey and others have spent years saying that this future is more or less in the DNA of the contemporary city. To walk around Los Angeles, a city of obscene wealth and inequality exposed to increasingly hostile elements, that rapidly shifts between development and neglect and decay, still grasping in vain to convince anyone who will listen that it contains the seeds of an unlikely future, is to see this premonition borne out. 

And so we have caught on. Blade Runner is a classic. One of the greatest films ever made. And in no small part due to the performance of the now late Rutger Hauer. Our own short memories have had Batty’s dying soliloquy etched into them because, past all the pollutants we have shoved into them, we know when we are seeing something purely and magnificently human. 

We too have seen things we wouldn’t believe. Whole cities flooded and burned simultaneously. Gargantuan glaciers come apart like a child’s sand castle in the wind. We know that we’ve created what we’re seeing and can’t help but marvel at the raw obliteration we are capable of unleashing. Even by accident. 

We have, in that recognition, attempted to replicate it. To convince ourselves that we can push our collective human awareness past extinction. In so many other films and books and TV shows that populate the glut of 21st century sci-fi. We have even made a sequel which, unlike its predecessor, was a notable success at the box office. 

But Blade Runner: 2049 was not the accurate sequel. It never could be. The only sequel worthy of the original would by its nature have to be far simpler. And by dying the same year as Batty, Hauer managed to achieve it in a haunting, terrifying, heartbreaking way.  

He reminded us that mortality isn’t a fantasy, or a plot device rendered by a unique and versatile actor. That sapient beings will die. Are dying. Are being killed by forces we created but are now well beyond our control.  

Fair? It’s never a question of fairness. Only of how we ultimately fit in with the same cosmic logic that leaves all of us in awe.  

Space Madness

Donald Trump wants The Expanse to be real. If there were ever a president who could watch a show about a solar system constantly at war with itself and miss the entire point, it is this man. Picture it: Trump, late at night, holed up in the President’s Bedroom. Crumpled Big Mac wrappers litter the foot of the bed. The curtains are closed, the only light in the room is the ghostly blue of the television. 

Having heard that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently rescued the beloved-but-canceled SyFy favorite from oblivion, the President has decided to see for himself what all the fuss was about. As he watches residents of Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt betray, lie, and kill each other off in power grabs, he begins to mumble to himself… “Hmmm… space… yeah, space… force… space force… yeah, space force. It’s a great idea, very important. Space force!”

And thus a press conference is called…

The above did not happen (or at least we don’t know if it happened). Trump has promised a space force before, and despite his official-sounding pronouncement on Monday, he has yet to sign anything like an executive order. Instituting a sixth branch of the military — the first new one for the United States since 1947 — is a massive and expensive undertaking. It will require congressional approval, and when asked about it last year, Trump’s own defense secretary Jim Mattis went on record to say it was a bad idea. 

Nonetheless, the wonders of outer space appear to be returning to a high place in the American popular imagination. Now is about the time in this piece where the author might trot out that overused Fred Jameson quote about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. That remains true, but it is also worth considering the following sentence: “we can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” Enter the architects of late neoliberalism’s escape plan.

Today’s most beloved moguls are, rather shamelessly, no mere titans of a single industry. Elon Musk is CEO or founder of no fewer than three companies vying in the worlds of everything from auto to neuroprosthetics. Richard Branson brings us air travel, records, jewelry and more. Amazon has transformed the way logistics are thought about and made obvious that literally every consumer product relies on them. A colleague of mine who worked for a time at one of Amazon’s distribution centers was told on his first day by management “Thank you for helping us take over the world.” Tongue in cheek? Sure, but the kind of thing that makes you shudder with dread too.

All three are, of course, very publicly and enthusiastically engaged in the enterprise of private spaceflight. Bezos announced that Amazon had picked up The Expanse at a conference where he also received an award for “space settlement advocacy.” The lines between fiction and reality become more than a bit blurred in all this adulation. Saving a much-loved sci-fi show becomes symbolic of the future he is supposedly building.

Same with Musk. His proponents and defenders believe in his utopia, pointing to how courageously idealistic he comes across when spouting his dreams of an intergalactic future. And while Musk may appear confused over what exactly makes someone an anarchist, socialist, or capitalist, he reveals much more than he likely realizes in his confusion. When he writes on Instagram of “true socialism,” he puts himself — knowingly or not — in the vein of those who see a just society as a matter of technocratic social engineering. The liberal imagination doesn’t just tolerate but enthusiastically applauds this vision, be it in the shaping of leisure time, the way our brains are wired, or the willingness to colonize Mars. In all instances, the human material is just that. Material.

Musk and Bezos have, it is true, been at loggerheads with Donald Trump recently. To some this is enough to earn them a place in “the resistance.” It’s a low bar when that same resistance can shriek for a continuation of war on the Korean peninsula. America is an empire in deep crisis, or at least an empire being forced to pivot quickly and clumsily as the world changes radically around it. The days of a unipolar world are over. Trade blocs and international communities are in flux. History has restarted, and it’s brought with it the beginnings of a new Cold War.

The emergence of Trekkie Howard Hughes types alongside talk of a “space force” in the midst of this is unnerving. People who remember Reagan’s Star Wars program surely remember how it felt in equal measures laughable and terrifying. In 2007 and 2008, China and the US of the Bush administration engaged in a show of capabilities by firing missiles to down their own decommissioned satellites, prompting a brief worry about an arms race in space. What Reagan and Bush didn’t have were billionaires launching cars and reusable rockets into the atmosphere, pitching a populist tone about how an entrepreneurial spirit will open up the wonders of space to all of us.

All of which is to say that the apparent discord between Trump and today’s captains of industry is deceptive. Enterprise on this massive level needs the state. Musk has already used billions in public funds to build his sprawling empire. The way that industries and private companies combine and interweave with governments to assert their interests around the world is an evolving one, but it is not one that will be going away. When virtually every facet of daily life is already being militarized, there is no reason this should change beyond the stratosphere.

Musk and Bezos pitch their dreams for humanity in space as a solution for a profoundly troubled civilization, riven with inequality and climate disaster and refugee crises. But all of this waxing utopian is only believable if a society’s technological advances can be extracted from the broken bodies that make them feasible. Bezos’ ability to drop a USB cable on your doorstep a half hour after you order it doesn’t happen without distribution employees worked to death. Musk’s lightning fast underground transport tunnels don’t exist without the millions of proles left struggling to get to work on time.

Can we therefore feasibly imagine a colonized moon without all of those left behind to scrape by on an increasingly uninhabitable planet? Or perhaps terraformed refugee camps where children are separated from their parents?

If all of this sounds like a thought exercise, then it is worth remembering that discussion of a Trump presidency felt the same way two years ago. And that’s the point. Dystopia, once merely a feared future, has become reality. And it has shown itself to be far more insidious and sneaky than we thought. It does not explode onto the world’s stage all at once; it unfolds over time, creeping and insinuating itself into the norm, even alongside entirely opposed visions for the future. The sticking point of course is that the latter is dependent on the former. I would say Trump should watch Elysium to have this point driven home, but he is liable to get the wrong idea from it.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.