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Of Life, Death and Morality

Some comments on Witch Mark

By Graham Howard

If you take a mortal man
And put him in control
Watch him become a god
Watch people's heads a'roll...

(Megadeth, Symphony of Destruction)

By now most people who want to read Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark will probably have already done so, therefore the following should hopefully not spoil the ending for anyone. I do not intend to review the book as such it is mostly very enjoyable - but rather make a few observations on one facet of it. Having recently seen the previously unreleased 'director's cut' of Blade Runner it struck me that both stories actually dealt with the same issue, i.e. the mistreatment of artificially created intelligent life by their creators, and that some comparisons were therefore possible. The most obvious difference in the two stories' treatment of this theme is that while Blade Runner implicitly questioned man's right to create artificial humans without bestowing upon them the rights accorded to 'real' humans, Witch Mark appeared to avoid this issue altogether. I believe this is a significant omission, for reasons which I hope will become clear.

I will start with Witch Mark. The Troifrans are a race of alien beings that possess advanced genetic engineering skills. Goibhnie is the name of a Troifran who has created a variety of life forms, both human and non-human, on the planet Tir na n-Og as part of an experiment. Now that the experiment is over Goibhnie intends to let all life on Tir na n-Og perish, once the artificial energy supply (i.e. sun) expires. The Doctor rightly expresses outrage at Goibhnie's callousness. However, this outrage did not appear to be directed at the question of whether Goibhnie has the right to create intelligent sentient life for the purpose of experimentation, but rather at Goibhnie's decision to allow that life to die. Admittedly this was the more immediate problem for the Doctor. But by omitting some form of moral discourse on the ethical questions arising from the act of creating sentient life, or of the consequent obligations of the Troifrans to that life, the Doctor could be viewed as condoning the Troifrans' activities by default. Berating Goibhnie over his intended inaction is not enough. The Troifrans are not gods, but fallible alien creatures. And clearly their work is not underpinned by any kind of ethical standard of behaviour. I would have expected the Doctor to believe their activities to be evil, or at the very least a crime.

Remember the second season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man where the question of whether Data was sentient was rigorously debated? Was Data entitled to be treated as a life form guaranteed the rights and privileges of all life forms in the Federation, or was he simply an item of property belonging to Star Fleet, whose freedoms and rights could be ignored whenever it was deemed expedient to do so? In Witch Mark there is no doubt the life there is sentient, yet it was clear Goibhnie (and by implication all Troifrans involved in genetic engineering) regarded his experimental subjects as being mere property.

In Blade Runner technology has developed to the point whereby genetic engineers have the ability to create artificial human beings, called replicants. Outwardly there is little to differentiate humans from replicants. Replicants are essentially living breathing, feeling human beings. But replicants are manufactured not born, and their lives only last four years. Memory implants (of childhood, etc) seek to counteract the emotional instability which can result when replicants realise that they are not like other people - that they do not have a past, that they have only very limited life spans. Because they are not recognized by society as being 'real' humans, the authorities are able to order the deaths of troublesome replicants without qualm; it would seem killing a replicant is not regarded as murder.

The moral issues arising from this society's treatment of artificial humans are intrinsic to Blade Runner's narrative. For most of the film replicants are portrayed as the bad guys who must be killed. Society seems to view them as being useful, but inferior - disposable people. It is with replicant Roy Batty's (Rutger Hauer) impassioned plea to his creator for more life, his moving speech on the life that was, that could have been, but which will be no more, which ultimately identifies the morally bankrupt society, which both created him and damned him, as the real villain of the film. This is further reinforced by the implication that this same society would create a replicant Blade Runner (Harrison Ford) to execute other replicants. By omitting a moral message of this kind from Witch Mark, Hunt effectively trivialises the Troifrans' activities and' weakens the moral basis of the Doctor's own activities in the novel. If you are going to have a plotline in which thousands/millions of intelligent life-forms have been created and bred for no other purpose than to be part of an experiment, I should have thought it would have been incumbent upon the writer (especially of a 'broader/deeper' novel!) to explore the broader ramifications relating to the concept of artificial life creation.

Don't get me wrong - as a straight-forward adventure novel Witch Mark works fine. But for me, Blade Runner highlighted the fact that it could have, and should have, been more.

This item appeared in TSV 37 (January 1994).

Index nodes: Witch Mark