Clone Narratives and the Question of Human Nature

One of science fiction’s big questions is, at its core, a question that we have asked ourselves for millennia: What makes us human? Is it our biology? Our ability to think rationally? Our ability to perceive ourselves as individuals? Our sense of self? Or a combination of these? Of course, there is no ‘right’ answer to these questions, and so science fiction instead investigates it and its myriad angles and tangents through an exploration of the relationship between the technological, the psychological and the social. In other words, it looks at how scientific advancements might influence the way people think, behave and interact—and vice versa. To paraphrase J G Ballard, it is designed to help us navigate ‘inner space’ rather than ‘outer space.’

Science fiction has given us a wide variety of different tropes and genre-specific elements. And despite their surface appearances, in this context these tropes and elements basically fulfil the same function: they project what we would consider ‘humanity’ onto something other than a biological human (and in certain cases, onto something more than a biological human).

Robots, androids, cyborgs, artificial intelligences, aliens, uplifted animals, figures both ahead of us and behind us on the evolutionary continuum—in the annals of science fiction, all of these tropes and elements have, at some point, had humanity bestowed upon them. In doing so, one of the assumed ‘core’ attributes of a human—our biology—is cast by the wayside, forcing us to consider the question of ‘what makes us human’ at a distance and challenging many of our other assumptions about what it actually is that defines us. If a machine, human/machine hybrid, alien, animal, proto-human or future-human can think rationally, perceive itself as an individual and/or possess a sense of self, does that then make it human? If so, what does that then make us?

However, this distancing technique can have some unintended consequences—when confronted with something that presents as both human and unhuman, one typical response is to recoil from it and dismiss it out of hand. This is, effectively, a variation on the concept of the uncanny valley. First coined in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori (a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology), uncanny valley describes the theory that humanlike robots can only be appealing up to a certain point—our affinity for them only stretches so far, ultimately descending into negative reactions based on a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease and a tendency to be afraid of them.

This occurs because such robots straddle a disturbing in-between world: as we have yet to master the art of creating a robot/android that is virtually indistinguishable from a human—a la the replicants from Bladerunner (1982)—humanlike robots of the present day are both incredibly lifelike and yet not quite ‘right.’ Faced with this conflict—this valley, if you will—our empathy and affinity diminishes. When applied to science fiction’s tropes and elements that have had humanity bestowed upon them, the effect is that we can all too easily ignore any actual ‘human’ potential that they may have.

Luckily, another science fiction trope/element exists that can negate the effect of this uncanny valley: clones.

The identical genetic reproduction of a pre-existing biological organism, the concept of clones has had a strange history, with fact influencing fiction and vice versa in a kind-of ‘feedback’ system that continues to this day.  Coined by plant physiologist Herbert John Webber in 1903, it first described the process whereby a new and genetically identical plant can be created from a cutting of the old. Thirty years later, and then throughout the Golden Age of Science Fiction, writers as diverse as William F Temple, Robert A Heinlein, A E van Vogt and Aldous Huxley latched onto the concept and applied it to humans in a variety of ways. In the 1950s, spurred on by these writers’ application of the concept to animals rather than plants, scientists around the world began ever-more successful attempts at cloning everything from amphibians to fish to reptiles, culminating in the first successful clones of mammals in the 1980s. This success led writers of the time to craft ever more intricate and complex clone stories based on real-world science, which further spurred on actual scientists in their quest.

Despite the fact that a human clone is potentially within the grasp of contemporary science and technology, and will more than likely occur sooner rather than later, their metaphorical potential is still with us, as is their ability to provoke questions about both what it means to be human, and what defines a human. Broadly speaking, most clone narratives explore this potential and these questions within one of three thematic story types: Nature versus Nurture, Resurrection/Playing God, and Exploitation.

Firstly, Nature Versus Nurture, as seen in works such as Caryl Churchill’s play A Number (2002), the television series Orphan Black (2013-2017), The Double by José Saramago (2004) and The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin (1976), explores the influence of their environment and their upbringing on a clone’s development and personality. Would they all grow up to be exactly the same? Or would they, despite their identical genetics, grow up to be different types of people? Secondly, Resurrection/Playing God, as seen in works such as Alien Resurrection (1997), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) and The Boys from Brazil (once again), explores the ethical dimensions of recreating long dead figures. Should we bring Hitler back from the dead just because we can? Or the consummate alien killer, or an insane galactic dictator? Or, even though it doesn’t involve human clones, dinosaurs a la Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990)? Thirdly, Exploitation, as seen in works such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002), Michael Marshall Smith’s Spares (1998) and Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009), explores the moral, ethical and societal implications of creating clones purely to be exploited, be it for manual labour, spare parts or warfare.

What these works do is use these thematic story types to raise questions which allow us to explore what it means to be human and what defines a human, as well as notions of the nature of individuality and the narcissistic aspects of our personalities. Should clones be treated like ‘normal’ people? How should they be raised? How does society deal with an illegal clone? Can they even be illegal? Are they oppressed people simply fighting to be understood? Or are they seeking to replace a ‘normal’ human? Are they a form of salvation, or a folly that warns us not to tamper with nature’s plan?

No matter which way clones are used, their metaphorical and philosophical potential is both strong and undeniable. But in all of these cases a problem remains—clones typically exist separately from other characters, in either ‘secret’ locations or faraway places that are chiefly populated by other clones, or by no one else. Through existing in this way, they then function as a type of ‘other’ onto which other characters—and ourselves as readers—can project our questions and explorations from a safe distance. However, the recent Netflix miniseries Living With Yourself (2019) does away with this distancing technique, delivering a unique clone narrative that, thanks to its central conceit and the originality of its concept, makes sure that these questions are thrust right in our faces.

Living With Yourself revolves around Miles, a forty-something nebbish suffering from the four big Ds of a typical midlife crisis: depression, dissatisfaction, despair and disappointment. Trapped in a boring job that he hates, with the joie de vivre of his youth long gone and his marriage now a stale affair of routine and monotony, he and his wife, Kate, casually take each for granted and spend more of their time glued to their smartphones than actually conversing. Miles yearns for change and a fresh shot at happiness.

After a particularly frosty morning at home and a particularly frustrating day at the office, he acts on the advise of a co-worker and visits the Top Happy Spa for a treatment that his co-worker guarantees will change his life. Rendered unconscious during the treatment, when Miles wakes up he finds himself, to his surprise, buried in a shallow grave in a forest outside town, rather than in the Top Happy Spa. Arriving home in the dead of night, he is shocked by what he finds: another Miles, who seems to view him as the intruder and is wearing the same clothes that he was when he first went to the Top Happy Spa. Miles and ‘other’ Miles—who we’ll refer to from hereon as Miles 2.0—tussle briefly before stumbling upon the realisation that they possess the exact same memories up until they fell asleep during the treatment.

Armed with this knowledge, the next morning they drive back to the Top Happy Spa in search of answers, and quickly discover that Miles 2.0 is a clone of the original. But he is no ordinary clone; his biology and DNA have been both replicated and improved—he doesn’t need to wear his glasses anymore, and feels rejuvenated, invigorated and more energetic—while the original Miles’ memories and mind have been mapped and overlaid on his own. He is, in effect, absolutely identical to Miles, except that the cloning and mind-mapping process has removed Miles’ insecurities, doubts, uncertainties and disappointments, rendering him a shiny, better and ‘brand new’ version of the original.

To say more in terms of Living With Yourself ‘s plot and narrative beats would be to spoil it—part of its charm and originality lies in the surprising directions that it takes. But what can be said is that this set up and concept allow for a deep and at times thoroughly moving exploration of what it means to be human and what it means to be alive, while also allowing it to reveal essential truths about human nature.

This reveal of essential truths primarily occurs in two ways. Firstly, the conflict between Miles and Miles 2.0—both between them and that provoked within Miles by the existence of Miles 2.0—allows the narrative to explore questions of contentment, happiness and love. Upon first returning home after his experience at the Top Happy Spa, the newfound enthusiasm and excitement that Miles 2.0 shows towards Kate, which is a direct result of the rejuvenation process, allows Miles to see anew and properly appreciate all the things that he taken for granted: a loving wife that is comfortable around him and that he can thus be comfortable around, a nice house that is more a home, a job that might not be the most exciting occupation in the world but is nonetheless secure and populated by people he has come to see as friends. In other words, the existence of Miles 2.0 shows Miles that familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but can instead foster a deeper sense of love, contentment and security.

Secondly, through the conversations shared between Miles and Miles 2.0, Miles comes to realise that the fantasies that he has been entertaining—freedom from work and domestic drudgery, the ability to just pick up and go on a trip around the world—are merely just an expression of middle-aged ennui, rather than an indicator that there is something wrong with his wife. After all, Miles 2.0 can do all these things but chooses not to, instead embracing Miles’ life with gusto and a renewed sense of purpose. This allows Miles to see that his problems are really just a matter of perspective, with Miles 2.0 forcing him to realise that he has to step up his game in order to be happy, rather than abandon his old life and seek out something new.

And then are the explorations of what it means to be human, of which there are too many to be properly raised here. But to illuminate just one: Miles 2.0 clone was created in science fiction spa in a strip-mall, and it can be reasonably argued that he doesn’t really have a claim on Miles’ life. But on the other hand, it is his life—Miles 2.0 is wholly composed of Miles’ experiences and memories, and what are we but a repository of experience and memory? And yet he doesn’t really have Miles’ experience, as he hasn’t lived through them and instead merely remembers them. Does this difference matter? Does it make Miles 2.0 less human than Miles, even though they’re essentially the same person?

There are no right or wrong answers to both these questions and the many others that Miles’ predicament illuminates, and that’s exactly how it should be—such weighty philosophical conundrums can only be solved at the individual level. Instead, it is enough that Living With Yourself delivers an emotionally charged narrative filled with humour, sadness and enough room for such conundrums to breathe.

(Originally published in Aurealis #134, September 2020)

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