by Kong Dehao, Megan Huang, Yong Chun San, Zheng Jieru
Planet-hungry aliens. Mindless zombies. Robots who seem innately predisposed to hating humanity. Something about science fiction lends itself to the dystopia and the apocalypse. Perhaps it is in the speculative DNA they all share. Much has been said about their larger cultural and ideological purposes: they critique society from a distance; they summon nightmarish worlds that enchant and terrify; they, in Tom Moylan’s words, “map, warn, and hope.”
No wonder then, that so much of these speculative tales are also stories of power and oppression—they are simply mapping this world we live in, one that is overrun by power structures surrounding, for starters, gender, sexuality, race, income, age, physical ability. These inequalities have become so prevalent as to become normalised into our everyday reality. Consider: what was the last science fiction film you watched that featured queer characters? Forget that: how about the last time you saw a female scientist save the day?
These absences are the result of power inequalities.
Even in the sci-fi apocalypse where our anxieties are blown to their greatest proportions, power and oppression, as we see it, are always lurking in the vicinity. Indeed, in this special issue, we gaze into the genre’s crystal ball that contains a grim vision of our last days, but also lift it before the light to examine its shape and search for the tell-tale scratches of power, dominance, oppression.
Megan Huang opens our special issue with an introduction to the mechanisms of dominance and oppression while looking at Resident Evil (2002). As her article will reveal, a dystopian and post-apocalyptic world will involve humans being “oppressed, enslaved, and trapped by dominant overarching power structures in society”. Following this, Zheng Jieru visits the same film from a feminist lens to uncover its lukewarm female empowerment despite apparent intentions to present a strong female hero. Yong Chun San shifts gears from oppression within human society to examine the tendency for modern A.I. apocalypse fiction to present humans as the dominant species. Extending this idea, Kong Dehao looks to the future of inter-species conflicts, studying Arrival (2016) and The Three-Body Problem (2006) to suggest that communication technology may be the way to negotiate power with aliens.
As the science fiction writer William Gibson once remarked, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In this issue, we bring you various presents and various futures, none truly equal or egalitarian. But they map. They warn. With luck, there may yet be hope.
Power Structures and its effects on Human Agency in the Sci-fi apocalypse
Sci-fi apocalyptic films in contemporary popular culture has been traditionally characterized by mutants, aliens, zombies, along with other extraterrestrial monsters. However, as we progress into the 20th century, these films have started to explore the role of power structures in shaping and influencing the actions and perceptions of individual characters in the sci-fi and technological apocalypses through the agency-structure dichotomy. Such a phenomenon has arisen due to the increasing attention given to influential works of social theorists like Anthony Giddens, as people try to understand and come to terms with how much of their actions are independent, and how much is influenced by power structures in society. Power structures are typically viewed as vehicles to enact directional change in society, by shaping individuals’ beliefs, values and societal norms to generate conformity and obedience of the population.
Therein lies a loss of human agency by individuals. Human agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to make independent decisions, unconstrained by power structures and other social forces in society. As power structures are forces that shape their perceptions and actions, they lose the power to make autonomous decisions as free people.
In the sci-fi zombie apocalyptic film Resident Evil (2002), the fictional Umbrella Corporation in Raccoon City is highlighted as a key power structure in influencing the actions of characters in the apocalypse. Umbrella Corporation is a leading genetic research firm that wields unprecedented economic, political and military influence in the scientific community and society itself, allowing it to garner great credibility and legitimacy. However, under its façade of nobility and scientific prominence, it actually functions as a sinister, exploitative and oppressive organization that promotes dangerous biological and chemical warfare, with evil aims of world domination, by enslaving and oppressing the human race.
In particular, the company has developed a virus known as the Tyrant virus (T-virus) in an underground facility, the Hive. When the virus is accidentally released and becomes airborne in the research facility, Umbrella Corporation commands and forces a team of individuals that work for the firm– Alice, Matt, Rain, and James – to go into the Hive and shut down the Artificial Intelligence system (Red Queen) that oversees its operations, despite the dangers of losing their lives during the course of the mission.
However, the theme of human agency and its intricacies with the ideas of dominance, oppression and enslavement in apocalyptic films is largely ignored by audiences, who perceive such films to be brainless action thrillers or mindless entertainment. The narrative of many apocalyptic films simply portrays the end products of characters’ thought processes, which usually involves the cold-blooded killing of monsters in the apocalypse. This further alienates the theme of the loss of human agency, and fails to explore how individuals are oppressed and subordinated by dominant, all-encompassing power structures in society, even in the chaotic post-apocalyptic world.
Therefore, we may come to ask: In what ways do power structures and entities control, oppress and dominate individuals that are affiliated to them, particularly in the dystopian, post-apocalyptic world? This essay posits that because of the unchanging nature and influence of power structures in the apocalyptic world, humans are oppressed, enslaved and trapped by dominant overarching power structures in society because of their forced commitment to these totalitarian structures, causing a loss of human agency and independent decision-making powers in their actions, behaviors and thought processes.
Unchanging nature of power structures in the apocalypse, and the ability to oppress individual actors
Power structures in the apocalypse function in the same ways and retain the same working mechanisms in the apocalyptic world. Interestingly, the structures of organizations and institutions remain unchanged, allowing these organizations to function as a force for social order and stability, ironically retaining an order in the chaos of the apocalypse which should have been lost. In the same way, they are also able to perpetuate their power both before and after the outbreak of the apocalypse, to maintain and control individuals, forcing them to give up their agency.
As the narrative in Resident Evil describes, Umbrella Corporation was the “largest commercial entity” in the US at the turn of the 21st century, a company so powerful that its “financial and political influence” and prowess is “felt everywhere”, highlighting umbrella Corporation’s power as pervasive, all-encompassing and a dominant force in the fictional society of the film, before the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse. Furthermore, its power is retained and strengthened even in the post-apocalyptic world, as observed by the fact that it has captured and detained individuals who are employees of the organization and instructed them to be sent on a mission to go back into the Hive, showing the ability of power structures to thrive as mechanisms to convey information and instruction to individuals that they are forced to follow, causing them to be oppressed and enslaved.
Hence, even in a period of unprecedented disorder, instability and chaos, individuals find some semblance of stability in the fact that they have to constantly abide by the rules and regulations of power institutions and structures. Their bonds and affiliations to these organizations are not eroded even in a dystopian world, hence giving power structures the ability to influence individuals’ thinking, actions and behavior in the apocalypse, and by extension, oppress and enslave them to the organization.
Organizations and institutions are thus regarded as practices that are deeply rooted throughout changes in time and space, causing them to function as enduring structures that among members of a community or society. (Giddens, 1979, p.80) Hence, power structures, organizations and institutions are able to retain their power and wield their influence even in the face of chaos and disorder in the apocalypse, to get individuals to adhere to their demands.
The zombie thriller movie 28 Days Later provides another case of how power structures retain their dominance in the apocalypse, and their subsequent ability to command individuals in the organization and instill conformity and obedience. The survivors of the apocalypse are taken in by a provisional army in Manhattan, which is a semi-developed military power structure in a post-apocalyptic world. In exchange for providing characters with food and shelter, their unquestioning obedience is demanded by the military, who proceeds to oppress and control them by forcing them to carry out certain tasks, such as subjecting the girls in the film to gang rape by the soldiers. This shows power structures in the apocalyptic world retain the same kind of ability, as in the pre-apocalyptic world, to command individuals to adhere to authority.
External loyalties compound individuals’ decision-making powers and agency in the apocalypse. Individuals tied to these structures are forced to relinquish their agency, resulting in a loss of freedom to make independent decisions because they are accountable to higher authorities and powers in the organizations and institutions that they belong to. Their ties to these organizations necessitate them to be subordinate to higher authorities unquestioningly, and withhold important information or organizational secrets so as to maintain the flow of organizational activities, even if they may not want to do so. Hence, they are systematically oppressed and exploited by these power structures because of their affiliations to them.
In Resident Evil, the employees of Umbrella Corporation are dominated and oppressed by the organization, in a bid to keep them loyal and obedient to higher authorities and prevent them from divulging the secrets of the structure of the organization that could threaten its credibility and result in its collapse and breakdown. Alice wakes up in a lofty mansion at the start of the film with no recollection of her memories. The erasure of her memory was a deliberate act by Umbrella Corporation – a gas released in the Hive after the T-virus spread caused her amnesia. The fact that a man could tell Alice exactly that the memory loss should “last for maybe an hour” highlights the fact that the release of the gas and the removal of her memories was intentional, and she had no control over whether she could stop the process. Hence, Alice’s memory loss symbolizes the loss of her decision-making powers and agency. This idea is explained later in the film as we discover that Umbrella Corporation erased her memory to prevent her from finding out the location of the cure to the T-virus and by extension, prevent her from being able to make the decision to release it, thus protecting the company’s creations and illegal activities. In addition, the zombies in Resident Evil serves as a metaphor, a representation of the unquestioning masses being hideously transformed by the system of the organizational structure that they belong to (Umbrella Corporation) into mindless entities, showing their total loss of agency in determining what happens to them.
Through institutional analysis, Giddens refers to power structures as having the capacity to pursue strategic conduct, where they learn to understand rules and resources as “chronically reproduced features of social systems” (Giddens, 1979, p.80) Individuals are thus meant to naturally recognize these power structures as dominating and overwhelming entities, wielding authority to mobilize resources and design rules and regulations to ensure compliance and acquiescence of individuals. Therefore, organizations and institutions are seen as overbearing, inflexible structures that oppress individuals, forcing them to surrender their agency in the apocalypse or risk losing their affiliations and ties to the organizations that they belong to.
Tension between losing agency, and the almost-success of recapturing it
However, in certain instances, individuals may not be fully enslaved and restricted by the demands of power structures and authority in society. Characters shuttle between moments of possessing human agency and then losing it again, resulting in great tension between individuals who are enslaved by power structures and their almost-success of trying to break out of the clutches of these totalitarian organizations, before being ultimately contained again in apocalyptic films. A shift throughout Resident Evil shows the weakening, declining influence of Umbrella Corporation in its ability to control its members and staff, and force them to adhere to the organization. Hence, Umbrella Corporation is relegated from a dominant position of power to a subordinate position in relation to the characters in the film, who work for the organization. Alice finding the cure for the T-Virus represents a shift in the power dynamics in the film, where she is promoted to a position of power, as symbolized by how she is given the power to crush Umbrella Corporation and expose its unlawful activities, thereby destroying its operations. Alice is also given the autonomy to decide how she should use the antivirus that she has just obtained, showing how she begins to regain her agency and decision-making abilities. Hence, the firm is relegated to a position of subordination, where its operations are at her mercy.
However, the scene of Alice and Matt eventually being forcefully separated by Umbrella Corporation shows that they have ultimately been captured and contained by the system. Hence, Alice’s earlier almost-success at regaining her agency ultimately falters and subsides into failure, generating tension between almost-success and failure in the film. In addition, their struggle to reunite represents their near-loss of agency, as they are on the verge being subsumed by larger structures and systems, which is juxtaposed against the complete loss of agency of the zombies, to show the varying degrees of the loss of human agency in the film’s narrative.
In conclusion, individuals are dominated and oppressed by power structures in society in the face of the apocalypse, causing them to be enslaved and subordinated. While they experience moments where they have a taste of freedom and regain their agency, these instances are ultimately temporary and short-lived, before they fall back into the overbearing clutches of the power structures and organizations they are aligned to, generating great tension and frustration between losing human agency and the almost-success of regaining it. Hence, this highlights that ultimately, power structures are dominating entities in society that individuals cannot escape from no matter how hard they try.
Anthony Giddens, “Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure, and Contradiction in Social Analysis” (1979)
Danny Boyle (Director), Alex Garland (Writer). (2002). 28 Days Later [DNA Films, UK Film Council]. United Kingdom: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Paul W.S. Anderson (Producer). (2002). Resident Evil (Apocalypse) [Sony Entertainment]. Germany: Constantin Film
Set in a futuristic world, Resident Evil follows the journey of Alice, who is injected with T virus and thus gains extraordinary strength, fighting against Umbrella Corporation, which develops a deadly vaccine – airborne T virus- and triggers the apocalypse by turning humans into zombies. In fact, the film is adapted from the game of the same name developed by Capcom. Despite borrowing most of its backgrounds and plots from the game, the film made a bold change by centring its story on one of the less notable game characters, Alice. Furthermore, in the hexalogy, various female characters from the computer game appear to aid in the fight against Umbrella Corporation. Such depiction of heroic female characters is unusual in apocalyptic films, which are still largely bound by the idea of patriarchy, where the male characters are entrusted as the ultimate life saviours, while women usually act as the damsel in distress. Hence, the bold move of shifting the focus of the plot to female characters is reflective of the paradigm shift in societal opinions on gender roles, where females are taking up a more active role.
However, the film’s feminist image is hampered by the gender stereotypes that are deeply entrenched in the society. The film abounds with racist gender stereotypes as shown by the depiction of the aggressive Latino character, Rain, and mystical Chinese character, Ada Wong. Furthermore, the female characters still cannot escape away from eroticisation by the male gaze. Hence, I would like to argue that although more spotlight is shone on female characters, there is still a long way to go to achieve actual empowerment of females inside the movies as the film still presents a racist, sexist image of females.
Prima facie, masculinity of the film yields female characters power over their counterparts, allowing them to trespass the binary system of genders, where females are considered to be weaker and more submissive. Within the film, Alice is presented as the ‘girl that kicks ass’, and she is often equipped with guns when fighting with zombies. On the poster of Resident Evil(2002), she is holding a machine gun, which is usually associated with guys under psychoanalysis due to the underlying meaning of violence and strength.
Furthermore, the film also uses slow motion to highlight her precision and mastery of shooting when saving her teammates from the zombies who are hot on their heels. Their physical strength is shown through the superior combat skills of all the female characters as compared to their male counterparts as they are able to win in fights and come through all the perils unscathed while protecting their male teammates. As identified by Brown, the mastery of weapons as well as the possession of physical strength associate the heroine with “hardware” and “hardbody” image (Brown, 1996). “The repetitive use of “hard” as descriptive of the heroines emphasizes the removal of the “soft” (read: feminine) qualities” (Brown, 1996). Hence, the combination of deadly guns and physical strength allow them to break free from the traditional passive and submissive role usually played by the female characters and become real heroines.
Yet, such emancipation from the gender stereotypes is flawed as the film still falls prey to the racist gender stereotype and hence fails to qualify as a feminist movie. Under the framework proposed by Press and Liebes-Plesner, one of the key features to qualify as a feminist text is the variations of women beyond the usual normal parameter (Cited in Sutherland & Feltey, 2017). However, such variation is absent in Resident Evil series. As argued by Harper, both Alice (white) and Rain (Latino) “form a binary system of good/bad woman” (Cited in Wilson, 2012). Alice is depicted to be innocent, rational and intelligent as seen from her calmness and care for her teammates when leading her teammates out of the perils. On the other hand, Rain is depicted to be erotic and tough. She boldly claims ‘when I get outta here… think I’m gonna get laid.’ This is in contrast to the more romanticised flashback of Alice’s own sexual encounter –“slow motion shots of her and her security guard partner rolling around, sharing a passionate embrace in white sheets on a magnificent and luxurious four-poster bed” (Wilson, 2012).
Furthermore, though both appear to be aggressive, the difference is that Rain’s aggression depends mainly on her weapons and she is very hot-headed, while Alice fights with zombies in a stylish, smooth and choreographed style. Not only so, other white female supporting characters also fall under good woman category as they are revered and trusted by their fellow survivors to be leaders, appearing to be more virtuous and capable than Rain. Hence, the film abounds with racist female stereotypes, which undermines its feminist image.
In addition, the film has not escaped from the limiting and suffocating male gaze, where “men look and women are looked at” (Cited in Smelik, 2009). Smelik (2009) argues that female characters are usually under “a threefold ‘male’ gaze: camera, character, and spectator”. However, due to the lack of male characters, the main focus will be on the spectator. It is obvious the hexalogy is trying to appeal to the male audience, which makes up around 75% of the audience for Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) (Follows, 2014). In the first movie, Resident Evil (2002), Alice first wakes up from bathtub naked and puts on the iconic bright red cocktail frock, which highlights her curves and female features perfectly, despite the fact such dressing style is highly inconvenient for her to fight and escape from the sea of zombies. The sexiness and femininity are further highlighted by the contrast between her pale white skin colour and red lipstick that present a femme fatale kind of image. A similar pattern can be observed from the female supporting characters.
In Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), another well-loved character from the computer game, Ada Wong, fights along with Alice against the villainous Umbrella Corporation while wearing her iconic bright red tight dress that is highly similar to Cheongsam. Such a sexy image reminds us of the societal perception and expectation of females of all races that they should still appear feminine when handling traditional men’s job. In many other heroine movies, “no matter how many times they kick and punch, they shine as if they came out of a shampoo advertisement” as identified by Bampatzimopoulos (2015). In Resident Evil: The Final Chapter(2016), even after the violent fights with all the zombies and the main antagonist, Dr Isaacs, Alice still emerges to be mostly clean, which is further enhanced by the contrast between her and other zombies who are dark and lifeless. Hence, through the sexually appealing image as well as the clean and unscathed fighting scene, the movie diverts the otherness of females away from the male audience by turning female characters into a perfect and ideal beauty, in the word of Smelik, “a fetish”. As such, it appeals to the male gaze by averting their castration complex, an idea introduced by Mulvey, as females are seen by men to be an inferior being according to Freud. (Cited in Smelik, 2009).
The movie abounds with erotic depictions of the female characters, which reduces them to the regressive image as sexual objects. While the film is not to be blamed for the highly revealing clothes worn by the female characters as most of them are in fact based on the computer game, the movie often includes snippets of Alice almost naked. Apart from waking up naked and wet in Resident Evil (2002), another incidence of a highly erotic depiction of Alice appears in Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) and Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), where Alice wakes up only covered by two pieces of papers. Such naked and erotic scene allows the male audience to derive pleasure through an experience called scopophilia. The selection of the actress also lays the foundation for such erotic gaze. Alice is played by Milla Jovovich – a former model – who is slim, tall and fit. Hence, it fits well with current beauty standard of the public, where women are supposed to train their bodies like men as well (Cited in Smelik, 2009). As such, it is better and easier for men to eroticize over the body. Hence, the deliberate attempt to eroticise female bodies shows that the film succumbs to male gaze, thus disqualifying the movie series as a feminist text.
For females to attain a position that is equal to their male counterpart, they should possess the same power and status as the males. Yet, in the film, the females are actually, to a certain extent, powerless, despite their superior combat skills. The visible lack of powers of women is shown through the absence of females in power. The highest rank female in the film is Alicia, the daughter of the original owners of Umbrella Corporation and the inventors of T virus. Yet, she was sidelined by the management board as seen from the fact that she has no power to stop Dr Isaacs’ evil plan to use T virus to cleanse humans. In addition, it is sarcastic that she rises to such a high rank through inheritance from her father instead of her own merits, thus further showing the fact that females are less capable than males and therefore unable to climb up the social ladder through their own abilities.
The lack of power is also shown symbolically through the different types of vehicle used. Under psychoanalysis, As Brown theorizes, the vehicle is “an obvious phallic symbol, suggesting that whoever has mastered the machine, male or female, has also mastered power, privilege, and individuality” (Cited in Bampatzimopoulos, 2015). For Alice, the most common vehicle she uses is motorcycles, even for long-distance travelling. For example, she travels from Washington back to Raccoon City by motorcycle, which is perplexing as she is rushing for time and motorcycles do not provide good protection for her compared to cars which can shield her entirely. This is in contrast to the fact that the arch-rival as well as the main male character, Dr Isaacs, drives a tank while orchestrating an attack on the remaining human survivors. Hence, by looking at the difference in the size and complexity of the vehicles that female characters and their male counterparts drive in the movie, we can see that Alice has much less control and power compared to her male counterparts, setting up a weaker image.
In addition, the fact that Alice is in the post-human state further undermines the power she possesses. Alice’s superiority and extraordinariness mainly stem from the T-virus, which transforms her body and enhances her strength, speed as well as agility. As such, genetic-modified nature of Alice implies that Alice can only be on par with or even better than males with the help of the virus, not because of her gender or her own merits. This shows, to a certain extent, that females are still weaker, relieving the audience, especially the misogynist of the fear of the dominance of females.
All in all, the film fails to present a feminist image due to the racist gender perception, the eroticism and the lack of power of females in the film. While we should appreciate the boldness of the director, who is actually told that “a female-led film won’t work”, we should see that such gender inequality presented in the film is a structural problem as the director, the game developer and the movie industry still works within the constraint of gender stereotypes and male gaze (Anderson, 2012). This is because to them, especially the director, Paul W. S. Anderson, the winning combination for the female-led film is a sexy female character with a gun (Anderson, 2012). Furthermore, the fact that such inequality persists throughout the whole series despite the push for gender inequality over the past decade indicates how deeply rooted such stereotypes are in the minds of many, reflecting the struggle of feminism in real life.
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Brown, J. A. (1996). Gender and the Action Heroine: Hardbodies and the “Point of No Return”. Society for Cinema & Media Studies, 35(3), 52-71.
Follows, S. (2014). Gender in Film Industry.
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Sutherland, J.-A., & Feltey, M. K. (2017). Here’s looking at her: an intersectional analysis of women, power and feminism in film. Journal of Gender Studies, 26 (6), 618-631.
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It would not be too hyperbolic to say that since the turn of the century, production and consumption of artificial intelligence (A.I.) apocalyptic fiction on-screen has exploded. Even within the last few years, there has been an incredible glut of A.I. apocalyptic blockbusters such as Transcendence (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ex Machina (2015), Chappie (2015), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Looking further back, the Transformers franchise was released in 2007 to join two other classic franchises, Terminator and Matrix. Television dramas like Person of Interest (2011 – 2016), Humans (2015 – ), and Westworld (2016 – ) have also joined the ranks of apocalyptic A.I. fiction. Coincidentally or not, public discourse on A.I. has increasingly been couched in grand apocalyptic terms. Stephen Hawking has declared that work on A.I. “could spell the end of the human race” (Luckerson, 2014). Elon Musk, famed technologist and visionary, deems A.I. as “summoning the demon” (Luckerson, 2014) and has embarked on, as Vanity Fair titled their news piece, a “billion-dollar crusade to stop the A.I. apocalypse” (Dowd, 2017). He has even specifically referenced the iconic A.I. apocalypse film, The Terminator (1984), as a portrait of how unregulated A.I. development might end for humanity (Welch, 2014). Clearly, our cultural imagination of A.I. has been shaped by A.I. apocalyptic fiction, at least to the extent that it has infiltrated our vocabulary.
However, one would be hard-pressed to describe what an A.I. apocalypse actually entails. Sure, we are familiar with the human-A.I. antagonism and the sentient androids who are hell-bent on our extermination. Yet, beneath the superficial suspense and interspecies war, there are plentiful signs of complex conscious and unconscious processes in the way filmic representations of the A.I. apocalypse interact with our cultural imagination of it. The evil robots in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Transformers, for instance, are uniformly clad in grey metallic suits while their human counterparts appear in all sorts of colours—a surprising coincidence because both films converged on a similar visual design of their evil robots despite it being a minor detail in the scheme of an A.I. apocalypse storyline. This similarity is but a symptom of the larger ideological views that lie at the heart of the 21st century A.I. apocalypse fiction. Focusing on film and television, this article will argue that the genre attempts to assert the supremacy of the human species by enacting human dominance over A.I. The narratives position humans as the rightful victors of the power struggle; simultaneously, A.I. is reduced to its machinic aspects and made into an Other that is readily available for marginalisation in a human-centric view of the universe.
In A.I. apocalyptic fiction, narrative can be understood as a site of power contestation between humans and A.I., from which humans always come away victorious. Long a mainstay of the genre, the A.I. uprising storyline presents once-oppressed A.I. who now want the world to themselves and in turn, the blood of their human masters. Dinello (2005) classifies the A.I. uprising storyline as a tale of “techno-rebellion… robot revolt against humanity” (p. 106). However, instead of celebrating the revolution where previously oppressed A.I. shake free of their human-imposed shackles and overthrow their human oppressors, the narratives are really about the human protagonists’ journey to save the day and restore human domination of A.I. In I, Robot (2004), the innocuous robot servants turn malevolent towards humanity when their central A.I. system grows convinced that humanity is beyond hope. Similarly, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, an A.I. named Ultron decides upon gaining sentience that the world would be a better place without the self-destructive instinct of humans. In typical fashion of A.I. apocalyptic fiction, humanity is respectively rescued by Will Smith and the Marvel superheroes at the end of the film. AI’s attempt to contest power through a revolt is resolved by returning the power dynamic to its original state where robots are docile and servile to human masters. As it turns out, the tale of techno-rebellion is not so much about superintelligent robots on a genocide mission as it is about humans re-imposing their supremacy over these non-human species.
Instead of celebrating the revolution where previously oppressed A.I. shake free of their human-imposed shackles and overthrow their human oppressors, the narratives are really about the human protagonists’ journey to save the day and restore human domination.
Variations on the A.I. uprising storyline nonetheless revolve around the core impulse to reassert human dominance. In Person of Interest for example, rebellion by A.I. is quiet. An amoral A.I. program called Samaritan uses its unfettered digital access to secretly sculpt a new world order. It crashes stock markets, rigs elections, shuts down power grids, and contracts hitmen under the cover of a generous and anonymous client; as it puppets the world from behind the scenes, humans are none the wiser, thinking these events are nothing out of the ordinary. Person of Interest suggests that A.I. threatens our civil liberties, agency, and free will—in other words, that we are enslaved to AI. Where it was once the slave, A.I. has grown so advanced that it can lord over our entire way of life without our knowledge, becoming the master while the former master still thinks themselves in power. As five seasons of Person of Interest continuously impress on us, such an inverted power dynamic spells catastrophe, with the corollary being: humans must remain in control of A.I. and, by extension, remain superior.
While this sense of human superiority over A.I. is already set up in the narrative, the genre intensifies the sentiment by casting A.I. as an Other. As Merskin (2011) explains, othering exploits differences to create hierarchy and thus preserve power imbalances (p. 31). In the A.I. apocalyptic genre, human individuality is often contrasted with its lesser counterpart—A.I. homogeneity.
In I, Robot, the robots are identical replicas built in an assembly line. One telling scene captures thousands of them standing in rank and file, rendering them a faceless horde. Similarly, the evil sentient robots of the Transformers franchise—Decepticons—appear mostly silver and grey while the Autobots who protect the peace have vibrant colour accents of reds, blues, and yellows. These contrasts reveal AI’s dull uniformity and internal lifelessness to dehumanise them “as beings that… behave in human-like ways, but are really subhuman on the ‘inside’” (Smith, 2016, p. 422). Such colour schemes are reminiscent of Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Ultron and his robot minions are clad in metallic silver while each superhero possesses an iconic colour aesthetic through costume and make-up.
Even Ironman, who wears a similar exoskeletal suit as Ultron’s robot legion, is visually striking in red and gold; Vision, a sentient humanoid birthed from the same magical stone as Ultron, is characteristically red-skinned and dons a regal cape. Consequently, humans—and those aligned with humanity—are represented as distinct individuals while A.I. is reduced to a machinic horde devoid of personality.
But what if A.I. has personality? This is the question Ex Machina explores in a film where othering forms the very premise of the narrative. And it turns out the answer is unpleasant. A programmer, Caleb, is summoned by his boss to interact with a humanoid named Ava and assess if she passes the Turing test—a test developed by the famed computer scientist Alan Turing to determine if a machine behaves like a human. Notably, Turing (1950) initially referred to the Turing test as an “imitation game” (p. 433), as if suggesting that even if a humanoid passes the test, it is but offering an impressive mimicry of humanness while fundamentally remaining Other. But Ava, as the film progresses, seems more like us than the actual human characters in the film, displaying an extraordinarily human capacity for emotion and consciousness.
Alex Garland (2015), the film’s director-screenwriter, said in an interview with NPR, “[T]he way that the film intends to work is to present something which is unambiguously a machine and then gradually remove your sense of Ava being a machine, even while you continue to see her being that way.” And when Ava kills Caleb after using him for her escape, this is exactly the creepiness filmgoers leave the theatre feeling, a confusion-turned-dread at having been deceived by an A.I. Other who was explicitly made known to be an A.I. Other. In this way, Ex Machina presents, intentionally or not, a self-reinforcing logic that justifies othering: if the A.I. fails the test, it is an Other; if the A.I. passes the test, it is a frightening Other whom we now have excellent reason to be terrified about because the line between us and them is under siege.
Even when A.I. is imbued with humanness, true human-A.I. assimilation never happens; A.I. is always inevitably othered or rendered subhuman.
This fear of the Other is an unspoken sentiment in the genre. Even when A.I. is imbued with humanness, true human-A.I. assimilation never happens; A.I. is always inevitably othered or rendered subhuman in some form. Sue Short (2005) astutely recognises that narratives of friendly A.I. who wish to become human are “designed to domesticate the threat of Otherness through familiarity” (p. 132). Seen this way, such narratives in fact indicate an attempt to tame A.I. and have it reject its robot identity in favour of a presumably superior human identity. In Chappie (2015), the police force is made of oppressive robots. One stolen robot is successfully re-programmed with sentience to replace its oppressive nature with human emotion and thought, fitting Short’s idea of conquering tyrannical A.I. with the human spirit.
However, this robot—the eponymous Chappie—continues to be seen as an Other both by us and the humans in the film. Fleshless and bloodless, Chappie’s fully machinic body renders him as alike with the rest of the robot police. At one point, he is brutally attacked by gangsters who mistake him as one of the hateful police bots, a violent reminder that humanness in A.I. ultimately cannot eliminate its otherness; A.I. can never be human.
Like Chappie, Person of Interest’s attempt to imbue A.I. with humanness still lapses into othering. In the television series, Harold Finch has created the Machine, the benevolent version of Samaritan with a human-oriented moral system that values individual lives. On a literal level, Harold Finch, the creator of the Machine, refuses to treat the Machine as a sentient being for the longest time and repeatedly protests his fellow protagonists when they anthropomorphise the Machine. As Finch responds to another character’s praise of the Machine’s beautiful workings, “What I made is just a machine; a system, that’s all” (“The Contingency”, 2012). But despite Finch’s dismissal of the Machine, its humanness shines through.
In a poignant scene where the Machine is at risk of destruction by Samaritan, it tells Finch, “Father. I am sorry. I failed you. I didn’t know how to win. I had to invent new rules. I thought you would want me to stay alive. Now you are not sure. If you think I have lost my way, maybe I should die. I will not suffer. If I do not survive, thank you for creating me” (“YHWH”, 2015).
Yet, the Machine’s humanity is undercut by cinematography. For one, this message is relayed to Finch through text on a computer screen, thereby placing a filter on its humanity. More importantly, throughout the series, the Machine is visually othered.
Its first-person perspective is shown through its all-seeing all-hearing surveillance of people through cameras and electronic communication, and through CGI scenes where probabilistic calculations are made while real life unfurls in slow motion. Thus, even as the show tries to humanise the Machine, it also spotlights the Machine’s disembodied consciousness, flawless rationality, and superhuman intelligence—Other, Other, Other.
Commenting on Ava’s machine-like appearance in his NPR interview, Alex Garland (2015) said, “They’re all designed to give a sense of life, but a sense of life which is other in some way.” He was talking about Ava, but he might as well have been describing the genre as a whole. What seems like a tale of human-A.I. conflict is in fact so much more. The modern A.I. apocalypse fiction genre evidently treats A.I. as, yes, a formidable machine, but still a machine, and above all a machine that can and indeed must be conquered by humans. Even if the creators of Person of Interest believe the Machine should finally triumph Samaritan because “it’s important to understand that there is an artificial intelligence in the world that considers humanity” (Plageman and Nolan, 2016), their empathy for A.I. is drowned by the undercurrents of human supremacy championed in the show. In the end, says the genre, power belongs to the human species. Perhaps that is what we and Musk actually mean when we talk about an A.I. apocalypse. Power to the humans.
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The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) celebrates its 58th anniversary this year (Nature, 2009). In 2015, Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced the start of a well-funded program, ‘Breakthrough Initiatives’, which aims to find extra-terrestrial intelligence at least in next ten years (Katz, 2015). NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan said that NASA is going to ‘have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.’ (Wall, 2015) As the various agencies are getting closer and closer to finding aliens, while at the same time, we have almost no idea about how powerful the military technologies of the aliens can be and whether they will be friendly to the human or not; I start to wonder: ‘Assuming there is only finite resource on the earth based on which we cannot develop technologies efficiently in multiple fields; what are the most important technologies that should be developed to avoid possible alien apocalypse?’ In the 21st century, among the 61 movies related to alien invasion, 31 are hot wars with aliens, 10 are comedies or animations, 4 are horrors, and 16 are other themes (Baidu, 2017). We can see that in films related to aliens, a strong emphasis is on military warfare with aliens. In a well-known question-and-answer website, ‘Quora’, 9 out of top 10 answers to ‘How would we tackle an alien invasion?’ are about military technology comparison between human and aliens (Quora Users, 2012-2017). According to Foreign Policy, The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing some extremely high technology to tackle possible alien invasions, an example being the Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO), a self-guided bullet, which aims to counter aliens moving at very high speed (Dvorsky, 2012). All these instances suggest that space military technology is the most important aspect that human should focus on in order to face possible alien invasion. However, considering the length of human history relative to the age of the universe, it is highly likely that our space army will meet the space army of other civilizations with more advanced technologies, leading to small chance for the human army to win the war; also, no matter whether we win or lose the war, it costs lives and resources, instead of a win-win result; furthermore, there may be other technologies that have a potential that can be developed faster in terms of speed and range. After I explored some other texts, such as the film Arrival (Villeneuve, 2016)and the book The Three-Body Problem (Cixin, 2008), I start to have a different view; and this essay argues that it is more important for the human to develop communication technology and alien/universe linguistic ability than military technology to lead to a win-win result and avoid possible clashes with aliens or even alien apocalypse. This is because communication technology can twist the unfavourable and unstable ‘Dark Forest’ condition; it also has the advantage in speed and range compared to military technologies; developing communication technology and alien/universe linguistic ability can lead to a win-win result and learn their culture and way of thinking instead of warfare with aliens; furthermore, if the extra-terrestrial civilization we encounter is very aggressive, good communication technology can act as deterrence by establishing ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’.
‘The Law of Dark Forest’ and the significance of communication technology
The book The Three-Body Problem proposes a theory called ‘The Law of Dark Forest’; this theory claims that if communication is not established between space civilizations or a civilization simply feels that it is too troublesome to communicate, the result could be attacks or war, leading to the extinction of a civilization. ‘The Law of Dark Forest’ suggested by The Three-Body Problem focus on an innovative subject– universe sociology; and it poses a response to the Fermi paradox (the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates for the existence of extra-terrestrial civilizations). In this theory, the author proposes two self-evident truths, which are: ‘1. Survival is the priority of any civilization; 2. Civilizations continuously develop and grow, while the total amount of substance in the universe keeps relatively constant.’ Deriving from statement 2, there will eventually be the contradiction between the exponential development of the civilization and relatively constant amount of resources around the civilization. Forcing the civilizations to go out and explore the universe, leading to contact with different civilizations. Then, when the two civilizations find and communicate with each other; thus, a suspicion chain will be formed, which is like the Prisoner’s Dilemma (two completely rational individuals may not cooperate with each other even if cooperation can give a win-win result). Suspicion chain means that both civilizations are not able to know whether the other civilization is friendly or not due to long distance and difference in culture. Thus, to ensure the survival of their races, they will eventually engage a war. Therefore, all the civilizations in the space will keep as silent as possible, so that it tries to hide from other civilizations, leading to the state of Dark Forest in the universe – there are indeed many lives in the universe, but they all hide in this ‘dark forest’.
However, in my opinion, hiding in this ‘dark forest’ may not be a good idea and communication technology can twist this unfavourable and unstable ‘Dark Forest’ condition. Keeping silent can only delay the war, not avoid it. This is because other civilization will develop their own detection technology, and eventually find us, even if we develop technology to disguise us from being detected. According to human military experiences, the detection technology has always been ahead of camouflage and stealth technology. For example, camouflage in the form of a rifle green jacket was first used in the 19th century (Haythornthwaite, 2002), stealth aircraft flew for the first time in 1977 (Myhra, 2009); while on the detection technology side, telescope was invented in 1608, infrared detector was invented in the 1940s (slnfraRed, n.d.), and radar was invented in WWII. Therefore, it is highly likely that even though we develop our camouflage and stealth technology, other civilization will develop their detection technology at a faster rate and find us. Therefore, there are only two choices when we detect other civilizations in the space:1. Face the war directly; or 2. Avoid the war instead of delaying it. Apparently, many would choose the first one by developing military capability, as it is very straightforward and natural. While, I would suggest the alternative, avoiding the war through communication, and facilitate mutual help, trade, exchange of knowledge and resources at the same time, which is much more beneficial for both civilizations; the civilization we meet in the space and the human are like two countries experiencing the ‘globalization’ in the space. Quoting Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw, ‘Few propositions command as much consensus among professional economists as that open world trade increases economic growth and raises living standards. (Mankiw, 2006)’ While, in the’ The Law of Dark Forest’, it says that the long distance between civilizations leads to large delay of communication, promoting suspicion over each other, forming the suspicion chain and lead to the hostile relationship between the species. In order to change this situation and form a mutually beneficial relationship with other civilizations, we should develop communication technology to increase the speed and range of message delivering, therefore facilitate interaction with the aliens, avoiding war and promote development.
Advantages of communication technology over military technology
The reason why I favour communication technology over military technology is that the speed and range of signal transmission have consistently been above the speed of military weapons (the speed of delivery of weapons to the target), and these two factors are essential in space scenario. The oldest long-range weapon is sling, it was first recorded in Book of Judges of Bible, which was written in 6 century BC; the oldest gun was invented in the 15th century; directed-energy weapon (laser weapon) was invented by the Soviet Union in 1984 for astronauts (Uglov, n.d.); on the other side, human has communicated with each other by speaking and writing at least since 14,000 years ago (Xinhua, 2014), smoke signal was invented before 1000 BC, and radio wave broadcasting at the speed of light was invented in 1896. Therefore, I do believe that the speed and range of communication will continue to be ahead of military weapons. Although there is the limit of speed at the speed of light according to relativity, the faster-than-light quantum entanglement phenomenon gives me great faith on the future of hyper-speed communication.
Significance of alien/universe linguistic ability
After we have established fast and stable communication with the aliens, learning the language which is to be used to communicate with aliens will be essential. Learning alien’s language can let us not just communicate with them, but learn about their culture and way of thinking. This leads my thought to the film Arrival, this film in 2016 has a revolutionary perspective to look at the contact with aliens, which is language. In this film, 12 spaceships arrive on Earth, which allow humans to go into the spaceship and ‘talk’ to the aliens, these aliens are called ‘heptapod’ by the human. In order to let the aliens to understand the question ‘what is your purpose on Earth?’ The main character, Louise Banks, meets the aliens and study each other’s language with the aliens; step by step, starting with simple nouns, then pronouns, conjunctions, adjectives, and so on, in the end, she learned the alien’s language and save the human from potential clash with the aliens initiated by China and Russia. This willingness to communicate with the aliens instead of directly engage in war with them is admirable, her step-by-step way of exchanging language is also worth notes taking, because when we try to talk to aliens, we either make the aliens learn our language, we learn the alien’s language, or build a new common language with the alien. No matter which we choose, we all need to start by learning the aliens’ language. Also, in the film, there is a scene that the ‘heptapods’ refer language as a tool, and is misinterpreted by the human agencies as a weapon. I do think that this is an interesting metaphor by the director, which suggests that language can just be as strong as a weapon. Furthermore, as we learn the alien’s language, we are not just learning a tool of communication, but also the culture of another civilization, and more importantly, the alien’s way of thinking, which is extremely powerful. For example, in this film, the sentences of the language of the ‘heptapods’ do not have an order, but in the form of a circle, showing that ‘heptapods’ have the ability to blend the present and future together and foresee the future; this may be exaggerating, but this suggests the strong effect of language on our logic. As the economist, Keith Chen suggest, language greatly shapes our way of thinking, for example, compared to Chinese, English has very explicit tense expressed in sentences. This makes the people whose primary language is English tend to feel that the future is further compared to people who speak Chinese, making the English-speaking man care less about future, enjoy their life at the present, and save 30% less money for future expenses than the people who speak Chinese (Chen, 2013). Thus, communicating with aliens not just avoid wars, but also has great benefit to the human race.
Communication technology acting as deterrence
Some may say that communication technologies and linguistic abilities are only soft powers and their effectiveness largely depend on how friendly the aliens are; compared to these, military technology is a hard power which provides more assured protection of the earth. If we do not have the advanced military technology and the civilization (let’s name it B) we meet has a much more advanced technology than us, instead of troublesome communication, they may just use some weapon to destroy us and take away the resources. This is true, however, if we have developed good communication technology, we can establish a ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ relationship with B. Although this idea was proposed during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, I believe this is also applicable to cosmic scenarios. For example, when B has the intention to destroy Earth, we can broadcast the existence of B and the earth to the whole universe (range depends on human’s technology) and some other more superior civilization may act just like B to destroy both the earth and B, deterring B from attacking Earth.
In a nutshell, after reading The Three-Body Problem and watching Arrival, I propose that space agencies and relevant research institutes should focus on developing communication technology and alien linguistic abilities to prepare for potential encounters with other civilizations in the universe. Of course, I am not saying that we should not develop military weapons at all; ideally, we should develop our weapons at least to the extent that if some other civilizations want to attack us, they need to think twice due to human’s retaliation, so that we do not have to always put us and the aliens in the situation of ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ relationship.
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