Wednesday, September 16, 2015

[Laomagination] Laotomatons and Post-Colonial Prometheans?

"You mustn't be too attached to who you were..."

The modern science fiction genre came into being through Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly's Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus regarding Dr. Frankenstein  and Frankenstein's Monster, who shambles through the novel anonymously because Dr. Frankenstein won't claim it. Here's an example of the Thai edition of the novel:

In the West there are many stories of humans trying to create artificial life, from robots, to golems and homonculi, just to name a few possibilities. In modern times we see tales like the replicants of  Blade Runner or Maria from Metropolis.

Some might argue that the Vanon or Vanara are another form of artificial life in this vein, within the Asian traditions.  It's often difficult to find stories in which human beings are fully comfortable with their own creations or extend them full rights. The automatons are often created for slave labor purposes, as weapons, or for intellectual curiosity and showboating to prove that it can be done.

Lao literature could certainly bring a unique perspective to all of these issues and possibilities. I naturally hope we explore the subject in even more interesting ways, because I don't think the last word has been written on this subject at all.

Questions would definitely emerge from Lao projects to reanimate and construct automaton in a predominantly Theravada Buddhist society. Much of Laos is firmly animistic rather than mechanisitic in our worldview. Lao have a sense of most parts of reality having particular spirits connected to it. A spiirit of a house or doorway, for example, or a spirit of a city.

Classically in Buddhist tradition the human body is seen as being composed of at least 32 distinct spirits, which can become prone to "wandering" if care is not taken. This is at the heart of the Lao baci ceremony, also referred to as a "su kwan" to call the spirits back to the body of family and friends who are being honored.

Without getting too technical, the ultimate point of this note would be that many Lao see and understand the basics and principles of mechanics when it comes to inanimate objects, but when it comes to biological sciences, there would be significant debate about "interchangability" of organs and tissues. It would take significant mental rationalization. This is not an insurmountable task, but it would be an issue to consider.

From a metaphysical perspective, if "the creature" is created from multiple humans, would it also carry the collective karmic weight of previous owners, or somehow a blank karmic slate is established? If they don't attain nirvana in this period, what happens in the next incarnation, if anything? Many other questions are posible.

Because many Lao are cremated, the acquisition body parts also poses an interesting ethical question. They would most likely be procured from visitors or from minority communities in the region, such Hmong, Khmu, Tai Dam, Lue, Ta Oy and others.

Historically, there have been controversies in other Southeast Asian nations erupting when the bodies of ethnic minorities were desecrated by mystics who believed their bones and organs had properties useful for magic and amulets. Bioethics get complicated by how the scientists and local authorities may view those minorities and their rights, particularly the rights of corpses in whichever era the story takes place.

One might argue in some times "it's nothing a few kip won't solve" but in others the situation might be very different.

Given the economic scenarios in Laos historically it becomes interesting to determine who the instigator would be in such a story. Who would have the resources and education to have access and authority to get the equipment necessary and to conduct their experiments without interruption?

In the classic Frankenstein tales, it's a baron in a remote part of the countryside. Would it be a village chieftan or a province governor in Laos? Or perhaps a rogue monk or layperson with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of Buddhism? Or perhaps a mad scientist on the run in Europe, but who is given free reign in Laos because a person with medical skills is hard to come by, and the locals would take what they can get.

Might the Lao or others create their automatons in the tradition of the Jewish golem, so frustrated by rampant corruption and abuse that they turn to building their own protector animated with a divine spirit? In the tale of the golem, one is supposed to erase the sacred word on the golem's forehead once its task is done or else you invite misery and destruction, losing control of a thing that is no longer just a thing, but neither fully human. You can see some of those themes play out in Blade Runner among other stories. How might Lao respond to the Island of Dr. Moreau where the scientist is attempting to create a new form of life without the human character flaws?

Perhaps in the aftermath of the conflicts of the 19th-20th century, we might see a story play out closer to Blackenstein where help is sought for a disabled Vietnam veteran, or Universal Solider or Robocop, where various powers that be have determined that someone's duty is not yet done, and the sacrifice of their lives for society was not enough.

No one definitive story has been written yet in the Lao community, but I hope we'll see our writers and artists consider it an interesting topic and take it on in the years ahead as the issues become increasingly relevant.

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