Bill’s Life as a Series of Baudrillardian Encounters with the Hyperreal

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BILL AND I WENT HUNTING TODAY | Louis Rakovich.

⇒ Read the story @ Goldfish Grimm ⇐

Read the story first. There will be spoilers aplenty…

Around the time in college when I stopped drinking hallucinogenic cough medicine and started studying semiotic and postmodern literary theory (a seamless transition, more or less), I got really interested in the works of Jean Baudrillard. Since my French sucks, I read his works in translation, or paraphrased, but I think I got the gist of it. As much of a “gist” as can be gotten when it comes to really slippery subjects like simulacra and hyperreality. “Hyperreality,” for those who went to college to study something worthwhile like engineering or medicine or math, is basically the idea that people in a media-saturated, postmodern society (I will not attempt to define postmodern in this space) are surrounded by representations, simulacra, to the point that the individual cannot distinguish what is “real” from what is a copy of the real. It gets more confusing when we see representations with no original–such as the castle at Disney Land (to cite a popular example).

Ultimately, I suppose, one of the big questions the problem of hyperreality brings up is not simply, What Is Real and What Is Not? but rather: Does the Question Even Matter?

And that brings us to the fascinating speculative piece we’re looking at today: “Bill and I Went Hunting Today” by Louis Rakovich. The story grapples with ideas of representation, real and fake, and confronts the idea of artificiality. This story is alive with artificiality.

Since you’ve already read the piece, I won’t bother to summarize anything for you, other than to point out a few choices that the author made:

  • In this world, living things like people and animals exist among technologically developed facsimiles thereof, and even though the world seems reminiscent of our own (no one’s flying around Jupiter on laser scooters) there is a lot of interaction between the natural and artificial variants of each.
  • In this world, also, it’s difficult to tell the difference between a “real” person and a synthetic one, importantly
  • You surely noticed this story is narrated from the POV of, not Bill, but his female, artificial companion (w/ whom he is in an apparently platonic relationship). This is a curious decision, and one that makes my initial reading of this story as a hyperreal journey a wee bit problematic, in that hyperreality is a problem of subjectivity: a simulacrum (such as the narrator, in this case) does not experience the condition of hyperreality, since simulacra do not possess human sentience; she is one of the objects that comprise this experience for the individual (Bill). (I know, I’ve dug myself into an exegetical hole with this one… We’ll see if I can find a way out.)

I want to explore this piece a little bit by comparing it to a few other works, one literary, one cinematic.

The literary one is actually a short work I reviewed here on the site, called “Butterfly Eyes” by G.V. Anderson. In that story, a robot wanders through caves and exhibits a series of increasingly human behaviors and rituals in the wake of the loss of its human master. It’s a really cool, carefully nuanced piece.

I bring it up because it shares with this story a concern for artificial consciousness and what it means to be human. The G.V. Anderson piece is written in the 3rd person, while this one is written, curiously, in the 1st, which calls for some very careful tonal and style decisions. Consider what Rakovich does to convey both the narrator’s artificiality and her quasi-“humanity” through mood(?) descriptions, word choices, and style. Here are some quotes I pulled from the piece:

I was happy for him.

An undergraduate creative writing prof would cut this line, call it “telling, not showing,” and that’s exactly what it is. But its flatness, its lack of true feeling, is exactly what makes it so appropriate to the speaker.

He was right, and I pretended to chuckle too.

Here we get a great clue with ‘pretended’ about the character’s emotional detachment, her inhuman state.

I was glad it hadn’t worked out with Diane.

Finally, we have another poor example of undergraduate creative writing (“I was glad”) coupled with a sophisticated implication of the narrator’s deeper yearnings, and the ultimate complexity of this artificial companion of Bill’s is really anyone’s guess. So it seems, as the first-person POV was giving us an inside look at an artificial mind, we were being fed conflicting information that ultimately suggests this companion of Bill’s is both coldly artificial (as all good simulacra ultimately are) and dangerously real at the same time.

Lastly, I want to touch on the movie Ex Machina, which came out this year. It’s a fascinating movie, and another interesting comment in the A.I. sub-genre of SF. What today’s story has in common with the girl in Ex Machina is the interest she shows in picking up human habits (here, she goes to read a book and drink a cup or orange juice, simply to act more human), and this is perhaps one of the really frightening implications of the whole A.I. discussion (and it fits with the hyperreality thing I brought up earlier; see? it all comes together!).

The scary A.I. implication is this: a machine that can think and act is just a machine, but a machine that can learn will become more human over time. Just as our media has proven reflexive, self-aware, and varied in its identity (it’s learning), the artificial person who narrates this story seems to be an attentive pupil. She’s studied Bill and figured out that to be human is to want, so she, at some point, has decided to want.

And she wants Bill.

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