Sunday, January 4, 2015

No, Conservatism Isn't Patriarchical


Ascension might be one of the more intriguing of recent science fiction offerings. Coming as this film does, late on the heels of Interstellar, it's hard to approach the mini-series without unduly spoiling it.

Essentially, the mini-series centers around the idea that the United States could have launched an interstellar space voyage based on the technology available to them in the early 1960s. The ultimate product of this idea is the USS Ascension: the idea of an intergenerational spaceship designed somewhat loosely as an O'Neil Cylinder -- a massive tubular spaceship which spirals its way through space as a means of generating artificial gravity. The ship is on a 100 voyage to a habitable world, carrying 600 people to establish humanity's first interstellar colony.

Accordingly, everything on board the ship is comparatively low-tech, analog technology. But as with all good sci-fi the technology is not the defining aspect of Ascension.

The micro-society founded aboard the ship is a highly segmented, hierarchical society. The ship's officers and their families live in the "upper decks," a very swanky habitat within the ship. They are charged with the tasks of administrating the ship. The rest of the ship's crew lives on the "lower decks," the USS Ascension's equivalent of steerage.

Between the two is the ship's artificial beach. It's one of the few places shared by people from the ship's two different classes.

The mini-series focuses heavily on one of the necessities of such an endeavour: population control. The USS Ascension requires a crew of 600. No more and no less.

Accordingly, reproduction becomes a privilege, not a right. Each year the ship's girls must apply for eligibility to legally marry and have children. Even upon selection for eligibility they are not permitted to choose their husbands -- their husbands are assigned to them by a calculation of the ship's computer, and based on genetics. Each year the computer selects a number of couples equal to the number of people who have passed away.

That's how the delicate balance aboard the USS Ascension is maintained.

One of the favourite aspersions the left enjoys casting on conservatives is that conservatives allegedly want to turn the clock back to the 1950s; to an era where men were wage earners and women were homemakers. Where men could control women via their income. This is the definition of a patriarchal society.

Yet Ascension confronts such attitudes with an entirely different concept: a patriarchal society that is not a conservative society, but is in fact a collectivist society.

There is no denying that the micro-society born aboard the USS Ascension is patriarchal. Nowhere is that patriarchy more deeply-rooted than in the eligibility process.

In one pivotal scene, the captain's wife, Viondra Deninger (Tricia Helfer) is administering the final selection of the ship's girls for eligibility. The final test is a measurement of body mass index. To describe it most simply if the girls are too fat they can't get married. One girl is denied eligibility because her body weight is considered ideal for a girl all of two inches taller.


It's far from the most exhaustive measure of genetic fitness. It seems that, over time, the USS Ascension's social system has not been selecting the overall most fit for the privilege of reproduction. Instead, the system has effectively evolved not necessarily to facilitate the coupling of those most genetically optimal, but to couple men with women who will maximize male pleasure.

In that sense, it almost resembles the survival plan proposed by Dr Strangelove (Peter Sellers) in the film of the same title.

That's how a feminist critique of the micro-society portrayed in Ascension would have it, and this is one time in which I don't think they'd actually be wrong. Almost as if to make the point, one of the items held in reserve for girls deemed eligible to reproduce is cosmetics.

And while the aesthetics of the society may closely resemble the late 1950s/early 1960s in pretty much all things, there's nothing conservative about this society. At its very core the micro-society of the USS Ascension is collectivist in nature; collectivist to a stunning degree considering the paranoia about communism in the United States at the time the project was launched.

One of the fundamental beliefs of conservatives is that the family is the bedrock of society. There's fierce debate within conservative circles about precisely what form of families should be permitted (I stand with those who contend it should be of any type formed between consenting adults) but one thing stands beyond contention:

If the family is the bedrock of society, then to reserve the creation of a family as a privilege is to make a society fundamentally unfree.

Genuine conservatives won't find much regard for the micro-society of the USS-Ascension. It has more in common with the model societies frequently imagined by those of a more progressive political bent -- including feminists who frequently rail against patriarchy everywhere that it isn't.

If they want to see what a patriarchy looks like, they need look no further than Ascension.

As the mini-series wears on a number of Shayamalan-esque plot twists emerge to tell one of the more nuanced stories in recent sci-fi history. If viewers approach the show expecting anything along the lines of Interstellar they will be very, very surprised.

At three one-hour sittings it certainly becomes a less demanding time investment than Christopher Nolan's space epic and in the end perhaps leaves the viewer with far more to ponder.

It'll also leave you humming "Rocket Man" for days.

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