Not only Big Brother and Giant Meteor. Not just Skynet or Space Invaders. Not always, not since the beginning, but science fiction also tried to warn us about an excessive disparity between the super-rich and the rest of the world. What happens when too much economic power is distributed over too few individuals? What inequalities and injustices may emerge? How far is our society from these visions?
A suspicion, perhaps, is also growing in today’s reality, when we see megalomaniac billionaires playing with spaceships and space tours instead of investing their exorbitant budgets in the health of the planet we all live on. Maybe these guys just want to get away? (The answer is: yes)
Meth (Altered Carbon)
Meth, a contraction of Methuselah, is the nickname used to refer to rich people in the Altered Carbon, or Bay City, world.
Why Methuselah? Because they are so rich that they can make the most of the technology of the cortical stack, a device installed in the nervous system that can digitalize the consciousness of the individual. In fact, the Meths have enough resources to produce clones to replace their bodies (or rather, sleeves) as soon as they get damaged. They also have a system of automatic backup (on the cloud, literally) of the contents of the cortical stack, so that not even the destruction of the device can kill them. They are therefore virtually immortal, possessing enormous wealth accumulated over centuries that put them above the law, above morality and consequently above the common bitchiness of normal people.
Michael Drucker (The 6th Day)
Michael Drucker is the wealthy owner of Replacement Technologies, which in the film The 6th Day is able to create clones of anyone and transfer their consciousness. In his own small way he is effectively a wanna-be Meth who wants to become an individual above the law and morality like the richest people in Altered Carbon. Not only that. In his hunger for control, Drucker inserts congenital diseases into the clones his company produces, so that he always retains control of his ‘creations’.
The lesson: never trust corporations that tell you they are not evil.
Drucker will only briefly realise his nastiness when, dying, he has to deal with his replacement copy who treats him with no respect. It’s going to be a rather short epiphany, because unfortunately he has cloned the wrong person: Arnold Swarzenegger. How will it ever end?
Damian Hale (Self/less)
The fact that sci-fi wealthy people are basically obsessed with prolonging their luxurious mundane existence is now a well established fact, confirmed by many films. Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) in Self/less makes no difference. Condemned by cancer, instead of settling his affairs peacefully he chooses to invest in ‘shedding’, a very expensive way of transferring his consciousness into a young, healthy body. Once reborn into the younger, cooler, healthier body of Ryan Reynolds, Damian has a blast for a while, but something starts to feel wrong. That body doesn’t look like it was built for him. In fact, it seems to have memories of another life. The old rich man has doubts, and investigates, and investigates again, and it turns out that the shedding is some kind of scam. At this point the most imaginative twist is triggered, and with it a major attack on our suspension of disbelief: the super-rich gets caught up (lol) in the ethical dilemma and will do anything to reveal the organisation running the lab and return his new body to its rightful owner.
John Schmidt (I Will Fear No Evil)
Also in the same area is Robert Heinlein‘s novel I Will Fear No Evil.
Pay attention to the plot: 90-year-old billionaire John Schmidt is in such a bad shape that he offers a disproportionate amount of money to the donor of a new body into which he can have his brain transplanted.
He ends up, despite himself, in the body of the young and attractive secretary Eunice. In addition to settling into the body of a young woman, John will discover that Eunice’s consciousness is still present and that he will have to live with it for the rest of his life on Earth. From here, a series of incidents will lead the two to completely change their future and take a courageous leap into the void.
A funny, gut feeling story written in Heinlein’s more impudent spirit when science fiction was still too masculine, this novel manages to make even the rich guy likeable. And yet, oh, the plot is always the same. Are there other possibilities for the super-rich in science fiction, besides stealing bodies to live forever?
No, come on, again?
In Freejack, the super-rich, including Mr. McCandless (Anthony Hopkins) want bodies into which they can transfer their consciousnesses. But as cloning didn’t seem such an effective solution in the 1990s, the super-rich will use time travel to go into the past to get bodies that were going to die.
Yes, I swear. An extremely impractical application of time travel technology (almost akin to The Tomorrow War) in a film that didn’t (thankfully) stand out in history except for offering a prominent role to Mick Jagger.
Land Barons (Reminiscence)
In Reminiscence, a futuristic noir with a very wet setting, global warming has caused coastal lands to flood and the population to crowd into the remaining dry areas. The landowners became very very rich, and instead of sharing it with the population, they keep to accumulate land, thus becoming more and more powerful. The counterbalance is that these super-riches, so powerful and wealthy, are finally forced to shut themselves up in fortified villas.
And their wealth, one step away from the end of all, doesn’t seem so great.
Maybe we’re out of this nightmare of super-rich-body-stealers, huh?
In 2154, the space station Elysium is home to the rich and privileged, while the rest of humanity still lives on a hopelessly polluted Earth. On Elysium, in addition to perfect villas and gardens, there are also advanced medical technologies that can cure any disease. These technologies deliberately exclude the unfortunate Earthlings who, if ill, may die on Earth or attempt a desperate clandestine journey to the space station, only to be shot down without much ado. Thank you, pals.
The fundamental question in this story is why, when technology is available to make life better, it is chosen to deliberately exclude the majority of the population from using it. This question is unfortunately not explored further: Neill Blomkamp in fact misses the opportunity to make Elysium one of his most political films and (perhaps because of the blockbuster production?) ends up with only a weak sequence of fights and action scenes for lead actor Matt Damon.
The Leading Wagons (Snowpiercer)
The train in Bong Joon-ho‘s Snowpiercer, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, is an explicit metaphor for the division into social classes that marks modern society.
The super-poor live in the tail wagons, the super-rich in the leading wagons, with the creator/tyrant Wilford in charge of the engine. Classes are divided by ‘service’ wagons such as prisons, schools, food and resource production. Young minds are indoctrinated, and every social class or wagon is simply told to stay in their place, because if you are a shoe you have to stay a shoe. It is all there, and the story does not look to the future but to the present. There is not much more to be said, except for the nature and outcome of revolutions.
The CEOs of the super-tech companies
Champions of vanity, Silicon Valley CEOs have lately been playing a rather prominent role in science fiction disasters. From impressive speeches to presentations of new products, whether they are the real villains or simple idiots who don’t realise the consequences of their ‘innovations’, it makes little difference: they are the bringers of catastrophic events affecting technology.
The character of Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) in Don’t Look Up is added at the last moment, with this text almost completed. The CEO of the mega technology company BASH is particularly notable for the disastrous outcomes of his economic and political power. Peter succeeds in aborting the (still not outstanding) US mission to divert the Dibiasky comet from its collision course with Earth. BASH engineers have discovered that the comet is rich in valuable materials for the production of technological devices. His alternative mission, which involves a controlled impact with the comet, will have the characteristics common to many dot com innovations: hype, marketing, no scientific verification or evaluation. What could possibly go wrong?
Eldon Tyrell and Niander Wallace (Blade Runner)
Basically belonging to the category of technology CEOs, Tyrell and Wallace stand out as belonging to the extraordinary filmography of Blade Runner. If Eldon Tyrell plays a role linked to the objective of his corporation, which is to build increasingly sophisticated replicants despite any ethical implications, we have in Niander Wallace the transition to a real villain suffering from megalomania, sociopathy and with the goal of using replicants as a means of human evolution. In any case, sentences like ‘An angel should never enter the kingdom of heaven without a gift’ tell us a lot about how Wallace’s ambition made him, in essence, a delirious fool.
Heroic billionaires (Bruce Wayne e Tony Stark)
Not only villains. Superhero stories such as those of Batman and Iron Man tell us that even billionaires, with the super-power of massive funds that allow great things to happen, can take on great responsibility and set out to protect the weak and the world. Although such an altruistic attitude is hardly plausible, there are elements that somehow justify these choices: both Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne inherited their wealth after the death of their parents and therefore, in a way, could give it a different weight and meaning. Moreover, rather than altruism, we have Wayne driven by a brutal desire for revenge and the engineer-nerd Stark driven by the need to always overcome some limit. Even at the cost of creating an evil and extremely destructive Artificial Intelligence.
In the end
When I thought of collecting a few examples of the super-rich in science fiction, I thought I would find more of them and with more varied stories. After all, there could be many ideas related to what it means to centralise economic power in a small group of people, and how economic power can be extended to many (too many) scenarios. Yet I could not find many narratives that were really explicit. Of course, when it comes to social inequality there is always a ‘system’ with its thugs to fight (Metropolis, Hunger Games, In Time), but when smaller groups or individual characters emerge, we always end up with the billionaire who wants to live forever, the control freak or the new Prometheus who fucks up.
Is this really the case? Or have I missed something? However, the post remains open, and if you come up with new examples I am open to integrate them.
Finally, this post in English language is an experiment to mix things up a bit and see how the blog evolves. I don’t know what it will bring. New contacts? Friends? Ideas? Killer A.I.s? Let’s see what happens.