Panel 2.1 Locating Monstrosity in Machine versus Human Intelligence
John Sharples, Lancaster University, UK, “‘Everything was Black’: Locating Monstrosity in Robert Löhr’s The Chess Machine (2008)”
This paper explores the use of hidden space and concealed identities in Robert Löhr’s work of historical fiction The Chess Machine (2008). Löhr re-imagines Wolfgang von Kempelen’s eighteenth-century Automaton Chess-Player as a monstrous technology, attracting suspicion, death and precipitating psychological collapse. Focusing on descriptions of the machine’s physical materials and dimensions as well as emotional reactions to its appearance and operation, I discuss how monstrosity is located within Löhr’s / von Kempelen’s machine. Requiring a human operator hidden inside and concealed from spectators, at the dark centre of this deceitful, enchanted, Enlightenment object, one finds the location of barely-suppressed anxieties. To the scientific figures of Empress Maria Theresa’s court, the slightly-too-human construction openly mocks the limits of the mimetic properties of automata. To its inhabitant, the Italian dwarf Tibor, the machine suggests both physical confinement and escape from societal convention. To the von Kempelen household, the locked-away object remains a secret eating away at domestic bliss. To the machine’s spectators, the device monstrously blurs the boundaries between mechanism and human intelligence.
Bionote: Dr John Sharples completed his PhD entitled Minds, Machines and Monsters: A Cultural History of Chess at Lancaster University (2014). Published work includes ‘I am a Chess-Player: Respectability in Literary and Urban Space, 1840-51’ in Sport in History (2015) and ‘Devoid of Breath: Two Representations of the Automaton Chess-Player’ in Monsters and the Monstrous (2014).
Stephen Curtis, Lancaster University, UK, “Moon Kampf: The Rise of the Lunar Nazi in Speculative Fiction”
The Nazi has long been the obvious bogeyman of alternative – as well as actual – history. Countless films and videogames feature the morally unproblematised mowing down of multitudes of identikit jackbooted fascists. Some even feature major figures in the movement as boss characters, including, of course, Adolf Hitler himself. In this paper I focus on a specific subsection of this representation of the Nazi, namely the phenomenon of the Nazi on the moon.
The space Nazi is a recognized subgenre on popular culture website, TVTropes.com and the utilisation of the villainous Aryan in science fiction is commonplace – whether allegorical or explicit. Locating the Nazi on the moon, however, has a powerful historical resonance – flattening out various major moments of twentieth-century history into one uncanny constructed world.
Cult B-movie Iron Sky (2012) posits a world in which the Nazis escaped to a secret moon base following their defeat in World War Two. Here, they continue their nefarious genetic and technological experimentation unrestricted by the ethical obstacles they would face on Earth. Consequently an unconscious celebration of the benefits of a science unencumbered by ethics appears that is at odds with the clear representation of the Nazis as the bad guys.
More recently, the reboot of the classic Castle Wolfenstein videogame series, Wolfenstein: The New Order (2014) goes even further and presents a world in which the Nazis defeated the Allied armies in World War Two and now control the world. Again, however, the disparity between real world science and the anthropomorphic robotic death soldiers and towering sentinels deconstructs the clear moral message that the victorious Nazis are evil.
My paper, therefore, explores the tensions created by the juxtaposition between moral and scientific representations of the evils of Nazism in spectulative fiction; in other words, reading the swastika in Fantastika.
Bionote: Dr Stephen Curtis is currently Assistant Director of the first year World Literature course at Lancaster University. Although his primary research area is early modern drama and blood, he has also written and presented on videogames, science fiction and horror cinema. His paper from last year’s Fantastika conference is forthcoming in the special issue of the Luminary journal.