This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Alesha Serada
Return of the Amphibian Human:
Underwater Utopias in History and Fiction
Content warning: aquaphobia
Underwater utopias remain a viable but incredibly scarce alternative to space exploration in fantastic media. In history, real-life underwater habitats were constructed in the USSR in the 1960-70s, inspired by pioneering projects of Jacques-Yves Cousteau in the West. Sadly, technological development in this field had stalled when available resources were channeled into the ‘space race’. The idea of an amphibian human, an aquatic cyborg living in harmony with the ocean, seem to be marginalized and framed as less worthy even in Western posthumanist thought e.g. Donna Haraway (2015, 2016), which demonstrates full effect of Cartesian rationalism on fantastic imagination. While humans in space can always be reduced, more or less, to ‘brains in jars’, living in the ocean requires becoming one with it on the bodily level, such as, being able to breathe underwater. To achieve this, not even completely fantastic, goal, humans may require body modifications such as described, for example, in the early Soviet science fiction novel by Alexandr Belyaev Amphibian Man (1928) and its film adaptation in 1961.
In my ongoing research, I explore body modifications of aquatic cyborgs and amphibian humans in fiction and scientific imagination. In Amphibian Man, ability to breathe underwater is framed as the key to the immensely beautiful and homely underwater world, and yet it makes its bearer less than human, or even a monster, in human society. Tellingly, almost the same framing is presented in the contemporary fantasy film Shape of Water (del Toro, 2016) that took inspiration not from Amphibian Man (although such comparisons were made), but from reversing the narrative of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). By discovering more amphibian humans and aquatic cyborgs as main protagonists in fantastic media, I hope to find out how such constrains of imagination can be illustrative of the mind/body split in Western though.
About the Author: Alesha Serada is a PhD student and a researcher at the University of Vaasa, Finland. Their dissertation, supported by the Nissi Foundation, discusses construction of value in games on blockchain. In general, Alesha writes on exploitation, violence, horror, deception and other banal and non-banal evils in visual media.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 5: Cyborg Bodies, which will take place at 5pm GMT Time.
This podcast is presented by Alesha Serada who is a PhD student and a researcher at the University of Vaasa, Finland. Their dissertation, supported by the Nissi Foundation, discusses construction of value in games on blockchain. In general, Alesha writes on exploitation, violence, horror, deception and other banal and non-banal evils in visual media.
In my pet project, I explore body modifications of aquatic cyborgs and amphibian humans in fiction and scientific imagination. In general, underwater utopias remain a viable but incredibly scarce alternative to space exploration in fantastic media. I see this as a symptom of Cartesian thought limiting how we see ourselves in relation to our environment. Humans in space can be reduced, more or less, to ‘brains in jars’. A typical adventure in space challenges the ability of human, or sometimes alien actors, to make rational decision, while their biological bodies are principally isolated from the hostile environment of open space. In contrast, underwater utopias invite us to become one with the environment, as long as we can overcome our fear of drowning. Living in the ocean requires becoming one with it on the bodily level, such as, being able to breathe underwater. To achieve this, not even completely fantastic, goal, humans may require body modifications, such as described, for example, in the early Soviet novel by Alexandr Belyaev Amphibian Man (1928). Published in 1928, Amphibian Man may be the first work of science fiction that explored not just the technical possibility of underwater utopia for humans, but also the complex bioethical questions that such utopia would raise. The titular Amphibian Man is a shark-man cyborg: he has the body of a young and handsome man and the gills of a shark, in addition to his human lungs. This cyborg was created by the mysterious doctor Salvador, a genius Argentinian surgeon, who now calls him his son. Ichtiandr finds his love in the city of Buenos-Aires, and he wants to become a part of human society, but then the evil capitalist Pedro Zurita kidnaps his girlfriend and tries to exploit Ichtiandr's ability to breathe underwater. In the end, heartbroken Ichtiandr leaves human society for good, heading to the remote pacific island with the hope to join the friendly research facility that studies oceanic life.
This story became immensely popular among Soviet readers: it successfully combined melodrama, science fiction, nautical adventures and even episodic body horror, directly inspired by The Island of Doctor Moreau by Herbert Wells (Belyaev and Wells may have actually been in contact, but of course, this was very much against the Stalinist regime that Belyaev had witnessed in full bloom). Being a technological optimist in general, Belyaev also wrote a number of radical communist space utopias – some of them boring, some actually interesting, - which saved him from political prosecution, and further propelled the success of his other, more adventurous novels. The forementioned Amphibian Human was adapted for screen in 1961; it was a slightly chaotic and ideologically confusing, but very successful film, still beloved by many generations. The film pioneered underwater photography in the USSR – but even more importantly, together with the pioneering projects of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Amphibian Man directly inspired the first Soviet project of underwater housing, which was named after Ichtiandr himself.
The first underwater house in the USSR was built in 1966 in the Laspi bay at the Southern shore of Crimea, as its inhabitants proudly stated, 12 meters from the shores of Ukraine (Zerchaninov, 1967), and the experiments continued until 1968. This project was carried out by the enthusiasts from the Donetsk diving club, under the guidance by Alexander Hayet, a professional surgeon who also had a deep interest in studies of supernatural abilities such as telepathy. The fragments from the log-book of the second experiment, published in a youth magazine in 1967, almost read as science fiction. “August 29, 1967. 8:30PM: code red. The electricity is gone. We had Lenya Yaylenko as a guest, and he and Hayes were demonstrating an experiment in telepathy: "Medium, attention. Attention, medium..." Suddenly the lights went off and the air supply stopped working. The water level started increasing slowly but steadily. We could not stop joking..." (Zerchaninov, 1967, p. 100). Despite minor glitches, the project proved to be successful: the enthusiasts have gathered a significant amount of medical data about human and animal wellbeing in an underwater dome. Sadly, the Ichtiandr project was discontinued in 1969, as it was denied funding. In a more official manner, other underwater habitats were constructed in the USSR in the 1960s, named Sadko and Chernomor. They also were successful in terms of research, but eventually, technological development in this field had stalled when available resources were channeled into the ‘space race’. Again, conquering space has been deemed more important than learning to live together with the ocean.
It may be that the heroic image of a superhuman space explorer seems more attractive to the public, and the authorities, than a wet cyborg ‘frogman’ who dwells in the murky waters and constantly brings up environmental concerns. In real life, think of the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who unironically believed that humans can learn to breathe underwater in the future. In fantastic media, the closer the amphibian cyborg merges with their environment, the less human they become. In Amphibian Man, the ability to breathe underwater is framed as the key to the immensely beautiful and homely underwater world. And yet, this ability it makes its bearer less than human, and separates him from human society. Tellingly, almost the same framing is presented in the contemporary fantasy film Shape of Water(del Toro, 2017). Post-Soviet viewers eagerly compared it to Amphibian Man, but such plagiarization is highly unlikely here. Instead, the story of the Shape of Water, which is indeed similar to Amphibian Man in a number of meaningful ways, was constructed by reversing the narrative of the horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), which, in turn, most likely took inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon people, or the Deep Ones, - a significant part of Lovecraftian mythology and yet another expression of fear of hybridization between the human and the non-human. Now we know that the source of this fear was Lovecraft’s racism, which rendered people of color as non-human. However, knowing that enables us to critically question and further explore this toxic fear in the safe fictional settings of horror, fantasy and science fiction. Del Toro did this work of uncovering and condemning racism, not just by reversing the trope, but also by placing it in the context of literal Nazism. Almost a century ago, Belyaev also condemned racism in his work: Ichtiandr is an indigenous Argentinian, most likely, a Guarani, which is the true reason why doctor Salvador could use him as a test subject for extreme body modifications. Doctor Salvador’s ethics, highly questionable by itself, reveals systemic inequality in colonial Argentina: on the one hand, he does medical experiments on indigenous people, who are not able to give fully informed consent, but on the other hand, he is the only doctor who treats them for free. In this way, Alexander Belyaev’s work, sadly, remains relevant even in today’s discussions about how indigenous people are dehumanized by the descendants of colonial authorities.
So far, we have explored the amphibian human as a metaphor for reconciliation with the Other. This metaphor appears to be at least a century old even within the canon of fantastic literature, and, after all this time, we can, and should ask for more. Will we become amphibian one day? Will we ever be able to live underwater – a perspective so much more realistic, humane and economically efficient, than colonization of Mars, for example? As the amphibian person is technically a cyborg, we may want to seek for answers in the works of the most cited posthumanist thinker, Donna Haraway. Surprisingly, she has very little to say about the ocean and the possibility of amphibian life. One notable example is her heartfelt description of the Crochet Coral Reef, a collective art project that united eight thousand people in twenty-seven countries. “Making fabulated, rarely mimetic, but achingly evocative models of coral reef ecosystems, or maybe of just a few critters, the Crochet Coral Reef has morphed into what is probably the world’s largest collaborative art project” (D. J. Haraway, 2016, p. 78). While its participants have fulfilled their own creative ambitions (on behalf of the actual marine life, may I add, which did not appear in the project in any form), and probably felt very inspired while doing it together (Haraway explains in so many words their deep emotional attachment to the biological reefs), it is not clear at all in which way exactly doing thematic handicrafts has helped to fight for wellbeing of the real life coral reefs. I argue that such self-indulgent art projects, mostly created in the comfort of middle-class households, are the opposite of the unmediated, intimate, and oftentimes deadly, relationship with the ocean and other bodies of water.
As someone who is dead afraid of deep open waters, I am still slightly annoyed by similar sentiment in others. We only find a fleeting mention of an amphibian cyborg in the earlier Haraway’s work, when she discusses Superluminal, a science fiction novel by her fellow biologist Vonda McIntyre, who also contributed to the Crochet Coral Reef project. Namely, in the Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway describes the character from this novel who is amphibian but does not want to remain so, reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s Mermaid. “Orca, a genetically altered diver, can speak with killer whales and survive deep ocean conditions, but she longs to explore space as a pilot, necessitating bionic implants jeopardizing her kinship with the divers and cetaceans” (D. Haraway, 2015, p. 179). Even here, although we are supposed to read this example as a celebration of the cyborg, what is, in fact, stated, is that a brain in the vat of a cosmic station is superior to an amphibian living in harmony with their immediate environment. These constrains of imagination can be illustrative of the mind/body split in Western though, - that exact failure that Donna Haraway has been successfully fighting while exploring other topics and themes.
Again, I am not the one to judge. I grew up in a landlocked country – one of only forty-four such countries in the world, which is considered a serious geoeconomical disadvantage. My imaginary of the underwater world was shaped by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Alexander Belyaev, and illustrated children literature. This fantastic imaginary presents the Big Blue as the place of the most striking, nonhuman beauty, that can only be trivialized by human art. Now when I actually live by the sea, I can’t stop admiring its enormous power, both in spiritual and technological terms, - a hyperobject, in terms of Timothy Morton (Morton, 2013). By discovering more amphibian humans and aquatic cyborgs as main protagonists in fantastic media, I hope to explore the limits of the typically Western, or, more precisely, white American procedures of constructing the Other, that often can be traced to the questionable legacy of the unquestionably racist H.P. Lovecraft. While we should always admire quality horror storytelling, it is also our responsibility to admit, and fight, our own fears while enjoying fantastic and horror fiction.