The Cybernetic Conundrum

Posthumanism and 'Dead Space'

by Aaron Poppleton

8 February 2011

The Necromorphs represent a level of posthuman development that extends far further than the protagonist of Dead Space is willing to go -- the point at which humanity is erased, allowing for the rise of the posthuman.

With the recent release of Dead Space 2, it is not surprising to find that my thoughts drift back to the first installment of the series and what about it made the experience worthwhile. From a narrative standpoint, it would be easy to write off Dead Space as “Resident Evil 4 in spaaaaace”, complete with parasitic organisms that seem to have been unleashed by crazy cultists. This might turn a lot of people off (forgetting that Dead Space controls better than any RE game I’ve come across, and I’m including the on-rails-shooters in this) because, well, hasn’t this all been done, before?

Well, yes it has. But has it been done this particular way? Probably not. Additionally, while the mechanics of Dead Space are familiar to anyone who has played a third person shooter in the last decade (I flatly refuse to acknowledge that the much ballyhooed dismemberment mechanic is all that different from learning to shoot zombies in the head), the setting and story (while equally familiar) serve as a platform for presenting a debate that runs throughout the game about posthumanism.
In many ways, the game’s narrative serves as a caution against the fusion of man and technology, while at the same time finding that very fusion necessary to saving the day. However, the Necromorphs represent a level of posthuman development that extends far further than the protagonist of Dead Space is willing to go—the point at which humanity is erased, allowing for the rise of the posthuman.

To clarify, I do not use the term “posthuman” in the sense of humanity becoming extinct, but in the sense of describing humanity developing itself with the use of technology to such a point as to give itself powers that extend far beyond what we now recognize as “human” capability. Cyborgs, for example, have the potential to be posthuman, assuming that the mechanical augmentations are not merely replacing a missing human ability (the ability to see clearly corrected by glasses or the inability to produce insulin corrected by an insulin pump, for example, make the users of such technologies “cyborgs” but not posthuman—the abilities given do not exceed those of a normal human being, and in some cases, the abilities given do not even match up to those of a normal human). With these new abilities and new capacities for knowledge that the mechanical and electronic enhancements bring comes a different set of morals, morals that may be completely alien to a modern human observer (the idea of a posthuman “god”, for example—that those who become posthuman would seem as inscrutable to a human observer as the movements of the gods did to their worshipers—springs from this idea).

From this simple definition, some parts of the setting of Dead Space immediately begin to fit into a picture of a posthuman society. The world of Dead Space is one in which humanity gains resources by destroying other planets in a process known as “planet-cracking”. It bears a resemblance to strip mining, but on a larger, more extreme scale. Large sections of the planet are peeled off and held aloft, revealing the resources that humanity requires. Technology, it seems, has progressed to allow humanity an impressive amount of power in this future. Indeed, an observer on a planet being “cracked” might feel as if there is some kind of mysterious and malevolent force ripping their planet apart—a sort of angry god. Mind you, this is not just one human who is able to crack a planet but the efforts of many. It takes a team to pull this feat of large-scale destruction off, and this team just so happens to have found something on the planet during their preparations: an object of seemingly alien origins called a “Marker”.

The nature of the Marker is not ever clearly explained. It does hold some religious significance for a group calling themselves the Church of Unitology, a religious group of no small influence. This group believes the Marker to be an ancient artifact left by someone, probably a god, in order to allow the Chosen Ones to defeat death. The Marker, then, represents traditional religious ideals. In other words, here is a thing that will give humanity life everlasting, but not just life. The Marker will also, the Unitologists believe, take them to the next level of human evolution. It will make them posthuman, and it is really for the best that everyone embraces this New Thing. Of course, as it happens, the Marker’s method of defeating death is to turn the subject into a necromorph, which are all those horrifying monsters that keep trying to stab and dismember the player. Also, being a necromorph means being part of a kind of hive mind intelligence instead of existing as an individual, which may not seem like a particularly pleasant way to enjoy one’s life everlasting, especially when the aforementioned hive mind is malevolent in its intentions vis a vis the rest of the universe.

As it turns out, the Marker isn’t even from the planet, and it wasn’t left by any ancient gods or alien races (or whatever it is that the Unitologists believe in). It is a copy that has been reverse engineered by some humans on Earth who sent it to the planet to observe its effects on a larger population. The whole thing has been a set up from the beginning. Granted, the nature of the Earth Marker is unknown, but the marker plaguing the Ishimura? That’s just human technological prowess, contributing to make the denizens of the ship and the planet more than human. Some of the necromorphs have even been altered by doctors on the Ishimura, such as the Regenerator necromorph encountered in the fifth chapter. Science, or more accurately the sort of mad science that would make Doctor Narbon envious, sweeps in and co-opts religion, altering it into a religion focused on worship at the altar of posthumanism.

In addition to these themes, the art of Dead Space provides its own take on the posthuman, which shares much of the story’s sense of disdain for such a project. The Ishimura’s corridors are industrial. They are not sleek, and they seem to have gone to great lengths to show that people live here. There are bathrooms, there is an entire level of hydroponics for food, and there are MRI machines and other medical equipment floating about as if to say “here is where science should be and here is what it has done for us.”  The other areas of the ship hint at a more sedate posthuman progression. For example, cybernetic implants and replacement limbs are advertised on posters along with the rather ironic “Science produces Bounty” posters that also hang on the walls. The engineering decks are utilitarian, and they are clearly meant for humans, since there are levers, there are cranes, and the engineers are still relying on tools in order to do their duties. Even the doors require a hand wave to open. It’s not all automated (which also makes for some terrifying moments).

It’s the future, yes, and humanity has incredible technology at its disposal, but there is still a very human element to the environment. This is not a hive. It is a place where people worked as well as lived. With frantically scribbled messages and audio logs like the one from an engineer who figures out how to destroy the necromorphs, all these little touches to the environment drive home that these are just humans dealing with a sudden and horrifying development. Isaac’s weaponry also reinforces this idea. Most of the weapons are re-purposed mining equipment (I myself have yet to use a weapon that isn’t the plasma cutter).

Using these various technologies, Isaac manages to fight the necromorph menace, but he does it by integrating technology with his own body in order to become more powerful than the ship’s original crew who were mostly murdered by the necromorph menace. What Isaac has that the other humans don’t have is, most notably, his suit (well, that and the skills of the player). The suit is upgradeable and so thoroughly integrated into the ship’s system that it serves as a way navigate the ship with ease thanks to the beacon system. Isaac is able to integrate other elements of the ship’s systems into his suit, which allows him to access parts of the ship as well as perform repairs on other areas.

Not only that, but Isaac’s suit allows him to continue his work without making the various video/audio transmissions that he receives interfere with him. The menu interface is an extension of his suit as well, so much so, that it seems as if Isaac has been completely integrated into the game that we’re playing as well as the ship that he’s exploring. The suit augments Isaac enough that he becomes more than his human companions, allowing him to deal with the various environmental hazards that his companions cannot deal with. There are gameplay reasons for this, to be sure (it would be a boring game that consisted of watching Isaac’s friends save the day instead of saving the day himself), but these mechanisms also reinforce the idea that Isaac’s suit makes him more than human. It does, indeed, make him nearly posthuman although, unlike the necromorphs, Isaac never loses his core humanity because he can presumably always remove his suit and go back to being a normal human being.

It’s the ability to go back to being “normal” that the game seems to support far more than the necromorph’s rather permanent alteration. The very act of becoming a necromorph requires being dead in the first place, so to say that it is an irreversible process is something of an understatement. It would be easy to say that Dead Space is against the motion of technology towards enhancing humans (all of the experiments to alter humanity that take place in Dead Space, after all, have monstrous results—even the organ cloning section is deeply disturbing to explore). However, it is technological exploration that also allows Isaac to survive. The suit and Isaac engage in a necessary cyborg-like relationship that gets him through the perils of the Ishimura disaster. It is when the technology cannot be shut off, however, that the game is concerned with. If there is no going back from a posthuman condition, the game seems to say, only then it is not worth exploring.


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