Monday, October 24, 2022

'Exception' raises questions about humanity's right to live

This existential drama unfolds at both the individual and the civilizational level

A story can be written about the worth of humanity in which cloned bodies with copied memories ask themselves pointy questions about the authenticity of their identities and the consequences of reversible death. Also, a story can be written about the worth of humanity in which a space colonization project sends the last surviving members of our species to another planet and we need to weigh our survival against the fragility of an alien ecosystem. Either of those choices could address such heavy issues as our place in the universe, our sense of importance, our responsibility to other living creatures, and the dangers of hubris.

The fact that the new Netflix production Exception goes for both approaches at the same time and weaves them into parallel thematic threads speaks to the ambition of series creator and screenwriter Hirotaka Adachi. While cloning is a fertile topic for a discussion of personal dignity, and space colonization offers a comparable opportunity to explore collective dignity, a story that takes cloned characters and puts them in the middle of a space colonization plot is a potent combination and an authorial statement that promises a multifaceted view of the issue.

This is a daunting task for a limited series of just eight episodes, but Exception fulfills this mission admirably. The plot is presented through what one might call bifocal lenses: at the micro level, we have the story of a botched cloning that results in a bizarre creature of hideous appearance that gives rise to doubts about its humanity and, therefore, its inherent worth; at the macro level, we have a political disagreement over the moral acceptability of invading an intact biosphere to settle the human species and refound civilization. The later reveal that one of these problems gave rise to the other closes the circle of this subtle but effective narrative experiment.

Although these questions have been a staple of science fiction for a long time, Exception manages to make them feel fresh while still leaving them without a definitive answer. The botched clone is alternately treated like a wild animal, a mere inconvenience, a defective copy, an abomination, a funhouse mirror, and a travel companion. The four protagonists have long debates about what to do with it, and the rounds of arguments and counter-arguments force them to reevaluate their own status as living beings. In a closed environment with finite resources and high tension, should someone's right to exist depend on their ability to contribute work? Are replicas of human beings in a position to judge the quality of an allegedly bad replica? Is the worth of a clone measured by its fidelity to the supposed original? If it's a trivially easy procedure to unmake and remake clones, is death an effective punishment?

As the story progresses, its scope expands and we're faced with new and equally thought-provoking problems: in a universe with other forms of life, is humanity's survival a moral absolute? Is it honest of us to reserve to ourselves the answering of that question? Do our past crimes against nature factor in that moral calculation? Should other species fear humanity?

One twist that complicates this topic in an even thornier direction is the backstory that explains that humans left Earth because robots took over it. The unspoken implication is that at least one other culture has already judged it's more deserving of life than us. Before the protagonists can even formulate a rebuttal to that challenge, the show presents them with a harder one: does nonintelligent life also get a say on how much value our survival should have?

How we answer the micro problem informs which answers are possible to the macro one. It won't do to assert human dominion over the nonhuman when the line between the two gets so blurred that we can no longer decide who gets to redraw it. The protagonists cling to a sense of humanity that has been fabricated for them, with aspirations and attachments not uniquely their own, and with a material existence made possible only through technology, which means that any redefinition of "human" they construct in order to justify their self-esteem and their personhood must automatically apply to the defective copy as well, and once that threshold is crossed, human primacy is left without a logical foundation.

The plot resolves by offering an answer but recognizing that it cannot be objectively true. Our survival must prevail, but that tells us very little if we are the ones affirming that value. Of course team human will cheer for team human: we can make no other choice (at least none that preserves our ability to make choices), and no one else can do it for us (because whoever tries to decide our worth immediately violates our worth). The question is not for others to get involved in, but we cannot be trusted to be impartial. The situation is thus rendered exposed: we can never know what humanity is outside of what humans believe about it. What Exception proposes, given the impossibility of an absolute pronouncement, is a plea for epistemic humility. If we must judge ourselves (and it is inescapable that we must), let us not forget that we are biased. If our species must exist (and as long we are in charge of the question, the question is already moot), let us be neither ashamed nor proud. We are precious to ourselves and redundant to the universe; the fatal error is to get those two confused.

Exception handles its subject matter with surprising depth for its short runtime, but the ending is so fitting that nothing more needs to be added, a reassuring demonstration that a self-contained series that knows when it has said all it has to say is still possible in the streaming era. The animation style is, admittedly, an acquired taste, but it doesn't distract from the arguments going on in each episode. The gory horror is not too shocking, and never self-indulgent. This is primarily a science fiction of ideas, a birefringent look at the contact surfaces between humans and beyond humans, and at the circumstances that can turn that contact into violence.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for expertly creating and maintaining thematic resonance.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.