Bureaucratizing science fiction

Photo of a scary fantasy world
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In Remedy Entertainment’s sci-fi video game, Control, the buildings are not human. They are, by all appearances, forged by human hands. Dreary and featureless cement walls stretch above desks and cubicles; white sunlight filters through blinds and stirs the dust-filled air; pretentious sculptures litter the long, silent halls. Everything about the world of Control screams domineering brutalism and boring bureaucracy, except perhaps the way the main building acts. It’s uncertain of itself, unable to constantly maintain the appearance of a structure built solely for bureaucracy. There’s a wing closed off because some interdimensional being filled the rooms up to the ceilings with old-timey clocks. There are posters everywhere telling workers that delays caused by the house physically shifting don’t count toward overtime. There are bodies —floating bodies — in the research department. There’s a mold monster in the pipes.

In Control, no human is in control, and yet every little detail in the architecture and environment tries to say otherwise.

In recent years, there have been trends in science fiction that frame the chaotic nature of the supernatural through a rigid, authoritative and distinctly human perspective. Characters and organizations subject the unknown to standardized regulation, a somewhat adorable attempt at shaping nonsense into something that makes some sense. Marvel’s “Loki, FX’s “Legion, Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation” and, of course, Remedy’s Control, are just some examples of this stylistic interpretation I’ve come across. The best way to describe this genre is a part of the “New Weird” movement.

New Weird is alienating. It forces the audience to encounter the surreal and acutely bizarre, breaking literary tropes and drifting towards a subsection of science fiction that defies definitions. Control’s game director, Mikael Kasurinen, spoke on how New Weird underscores the moment when “the human mind gets in contact with something that is beyond comprehension, witnessing things that they don’t understand what they are. … When you look at New Weird a huge part of it is you encounter these types of elements and there is a sense of realism to it and an unsettling aspect as well.” 

When audiences step into a world as multilayered as Control, it’s overwhelming. But staring at rows of file cabinets under sterile yellow lighting feels familiar, and it makes the uncertainty of, say, having to fight a version of yourself from the mirror dimension in between those rows of file cabinets just slightly more digestible. The harsh juxtaposition is supposed to impose “some believability … as a backdrop for all the supernatural weirdness that was going on, because it doesn’t really work otherwise,” says Control art director Janne Pulkkinen.

One of the most recognizable authors of New Weird is VanderMeer, known for titles such as “Borne” and “Dead Astronauts,” as well as the recently movie-adapted “Annihilation, the first book in the “Southern Reach” trilogy. Both the movie adaptation and the first book of the series take place in a section of earth completely alien and evasive of human understanding, beautiful and terrifying all at once. It drives all characters mad, swallowing them into the complete mystery of words written in fungi and dolphins with human eyes and a building that breathes. “That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you,” the main character declares, “from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”

The audience and characters alike drown in the unknown. The only thing to ground them in familiarity is the forest environment, which is filled with mutated monsters and distrusting humans. Everybody wants answers. Nobody is granted them. And as you read, you tire; and as you read, you desire; and as you read, you just want a breath of fresh air and some semblance of what’s known, but you’re forced to encounter again and again this inhuman strangeness until you just have to give up hope. And then the book ends — without answers. And then the second book starts up in an office building. The banal tone, the sterile environment — now the audience is drowning in an all-too-familiar setting, yet the questions persist. Despite any employment of bureaucratic organization, the subjugation of human order doesn’t make any more sense of what is characteristically not human. 

Marvel’s “Loki” takes place in a bureaucracy outside of time, where not grabbing a ticket and waiting in line will get you smitten out of existence.

FX’s “Legion” takes place in a bureaucracy that tries to make sense of human mutations, where victims in a comatose state are shoved into a dark room to remain constantly chattering their teeth for no known reason, creating a horrifying cacophony that can only be described as weird. 

Despite any employment of bureaucratic organization, the subjugation of human order doesn’t make any more sense of what is characteristically not human.

All these pieces of media have something in common: The settings and structure of the environment declare understanding. They declare control through paperwork and cubicles and strict hierarchies, but in every corner and every shadow there is the underlying human fear of being completely and utterly lost. 

By constantly surrounding audiences and characters with domineering architecture, they are forced to see in every wall the imposition of human doctrines and order. It’s all redirection from what’s less known. Particularly in Control and “Loki, the architectural style of brutalism is a glaring misdirection from the more chaotic features of the building. Brutalism has been defined as “a style of architecture used especially in the 1950s and ’60s that uses large concrete blocks, steel, etc., and is sometimes considered ugly and unpleasant.” UC Berkeley’s Evans Hall is a prime example of brutalism, and yes — it is ugly, and it is distracting.

Brutalism originally emerged in the 1950s during the modernist movement when concrete was considered a “humble medium of the people… as opposed to something that’s ornate and rococo and made in a very elaborate way,” says Avery Trufelman in Control and the Importance of Brutalism. And yet, Control art director Janne Pulkkinen acknowledged the current connotation of brutalism, in that “what started as a very utopian idealistic architecture has come to represent oppression and bureaucracy.” Likewise, “Loki” director Kate Herron describes the bureaucracy at the center of the series, the TVA, as having similarly “heroic” connotations, exemplified through large, proud brutalist designs. “They’re working for the Time-keepers who are these godlike overseers of the timeline,” Herron said.

These New Weird fictions are imbued with constant indications of oppression and attempts at achieving Godlike status over the unknown. Architecture has this ability — this declarative subjugation and revealing of human values. Michel Foucault, a philosopher infamous for his preoccupation with architectural design and its disciplinary indoctrinations, explores the function of prisons, such as the panopticon, as an “architectural apparatus (that) should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it.” 

When viewed as an architectural apparatus for the creators’ dogmas, the bureaucracies seen in these pieces of media act independently of those who built them, yet they carry out the creators’ desires in every moment that the subject perceives their surroundings. Bureaucracies, particularly ones marked by the apparent totalitarianism of brutalism, stare down their subjects and implant within their minds a reminder of their meek role in the larger human order. 

When playing Control, the player fights interdimensional enemies, but in every background, they see an attempt at subjecting the supernatural to a distinctly human authority. When watching “Loki, the watcher is baffled by the mysteries of time travel and elusive authoritarians, but in every background, they see an attempt at condensing those mysteries into something understood. When watching “Legion,” the viewer is captivated by sights such as an interview room positioned upside down, dangling above an entire city; but in every background, they see a need for such an interview room — characters lost and scrambling for ways to understand the phenomena that make every cell in their bodies scream in discomfort. In all of these pieces of media, the humans try to colonize the unknown before it colonizes them.

The bureaucratic implantation into New Weird is characteristically self-indulgent. In the face of strangeness and of feeling estranged, humans build up walls to reflect some idea of our power and abilities right back at ourselves, the Creators. We seek to contain — the unexplainable, our confusion, our pride. We seek to ground ourselves. We seek to build a reality familiar to us. It’s easy to sit on a couch and laugh at someone getting smitten for not waiting in line or to twiddle our thumbs with a controller as we shoot some mold amalgamation, or to flip through pages in a book about a completely alien world, because we’re engaging with this world through some apparatus of our creation. It’s when we’re granted no sight of our world-making abilities — no reminder of our own pride — that we start to go mad.

“We all live in a kind of continuous dream,” I told him. “When we wake, it is because something, some event, some pinprick even, disturbs the edges of what we’ve taken as reality.”

Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation”

Contact Logan Roscoe at [email protected]dailycal.org.