Review of The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri
Bryce L. King
Liz Faber. The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri. University of Minnesota Press, 2020.Paperback. 226 pg. $27.00. ISBN 9781517909765.
In The Computer’s Voice: From Star Trek to Siri, Liz Faber discusses gendered representations of what she terms “acousmatic computers” (4) throughout science fiction film and pop culture, by which she means forms of artificial intelligence without a human-presenting body, with the consequence that their voice is their defining feature and means of expressing gender. Faber argues that the gendering of these computer voices both reveals historical attitudes towards gender while also pushing the social boundaries surrounding gender binaries and norms. Faber utilizes psychoanalytic feminist theory and sound studies to analyze these norms because the intersection of these schools of thought offers not only an interpretation of gender relations but also of power relationships through womb and phallic iconography. By analyzing voice, Faber outlines the ways in which video-synchronized sound is linked to characterization and therefore the structuring of the narrative. Faber studies the ways in which bodily-based engendering is projected onto bodiless computers to argue that, through this contradiction, there occurs a conflict in both the challenging and promotion of gender essentialism as well as the implementation that the engendering of the acousmatic computers results in the gendering of their roles in our lives and our media. Essentially, if an inherently non-gendered entity such as a computer can have gender, it pushes us to recognize that gender is constructed.
The introduction recounts the Turing test and its relations to gender studies, and then Faber states that she aims to cover the whitewashing of classic science fiction films; however, throughout the rest of the chapters, this latter ambition seems to reappear infrequently at best, not being directly addressed until chapter 5. She goes on in the introduction to summarize the evolution of sound in film and the auditory properties of stereo technology. Faber asserts that the imageless characters such as these acousmatic computers often hold more power than robotic characters with physical bodies in their narratives due to their production of tension, their evocation of the unknown, and their disembodied omnipresence, all stemming from their ability to be heard but not seen. She then discusses the link between cinematic sound and Freudian/Lacanian theories, relating these frameworks to how science fiction depictions of technology are impacted by their time of conception. We understand the future through our present, and thereby classical Hollywood cinema reflects castration anxiety and serves as the fantasy realm of male subjectivity. Because the acousmatic computer oftentimes represents or evokes the castrated woman, it also represents trauma, explaining why oftentimes the viewer does not identify with the computer, but instead with the other embodied characters.
In chapters 1 and 2, Faber analyzes acousmatic spaceship computers including the foundational HAL9000 from 2001 (1968), the U. S. S. Enterprise from Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69), and the Enterprise-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94), along with their parodic counterparts from Dark Star (1974), Quark (1977-78), and Moon (2010). Though Faber does a thorough job of describing the mise en scène of these works, it is beneficial for the reader to have seen the films themselves, because these chapters heavily focus on Freudian iconography as well as color theory. She argues that acousmatic spaceships represent the paradox of the primordial uncanny, the womb. HAL9000 in his masculinity, phallic queerness, and sterility reflects the active trauma of birth, while the Enterprise represents the warm passive female womb in her domesticity and subjectivity; thus, the good Oedipal desirable mother and the bad inhospitable traumatizing mother dichotomy are invoked. In both representations, however, gender roles remain within the norm socially. Yet despite this dichotomy, both gendered voices are projected onto the same idea of the mothership, complicating these seemingly stable gender norms. The parodies Quark, Dark Star, and Moon alleviate the cultural anxieties of trauma in birth, the threat of castration, and gender instability through their reestablishment of typical gender roles and comedic license. These chapters serve as an important basis for the study of gender in acousmatic computers throughout the text.
In chapters 3 to 5, Faber focuses on terrestrial acousmatic computers, which is to say vocal computers in films taking place on Earth as well as acousmatic computers that reflect male subjectivity. Chapter 3 specifically focuses on the dystopian paternal creator/computer films of the 1970s utilizing the films: Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), THX 1138 (1971), Rollerball (1975), and Demon Seed (1977). Faber excellently outlines and connects the phallocentric power relations between the films’ respective acousmatic computers in relation to the oedipal complex and technophobia, entailing that the son now identifies with the father out of fear of the castrated mother. However, considering the sexual power dynamic between Dr. Forbin and the computer Colossus could have made for a more interesting reading rather than simply studying the father/son, creator/creation dichotomy of the film. Chapters 4 and 5 center on the films Tron (1982), Electric Dreams (1984), Fortress (1992), Smart House (1999), the television series Eureka (2006-12), and Iron Man (2008). Faber discusses the masculine and feminine-coded computers of these texts in order to identify the cultural anxieties of women leaving the domestic space for the workforce, cementing heteropatriarchal gender roles while also encouraging the entrepreneurial rival sons of the 1970s to take on the dominant paternal power role in the 90s. Faber discusses the heavily hetero-erotic scenes between feminine computers and their human male dominators but ignores the homosocial undertones of male humans to male computers. Ultimately, Faber proves that the construction of gender is as much vocal as it is visual.
Lastly, chapter 6 circles back to the evolution of Siri as promised in the title, as well as including analyses of The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019) and Her (2013). Faber again analyzes color and its relationship to gender in the film, linking Her with 2001 and the previously discussed texts. Faber argues that the desire for the viewer to view is made up for by their ability to hear the acousmatic computer. Faber discusses this through Her,emphasizing not only the gendering of acousmatic computers but also the sexualization of them. Samantha, an artificially intelligent virtual assistant akin to Siri, then by vocal means experiences her gender, her sexualization, her sexual awakening, and her sexual relationship with Theodore. Faber relates The Big Bang Theory to the hilarity of engendering and romanticizing computers through their voice. Although she discusses The Big Bang Theory first, it may have been more effective to discuss the television series after the film Her in order to reconvey earlier arguments about how comedy allows for social anxieties and discomforts regarding technophobia and gender to be expressed and alleviated. Then using the television series and film as a segue since both mediums feature acousmatic computers meant to mirror Siri, Faber contends that within the confines of our current language we are not equipped to mediate “the multiplicity of gendered subjectivities we construct every day” (181). The liminality of the internet calls into question the stability of our heteropatriarchal social structure the same way that a disembodied, but gendered computer questions what we perceive as the essential sex of gender; without a body, gender must be constructed and, more importantly, constructed through vocality. Siri then has embodied social anxieties and typical female passive subservient roles, but in her absence of body has become a real-life technological example of acousmatic gender construction. Thus not only has Siri’s voice been gendered but also her role in our lives, reflecting and perpetuating current ideologies of gender essentialism. Through the previous examples of what a gendered computer could sound like, we have come to recognize Siri as feminine even though she herself is programmed to respond that she has no gender.
Faber works from a strong foundation of previous scholarship while offering invaluable insight for further psychoanalytical feminism and sound theory within science fiction, making this book a great resource overall, but even useful on the micro-level of individual film readings in relation to their respective chapters. Faber’s strength, though it might seem repetitive to some readers, is her ability to optimally and efficiently structure her argument and individual chapters in a way that progresses through the decades from the 1960s to the modern day while giving historical context at the beginning of each chapter, then recommunicating what aspects of the previous chapter she is going to build on, then carrying out a psychanalytical reading of the texts, closing with a summary of what she has just analyzed and a snippet of what the next chapter holds in store. Though she could have stressed the potential queerness and repeated whiteness of certain cultural gender roles and anxieties, Faber makes a particularly strong argument for the vocal engendering of science fiction’s most popular and most obscure computers.
Bryce King is an MA graduate student and instructor at Florida Atlantic University with a concentration in SF and Fantasy. Her master’s thesis debates the limitations of environmental and feminist thinking within The Witcher series, and she is a proud working member of Heartwood Books and Art, an antiquarian and rare bookseller. Bryce is a proud cat mom and Star Wars fan.