Wetware and the Liqu-id in Forbidden Planet [extract]
05 May 2017 • cinema / science fiction / literature / photography / surrealism

* * * [Disclaimer: I do not own the image here. It was taken from a Google search. This is an unpublished non-commercial piece of writing].

This is an extract from A Conversation with a Bicycle: A Cultural History of Collision Between Humans and Machines.


It is the cyborg’s connection to a reticulated system which frees the ghost from the limitations of the body, but there is still a difficulty in locating plastic corporeal boundaries, and the scope and transparency of a network. Science fictional depictions of these boundaries can involve, as in Ghost in the Shell, the ability to hack into a consciousness, but the focus is not always on digital modes of freeing oneself from the body. Desire can function as an emotional geyser, of what author Claudia Springer calls ‘getting out of the meat’.

In Rudy Rucker’s cyberpunk novel Wetware (1988), couples and groups meet to take a highly addictive drug called Merge, the effects of which are the reversal of the bindings between cells.1 Users are reduced to desirous body puddles, which intermingle and react allowing increased levels of liquid intimacy, further provoking orgasmic experiences. In the realm of robots the flow of wetware connotes the process of a parallel exchange of data; in humans, wetware pertains to the ineffable operations of the mind — not the neurons themselves, but the impulses inside them.   

Man Ray’s 1929 photograph Primat de la Matiére sur la Pensée [The Primacy of Matter Over Thought] (1929)

Man Ray’s 1929 photograph Primat de la Matiére sur la Pensée [The Primacy of Matter Over Thought] bears a title which separates the physical hardware of matter from the etherial wetware of thought. The photograph depicts his partner at the time Kiki de Montparnasse, lying nude on her back on what looks like exposed floor tiles. Her face is tilted towards us, and sits within the angle created by her left arm thrown back in slumber or seduction; the palm of her left hand is opened and is pointed upwards. We see her left side, her right hand covers her right breast, her right leg is bent slightly at the knee. It is an eroticization of the female form, with a grounding in classical aesthetic construction, but Man Ray’s use of the process of solarisation, which reverses the tone of a section of the image, gives the figure a sculptural or ghostly quality. The heavy black shadows and white highlights that surround her are too pronounced to be natural, and pull her out of the softer background which blurs with charcoal-like indeterminacy. The reversed shadow about her thigh, buttocks, and back make her look as if she were liquifying, as if the bindings between her cells were eased, as if Venus herself were turning into mercury. She is dripping with desire itself, not just the physical manifestations of it.

Altaira: [swimming in a pool] Come on in.
Commander John J. Adams: I didn't bring my bathing suit.
Altaira: What's a bathing suit?
Commander John J. Adams: [quickly turning his back] Oh, murder!2

The distillation and materialization of the sexual and instinctual impulse, the id, is the premise of Fred Wilcox’s 1956 science-fiction film Forbidden Planet. On planet Altair IV, Starship C-57D is sent to investigate the fate of their predecessors who landed twenty years before. They meet Dr. Edward Morbius, the previous expedition’s scientist, and his nubile daughter Altaira, who titillates the crew with her revealing outfits and naïveté. After piquing such interest in Commander Adams (Leslie Nielson), he invites her to return home to Earth, a planet she has never known. A mysterious murderous force is let loose on the crew, and many are killed in the resulting altercations — their weapons prove to be ineffective against the beast which only reveals itself in a forcefield. It is determined that the now extinct natives, the Krell, built a machine which allowed them to bring about whatever they desired, and this machine has released a monstrous projection of Dr. Morbius’s id; his repressed urges towards his daughter conspiring to condemn the men who would remove her from him. It is The Tempest with a Freudian storm, and it is the storm that stirs the sex in Altaira and in the crew of Starship C-57D. Altaira’s usually benign pet tiger attacks her after she emerges naked from a pool and shares a kiss with Commander Adams. Her sensibilities and attachments are in the process of change. Inextricably bound to the planet through name, the further she moves from it in mind and body, the more it seems to turn on her: there is a thinly veiled loss of purity metaphor at work as she recounts her lessons in academia to the inquisitive Commander, when she stumbles in the middle of the subject ‘bi—ology’. Before the Commander’s romance with Altaira, he confronts her when she becomes a distraction to his crew, who it is clear bring with them their very own repressed male ids, longing to be loosed in a new world. ‘It’s so easy for you, isn’t it?’ pleads the Commander,

‘there’s no feelings, no emotions, nothing human would ever enter your mind. Well, it so happens that I'm in command of eighteen competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of twenty-four-point-six who have been locked up in hyperspace for three-hundred-and-seventy-eight days’.3

The Commander condemns Altaira for her lack of humanity because she does not understand his crew’s incubated lust. The crew relies upon their spaceship to traverse the universe, as in much the same way, Dr. Morbius relies upon the Krell’s technological marvels for the acquisition of a scientific and historical knowledge of an extinct race, but in both cases the frozen liqu-ids of the male characters are unexpectedly changed when re-melted on the other side of the machine.


[1]  Rudy Rucker, Wetware, (USA: Avon Books, 1988).
[2]  Forbidden Planet, dir. by Fred Wilcox, (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: 1956).
[3]  Ibid.