Discriminating against the Body Electric: Fallout‘s Synths as a Metaphor for Institutionalized Racism

I’ve been a huge Fallout fan for almost two decades now, reveling not only in its lore and gameplay but also its humorous yet (usually) thoughtful treatment of social issues. The post-apocalyptic genre lends itself to this in a unique way. By incorporating sci-fi and fantasy elements, these stories can deal with fairly abstract concepts. By grounding their narratives in a world steeped in dirt, decay, and the conflict between the social contract and raw survival, the best examples of the genre are often able to address these issues in an accessible (and fun) manner.

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid playing/watching/reading about Fallout 4, here’s a bit of background before we dive in. Set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Boston in the year 2287, the story of Fallout 4 revolves heavily around synths. Synths are synthetic people, made from human DNA, indistinguishable from humans, and created to serve as a labor class for the manipulative and technologically advanced Institute. They are inspired by, if not directly based on, Blade Runner’s replicants. In one way or another, all the major factions involved in the game’s central plot have an interest in what the synths represent and what is to become of them.

Synth in production, looks human to me

A generation 3 synth in production

On the surface, the parallels to western slavery are pretty clear. The synths are a race of people viewed as “human like” by their masters and used as free labor to maintain the status quo for a leisure class. They are given virtually no rights and are seen as little more than machines. While their masters take pains to prevent them being killed or seriously harmed, this is mostly due to the expense involved in replacing them rather than any real concern for their well-being. There is also an underground group seeking to liberate them. This group calls itself the Railroad and is a direct reference to the real life Underground Railroad, being referred to as such even within the world of the game.

The idea that synths are meant to represent slavery as a human institution was clear to me from the get go. But in addition to this central metaphor, the treatment of synths and their place in the game’s civilization goes much deeper. There are parallels to infamous examples of racial and cultural discrimination throughout human history, as well as constant remarks by NPCs that the synths are infiltrating their communities and plotting terrible things. Fear that a synth might be living next door, might kill you in your sleep, and might poison the town’s drinking water is a near constant. While some of this is certainly due to the shadowy operations of their human masters, the synth race has become synonymous with deceit, violence, and threats to civilization itself. Sound familiar? This demonization and scapegoating of an entire class of people is common to most examples of real life discrimination, and synths are a consistent metaphor for that in Fallout 4.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Faust, the Devil, & Welcome to Night Vale

Too fragile a portal into another dimension, a dimension which is probably Hell? IDK. I… I’m not a religious studies major, although if I were, I bet I would have graduated by now.

When I listened to this quote from Maureen in the Welcome to Night Vale episode “Things Fall Apart”, I took it as a little bit of a challenge. I am a religious studies major, and I started to look at some of the past episodes, trying to figure out what the latest plotline of Welcome to Night Vale was leading us to. It wasn’t until I listened to the episode “Who’s a Good Boy?” that I managed to finally figure it out.

Mephistopheles as a dogSpoilers for Episodes 85 to 89 of Welcome to Night Vale after the jump.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The 100 and False Religion

The 100 Clarke looking at PolisWhen I last left The 100, it seemed like religion was a crutch for those who don’t have the right technology, and spirituality is for everyone (but you get more out of it if you’re from an “advanced” society, of course). Now that we’ve finished the season, I’m both impressed and horrified by the ways in which religion is used this season. Religious symbolism moves beyond suggestion into a strong motif, to great effect. While I’m disappointed that religion remains a tool for our characters to use, the writers thoughtfully employ religious imagery and actions in ways that give us a better, more disturbing story… particularly if you’re an adherent to the religions they draw from.

Spoilers for Season 3 of The 100 below.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Lucifer Season Finale & Feminist Theology

Almost a month ago the Lucifer season finale premiered and I enjoyed the heck out of the episode. I loved everything from seeing Lucifer pray to getting a glimpse of hell, but the show really threw me a curve ball with Lucifer’s final line in the episode and the feminist theologian in me isn’t sure how to feel about it.

Major spoilers for the Lucifer season finale after the jump.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Faith in Fantasy

I’ve mentioned before that fantasy is an important tool for analyzing and commentating on reality. Many social conventions that exist in reality are reflected in fantasy, with varying degrees of abstraction, and this allows for some pretty accessible metaphors. I have realized recently, however, that there is a significant difference between the place religion occupies in society and the way it is typically represented in fantasy. The most critical thing is that in reality, of course, religion is a matter of faith: the results of prayer or ritual are not measurable and the existence of deities is not provable. In fantasy, on the other hand, it’s quite common for deities to appear unambiguously and for religious rites to produce clear and repeatable results. That’s generally convenient for the characters, but excluding some or all of the “faith” element makes fantasy religion a much less useful metaphor for real religion. When religion is an important element of a fantasy world, therefore, it does serve a purpose, but generally a less direct purpose than representing or commentating on real religion.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Trickster Gods and Pop Culture

MCU Loki

Trickster gods may seem like a strange thing to some people. After all, why would you believe in a deity who would mess with you for laughs? Pagan trickster gods may occasionally seem malevolent, but they actually serve an important role. In pop culture, trickster gods are often used to critique the powers that be and question the status quo.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The 100 and That Old-Time Religion

The 100 Clarke looking at PolisThere aren’t many shows on television anymore that I enjoy as much as CW’s The 100. Ace has been following the series here since it began, and I’m only just getting caught up. The 100 offers a kind of teenage/YA dystopian escapism that my preteen self would have obsessed over, plus an imaginary boyfriend to boot (Hello, Nurse Bellamy!). Who cares if we never figure out how the characters maintain their never-ending supply of mascara when we have issues to tackle like turf wars and privilege and racism and sexuality? Among these, I had hoped that religion would be handled thoughtfully, but the result is pretty meh. Nevertheless, The 100 gives us a pretty good example of some typical science fiction religion tropes, and how religion can function in ways that help (and hurt) the quality of the story.

Spoilers for The 100 through Season 3 Episode 8, “Thirteen.”

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