Alien at 40: Ash was only doing his job…
Ash has gone down as one of science fiction’s classic evil androids, coldly pursuing a murderous agenda, but behind the mask was a troubled mind, writes Mark Cantrell. In a way, we’re all corporate drones, so wasn’t he more the electric fall guy than the villain?
WE all know the script when it comes to Artificial Intelligence (AI).
At least we think we do.
What begins as the product of human ingenuity turns into something malign. Sooner or later, it appears inevitable that sentient AI will turn on us, with predictably unpleasant results.
But aren’t we just playing the victim here? One way or another, we’ve messed with their minds. We can hardly complain, then, if the end result is less than beneficial to human health and well being.
Take Ash, the science officer in Ridley Scott’s classic Alien, played to chilling effect by Ian Holm. Damned by his words, as much as his deeds, Ash has gone down as one of the classic examples of the duplicitous android: scheming, evil and murderous, he’s a paragon of the ‘breed’.
The robot’s cold disregard for the crew’s lives is epitomised by his final conversation with Ripley. But is this really the confession of a soulless machine, or the resigned observation of a creature trapped in the web of its makers’ hypocrisy?
With a little help from IMDB, let’s revisit the scene. Watch the surviving crew of the Nostromo gather round the android’s broken body; Ripley takes the lead.
“Ash, can you hear me?” She slams her hand on the table. “Ash?”
The mangled robot twitches, its eyes snap open; fluid spills from its mouth as it struggles to speak. Finally, Ash finds what’s left of his voice: “Yes, I can hear you.”
“What was your special order?”
“You read it. I thought it was clear.”
“What was it?”
“Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities rescinded.”
“The damn company,” Parker says. “What about our lives, you son of a bitch?”
“I repeat: all other priorities are rescinded.”
“How do we kill it, Ash?” Ripley asks. “There’s gotta be a way of killing it. How? How do we do it?”
“That’s bullshit,” Parker says.
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
“You admire it,” Lambert says.
“I admire its purity,” Ash replies. “A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”
Need we say more? Maybe we should. Ash’s point isn’t really too far away from the one Ripley made when she challenged Burke in Aliens. “You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse,” she says. “You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”
Personally, I’m not so sure that Ash is the eponymous evil machine. Maybe it’s reading too much into Holm’s nuanced portrayal, but there’s a troubled mind behind that artificial face: one that’s very much clouded by conscience, burdened by remorse, and bitterly reflecting on those delusions of morality.
Little wonder, then, that Ash might admire the xenomorph’s “purity” — but let’s translate that into honesty. The alien makes no pretence; it simply is. The creature doesn’t lie, it doesn’t scheme, it doesn’t claim the moral high ground as a mask for deceit. Simply put, it isn’t human — or even created, like Ash, in humanity’s image.
Poor Ash, he’s in a bad place. There’s no union he can turn to, no professional scientific body he can be a member of, no employment tribunal to take up his case; there’s nobody to fight his corner against the Mighty Man. To quote Parker: “He’s [just] a goddam robot!”
Yes, and one that is — frankly — out of his depth. Ash is no killer, not really. Recall his clumsy attempt at dealing with Ripley, once she’s discovered his special order. Sure, he was pretty adept at throwing her weight around, but when it came to the coup de grace, he was clearly winging it.
Consider the way Ash looked around, uncertain; the agitated drumming of his fingers, the unlikely means of a rolled up magazine by which he tried to dispatch Ripley. No, murder is not his forte; he’s way outside his comfort zone and clearly making a hash of it (no pun intended).
Ash is caught in an impossible bind. We can infer he’s more than a Turing compliant machine; he’s a conscious entity. But he was also built and conditioned to serve, so while he might be all-too aware of human morality’s malleability (and by extension his own), there’s little he can do about it.
When his priorities towards his shipmates are rescinded in favour of the xenomorph, he’s left to try and square a conflicting sense of purpose. No wonder he went a little “twitchy”.
‘Only obeying orders’ may no more cut it for an AI than it does for a flesh and blood human being, of course. That’s assuming that Ash’s conditioning would even permit him to say, “to hell with it” and disobey. Yet, how many of us, in his place, would find the courage to defy our orders? It’s an all-too-human scenario; trapped by duty and loyalty, isolation and insecurity.
Sure, we can acknowledge that Ash is a tool, wielded by faceless — human — masters. It’s implicit in Ash’s final conversation. But the hidden hand of the company apparatchik is everywhere and nowhere, an intangible presence like an act of God or the whim of fickle nature (until Burke plays his hand in the sequel). The robot, meanwhile, is right there. We can touch it, we can curse it, we can burn it, but puppet-masters remain a ghostly presence in the shadows.
Ash is guilty, for sure, but that makes him no less a fall guy, so don’t be too hard on him. The poor android was just a tool of the corporate hierarchy, but then — aren’t we all? Welcome to the human condition.
That’s the thing about AI, at least in the fictional realm — it’s nothing but a reflection of our own maladjusted sentience. No wonder it leaves us a little disturbed…