We all want to belong, human beings are like that. But with the rise of single-child families, brought on either by social diktats (China in the nineties) or financial burdens, along with the all-encompassing online lifestyle it feels like growing up separate from siblings or extended families is swinging from the exception, over across to the norm.
When I grew up everyone had brothers or sisters. They were great, or annoying, or took up too much space in the tub when mom saved the water by bathing everyone under the age of 6 simultaneously.
Even casual meetings took on a life of their own. If the weather behaved the adults would congregate in the garden, with the ages of the children surrounding them in inverted concentric waves; the littlest in easy reach, the slightly older remaining in sight but down the far end of the garden in the dirt, and finally the very eldest in screaming distance.
Which usually meant down at the far end of the driveway, beyond (or sometimes actually up in the branches of) the fir trees sipping illicit beer from bottles offered by the fathers, the only predication being not to share it with anyone younger than you were.
But then somehow things changed.
And, for anyone with small families that change, either because of geographical or social circumstances, it all suddenly becomes a lot more confusing.
High school, puberty, exams, career choices, etc. The hardest time in your life and now suddenly you’re flying solo.
The constant needling, fighting, arguing that multiple children are exposed to, and therefore toughened with, doesn’t happen.
Being tender-hearted isn’t something ridiculed, and the attention, when it arrives, isn’t something you have to fight for, it’s just there. So when life puts you in situations that require serious elbowing it’s not a learned discipline. You have to will yourself into doing it, and being that green in such a skill makes your boundaries unclear, which can cause some seriously uncontrollable results.
I watched Space: Above and Beyond growing up. It only ran for a single season, and it was produced in the DMZ timeframe of sci-fi shows, between the cheap and the modern, when SFX were still in their infancy. Shows having to rely on camera angles and lighting for nine-tenths of their make-believe and anything computer generated (remember the old Dr. Who bluescreen?) looking horrible through today’s expectant and slightly jaded eyes.
The concept is that aliens attack earth, and 5 individuals join the US Marines, and during the ensuing conflict they become the special attack squad of the corps.
It’s all very interracial and very nineties.
But there’s also the concept of the Invetros. Test-tube humans “birthed” at age 18 and used as indigenous labour for whatever and wherever they’re needed. Basically, the world created an entire new underclass to exploit. One of the five, Cooper, is one of these Invetros, sent to the Corps in lieu of jail time.
His feelings on the whole subject; who he is, where he fits in the world and the situation of the Invetros in general are the focus of the show’s fifth episode, “Mutiny”.
At the beginning the group is ambushed and one of their squad (minor character) is killed. Cooper is visibly distraught at this, later asking the commandeering officer, TC McQueen, himself an Invetro, how he can write the letter of condolence to the man’s family when he has no actual experience on the matter.
It is then we, the audience, learn that Invetros, despite gestating until their 18 in tanks (hence their unflattering slur, repeatedly uttered throughout the show: “Tank”) are still shipped pre-utero as a source of cheap labour. That despite society becoming seemingly more civilised, and now with a war of extinction on its hands, discrimination is alive and well on planet earth.
The group ship out on a cargo-spaceship and Cooper discovers the maintenance crew are entirely Invetro. A circumstance similar to the film Alien, where the minority crew, black and poor, Parker and Brett, service the ship rather than help fly it.
Keats, the foreman, tells Cooper he’s in the right place and the two bond over their shared experiences. Cooper telling the older man that he’s done alright for himself; the belief that even the position of first-mate on a cargo ship is considered a good career for someone like them.
Cooper may not be wrong there, he was working as unskilled labour when he was arrested, and the only time the show reveals female Invetros is when in portrays them as escorts and career prostitutes working at an R&R station, hardly a positive perception.
We then later learn that Invetros group themselves together as family if they find they come from the same batch; a practice that would sound comical if it wasn’t delivered with such heartbreak. For in a world where space-travel and indentured service are the norms finding someone of your own gene-code is nigh-on impossible. As we discover when Keats lends Cooper the ship manifest and they swap information on the off-chance:
“I’ve been looking ten years Coop, so I know what you’re feeling. You’re wondering what it would be like to have family?”
“Only all the time” Cooper replies, almost heartbroken, in a way that implies this is something Cooper carries inside him. Something he wonders but can never verbalise within the military.
They even ask about each other, but the facilities scupper that possibility, one man from Brooklyn, the other from Philadelphia. The scene ending with Keats reciting his own 4 symbol gene-code, clearly something he knows by heart, finishing by saying “You see, I know what my family looks like, but I can’t find them. Enjoy the read”.
And read Cooper does.
He discovers a sister in one of stasis pods.
Right at the very second the ship is attacked and badly disabled.
The captain, logically and rationally then decides that they have to shut down life support on a section of the ship, kill over a hundred people in order to save themselves and the rest, which number over four hundred.
It’s the oldest evil, sacrificing a part to save the whole.
But how do you feel when it’s only Invetros being sacrificed? Or when your sister happens to be in the section doomed to die?
Mutiny breaks out as a result. Keats and the rest of the engine crew storm the bridge seeking to take over. But in the ensuing melee the captain is killed. Keats is saddened by this turn of events (“this isn’t what I wanted” he admits sadly following the shootout), always declaring that he just wants Invetros to be treated equally. Charged with mutiny, the entire engine crew agree to stand with him in a show of solidarity, a stand that is both poignant today as it was then. For what would unions be if not a group of people willing to take the consequences of their actions in their effort to secure fair practice?
Cooper’s experience is the worst of anybody’s. Lectured and dressed down by McQueen over his pursuit for kin, and the older man’s refusal to intervene for his own kind (“How can you kill your own people?”) the final finger-point comes in the form of a strict reminder for the younger Invetro.
“Coop! The 58th is your family! Searching for a past you never lived will only get you hurt!”
A lesson the audience then has to share alongside Cooper, watching in horror as he agrees to turn off the power to that one section in order to save the ship. The generators eerie whine as they shut down, lights slowly blinking out one by one to each pod as the life support is disabled, each occupant expiring inside. One of those we know, being his sister he’s only just discovered.
In the end they get the ship online and the episode ends. McQueen goes to console Cooper. Telling him “We’re marines Cooper, not Tanks… I’m sorry for…”
“Oh what would you know about sorrow?” Cooper interrupts wearily, wandering away in disgust.
“I know this much” he persists. “I never had the courage to look for my family. Not because I was afraid of what I might find, but because I was afraid of what I might feel”.
Whether Cooper takes this on board is unclear. He then wanders exhausted and vacant into the darkened tomb of the expired section, flashlight moving from pod to pod until he finds his sister. Looking up to her, her face lifeless in the fluid we watch him gaze sadly at what might have been, uttering the two simple words “I’m sorry”. Credits roll.
So what does all this mean?
I like to think it means that we can all find a family. Not always a family of blood but often the family that can become stronger than blood. For people on the margins, minorities, outsiders, this is one of the few chances they have of finding something they can call home.
In all of this it isn’t hard to see the attraction of gang culture. And what’s worse, a lot of the time such a family is condemned in the media as one of promoting crime, violence and organising the breakdown of moral society, often by a middle-class media armed with a comfortable background and substantial financial clout.
Home and family can sometimes be so simple. All it has to be is a place where no one wonders about you, because everyone knows what you’re all about.
And in that sense we learn to understand that the 58th really is Cooper’s family. They become closer to him than most biological families could, his siblings when he asks questions about Christmas, never having learnt the concept (“just a day in December when everything was closed, and it was a headache, and it was…. lonelier than usual”) and when the boys try and get him laid during a trip to an R&R resort, which doesn’t end so well but hey, is anyone’s first time really a success?
And in closing, what about reality?
Where do we go, now we’re grown, to feel part of something bigger, something trusting, somewhere warm?
Well, like all things, the answer is both good and bad. Easy and difficult. On the dark side of things you’ll never have the instant friendship-falling out-friendship that you have when you’re small. Grownup life is just not that shallow, we play with each other’s feelings too much, too often, and at times the fallout can be severe.
But the good side so outweighs the bad.
You can make friends with anyone. Anyone in the world can be your family. Any nationality, colour or creed. Any age, and in particular I’ve been taught many things from people almost sixty years older than me. A lady I went on holiday with in May was 86. She was a teenager during FDR’s New Deal, and it was an honour to talk to her about the world.
In retrospect it is hard to see how long Life is. Barring tragedy or disease it often passes people by while they’re making plans for it. And while the days of pyjama parties and the fight for mom’s attention might be gone, the evenings spent drinking wine, following the evening meal, everyone tired and sore and following the harvest as the sun falls is still to come.
The evening spent looking out across the night-time cityscape as the snow falls, cocktail and clutch in hand, heels kicked off is still to come.
The frosty and stark winter’s morning, anticipating bringing your first newborn home from the hospital, and all the responsibility and anxiety such a feat entails, is still to come.
Life is not where you make it, it’s how you make it.
And who you make it with.
Not everyone will be your family, but you should recognise those people when they come into your life. Because, like Cooper, they will give you more than you could ever have imagined; and if you reach for it, can make your life richer, and deeper and more wonderful than you could hope to dream.