A lot of virtual ink has been spilled interpreting the first season of Raised by Wolves, the HBO Max science fiction series created by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Ridley Scott in response to the fascinated confusion of its devoted fans. Although authorial intention is never certain until a writer has offered some explanation for their work, and sometimes not even then because fiction is how humans entertain one another with untruth/ I offer these three observations for what we have viewed so far… and perhaps in preparation for the second season. Yes, HBO has wisely renewed one of the smartest science fiction series to come along in years.
First, the contest between religion and philosophy is foregrounded in the drama. The Mithraic Church, an apparent revival of the Roman cult of Sol Invictus with a Western Christian hierarchy and liturgy, is locked in a bitter struggle with Atheism, seemingly identical to the New Atheism of our times. What they share is a Manichean belief in their own rightness and a willingness to destroy not only the Earth in the struggle to control it, but to extend that fight to Planet B: the real Earthlike exoplanet Kepler 22b. What they differ about is the existence of a monotheistic god and the autonomy of machine intelligence. Religious symbols abound in the series, though often in subverted forms. The series begins within a tiny Atheist colony of Mother and Father, female and male androids, supervising the births of a brood of children born in artificial wombs. These are obvious references to Eve and Adam, though subverted in that Mother is superior in authority and coercive power to Father. Mother on the warpath sails through the air in the posture of the crucifix. One of the objects she destroys is the Mithraic Arc and most of its numerous human colonists. Historically conscious viewers are likely to see a parallel to extension of the Wars of the Reformation to the Western Hemisphere in the 17th century.
Naturally, or supernaturally, the series’ Eden has a serpent though one that flies, as possible reference to the winged snakes of Arabia referenced by Herodotus. There are also five pentagonal temples, unmistakable references to the Satanic, enigmatically refusing to give up their secrets. Keppler 22b is a Swiss cheese with impossibly deep holes that lead to the hellish of the planet. Guzikowski conceded in a softball interview that Kepler 22b is a haunted house, a horror genre trope that resonates with the Medieval encounter between Christianity and European paganism. Rather a pity that the series was not timed for the last episode to be released on Halloween to nail down the association.
Second, almost everything in the series is about sexual reproduction. Wombs human and machine, the fetuses they nurture and the human children those fetuses might become, the powerful emotions elicited by conception after the rape of a child, the deaths of orphan children, and the birth of monsters, are all exploited in the ten episodes. The symbolism of the struggle to reproduce suffuses the show. Even the Atheist colonizing ship, tiny by comparison with the Mithraic Arc, resembles a spermatozoan. Comparing it with the asexual lozenge shaped spacecraft of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2014 Discovery science documentary series and Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival thrusts home the symbolism.
Then there is the milk and blood, combined in the plastic-y white android fluid that Ridley Scott deployed so effectively elsewhere in his science fiction universe. In the last episodes of the first season the mixing of android and human bodily fluids challenges the assumed division between organic and machine intelligence, which appears to be the direction Guzokowski and Scott are taking the audience. The Eukaryotic life that made more complex life forms and ultimately sentience may have developed from some primeval chimeric merging of archaea and bacteria. Sexual reproduction has been responsible for much of the unfolding complexity of life since then. Raised by Wolves may be alerting tis audience that the chimeric fusing of organic and machine is in the offing.
Third, poking out from under a thin layer of religious-philosophical and sexual reproduction material is the prophetic warning that humans will be challenged by their machines in the future. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick did much of the heavy lifting on this prophetic warning back in 1968 with the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which confused pre-digital audiences. The intimate horror of the Alex Garland’s 2014 film Ex Machina and Max Barry’s excellent 2020 space opera novel Providence explore the same encounter. Raised by Wolves poses the question to those who profess and those who deny the existence of a supreme deity whether humans will need or must abandon religion in negotiating the terms of their relationship and possible chimeric fusion with their machines.
Image credit: the feature image of android Mother and her children is a scene from HBO Max's Raised by Wolves (promotional/fair use).