When the telescope was first invented, humans must’ve wondered they would finally see God behind the clouds. Alas, as unimaginably vast as space was, God was nowhere to be found.
But there exists another place, more pervasive and immediate, yet elusive and inaccessible. It lies outside time, space, and being – better suited to God’s needs – where everyone can be immortal, immaterial, and infinitely connected to one another.
Eventually, mankind too invented a device that gave them access to this place. It heralded the end of the space age – and it was where they found God.
That device was the modern computer, and thus began the cybernetic age.
In the world of Serial Experiments Lain, God literally comes from the machine. Cyberspace was discovered – not invented – for it had always been God’s home. Like the telescope, the modern computer was merely the means by which mankind could probe this space; but they could never belong to it. Forever separated by the computer screen, the little they saw came to be known as the Wired.
The story is set into motion when the evil genius Masami Eiri learns of God’s existence in the Wired. Here, God (or more accurately Goddess) comprises two beings: Lain of the Wired and Dark Lain. While Lain of the Wired is dormant, Dark Lain uses Eiri to capture her and transfer her consciousness to an artificial body. Lain of the Wired is given a false set of memories and a fake family to deceive her into thinking that she were an ordinary girl, assuming the identity of Iwakura Lain.
The first episode begins in media res, when an introversive, socially inept Lain becomes intrigued with the Wired after her schoolmate, Chisa Yomoda, commits suicide, but later sends Lain an email claiming to have merely given up her physicality. Lain discovers that the Wired can fulfil her needs in the way the material world never could. The more Lain comes to rely on the Wired, the more she reverts back to her original self, Lain of the Wired. Meanwhile, Eiri, who has gotten rid of his body and uploaded his consciousness to the Wired, speaks to Lain, professing to be God. Ultimately, he wants Lain to become disillusioned with the material world and reject it. He believes that if he can get Lain to give up her body as he did, her fully awakened powers would cause the material world to be subsumed into cyberspace, allowing him to reign over all as the new God.
Unfortunately for Eiri, Dark Lain has a different agenda. Incensed that humans would dare intrude into God’s domain, she wants to wipe out all of humanity by resetting time back to zero. This would require the agreement of Lain of the Wired; hence, Dark Lain uses Eiri to try to convince Lain of the Wired that humans are a lost cause, and not worth saving.
All this is but my interpretation; Serial Experiments Lain isn’t the kind of show that presents a coherent plot on a golden plate. Yet, I was never once tempted to dismiss it as psychobabble, for the rawness of Lain’s experiences cut so deeply that, in spite of all the obfuscation, or perhaps because of it, I felt a richness of emotion that no other anime had ever made me feel before.
Fascinatingly, Serial Experiments Lain could actually be read as a retelling of the story of Christ (credits to Chizumatic once again), where God sends a ‘part of Himself to Earth to live among humans, to feel what they feel, to suffer what they suffer, to sin as they do, to fully understand them.’ In other words, Lain is cyberpunk Jesus.
Such a comparison is valuable not because of the similarities, but the differences. While Lain of the Wired, Dark Lain, and Lain could be said to represent God, Satan, and Jesus where plot elements are concerned, their characterisations and functions are much more complex. Dark Lain is less an adversary than a foil. She embodies the autocratic ideals of the God of the Old Testament; her desire to smite humans for trespassing her domain is not unlike the biblical God’s reaction to the tower of babel, and she has no qualms flooding the world. Lain of the Wired, on the other hand, could be said, controversially, to represent the God of today: she is a silent, laissez-faire God. The God of today allows us to build as many babels as we want – spaceships, simulated reality, genetic engineering – and pillage and exploit and massacre, and he hasn’t as much as lifted a divine finger.
Dark Lain and Lain of the Wired thus represent conflicting world orders. While Dark Lain rules over creation with an iron fist, Lain of the Wired is so detached that she isn’t even cognizant of the many atrocities that are taking place; in Layer 06, she emerges from Lain’s consciousness in shock that Professor Hodgeson’s research has been used to exploit young children. Interestingly enough, it is Dark Lain, the antagonist and ‘Satan’ of the show, who plays the biblical God’s role in sending Lain of the Wired to Earth to reevaluate her relationship with humans.
What is Serial Experiments Lain trying to say? In Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction, Scott Bukatman writes that traditional science fiction tends towards two extremes. On one hand, we have the utopian visions of Star Trek and Star Wars (and most mecha anime), where not only do machines offer us more freedom than ever before, we ultimately remain the masters of the machine, our humanity fundamentally unchanged. On the other hand, we have the posthuman, post-apocalyptic visions of 1984 and The Machine Stops, where media technology has reduced us to ‘passive consumers of images’, rendering us more subservient and alienated than ever.
Bukatman observes that a new type of science fiction, in works such as Blade Runner and Neuromancer (and I would add Serial Experiments Lain), has risen to challenge and complicate the attitudes towards technology of traditional science fiction. This genre is known as cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is characterised by a sense of inevitability and ambivalence towards the rise of the cybernetic state, asserting that humanness is not immutable, and has and will be redefined by technology, without engaging in the finger-wagging doomsday premonitions of the other side. Cyberpunk is more interested in understanding this phenomenon than resisting it; it reformulates the consumer of images from an addiction to the ‘very condition of existence’ in a world of terminal identity. Terminal identity – or ‘both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer screen or television screen’ – marks the dissolution of old binaries: man-machine, natural-artificial, virtual-real.
Like other cyberpunk works, Serial Experiments Lain is more concerned, at least on the surface, with constructing a phenomenology of terminal identity, as opposed to a narrative – exemplified by the image of the traffic junction amidst a cacophony of lights and faceless shadows that opens each episode. The first episode is loaded with incredibly abstract imagery – white vapours rising from Lain’s fingers, black liquid dripping from telephone lines, a dual-faced woman getting knocked down by a train – while subsequent episodes jump haphazardly from one subject of interest to another without a clear sense of advancement.
When we access cyberspace, our internal worlds are extended from our eyes to the computer screen, our arms to the keyboard. Our perceptions are filtered through the additional layer of the computer screen, while the rest of our body remains stuck in a limbo, an internal-external state with no place in our disembodied experiences. No longer are they capable of delimiting our internal worlds from the external one. This greatly problematises the idea that we could ever have a truthful representation of an unmediated reality. Is this blog post real or illusory? Is its platonic form really a bunch of 1s and 0s, a movement of electrons (but what good is that)?
That the plot of Serial Experiments Lain, and thus the narrative being told, is obfuscated from us is precisely the point. We’re denied the privilege of structuring and subordinating Lain’s experiences into functions of the narrative – demarcating the real from the illusory, the significant from the insignificant – forcing us to take them for what they are, as ends in themselves. Even if we have no idea what’s going on, Lain’s observations and emotions, her lived consciousness, her longing, empowerment, and vulnerability, continue to present an arresting phenomenology that’s just as ‘real’ to her, with very ‘real’ effects (remember, Lain is for the most part just as clueless as we are).
Serial Experiments Lain mirrors cyberspace in that it’s not about what happens, but what is perceived; trying to demarcate the real from the illusory will have you pulling your hair out, and trying to structure the world with top-down narratives is equally problematic. In the chaos that is cyberspace, we are grounded, first and foremost, by our phenomenologies – our experiences as ends in themselves. In the case of Serial Experiments Lain, we are similarly grounded by Lain’s unreliable eyes – her fear of an imminent yet unknown danger, a profound sense of loss, the shaky faith that she’s still the same person no matter how much she’s changed. It is only by mimicking the dislocating effects of cyberspace that we may seek to translate this invisible, imperceptible realm into the realm of the physical and familiar.
By positing a world where God lives in cyberspace, Serial Experiments Lain recognises that the cybernetic age has gifted us with an unprecedented ability to play god. Lain’s powers to rewrite the memories and undo the actions of others, for instance, are an imagination of what happens when we apply our unlimited powers in the computer to the real world (already an untenable boundary). Eiri’s existence in the Wired parallels a person’s ascension to heaven, implying that we no longer need a god to give our lives meaning in death – we may immortalise ourselves through our online identities long after our physical bodies have rotted away. In cyberspace, we have absolute control of our bodies. We are only identified by what we choose to divulge. We can look and talk however we want. We can falsify away all our ‘real world’ imperfections and blemishes like they never existed at all. We can be anyone we want to be.
This is what Eiri refers to as the upper layer of reality, the next step of our evolution. The virtual world is free, peaceful, and egalitarian. Here, we are all gods. The material world is but an ugly relic of the past.
Yet we are reminded of Lain’s newfound obsolescence, echoing Nietzche’s proclamation that ‘God is dead’. Here, God has literally been displaced and made a refugee by technology. The opening theme, Duvet, could be construed as a plea from God to humankind. It goes ‘I am fallen / I am faded / I have lost it all’, amidst clips of Lain trying to reach out to people from behind the television screen, able to reach out to them but never to connect with them satisfactorily. This indicates an anxiety with what we may have lost.
The more Lain crosses over into the Wired, lured by the intoxicating freedoms of the new world order, the more she finds that she can’t cross back. What starts off as a solution to her introversion, a cushion each time her family fails to meet her needs, soon becomes part of the problem. In one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the show, Lain returns home after accepting her awakened powers, only to discover that her ‘parents’ have vacated the house, considering their work finished. Against orders, her ‘father’ sees her one last time to tell her that he genuinely loved her. As he walks away, Lain shouts after him and begs him not to leave. She doesn’t care that he’s not her real father; she wants him to continue being her father anyway, to give her the love that she’s been denied of. He replies that she’s not alone so long as she connects to the Wired, and leaves.
In adapting the biblical narrative, Serial Experiments Lain emphasises that what it means to be human today is no longer the same as what it meant to be human 2000 years ago. While Jesus grappled with human wickedness, Lain grapples with terminal existentialism. In the cybernetic state, grand narratives of good and evil have dissolved into orgies of conflicting ideologies. The individual has more power than ever but less agency over how to use it. It’s much easier to create and destroy than it is to feel like we’ve lived a purposeful life. It’s not about whether we choose to be human, but if we even know what it means to be human any more.
In the end, as Dark Lain tries to convince Lain to wipe out all of humanity, the question she’s really posing is this: are we still the precious creatures Lain once created, or have we morphed into something grotesque, something unaccountable, something beyond salvation?
It’s hard to tell if we really are happier today. With a greater freedom to refigure ourselves comes a greater pressure to. We’re encouraged to construct idealised versions of ourselves on social media, stripped of the imperfections of the body. With the advent of Facebook and Instagram, everything we do becomes a positional good, from the food we eat, to the books we read, to the charities we support, to the friendships we have, and even the ability to boast without making it too obvious. Then again, perhaps technology has merely made visible the competitive undercurrents of social capital and networking.
Regardless, one thing that distinguishes Serial Experiments Lain from other cyberpunk works is the extent of invisibility of its cybernetic state. Serial Experiments Lain is not set in a sprawling juxtaposition of high rise buildings and lawless street life. There are no hackers, criminal organisations, mega-corporations, nor action-packed sequences that spectacularly conflate physical and virtual reality. Rather, it’s set in the suburbs. If science fiction traditionally deals with distant futures, and cyberpunk traditionally with immediate futures, Serial Experiments Lain deals with the present.
Bukatman notes that science fiction prepares us for the uncertainties of the future by swapping out our linguistic signifiers an entirely new set (his favourite example, ‘her world exploded‘, takes on a dual meaning only in science fiction). If so, Serial Experiments Lain warns us to start thinking about the present by eroding away the signs of our time. The message is clear: the cybernetic state need not tower above us to rule us, for it already lurks in our shadows.
This is part 1 in a 3-part series on Serial Experiments Lain and technology. The 2nd part is Serial Experiments Lain and the Hypermasculine Cyborg.