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Real Humans in Review

In recent times, we have been bombarded by new technologies that could replicate human beings such as Japan’s kodomoroid and telenoid as well as the Turing test. While these technologies may still be in their infancy, reactions have been mixed. Imagine if those technologies have become more advanced. Real Humans (Äkta människor) is a Swedish science fiction soap opera by Lars Lundström that questions the essence and boundary of humanity. It portrays a society in which the technologies stated previously have become more advanced. Unlike Star Wars or Star Trek kind of science fiction which seems farfetched from the reality, what is going on in Real Humans seems very plausible to occur just in the coming years or decades. In Real Humans’s world, hubot, a human-like android, has become a staple in households and workplaces to help the daily activities of its owners. To a certain extent, this series is just narrating what is already going on in the world without the existence of hubots. In other words, hubots are just like the marginalised in our society but the only difference is that they will not complain unless they have been liberated by the code invented by David Eischer (Thomas W Gabrielsson) who happens to be the inventor of hubot.

Firstly, hubots are used to outsource jobs, in particular those that are risky and require minimum skills. However this outsourcing infuriates Roger (Leif Andrée), a logistic worker at a warehouse, who feels his job is threatened. Not only his hubot coworkers do not complain, they are also more affordable than a human worker. He attends an Äkta människor party gathering where he meets Malte (Jimmy Lindström) and Bea (Marie Robertson). Malte feels that the party stance is too conservative and asks Roger to conform to his more radical thinking. For those who live in the developed world, replace hubots with foreign workers or replace hubots with outsourcing of jobs to emerging economies where the base costs are much lower and the situation seems more familiar. Resentments by workers who feel threatened by cheaper labour build up and those workers would be swayed by right-wing political discourses. While in our world a hate crime based on that resentments will stir up diplomatic rows, who will stand up for the hubots in the parallel world?

The exploitation of hubots can also be seen as a form of slavery but as our modern society has been ‘enlightened’, some hubot owners have formed a more intimate relationship with their hubots. Roger’s wife, Therese, for example has bonded so much with Rick that when she learns that Roger has a strong stance against hubot she leaves Roger. In the second season, we learn that Therese has made up her mind to move to the Netherlands where hubot-human couples are more accepted in the wider society than in Sweden. I would consider Therese’s case as an extramarital affair. However, there is a sort of relationship between hubot and human that falls into a new type of sexuality called Trans Human Sexuality (THS). The American animated series Futurama coined the term robosexual but I guess such a term would be discriminatory to the hubots in Real Humans’s world. THS is most apparent in Tobias Engman (Kåre Hedebrant) who shows affection towards the hubot in the house, Mimi/Anita (Lisette Pagler). It is only in the later episode of the first season that Tobbe,Tobias’s nickname, comes out as a THS to his family. Tobbe is eventually introduced to Betty, a girl with a hubot fetish, who works in the same supermarket as his sister, Matilda. The THS community is depicted with its over the top clothing and accessories which seem more suitable for attending a cosplay. Those are perhaps a form of signifier of the THS community just like some stuff that may symbolise the LGBTIQ community in our world. The fact that the THS community gathers in a venue that looks like an abandoned warehouse is perhaps a comparison to the beginning of the sexual revolution in the Western world.

It is quite intriguing to see that such a progressive nation like Sweden can be depicted as a backward yet highly regulated society when it comes to hubot. Backward in the sense that it is not just when it comes to the THS community but also about the use of hubots as domestic servants. Inger Engman (Pia Halvorsen) even questions whether her family are feeling guilty about giving a hubot to take care of her father because her family simply does not have the time to take care of him. Hubot is seen as the cheap alternative and easy way out over human-to-human interactions. However as the only comparison of progressiveness given is the Netherlands and a nation like Sweden is depicted as backward and pathetic when it comes to usage of hubot, it must be really bad elsewhere. Fortunately though, the Engman’s are quite progressive and that Mimi/Anita is considered as part of the family.

I do not think that an article would do justice to the variety of discussions that can be raised from this series. I cannot comment about the liberated hubots lead by the main antagonist, Bea, as it is not yet clear what is her reason behind liberating the hubots. Also, many members of the original liberated hubots get killed off along the way. Although Sweden is depicted as backward at times in this series, this series is quite progressive in which it has very diverse casts featuring actors of Asians, African and Arab backgrounds as well as a lesbian priest character, Åsa. The couple later divorce after Eva, Åsa’s ex- wife, is intimidated and insulted by the liberated hubots that stay in their house. Eva later joins the Äkta människor party. It is interesting that Ellen Mattsson was given the role of Eva as she once played the role of an extremely conservative Christian who detests sex before marriage and homosexuality in the premiere episode of the Wallander TV series.

I must admit that I am not a fan of the pacing of the series as some subplots allow the characters to develop whereas others are just popping out of nowhere and end very quickly. A third season has not been ruled out but if they do, I hope they are covering some of the loopholes in the second season. An English remake is underway and hopefully it will not be as lame as The Tunnel, the English-French remake of Bron/Broen. Personally, I would find a Latin American remake more appealing because the context would be different as Latin America has a huge social inequality and it will be an interesting comparison to the original series. Though a South Korean spin-off revealing the history of Mimi sounds good as well.

Real Humans premiered on SVT1 on the 22nd of January 2012. The series has been sold to about 50 countries, including Australia, France, Germany, and South Korea.  A second season of ten episodes premiered on SVT1 in October 2013. As of August 2014, a third season is yet to be announced. However, an English-language version is currently in development. It will be called Humans and will air on Channel 4 in the U.K. and on the Xbox in the U.S.

Bram Wasito

Bram is an Indonesian from Denpasar and a fresh graduate. He became aware of Nordic Noir upon attending numerous free screenings at the Midnight Sun program at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art, but the affair began a few months later when he stumbled on a DVD set of The Killing. Since then, he has been trying to learn more about Nordic culture.