Monday, April 13, 2009

Red Mars (Cont.)

“The revolt seemed to Nadia more a waste than ever, an unfocused spasm of rage, the ultimate cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. The whole world, wrecked! She told the others to send out a radio message on one of the general channels, announcing that Arkady was dead. Sasha agreed, and helped convince the others to do it. “It will help stop things more quickly,” Sasha said” (513).

This New World is a dangerous one, and fear seems rampant even before war breaks out. It is a place where, mixed with an idealism of what Mars could be, death and destruction seem part and parcel of everyday life: “New organisms are being cooked up daily,” John sent on, “and it might be possible to create something that would kill everything else on the planet.” (261). Cultures remain isolated and inscrutable to one another: “Worse than that, there was now a whole society on Mars that was basically impenetrable to him. Moslems, what were they exactly? (282). And so John might attempt to “inspire the people on the planet to figure out a way to forget history, to build a functioning society,” but even his idealism has its limits, as when he notes that “events were out of control” and “there were no plans” (283). It might have been okay – this beginning of a new life together – if they had left an Earth where citizens played nicely with one another. But no such luck! Instead, it has several wars in progress and the citizens of this great land have created such a “shithole” that they have essentially moved to Mars – not as a great experiment, but as an escape.

And so they brought not only their fears of other cultures with them, but also their inability to understand and tolerate one another. Their personal relationships serve as a microcosm of just such discord. John sleeps with Maya not just out of lust, but also as a punishment for Frank, who still wants her. And Ann may discuss the insurgents with John, but she bluntly tells him she wishes them luck, because unlike John, she does not want to change the planet. And John wants to work through UNOMA while Maya prefers not to, which causes more disagreement between them. Frank resents John’s power and actively seeks to kill him. Sax wants terraforming, but at the expense of the ecological health of the planet, and Frank reminds him that it comes at a cost: “Real costs, Sax. . . . Think what will happen when millions of displaced Terran emigrants arrive here, and with all their viruses, biological and psychic. Maybe they’ll all join Arkady or Ann, ever thought of that? Epidemics, running through the mob’s body and mind – they could crash your whole system! . . . You should pay attention! This isn’t mechanics, Sax. It’s ecology. And it’s a fragile, managed ecology, so it has to be managed” (403).

Even John, the ultimate idealist, realizes that “few of the newcomers seemed much like the first hundred in regard to their reasons for coming” (284). And worse, there are bands of insurgents following their own leaders (Bogdanovists, religious communes, utopian experiments, nationalists, followers of the biologist Schnelling, etc. . .) in what appears to be a microcosm of the craziness on Earth. And worse, the Margaritifer group, apparently with Arkady’s permission (he told them to work on Clarke?), intentionally separate the cable – killing masses of people in the process (which they excuse as mostly UN police), and then sheepishly realize that they may have killed Arkady in the process. And of course, in this dystopian world, there is no punishment for their actions, except for the aftereffects of the chaos that they too will have to live in.

It is also never really clear what Arkady actually intended, or instructed his followers to do, as he himself states “And if some of his own people were keeping things from him, that was bad; but if another group had secret plans of its own, that was worse, apparently, because they were at least interference, and perhaps competition” (191). What a mess. And when war comes, it seems to come from all sides: “Look, Sax, this isn’t the American Revolution, or the French or the Russian or the English. It’s all the revolutions at once, and everywhere! A whole world is in revolt, with a land area equal to Earth’s, and only a few thousand people are trying to stop it . . .” (513).

And so, many of the first hundred are brought back together in their new “home,” as Hiroko states, but that plot development does not make this novel a utopia. Only the next two novels will tell whether they can manifest their dreams without killing one another.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Red Mars

It does not seem that Mars can ever be inhabited. I question the ability of a colony to survive on a forbidding planet, and even after watching these original 100 inhabitants live in a tent of polyvinylidene difluoride – its carbon atoms linked to hydrogen and fluorine atoms, resulting in a substance that resembles saran wrap - I still question it. This tent fabric, because it is invisible, causes them to feel they are in the open air; it even has skyscrapers as part of the tent framework. Yet no one seems bothered by the fact that it is not real. It begs the question, is a fake world as good as a real one? Frank Chambers has a moment, in his speech, when he finally wishes to be honest (“The planet, taking in itself, is a dead frozen nightmare . . .”) and yet he stops himself (7). Is he afraid of dashing the hopes of the new inhabitants? Of hurting the creation he euphorically built in his own mind?

It is not as though these doubts are put to rest. The whole colonization process is a mess of tensions and battles between races. And so, as Eric Otto points out in “Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and the Leopoldian Land Ethics,” the “settlers’ hopes are indeed utopian in the etymological sense that utopia is always impossible and always existing nowhere (118).” As Maya Katarina Toitovna, the settlement’s leader of the Russian contingent, reflects, “Interest groups, micropolitics – they really are fragmenting. One hundred people only, and yet they were too large a community to cohere” (Otto 118/Robinson 76). It does not bode well for the end of the book, for the success of this colonizing process.

Stanley Robinson drops hints throughout the text regarding the unsuitability of this process on several levels, but particularly when she addresses the harshness of the climate: “There was never any spontaneous generation out of the clays or the sulphuric hot springs; no spore falling out of space, no touch of a god; whatever starts life (for we do not know), it did not happen on Mars. Mars rolled, proof of the otherness of the world, of its stony vitality” (96). If no touch of god exists on this planet, can life? If whatever starts life does not begin it on Mars, can a tent and specially designed Rovers allow them to sustain it, and if so, is it worth the sacrifice?

It is hardly surprising that when people try to create a colony, friction results – friction over job assignments and religion and architecture/hierarchy. All of these issues exist on Earth, and since they have never been resolved here, it is unlikely they will once people are far away on another planet. Buddhist friends of mine say that we take our karma with us wherever we go – there is no escaping it. Even on Mars. William White’s article, ‘”Structuralist Alchemy” in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars,” notes the disharmony that exists in this colony. It even exists amongst the reluctant, alienated psychiatrist, Michel Duval, who eventually leaves with Hiroko Ai to be part of the “bioscience-oriented ‘farm team’ that ‘splinters off from the colony at the end of Part 4 to pursue in secret their vision of Mars’” (580). I may not have read the end of Red Mars, but such actions hint at a catastrophic end to this “harmonious” colonization.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean

Obviously A Door into Ocean (DIO) has similarities with Herland. Both exist in a fiction place: Herland in an isolated society composed entirely of women who reproduce via parthenogenesis and DIO (called lifeshaping) on the fictional planet Sharers (a watery moon), where women use genetic engineering to control the birth of an all-female population. Also, as is true with ecofeminism, the Sharers control the ecology of the planet, and in Herland, the three men notice the distinctive difference of the well-tended fruit trees and landscape as they enter this isolated town. Like the community in Herland, the Sharers are uninterested in the power structure of the patriarchy and meet all outside threats with nonviolence, as when the women surround Jeff, Van and Terry to keep them both from escaping and from hurting the women. Both groups share everything; for instance, their children and their homes belong to the community, and equality is integral to the success of this world. Unlike Herland, the Sharers base their ideals on spiritual tenants; here they wish to save their oceans, while on Herland, water is rarely mentioned. But the idea is the same: both treasure nature and wish to lesson their footprint on it, including the violence/wars that humans can wage against one another, which also impact the planet upon which they reside.

In her study guide, Slonczewski mentions that A Door into Ocean sets up "a series of interlinked polarities or binary oppositions, all of which relate to traditional notions of female/male." These oppositions are resolved through the course of the study, as when biological sciences, i.e., the "soft" science - the feminized version of more hard sciences (such as chemistry or physics) - is given equal weight when the Valan (male) soldiers teach the Sharers that hemoglobin contains iron, which is also present in the weapons they use to kill.

What I like about the story is that finally, unlike Piercy, we have a tale where the author does not attempt to place one gender above another. Females are not valued more than males (Though, if I were to play devil's advocate, I would ask if that were necessarily true? The entire culture is set-up under the premise that men have so messed up the ecology of the planet and the relationship of men and women, that they have to be removed from the planet entirely, and that this successful world order comes from getting rid of the men.) So when Merwen attempts to adopt a male Valan and show the Sharer's this male is equal to them, it is only possible for this man to come into a dominant female order if he behaves himself. He must, as in Herland, be re-trained to be less male. Otherwise, the cycle begins again. I am not anti-male, but I do wonder how having a female order, and then attempting to slowly bring men into an order through a type of re-training, will suffice. It seems an awfully slow way to create equality among the sexes and a valued ecological space.

Monday, March 23, 2009

William Gibson's Neuromancer

Technology is obviously key to the vision of Gibson, but as he himself notes in his Introduction to Neuromancer, "I suspect that Neuromancer owes much of its shelf life to my almost perfect ignorance of the technology I was extrapolating from" (xi). This vision includes his use of cell-phone technology throughout the text, and he acknowledges that the text has taken on a life of its own - much like that of an adult child one never sees, though in fact his interest lies with the "13 year-old, curled on a sofa somewhere, twenty pages into the book and desperate to get to the root of the mystery of why cell phones aren't allowed in Chiba City" (xi).

The text is also marvelously prescient (if indeed, that is the word, for Gibson notes that other writers had used hand-held communication devices before him) in its terminology, but then again, I'm not sure what was considered the norm in 1984? It certainly seems ahead of its time. At the end, it mentions the matrix, as when Pauley establishes a deal with Wintermute/Neuromancer to be freed from the construct so he can exist in this matrix. Case, who was once a cyber cowboy, able to hack into ROM constructs - among other things - tries not to flatline, and on several occasions enters cyberspace, as when he attempts to pierce the Turing-imposed software barriers using a powerful icebreaker program (ICE is apparently intrusion countermeasure electronics).

And certain people on the edge of society (I picture a type of tatoo parlor that instead consists of DNA manipulation and mechanical body parts) have actually integrated technology into their bodies (genetic surgeons in Tokyo specialize in reseting DNA codes), as with Molly's eyes, which seem to be 10X holograms of reflected color lenses - though this feature stamps her as unladylike.

At a certain point, the book's use of computer/Web terminology is just ridiculously ahead of the curve: no wonder it has a cult following. Apple I computers had only been in existence since 1977 and IBM PC's didn't arrive until 3 years before this book was printed. Most people were lucky to know someone who owned a computer, and were hardly expert users or familiar with the terminology. So how in the world, in his first novel, did Gibson manage to write/dance so fluidly with the technology?

The plot of the book is rather convoluted, and I am not sure whether that is a strength or weakness. Perhaps I am not enough of a die-hard science fiction fan to appreciate it as a strength, but by the time the text enters the halfway mark, it becomes extremely difficult to keep it together. I need a map. One has to keep in mind that Wintermute is partially a Neuromancer, and that Corto has a hidden objective, and that we have no idea why one-half of a super-AI entity would be banned from connecting with another (Turning Law Code), or why the Tessier-Ashpool dynasty, which seems determined to hide its actions, would attempt to merge with the other half-Neuromancer. The characters themselves are also quite odd, as with the unfrozen daughter clone Lady 3Jane Marie-France, or the psychopath Riviera. And Case has conversations with a dead girlfriend, in the sense that he seems able to contact to her in the beyond - a place which is never really referenced as either heaven or hell.

Obviously, it is easy to see both the cyber and punk aspect of the novel - humans as machines and the rebellion against authority. I certainly see Haraway's point that the cyborg is "resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian, and completely without innocence" (152). It sounds pretty horrid. I keep expecting her to mention incest and bestiality as additional qualities. Whether, as in Dr. Spark's notes, this mechanization is ultimately a good thing is never really answered, but at least for Case the end is positive (the drugs are dissolved without hurting him, he can continue with his "career" and he finds a new girlfriend). But as with many of these sci fi books we have read, I still wonder if in our advancement we've really advanced. I certainly wouldn't want anything to do with this world they inhabit, whether on the fringes or not.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Week 8: Tiptree

"Her stories and novels are humanistic, while her deep concern for male-female (even human-alien) harmony ran counter to the developing segregate-the-sexes drive amongst feminist writers; What her work brought to the genre was a blend of lyricism and inventiveness, as if some lyric poet had rewritten a number of clever SF standards and then passed them on to a psychoanalyst for final polish." — Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree

One of the strengths of the feminist texts of Alice Sheldon, whether written under her own name, under James Tiptree, Jr. (ex.: "The Women Men Don't See"), or under the name Raccoona Sheldon, is that they allow women and men to exist together even while struggling to understand their place in the crazy world within which they reside. For example, in The Screwfly Solution, a passionate love affair between a married couple still exists in the midst of the mass slayings of the Pauline Purification cults. And even as Alan imagines "the only body he longed for" and searches for answers to the heightened killing of women along the Intertropical Convergence Zone, he still finds himself, within days, of confusing his desire for Anne with the thrill of slitting her throat. And to protect her, he tells her to stay away from him - kill him if she must.

And even as men slay women, indeed dress as hunters seeking their prey, a family friend, Dr. Barnhard Braithwaite, hides Anne at a remote cabin. Here she is often forced to flee from the men around her, and we get a sense of her terror at being the only women left in the world. And this is where Sheldon/Tiptree is at her best - for the old man, obviously past the physical need for sex (at least, that is the only way I can account for his ability to identify her and not wish to harm her – he has bypassed the “close linkage between the behavioral expression of aggression/predation and sexual reproduction” of other men), warns her that the men are carrying out their “liberation.” Nothing in this relationship between men and women is ever fully evil, as Anne acknowledges in her epitaph, when she writes "Here lies the second meanest primate on earth,” aptly noting that even women are capable of great wrong under the right circumstances.

And as Brian Aldiss notes in the quote above, Tiptree’s feminist texts did not seek to bloody men (even if only metaphorically), as with Marge Piercy’s Women on the Edge of Time, or even isolate themselves from men, as in Charlotte Perkin’s Herland (Perkins seems to have spawned similar tales, as with West’s “The Last Man,” which also seems to be written along similar lines: here the real woman initiates natural love and “the couple’s subsequent flight because she can’t stand the all-female society’s lack of liveliness and love” (Russ 52). I think that is why I like Tiptree's stories. There is a natural balance to her texts even in the midst of the horror, which may, as noted in Michael Swanwick’s Introduction, be an aspect of her character: “the outcome of the battle reflects Tiptree’s antipathy for all ultimate resolutions” (xi). I see it as a maturity that can see past the need for vengeance to a kinder need to find the peace that can exist between the sexes.

And though Joanna Russ may we correct in her reflection upon the ten tales she selects, including Tiptree's "Mama Come Home," I do not agree that the conflict is resolved when the men's victory includes a quasi-religious conversion of the women, or that the women "constantly plan to do away with men" while men "it seems, are not willing to do away with women" (43). The only reason Anne is still alive in "The Screwfly Solution" is because the men have not yet found her, and she - knowing her fate - decides to take her own life. The "liberation" the hunters seek is not one for her soul. And again, ironically, it is a man who has attempted to hide her. Still, I acknowledge that the tales Russ has selected probably do in fact carry the theme she mentions; it just so happens that it does not apply to all of Tiptree's work.

I do, however, like Russ' notion that women are not always actively engaged in fighting with men; at times they have merely withdrawn from man's company, which is seen - almost identically - as a challenge to male domination. Now that would be interesting to follow, for one can see it in Herland as well. And, I wonder, if it was Connie's anger ("The anger of the weak never goes away, Professor, it just gets a little moldly....and probably those angers go on growing in the dark of the grave like the hair and the nails") and her ability to withdraw from the "the institution" that brings about their interest in controlling her mind in this world. If she had not withdrawn, would their need to control her have been as total? It could be said that her ability to withdraw is in fact her power.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Woman on the Edge of Time

Woman on the Edge of Time is a traditional utopian structure. Here Connie guides us through the future, which is set in Mattapoisett, MA, by intentionally juxtaposing the two worlds: "She gloried in breathing outdoor air, in seeing more than four walls, in smelling trees instead of medicine and diarrhea and disinfectant" (88). Libby Falk Jones, in "Gilman, Bradley, Piercy, and the Evolving Rhetoric of Feminist Utopias" sees her path between these two worlds as a method for the reader to follow - as a "path of acceptance" which allows us to see her metaphorical sacrifices: including her lost first daughter, the death of her beloved first husband (a blind jazz musician), and finally herself (though not without the retribution of killing her doctors by parathion and thus sealing Luciente's future.)

But as utopian as this work may be, Luciente is at war – though a worthy war – with the robots who are connected to the technology of brain control. This same technology is being used on Connie by her doctors at the institution she has been forced back into (in the most convoluted story) by her daughter’s pimp, and so she has a vested interest in this war, and it is hardly surprising that she finally takes on her power and enlists as a fighter in this war of the future, which ironically she turns into a war against the institution presently torturing her. So in one world she has power and in the other, she is being robbed of it.

Connie's visits to the future, as noted in Professor Spark’s article, “Woman on the Edge of Time” often “mirror or compensate for aspects of her past or events on the ward.” Thank goodness, because they give the reader an “out” to the horror of watching the medical community experiment without hesitation on the “Other." Clearly the marginal nature of both Connie and her family members (her prostitute daughter Dolly, Dolly’s aborted six month old child, the drugs and starvation, Dolly’s abandonment of Nita – which, under the circumstances, is the kindest thing to do) – what a mess, and after the beatings and abortion and intolerable cruelty to Connie, one has to have an alternate world to escape all of this reality. It is simply too much. I'd much rather see Connie fight her oppressors than be the victim. Also, aspects of this future travel reminded me of the Avatars in World of Warcraft - where women are just as powerful as men, and can fly through time.

One aspect of this 1976 book that I found fascinating was the prostitute Gildina who undergoes surgery and drug treatments to "attain the exaggerated female traits her culture sees as beauty"; she is under some contract that requires her to be attractive! And this is 33 years ahead of Hollywood's addiction to plastic surgery. Now, when plastic surgery becomes a necessary ingredient to being a successful prostitute, we’ll know we are in a Piercy future.

Things I'd like to stay away from: the gender-neutral language, with its strong kinetic verbs, as well as the biological reproduction techniques and hormone induced milk from 2-3 parents of either sex. I have to keep in mind that at the time of publication, women were fighting to have equal educational opportunities and a place in male-dominated companies, and much more. I just wish we could be mothers in feminist texts without needing to force men into the biological roles of women. I wish men and women could stop punishing each other for being what they are, but honor it and give it equal weight and value.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Dispossessed

As I read Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), I kept comparing it to Hitchcock film, Torn Curtain (1966). In the film, Paul Newman's character (Michael Armstrong), an esteemed American physicist and rocket scientist, is sent to attend a conference in Copenhagen, but ends up flying to East Berlin, where he is greeted by the East Berlin government and met by the media. Apparently he has defected during this Cold War period, and although later we learn it is a ruse, we spend much of the opening of the film trying to ascertain if he is a traitor. There are numerous differences between the film and book (Armstrong does plan on escaping once he has the missile information, and his aim is to help the West - not to unite two countries as Dr. Shevek wishes to do), but enough similarities to make it interesting. Both men, Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Shevek, are brilliant physicists, both are greeted warmly in their new environments - yet also met with suspicion, both have a noble aim. So this begs the question, how much fear were people under during the Cold War, whether consciously or unconsciously, that similar themes would keep re-inventing themselves? Apparently, quite a bit.

In his chapter "Utopia and Its Antinomies," Jameson notes that Le Guin has "attempted to transcend local Cold War stereotypes by making her communists over into anarchists, with overtones of Taoism" (155). I wonder if it has worked for others? I still read Cold War in the text. Jamison also notes that no objections are made against the "Anarresti collectivist mode of production" while the political structure of Urras is effectively hidden until the strike (in contrast to the Anarres lynch mob that meets Dr. Shevek at the beginning of the book) (156). Instead, we are lead to question the notion of consumption, and to watch - through Dr. Shevek - a discomfort at the wealth of a nation where the wealthly have unlimited access to food and shelter of the highest order, while the poor are unemployed and suffer as a result.

Urras has sought no leader such as Odo, who denounced the excess of a consumerist society, and the abolition of property, has a sizeable influence (God-like?) on Anarres, which places the collective and social totality above personal profit as almost a "moral incentive" (158). Ironically, Odo is from Urras - is indeed buried there with a simple stone, and one wonders what Urras could have been - with its beautiful landscape and wealth of natural riches - if it had practiced more restraint and less consumerism. And Shevek can look at Urras - with its magnificent fabrics, and rooms adorned with sensual objects, and a landscape of "blue skies and meadows and forests and great cities" and still realize - because he was raised in Anarres, that something is wrong with the package: "And you open the box and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man."