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."

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Environmental Impact of The Sheep Look Up

Come, let us rise: the shade is wont to be
baneful to singers; baneful is the shade
cast by the juniper, crops sicken too
Now homeward, having fed your fill —
eve's star is rising — go, my she-goats, go
-Virgil's 10th Eclogue

What captured me about this novel, other than the unique method of writing and the absolutely magical way he ties together stories that often seem unrelated for significant portions of the text, is the dystopian vision of an environmental crisis so extreme, that citizens have no choice but to rise up against corporate interests. Government itself seems ineffective beyond belief at dealing with the unraveling of global concerns, and is largely relegated to the background – clean up activities and stately Senate hearings. We are never taken into the inner sanctum of the White House and there is no omniscient narration of powerful political figures; indeed the Trainites seem to direct the majority of their subversive behavior towards corporate activities or just to disrupting, for example, traffic in LA. Yet the lack of political involvement undercuts the entire book – one can not help noticing that it is the lack of a leader, of a person who will force people to take responsibility for the mess they have created, that creates the most extreme emotional response. The nameless, faceless politicos had better stay isolated because if this ineffective response is the way they handle what is essentially war time in the US, they might as well be dead (and, ironically, they seem to be for all except the corporations).

In the book (and one could argue, in the current day) very single aspect of life in the United States has become a struggle – the food chain is corrupted, the air quality leads to early death, the water is undrinkable, the youngest children are the weakest, and there is little discussion of spiritual life or even of quality of life. And, as with the genetic mutations of seeds that have begun proliferating over the last few years, there is little research to show what long term effect such activities will have on people. In the introduction to Rachel Carson’s Silent Springs, Al Gore notes that “Poisoning the food chain anywhere ultimately poisons the food chain everywhere.” So the isolated incidents in Africa – the food poisoning at Noshri, will – by the nature of our ties together, come home to roost. Yet few people, even today, recognize that their actions come at a consequence to others - that we are tied together in a brotherhood that looks beyond gender, race, or socio-economic factors, and it is our inability treasure one another that will be our undoing.

There is a selfishness at work that is so extreme, that no one seems to feel love for one another outside of the most nuclear of families, which we also saw in Dr. Bloodmoney – that we would not see our neighbor as ourselves, or value one another enough to say these chemicals that poison and pain you are my responsibility to clean up, that this trash in the ocean is my responsibility to clean up, that this air you can not breathe is my responsibility to clean up. There seems to be no person holding themselves responsible. And though it is understandable that the Trainites would direct their anger outward, it is hardly a solution. Where are their leaders, the ones that care about them? The one person with the most knowledge of "where the poisons are hidden" has been so ostracized from society that he collects garbage – a metaphorically correct job for someone who has no other way of helping us clean up our act. I agree with Al Gore - we've gotten a Faustian bargain - short term gains for long-term tragedy, and it is evident not only in Brunner's book, but in our own air quality, food supply quality, water quality, health care quality, etc. . . . This is one of those books I'll remember for a lifetime, and I can see how it, along with Rachel Carson's Silent Springs, could jumpstart an environmental movement.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Dr. Bloodmoney, AKA Narrative Line as Unstuck from Referent

Here, as Jameson notes in his "Philip K. Dick, In Memoriam," Science Fiction is understood as the attempt to "imagine the unimaginable" (345). Philip Dick's book may defy classification, which is not hard to do in Sci Fi, but it is still a novel, and as such, it has to work within our notion of narrative, and particularly, character development. And I admit, the book is brilliant, and I am glad I read it, but I felt no emotional connection with any of the characters in the book (the closest was Stuart, who seemed most normal, though in the text he sees himself as an outsider and "disappears" from this white world for nearly 200 pages, leaving us to deal with all the freaks - or as Jameson puts it, "real mutants." Most art forms - a film, a novel, even a painting - require some aspect of emotional identification. So what sets this book apart?

I start with the notion, mentioned in “Philip K. Dick, In Memoriam,” that this sub-genre requires “different (and stricter) laws than high culture, and can sometimes express realities and dimensions that escape high literature” (345). Dick, in his depiction of a 1960’s “countercultural” theme, seems to collect characters from a world of average Joes caught in otherworldly situations. These situations create a “collective” with a “fitful and disturbing reappearance, most often in a paralyzed community of the dead or the stricken” (347).

Well, this world certainly contains its share of the walking dead. The environment has been destroyed, the population paralyzed by a cataclysmic event, the food is gone, the ability to communicate dangles by the slimmest thread, communities are isolated or non-existent, and the “fittest survive.” Yet this notion of the strongest has mutated, as now the fittest include a phocomelus with no arms or legs and the ability to strange people with his mechanical arms and psychic mind; wild rats that can outwit humans; and an isolated individual who believes he began WWIII and can still wreck havoc with a power unequalled by any including God.

These characters are also set apart because they survive an atomic cataclysm which narrows their social environment to a handful of immediate survivors, and to a "kaleidoscopic plot structure" that Dick creates to hide the psychic world that maneuvers from the inside of Bluthgeld, to the outside of this "nightmarish uncertainty" (350). In "After Armageddon: Character Systems in Dr. Bloodmoney," the narrative slips from its dock into the "boundary between real and hallucinatory" so that nothing can be thought of as real or true (350). What we are left with are characters with which we can not identify as they are not really real.

As mentioned in "Man, Android and Machine," it is the lack of pure categories - of living and non-living, that makes Philip Dick most afraid - the man versus machine - the millions of hyprid humans that will one day exist between two worlds - the world, to some extent, that Aldous Huxley imagined and that scientists are bent on creating. And because the scientist has no reason to stop - indeed, as Dick points out - they have not found our soul, so they have declined to admit that it exists - they continue their quest, leading us blindly into a "state of a half-life . . . neither dead nor alive, but preserved in cold storage, waiting to be thawed out." It is here that I admit I am most uncomfortable - for all of these characters seem emotionally, physically or mentally half-dead, living the life of a zombie, and I can find no one with which to identify.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Brave New World

Greg Garrard's discussion of wilderness creates quite the juxtaposition against Brave New World and E.M. Forster this week. Yet, as Garrad states, wilderness is a relatively new concept, and has both negative and positive connections - as with its depiction as a threat (The Epic of Gilgamesh), or where one lands after Eden, or its association with Satan. But it also epitomizes the "untrammeled realm to which the Euro-American has a manifest right" (60). It is, as Garrad states, a space of purity and carries with it a motif of escape and return.

He also discusses William Cronon’s identification of the “otherness” as part of the discussion of wilderness, arguing that the wilderness quietly expresses and reproduces the values its devotees seek to reject (69). One could argue that there is a wilderness, and an otherness to this wilderness in each of the stories that we read this week. For Cronon, the wilderness is where we go to find that part of ourselves - our soul - that we lost in our artificial lives. Hence, arguably, it could just be an external manifestation of the balance we seek in ourselves.

In The Machine Stops, the wilderness as the "other" exists in the darkness within Kuno, who refuses to believe in the "wearisome" machine. It is this very otherness that his mother - in her sexual relationship/addiction to the Book of the Machine - wishes to avoid. She seeks solace in this artificial life, and has no wish to explore the wilderness - though in truth, she is not as free, nor as happy, as she wishes to believe - as seen in her near comic losses of temper ("spasms of rage," "spasm of horror," "repulsion," "anxiety") that follow her leaving the confines of her armchair, indeed of her prison cell, to experience the outside world. And where, in BNW, the resident would take soma to escape unpleasantness, here one has merely to caress the magic book to find the same comfort.

Forster doubtless wishes us to feel the imprint of nature (i.e. the wilderness) upon such a static world - and indeed the constant references to the sun and other celestial beings is intentional ("defeat the sun," "heavenly bodies," "unfamiliar glow, which was dawn," "keep pace with the sun," "dawn, midday, twilight, the zodiacal path,"), as is Kuno's decision to go outside, to use his natural strength to wander beyond the boundaries. Kuno serves as Forster's attempt to call us back to our otherness - our wild side before science and machines assumed the role of an all-knowing, all-seeing diety.

One can liken this to Bernard's trip to see the New Mexico Reservation and its savages in BNW. Bernard makes this trip to the wilderness as an attempt to balance his own soul, and incorporate the "Other" into his life. This reservation, with its dirt, its disease, its old age, its mother, is a foil to the artificial. And as much as it disgusts him to see it - it allows him his first real opportunity to incorporate his splintered soul back into himself. He may in fact be the first whole person in his community, which as an Alpha-Plus, he must never reveal. Even the Director reminds him (while signing his vacation permission form), that as a member of the highest caste, he has not been forced into an infantile emotional life, but he should at least have the decency to act it. Of course, it is highly unlikely, now that he has been to the wilderness, that he will chose to reject his own fused soul again.

Questions for next week:
- How is Dr. Bloodmoney a distopia?
- Where is the balance between technology and nature?
- How has crime affected the structure of government and authority?
- Can this society ever stabilize?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Week 2: Herland

In “The Concept of Utopia,” Peter Fitting notes Frederic Jameson’s importance in the concept of utopia. According to Fitting, Jameson admits that literary utopia is not representative of society, but is indicative of our inability to conceive of utopia (9). We, according to this theory, are all closed out of the utopian concept – the result of “systemic, cultural, and ideological closure of which we are all in one way or another prisoners” (9). Here we have to identify the Real with references to actuality – in order to neutralize it. (So, according to this concept, we have to identify the real elements of our lives, but even then, we can not properly picture what could be. I’m not sure I agree here – I’m pretty good at visualizing and perhaps I can not sustain a picture of utopia, but I can imagine it without imprisonment).

Gilman references the real (dress, social ethics, gender economy) when conceiving of a utopia that differs from the Victorian world that she inhabits. The only aspect that seems to speak to her Victorian world is, as Bridgitte Arnold notes in “’It Began This Way,’” the Victorian principles of “domination of nature” in the beauty, order and perfect cleanness that Van sees around him. Here Gilman does not seem, for the first time, to be in conflict with the Victorian notions of beauty and femininity around her. Yet the 3 men assume that men must be part of this society because of how civilized it looks (which, as Arnold notes, is because their cognitive maps assume that men are inherently part of cultivating nature). Van, through Gilman, soon sets them straight.

Arnold also notes that all of “the men’s assumptions and prejudices are voiced within the first few chapters. After the first 30 pages it just becomes repetitive, as if Gilman did not trust her reader, or was it too advanced? Still, they would be reading Mrs. Dalloway in 10 years, and here V. Woolf dealt with homosexuality, mental illness, and feminism, and in 1915, D. H. Lawrence wrote The Rainbow on sexual desire and power within relationships (granted, it was burnt for obscenity), and W. Somerset Maugham wrote Of Human Bondage, which dealt with beauty, suicide and prostitution. So the population was not THAT innocent.

Two of our readings this week deal with ecology – Garrand’s Ecocriticism, and Deegan/Podeschi’s article. Garrand’s Ch. 2 provides an introduction to the environmental movement (cornucopia, environmentalism, ecofeminism, etc…), and Ch. 3 breaks down the 3 notions of pastoral (classical, romantic and pastoral). I enjoyed his critique of American pastoral as a promise situated on the other side of the frontier – always receding westward (51). Both texts also discuss the tie between women’s social oppression and nature’s exploitation and their need to subvert the patriarchal order.

And lastly, Gilman’s first marriage, and subsequent mental breakdown, clearly impacted her text. One wonders how she trusted her ex-husband to raise her daughter without irrevocably keeping her locked in antiquarian ideals. Not sure.

Questions for next week:
-How does a sense of space contribute to a patriarchal society?
-How is the “science” different in each of these texts?
-How are both prescient?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Blog #1

As I've not studied Science Fiction before, even in film, I am interested in Jameson's question of whether culture can be political (critical and subversive) without being co-opted back into the social system, on how we distinguish a Utopian (and why is this term always capitalized) dialectic of Identity and Difference, which seems to run concurrent with a future that is recognizable and yet not ( as in Dr. Bloodmoney and probably countless others). It is interesting to me that this genre may have begun with a woman's text (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), so that presupposes that there may be a place within the political for women? Not sure, but will read on to find out.