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.