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.