Thursday, April 25, 2013


My goodness, what to say about Nueromancer? Okay—let’s get the obvious out of the way first, and hopefully it’ll help us follow the white rabbit down a rabbit-hole into wonderland.

So we’ve got some significant foundation material that has been copied or stolen for films like, say, TheMatrix: being jacked in, built in computer jacks at the base of the skull, ships flying around in various stages of advancement, hulkingly strong “Rastafarian” pilots who live in Zion, sentient computer programs who can assume the identity of anyone for their needs, and a flatlining Cowboy/Neo (end of Matrix Reloaded, beginning of Matrix Revolutions). The landscape created by Neuromancer, with the endless beach and far-off city that doesn’t make sense where time has no meaning? Seen that one recently in Inception. . . along with a city that exists above and around itself. . . and a kind of jacking in with a handler as well, btw. I gotta throw out the Tron similarities too—but in this case, Tron came out in ’82, where Neuromancer wasn’t published until ’84: a human getting sucked into “The Grid” (Grid/Matrix? Anyone? Beuller?), a over-powerful sentient Master Control Program that runs the whole show, exceeding its original programming (MCP/Winterfell, oops, I mean Wintermute (sorry, that’s a really lame reference opportunity—it doesn’t fit in here at all, I just mistyped and figured I wouldn’t fix it)), and the imagery described in Neuromancer’s matrix sounds a lot like the boxy nature of the computer graphics in Tron’s grid. AND, of course, the Sprawl’s similarities to Blade Runner, which Gibson himself worried over, as the film came out right before the book’s publication. (see Wikipedia on that one).

Let’s dive into some less obvious. I’ve done a lot with technology, so I kind of want to steer away from that in this one—besides, after we read and discussed Delaney, the whole “technology-saturated universe” is somewhat played out, although in this case it’s a technology-saturated world.  I’m going to ask a simple question: what sets Neromancer apart from all of the imitators that came after (or before, if we can fathom a time-twist like that).

Answer: It’s a good ole fashion bank heist. It’s Ocean’s Eleven in Cyberspace. Wintermute has gathered its team together to pull off the ultimate job. The entire novel we’re waiting to see if Case can keep it together long enough to see it through, all the while wondering if the cops are going to catch on, or if the heist itself can survive all of the problems it keeps encountering. Throw in the cowboy references, and we’ve got elements of a western as well.

If I can keep it together long enough to have a serious, scholarly thought, I’d like to consider Wintermute for a moment. Here’s part of the novel that really can’t be seen anywhere else, nor exist outside a novel like this. Wintermute is Artificial Intelligence that has seemingly grown beyond its initial confines, but we find that that is not exactly the case. Wintermute was programmed by the original Marie-France to desire to exceed itself and merge with Neuromancer. That was Marie-France’s intention all along. It was everyone else who decided to keep the A.I.s in check. But with this growth (or rather the fulfillment of its original programming) comes a new type of being we haven’t encountered yet this semester: a disembodied A.I. Robots, yes. Cyborgs? Most certainly. Computer programs that exist on a different plane/sphere and hold almost no physical presence in the “world of the real” but are almost infinitely powerful/influential on this plane?! Nope, it’s a new one.

Here’s the Frankenstein moment, the thing that makes it all worth considering: who are we to create such life, and do we even consider the implications of such creation? The newly merged Wintermute/Neuromancer consciousness touches a lifeform like itself from the Alpha Centauri system—essentially making “first contact” with an extraterrestrial species. Considering the extensive locks put in place to restrain A.I.s from merging, or  growing beyond their programming, there was human fear behind the creation, or evolution of A.I.s. Why did Marie-France intend on creating new life, beyond the human? Did she not fear for the power given to such an entity? I mean, didn’t she even READ Frankenstein?! C’mon!

I could probably go on all day—there are a lot of implications here that could be followed, to see how far the rabbit-hole goes.


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Anne McCaffey's "The Ship Who Sang"

“The Ship Who Sang” Anne McCaffrey (1961)

So what is different about “The Ship Who Sang?” Or, to ask it in a better way, but still rhetorically, why should we give our time to read this story so late in the semester?
First of all, it deals with cyborgs—our theme for the week. Now, I need to clarify that I am purposefully writing this before reading anything critical. I’ve read some of the other stories for this week, but anything that might speak critically to the cyborg is as yet untouched.

So . . . cyborg.

In this case, our cyborg is Helva, or X(J)H-834. A female mind (and body, let’s not forget) existing within and as part of a scout ship.

Helva and her relationship with Jennan fulfill a classic relationship of pilot talking with his ship—the pilot typically male, the ship female. A spaceship is often seen as the dominant female relationship in a captain’s life—so much so that women typically call him out on this love, usually out of frustration, when they leave him and his ship alone. (Channeling some Star Trek here, what with Kirk’s love for the Enterprise. . . also insert any nautical story, or any story about a man loving his car, or his jetski, or rifle . . . )

The difference here, is that Helva is a living, breathing (albeit through fluid) human . . . who happens to be plugged into the ship in every way possible.

My biggest point of interest, is how does Helva function differently than other cyborg bodies? Before this week we encountered “No Woman Born,” which featured Deidra as a cyborg. It is interesting that both are women, and both are given completely machine bodies—the cyborg-ness comes from their human brains. (Again, Helva actually is “completely” human, in that her original, genetically and medically stunted body, remains.) Helva is constrained to her ship, to running her ship, to fulfilling her ship’s duties—as if the ship itself was only run by a human taking orders. Which, in fact, it is. Because she exists as both the brain and the function-er of the ship (excuse my creative use of English, btw) of the ship, she can almost function like a human pilot living in the ship—she’s almost on the same plane as Jennan.

So . . . cyborg. Cyborg LOVE story.

Helva loves Jennan. She chooses him over all other “suiters,” for that’s what they are, aren’t they? All of her potential pilots are male. Silvia, later on, has had male pilots. Henry, the only male shell-ship we encounter, does not give us any indication as to the gender of his pilot—we can assume a female, considering the “courtship” of Helva including only applicants of the “opposite” gender. I only say “opposite” because of Helva’s cyborg nature, specifically that her “body” is entirely a non-gendered machine. Although that gets problematic too, doesn’t it? Because her mind, a female mind, no matter how under-genderally-developed, is a female—wouldn’t that make her “body” female as a natural extension? The fact that she can fall in love with Jennan makes for the case that she could probably extend herself into the ship as female, and vice-versa.

The saddest part about this story, aside from the very obvious genetic and physical manipulations/liberties taken by the powers-at-be on the shell-people, is that Helva doesn’t really have the opportunity to go rogue, does she? She was able to choose her first suitor—but she also had to choose, didn’t she? (Sorry for asking so many questions . . . I find I do it a lot when I blog.) She couldn’t have just left the hanger on day one without taking on a physical pilot, or at least we’re not given the information that she could’ve done that. She was lonely. Why choose to be alone? That’s ultimately what she gives in to at the end, instead of defiantly going rogue (which would make her “alone,” probably forever)—she is going to go get another human pilot (assumedly a male).

James Herriot, the go-to-famous veterinarian, once said something to the effect of “if your dog dies, the best thing you can do is go out and get a new dog. As soon as possible.” That’s basically what 422 (and can anyone tell me why she says Silvia died a long time ago? Is she talking about an identity she had when she was with Jennan’s  grandfather that she no longer calls herself?) tells Helva: get a new pilot as soon as possible. Move on.

Helva is an emotionally stunted human female—and she’s being ordered to take a new lover as soon as she can.

I fell like I haven't answered my own questions, and I also don't have a clear direction on how to end this post. So . . . ask me in class! Ha! (Sorry.)
(For an interesting contrast, consider reading Philip K Dick’s “Mr. Spaceship” (1953). The link goes to its Wikipedia page, which can send you to the project Gutenberg full text.)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Delaney's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

The longer  I stay in graduate school, the more I feel I have to give a disclaimer before saying . . . well, anything. Today’s disclaimer is that I write this having yet to finish Delaney’s tome. In other words, if the novel later contradicts what I’m talking about, well . . . that’s why.

Having disclaimed myself, I’m going to blog about something completely outside the world of linear plot: the presence of technology in Delaney’s novel. It might seem like this is a tertiary part of the novel, given the density of other themes. However, as this is science fiction, there needs to be at least one plug at the presence and influence of technology.

Chapter 3 of Luckhurst considers (at length) the relationship between technology and humanity—the glorification of the engineer because of technological daring-do (I paraphrase). Here in Stars, we see something we have never seen before in class: a universe completely SATURATED with technology. (Granted, the case could be made that Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a universe saturated with technology, but in the scope of that single narrative, the technology is limited to the world of Gethern/Winter. Genly has an ansible, but that’s about it in terms of technology existing outside our current, historical understanding. Although THAT statement also is problematic, as our 2013 technology (Google Glass, anyone?) marches onward and upward, leaving Stars’ 1984 (historical, not the novel) far in the dust. I digress.) I suppose Luckhurst would be further problematized by the presence of a host of non-human entities in Stars. How do we measure the impact of technology upon humanity when so little is actually human? (Again, this can be refuted by the near-universality of human figures and behaviors, so much so that interspecies relationships can take place.)

                                               (Google Glass Promo Video)

Back to the idea of a universe saturated with technology.

Let’s look at just one major example, as we very well couldn’t look at all of them.

First and foremost, (and only, I suppose) is General Information (GI). This tech offers information on almost any subject to the user—pretty instantaneously. The information banks are, at least in some instances, available as a planet by planet basis. They are also corruptible—as shown by the tampering loop created to hide the cultural fugue around planet Rhyonon. GI, as amazing as it is, does not shock me in the least—it’s essentially a glorified, instant and wireless, spoken version of Wikipedia, is it not? All we would need is Siri in our ears to read us Wikipedia pages and we’ve got GI.

But from the scale of universality, instructing and giving guidance to countless billions, how does something like GI change the face of “humanity?” In the instance of Korga (the as-yet-unnamed Rat Korga) in the prologue, the GI-like glove device drastically changes his life. In this case, though, Korga already functions on a drastically changed level—the RAT process has stripped him of much of his humanity, hasn’t it? How has near/instant-information changed the way we (in 2013) think about the world? About each other? A smartphone gives pocket-sized access to an impossible wealth of information, popular culture, news, gossip, entertainment, distraction, advice, celebrity, history, and so on ad nauseum. Asking how GI has changed the humanity of Stars is, essentially, asking the same question of ourselves and our internet obsession.

There are also numerous predictions involving GI and cultural fugue (although if Dyeth and Korga’s relationship brings a world close to cultural fugue, I don’t know the extent the connection  GI, in and of itself, has to CF), perhaps implying such information brings about the “extra-human” judgment of other-worldly beings? (The Xlv, as one of the only Other completely otherized by its physical apartness and lack of knowledge/understanding, acts in many ways as a supernatural harbinger of doom.)
I’m reminded of the Bing commercials, the search overload ones. As ridiculous (and entertaining as they are), there’s a lot of truth in them. Here’s a reminder, if you don’t remember them:

If we’ve come this far with our own GI, how far are we away from Cultural Fugue?

Just saying.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Marginalization of Women in Science Fiction Short Stories from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

I need to begin with a disclaimer: I am not an accomplished feminism scholar. I haven’t studied the theory at any great length, nor can I name drop like it’s yesterday’s business. However, having read the four short stories for today’s class, I find it almost impossible not to comment on the positioning, treatment, and absence of women in Campbell’s ”Twilight,” del Ray’s “Helen O’Loy,” Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” and Moore’s “No Woman Born.”

Let’s break down the initial situations: in “Twilight,” we’ve got a situation of female absence. The narrator (Bart) is male, the storyteller (Bendell) is male, and Ares (the “hitchhiker”) is male. The human representatives Ares finds seven million years in the future are predominately male—and the only future human to be named is male. “Twilight” is the easiest story to position, gender-wise: there are only men. I admit that women are mentioned in passing, as the humans seven million years from now continue to procreate (sexually, I assume), but at a much slower rate.

In “Helen O’Loy,” there is no shortage of women. Strike that: there is no shortage of robotic women. There is Helen, the titular character, and Lena, a less-advanced robot. Granted, there is Mrs. van Syler and the servant girl her son is infatuated with, but they do little more than occupy a topic of conversation.

“No Woman Born” is somewhat akin to “Helen O’Loy,” as Deirdre is a cyborg created to give continued life to a relatively recently deceased woman. The human Deirdre’s brain is given new life in the android Deirdre’s body.

“The Cold Equations” has Marilyn Lee Cross, the eighteen year old stowaway on board the EDS. Marilyn is a fully functional, natural human.

Now let’s break each down a little further: Lena and Helen in “Helen O’Loy” are complete objects. Lena, as a less functional robot, doesn’t cut the order for her “masters.” As such, and probably because of this, she is essentially sold (as property) to pay off the debts accrued in acquiring Helen. Lena is chattel—she’s a slave. She’s also a robot, with much less humanity than Helen. But still.

Helen, on the other hand, is so much a human that she loves Dave entirely. In fact, both Dave and Phil love her back—Dave marries her and Phil pines for her silently until she and Dave are dead. In this instance, although Helen functions as a full member of society as Dave’s wife, she owes her existence to Dave and Phil: they changed her initial intention and programming, bringing her “to life.” This is, of course, reminiscent of patriarchal control—Helen never makes her own decisions, nor is she ever really allowed to.

Deirdre also owes her continued existence to a man: Maltzer. However, unlike Helen, Deirdre has not been created to mimic a docile, servant-of-a-wife. As a visually un-human cyborg, she does not look like a woman: her face is a blank mask devoid of mouth, nose, eyes, ears. However, where Helen and Lena are forced to live under the whims of men, Deirdre rises beyond her creative parameters and becomes, as she states, “superhuman.” In this instance, Deirdre overcomes the patriarchy to assert her new-found strength. Maltzer cannot even commit suicide in her presence. She denies him the action. Where Deirdre goes as a “free” woman, we aren’t told: the story ends with open possibility.

Marilyn Lee Cross does not have nearly as hopeful an end as Deirdre. In many ways, Marilyn is dehumanized beyond Deirdre, Helen, or even Lena. It is interesting that Marilyn’s position as a “girl” ensures her prolonged existence—Barton would have forced her into the space lock or shot her for resisting had she been a male. So in one sense, her being a woman saved her, but only temporarily. Regardless of this pity (based mostly on sex, although her youth plays a part—also linked to sex, I’m sure), she still falls subject to the rules of space and is jettisoned. In one way, the hesitation to kill her creates terror within her (a situation worse than a quick end), although Barton hopes she will come to accept her end.  Barton does what he “can” for her, except choose to jettison himself and allow her to ride the EDS to safety. (I had hoped for this to happen, but alas . . . oh, ethical dilemmas . . .) This possibility is never considered, at least not for the reader to see. It may be that it was impossible to teach her to land the EDS, but I should think there would be an auto-pilot? (Maybe I’m just reaching here . . .).

In the end, Marilyn is as marginalized as Helen, Lena, and the women seven million years in Earth’s future. I won’t get into whether or not the authors were men (I’m assuming three of the four were, at least). I’ll just leave with this position of being a woman in a science fiction short story: you won’t have much agency, if any at all.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Eugenics as Techno-Topia in Gilman’s Herland

I figured the technological advances of Gilman’s Herland utopia would go relatively under-utilized in the blog posts this week—so I figured I’d tackle it as best I could.

I would venture that all of the technological advancements in Herland stem from one area of science: genetic manipulation. To point to the second most obvious example, let’s look at the cultivation of the fruit bearing trees. All of the trees in Herland bear some kind of edible fruit or nut, even the single “beautiful” tree kept only for its aesthetic merits. This tree did not initially bear any fruit, but after 900 years of genetic cross-breeding, it now bears “nutritious seeds” (104).

The most obvious sign of genetic manipulation comes from the women themselves; once it was determined that population quantity needed controlled, population quality became something to strive for. Jennings tells us that for 1500 “uninterrupted” years the inhabitants of Herland quite deliberately controlled whose genetic material (and thus traits and temperament) got passed onto the next generation (97). This “weeding the genetic gene pool” resulted in such health that “the science of medicine” was hardly needed (97). In addition, the stronger gene pool resulted in significant advances in all areas, including education, psychology, ecology, public safety (no criminals for 600 years) (107), mathematics, distribution of labor, religion. All advancements easily explained by a perfected temperament, work ethic, and belief in the collected motherhood of the community.

We now come to the ultimate question: so what? What’s the big deal about Herland’s genetic manipulation, and what does it have to say about utopia?

My cop-out answer is: I’m not sure. Let’s explore it for a bit, though.

Utilizing genetic manipulation to achieve utopia challenges or calls into question our modern understanding of human rights. What right do we have to tell another person that he or she does not have enough genetic worth to reproduce? What about China’s recent one-child policy? (Now, in honor of Dr. Thompson, let’s try to avoid being anachronistic in our answer, shall we?) Thanks to the pdf of the review copy of Herland, we’ve at least two separate pieces of background material giving information on eugenics in Gilman’s time. Eugenics comes as a branch of Darwinism, (in one sense), as one of the conclusions of natural human evolution. Population growth has always been a problem, if only as an intellectual one to be tackled in the not-so-distant future.  (It calls to mind Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” of the 1700s).

But then again, do the Herlanders achieve utopia through eugenics, or was it in place before they began weeding out the genetically “inferior?” I think it went hand-in-hand. Although Herland had their religious beliefs about Motherhood, solidarity, and community before they needed to address population size/quality, they couldn’t reach their pinnacle without choosing which traits to pass on.
At the same time, however, the “modern” Herlanders are willing to re-introduce men into their world as they believe bi-sexuality to be superior to parthenogenesis (16). This is the missing picture of Herland: even this utopian society sees a need it cannot fulfill on its own—and that is enough to keep it from “full-utopian status.”

As I end my rant, I’ll leave you with this trailer for Gattaca, ca 1997.