Let me begin by saying that before I sat down to write my blog post for this week, I was torn between two distinct ideas that jumped out at me. One was looking at the portrayal of women in the various texts, specifically at how they are marginalized and/or stereotyped in certain ways. This brilliant idea was going to essentially state that the women in a variety of pulp pieces, certainly in Godwin’s “Cold Equations” and Delrey’s “Helon O’Loy” and arguably in Moore’s “No Woman Born” are treated with a sort of off hand sexism. This is the sort of sexism we see coming from the character of Terry in Bellamy’s Looking Backward: a sexism that treats women as a weaker sex.
the other idea I batted around in my head like a cat with a string toy was the idea of artificial humans, specifically robots. There’s something about the idea of humanity as expressed through robotics that absolutely fascinates me, mostly because it allows us to examine what it truly means to be human and alive with a certain degree of objectivity. Most of the aforementioned stories involved robots to some degree or another, though two in particular jumped out at me: “No Woman Born” and “Helen O’Loy”. Now, as the astute reader has probably noticed, those also happen to be stories that detail the whole women issue. While I am quite certain that there is likely a combination there, something about man creating a perfect woman who is both artificial and humanoid, that is not my initial intent. Mostly because I think I’d be overtaxing myself to discuss both humanity and femininity.
Also, I don’t want to argue with Steve, again. Fun though that is, it does make it seem like there’s some animosity between he and I that I believe does not exist. So instead, I’m going to quibble over a point with another esteemed colleague: Brandon Galm.
Namely, I want to extract a specific comment that Brandon mentions almost in passing during his blog: “Diedre is not real.” Brandon uses this statement and an essay that I have not had the fortune to read, to make a very salient point about Diedre regarding her interaction with her environment (the argument made by Maltzer that she lacks specific senses and therefore cannot interaction as a full human should) and her mimicry of humanity. What I want to argue is something that initially seems to run counter to Brandon’s argument here, but might be considered as more tangential: Diedre is most certainly real, and is in most ways, certainly human. That is, in fact, the whole point of the story.
Harris, the narrator and often champion of Diedre, states roughly halfway through the story (page 16 on my Kindle edition) that “‘She isn’t human…but she isn’t pure robot either. She’s something somewhere between the two, and I think it’s a mistake to try and guess just where, or what the outcome will be'” (emphasis mine). Of course the story itself does argue this point, having Maltzer insist that Diedre is in fact less than human. So what we have here are the two males essentially arguing about the humanity of the supposedly artificial female. And, in many ways (most of which are outlined by Brandon), they are quite right. There does seem to be something decidedly inhuman about Diedre, something that is in between, something not quite right. However, Diedre herself offers the following argument, that “I’m myself–alive. You didn’t create my life…I’m not a robot…I’m free-willed and independent…I’m human” (kindle page 28). Now, I do not want to simply go “see, robot girl thinks she’s human, so she’s human” and use that as my argument (though it does seem convincing and easy, doesn’t it?). Instead, I want to point out that what is being discussed here is something regarding essential humanity. What precisely was it that Maltzer created? What precisely is it that makes Diedre more than/less than/or between actual humanity? For the essence of Diedre has clearly been preserved: this is why she can so easily trick people, especially those close to her. However, the text seems to want us to debate at the same time, to wonder.
Which brings me (hopefully briefly; I’m already feeling this is a super long post) to the story “Helen O’Loy”. Here we also have a perfect female being constructed by men for essentially their pleasures (see, so much to get into). However, Helen soon develops into something more, something “between”. Her creator is all too aware that she is a creation, just as Maltzer is all too aware of Diedre’s supposed artificiality; this is in fact what causes him to pull away from her. Yet there is something decidedly human about Helen. She feels, she loves, she thinks, she has a personality that defies the programming these men put into her. They might have created an initial body, but something else, something more human has arisen from it. Indeed, the story follows this logic, and Helen lives and dies much as a mortal woman would.
So I will now try to bring things back to the point here, as best as I may. These two women are real in very real ways. They are expressing something core to humanity, something that developed beyond the robotics and their cybernetic origins. There is a free-will, a free-thought, and a free-emotional output here that is not artificial or unreal, something that seems to defy the general stereotypes. It seems as though something inherently human has been placed into these beings, creating a life that is something more. I would argue that the women are, in many ways, the most human characters exhibited in their various stories, and certainly “real” in most reasons of the word. This strikes me as one of the major points of robots in science fiction: to discuss the essential within humanity (I’m calling it a soul, give it whatever label makes you most comfortable) and open up ideas for what is truly human. And these women, for better or worse, are precisely that.
(it’s so mostly worse. Just read Steve’s post. If I were writing a paper, I’d essentially wed a lot of the stuff he has to say there, only more narrowly focused on the whole robot thing. I’ve no doubt this will come up later.
And yes, I am big on the essential humanity aspect and robotics. It’s probably what interests me most about science fiction [essential humanity certainly does] and is going to be, to some degree, the focus on my paper.
Okay, I’m totally done now.
Get it? Real?)
When I first started writing this blog, my plan was to discuss how the pulp science fictions each highlighted specific differences between human and machine, which I will still give some thought to; however, the stories also deal with how such a strict binary is problematic. C.L. Moore’s story, “No Woman Born” is probably the best example of this complication in the mechanical body and human mind of Deirdre. Rather than straightforward manifestos on technology’s obvious lack of human characteristics and the loss we will suffer from the penetration of it more and more into our daily lives, there seems to be a paranoia of how we can imagine a gray area between man and machine that is much more unsettling.
Campbell’s story, “Twilight,” gives the story of a hitchhiker and time traveler who tells about his adventure in America seven million years in the future. Abandoned cities go on functioning because of machines that “didn’t know how to die” (29). Campbell’s lament about humans losing their curiosity provides his moment of warning about mechanization (37), but the hitchhiker’s walk through the city of machines also suggests some paranoia. He wanders around and “because there was motion, and that pseudo-mechanical life, I felt less alone” (29). Motion is confused with life, and the hitchhiker is comforted. He also personifies the machines, describing them as “knowing” or not “forgetting.” The machines in “Twilight” have taken on the role of companions, even preferable ones to the humans he encounters who have lost the instinct of curiosity.
Companions in both “Helen O’Loy” and “No Woman Born” illustrate paranoia of the merging of humans and technology. In “Helen O’Loy,” a machine is tweaked to imitate human emotions, while in “No Woman Born” a human brain is outfitted in a mechanical body. Both instances attempting to bridge the gap between man and machine enter the space of hybrid, which ends very differently in each story but produces the same anxiety. The endocrinologist narrator of “Helen O’Loy” works with his friend, a robot repairman, to give emotions to Helen: “The more we talked, the less sure I grew about the impossibility of homo mechanensis as the perfect type” (43). This line is echoed in “No Woman Born” when Dierdre says, “You made a perfect machine, Maltzer. More perfect than you knew” (32). She continues, “I suppose…that I’m superhuman” (33), which is perhaps what Phil and Dave meant by homo mechanensis. The hybrid of man and machine (both notably explored as women) portray the difficulty in maintaining the binary of technology and the human. Installing artificial emotions won’t make Helen a woman, just as Dierdre will sooner or later forget human experience, but both hybrids are unsettling to their human companions because they appear so life-like. This paranoia about technology’s possibility to create life is as old as Frankenstein, which is so aptly alluded to in Moore’s story.
Steve’s Blogpost link: http://stevesblogforclass.blogspot.com/
The word for the week is continuity.
Each of the four stories that we read, “Twilight,” “Helen O’Loy,” “The Cold Equations,” and “No Woman Born,” offer a different take on an element of continuity. Foremost for these is the simple matter of including recognizable elements from our experience into the frame of each story. Campbell’s “Twilight,” is about a hitchhiker; “Helen O’Loy” is narrated by a doctor; one of the central characters in “The Cold Equations” is a teenage girl away from home for the first time; and Moore’s “No Woman Born” features a star of stage and screen. These elements provide a basis of recognizable continuity between the fictional settings and those we know to be real, which, in turn, provides evidence to support the acceptance of elements not reflected in present reality. In doing so, they imply a further continuity, from past to present to future.
Rieder’s Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction dwells heavily on the importance of this sense of continuity in the origins of science Fiction. With nineteenth century adventure fiction already invested in the creation of space (with its ancillary, function of projecting the people of the present into another time, by putting them into a primitive setting), the development of science fiction, which created new spaces by setting them in the future, is a logical extension. As an extension, it takes part in the cultural assumptions from which it was born, providing yet another continuity, one which projects the colonial shadings of the period. Central to this is the need within newly discovered spaces to locate some version of humanity by which to judge ourselves. Rieder describes the hunger for the exotic as “a means of gratifying familiar appetites and as a challenge to one’s sense of the proper and natural” (4).
“Twilight,” supposes the development of humanity as a linear progression, beginning in a murky past, but definable on the literal time-line experienced by Ares Sen Kenlin, stretching from the contemporary to seven million years in the future. In that future, he finds the race dying out, having lost its quintessential trait, curiosity. Set within the future, both “Helen O’Loy” and “No Woman Born,” continue in this species-centric vein, looking to establish continuities between traits that we recognize as human and the definition of humanity. “The Cold Equations” centers its conflict around an instance when the quality of humanity is outweighed by supposed necessity. Each case is based on a need for the characters to define the line between themselves and others, a tendency which Rieder traces back to the racist roots of colonialism. Of the stories, “The Cold Equation” is probably the most striking example for this purpose, though each may serve. The line established by the pilot, Barton, is between those that live on the frontier and those that do not, those that understand the black and white choices that mean life and death and those that cannot. The reality of the readership must fall in line with those that do not live in such a stark, dangerous place and time, and so while empathy naturally falls to Marilyn, this establishes Barton as the other to the reader. His adherence to necessity may not make him heroic, but it makes him terrible in the sense of sublime. Barton becomes a significant yardstick to measure yourself against, and to weigh the price of such progress.
My, how we do like looking at ourselves in the mirror.