Round and Round the Tiptree

16 Apr

As an aside, I have to begin by commenting on the narrative presence in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” particularly as it surfaces in a frame at the beginning and end.  The reader is addressed directly, though not terribly respectfully, by an omniscient, editorializing source.  While the omniscience is demonstrated within the story, it seems to be, in fact, boundless, stretching back into the actual real past, the time at which it was published by Tiptree.  This uncomfortable breach at beginning and end makes of the central part, where the story unfolds, a kind of place of respite from the aggressive narrator, when the focus is not on us, but on Delphi.  However, the authority expressed by that presence helps to reinforce the metaphor of the frame as an actual temporal device, since the story (and the sharp-faced lad) is displaced from the future to our present, each presumably with a purpose.

What I like about “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is that it is a story from the past about the future which draws upon a story from the past about the future, making itself something of a time capsule, if not a time machine.  It wasn’t until after I had finished it and was contemplating it that it occurred to me that the plot wherein the son of the oligarchy meets an alluring simulacrum, with problematic outcome, was awfully familiar. Then, I remembered Metropolis (even as a zombie, I have my moments, now and again), and realized that the outcome in Tiptree’s version might be taken as a retelling of that classic.  The differences in outcome are notable for several reasons.  In Metropolis, Lang concludes with a reconciliation between the brains (elite management) and the hands (the proletariat) facilitated by the heart, who turns out to be Freder, the son of the top manager.  In retrospect, this is entirely odd, since Maria (the female lead / Robot) has clearly been indicated as filling that emotional position.  In the end, her work turns out to be only in inspiring her male counterpart to act, a function which she verbally encourages without daring to do so, herself.  In “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” Paul is in what may be a similar situation at the close, not able to immediately reform the world, but shaped by his experience with Delphi towards a determination to work at doing so.  The difference is that in Lang’s film, Maria is standing right there, moving Freder to do something which he, apparently would not have thought to do without her, raising the question of the extent of her own agency, which seems to travel no further than this one man, when previously in the film, it is shown swaying the masses.  Delphi, at least, is excused from action by her death.  However, that leaves the function of her life and her part in the story just the same as Maria, as a motivator for a single man when, in fact, she too has been demonstrated to move millions of consumers.

Before I go on about that for an indefinite period, I also wanted to toss in the second difference between these parallel scenarios, which backgrounds the struggle for reform in each.  In Metropolis, despite the mechanization and Taylorization of the depicted future, there does not seem to be a class of science-technicians, but rather, one single, scientist who is ultimately responsible, the deranged Rotwang.  The corporate world of GTX, however, is literally crawling with layers and layers of specialists, who are empowered to the extent that they may, apparently, randomly eliminate other corporate entities that annoy them, like the sharp-faced lad, with impunity.  Clearly, it is easy with Rotwang out of the way for a reconciliation to occur within Metropolis, a choice which is not available to Paul, facing a bureaucracy filled with Rotwangs, as well as an undescribed, shadowy political entity which exists separate from the corporation, but still regulates it.

Ok.. too much to say here, but I still wanted to toss in a last reference, too, to the specific allusion Tiptree makes to yet another story from the past about the future.  The narrator refers to us all as “zombies,” and while that has a certain horror connotation, in SF, it means for me Heinlein’s “All You Zombies,” from 1959.  I will just say that it cements both the time-travel metaphor and the social commentary that Tiptree must imply of the way in which we are all implicated as remotes by our media involvement.

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