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The Future is Actually Filled with Tapes (and the Jon Carter Effect)

25 Apr

Excuse the supremely long title, I actually have two, smallish things that I wish to discuss and I wanted to cram them both into the title. Because obviously that works.

First, I want to allude all the way back to my first blog post, which was one of the first posts of the semester, in which I proclaimed that Bellamy’s future was filled with fountains. I did this mostly as a jest, because I like to write/say/do things that I perceive as funny, damn the consequences. However, now I wish to revisit that claim and add to it a similar claim that draws upon Neuromancer and, to a lesser extent, Stars in My Pocket and Left Hand of Darkness (I think). The observation I wish to make in regards to these works is that the future is not, in fact, filled with fountains, but instead seems to be filled with tapes.

Okay, filled my be a little bit of an overexaggeration, but I’m making a point here. In Neuromancer, we have a world of extremely high technology, far beyond what we even have managed today, several decades later. Sure, we have the net, which is sort of/not really similar to cyberspace (I’m not currently riding my console through TRON-world, sadly), but otherwise, Gibson’s future is, well, futuristic. Yet despite that, we see several instances were the characters mention tapes. Usually it’s in passing, with the tapes being knocked aside or possibly used as an afterthought, but that’s almost my point. It goes with the idea that these works are writing the present as much as they are writing the future.

For, you see, in the present world of these works, tapes exist, and they’re pretty much everywhere. The writers knew tapes, they knew how they worked and what they did. They could not, to some degree, picture a world in which tapes did not store data in some form or fashion. Again, I believe this shows even in Delany and Le Guin’s work, but I wasn’t really looking for tapes at the time. For Gibson, however, he sees the technology and attempts to project, but seems to take part of his present with him when he does. In some ways, this small inclusion, the idea of tapes or something akin to it, acts as something of a grounding point for readers. The technology is out there, seems impossible, but hey: they’re still using tapes! It’s there in many ways for the same reason Bellamy filled the future with fountains: it’s a familiar working point for the audience to see and to start picturing. It acts in many ways as a technological spur to head onward.

Which might work a little with the second idea I wanted to discuss, which I have clumsily called the Jon Carter effect. For those who don’t know, Jon Carter was the title and the main character of a Disney sci-fi film released last year. The film itself is based off a book written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the Tarzan guy), and the book series is one of the grounding works of the sci-fi pantheon, especially in many ways, pulp sci-fi. People have been basing their works off the concepts presented in Burroughs’ series for some time. I mention this first to let you understand what a lot of audiences struggled with in regards to Jon Carter the modern film:

They’d seen it all before.

The story, the technology, it all felt as though it was rehashing Star Wars, Tarzan, and millions of other films and important stories. People felt that this story was just trodding on familiar ground. There was nothing new here. What most didn’t realize is that Jon Carter actually started a lot of those tropes and ideas, or at least was one of the founding members. It is the society’s background that poisons the work.

Hopefully you can guess where I’m heading with this: my experience of Neuromancer was in many ways spoiled in a very similar manner. I can’t help but feel like there was nothing new in the book. We’ve seen the cyberspace idea done over and over again. We’ve had ideas about street samurai and shady dark allies. If you’re an anime fan at all, you’ve probably had so many of these ideas that they seem cliche. Which describes my initial reaction to Gibson’s work: been there, done that, not interested. However, what this forces me to do is to realize that, in fact, Gibson did a lot of this stuff first. The interview with Delany serves to solidify that idea and force me, at least, to think about that experience. It’s something that I think we all struggle with as readers from time to time.

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Seeking Alternatives Within a Text

4 Apr

This has to be a first for me: finding academic writing about a culture I was already somewhat involved in. Usually things go the other way around, so for me, it was something of a surprise. I have, in fact, seen several “fan videos” (we do call them vids). In point of fact, I know that there are a handful of various vids out there that are based off some of my fan-writings, admittedly circulated through a very narrow audience. I’ve been engaged in “rewriting” and fanfiction for several years now, in point of fact, and have engaged with various other members of those communities. To be totally specific, I’ve mostly engaged with the various Disney and other such animated film communities, which should surprise absolutely nobody who has spent a little time with me. I bring this up not only to offer some personal commentary, but also to provide a comparison. Because there is a strong urge within the various animated film fandoms to also perform acts of slashing; I’ve actually written slash fics that dealt with this.

And the reason for a lot of this is because of the desire to seek alternatives that are already available within a text. Most standard texts, be they Star Trek or a Disney film, do not portray unconventional relationships. The homosexual is pushed to the outskirts, and if they appeal, they are often in disguise. Yet a lot of fans still see the coding inherent in the texts. The selection from Penley therefore came as little surprise to me and was, in point of fact, somewhat justifying. I particularly draw attention to page 100, where Penley points out a key moment in a Star Trek film that offered a homosexual reading. The fact is that these moments are often expressed in texts, offering at least a foothold for various people to read into them.

For Penley, there was another moment during the episode where Spock goes into Pon Far, which is also one the expressly assigned episodes we watched for class. Maybe it says something about the way fandom has trained me to read popular texts, but I couldn’t help but notice the inherent bending going on there. Spock and Kirk speak of one another in highly passionate terms, ones that come off very much as the way two lovers would speak of one another. Add in Spock’s dismissal of the female earlier, and it’s all too easy to use this episode as a ground for slashing.

Which is, again, what I’ve seen time and time again. Most of the others I know in fandoms who so readily engage in slashing are often those who are marginalized themselves. Some of my co-creators have been homosexual (or possibly bisexual; I didn’t delve too deeply) women, male-to-female transsexuals, gay males, and various other marginalized peoples. It seems to me that these (should I say we? I never feel quite marginalized enough, those I’m accepted easily enough into most of the fandoms…) peoples would readily look for alternatives, for ways of entering into the text and expressing desire and social constraints that are not readily available to them. This is especially complicated when you consider that most films and television operates under Mulvey’s famous “Male gaze”, wherein heterosexual male paradigms are essentially forced onto the viewer. Fan creation then seems, at least for me, to be a way of seeking the alternatives and expressing them, working through it all.

(for the insanely curious, most of the slashing I’ve seen and done involved the new BBC series Merlin, where I’ve even seen a vid involving Merlin coming out to his parents. I’ve also done and seen loads in just about every Disney film imaginable. It’s popular to slash in fandoms)

So Is It About Gender or Not?

24 Mar

Spoiler: I’m not gonna answer my own question, or at least, I’m not setting out to directly answer my question, but knowing my tendencies, I’m likely going to answer it anyway.

But onto the discussion at hand, namely the way gender functions in The Left Hand of Darkness. Part of me desperately wants to avoid talking about this, since the text is so very, very loaded with other stuff to talk about, and I likely would have written about the whole political issues, maybe even something about developing nation states and the commentary about the political machinery and the Other (totally there, by the by), were it not for two things:

1) Lauren’s response, which brought home something I myself had been thinking throughout the text.

2) Le Guin’s writings “Is Gender Necessary?” (certainly sounds like Le Guin anyway) and “Coming of Age in Karhide”.

Let’s start with Le Guin, mostly to make Lauren squirm a bit (I have this delusion that my peers actually care what I have to say about their theories and posts; odd, right?). Barely three pages into the essay, Le Guin directly states “that the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort”. Which seems to end the discussion before it begins. The author said that it’s not about sex! We can go home people! But interestingly enough, we have access to Le Guin’s later thoughts and revisions, where she states that this very statement is, in point of fact, defensive, and that the text is about gender. It’s also about more than that, and we can’t simplify things too much or we undercut the work. But I’m shelving that for now. Because I can. And because I still wanna talk about Estraven.

Specifically, I want to talk about how very manly Estraven is. I, like Lauren, read Estraven as a man. The whole pronoun thing certainly didn’t help matters, which Le Guin herself acknowledged at a later point. However, there is just something about the way Estraven is portrayed that seems masculine. To be honest, Lauren already said most of what I wanted to say on that, and has even pulled quotes, thus making my lazy self quite satisfied. In point of fact, the relationship between Estraven and Gi is likely, if anything, a queer one. There’s some definite affection there, and the fanboy part of me that loves to ship things together (fan term: Shipping = pairing two characters together romantically, usually in defiance of narrative) puts Estraven and Gi together. Partly because I think that would have been a more interesting story, as Gi would have had to try and figure things out, and part of it comes from how the relationship itself is presented.

But, again, Le Guin has pointed out the difficulties here. The pronoun thing, the presentation, all that good stuff. Again: read Lauren; I’m not reiterating, I’m supporting. Yet if you really want to see these differences highlighted, looking into what feels like the sequel: “Coming of Age in Karhide” feels more definite. For that work presents a Hearth of people; it’s told through the perspective of a native; and things are both complicated and more simple. It’s also super sexy, if you’re into that sort of thing. But within that work, the narrator reminisces about the narrator’s first kemmer, what that entailed and what all resulted because of it. That in itself would be super interesting to read, but the narrator’s family has a tendency to be… female. It is something of a choice and something of a tradition. The various people in that Hearth/clan/brood become female most of the time; they don’t vow kemmering to one another. In other words, they’re matriarchal, nearly to a fault (there seems to be an underlying argument there).

While the narrator, Sov (I think; the names are as confusing as Sci-fi/fantasy names should be), purposefully discusses Le Guin’s own issues with gender, insisting that it’s hard to write in a language that forces sexualized pronouns, she still comes off as, well, a she. She becomes female during her first Kemmer; is pretty well forced into it. She seems to associate more with the female. She does female things, or fulfills traditional female roles. In point of fact, she seems as female as Estraven seems male.

And that’s what makes this comparison so interesting. Le Guin has presumably deleted gender from the equation, yet there is still a definite feeling of gendered roles there. It almost seems to suggest that there is no escape from gender, or at least some form of gender identities. Yet at the same time, they do seem to challenge these roles at some point. The texts seem to demand us to explain why Estraven is male and Sev is female. It draws attention to those constructs and makes very definite statements about them and the relationships portrayed as a result.

So in the end, I guess I am answering my question. It is about gender, but it’s about everything that gender is connected to. It’s about what gender is and how we perceive gender, and how people fulfill or deny certain gender roles. It’s about a lot, and that’s what we’re hoping for in Sci-fi.

Now go read “Coming of Age in Karhide” if you hadn’t. It’ll expose you to the word clitopenis, and you know that alone is worth the time you spent reading it.

I’m a Real Girl! Robots as Humans in the Pulps

28 Feb

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.

For real.

Get it? Real?)

The Future is Filled With Fountains

7 Feb

In his utopian novel, Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy attempts to introduce the reader to a marvelous new world in the year 2000, which happens to be one hundred some odd years ahead of his current time, not to mention the time of his current protagonist. While there are a few more scholarly issues that I wish to discuss, and I promise that I will get to them quite shortly, I would likely go insane if I did not begin by analyzing what I see as a very key difficulty within the work. Namely that Bellamy failed almost spectacularly in the actual construction of the work.

I do not want to dismiss the utopia Bellamy discovers, as I’ll get to in a bit here, but I’m instead referring to his means of introducing his audience to said utopia. It seems that Bellamy missed the instructions suggesting that it is far better for an author to show his reader details rather than tell the reader all about it. Bellamy continually displays an absolutely fascinating view of the future, one filled with a surprisingly high number of fountains; however, he does so primarily by having an educator character tell the narrator all the various details. These descriptive passages are delivered to the reader in long, dry monologues that read more like something out of Plato’s Republic than an actual novel. That is not to say that there isn’t a plot and that Bellamy didn’t have some opportunity for movement there; there exist bits between these long dry monologues that detail precisely that. In these much smaller segments, we see the world simultaneously with the narrator, Julian West, instead of being told about it. I refer primarily to almost enchanting sections wherein Julian wanders about in the world, often in the accompaniment of his (surprisingly developed in consideration to the work and age) love interest, Edith. A solid example of this can be seen in the shopping trip, wherein Edith serves as a guide to Julian, showing him the wonders of the interior mall and the workings of the society.

I want to briefly compare the work to another, similar, work: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. In that work, we also receive a displaced, intelligent narrator who encounters a strange world that reflects quite strongly upon the society from which the narrator came. However, whereas Bellamy introduces the majority of his world via the narration of the dry doctor, Swift allows his readers to follow along with Gulliver in discovering the various fascinating bits of the various lands Gulliver voyages to. Thus when we wish to learn about, say, the court of the Lilliputians, we read Gulliver’s testimony of his own observations and interactions, instead of having, say a minister of Lilliput outlining all the particular details for it. It’s quite clear to me that Bellamy could certainly have learned by reading this work, and constructed something that was much more readable (and, I’ll confess, more enjoyable too).

However, as I said from the beginning, this does not dismiss the meat of the novel, namely the utopian world which Bellamy constructed so masterfully. It becomes quite clear to most readers (okay, so this is a bit of an assumption on my part; it was abundantly clear to this reader) that Bellamy is using the future and the utopian construct to discuss the social issues of his current day. The work opens with West worrying over the various worker conditions, albeit in more personal terms (hey, who can blame him? People are often more concerned with their own worlds, and none more so than the middle/upper class of modern, err, nineteenth century USA). This trend continues throughout the text, as embedded within the aforementioned lectures upon the current socio-econmic situation are various hints towards the problems of the day. In point of fact, West at several points directly asks how to the paradise he’s found himself in solved all the various problems. Naturally the answers come across as almost too simple (credit cards, malls, and semi-equality among women [there’s so much about women here that you could construct an entire blog post around it]), which again, makes sense given the situation. If we were asked how we managed to deal with that pesky feudalism problem, our answers would likely be close to the same (i.e. so easy: independent thought, restructuring of socio-economic class, and a lot more fountains). What Bellamy attempts, and I would argue that in this he has at least some success, is therefore to offer these reasonable solutions as actual viable ones.

I am hardly the first (semi)intellectual to come to similar conclusions. Writing upon the utopia, Philip Wegner explicitly states that “the narrative utopia first successfully performs another pedagogical operation: teaching its audiences how to think of the spaces they already inhabit in a new critical fashion” (17). He continues along this line a handful of pages later, stating that “the version (of utopia) offered is less of some radically other place than that of a ‘repaired’ present” (20). By building on these ideas, we can conclude that Bellamy was, in fact, attempting to project his present into the utopia, using its perfection to showcase the ideas and demonstrate how the present could, to use Wegner’s term be ‘repaired”. Bellamy clearly had concerns and issues with the current socio-economic clime, which is hardly surprising since that very subject is so prevalent throughout the literature of the period (Dickens serving as a great example [and a personal favorite], not to mention one that is referred in Looking Backward as being a favorite of the age, which is rather prophetic, if you stop to think about it [which sort of sums up the novel as a whole, doesn’t it?]). therefore what he clearly set out to do was outline the solutions to that problem, and he did so via the path of the utopia, likely believing it to be a more digestible method of getting the point across, as opposed to the political tract he almost clearly wanted to write (though there would be a decided dirth of fountains in a political tract, a travesty if there ever was one). Thus does Bellamy construct one of the first science fiction novels, and one that is certainly worthy of consideration and analysis.