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Media and Mediating

2 May

I suppose the obvious question in regard to Tropic of Orange is: Is it science fiction?

Well, when time and space warp and change, it seems to put the ball pretty squarely in the science fiction court.  I think the problem with being willing to recognize that is, simply, a lack of specific mediation within the text that makes this overt.

Let me toss out an example.  In the 1951 classic When Worlds Collide, the earth is doooomed by an imminent collision with another celestial body, and only the top brains are aware of the situation.  The bulk of the characters within the film and in the audience must have this information relayed to them by these specialists. However, imagine a retelling of this story where there are no capable specialists available.  In the case of When Worlds Collide, simply have the collision occur in the year 951, instead, so that the plot follows court astrologers serving the Liao dynasty in northern China who are tracking some interesting portents in the sky and attempting to divine their meaning.  The audience, too, is limited to what these astrologers can surmise, so, life just keeps going on until the screen goes black, because in 951, they have no way to abandon the planet, as they do in the 1951 film.

In Tropic of Orange, there is no one (no Neil deGrass Tyson) who is remotely equipped to deal with the problem of the twisting of time and space comes into contact with the phenomenon, and so the event is in no way mediated for participants or for readers.

That said, two more quick points.

Probably the most interesting thing is that the phenomenon does not need to be mediated for so many of the participants, as the perception of the anomaly is not universal. On the one hand, this may call into question whether or not the event itself is a universal one, or whether those witnessing it have some greater capabilities than those that do not.  On the other hand, given the use within the text of layers of media used to separate characters from the necessity of interacting with the reality of a community of humanity, the inability to see a physics problem of that magnitude should not be surprising in those who have practiced the art of ignoring problems.   Homeless reality television gets top ratings as a spectacle, but not as a means to address the social issue; Gabe is obsessed with escapist tropes, including his attachment to a fictional noir California past, and is only incidentally broken out of this time-warp by his unwilling exposure to technology.  The fact that his involvement in technology results in being less connected to the world is an additional problem.

And, of course, when I say that there is no one capable, I refer to the guys in the lab coats, back in When Worlds Collide.  Arcangel, it turns out, is capable of dealing with an apocalypse, in his own fashion.  He is clearly a specialist, but his exposition of events that might mediate for the audience is a little too specialized to clearly enlighten.


Views of Disability

27 Apr

Views of Disability

Thought this might also be a useful footnote for anyone working on a disabilities angle for their final project. Otherwise, just interesting.


Presentation by Wendy Chun

26 Apr

Presentation by Wendy Chun

We saw the ad she references in this, but I thought it might be useful for other’s projects.  

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.

Ruin in Perfection

26 Mar


Where to begin?

If a literary work being something other than what it seems (or seeming to be other than what it is?) necessarily categorizes it as a queering influence, then Delany certainly hit the nail on the head with Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.  I prefer not to be prejudiced before I read something new, so I was about two-thirds of the way through the book before I read so much as the back-cover synopsis.  My copy, the 2004 Wesleyan edition, seems to indicate that the crux rests on the sexual compatibility of the characters Marq and Korga.  My reaction on being thus informed was… is that really how this boils down?

Another third of the novel, and another round of supplementary materials, and  a long reflection lead me to the surprising realization that it is, in fact, how the novel boils down.  It is simply a case of some astute editing that allows that information to be as queering as the subject to which it relates, for it does not lead where it seems it should, either.

The bringing together of two individuals who are a perfect fit for each other seems, on the surface, such a crazily practical solution for the need to provide a crutch for Korga, that it nearly obscures the obscurity of the motivation for the Web in needing to do so much for her.  It is not until the scene of preparation for the formal dinner that a shadow, doubting the wisdom of the Web enters the conversation.  Marq asks Korga what dishes she likes and discovers that while Korga has been educated about customs related to food, about their ingredients and appearance, that the aspect of taste has been overlooked.  As Marq observes, quizzically, the taste “is what food is all about” (284).  On the surface, this might seem self-evident, but it immediately calls to mind the earlier depictions of Korga in her degraded state, as Rat, dining from a nutrient trough.  This creates a dichotomy reflecting on food as a means of subsistence, and food as a sensual pursuit, with Marq and Korga on either side of that divide.  Marq perceives the absence of the information of taste as being lost among superfluities, but, in the scheme of survival, taste must fall within the superfluous category.  The Web, containing such a superabundance of information, must constantly make critical choices over what elements of information pertain to any given situation, and must occasionally overlook what is, in fact, important.

As the epilogue relates, the information overlooked in connecting Marq and Korga is that the essential drive of the human is in seeking utopian instances which encapsulate elements of the realization of perfection.  Providing Marq with actual perfection removes the impetus for that drive, since everything pales against the reality she has known.   The emotional effect on her sense of self, of her identity as the seeker of this unique perfection, is similar to the physical surgery performed on Korga by gamma lasers.

From here to there: The Pulps

25 Feb

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.

Whitewashing the Future

4 Feb

Strictly from a reader’s point of view, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy has as its central drawback that common to utopian fiction, a lack of conflict in the story-line.  In a sense, this only reinforces the presumption of the truth quality of the narrative; if that described is merely a story, then the author would be bound to follow the conventions of stories and make it as interesting as possible.  By sticking to intricate travelogue (or in the case of Bellamy’s future United States, the Econo-logue), the narrator sticks to one solid, if unexceptional, trick, the gradual discovery of an alternate system for how things work in an ideal society, and the serious tone reinforces the quality of didacticism.  As Wegner points out, the process of mapping this previously unknown territory is central to the experience.

Two particular elements of Wegner’s commentary drew my attention to portions of Looking Backward that reflect on my personal interests.   In “Writing the New American (Re)Public,” he discusses how Bellamy espoused a popular sentiment where “assimilation was the only proper response to the present crisis of diversity besetting the American nation” (73).  The indication is that the bourgeoisie is the target goal into which all classes should morph since the entirety of the future society is based upon the pleasures of consumption.  Wegner goes to lengths to point out the generic face put on the labor involved in the productions of the products and services consumed by Future America, noting their invisibility.  Assimilation paired with invisibility suggests not so much issues of class to me as it does issues of race.  Charles Chesnutt, African-American contemporary to Bellamy, wrote “I see an epoch in our nation’s history, not in my time or yours, but in the not distant future, when there shall be in the United States but one people, molded by the same culture, swayed by the same patriotic ideals” (93).   Chesnutt also looked to economics to provide the impetus to opening doors across society.  The question that comes to my mind is this: could a nineteenth century gentleman such as Julian West encounter a racially integrated society in the future and not comment on it, regardless of his own personal feelings, broad-minded or not?  It seems much more likely that this utopia was of the old Hollywood style, by whites for whites, where color has as conveniently disappeared as Wegner demonstrates labor has.

The second element comes from “Space and Modernity.”  In it, Wegner associates the birth and continuation of the genre of utopian fiction with moments of social trauma.  For instance, Thomas More originates the genre at the moment of the final shift from feudal to capitalist socio-economics, the shift from a “catholic” religion to individuated ones.  Recently, I was reading Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in 19th Century British Literature by Andrew Miller, and it provided the most convincing and comprehensive overview  (from a literary point of view – of course, the only one that is real to me) of the stress incurred in the shifting social outlook of the Victorians that I have ever encountered.  In particular, however, Miller provides a justification for the development of the internal life as a narrative tool, admittedly a model that does not resemble reality, because of the need, the craving for guidance that the pressures of the industrial age were invoking in everyone.  The result is that virtually no portion of literature fails to encompass this, either as direct didacticism or as a negative example, both with the same purpose.

To put these two elements together, briefly, I might suggest that the bleaching of the future that seems implicit in Bellamy’s work serves the overall purpose of reassuring his so stressed readership while guiding them.  This reassurance is only enhanced by glossing over an element of reality that does not necessarily fit.

Chesnutt, Charles W. “Race Prejudice: Its Causes and Its Cure.” Selected Writings. Ed. Sallyann H. Ferguson. Boston: Houghton, 2001. Print.

Miller, Andrew. Burdens of Perfection: On Ethics and Reading in 19th Century British Literature. Cornell UP, 2008. ebrary. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.