Rich Erlich, English 122 Final
StGd Rabkin SF, Hist. Anthology 29 September 1999
Study Guide for
Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology,
Edited by Eric S. Rabkin
A. Bibliographical citation.
Science Fiction: A Historical Anthology. Ed. Eric S. Rabkin. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1983.
B. Whenever you read SF, perform a little thought experiment and pretend that publishing and criticism in the USA are healthier than they actually are and that SF is just another genre of literature, turning up in all sorts of places and not confined (for the most part) to specialized magazines and anthologies, special sections of book stores—and to books inside covers loudly proclaiming the contents to be SF. Were that the case,
would you classify this story as SF?
if it is SF, when in the story were you sure that it's SF?
how does the author make the story familiar enough to be intelligible and yet strange enough that we're sure this isn't "mainstream," or "mundane" (to use Samuel R. Delany's word) fiction?
C. Narrator/Point of View: With any story you read, ask yourself some questions about the voice telling the story. Is the voice "objective," reporting only things observable by a merely human observer? Does the voice belong to someone "omniscient," who can tell what people are thinking? Does the owner of the voice have what's called (paradoxically) "limited omniscience"—the ability to tell what some characters think, but not others? What tense and person are used: past or present, first person ("I"), second ("you"), third ("s/he," "they")?
D. In ch. 14 of his Biographia Literaria (1817), Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells us that he and William Wordsworth divided the work in their Lyrical Ballads (1798, 1802) so that Coleridge would deal with "persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic" and would present them with "a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." Worsdworth was to attempt "to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear nor, and hearts that neither feel nor understand" (see Isaiah 6.9-10). For narrative art in general but SF in particular, note very well (1) our willingness to suspend disbelief—and even some of our beliefs—while experiencing the works, and (2) the process of making the familiar strange summarized in the inelegant but concise term, defamiliarization.
Part 1: The Emergence of Modern Science
1. Cyrano de Bergerac, From Other Worlds (1657): Note the form of philosophical debate, and the inversions.
2. Jonathan Swift, From Gulliver's Travels (1726)
The full title here is Part III, "A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg, and Japan." Chapter 1 has Gulliver back home after visiting Lilliput (and returning) and Brobdingnag (and returning), and then setting out again, this time for the East Indies. As Swift's original headnote says, "The Author sets out on his Third Voyage. Is taken by Pyrates. The Malice of a Dutchman. His Arrival at an Island. He is received into Laputa."
As Rabkin notes, la puta is Spanish for "the whore"; note additionally that there may be an allusion here to Martin Luther's condemnation of "The whore, reason!" One reading of Gulliver is an attack upon merely human reason divorced from God. (Would that be the sort of reading you'd expect for a S.F. story? A satire by an Anglican priest [which Dean Swift was: Dean of St. Patrick's in Dublin].)
An island flying because of an ingenious advanced technology is certainly science fictional. What about Laputa? Do you think Swift wants us to really believe in this island? If Japan exists, and you've never been there or met anyone else who's been there or have relatives from there—if Japan is real maybe so is Balnibarbi and maybe so is some distant land (ca. 1700) called by its nonSpanish natives Laputa. But can you, or should you, "for the moment," believe that an island can fly by magnetism? If Swift would just as soon you did not believe, is this story S.F.?
If this selection is not S.F., how would you classify it? (Hint: Swift was very, very conservative, in some ways, after his fashion, a good Christian; among the numerous modern things of which he did not approve was modern imperialism.)
3. Voltaire, Micromegas (1752): Look for motifs of size (scale?), science, and the place and purpose of humankind in the universe.
Part 2: Nineteenth Century
4. E. T. A. Hoffmann, "The Sand-Man" (1816): Richard D. Erlich and Thomas P. Dunn (in their Clockworks List of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface) find "Sand-Man" a "Gothic novella featuring Dr. Coppelius and his beautiful automaton, providing a precedent two years before Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) for androids [. . .] . The clockwork automaton Olimpia (or Olympia), went on to a long career in opera, ballet, and films"—and we mention the opera Cappélia and Hoffmann's "Automata" from 1814.
Note the eye motif. It must be important, and I'd like your opinion on what it means.
The movie The Stepford Wives (1975) suggests that at least some Connecticut suburban husbands would prefer for wives robots over human women; and the James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd film The Terminator (1984) suggests that the perfect macho warrior would be a machine (a cyborg). Do you see the same sort of motif in "Sand-Man"? Olimpia as a mechanized Barbie Doll, inhuman in her perfection?
Rabkin counts "Sand-Man" as 19th-c. science fiction; Erlich and Dunn have it in a list of works important for SF (no periods) but classify it under "Gothic." How would you classify the story? Why?
5. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, From Frankenstein . . . (1818). The 4th edn. of Anatomy of Wonder (1995) lists Frankenstein under part 1, "Emergence of Science Fiction," and give the following summary (as 1-84, i.e., the 84th entry in part 1).
Whatever her literary indebtedness—classical myth, Faustus [in folklore, Christopher Marlowe's play, Dr. Faustus, Goethe's Faust poem], or [John] Milton['s Satan in Paradise Lost?]—Mary Shelley gave form to one of the enduring myths of SF: the creation of life by science. Guyilty of the sin of intellectual pride, Victor Frankenstein epitomizes a shift in the scientists of the 19th century in that he turns from alchemy to electrical forces, a phonomenon that fascinated writers throught the century. Mary Shelley acknowledged an indeptedness to the physiologists of Germany and Dr. Erasmus Darwin. [Brian W.] Aldiss has argued that Frankenstein is the first SF nove, although [H. G.] Wells called it more magic than science. [. . .].
Rabkin gives you part of "The Bride of Frankstein" section, with pun: Creature and Creator are often confused, and the brides of both Victor Frankenstein and his unnamed Creature are important for the story. What do you make of this doubling: Frankenstein as scientist and (in the mind of many film-goers) the Creature, the death of the Creature's bride bringing about the death of Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth?
From what you've read of the story or seen of the story in film—and I can bring in excerpts—do you think it is S.F., or more "gothic horror"? Frankenstein is a scientist, not a magician, and, H. G. Wells not withstanding, Frankenstein does use some current science. Would you call just the except S.F.?
6. Edgar Allan Poe, "A Descent into the Maelström" (1841)
"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845): The motif of a magically-preserved body of great age disintegrating in a standard one in the horror lit. I grew up with, and can be seen right down to, at least, the rapid aging of Morgana (= Morgan la Fey) in John Boorman's take on the Arthurian legends, Excallibur (1981). What do you make of the motif here? Will you accept Mesmerism as sufficiently scientific to move this tale into S.F.? As S.F., SF, horror, or whatever, note how nicely Poe's narrator gives us the facts in the case of M. Valdemar. Whatever the story is, do you think it'd be worth much without the tension between the grotesque ending and the objective, "scientific" leadup?
7. Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844)
"Writings of Aubépine": This is a "tale within quotation marks," twice distancing us from the narrative itself. Note where this story supposedly got published: an antiaristocratic review, one favoring "liberal principles and popular rights" as opposed to class privilege and other traditional wrongs.
Setting: As Rabkin saith, Mediterranean (Catholic!) Italy, fairly modern times—Dante is a classic poet, far from a contemporary one—but exactly when isn't immediately established.
Garden/Rappaccini (foreshadowing, genre [164-65]): Note that Giacomo Rappaccini, the "signor Doctor," "distills these plants into medicines that are as potent as a charm." He's a medical doctor or a Ph.D.—or whatever—and not a magician, and makes medicines that are like charms in power, but not charms. In straight Gothic, he'd be a decayed old aristocrat dabbling in the Dark Arts; in straight S.F., "potent as a charm" would be a mere figure of speech from a quaint old lady, and the medicines would be mere pharmacology.
169: Rappaccini is certified here as a learned physician, but there are problems with his reputation, which Professor Baglioni—a man of science himself summarizes as Rappaccini's caring "infinitely more for science than for mankind. His patients are interesting to him only as subjects" (or maybe objects) for some new experiment." Note this line well; it becomes almost a formula for creating mad and otherwise dangerous scientists.
170: Rappaccini deals with poisons, of a sort the learned Professor suggests should Remain Untouched by Man. Note that Giovanni—identified as "The youth"—takes Baglioni's evaluation with "many gains of allowance" (probably alluding to "with a grain of salt").
Signora Beatrice: Note earlier reference to Dante. In The Paradiso, Beatrice leads the character Dante to God. Note also that she's well educated and qualified for "a professor's chair," allowed even by her father's enemy. For gender concerns, consider what comes of this motif of the beautiful, young, female scientist.
171: Our hero, Giovanni Guasconti buys flowers. What with all the plant stuff, you've been cued to keep an eye on flowers; keep a close eye on these.
175-76: Prof. Pietro Baglioni probably should be coming across as overly suspicious or downright paranoid here; if he does not, it is a good indication that we know what kind of story we're in and that Dark Suspicions Will Prove All Too True!!! Still, keep an eye on Baglioni; he has a malicious, envious agenda.
176: In a fabliau or other variety of bawdy comedy, Lisabetta would be something of a bawd, helping our hero to the Old Doctor's daughter. How does she function here?
182: The Narrator is addressing us pretty directly here, talking about love not conquering all, and fate, a word that often ends up in the phrase "tragic fate." (To ensure you get the point: "And down he hastened into that Eden of poisonous flowers.")
185: Baglioni gives Giovanni the «magic phial» with a powerful antidote, and Giovanni accepts, for a turning point in the plot.
Is this Fate working? Did Giovanni have real choice?
If the story is mere horror, doesn't Giovanni make unambiguously the right choice? (Cf. and contrast the males in Dracula, driving stakes through women's hearts and all because a knowledgeable authority tells them it's the only way to save the women's souls. Or the father in The Omen, attempting to kill his own son.) The professor says "Possibly, we may even succeed in bringing back this miserable child within the limits of ordinary nature, from which her father's madness has estranged her"—which isn't so different from soul-saving.
186: The selectively "omniscient" Narrator gives us an insight into Professor Baglioni's mind: "We will thwart Rappaccini yet!", not making clear who "we" are. Note Baglioni's complaint against Rappaccini: "A vile empiric [. . .] in his practice, and therefore not to be tolerated by those who respect the old rules of the medical profession!" I.e., Rappaccini is a modern scientist, helping to create scientific medicine, and Professor Baglioni has professional reasons to dislike him; since "the old rules" killed more people than they helped, perhaps we should sympathize a bit with Rappaccini against the obscurantist Professor.
188: Note shrub as a creation of Rappaccini and a kind of «life symbol» for Beatrice
189: N.B. "There was an awful doom [. . .] the effect of my father's fatal love of science—which estranged me from all society of any kind. Until Heaven sent thee, dearest Giovanni, Oh! how lonely was they poor Beatrice!" The usual result of scientific megalomania is estranging the mad (or whatever) scientist from his fellow; here his daughter also suffers. (This motif continued at least until the Forbidden Planet in 1956.)
190-91: Note Giovanni's harsh words to Beatrice and his image of his "leading Beatrice—the redeemed Beatrice—by the hand," followed by the Narrator's reference to Giovanni's "weak, and selfish, and unworthy spirit." In The Paradiso, it's Beatrice who leads Dante, and in another world. Giovanni's "blighting words" (a significant locution) have given Beatrice such hurts that there is no cure for them in this world, this life: "she must bathe her hurls in some fount of Paradise, and forget her grief in the light of immortality [. . .]."
Beatrice drinks the antidote. Does Giovanni? If he doesn't, should we see him as doomed to kill, doomed to die? Both?
Enter Rappaccini, and this "pale man of science seemed to gaze with a triumphant expression at the beautiful youth and maiden, as might an artist [. . .] finally [. . .] satisfied with his success," and his posture improves with power. What is Rappaccini's success? What power should he at this moment be conscious of?
Rappaccini, it seems, wanted to make Giovanni worthy of Beatrice, and he succeeded: Giovanni "now stands apart from common men, as thou dost, daughter of my pride and triumph from ordinary women. Pass on, then, through the world, most dear to one another, and dreadful to all besides!"
Beatrice dies and, undoubtedly, goes off to heaven, finding Giovanni's "words of hatred" deadly—and wondering if Giovanni might've been "more poisonous" in his nature than she in hers.
The Narrator tells us that the antidote had been a poison to Beatrice, and gives the last lines to Professor Pietro Baglioni who calls "loudly, in a tone of triumph mixed with horror, to the thunder-stricken man of science: 'Rappaccini! Rappaccini! And is this the upshot of your experiment?" Giovanni is silent.
What do you make of this story? Was Rappaccini a mad scientist and monster? More the victim of Baglioni's jealousy, envy, and malice? Was Rappaccini's experiment a worthy one, an attempt to create a couple who would pass the bounds of conventional humanity—a superwoman daughter, and then a man worthy of her? Was the greatest "poisoner" here Giovanni, who succumbs to his fears and curses out Beatrice? Who is as arrogant as the older two men?
NB: The ambiguities of the story may make it far superior to your average SF or horror tale. Or note, depending on one's tastes. If nuance is to be valued, though, this story, for all its heavy-handed language (though less by the standards of 1844 than today), is quite good.
8. Edward Bellamy, From Looking Backward . . . (1888).
From Hazel Pierce's entry Survey of Science Fiction Literature (Salem P, 1979):
Summary: A futuristic view of a humanitarian, cooperative society evolved from fiercely competitive, industrial nineteenth century society.
Julian West, an 1887 Bostonian who wakes from a mesmeric sleep to find himself in 2000 Boston
Edith Bartlett, his fiancée in 1887 Boston
Dr. Leete, a retired physician of 2000 Boston who educates Julian West to his new existence
Edith Leete, Dr. Leete's daughter, great-granddaughter of Edith Bartlett.
* * *
Since Bellamy was more concerned with his future society than in the mode of transportation to it [unlike H. G. Wells, Time Machine, 1895], he seemed to care little about the plausibility of the time shift. he ignored questions contemporary science fiction writers would find necessary to face. How does a body retain vitality and retard aging for 113 years? Indeed, can sleep induced by mesmerism [= hypnotism] last indefinitely? How did West escape death from suffocation when the house burned? [Etc.] * * *
Because Looking Backward is primarily a novel of ideas, the plot line is a slender one, serving mainly as a support for the many conversations between Julian and the Leetes. Actually, the major "characters" in this tale are not the above mentioned persons, but rather the two contrasting societies: the one, fiercely competitive; the other, enlightened, cooperative, and humanitarian. * * *
• Do you find it plausible that the world will move toward ever-greater concentrations of capital and the proletarianization of more and more workers, necessitating more organization of labor and strikes (194-95). If we are seeing the capital concentration part in action during our time, why not the response by labor?
• If small businesses were "totally incompetent to the demands of an age of steam and telegraph and the gigantic scale of its enterprises," are they any better in our electronic age (196)? Alternatively, will the Age of the Internet again allow entrepreneurs again to prosper?
• Do you find plausible the bloodless Revolution (197)? Note that revolutions as such are usually pretty mild affairs; it's the counter-revolutions and civil wars following that kill off so many. Do you think there'd be no counter-revolution or civil war following the imposition of a kind of State capitalism or authoritarian socialism or whatever we'd call the Bellamy system?
• Do you approve or disapprove of the functions of the State in this vision of year 2000? Do you think the State here appropriate to human nature (198-99)?
• The Big One: "When the nation became the sole employer, all the citizens [. . .] became employees, to be distributed according to the needs of industry," or, as our representative, Mr. West paraphrases it, "That is [. . .] you have simply applied the principle of universal military service [. . .] to the labor question" (200).
If the Army is the prototype and perhaps archetype of all bureaucracies, and no less a scholar than Lewis Mumford says it was and is—do you think it a good idea to bureaucratize much of society and to require 24 years of service within a strict bureaucracy (201)?
Is 24 years bureaucratic service, with practical retirement at 45 and total retirement at 55 better than you expect for your life? (Is it likely you'll move from life as a Miami student to the military to a firm like Procter and Gamble to teaching at a university to a nursing home? If so, you may be talking of nearly 60 years in bureaucracies.)
Alternatively, if you'd allow people in the "industrial army" rights of citizens and civilians, should we allow soldiers and other military folk basic civil rights, e.g., the First Amendment right to tell one's boss to bugger off?
• Is Bellamy's eutopia dystopian? Would it be eutopian in the sense of a significant improvement in the lives of most of the 6 billion human beings currently living on Earth?
NOTE: Frederick Winslow Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management appeared in 1911, and in terms of science fiction is one of the most important books of the 20th century. It inspired Lenin in the real world, which in turn inspired Yevgeny Zamyatin, whose dystopia We in the early 1920s inspired much of dystopian literature through the 1960s. Its basic approach is using Time-Motion studies to adjust workers to their machines and jobs.
9. Jack London, "A Curious Fragment" (1908)
Your editor correctly identifies "A Curious Fragment" as a variety of future history and also a Marxist critique of a frequent Marxist over-optimism. Still, there is some optimism: like the later Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and The Handmaid's Tale (1985), framing apparatus—here at the beginning and end—assure us that the period of what London elsewhere calls The Iron Hell of repression eventually came to an end.
Note the idea of "the overman" (209), from Frederich Neitzsche's Übermensch and the complementary "herd animals" of all of us who aren't supermen. (This is somewhat unfair to Nierzsche, but legitimate in the Mode of satire [calling a satirist unfair is something like suggesting SWAT teams sometimes resort to violence].)
Note very well the importance for the the rule of the oligarchs—a word you should look up and learn if you don't know it—of illiteracy among the working-class masses. Note also that even after the ruin of the American Republic, under "the terrible industial oligarghy" that seems unbeatable "professional story-tellers" are "paid by the oligarchy" to tell tales that are "legendary, mythical romantic, and harmless." Still, "[. . .] the spirit of freedom never quite died out, and agitators, under the guise of story-tellers, preached revolt to the slave class" (209). London here anticipates a big debate on the Left and in academic circles in the the late 20th c.: whether art paid for by ruling classes always, necessarily, and completely reinforces the rule of the current rulers, or if some can be subtly subversive.
To use an oldfashioned idea—slavery is undoubtedly evil; but can it be economically profitable? To get to a more newfangled idea—what is London doing with the concept of "masters" and "slaves"?
(Did slaves before the US Civil War have Workman's Compensation? [See pp. 213-14.] Note that London was not exactly progressive on issues of race.)
Do you believe "There is power in the printed word" (217)? Might there have been power in the printed word ca. 1908 but no longer? Thomas Jefferson agreed that reading "history books" was necessary for American citizens to retain a Republic? Do you believe studying history can function politically to any great effect?
(Should it? Whether the USA is a "secular revolutionary republic," as Anthony Burgess put it—disapproving of all three parts of the phrase—or a Christian nation or some other sort of nation has been a major issue in our history. I'm a Jeffersonian myself, but it's arguable that a nation can best achieve greatness and stability with its working-class and underclass illiterate and propagandized and, as necessary, terrorized into loyalty.
Do you approve of the sensationalism of "Tom Dixon's arm" (214 f.)? In the pre-OSHA days, yea, even in our time, it's not impossible to have one's "arm torn off by a belt" on a machine. Is it appropriate in an oral history meant to move men to revolt?
Where and in what ways does London show concern with women and children in this story? With divisions other than class?
Part 3: Early Twentieth Century
10. H. G. Wells's "The Star" (1899): There's been a lot of (loose?) talk of late of "posthumanist" or "posthuman" literature. It's possible that Wells helped pioneer that, too, insofar as there is no human point-of-view figure with whom we can easily identify, and even the narrator has literally super-human knowledge.
Alternatively, are even the Marians in the story human in a literary/ethical sense?
Or will you accept Man (sic) as a protagonist, as perhaps in G. B. Shaw's Back to Methuselah or Stanley Kubrick's and A. C. Clarke's 2001?
See below, Clarke's "answer" in his "The Star."
11. Hugo Gernsback, From Ralph 124C 41+ (1911)
Defining "genre" as a self-conscious variety of literature, Gary Westfahl finds Hugo Gernsback indeed "the father of science fiction" and dates the rise of science fiction quite exactly to April 1926 and the first issue of Gernsback's Amazing Stories magazine. (Although the term Gernsback used there and for some years to come wasn't "science fiction" but "scientifiction.") In this reading Ralph is the crucial precursor of S.F.
• Read aloud Gernsback's title; Ralph is "one to foresee for one" and a "plus" to boot (a superior guy if maybe not a Nietzschean superman).
• Note that the plot of Ralph is essentially pretty standard, but with a twist.
From Anatomy of Wonder #4, entry on Ralph (1-37): "First published as a serial in Modern Electrics (1911), this story serves as the classic expression of American infatuation with the machine; it is a virtual catalog of descriptions of advanced machines. Its protagonist is a state hero, who literally resurrects his sweetheart from the dead after an accident [sic]. Unique for the period, the 'other man' is a Martian. [. . .]"
• How is Ralphs resurrection of Alice like and unlike the same theme in Horror?
• Including the obvious, how is this story both like and unlike your standard love triangle stories?
• Does Ralph satisfy Gernsback's later description of scientifiction as "A charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision"?
12. Abraham Merritt, "The Last Poet and the Robots" (1934).
From Erlich and Dunn's Clockworks List of Works Useful for the Study of the Human/Machine Interface: "Almost a prose-poem (of the pulp persuasion), "LPR" tells the story of a struggle between a small group of god-like, creative, ruthless human beings and sentient, ruthless, nonemotional, nonartistic robts who have established hegemony over human kind. To some readers, the Last Poet and his human associates may be less sympathetic than the robots." How do you come down on this issue? Or, in Rabkin's formulation, how would you answer "the residual question" at the end of the story, "concerning the value of humanity as a whole"? Or, perhaps to rephrase both questions, How do you feel about "the poet Norodny"?
13. John W. Campbell, "Twilight" (1934)
From Erlich and Dunn's Clockworks: "Twlight" "Features a city of the far future whose residents know nothing of the machines that run the city. Cf. E. M. Forster's "Machine Stops" and R[obert A.] Heinlein's "Universe" [. . .]. Significant also for the Time Traveller's instructing a highly advanced macnine to make 'something which can take man's place: 'A curious machine'"—implying that curiosity is the defining trait for humanity" (quoting J[oe]. Sanders in TMG [. . .])." (TMG = The Mechanical God, an anthology of essays.)
To what extent is "Twilight" social science fiction in Asimov's definition, moralizing about our society insofar as
• most of us don't understand how most of our machines work (281)?
• we are destroying "the balance of nature" and caught in a vicious cycle in what nowadays we'd call ecological destruction (279)?
• we are becoming decadently dependent upon our machines?
To what extent should we take the story seriously as far-future history?
14. Olaf Stapledon, From Star Maker (1937)
As Rabkin notes, Star Maker is ultimately "a religious tract"; keep that in mind in your dealing with real-world conflicts between religion and science. Insofar as science deals with narratives or origins and in cosmology and questions of how the universe works, it's getting into areas a long time handled by religion. Science, however, deals only with how questions, where religion's strength is why. S.F. can poach in both areas, establishing its own myths. Note well Rabkin's comments; they are quite good.
From Anatomy of Wonder #4, entry on Star Maker (2-121): "A companion piece to Last and First Men [by Stapledon, # 2-119 in Anatomy], taking the essay in myth creation still further to present an entire history of the cosmos and an account of its myriad life forms. The narrator's vision expand through a series of phases, each giving him a wider perspective until he finally glimpses the Star Maker at his work, experimenting in the cause of producing new and better creations. A magnificent work by any standards; the most important speculative work of the period. [. . .]"
• How is the "internal 'telepathic' intercourse" here—and it means "communication," not "sex"—like and very unlike communication in SF you're used to? To communicating with God in religious works?
The Narrtor says that he (?) "must begin by speaking of the biological equipment of the Other Men" and notes that "Their animal nature was at bottom much like ours" (291).
• To what extent does Star Maker in this section suggest that "Our Bodies" are "Our Selves," at least insofar as they help determine our nature and culture?
• To what extent does this "essay" in "myth creation" favor spirit over flesh?
Part 4: The Golden Years (1940-1965)
15. Isaac Asimov, "Reason" (1941)
You'll have trouble understanding the significance of this story unless you know that one definition of "human being" is "Man is a reasoning animal." The wise-ass young Rich Erlich, unknowingly following the satirist Jonathan Swift, corrected that to "Man is an animal capable of reason," but still the idea is there. Note also the old debate on Faith vs. Reason and the almost as old attempt to reconcile Faith and Reason. Read p. 27 very carefully and consider "Reason" as a careful, reasoned investigation of the limitations of reason, the epistemological question of how we can be confident in what we know—plus a suggestion that Truth is irrelevant for a lot of practical actions (see 29).
16. Clifford D. Simak, "Desertion" (1944)
In the great creation story in the biblical Book of Genesis, the crown of creation is adam: Adam, Man, Humanity—us. We are created of the dust of the earth but inspired with the breath of God (ruach) and so are both very weak and "crushed before the moth" and very great: "a little below elohim": just a bit below the angels, divine beings, gods—or God (they're all legitimate translations of elohim). As Gunn suggests in his Introduction, much of the future-history consensus in S.F. accepted a very high estimate of humankind. "Desertion" asks us to consider that "Maybe we are the morons of the universe" (41), and that there might be better creatures to be than a dog, or a man (43)..
17. Ray Bradbury, "The City" (1950)
If you're familiar with Bradbury's story, "There Will Come Soft Rains," compare and contrast: the vision of technology, the vision of the benevolence, malice, or indifference of the universe, one's fellow sentient beings generally, or just human beings.
What is the point of view in this story, both technical and in terms of our indentification and sympathies?
• Note theme of revenge. Would you have The City more forgiving?
• Note the horror motif of the «possession» of the captain: "spread-eagled" and entrapped, surrounded by malevolent technology, all the icky stuff inside exposed—but with him cleaned out—absorption into The City (my capitals). If you ever get a chance to read Damon Knight's "Masks," do so, and contrast "total prosthesis" as something positive: a way to get around the ickiness of the flesh.
p. 359: The City can die in peace now. How do you feel about the ending?
18. Jack Finney, "The Third Level" (1952)
Anatomy 4 cites and annotates a short story collection by Finney called in the US The Third Level (1957) and dealing mostly with time travel, "not on the cosmic scale of H. G. Wells and William Hope Hodgson, but small, domestic, with a dominant theme of escape. People from a threatening future escape to a safer present, but may be unraveling the whole future by doing so ("I'm Scared"); people from an unsafe, or simply dull and unpleasant, present escape into the past [. . .]" (3-73). What do you make of the tone of this very short story? Is it simple nostalgia, or might there be another meaning in Rabkin's comment that "In this typical science fiction elegy from the days of Korea and urban sprawl"—i.e., the Korean War and the beginnings of suburbanization—"Jack Finnery shows us why nostalgia isn't what it used to be" (359)? This is a real question for me. Is there an "edge" to "Third Level" I've missed, or does Rabkin mean that we, nowadays, can't do nostalgia the way ol' Jack Finney could?
19. Arthur C. Clarke, "The Star" (1955)
This story is in obvious dialog with H. G. Wells's "The Star" and comes to a highly ironic opposite conclusion: humanity and our Earth are central to the Scheme of Things. Beyond that—I'm very interested in your responses. I come out of a tradition where God Exists, God acts in the world (though very subtly the last 2500 years or so), and where the Book of Job is warrant to accuse God of acting evilly: "If it is not He, who is it?" as Job asks. One must be willing to bless the God who created evil as well as the God who created and does good. The relationship with God is imaged as an engagement, a love affair, a marriage, and a wrestling match. Most Miami students come from atheistic (a few), agnostic, mildly religious, or highly religious backgrounds, rarely with a tradition of arguing with God.
• Does Clarke's "The Star" seem blasphemous to you? Stupid? Irrelevant?
• If you don't have a God who could destroy a world, how do you deal with the evil in our world? (A work, and by extension with me the attempt "To justify the ways of God to men" is called "theodicy." If you're in a monotheistic tradition with one all-Ruling God, how do you account for evil in the world?) If you don't have a God who could destroy a world, how do you deal with the Book of Revelation at the end of Christian Scriptures? (Some just ignore it.)
On more directly esthetic grounds, how do you respond to this story? Does the psychology feel right for a crisis of faith? Are the human interactions plausible? Does the description create a picture of a beautiful culture that has been destroyed? Is the plot an esthetic problem: a high-class "shaggy-God" story, where acentral myth gets rationalized and domesticated into the trivial? (Classic example: «Adam and Eve were survivors of a nuclear war.»)
20. Daniel Keyes, "Flowers for Algernon" (1959)
I'll argue that this is one of the most elegant stories in S.F., and maybe in literature.
• Premise: An exercise in the "one big lie" approach to S.F. narrative, except here it's a relatively small lie. From that small lie, all else follows with (tragic?) inevitability.
• Plot: A perfect parabola? Anyway, the rise and fall of Charlie Gordon.
• Genre: S.F.? If so, does it have "the look and feel" of the S.F. you're used to, or is it overly mundane, everyday, domestic? What is often called realistic?
• Mode: Is this story a form of Tragedy? If you insist on translating Aristotle's hamartia as "tragic flaw," there is a problem for this story as tragic: The tragic flaw is usually hybris, pride, and Charlie Gordon doesn't start or end proud; that's a flaw in the scientists. Aristotle meant (probably) mistake: tragic characters make a mistake. Does Charlie Gordon err in trying to become smart? Is tragedy the wrong Mode to see the story in? (My response is "pity and fear," so I feel a small tragedy here [but then I get teary over dead animals in narratives, and I would classify the death of Bambi's mother as very sad, but not tragic].)
21. Robert A. Heinlein, "All You Zombies—" (1959/60)
If you have a study guide for Heinlein's Starship Troopers, see it for comments by H. Bruce Franklin in "Zombies."
bastard : The word literally refers to a child of unmarried parents; Heinlein's character appropriates the word and claims it as just a descriptive term or with pride. That was gutsy in 1959, and is probably still gutsy, although for different reasons.
One legitimate claim against "political correctness" is encouraging euphemisms where it might be better to claim and change pejoratives—as when Americans took the insult "Yankee Doodle" and became Yanks or when homosexual scholars said they did "Queer Theory" or when paraplegics at the University of Illinois called themselves The Gimps or Jews called themselves Jews and Blacks called themselves Blacks.
The Worm Ouroboros: As Heinlein describes it. One of my myth dictionaries says it symbolizes "concepts of completion, perfection and totality, the endless round of existence." It may also symbolize solipsism.
solipsism: The idea that only I exist, and I create the universe between my ears, in my mind. I exist; you don't, except so far as I dream you up.
paradox: centrally, a contradiction, a statement that contradicts itself. The shortest form is an oxymoron or "contradiction in terms": e.g., "darkness visible," "sounds of silence," "holy devil," "angelic fiend." (An old game is coming up with wise-ass variations, e.g., "military intelligence," "business ethics," "legal logic," "bureaucratic efficiency.") A very long form is the story that deals with an apparent contradiction, and time-travel stories often deal with such paradoxes. If I go back in time and kill my grandparents, do I cease to exist? Have I ever existed? If I never existed, how did I go back in time to kill my grandparents? (Cf. the title and content of the Back to the Future movies.) Be sure you recognize the paradox in "Zombies."
Christine Jorgenson: One of the first people to get a sex change operation, and certainly the first who got a lot of publicity.
In addition to "bastard" and question of prostitution, note the gender bending in having the protagonist able to sing a variation on "I'm My Own Grandpa" that includes sex changes.
Other politics: What are the implications of an elite Bureau of time-travelers, unknown to ordinary citizens and changing things? What do you feel Heinlein's view is in this story?
22. Frederik Pohl, "Earth Eighteen" (1966):
First off, note that the correct spelling of Pohl's name can be found with the story, and here: Frederik, no "c".
This story is a parody guide-book and unquestionably a nasty little satire you should thoroughly enjoy. But: What is being satirized? Is the goal of this satire what satirists, in moralistic mode, says is their goal: chastizing "hypocrisy, folly, and vice"? (Sometimes satirists just want to hurt people, but we rarely admit that.)
Part 5: The Modern Period
23. Roger Zelazny, "For a Breath I Tarry" (1966). Erlich and Dunn summarize, "On an Earth where only the machines remain and rule, a machines transforms itself into a man." Do you see Beta becoming a woman? If so, do we have here more than just a "shaggy God story," retelling Adam and Eve?
pp. 432 (bottom)-433 (top): Solcom/Divcom = God/Satan in the prolog section in the biblical Book of Job.
Divcom is in the Earth; Solcom in the sky. Solcom is the main system; Divcom, as Alternate, is like unto the Adversary, the Satan, Satan.
pp. 435-36: Follow this philosohical discussion closely, and note that "rational" and words associated with it derive from the Latin ratio, which includes the ideas of "rate" and "proportion" (our "ratio"). Note also the idea that perceptions of organic beings are based on their physiology; to have a different physiology, or none at all, is to sense a different world.
p. 437: If you want a motto for Romantics among SF writers the lines of Mordel (a kind of devil in the Job parallel?) are a candidate: "There is no formula for a feeling. There is no conversion factor for an emotion." Note very well Mordell on machine vs. Man (and Woman?): "A machine is a Man turned inside out [. . .]. Note Mordel as a kind of "principle of negation," which Goethe saw as the essence of a devil. Zelazny may give the Devil more his due: Mordel challenges, goads, and aids Frost.
p. 445: The Ancient Ore-Crusher is a joke: see S. T. Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The Ancient Mariner committed a grave sin and now repeats the story over and over and over. Picture the death of the last Man on Earth: it's grotesque, and a little funny. This is important as some figurative vinegar to cut the (figuratively) sentimental oil of other parts of the story.
p. 446: "What is (a) Man?" is a theological question, a philosophical question, a biological question, and a popular one is S.F. We have a "manhood" test set up here. (Note the set Beauty, Emotion, Humanity—or, in the masculinist formulation, "Manhood.")
p.447-48: Note Beta's devices: web-weavers, "mechanical spiders."
p. 451: Note Frost's very literal transgression (boundary breaking) in going south, and perhaps in arguing with Solcom. He may be on his way to humanity.
p. 458: «Frost, Victor Frankenstein; Dr. Frankenstein, meet mighty Frost.» How do you respond to Frost's digging up human corpses for his project?
p. 459: Frost says he will have to "transfer the matrix of my awareness to a human nervous system." OK, let's accept AI: artifical intelligence, machine intelligence—Frost's intelligence. And let's accept also cloning, growing a full, adult, human body. Still, can you accept the "transfer" of "the matrix" of "awareness" into another being? If you can't, is this story just a variation on the magic theme of the transmigration of consciousness?
p. 464: "I fear"—therefore I am, and I am a man is the possibility suggested here. What do you think of this formulation? What do you feel about it? Why not this rather than the clichéd formula of Decartes's Cogito ergo sum (I think; therefore I am)? Technically, any verb would do: all you need is some predicate for the I.
Is it a fearful thing, to be human?
Does the story suggest that it is a very good thing to be, a human being? it's a nice thought, a beautiful one, I think—but, then, I'm a humanist. As a student of S.F., I must ask, Why would a fine machine like Frost want to be less than it is to become a human being? Isn't it only our arrogance that thinks Pinnochio and Mr. Data and Frost and all want to become human?
24. Harlan Ellison, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (1967/68)
In a phone call, Harlan Ellison informed me with some vehemence that (a) he was apalled that critics missed the fact that Ellen is Black (382 + 388) and that (b) the ending of "I Have No Mouth" is upbeat (see 390 n. 2). Since Ellison is a very intelligent man: Huh? Is there a significant racial theme to the story? Aside from the fact that AM isn't completely, utterly, totally victorious in ruining the humans, what is "upbeat"?
Given the way computers are getting smaller and the Cold War seems to have given way to more limited warm and hot wars—does the premise of take-over by giant military computers seem likely? Is it very significant one way or the other? I.e., is the story so clearly allegorical or figurative or something other than literal that it doesn't much matter whether or not we accept the premise as realistic? If "I Have No Mouth" is allegorical or figurative or whatever—what is it saying? Are we trapped in some sort of mechanized society that has developed from Cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am"? Are we trapped in a cybernetic universe ruled over by a divine sadist? Is the story written in the hope of preventing a future of a mechanized society out of human control or run by dehumanized humans?
25. Robert Sheckley, "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?" (1969)
Is this story sexist? Is it a tragi-comic, mechanoid-satric variation on the romance theme of The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy?
VACABULARY AND ALLUSIONS (satire is frequently both learned and obscene):
Forest Hills: Very suburbanish name; cf. also "Forest Lawn (Cemetery)".
microbiotic-food consule: A parody of "macrobiotic," a health-food fad that would become very big on the U.S. West Coast by the 1980s. The microbiotic variation Sheckley invented includes food from a very different tradition.
Murphy bed: In old U.S. apartments, a bed that went up into the wall (or a closet or cabinet); a bed of nails is from a very different tradition.
Beautyrest: Real brand name for a mattress.
Ascetic: Asceticism refers to denial of pleasure or comfort.
moderne-spirituel: What it sounds like, but be sure you know this is a very pretentious way to put what may be sort of paradoxical.
anomie: lack of purpose or identity, malaise.
voluptuarium: coined word, from "voluptuous" and cognates, referring to sensual pleasures and delights (often sexual).
sadly ironic bronze lingam and yoni: male and female sex symbols, apparently ironic because of the sexual dysfunction of Melisande Durr.
cotter pin: holding pin
prehensile: adapted for grasping (usually in "prehensile tail," on a monkey).
pinball machine: ca. 1970, when asked in a Radical In the Street Interview, "And what radicalized you?" Rich Erlich replied, "I tried to desegregate faculty toilets and got trapped in the administrative pinball machine"; that being in a pinball machine is a positive fantasy for Melisande is striking. (Is it also misleading?)
folding, spindling[,] and mutilating: IBM cards, a data-storage device in old computers, came with instructions that you were not to "fold, spindle, or mutilate" them (a spindle is a thin, round metal rod set in a support on the bottom and pointed on the top, that one would stick relatively small sheets of paper onto for temporary storage).
Rom: Soon to become ROM (Read Only Memory), but here probably just a cybernetic-sounding (masculine) name.
GE: General Electric, maker of light bulbs, clock radios, etc.
masseur: a male giver of massages. (Massages during the 1960s were sometimes a prelude to sex, even as massage parlors were sometimes fronts for prostitution.)
tonus: fancy word for muscle tone.
parasympathetic ulceration: ulcer caused by "nerves" (i.e., problems in the autonomic—"parasympathetic"—nervous system, important for digestion).
dermal resonator: skin vibrator.
palpating: touching (in a medical manner).
situs, locus: site, location (esp. of an organ); loci: plural of "locus."
atypical ulnar thrombosis: unusual clot in the bone in your arm that isn't the radius ("technobabble," without meaning?).
indicated/contraindicated: advisable/not advisable (medical treatment).
connective ligaments and integuments: connecting connective and covering tissue (redundant with "ligaments," since what they do is connect).
unitary: a single unit, one thing.
tension cancellation (etc.): the references here are to orgasm.
deanesthetization: restoring feeling.
barbituric acid: i.e., he took a strong barbituate and is out of it.
nova: exploding star. (See Clarke's "The Star.")
The point-of-view character here is Melisande Durr, and this is her story. Given your (gender/religious) politics, does the story have a happy ending? Would it be happier if she had made it with Rom? With "a green plastic sphere, or a willow tree, or a beautiful young man"? If Rom had "awakened" her so she could have a good sex life with her husband?
What do you make of a future-world "housewife"? In a good future world, would there be housewives?
26. Le Guin, Ursula, "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" (1971)
From Richard D. Erlich, Coyote's Song: The Teaching Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin, © 1997, 1999 (fair-use quotation encouraged, with citations). Page citations here are to Le Guin's collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters.
"Vaster than Empires and More Slow" (1971) takes a situation similar to that of "Nine Lives"—a small group on an isolated, threatening planet—but keeps in general shape close to old SF formulas. Instead of a tenclone, we have ten literally mad scientists on a planet two lightcenturies beyond human exploration (WTQ 174), one where "All lifeforms were photosynthesizing or saprophagus, living off light or death, not off life. Plants: infinite plants . . ." (175). And then the isolated humans are threatened by—something, something large and dangerous, where there are no intelligent creatures, no dangerous animals, nothing with voluntary movement—no possible threats! A familiar enough SF premise, even one presented with some psychological sophistication in Forbidden Planet (1956), a film whose Monster from the Id lurks in the speculations about "psychic projections" and "Dark Egos" by "Vaster’s" mad explorers (182). The movement of the plot of "VEMS" identifies the threat as the planet's forest, one vast semi-sentient. The forest has sensed the fear and aggression of the humans and projected it back upon them, frightening them more and contributing to a vicious cycle. The forest is not conquered in the story but contacted by the human explorers' "Sensor," Osden, the hypersensitive empath of the group.
"'As Jean-Paul Sartre has said in his lovable way, 'Hell is other people'" ("A Trip to the Head," WTQ 160)—and this statement is literally true for Osden, who has no "skin," so to speak, to keep other people out, so "touch" becomes for him a violation. Osden is most sensitive to the fear of his fellow humans, and to that of the forest. Osden resolves his own problems and those of the group, when he takes "the fear into himself, and, accepting, had transcended it. He had given up his self to the alien," to the forest, "an unreserved surrender, that left no place for evil. He had learned the love of the Other, and thereby had been given his whole self"—which "is not the vocabulary of reason" but is the language of the Perennial Philosophy, and is the resolution of this story (WTQ 199).
As a teaching story, "Vaster than Empires" makes explicit some important Le Guinian points on the human Shadow, Being, macho, aggression, and the one, the desperately egocentric individual man.
"What one fears," the Narrator tells us, "is alien. . . . not one of us. The evil is not in me!" (187). In "Vaster than Empires" the forest is radically alien, but it is not evil or a murderer. The forest is, on the contrary, associated symbolically with connectedness and identified with the ground of all connections. The forest is described as "Presence without mind. Awareness of being, without object or subject. Nirvana" (191) and explicitly called "the forest of being" (198). Indeed, what initially terrifies the forest is recognizing the mere existence of the humans: in its wholeness, the forest had never before encountered an Other. The forest is not conquered by the humans and hardly could be; the relatively happy resolution of the story comes in contacting, getting in touch with, the forest. Like City of Illusions, "Vaster than Empires" takes a standard sort of tale and retells it with radically different values, climaxing in a different idea of victory than defeating the Other; as in A Wizard of Earthsea, such victory as is possible comes not from conquering the apparent enemy, but the "mortification" of embracing the enemy.
This is a very unmacho idea, supported by some «fine-structure» aspects of "Vaster than Empires." The Surveyors who go out exploring "Where no man has gone before" (in the classic Star Trek formulation) are "escapists, misfits" and "nuts" (WTQ 167), described early in the story as "wriggling through the coupling tube one by one like apprehensive spermatozoa trying to fertilize the universe" (167-68). So much for the Daniel Boone tradition and the central SF ideal of expansion into the Galaxy—and for the image of the phallic rocket ship penetrating and impregnating space! (As in, for a highly relevant example, Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.) On a more personal level, Osden tells one of his women colleagues that his "choice is to be hated or to be despised. Not being a woman or a coward, I prefer to be hated." Osden is at his sickest here, and in case we—especially a male "we"—miss that point, Le Guin goes on to undermine Osden by having him immediately go on to deny his humanity: "But I am not a man. . . . There are all of you. And there is myself. I am one" (177-78).
Osden has set up false oppositions, a false dilemma, and a false association of "woman" or the feminine with cowardice or weakness. He has identified himself against the group as a God-like One. He has yet to live the paradox of victory in "unreserved surrender" (WTQ 199), "losing the egocentric life." I will discuss the nature of that surrender in the discussion of “Vaster” in its context in Buffalo Gals. Here I wish to caution readers that Le Guin’s self-description as an "unconsistent Taoist and . . . consistent unChristian" is somewhat modest; she is more consistent than most of us. So we should be careful not to think of Osden's surrender as Christ-like sacrifice and Christian paradoxical triumph over an adversary. Osden is not imitating Christ, and he is not sacrificing himself; Le Guin does not approve of sacrifices in any religion, or self-sacrifice as an ideal. Osden fulfills himself by finding in solitude relationship with the forest: with Nature, Being, the Dao. "Vaster than Empires" is not a story of Christ-like love, nor is it one of the analyses of the late 1960s and early 1970s that would find the solution to all problems in better communication or more sensitivity. Osden's problem is that he is too sensitive. The standard-issue human being is far from "a well of loving-kindness" (177), and "Vaster than Empires" makes even clearer than "Nine Lives" that some aggressiveness is a standard part of human interaction. Mannon, "the Soft Scientist," tries to explain Osden's obnoxiousness:
. . . the normal defensive-aggressive reaction between strangers meeting . . . is something you're scarcely aware of . . . you've learned to ignore it, to the point where you might even deny it exists. However, Mr Osden, being an empath, feels it. Feels his feelings, and yours, and is hard put to say which is which. Let's say that there's a normal element of hostility toward any stranger in your emotional reaction to him when you meet him, plus a spontaneous dislike of his looks, or clothes, or handshake—it doesn't matter what. He feels that dislike. As his autistic defense has been unlearned [as he was cured of childhood autism], he resorts to an aggressive-defense mechanism, a response in kind to the aggression which you have unwittingly projected onto him. (WTQ 169)
This speech gives us an approximate statement of Le Guin's position that aggressivity (as at least mild hostility to strangers) is a normal human trait: aggressivity—the capacity for anger, even violent rage—is part of the human repertoire. As with any trait, discounting for a moment free will, different people will be «programmed» for aggressivity to greater and lesser degrees; as with any trait, aggressivity will be expressed in ways determined by the environment, most specifically for humans—always and necessarily—our cultures. The question then becomes, What are we going to do about it? What in human societies increases the probability of actual violence, especially large-scale violence? Can we build better and saner societies if not utopias, where violence is rare and war unknown?