Rich Erlich, English 112, A, Fall 1990, 1997

<StGd SFRA Anthology, Sept. 00>                                                        9 Sept. 1999




Study Guide for Selected Stories in Science Fiction:

The Science Fiction Research Association Anthology






         1.  Please tell me about any errors you catch. 


         2.  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?


         3.  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")?


         4.  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.




E. M. Forster, "The Machine Stops" (1909)


         1.  Note very well the opening sentence of this story: "Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee."  The room, we soon learn, is underground, inside a world-machine; and at the center of the room "there sits a swaddled lump of flesh—a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus."  In a very short space, Forster brings together some of the major motifs of 20th-century SF.  He gives us a degenerate future humanity, but more important he places our species underground, inside a machine, and in an environment explicitly likened to a hive.  Mechanizing the underworld had been done before, by H. G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895)—and Wells has a sublunar world of rather degenerate Selenites (Moon people) in The First Men in the Moon (1901); still, to put a whole human civilization underground was something new and important.  Back to the time of myth-making, the underworld was the realm of "Chaos and Old Night," the womb of the Earthmother.  It's no less than the complete reversal of an archetype to mechanize Mamma, and the motif has fascinated a number of artists (cf. such films as Metropolis, THX-1138, A Boy and His Dog; fiction such as Harlan Ellison's "Catman" and Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars).


         2.  I don't know what "Kuno" means (if anything), but Vashti is a significant name.  Vashti was the Queen of Ahasuerus in the biblical Book of Esther who refuses to come when he sends for her.  Another significant biblical allusion is in "He [Man] had harnassed Leviathan."  In the Book of Job, Leviathan is a very important chaos monster, and God rather sarcastically inquires of Job, "Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, / or . . . put a rope in his nose?" (see Job 41.1-4).  In Job's time, anyway, humankind most certainly couldn't capture a sea monster like Leviathan.  Are the people of the Machine really so powerful that they've harnassed the forces of Chaos?


         3.  What is the attitude toward science in this story?  Note the early reference to "the attempt to 'defeat the sun'" as "the last common interest that our race experienced about the heavenly bodies, or indeed about anything . . . . [before] science retreated into the ground, to concentrate herself upon problems she was certain of solving."  Does science only deal with solvable problems?  Did the builders of the Machine turn away from science to mere technology?  When we see them, do the people of the Machine retain any science?  How does that affect their ability to deal with technology?

                  Does Kuno rediscover astronomy?  Astralogy?

                  Plato says in the Theatetus (160d) that Protagoras said "Man is the measure of all things," and this crazy saying became the slogan of the humanists.  Since Kuno is a future humanist who believes "Man is the measure," should we conclude that in the story such arrogance is presented as necessary for people to do science?  That seems paradoxical.  If "Man is the measure," maybe we should just ignore "all things" and say with Alexander Pope, "The proper study of mankind is man" ("Essay on Man").  Is Kuno's society more logical (so to speak) than Kuno?  Is Foster pushing a paradox?


         4.  How seriously should we take Vashti's complaint that visiting Kuno has "greatly retarded the development" of her "soul"?  How seriously are the normal inhabitants of the Machine really involved with "soul" and "mind" and "ideas"?  How precious is their time?  Consider the possibility that "The Machine Stops" insists both that human beings won't seriously engage the world without seeing humans as central to the world—and that we won't understand our own humanity if we don't directly engage the world.


         5.  What is the tone of the Narrator's comment, "Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not?"  If "Man is the measure," shouldn't the surroundings be adapted to Man?  And isn't that precisely what the builders of the Machine tried to do?  If it's society's job to "adapt" people, what, if anything is the role of the Hero?

                  How easy does Kuno find it to overcome the conditioning of his society—the ways in which he's been "adapted"?  Does he need to identify with the past and with "the unborn" he tries to comfort?  Does he need to experience a kind of rebirth before he can really affirm "Man is the measure"?  Is there a sense in which Kuno's first coming into the air is a (re)birth—or should be?  Note the imagery of coming out of the womb of the Earthmother in any ascent from the underground (or out of the guts of Leviathan: see Le Guin's "Nine Lives" and the biblical Book of Jonah, 1.17-2.6).  Re-read the first line of the story and consider the significance of Kuno's thinking he should have "torn off every garment I had, and gone out into the outer air unswaddled."

                  Is Kuno heroic?  Is it somehow heroic to rebel against an evil world even if you don't accomplish anything?  Is it heroic to rebel against a world like that of the Machine, even if you accomplish nothing and the world isn't particularly evil—and doomed anyway?

                             In Nineteen Eighty-Four there's the suggestion that "the object was not to stay alive but to stay human" (II.7).  Winston Smith doesn't even achieve that; is Kuno more successful?

                             Is it a victory that Kuno and Vashti ultimately (somehow) "touch"?  Have they "recaptured life" just before they die?


         6.  Do we get a more upbeat ending—in terms of the human species—than we might have had in this story?  Do you believe Kuno's dying assertion that "Humanity has learnt its lesson"?  Note that "As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb" (by an air-ship coming through the vomitory).

                  The juxtaposition has to undercut his line somewhat, but it needn't undercut it much: the smashing of Kuno is also the smashing of the Machine.

                  The echo of the opening line of the story in "honeycomb" suggests the destruction of the hive.  Still, it's in the nature of bees to build hives, once their numbers get high enough.  If the current Homeless become numerous and civilized, will they rebuild the Machine "tomorrow"?

                  Forster uses "vomitory" consistently to describe the (few) exits to the Machine, and Thom Dunn notes that there are bones about those vomitories.  The suggestion here is the Machine as monster, in an underground lair.  Can such a monster ever be destroyed finally?  This Machine stops, but might others succeed it?  (Some time in your life, see Herman Melville's Moby Dick and what it says about the mortality or immortality of Leviathan.)


         7.  As much as anything, Forster's "meditation" is a dystopian satire, and in any satire subtlety is no virtue.  Is Forster guilty of subtlety, at least as far as the MORAL of his story goes? 

                  Note the imagery of "naked man" vs. "garments," completing the motif of "swaddled" and "unswaddled." 

                  Is it correct to see not only advanced technology but culture itself as "a garment and no more"?  Is that correct if we see humankind as essentially just the sum of its individual members, who themselves are in essence (Forster's word) divine soul plus divine body?

                  Is this story a romantic reactionary tale, summarized correctly in Charles Elkin's title, "E. M. Forster's 'The Machine Stops': Liberal-Humanist Hostility to Technology"? (Clockwork Worlds, ed. Erlich and Dunn [1983]).



Ursula K. Le Guin, "Nine Lives" (Playboy, 1969; substantially revised form,                 World's Best Science Fiction: 1970, ed. Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr—revised form rpt. in SF:F)


From "On Theme," Le Guin's commentary on "Nine Lives" in Those Who Can: A                Science Fiction Reader, ed. Robin Scott Wilson (1973)


* * *

         I had been reading The Biological Time Bomb by Gordon Rattray Taylor, a splendid book for biological ignoramuses, and had been intrigued by his chapter on the cloning process. . . .  I did not have to read between the lines; Rattray Taylor did it for me.  He pointed out that some biologists have been contemplating these more ambitious possibilities [of cloning organisms more complex than carrots] quite seriously (why don't people ever ask biologists where they get their ideas from?).  In thinking about this possibility, I found it alarming.  In wondering why I found it alarming, I began to see that the duplication of anything complex enough to have personality would involve the whole issue of what personality is—the question of individuality, of identity, of selfhood.  Now that question is a hammer that rings the great bells of Love and Death.

* * *

         . . . I don't think sf writers merely play with scientific or other ideas, merely speculate or extrapolate; I think—if they're doing their job—they get very involved with them.  They take them personally, which is precisely what scientists must forbid themselves to do.  They try to hook them in with the rest of existence.  A writer's ability to find a genuine theme (and the great writers' ability to develop profound and complex themes out of very simple materials) seems to be a function of the capacity to see implications, to make connections.

          . . . I'm trying to describe a synthetic process [writing] intellectually, which is misleading.  It all took place in the dark, in silence, by groping.  I didn't say Oh! an idea!—Ah! a theme!—  It just began to come together, in odd moments, out of odd corners of my mind.

 . . . it "came together," presented itself as a story to be written, rather suddenly: when it found itself expressed in, embodied in, a situation.

         . . . A writer must trust the unconscious, even when it produces unexpected Welshmen.

         . . . It was to be "a hostile environment."  In other words, a nasty place.  A place where no human beings or animals or plants lived, or had lived or ought to live.  A place where one would feel lonely, threatened—where even a whole group of people would be isolated, and where their need for one another, their interdependence, would always be stressed, and under stress.  The dome in which they live only emphasizes their isolation and their enforced closeness.  The cave, though, the cave where the mine is—why a cave?  I don't know. . . .  I know about the accepted symbolisms and implications of large dark caves; but none of them quite seems to fit.  The planet is personalized in the very first sentence as "she," and the cave is described, both by me and by Pugh, in clearly physiological terms, as if it were somebody's innards.  All the same, I don't see a symbolism either of rape, or of birth and rebirth; or rather I can see it, but it doesn't feel right.  The cave may involve inwardness in a nonsexual, totally personal sense—the kind of fearful, compulsive consciousness of one's own body one may have

when ill, a sense of being trapped "inside" something and unable to communicate—a pathological inwardness.  Or the cave may be the unconscious.  I really don't know.

         Given a setting, a character, and a theme, it was now time for the plot to develop itself.  For me, this is the chancy part.  This is where intellect enters in, where choices must be deliberately made. . . .  It's a kind of experimenting [her method of writing], testing.  You have to see if your theme holds up, if it works. . . .  Sometimes, most often [in creative writing], it's just a loss.  But those who trust to the unconscious must expect a good deal of wasted effort.  It's only when you write in obedience to external standards, or for a market, that you can turn out reams with never a false start; or when you're a plain genius, on the order of Shakespeare or Mozart.

* * *

And now the reasons for some of Owen's peculiarities became clear.  he was the opposite of something.  He was peculiar, because the clone were aggressively "normal."  He was frail and sloppy because they were healthy, strong, and efficient.  He was over thirty because they were young.  He was an introvert because they were extraverted.  He was Welsh because they were abstractly American—the marginal, defensive culture vs. the dominant, domineering one.  Etc.  Though conceived as something's opposite, he defined himself and took on substance first because he was a person . . . ; whereas none of the clone-members was an independent person, and the group, the clone itself, was a kind of marvellously effective simulacrum of a human individual.  

         Martin is also defined by contrast with Owen, but the contrast is more superficial.  I wanted the reader to be able to tell him apart from Owen.  I wanted the reader to feel the reality of Owen's and Martin's friendship—asserting itself, as friendships do, against disparities and strains and irritations.  So he came out dark, sturdy, . . . etc.  But on a deeper level, he is simply . . . a restatement of certain qualities which differentiate the individual from the group . . . . * * *All this [on Le Guin's handling of "limited omniscient" point of view] is conventional [for most of the story] . . . .  Then Owen goes off in a panic to try and [sic] rescue Martin, and Kaph is left alone in the dome—and instead of following Owen, we stay with Kaph.  We don't get inside his mind yet, but in the sentence, "The child's dream ..." we're pretty close to it.  Then, in the next to last paragraph, all pretense is dropped and we are in Kaph's mind, seeing with his eyes.  This is a bit awkward.  It strains the frame.  It can be defended only on one ground, that it is stylistically significant.  That is, up until the last three pages it was not possible to get inside Kaph's mind, because it was closed to all outsiders—all others but the clone—himself. . . . He is no longer self-sufficient.

         Self-sufficient.  There the hammer strikes the great bells.  What does it mean, to be sufficient to yourself?  What is a self?  Can a self be sufficient to itself?  If not, what is the role of the Other?  Is the existence of a foreign self a threat or a necessity, or both?  And what is the role of total otherness—of death?  Can a being unaware of itself be aware of its own mortality, and conversely, can a being ignorant of its mortality be aware of itself—or of the Other?

* * *

The theme of a story is . . . the coherence of . . . ["descriptive content, intellectual concepts . . . moral assumptions"] to form an aesthetically determined whole.



Joanna Russ, "When It Changed" (1972)

         1.  If you are familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin's well-received The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), consider the possibility of reading "When It Changed" as a response the LHD. 

                  The main point of view character in LHD is a human male from Terra [= our Earth], who is an envoy from the rest of humanity to a harshly cold world where the people are androgyns with an estrous cycle: except during pregnancy and nursing, and for the few days a month they are in heat and can become male or female, they are neither male nor female but only human.  If LHD can be seen as a political work favoring gender integration and humanism through the figure of the androgyne, "When It Changed" might be read as a riposte favoring feminist separatism. 


         2.  Note "continuity and change(s)" in the opening five paragraphs: the elements that make this Whileaway place both familiar and strange. 

                  "Katy drives like a maniac"—sounds familiar, especially if we picture people in a car. 

                  120 km. / hour: We might be surprised by the "kilometers" and that "120 kilometers per hour" would seem maniacal, even on turns, but, still, it's familiar enough: we in the USA are very unusual in not using metric measurements, and it's easy enough to see 120km/hour as dangerous driving on turns on, say, a Canadian or Australian backcountry road. 

                  "My birthplace on Whileaway" sounds a little odd, but it's a grammatical constructions if Whileaway is an island. 

                  The phrase "a five-gear shift" is familiar, as is the rest of the sentence about the area—except that where you might expect something like "rural Queensland" or "northern Manitoba" you get "our district." 

                  The "I" accepts the wife's driving but is bothered that the wife "will not handle guns"—familiar enough, except that a macho guy who's into guns probably would want to drive and not have his wife drive. 

                  Yuriko dreams "twelve-year old dreams of love and war" and the rest of the second paragraph seem OK if we think of "Yuriko" as a European name with a masculine "o" ending and picture a macho culture not far from, perhaps, the Yukon.  But Yuriko is a girl—Japanese name ultimately?—and fathers in macho industrialized cultures on contemporary Earth don't accept quite so readily that their teenage daughters might go out bear-hunting or trying to kill cougars with a knife. 

                  The "I" has "fought three duels," has a telegraph in the car, notes that the quiet car engine isn't steam but I.C. (Internal Combustion).  For sure this ain't Kansas, and I don't think its even Newfoundland. 

                  Finally—"We've been intellectually prepared for this ever since the Colony was founded, ever since it was abandoned, but this is different.  This is awful."  And what is awful?  "'Men!' Yuki had screamed . . . .  'They've come back!  Real Earth men!'" 


         3.  "When It Changed" is a "First Contact" story, in the subgroup of "First Contact in a Long time."  I.e., it's like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman and such, but it varies the formula in having the alien creatures humans with whom we've lost contact.  With writers in the tradition of comic romance (e.g., Shakespeare or Le Guin in their early writing), this set-up could lead to a work ending with new and better world coalescing around a central, heterosexual couple, whose upcoming marriage would bring fertility to a wasteland and greater wholeness to the main characters.  Did you want that happy ending?  What's the effect of the ending Russ gives you?


         4.  Since Yuriko's patronymic/matronymic name is "Janetson," we can infer on about the second page of the story what we only learn directly later: that the name of the "I" is Janet.  OK—how does Janet view the men (412)?  How do you think Russ wants us to view the men? 

                  Janet puts her hand out for a handshake for "interstellar amity"—does that make you trust her opinion more?

                  Janet spots Phyllis Helgason Spet, identifying her as someone "whom someday I shall kill"—does that make you trust her opinion any less?  (We later learn that the duels Janet fought were to the death [416]; take her threat to Spet quite literally.) 

                  Should we contemn the first man Janet talks with (412-13) and have a rather higher opinion of the second, "the real one" (414)?  Is Yuki's opinion important for this question? 


         5.  Note the exposition by Janet (and Lydia) about Whileaway (412, bottom-413). 

                  "Where are all your/the people" (412, 413) is important for the idea of "people" held by the man who's "for show" (414). 

                             Is it "poisoning the well" to assign "people" = "men" to a dense, rather thuggish man?  Is it OK to have the women of Whileaway use "son" in the patronymic/matronymic (412) and, apparently, "men" to mean "people, human beings" (413)?  Is that OK in Russian?  (Real questions for me.) 

                                      Patronymic: The "Ivanovich" in "Ivan Ivanovich Rus" or "Alexandra Ivanova Rus"—i.e., "son/daughter of Ivan." 

                                      Matronymic: Same thing, from the mother. 

                             If it's not nice to accept with equanimity the plague that allows Whileaway to have an all-women world, what about all those stories in which we saw, though less literally, all-male worlds?  Might a somewhat thuggish woman reader ask, "Where are all the people?" in much science fiction, war stories, and other "action/adventure" works? 

                                      (I may misremember, but I think in Russ's The Female Man, a Whileaway character named Jael identifies herself and women like her as the "plague."  That's an even less nice suggestion, but it should get Russ's readers to wonder what was going on in the heads of a lot of authors who rather blithely ignored women in their works.)

                  The exposition is brief, but it does suggest a culture requiring a lot of labor—but one that works. 

                             Note that the fantasy of one-sex reproduction is more realistic for woman than for men; currently "parthenogenesis" (virgin birth) for humans may not be "so easy that anyone can practice it," but "the merging of ova" faces mostly technical and ethical barriers (414).  Anyway, if women want to fantasize a self-sustaining world without men, they need only have a very large sperm bank with a wide genetic cross-section.  Male parthenogenesis fantasies have to get much more complex: cloning and artificial gestation. 


         6.  Note Janet's debate with "the real one" among the men, the real leader, about "parthenogenetic culture" (414-15). 

                  Since any religious arguments would be, it seems, irrelevant to both sides, and it's a bit premature for the men to critique any defects in the life on Whileaway as it's actually lived, the question gets down to whether or not "this kind of society is unnatural" (414). 

                             Who wins the "nature" argument?

                             Who wins your sympathy?


         7.  Do you agree that the women "should have burned them [the visiting men] down where there stood" (415)?  Would it be in character for Janet? 

                  Picture Janet and the man literally "bristling" at one another "for several seconds (this is absurd but true)"—i.e., the hair-on-end aggressive threat displays in humans and other primate species (415). 

         Would it have been just for the women to have killed the men? 

                  Should we see the men as spies?  Messengers bringing ultamatums?  Aliens who should be killed while weak, preferably before they can tell their world the secret location of our home planet—to use the cliché formula. 

                             Given Western Hemisphere history the last 500 years, would it have been wise for the natives of the New World who first encountered Columbus and the other explorers to have killed the Whites and sunk their ships?  (The possibility is suggested in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest—and before you condemn such bloody-mindedness out of hand, look up brief histories of the Carib Indians and the California Indians.) 


         8.  What are the sexual politics we see within the story—and can infer are inherent to men/women relationships so long as men don't change much?  Given the unlikelihood on Earth of a plague that kills only men—what are the implications of "When It Changed" for (sexual) politics here and now? 



James Tiptree, Jr. (pseudonym of Alice Sheldon), "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1976)


         1.  Feminist SF works showing worlds of women raise in very strong ways the question frequently formulated as "Nature vs. Nurture" or "Heredity vs. Environment."  I.e., to what extent can we talk of a fixed nature for The Human Being or fixed natures for Man and Woman; to what extent are we defined by our environments, especially our most immediate environment of human culture?  Having spent some 23 semester hours around a school of life sciences, I usually find the question silly.  I don't believe in The Goose or The Butterfly of even The Methanobacterium; so I don't find it easy to believe in Man or The Human Male or The Human Female or The Human Being or any abstract Human Nature in the mind of a Platonic god.  There are geese and butterflies and all sorts of bacteria, and people; about the only thing I can understand in such formulations as "nature" is genotype: the genetic endowment of the organism.  I can also understand modal phenotype: all the perceivable ways that the genotype expresses itself, as we're most likely to run into them.  And I accept as a law,




"How would The Organism respond in this stimulus situation?"  Hell if I know—is The Oganism a dog or a dogfish or a dogwood tree?  "How would the organism develop if there were no environmental interference?"  It'd be weird, dude; there's always an environment. 

         The genetic norm for human beings is 46 chromosomes, two of which directly relate to sex.  With only minor exceptions, if the fertilized egg that became you was XX, you're a girl; if XY, you're a boy.  About 1/46th of the genetic complement is directly related to your biological gender—which is an important part of the genome, but sitll only a part. 

         Let's say women tend to have better fine muscle coordination than men (which women probably do).  That'd be part of "feminine nature."  But any

particular woman might be a klutz; and whether women's having good fine-muscle coordination means that they do most of the needle-point or most of the neurosurgery—that's a matter of culture and politics. 

                  But I also teach courses about periods when properly indoctrinated Europeans believed the Nature = God's Handiwork as expressed in parallel planes, the Cosmic Dance, and, preeminently, The Great Chain of Being.  If their theory is correct, then human nature is the human niche in Nature as designed by God.  And I am myself a well-indoctrinated Jeffersonian and accept the creation myth in the Declaration of Independence—which includes a view of human nature quite different from both the traditional Greco(Roman)-Christian views and current scientific views.

                  What's human nature like in "Houston"?  Is it unnatural for women to do without male rule (471)?  Is it unnatural to produce children by cloning; unnatural to engineer the human genone (462)?  Is it "natural to share" (457)?  Among humans following our natures, is it the case that "Everybody has aggressive fantasies" or "Nobody does"?  Will it be a natural world where ". . . fighting is long over," having ended with men (473)? 

                             Does the women's world in "Houston" deny human nature in being so slow to change?  In being unhierarchical?  (In The Great Chain Being, there's a place for everyone, and it is a self-evident truth that people are radically unequal.)  

                                      Alternatively, if the instigating institution of human civilization was the (military) Army, and the builder of the first great works the thoroughly bureaucratized labor "army," are these undisciplined women uncivilized?  Are they denying the essence of civilized humanity in choosing to live comfortably rather than "to boldly go where no man has gone before"—as quickly as possible and inviting a lot of risks? 


         2.  In the background of "Houston" you'll find Aldous Huxley's classic anti-Utopia, Brave New World (made explicit on 462).  Huxley presents a peaceful world of what we'd call bio-engineered people, but they're male-dominated and strictly hierarchical, with a class system starting with Alphas and following the Greek alphabet down to Betas, Gammas, and Deltas.  To some extent, "Houston" is a reply to Brave New World showing that you can have a good, anarchistic society with at least some cloning (but not growing babies in "bottles"—see Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time for that one handled positively).  To what extent, if at all, do the BNW allusions serve to show us limitations in the goodness of "The human race" in "Houston"? 


         3.  In his endnote to the story in The SFRA Anthology, Thomas P. Dunn identifies the protagonist of the story as Doc Lorimer and compares him with Sophocles's Creon in Antigone.  I've got some quibbles on Creon, but Dunn is certainly right about who's the central character. 

                  How much should we sympathize with Doctor Orren Lorimer?  The story starts with a flashback of little Orren getting tricked or pushed into the girls' washroom at Evanston Junior High and returns momentarily to that scene just before the end (434, 473).  Early on there's a long paragraph on the older Lorimer dealing with "all the Buds and Daves and big, indomitable, cheerful, able, disciplined, slow-minded mesomorphs he has cast his life with.  Meso-ectos, he corrected himself; astronauts aren't muscle heads," but, Bud and Dave are hardly heroes either.  "I'm half-jock, he thinks.  A foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier and I'd be just like them.  One of them.  An alpha.  They probably sense it underneath, the beta bile"—and then a few more lines and a short paragraph flashing back to "the painful end part" of the girls' washroom episode: "the grinning faces waiting for him when he

stumbled out.  The howls, the dribble down his leg.  Being cool, pretending to laugh too.  You shitheads, I'll show you.  I am not a girl" (436). 

                             If the end of Revenge of the Nerds has things right, and every normal person should occasionally feel nerdy, should we identify with Lorimer's desire to be accepted among the ultimate jocks with "The Right Stuff"?  Or, should we condemn him for wanting to be one of the jocks when he alternates his awe of alphas (445) with contempt (436), and suspects the real jocks have no respect for him (453). 

                             If "we" are girls or women, should we condemn him because he identifies nerdish victims with girls? 

                             If "we" are liberal feminists, should we condemn him (gently) for not seeing his self-interest and making common cause with women? 

                             If we identify with the future women, should we sympathize with him but accept his death as just a (more or less unfortunate) necessity, the way the dense little sexist sees women (435)? 


         4.  Mankind, as we see it in "Houston" are one religious fanatic, strongly into the more authoritatian ideas of St. Paul,  Apostle to the Gentiles, a stage Texan who seems to accept the Gospel According to Hugh (Heffner), in The Playboy Philosophy version, ca. 1969, and a science nerd who wants to be a jock.  Is this fair?  Fair enough?  (E.g., is it about as fair as the view of women in most "action/adventure" movies?) 


         5.  In "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," Ursula K. Le Guin presents a beautiful utopian world with only one flaw: its existence depends upon keeping one child in a room in filth, squalor, and degradation.  Thus Le Guin puts to a most rigorous proof the Utilitarian ideal of "The greatest good for the greatest number."  Keep that in mind when you consider the climax of the story: "We can hardly turn you loose on Earth, and we simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems"—and the added line by the earnest Judy Dakar, "Besides, we don't think you'd be very happy" (473).  What do you think of these future women who kill Lorimer? 


         6.  If you were to denounce to the authorities the SFRA for purveying dangerous obscenity in reprinting "Houston," which aspects would you stress to really, so to speak, turn on Jesse Helms and the Art Police to the necessity of suppressing the story? 

         If you were an ACLU attorney defending the story, how would you handle the accusations that the story uses dirty words, denigrates males, shows American astronauts in a negative light, attacks Christian doctrine (471), shows an attempted rape and completed masturbation, and is generally a downer for guys by showing our demise and succession by a world in which, really, "nothing counts" (469)—and one run by feminist anarchists, to boot?  



C[atherine]. L[ucille]. Moore, "No Woman Born" (1944)


         1.  Is it Deirdre?  Will Deirdre remain Deirdre insofar as essential to Deirdre is humanity? 


         2.  How should we respond to the last reference to "the distant taint of metal already in her voice" (188, my emphasis)?  Is Maltzer a potential Frankenstein insofar as Deirdre is some sort of potential monster?  Is Maltzer, perhaps, a disappointed Pygmalion, who's created a Galatea who's a little too good?  If a mob electrocuted Deirdre and destroyed the brain, would you accuse them of murder?  Or just destruction of a valuable artifact?



Octavia E. Butler, "Bloodchild" (1984)


         1.  From The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1974), "ichneumon" in Micropaedia: "The females" of the family Ichneumonidae "lay their eggs in or on the larvae or pupae (rarely eggs or adults) of the host.  The ichneumon larva feeds on the fats and body fluids of the host until fully grown, then usually spins a silken cocoon.  The species that parasitize hosts in open habitats usually develop as internal parasites; those that attack hosts in concealed places . . . usually feed on the host [insect] externally.  In most cases a single larva develops in one host; in some cases, however, many larvae develop in a single host" (V.281).  Perhaps more to the point for the terror implicit in "Bloodchild" is the folklore about the ichneumon wasp: that the female paralyzes a spider with her sting and lays numerous eggs inside the living, conscious, but paralyzed animal.  When the eggs hatch, they eat their way out of the living, conscious, paralyzed spider. 

                  Note the motif of monstrous and deadly pregnancy in the 1986 version of The Fly, Alien, and Aliens. 

                  Note also monstrous impregnation overlapping with fear of rape. 


         2.  As the creators of the Scared Straight program and, more recently (ca. 1988), a poster for Mothers Against Drunk Driving are well aware, rape can be very frightening to men as well as to women.  Rape of male humans, however, is relatively rare, and most men and boys not facing a prison sentences can manage to ignore the fear. 


         3.  Does "Bloodchild" work to get men and maybe sophisticated boys to identify with women?  With gay males?  With oppressed peoples? 


         4.  Insofar as the Terrans have no chance rebelling and do well to accept the protection of the 'Tlic, is "Bloodchild" a little allegory teaching Blacks and other oppressed peoples to accept their condition and not rebel?  (If you were Octavia Butler, how would you respond to such a charge—one involving betrayal of your people?) 




Harlan Ellison, "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (1968)



         1.  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"? 


         2.  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? 



ADDITIONS to Study Guide for SFRA Anthology

6 September 1999


H. G. Wells, "The Country of the Blind" (1904)

         This is a "Lost World" story and certainly qualifies as SF that way, and, perhaps also as a kind of eutopia.  Still, consider the possibility that "Country of the Blind" might be science fiction and unusual because most of what passes for science fiction has little to do with science. 


                  Note third-person ("he"), pretty much omniscient Narrator, switching for a moment to first-person ("I").  We get the story of a man leaving the valley, probably the last person to do so. 

                  We get bits of information that will be important later, such as no precipitation in the valley. 

                  Note faith of the people of the valley, but that they had been "only slightly touched with the Spanish civilisation" and had kept "something of a tradition of the arts of old Peru and of its lost philosophy."  The Blind may turn out to be proficient philosophers. 

         Nuñez enters the valley (I add the tilda [~] for pronunciation):

                  When Nuñez sees the Blind, we have a kind of First Contact motif. 

                             Note how early Nuñez thinks "In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King."  Such Pride usually precedes a fall (at least in literature). 

                  Note Narrator on language.  (Would the story seems less plausible to you if the Blind spoke the same Spanish Nuñez speaks?  We read "Country" in English, and we might just accept speaking the same language as a convention.  [Did you know there was a Universal Translator for Star Trek episodes?  Do you believe there can be such a thing as a Universal Translator?])

         Nuñez Telling His World / Narrator on Blind Philosophy:

                  The Blind may lack imagination, in our sense, or "they had made for themselves new imaginations" using their revised sensorium.  In any event, they develop a cosmology—a Creation Myth—and attempt explanations for the empirical phenomena of their world. 

                  The Blind may not be as arrogant as Nuñez, but they do have great confidence in their society.  Do you perceive them as analogs to the scientists of Wells's day, with their confidence in how much they knew and their confidence in empirical method?  Are they also like scientists of our day, or are our scientists more humble? 

         The Society of the Blind: Note very well the section beginning, "They led a simple, laborious life, these people, with all the elements of virtue and happiness, as these things can be understood by men.  They toiled, but not oppressively; they had food and clothing sufficient for their needs [. . .]." 

                  Do you find this society eutopian?  In the sense of "a society significantly better that that of the author and the author's audience"?

                  Do you think it'd be eutopian for Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia and coiner of the word—who based his Good Society on monasteries?  Eutopian for American utopists who founded agricultural communes?  For the makers and some of the audience of Easy Rider, where a 1960s Hippie commune is handled positively (as is the farm of an extended family of people close to the land)? 

         The Sensorium of the Blind: Do you believe their sense quite so "marvellously acute" as we are told?  Note in through here their "ordered world"; note also the Narrator's direct address to the reader, with the telling cliché, "you see." 

         Love and Politics ... and Horror:

                  Nuñez rebels, and his rebellion is put down, and he submits.  In the Country of the Blind, the sighted man becomes a servant. 

                  "Love conquers all" the old saying has it (Amor vincit omnia), meaning either "Love conquers everyone (even the gods)" or "Love conquers everything."  Does love conquer here? 

                  Note attacks on the eyes as a prime motif in Horror and for horror, from Oedipus Tyrannos to King Lear to Nineteen Eighty-Four to recent slasher flix. 

                  How do you feel about old Yacob's line, "Thank Heaven for science!" and the idea of the blind surgeons that removing "these irritant bodies" with "a simple and easy surgical operation" will cure Nuñez?  They're right; removing his eyes will cure him of his delusions of sight. 



Ray Bradbury, "There Will Come Soft Rains" (1950)

         This is a Post-Apocalypse story, set after World War III has destroyed human civilization and, apparently, all human life on Earth. 

         The tone of the story might be called "elegaic," but in his reading oor an audio tape, Bradbury is very chipper, enthusiastically describing the technology as the House goes through its routines and deals with the unusual challenge of the dying and then dead dog.  And then dies, perhaps heroically. 

         Title: Note the poem for the theme of "There Will Come Soft Rains": "Not one will mind, neither bird nor tree, / If mankind perished utterly [. . .]."  Science Fiction, oddly, can sometimes be very oldfashioned in its views: its tendency to take a large view often makes it preHumanist in seeing humankind as just a small part of the universe, and a pretty unimportant small part.  Still, as Patrick G. Hogan, Jr., says in the afterword, our going, and the House's going, are "intensely sad." 

         If you see this story as science fiction, where is the science?  Since fiction is usually stories of humans in action, where is the fiction? 



Roger Zelazny, "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" (1963)

         You'll need annotations.  So here goes, page by page in SF:SFRA Anthology, 1988.


       p. 308

                  Madrigals Macabre: Madrigals are usually happy little songs from the 15th-17th centuries—or short love poems just waiting, so to speak, to be set to music; "macabre" in French and in English means something like "gruesome."  Pronounce the title aloud: It's a very arty, 1950s-ish title for a collection of poetry. 

                  Cigarette: along with the "English" measurement of the ash, this is a bit of continuity from the time the story was written.  People still smoke tobacco, still think in terms of inches.

                  ¨Let not ambition ...": Thomas Gray (d. 1771), from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,"  viii-ix:

Let not ambition mock their useful toil,

        Their homely joys and destiny obscure;

Nor grandeiur hear with a disdainful smile,

        The short and simple annals of the poor.


The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,

        And all that beuature, all that wealth e'er gave,

Awaits alike th' inevitable hour,

        The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

                  Hamlet/Claudius: This begins a motif.  The allusion is to William Shakespeare' Hamlet, where Hamlet is a 30-year old prince who returns home from the U. of Wittenberg to find out immediately that upon Hamlet's father's death, his father's brother Claudius has married Hamlet's mother and become king; later Hamlet learns Claudius murdered Hamlet's father and seduced his mother before his father's death.  In a very bloody conclusion, Hamlet kills Claudius, and then dies himself. 


         p. 309

                  Idyll: usually a short poem, on a pastoral or otherwise pleasant subject.

                  Saint-Exupéry: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (d. 1944): author of The Little Prince, summarized in Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature: "A pilot crashes in the desert where he meets a childlike figure from another planet who is seeking to return to his home in order to be with his rose, who needs his protection." 

                  Rise and Fall of the Martian Empire: variation on "Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire," plus exposition: the Martians were once great, but now aren't.  Note in through here and from now on Gallinger's arrogance; if you respect him, call it hybris, the Pride that goes before a tragic fall.  In a story from 1963, you might look for a psychological explanation for it, perhaps compensation for ... something. 

                  Like/Village: Like, you know, talk from Greenwich Village, ca. 1955, where it was a cool place for artists to be.  (The story assumes humans getting to Mars long before the end of the 20th c.)

                  Mahabharata: The great, very long, epic of India (which includes as a kind of interlude, no less than The Song of God, a central teaching of mystic thought). 


         p. 310

                  Samson in Gaza: heroic strongman, blinded and led helpless (his hair grows back; he regains his strength; and he gets a very bloody revenge).

                  The Matriarch M'Cwyie: Most Terran societies are patriarchal, ruled by men.  Mars is different in being a matriarchy, ruled by women.  It is incredibly similar to us in that M'Cwyie is a woman, Homo sapiens sapiens, XX in sex chromosomes. 

                  Schliemann at this Troy: Going against the archeological orthodoxy of his time, Heinrich Schliemann (d. 1890) believed that Troy of The Iliad existed and existed where Homer said it was.  He was right and almost on his own discovered Troy. 


         pp. 311-13

                  Prakrit/Sanskrit: vernacular, secular Old Indic languages vs. the ancient Hindu holy tongue. 

                  Byzantine brilliance: Like something from the Byzantine Empire: elaborate, ornate, very highly civilized. 

                  Benzedrine and champagne: Benzedrine is the brand name for a powerful upper (meth-amphetamine, more or less); champagne is a sparkling wine.  The mixture would both do the job of keeping him up but not hyper and be pretty decadent. 

                  Flashback: Gallinger's father was a preacher of the Calvinist variety and wants Gallinger to read the Bible in its original tongues (Hebrew and Greek) plus enough Latin and Aramaic to read commentary and handle the rare Aramaic passage—plus understand the first language of Jesus. 

                             Note Gallinger's conflation of his father with "Lord" and just "Sir." 

                             Dad thinks Gallinger "born to be a missionary."  Recall that line later. 

                             Gallinger's only relationship was his father.  How good was that relationship?  Dad was "never cruel"—but ....


         pp. 314-15

                  recherches: investigations.  About now consider what you think of Gallinger and his vocabulary.  Of Zelazny for expecting you to get at least some of these allusions. 

                  Poe into French: The US writer Edgar Allan Poe is popular in French. 

                  Sartre's Other: Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialist philosopher very big in the 1940s through 1960s, held that it's almost impossible for an "I" to contact an "Other." 

                  fishers on Mars: Jesus said his ex-fishermen disciples had been catchers of fish, and he'd make them "fishers of men"—bearers of the Word.

                  Havelock Ellis (d, 1939: English psychologist, most famous for his writings on human sexual behavior. 

                  Braxa: The first we see of her.  Note Gallinger's immediate interest. 

                  sari/samisen: Indian garment and Japanese musical instrument.  Note that you don't have to know what words mean to understand the sentence. 


         p. 316

                  Rama/Vishnu: Major Hindu gods.

                  Sarasvati, Mary, Laura: Consort of the Hindu god Brahma and goddess of river water; Mother of Jesus/God; beloved in at least one sonnet cycle, and I think a Russian novel.  Anyway, Gallinger perceives Braxa as The Lady, divinely inspired. 

                  Rimbaud et al.: poets and writers with serious drug habits. 

                  Job/God: Job and his Comforters go through cycles of argument until Job makes them shut up.  Then there's an interpolation; then God answers Job from out of a whirlwind.  Gallinger is right, though, in seeing Job's argument throughout with God. 


         pp. 317-18:

                  Gallinger isn't now quite as nasty as he usually is.  Note Betty's defense of him.  She's on to something about Gallinger's psychology, at least his having one. 

                  missionary: Gallinger "needs something to convert people to" indeed. 

                  Swift, Shaw, Petronius Arbiter: three great satirists, the last of whom satirized a very vulgar feast thrown by the newly-rich Timalchio. 

                  Blake's rose, dying: William Blake, early Romantic poet; I couldn't find the rose poem—but you've been reminded again to look for roses. 


         p. 321: Note the plague that does not kill as a historical fact, as opposed to a vision such as the Apocalypse According to John (last book of Christian Scriptures).  Note also joking journal article title, "Tone of Voice: An Insufficient Vehicle for Irony"; it's a good title (the boy has been to grad school). 


         pp. 322-23: Riddle solved, "Racial sterility, masculine impotence . . ."—just after we learn the Braxa is a very old woman but a human woman. 

                  Shiaparelli/canals: the astronomer Shiaparelli saw canals on Mars, fuelling speculation on a Martian civilization; later astronomers could see no canals. 

                  blind Milton: John Milton, 17th-c. poet and author of Paradise Lost.

                  ascetics/Dionysiac: ascetics forego pleasure; Dionysius is worshipped most centrally in Dionysian orgia, which gave rise to our word, "orgy." 


         p. 324: Rilke, Castle Duino, Elegies: Rainer Maria Rilke (d. 1926), whose most famous work is the Elegies, written at Duino. 


         p. 325: Aspic: a jelly of meat juice, tomato juice and such, and an old word for "asp," the deadly snake. 


         p. 328: Emory is going to be very nice to Gallinger and do him a favor and let him bring Braxa back, for one possibility of a Happy Ending, possibly prefigured and symbolized by the rose.  Is Gallinger's staying on Mars another possibility?  So far, does anything preclude it? 


         p. 330: Note "There is only one prophecy left, and it is mistaken.  We will die."  We still have hope of a happy ending. 


         pp. 333-end: Note Gallinger as both the Sacred Scoffer (as M'Cwyie says) and the unworthy bearer of the Word ("a second-rate poet with a bad case of hybris," as Gallinger says).  Still,

                  The Word is borne; the Martians are saved.

                  Braxa is pregnant, and the child will live. 

                  And Love conquered Gallinger, but stopped there.  Would you have liked a happier ending?  Would one be appropriate as part of a gift for Koheleth, Ecclesiastes, the Preacher of Emptiness! Emptiness! and futility? 



Rich Erlich

SFRA Anthology Adds, F99 (2)




ADDITIONS to Study Guide for SFRA Anthology

7 September 1999


H. G. Wells, "The Star" (1897)


       Opening: Wells has Neptune as the outermost planet.  (Pluto was hypothesized around the turn of the century, hunted for after 1905, but not finally found until 1930, or so saith my desk encyclopedia.)  Note, though, the scientific view presented in the second paragraph: "the huge isolation of the solar system."  To what extent is "The Star" a teaching story driving home the lesson of humankind's place in the scheme of things, from a scientific point of view? 

Contrast the Judeo-Christian myth of creation in which Earth is central and Man (adam) the Crown of Creation.  Contrast perhaps more the Christian view that "God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son." 


                  Look for proper nouns: names.  Who or what gets named?  Who or what just gets indicated or typified ("Men writing in offices"; "two Negro lovers"; "The master mathematician"; "The students")?

                  Note any break in what seems to be a 3rd-person, omniscient but mostly objective point of view, describing (beautifully) great events: "But you must not imagine" (2nd person), "because I have spoken of people praying through the night" (first person), "that the whole world was in terror because of the star" (18). 


                  There have been some changes made in the Earth: we've been pushed a bit closer to the sun, and the Moon is so far away that months are now 80 days long (score = 20; four score = 4 x 20 = 80).  Note also

                             • "new brotherhood that grew presently among men"

                             • the efforts to preserve "laws and books and machines"—civilization (or patriarchal civilization)

                             • the migrations away from the hot parts of the Earth.

                  Note very well the major, downright interplanetary, shift in point of view in the last paragraph, to "The Martian astronomers" and their interpretation, "from their own standpoint of course." 

         Theme?: Juxtapose the last paragraph with its removed, Martian point of view, with the most concentrated point of view we get earlier: the silent lines of the master mathematician: "He looked at it," the star, "as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy.  'You may kill me,' he said in silence.  'But I can hold you—and all the universe for that matter—in the grip of this little brain.  I would not change.  Even now.'"

                  Change from what to what?

                  Is the Earth small, but "the mind of Man" (in the Faustian phrase) very vast?  Or is the master mathematician just spouting off?  (Both?)



Alfred Bester, "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" (1958)


       Opening paragraph: Note paradoxes, summed up, "Actually, these realities did not happen [. . .]."  Well, did they or didn't they? 

         Opening "sequence" (?), paragraphs 2-9:

                  How would you typify the tone moving from "the conventional mad professor, undersized and over-browed, creating monsters in his laboratory" through the "real mad professors"?  Comic, ironic, flippant?  OK, but comedy rarely involves algebra, let along calculus. 

         Transition to story itself, paragraph 10: The weirdoes described "weren't idiots.  They were geniuses who paid a high price for their genius because the rest of their thinking was other-world.  A genius is someone who travels to truth by an unexpected path.  Unfortunately, unexpected paths lead to disaster in everyday life"—always? most of the time?—leading into the story of Henry Hassel, "professor of Applied Compulsion at Unknown University in the year 1980," twenty-two years into the future of Bester and his readers. 

         Story proper, beginning: A simple triangle, an enraged Henry Hassel—a mad professor now in another sense—who wants to murder his wife, and could do so, and her lover to boot, easily, "But Henry Hassel was in the genius class; his mind didn't operate that way" (276). 

                  Middle: So he builds a time machine and, with mostly comic results, goes back in time and tries to change history so that his wife is never born. 

                  Turning Point: We meet the "I" of the story (280), the Narrator, who hasn't referred to himself since a rather surreptitious "I think" on the second page of the story (275)—and learn, if we read carefully, that his dates are 1913-75.  We also learn here that the greatest authority on time travel is Israel Lennox of Yale, who died in 1975. 

                  End: Professor Lennox, meet Professor Hassel . . . .  And Lennox can explain to Hassel the true nature of time.  Note that Lennox on his first trip to the past committed The Great Sin of Time Travel, and accidentally "trampled and killed a small Pleistocene insect," which he figures will Change the Course of History (282).  In the world of "The Men ...," it does no such thing. 

         Upshot/Theme: Bester's contribution to the debate on the nature of time and time travel, at least in this story, is the idea that "'time is entirely subjective.  It's a private matter ... a personal experience.  There is no such thing as objective time [. . .]" (283).  Be sure you understand the implication of that "fact" for Profs. Lennox and Hassel—and the ethical implications if you see their crimes carrying their own, ironically appropriate, punishment. 



Stanley G. Weinbaum, "A Martian Odyssey" (1934)


         This is a First Contact story, much respected for its presentation of a plausible alien in Tweel, whom no less an authority than the SF author, editor, and scholar Frederik Pohl calls "perhaps the first fully realized extraterrestrial being in literature" (83; Afterword). 

                  Still, a recent article in an Australian SF journal questions Tweel's realization, suggesting he's just another soon-to-be-colonized native in a long tradition of stories where the Great White Imperialist takes over someone else's property.  What do you think?  Perhaps you should start with Tweel's learning English.  Should we take that as a sign of his superior intelligence to the Terran human Jarvis—or is it just the idea of «Let the wogs bloody-well learn English», as suggested in the revisionist view? 

                  Tweel also imposes upon us the great question, When is a creature a person?  If you had to choose between saving the life of Tweel and a very old and sick human being, would there be an ethical imperative to save Tweel?  How about between Tweel and a human infant, still too young to talk?  Or Tweel and—you get the point. 

         Opening: The unnamed Narrator sets up a frame in which s/he introduces Dick Jarvis, chemist (Weinbaum's field), and "Putz, the engineer, Leroy, the biologist, and Harrison, the astronomer and captain"—and sets the time of the story, "the old days," a mere twenty years after perfection of "the atomic blast" and only ten years after the first trip to the Moon, "on" that atomic blast (65). 

                  Note that atomic energy as an S.F. theme is used casually in this story from 1934, and that atomic bombs appeared as early as the first Buck Rogers story, "Armageddon 2419 A.D." in 1928/29.  I teach that SF is pretty poor at predictions, but after Einstein propounded the unity of matter and energy, with E = MC2, it didn't take a whole lot of talent to predict A-bombs.  (C = the speed of light, so the energy that can be had from converting mass even very inefficiently would have to be very great.) 

                  Note that you have a good audience here: Trained scientists, who will have open minds, but skeptical minds.  (Note also that frame stories have been highly popular since at least the late Medieval period, and that the device had been used with excellent effect in Joseph Conrad's great novella, Heart of Darkness [1899/US rpt. 1917].)

                  Mars: Thin atmosphere, canals, and "mud cities" (65-66)—not Mars as we understand it, but barely plausible ca. 1934. 

                  "'I could have fixed!' ejaculated the engineer," Putz: Pohl notes that the characters are "thinly drawn," possibly also sophomorically—or Weinbaum has a tin ear.  Putz is a Yiddish word for "penis," and "ejaculate" has a meaning more central than "exclaim."  Weinbaum, if Jewish, may be having a little joke on the goyim here.

         First Contact/Intelligence Question: Jarvis observes a fight and "wasn't going to interfere, naturally," on practical grounds that he mentions, but one might also hope ethical grounds: he's got no idea what's going on and might hurt the wrong creature.  He does interfere because

                  the ostrich-thing's opponent is nasty looking;

                  Tweel has "a little black bag or case hung about the neck," leading Jarvis to conclude, "It was intelligent!  That or tame" (68). 

                  Language issue gone into in detail, and with the idea that human and bird-thing quite likely not to "think alike," making communication difficult (69).  Weinbaum is pretty sophisticated on language, but Jarvis's easy dismissal of a language like that of the Negritoes is biased: "They're too primitive to understand that rain water and sea water are just different aspects of the same thing" (71), or they avoid abstract categories like water, which the philosophical school of Nominalism finds a good idea. 

                  Math seems to work as a kind of universal language, that and the facts of the solar system (69), plus the real possibility that Tweel's people are technologically advanced enough to make his bag and something equivalent to a telescope. 

                  Friendship: Jarvis likes Tweel and pretty sure Tweel likes him (70).  Jarvis thinks we can be friends with Tweel's people (78); does Weinbaum? 

                  Gender: A couple pages into the Contact, Tweel is "he" and "him."  That's better than Jarvis's thinking Tweel an "it," but what's the evidence for Tweel's maleness?  (Note that SF writers in English have a problem: no singular, neuter, personal pronoun.  If there's only one, and it ain't an "it," we have only "he" or "she."  If your readers will tolerate it, one could use the "pe/per/pem" system or something similar, but a lot of readers really dislike a sentence like, "Then pe took per bag and gave it to me, but in a moment insisted I return it to pem.")

                  Weapons: Tweel is an owner and user of a weapon (e.g., 78).  If "Man is a tool-using animal," as Benjamin Franklin suggested, and, if almost all surviving primitive tools are weapons, then perhaps it is right, as Raymond Dart and Robert Ardrey suggest that "Man is a weapon-wielding animal."  And if Man is the issue and not Woman—Tweel's weapon may help prove his «humanity» (and if you want to do a Freudian number on this theory, I won't object too strongly). 

                  Loyalty: Tweel could've escaped from the Battle with the Mound-Builders and left Jarvis to fight them alone (82).  If it humanizes Tweel to have him stay, does it also make him loyal Tonto to Jarvis's Lone Ranger?  (And is Tonto a bad guy to be: i.e., the "loyal Indian companion" to a White guy in the Old West [which even the official US Army history of the US Army I was given in MilSci 101 identified as a place of massacres of Indians by Whites, and the "nadir," of US military history—so personal loyalty may turn out to be a kind of treason to one's people].)


                  Pyramids: Note Tweel on pyramid-builders on nonusers of math, hence, for Jarvis, non intelligent (73-74). 

                             "The creature was rock, and it didn't breathe!" (75).  It "lived by a different set of chemical reactions.  it was silicon life!"  Weinbaum didn't take a degree, but he studied chemical engineering at the U. of Wisconsin, and knows that silicon is in the same periodic table group as carbon and can form the same sort of covalent bonds—and complex chains, although (according to my encyclopedia) nowhere near as complex as carbon.  In experiments, there "appears to be no practical upper limit to catenation," chain formation, "involving carbon," but it is "also exhibited to a high degree by elemental silicon," although not silicon in compounds, which can form chains with only 14 silicon atoms.  Anyway, if incredibly complex life can be based on carbon—all life on Earth—it seem plausible that fairly simple life could be based on silicon, and "Martian Odyssey" develops this sophisticated idea (although possibly with another sophomoric joke, if the cliché, "to sh*t a brick" was around in the early 1930s).  

                  The dream-beast: Note Jarvis's strong judgments against this "most fiendish, terrifying creature [. . .]!  More dangerous than a lion, more insidious than a snake" (76).  How do you think Weinbaum wants us to judge Jarvis's judging?  How do you judge his judging?  (I was trained not to make more judgments of lions and snakes.)

                             Snake charming bird (77): Folklore isn't that? 

                  Mound builders/Barrel-people: Intelligent beings, but perhaps not very—or really different in intelligence from humans' and Tweel's (79). 

                             "Crystal about the size of an egg," with almost magical powers to heal: Jarvis considers stealing it (81); note the archeological theft motif, big in the 1930s, repeated in the Indiana Jones movies. 

                             Fight: Science fictional, or displacing to SF on Mars—or just moving it there—a Civilized Men vs. the Savages shtick?  (And in the US midwest, "mound builders" refers to old AmerIndian tribes.) 

                                      "'Thanks, Tweel.  You're a man!' and I felt I wasn't paying him any compliment at all.  A man!  There are mighty few men who'd do that," i.e., stay with a friend to did in battle (82).  How do you feel about the compliment?  If it's something like saying Tweel is a real Mensch, it's a compliment: a decent, responsible, good human being.  But "man" may not mean that, as Jarvis recognizes.  How do you feel about "You're a man!"?  «Damn White of him to say that (as Rap Brown used to say) ...» in the old joke, using the name of a Black militant who had, at the time anyway, a low opinion of Whites.  Variation: «Right Christian of you (as the rabbi said to the Grand Inquisitor».  I.e., what if "man" is best used as an insult? 

                                      The Cavalry arrives!!!  Sorry, Putz shows up, "with his under-jets blasting the barrels into very small pieces!"  Yayyyy?  Should we be happy that a number of the barrel-people get killed? 

                             Theft: Jarvis stole the «sacred object» of the barrel-people, which may cure cancer, but anyway caused the fight (83).  Still happy that a lot of them got blown to bits under a shuttle craft? 



John W. Campbell, Jr. "Who Goes There?" (1938)


         A First-Contact story, plus Horror.  Be sure you recognize what primal fears are getting tapped.  For those familiar with the 1950s, Howard Hawks film version—note the very different fears elicited, and the very different political upshot. 

         Section II: "The problem is this"—and also an important part of the story—"Blair wants to examine the thing.  Thaw it out and make micro slides of its tissues and so forth.  Norris doesn't believe that is safe, and Blair does" (88).  Note scientific curiosity vs., well, more caution, for one thing—but what else?  Watch Blair vs. Norris et al. 

         p. 89: McReady as "a man of bronze" (like Doc Savage, whose fictional career stared in March of 1933), Norris as a man of steel (like Stalin, or Superman, based on a character from 1930, getting his own comic in 1938).  Note Norris's esthetic repugnance at the thing's "three red eyes and that blue hair like crawling worms."  (I'm going to switch to "Thing," but the story has it with a lower-case "l" until page 97.) 

         pp. 93-94: Blair, the "little biologist"—note the body types!—speaks for liberal science when he wants to thaw out the Thing carefully: as a way to discover where it's from (the disinterested pursuit of knowledge) and without fear of its nasty appearance. 

                  • Do you accept his statement that "just because" the Thing "looks unlike men, you don't have to accuse it of being evil, or vicious or something.  maybe that expression on its face is its equivalent to a resignation to fate.  White is the color of mourning to the Chinese" (whereas it's black for most Americans).  "If men can have different customs, why can't a so-different race have different understandings of facial expressions?"

                  • What's the upshot of implementing Blair's liberal-scientific theories?  Do you still prefer it to Connant's assumption that the Thing "grew up on evil, adolesced slowing roasting alive the local equivalent of kittens, and amused itself through maturity on new and ingenious torture"? 


         pp. 95-96: Note Connant's "Your damned animal's escaped" to Blair, "Your damned beast got loose" to Barclay, and "the hellish creature" who might eat him (to Blair and others).  "Doc just said out laws don't work—it's unearthly.  Well, it's an unearthly monster."  The fear here is—?  Does the fear change as the story progresses? 

         pp. 96-98, huskies: Note "wild, weird howl" (p. 96), followed by the apparent death of the Thing: "The thing on the snow did not move as gleaming teeth ripped it open." 


         p. 99: We learn the Thing is a shape-shifter.  "When the dogs attacked it, it turned into the best fighting thing," with pun? "it could think of.  Some other-world beast apparently."  Note the obvious question of How? and the answer Garry, and we, get: nucleated cells with protoplasm, and—"This isn't wildly beyond what we already know.  It's just a modification we haven't seen before.  It's as natural, as logical, as any other manifestation of life.  it obeys exactly the same laws.  The cells are made of protoplasm, their character determined by the nucleus."  All ultimately familiar and maybe safe, "Only, in this creature, the cell nuclei can control those cells at will."  And we learn that, with time, Thing could have become a dog.  And the "damned animal/beast," the monster, is also "a member of a supremely intelligent race, a race that has learned the deepest secrets of biology and turned them to its use." 

                  And what was it planning to do?  Blair says, "Take over the world, I imagine." 

         p. 100: Dangers of a shape-shifter, even given the limits of the conservation of matter/energy: becoming "the population of the world."  It could win, since "It has no natural enemies, because it becomes whatever it wants to."  And what does it need to become?

         p. 101: Cooper notes that "Blair missed something."  The Things "has to be an imitation dog" if it became a dog; "Therefore you can detect it by serum tests."  Leading to Blair's conclusion that "The beast wanted to be a man —not a dog—" and his wondering about Connant. 

Serum tests: Campbell cheats a little bit, but serum tests are a very elegant way of detecting quite exactly differences in proteins.  Inject a foreign protein (FP) into a rabbit—use the vein at the edge of the ear—and wait a couple of days; then draw blood, spin down the blood, and draw off the serum on top of the heavier blood cells.  In the serum will be antibodies to FP.  If you mix the antiserum with liquids containing FP dissolved or in fine suspension, FP will agglutinate with the antibodies and become easily visible, if the reaction is strong enough, forming a participate.  So, if you want to type your blood, just take a few drops and mix them in sequence with commercially available antisera to the proteins marking the various blood types.  Where you get agglutination, that's your blood type.  If you want to find a Monster, get some Monster blood or other tissue, inject it into the rabbit or other healthy mammal—etc., and you get antisera to Really Foreign Protein.  If you want to certify someone a man—also etc.  See pp. 103-4.


         pp. 101-02: And maybe the shape-shifting Thing was really only in suspended animation when the men found it, and maybe it can read minds.  And project thoughts (p. 105).  

                  In Horror, the threat would be to the bodies and maybe souls of these men, and the beast/monster from hell would be a scary threat.  Here, though, the threat goes far beyond the men of the expedition, if not so far as a matter of souls: the human species is at stake (note that James Gunn's definition of SF includes the idea of big stakes). 

         p. 104: Danger from Blair as a biologist who knows the brute-force way to stop hoof-and-mouth disease and the way to stop the Thing.  Note "Chiasmus" here, the crossing over (as in the Greek letter Chi [X]) of Blair from a kind of Thing-symp to a danger because so antiThing. 

         p. 106: Telepathy.  The reference here is to J. B. Rhine (1895-1980), who, according to The Ency. of S.F., authored Extra-Sensory Perception in 1934, "which attempted to repackage folklorist notions of 'second sight' or a 'sixth sense' in scientific jargon."  They note that "John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, was eventually to become a fervent admirer of Rhine, and ESP stories featured very prominently in the post-war 'psi-boom' which he engineered."  Into the 1960s, S.F. writers could treat ESP fairly seriously. 

Much of the plausibility of ESP came from the idea that humans ordinarily use only about 10% of our brains, leaving lots of room for other senses—and leaving room that needed biological justification.  Last I read, it turns out that anesthetized rats use only 10% of their brains, so conscious rats probably use a whole lot more, and humans probably use most of our brain capacity most of the time we're conscious, and the plausibility of ESP is radically reduced. 

         IX: The serum tests: Hope and disappointment, ending with possibility that Garry or Connant is a monster. 

         XI: OK, no more serum tests—no more dogs, or cattle.

         XII: Note rise of "feral [. . .] fear—horror," and the "constant eyeing" (surveillance) that everyone except Kinner is under.  Note Blair's telling them to "Go away, go away" because they're all "monsters.  I won't be absorbed.  I won't" (113): it becomes almost a mantra of 1950s Horror.  In the 1950s, the political reference was to Communism and antiCommunism; what would be the political implications in 1938? 

                             • An American looking at Stalinist Russia and Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany might see a real danger of being absorbed into heiling masses. 

                             • Americans seeing the Old World moving toward war might feel a need for vigilance against "spies and saboteurs" (I quote George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four here). 

                  "'There's no other test?' Garry pleaded": The solution here will be through brains more than brawn, esp. since the Thing "doesn't fight," not needing to. 

                  Van Wall: The Things may be "just waiting—waiting, all of them—all of you, for all I know—waiting till I, the last human, drop my wariness in sleep" (113).  Major motif here, the need to stay awake.  In terms of political allegory, that means vigilance.  What else might it mean?  For sure, it's a major motif in such works as the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers as novel and two films. 

                  End of section: Kinner murdered—perhaps—giving them "monsters, madmen, and murderers." 

         XIII: Note the "pronged electrocuter"; it and similar devices will have a long history. 

                  Kinner-Thing: note the "steel-hard, razor-sharp talons" (117); Campbell is leaving out few horrors. 

                  Kinner-Thing had been "mouthing prayers to a God it hated": Huh?  If the Thing were some sort of monster from the Pit, and a servant of Satan, yeah, It would hate God by definition.  It's an alien; maybe It loves and serves God by sacrificing vertebrates to Him.  Or is an atheist and wouldn't hate what isn't there (117).

                  Clark: "proves he's human by trying to commit murder—and failing."

                  McReady: Tells Barclay to bring his "electrocuter" and tells everyone: "Watch every neighbor, for by the Hell these monsters came from, I've got something, and they know it."

                             • Even as fire destroys witches, verily electricity destroys monsters.

                             • McReady is really more into Horror than S.F., I think.  Or, he's in the tradition of the ads for Jaws that said a great white shark's existence was as if "God had created the devil."  Well, God did create Lucifer, if Lucifer/Satan exists; but a shark is just a shark, and to find it devilish is really poor theology.  The Thing, in S.F. terms, is just a nasty alien, like a very intelligent shark, not an Agent of the Demonic.  That Campbell wants it both ways is significant for the genre of "Who Goes There?"; do you find it thematically significant? 

                             • Again, note theme(s) of vigilance and surveillance.  The totalitarian states under Stalin and Hitler stressed vigilance and surveillance; the US was soon going to follow them down that road.  (Note "Watch the skies" business at end of The Thing as 1950s film.) 

                  Solution to the problem: The man of bronze, the significantly named McReady, notes that he's pretty sure "[. . .] we human still outnumber you—others," to use a word that would be stressed in 1940s Existentialist philosophy.  "They have to bleed" and "that blood, separated from them, is an individual—a newly formed individual in its own right, just as they—split, all of them, from one original—are individuals."  And the blood will have a will to live "and try to crawl away from a hot needle [. . .]" (119). 

                  p. 120: "the thing that had seemed Dutton" is torn apart by the men.  McReady thinks he may've "underrated man's abilities" when he said "nothing human could have the ferocity in the eyes of that thing we found," and either as a kind of psychological warfare or a bit of real psychopathology looks forward to treating Things "in a more befitting manner" with "boiling oil, or melted lead [. . .] or maybe slow roasting in the power boiler." 

                             And Garry turns out to be Thingified and is dispatched, we can assume, after a kind of quick cut away.  

         XIV: Conclusion

                  Albatross chased away (a flying Thing would be The End of Man).

                  Barclay and McReady break in on a Thing like "a blue rubber ball" with "four tentacle-like arms"—which is dispatched with a "huge blowtorch" applied "on the face, the dead eyes burning and bubbling uselessly," while the Thing "crawled and howled" trying to escaping "the caressing, licking tongue" of flame" (123).  OK, how do you resonate to those images? 

                             • The only good Thing is a dead Thing, and the more horribly killed the better?

                             • Campbell wants us to see the humans as finally mad from the stress?

                             • Both?  Neither?  Other? 

                  And the Thing has managed to cobble together mechanisms to produce "atomic power," a "sphere of pure force," for light and heat, and "antigravity" to take it to "America in a single jump" (124).  But the humans stopped It in time? 

                  Norris says they stopped the Thing in time, "by the grace of God, who evidently does hear very well, even down here, and the margin of half an hour, we kept our world, and the planets of the system, too.  Antigravity, you know, and atomic power.  Because They came from another sun, a star beyond the stars," whatever that can mean.  "They came from a world with a bluer sun."  So we must be safe, right?

                             They haven't been around these parts for 20 million years and didn't come from our solar system. 

                             • God hears the prayers of men—even if we don't hear them pray much—and, apparently, not those of Things. 



John Varley, "Options" (1979)


         A few pages into the story (p. 485), after Cleo has had her breasts reduced, and Jules is nursing the baby on a bottle, Jules adjusts and then comes "to wonder what all the fuss had been about": is that the thematic question of "Options"?  Concerning sex and gender and body types—hey, what's all the fuss about? 

         pp. 486-87: Cleo at the Oophyte, using Saffron.  Is this another matter we should wonder, "what all the fuss" is about—a little recreational sex?  About Saffron's being born female and is now male and knows that all humans are weak and sometimes need to cry? 

         p. 490: Note Cleo's anger that Jules "was so willing about talking over the mothering role without being willing to try it as a female."  Some interesting gender-bending going on here.  Mom may be dad ....

                  Note weirdness of change and "Cleo . . . . he" and pronoun question.  And "Leo"; Cleo is very sure there's something inappropriate about keeping a feminine name (Saffron seems to feel differently about at least a neutral name). 

         pp. 491-2: In case you were interested (and you probably were), yeah, Leo tried out his new toy as soon as he got home. 

                  Note "no sex."  This is a daring story, but maybe not daring enough for Jules and Leo to make it sexually—not even, apparently, fellatio (or Leo masturbating Jules—or whatever).  Still, when Jules begins to cry, "Leo held him close" and they fall "asleep in each other's arms," sharing love and intimacy.  And read p. 496 very carefully. 

                  Oophyte (2): Note the Oophyte as not a great place, but useful for finding "sex partners quickly and easily, with no emotional entanglements and no long process of seduction" (491).  If you find the behavior sinful on religious grounds, OK, that's rational.  But if you find the behavior not immoral because forbidden by God but just shocking or wrong—why?  Where is the problem?  "They used each other for sexual calisthenics just one step removed from masturbation, cheerfully admitted the fact, and took the position that if you didn't approve, what were you doing there?  There were plenty of other places for romance an relationships" (492). 

                             male ego: Note well that it "has to be grown carefully, when you're young"; it doesn't come with XY for sex chromosomes and male anatomy. 

         pp. 492-94: Note Lynx's advice to Leo, "Don't be a man.  Be a male human, instead."  Interesting distinction, and one imaged well in a world of options.  Same for woman?  I.e., one shouldn't be a woman, but a female human? 

                  What sort of feminism do you get if you take that approach? 

                  Note growing of friendship—male bonding?—between Jules and Leo.  Is it maybe a good thing for a husband/wife to be also a bonded pair after the manner of nonerotic (not particularly erotic, not explicitly erotic?) friendship?  Later in the story, will we get comparable female bonding? 

                  The world of Jules and C/Leo and family is quite advanced but still very strongly gendered.  Does that seem plausible to you for an extrapolated future world?  Does that seem appropriate in a kind of fable or thought experiment about sex and gender issue in our world? 

         p. 495: If Leo feels "whole now," is "Options" pushing an ideal of androgyny?  If it is, do you approve?  If you do or don't —why? 

         pp. 495-96:

                  Note the image of sex/gender like unto "Siamese twins in everybody's head," with the male/female options "usually fighting, trying to cut each other off," or "beat the other down, maim it, throw it in a cell."  Leo sees Joule suggests that Leo might someday undergo a sex change, "And it's possible that he'll hate it and run screaming back to his manhood.  Sometimes the maimed twin can't be rehabilitated." 

         Leo and Jules finally engage in sex, off-screen, so to speak.  And "that might have been a mistake."  Do you buy that homosex was OK for Varley and this story and the only problem was Leo's pushing Jules to sex?  (Think about this question carefully, and consider the end of the story and the image of a single-sex person as a "maimed twin.") 

         Conclusion: Leo becomes Cleo again, except it's not Cleo now but Nile, for Cleopatra, "queen of the Nile."  Also for Cleopatra as the woman of legend, described by Enobarbus in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in terms of "infinite variety." 

         Political Question: Would acceptance of an androgynous ideal like that of this story fulfill Second Wave Feminism, or destroy it? 



See for Study Guide for Gunn (Packet 32-44) for the following stories in Rabkin:

         Isaac Asimov, "Reason" (1941)

         Clifford D. Simack, "Desertion" (1944)

         Robert A. Heinlen, "All You Zombies—" (1960)