Cultural Imperialism and the Internet

•2010/03/10 • Leave a Comment

I found the relationship between Catholicism and the Unists to be quite interesting in Ursula Le Guin’s  The Telling, primarily because I didn’t see this novel as having a traditional culturally imperialistic story. Traditionally it has been the Catholic faith that has been used as a tool of imperialism. Missionaries from Spain and Portugal were brought over to teach and quell the native savages that inhabited the New World. The parallels that Le Guin draws are stark. The spiritual guidance for the members of the Corporation State comes from the Ekumen Council, clearly a play on the Ecumenical Council in Rome, where Catholic dogma is discussed and established. The Unists, in their pursuit to spread their word, try to eliminate those who follow the Telling, a semi-religious practice that creates a collective cultural history and moral way of life through stories of past people, past lives. This practice of eliminating those who value the Telling, like the Monitor’s grandparents, is much like the usurpation and killing of those natives who would not subscribe to the Catholic faith. Le Guin is trying to get the reader to link antiquated practices with her future society.

However, as readers we are introduced to the societies that practice the Telling through Sutty, who is given permission to go into the mountains and study these pockets of Tellers. This larger society is interested in knowledge acquisition and sharing rather than straight conversion. The society of the Corporation State is built on the ability to share knowledge rapidly. Sutty is being sent to observe, to learn, much like Jake Sully in Avatar. The ulterior motives that Sully finally rejects are not in Sutty’s mind.

Keeping the points about knowledge acquisition at the forefront of our minds, we can at least begin to see how this novel breaks from straightforward logic of domination. We are given a view into a society where, although religious zealotry does exist, it plays less of a part than it once did in expanding horizons. It would seem to me that through The Telling Le Guin is asserting that religion, while helpful, is taking a back seat to information exchange when it comes to conquering or incorporating new people into a society. This is a new form of cultural imperialism, one that relies on knowledge rather than religion, and with the proliferation of the Internet her point becomes much more compelling. Knowledge is power now in the same way that religion was power 500 years ago.

Now What’s This All About, Then?

•2010/03/01 • Leave a Comment

Jeanette Winterson has herself said that she does not like to think of her writing as science fiction. She has turned down being considered for awards that honor science fiction manuscripts to prove this point. Clearly Winterson wants to be viewed as a successful fiction rather than a science fiction writer, and general praise seems to validate this desire. As such, I was struck by her comment and I think it is important to ask whether or not the label of “science fiction” devalues the message or impact of the story or novel.

I feel it is important to talk about another author who has done just this, in order to show that science fiction can be more than just science fiction. I will start with Kurt Vonnegut. His novel Sirens of Titan is as traditional science fiction as it can possibly be. There is time travel, space ships, two kinds of aliens, including Martians, mind control devices and nuclear war. However, this work is not just a science fiction story meant to amuse. The main characters are Malachi Constant, whose name means prophet, and Winston Niles Rumfoord, who is modeled after FDR, the man who rebuilt our country during and after the Great Depression. In the same way, Rumfoord, stuck in an interminable time travel loop, exists in all times at once, and manipulates a new future into existence through war and religion, both of which he creates. The story begs the reader to look past the clear science fiction elements, which serve merely as a vehicle for Vonnegut’s larger question: Are our lives predetermined or are we possessors of free will? If someone or something is molds our lives into an experience Rumfoord creates without our knowing, are we still acting on our accord? Through the vehicle of science fiction Vonnegut asks some very deep questions, albeit in a non-traditional way. “Science” fiction does not prevent a story or novel from being meaningful and important.

The Stone Gods is an intriguing story. I liked how Winterson utilizes alternate realities to encourage the reader to examine the humanity of Spike, a programmed robo-sapiens. I see this story as science fiction, and much like in the story “Rachel in Love” we are forced to ask ourselves what makes a person? How does one decide what emotions are necessary to make a robot a person, and does having to program them necessarily mean that the thing isn’t capable of emotion or true feeling? Winterson is, through science fiction, asking the reader to examine definitions without self reference. To do this is nearly impossible and yet, Winterson, in the section with Spike finding her heart, has the reader on the cusp of accepting an alternate definition of what is a human aside from a self-referential standard. My question to her is this: If your novel raises important and relevant questions about the age we are in (and it does) AND causes the reader to reconsider a seminal definition of self in the process, does it matter whether or not it’s “science fiction” or regular fiction? I see in Winterson what I see in Vonnegut, in Orwell and Bradbury as well; the ability to make the reader examine its being at its most basic level. I see no reason for Winterson to want to shed the label of “science fiction.” Her work is that is so much more.

“Stuck in the Middle With You…” and Other Love Songs

•2010/02/21 • 2 Comments

Sex is arguably the most popular recreational activity for mankind. It is propagated throughout our society; one can’t walk anywhere without seeing an advertisement steeped in sex appeal.  Individuals, especially males, pursue sex with reckless abandon and often come up unsuccessful for one reason or another, often a canned and trite response from the pursued. Sex, as a result, is such a confusing and polarized topic. It is sought after by all and is saturated in society through the media, but it is incredibly hard to obtain, and when one doesn’t have sex, it becomes a reason for ridicule. Relationships, can be ruined by one partner pursuing sex outside of the relationship, or bolstered as a result of the intimacy and pleasure that sex provides.

…Enter the Oankali, a race of genetic engineers with a neuter third gender, the ooloi, whose sole purpose is to aid in the creation of offspring. They cannot reproduce themselves, but mix the gametes and genes of the male and female “parents” as part of the mating process. They also provide the intense pleasure that sex is known for. Without the ooloi, there is a significant decrease in the pleasure from mating.

I think the existence of this third neuter gender is a direct response on Butler’s part to address the complicated and contradictory nature of sex in our society. Firstly, the male and female cannot enjoy any kind of intimate touching to the same extent without the ooloi. The pleasure dependency prevents the promiscuity that can drive families apart, despite Nikanj’s invitations of to have Lilith mate with other members of its family.  Secondly, the presence of this third gender relegates the constant seeking of sex (that lovable male behavior) to the past tense.

Most profoundly though, I see the ooloi as the antithesis to cold war masculinity; they represent the divorce of sex and reproduction. The male in the relationship no “longer” has power over the reproduction process. The ooloi facilitates conception and the growing offspring is carried in the female. The male, while still a necessary part of progeny production, isn’t a Henry (Created He Them). He is rendered relatively impotent, stuck between the organism carrying the offspring and the one who mixes the DNA and provides sexual pleasure.

A typical male in the Oankali reproduction model

The humans who do not subscribe to this method of reproduction are made sterile. I think Butler uses the Oankali and ooloi as a commentary and critique of the overzealous sexual nature of society in contemporary times (1987 [when Dawn was written]-present).  In order to prevent societal downfall and destruction, sex and its surrounding culture needs to become less stigmatized.  Perhaps Butler is saying that sex needs to become a less individualistic endeavor. The success and genesis of the Oankali is derived from their ability to control sex, pleasure, and reproduction.

The Narrative Style of Russ’ “Female Man”

•2010/02/13 • 1 Comment

Wow. Sitting down to read this novel is not an easy proposition. I’ve read books with disjointed story lines; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez and Faulkner’s The Bear both jump through time and space. But The Female Man. Daunting! I did not expect to be as taken aback as I was as I sat down to read. After struggling through the first twenty pages or so, though, things began to makes sense. Janet is from the future, and her story is told in the first person. Joanna exists in the 1970’s, present day society, and, like Jael, who exists in the P.C. Era, her story is also told in the first person. Jeannine lives in a time where an economic depression never ended, but her story is told in the third person, for a time. But why?

My first clue came when rereading the opening section on time travel. People traveling back in time create new futures by returning to the past. Those futures, though, are not the same. Russ explains that by traveling back and forth through time we create multiple versions of those same times, completely separate of one another. This argument is the basis for Russ’ story, and starts to reveal why the book is structured in such a way.

I would like to focus on her child for a moment. Janet Evason is married to Vittoria, and has a daughter named Yuriko Janetson. Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, names are incredibly important in sorting through the identities and trajectories of the characters. That the daughter is named Janetson I think has two meanings. Firstly, it ties mother and daughter together through the Janet portion, perhaps setting a destiny for Yuriko as a time traveler. Secondly, it is odd because the daughter’s name is Janet-son on a planet where there have been no men and indeed no sons for nine centuries. I think Russ is pointing out here that some ideas or concepts for inheritance never die away, despite their inappropriateness.

Each of the individual sections is told through a different character’s perspective, though we hear the voices of the different women. The first part is told through Janet’s eyes. We get her story first, the overview of her life, but we also hear from Jeaninne and Joanna. Russ is showing that the lives of these characters are all interrelated. One’s story cannot be told without the others. The similarity of their names supports this assertion. The character’s Joanna, Jael, Janet, and Jeaninne all sound alike. That fact, along with the fact that eventually all stories are told through the first person and switch from perspective to perspective  shows that Russ wants us to get them confused. The reader is supposed to wonder who is speaking about what and whom. These four women are iterations of each other in different points in time. They are in the future’s and pasts of each other, but not each others future or past. Russ uses the time travel at the beginning to show how she plans to map out her story, and repeats that pattern with the intricate and interwoven lives of her four similarly-named characters.

What happened to Beverly?

•2010/02/06 • 1 Comment

I think the most interesting way to view Beverly is to examine her through the same lens as the men examine chimpanzees. At the time the story takes place, no one has seen or observed the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild, and as such there is speculative debate over whether or not chimps have harems or monogamous relationships. Beverly poses an interesting conundrum. She certainly is not monogamous. Throughout the story, while definitely with Merion, she appears to be having relations with Wilmet as well, who opts to stay behind and not hunt gorillas when Beverly initially decides to stay behind at a mission; “Quick as could be, Wilmet said his stomach was in such an uproar that he would stay behind as well. This took us all by surprise as he was the only real hunter among us (347).” Clearly Beverly has a harem, but this point is made more interesting by the fact that she is a woman. Perhaps Fowler is making a statement as to the power and influence of sex appeal. Beverly’s sex appeal is what gives her power in a male dominated world.  In this instance Beverly is the chimpanzee with a harem.

Despite her promiscuity, Beverly also betrays an element of monogamy in her last exchange to the narrator, saying  on page 348:

“You’re still in love with him, aren’t you?”

I admitted as much.

Beverly shook her golden head. “Then you’d best keep with him.”

I view this conversation as a point when Beverly is letting her guard down, showing that she desires to be in a monogamous relationship, despite her social dominance through sex appeal. She sees the benefits and comforts of a single-partner relationship. I think this is the only time in the narrator’s presence where Beverly is kind and genuine. She isn’t making a spiteful comment about their inability to have children, nor is she flaunting her beauty by talking about how cute she would look shooting a gorilla. This scene shows that Beverly has facets beyond the female sex object that she represents.

Beverly is like the chimpanzees. We can’t know for sure if she prefers monogamy or having a harem of eager men; both sides can be supported. So what happened to her? Beverly is cast as a character who is unsure of what she wants. While on the trip with Merion, she uses sex or at least flirtation and wiles to get biscuits from Wilmet, and his staying behind indicates more was happening. Beverly was present at the bridge game where the nature of chimpanzees was discussed. I posit that this moment was one of self-realization for Beverly. She comes to understand at this point that she is just like the chimpanzees; her nature is split between to extremes of sexual behavior. As such, Beverly runs off to live with and study the chimpanzees to better gain an understanding of herself. She doesn’t do it for science, she isn’t a Goodall, hence the reason no one hears from her again. Beverly has an epiphany about her behavior and self and deserts the party to learn about her nature through the chimpanzees.

Marklar and Gender Inequality in Marge Piercy’s “Woman at the Edge of Time”

•2010/01/25 • 6 Comments

In the third season of South Park, in the episode “Starvin’ Marvin in Space, the boys discover a planet on which lives an idyllic society. In this society, all nouns have been replaced by the word “marklar.”South Park. Created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker.

The beings are superintelligent, they do not war or fight, and, most importantly, they always completely understand one another. In Marge Piercy’s A Woman at the Edge of Time, the protagonist Connie can communicate with the year 2137, where she encounters a unique, genderless society. The people of this society use only the pronoun “person” or “per” to refer to one another, and many gendered concepts and jobs like father/mother and parenthood have been removed.

It would seem that this society is moving towards what I shall call here the “Marklar ideal.” This society is a peaceful one. People aren’t classified by gender; even Luciente is indistinguishable as a woman for some time.  I find though, that this isn’t really a genderless society, where there exists only a neutered (as in gender-neutral) sense of self. Let us examine the concept of parenthood, as I mentioned it above. Children aren’t watched over by a mother and a father, they are taken care of by “co-mothers.” Connie asks Luciente at one point where the fathers of the children are, only to find that the concept of fathers is one that is completely alien.  Mothers exist, and a (co)mother is a very specific occupation. Thus, “motherhood” in a sense exists as the task of rearing the child that one is a co-mother of. The male, and only the male term, has been purged from the lexicon of the advanced society.  This selective removal of terms does not appear to be a genderless-society-friendly action. It says that one set of terms is more effective in communicating the ideas heralded by this community. This set of terms, though, is gendered. If Piercy is trying to create a society where gender division is not an issue, she chooses a poor set of words to do so.

A Woman at the Edge of Time has elements of Leslie Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola,” where the female of the species dominates the males and domesticates them in the same manner by which the men do it on Earth. Here, however, the subjugation of men/male concepts is latent rather than explicit. It’s done through language, much like Orwell’s 1984. Words are being removed from the language to completely remove certain concepts, ideas that are detrimental or problematic to the creation of a controlled, idyllic society, and here, they are male concepts. Piercy creates a society where female-worded/minded concepts like mother/motherhood are more acceptable, and the male ones are expendable. This book doesn’ t preach a liberal feminist doctrine of equality of the genders. It hides its removal of male-minded terms and ideas behind a thin veneer of equality with the neuter pronoun “person.” Piercy comes off as a radical feminist who undermines her groups’ desires by cleverly masking this feminist struggle as one for equality rather than subjugation. Her language at its very core oppressive. In her Eden, the language and concept of a male is removed. The elimination of an idea is oppressive. Just like Big Brother and the Party in 1984 oppress the populace through terror and Newspeak, so does Lucietne and Piercy in Woman at the Edge of Time.

Entropy and the “Heat Death of the Universe”

•2010/01/13 • 3 Comments

To start this post, I would like to ask all commentators to have read the story before they rip it to shreds, good ideas not withstanding, and as such I have linked the story here.  Before we venture any further, two definitions are needed. First, entropy is a measure of the degree of disorder in a closed system, and the heat death of the universe refers to the time when there is no more available energy for reactions to occur, thus ending the the universe as we know it. We see entropy as the release of heat in a reaction, thus when all heat is released, there is no more available energy left for consumption, hence the phrase and title of this story.

This story poses an interesting narrative structure; “Heat Death (1967)” is told through sections rather than in paragraphs, with each section numbered. The story has two distinct levels, with the story of Sarah Boyle and the life she leads being the primary, interspersed with commentary on the nature of entropy and the universe, creating a macrocosm for which her life is a mirror.

Sarah’s life revolves around her life as a single mother. At no point does the reader see a male character. The husband is either too busy working to be present on his children’s birthday or he has left. Sarah leads a hectic life, on this day she is cleaning the house and making ready for a birthday party for one of her children. The cleaning of the house is broken into three sections. Each is comprised of a list of tasks she must complete: “bowls, plates, glasses, and silverware into the sink. She scrubs at the stickiness on the yellow-marbled formica table…the floor sweepings include a triangular half of toast, a green Band-aid, flakes, a doll’s eye, dust, dog’s hair, and a button (Larbaleister, 132). By listing the chores, and by separating the sections about house cleaning. It is entropy in its most domestic form. As she cleans the living room, she counts every movable object (819) in the room. This large number, coupled with the fact that today is a birthday party for her child, prompting an influx of items, works to augment the feeling of ever-increasing chaos that is her life.

The crescendo of disorder begins at the grocery store, in Section (37), where, in the face of the advertisements and overwhelming choice, she gives in, “does not choose calm and measure (Larbaleister, 138) and buys one of everything in the store.  Zoline is showing the reader the chaotic mess that is Sarah’s life. The story culminates with Sarah, immediately after cleaning up after the party, trashing her kitchen, breaking windows, and throwing eggs everywhere; “She begins to cry. She opens her mouth. The eggs arch slowly through the kitchen, like a baseball, hit high against the spring sky, seen from far away. They go higher and higher in the stillness, hesitate at the zenith, then begin to fall away slowly, slowly through the fine clean air (Larbaleister, 143).” Zoline has used the entire story to show the reader the increasing disorder in Sarah’s life. Sarah becomes so crazed that she cannot even remember how many children she has. The seven inserts, sections  (13), (19), (25), (27), (34),(49), and (51) are Sarah’s thoughts on the ideas that enter into her head. Zoline places these passages between instances of drudgery and chaos. The effect is that these are Sarah’s thoughts slowly escaping, leaving her with nothing but that which is driving her insane, much like heat exits a reaction and increases the entropy of a closed system.

We can see the eggs as individual particles in a closed system that achieved maximum entity. They do not return to earth that is, they have been robbed of their kinetic energy that allows them to do so. Sarah’s life has reached its heat death. She has been drained of her few sane thoughts, and has been completely robbed of her energy and vivacity. In terms of heat death and entropy, disorder or chaos increases until it can no more, until no energy can be transferred. Sarah has given all of her energy to her small universe without any return, and thus we see the Heat Death of Her Universe.