Saturday, April 18, 2009

Week 14: Summing Up

How to sum up a semester of studying Topias through the lens of utopian science fiction? How to tie together works spanning Forster (1905) and Robinson (1992)? How to summarize theories as diverse as classical positivism and posthumanity?

Of course, blogging as a medium is limited to addressing these questions at length. So let me offer a few thoughts that stand out for me as I look back on the semester.

One way of tying together the SF works we have read is how they may (or may not) conform to conventions of utopian literature: the isolated community; the traveler who is shown its marvels; the absence of a money economy and of private property; the stasis of perfection that admits no decline or need for improvement.

Works that may (with qualifications) fit these conventions are Herland, Dr Bloodmoney, The Dispossessed, Woman on the Edge of Time, A Door into Ocean, and Red Mars.

> Herland is the clearest fit with classical utopian conventions, with A Door into Ocean running second

> Dr Bloodmoney begins as a dystopia but might cross over into Utopia if the second half of the book is seen as a journey through a "wondrous" land that evokes Dick's hopeful vision of people who are basically admirable

> The Dispossessed is, as Le Guin admits and we discussed at length in class, an "ambiguous" utopia

> Woman on the Edge of Time presents the utopia of Mattapoisett, by also draws energy from its dystopic visions of 1970s America and of Gildina's alternate world

> Red Mars depicts more of a utopia-in-becoming

Our other readings brought us into the dystopian genre: The Machine Stops, Brave New World, The Sheep Look Up, and Tiptree's short fiction (e.g., "Houston, Houston").

That leaves only Neuromancer, which I can't quite place in the utopia/dystopia continuum. Perhaps this is because Neuromancer is, for reasons discussed in class, a fairly conventional novel. Its reputation derives from bringing SF from outer space to cyberspace.

Another way of tying these works together is with the definition of Utopia I've been developing through my research this semester—namely that secularization is a precondition, along with its concomitant belief in the perfectibility of humankind. Thus, where Paradise is a divine provision, Utopia is built by human hands.

All the utopias we read—those by Gilman, Dick, Le Guin, Piercy, Slonczewski, and Robinson—start with a premise of human perfectibility. And in my mind, this raises two questions:

> Is the corollary proposition that dystopias assume human incorrigibility? Or do authors of dystopias assume that readers, once made aware of dystopic possibilities, can avoid them? I'm not so sure. The Machine Stops, Brave New World, The Sheep Look Up, and "Houston, Houston" all end in defeat. Is this cautionary or does it reflect a pragmatic pessimism?

> Though I'm satisfied with my evolving definition of Utopia (as a response to specific historical conditions, albeit an expression of innate human desires) on the macro level, in the future I may also explore the micro level. Namely, although the concept of Utopia arose with modernity, why does its literary expression come and go over the decades?

There were the Gilded Age utopias of Bellamy, Morris and Wells, followed by a long dry spell until the feminist utopias of the 1970s. Why the hiatus? If the basic concept of Utopia is tied to the historical conditions of modernity, are its contemporary coming and goings also tied to historical conditions?

That is, why did the conditions of the Gilded Age give rise to Bellamy, Morris, and Wells? Why did the conditions of early-to-mid 20th century—that period defined by two world wars—damp down literary expressions of utopia? Why did the conditions of the 1970s and 80s give rise to two successive waves of feminist utopias?

Is there a common thread?

+ How are the 1880s thru 90s (the heyday of Progressivism) similar to the 1970s thru 80s (a high-water mark for feminism)? Were they both periods of relatively peaceful social change and resistance to powerful Establishments, when the striving for human perfectibility was strong?

+ And is there a common thread between the 1910s thru 60s and the 1990s thru 2000s? Are these decades similar in being periods of war and postwar adjustment? The 1910s thru 60s were decades of unprecedented upheaval through war. The 1990s thru 2000s saw the end of an unprecedented 50-year Cold War, whose ending permitted long-festering regional hatreds to resurface and become globalized. Does human perfectibility seem less likely in such eras?

Digesting all the theories I encountered this semester will take me awhile. I found Jameson (even his semiotic squares!) and Garrard accessible. On the other hand, continental philosophers (LeFebvre, de Certeau, Foucault, Heidegger) are still somewhat of a struggle for me.

Continental philosophy becomes gradually easier as I find incremental opportunities to work these perspectives into my own research projects—for example, Foucault's views on discourse, discipline, and ethics are proving helpful for my dissertation. Yet these are not "Eureka" moments but a process that occurs over time.

So let me wrap up with some "takeaways" from this course . . .

> I got a paper that I hope is presentable and publishable

> I received a broad-brush introduction to the interesting scholarly conversations going on in utopian studies, so that I now have the foundation for another research interest on which I can write and publish more in the future

> Though my MA is in Comm Studies, my (1970s) undergraduate degree was in English Lit; so I had the experience of, in a sense, "returning to my roots" and taking a literature class for the first time in 30 years, getting reacquainted with the literature side of English Studies that may be part of the departmental world I will inhabit in the future

> Finally, after starting out the course with a longtime personal interest in SF, I read a lot of good books that I enjoyed and found intellectually stimulating and challenging, many of which I may (because I'm an inveterate "re-reader" of my personal library) revisit for years to come

Friday, April 10, 2009

Week 13: Robinson, Again

Let's begin this week with a brief overview of commentaries on the Mars trilogy and the work of KSR. Then I'll delve into an interesting question on which two commentators disagreed.

> Many of the commentaries (Dynes, Markley, Otto, Burling) took on various facets of the Red/Green debate and its sociopolitical ramifications. Ho hum. I got a lot of plot summary, though this was helpful in sketching out the last two-thirds of the trilogy which I haven't read. And I learned more about Ann and Sax who, as the respective allegories for the Red and Green positions, were the characters most frequently cited in these critiques.

> But these four articles disappointed in several ways:

+ Markley centered his analysis on KSR's "eco-economics" but without really explaining it

+ Otto gives more detail on eco-economics, but he uses Leopold's "land ethic" as a framework for interpreting the Mars trilogy without establishing that Leopold was important for KSR

+ Burling uses Laclau and Mouffe's Hegemony and Social Strategy as an interpretive framework but without establishing that L&M were important for KSR, so that Burling's analysis becomes an appropriation of KSR to argue for his own politics

+ Dynes doesn't really suggest anything new, though he tangentially points out something I think is important—namely KSR's doctoral dissertation which describes Dick's "polyphonic narrative structure," so that we see the influence of PKD in the multiple viewpoint characters employed in the Mars trilogy

+ As a group, these four articles don't really take us much beyond the Red/Green impasse

> Nevertheless, agree with him or not, Markley easily wins the prize for getting off the best one-liner . . .

The trilogy ends on a beach with children eating ice cream . . . The technologies of terraformation offer, ultimately, a vision of small-town life, or such a life experienced in an ecologically pristine equivalent of Santa Barbara: scenic beauty, good restaurants.

What a hoot! And of course, Santa Barabara is just a few counties up the road from KSR's native Orange County, California.

> White easily offered the most helpful and nuanced analysis, taking us beyond Red/Green and (with a nice assist from Greimassian semantic rectangles) offers a nuanced yet clear analysis of . . .

+ the Red/Green/White/Blue metaphors in the Mars trilogy (p. 586)

+ the contrasting worldviews of the initial main characters (p. 590)

+ the contrasts between Boone and Chalmers (p. 598)

+ the functioning of Boone as a mythic questing hero (pp. 589, 594)

Since Jameson is a fan of Greimas, and KSR is a student of Jameson—to the point that KSR even puts semantic rectangles into the text of the Mars trilogy—then White's use of the rectangles provides us legitimate insights into the author's possible thinking

> Franko provides a nice summation of KSR's early pre-Mars work. Here we find that longevity treatments play a much larger role, as people live 500 or even 1000 years but lose their memories every 80 years or so. The plots KSR builds on this are quite interesting. And we also learn that major characters named "Clayborne" turn up in two prior works.

Now let's move onto the "interesting question" which I cited at the outset:

> Leane gives a very nice discussion of science and colonialism, demonstrating how the two discourses have historically gone hand-in-hand. The term "scientific discovery" itself implies an act of colonization. Having studied the rhetoric of science last semester, Leane's analysis opens for me a new perspective as her citations introduce me to the literature on "successor science."

Thus Leane sees KSR and his Mars trilogy as exploring the possibilities for a "successor science" that avoids the old link between science and colonialism

> But Michaels asks how the Mars trilogy can be viewed as postcolonial in its sensibilities when the Martians are themselves colonists. It's like, he says, the American colonists of yore claiming to be natives. He suggests the Martians' moral argument instantiates a lamentable claim that "the difference between someone who is here (Mars) and someone who is there (Earth) can do the trick" (p. 660).

Thoughts, anyone?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Chapter 12: Robinson, Jameson

First, let me lay my cards on the table. Anticipating that I would need to read Sterling, I finished Red Mars a couple weeks ago. So it will be difficult for me to limit my discussion of Robinson only to his first 300 pages.

Instead, this week I will post some thoughts prompted by the Jameson chapter on the Mars trilogy. Then next week my post will explore insights suggested by the PDF articles found on Blackboard.

Jameson's observations accord with three points that recurred to me throughout reading Red Mars:

> The main characters function as allegories. In my view, this often got in the way of character development. I was reminded of religious fiction that I've read where (albeit to a far greater degree) characters are wooden figures whose actions are predictable. As other works we have read in this course (including last week's Ocean) will suggest, wooden allegorical characters are not necessarily de rigueur for utopian/dystopian fiction.

> The word "disquisition," used by Jameson, is exactly the same word that constantly came to my mind in reading Robinson's lengthy forays into hard science. While I admire his homework and (as Elisa assured us) know more about Mars than I did before the book, personally I find his disquisitions rather plodding.

> But I want to focus for the rest of this blog entry on Jameson's observation (which I echoed in a comment about Red Mars in last week's post) about the process of secularization described in the book. For one thing, secularization is a major issue in the scholarly discussions of Utopia which I have reviewed for my final paper.

Regarding this secularization Jameson writes:

What is important . . . is less the issue of causality . . . than it is the evocation of resistance: external reality organizes itself into a problem . . . whose nature poses a problem only insofar as it raises a question about its own coming into existence in the first place, about the very why of its happening. . . .

[This] moves us away from the standard history-of-ideas notion of the central role of the emergence of modern science . . . [and moves us toward] assimilat[ing] science to non-scientific activity and daily life as such. [My note: Latour has called this assimilation "technoscience."] Science thereby becomes only one of the byproducts of this increasingly specified "resistance" of reality, and not particularly even its primary agency, in a process we would do better to describe in terms of secularization.

For it is secularization as such which forestalls the easier answers of the theological or the traditional, the symbolic or the mythic . . . At the same time, this initial moment of secularization also precludes . . . the confusions that result when we are able to begin wondering about the very source of the answers themselves . . . (pp. 397-398)

Jameson's observation here is prompted by the character of Sax Russell who declaims that he wants to "try to understand" by "concentrating on the specificity of every moment," to "tease those reasons out" lest he by vexed by "the great unexplainable."

Let me try to translate. On Mars, conventional modernism won't do. The new planet is so complex and bewildering, its reality resists modernist cause-and-effect reasoning. Rather than wonder about causality, Russell must ponder why the realities and problems of Mars exist in the first place. Scientific and non-scientific activity are necessarily assimilated into the realism of the observable here and now. This process, which Jameson calls secularization, is necessary. For if the New Martians "begin wondering about the very source of the answers themselves," hopeless confusion will set in.

Boone and Chalmers are realists; they just want a pragmatic Martian polity that "works" and disdain metaphysics. In contrast, Jameson points to Ann Clayborne's transcendant Gaia-like worship of pristine Mars and to Hiroko's functionally similar conviction that "social cohesion is cemented by re-ligio, and therefore the unique relationship the settlers need to develop to Mars must be sealed and stengthened by ritual attachment to the planet" (p. 408). [For a discussion of the Gaia Hypothesis in the contemporary eco-movement see Garrard, pp. 172-175.]

Thus Jameson notes, "But it is obviously as the spiritual leader of the Greens that the figure of Hiroko takes on an ideological meaning comparable to Ann's" (p. 408).

For this reason I would propose that, rather than see in the Mars trilogy only the tension between Reds and Greens, a major source of the books' conflict is that between myth and transcendance (represented in their own ways by Ann and Hiroko) on the one hand, and realism and secularization (represented by, among others, Boone and Chalmers) on the other.

As I blogged last week, the secularizing impulse of Red Mars offers a stark contrast to Slonczewski's Sharers who celebrate spiritually derived values and (to repeat Jameson) recognize that "social cohesion is cemented by re-ligio." Jameson's italicized reference here is to the Latin derivation of the word "religion" from religare, "to tie back" (yes, I took four years of Latin). Our word "ligament" derives from the same Latin root, ligare, "to bind."

And how does this discussion connect with my final paper?

My readings have delved into, among other things, the scholarly controversy regarding the very definition of Utopia. Many have suggested a difference between Paradise (a religious concept ushered in by God) and Utopia (a secular concept ushered in by human effort). Here is an adapted excerpt from my second short paper:

Kumar (1978) argues that, as Zhang (2002) summarizes, "utopia is [not a universal human impulse but] a uniquely modern concept that emerged in specific historical conditions. The core of the utopian vision is a fundamental secularism, defined against the medieval and Augustinian idea of the original sin; and its prerequisite, the idea of an essentially good human nature or at least the perfectibility of human nature" (pp. 4-5).

Further, More wrote his Utopia at a time when discovery of the New World had given rise to the travelogue as a literary form. Thus, out of a general human striving for betterment, the function of Utopia emerged in the West as a response to secularization while its form came ready-made in the travelogue. Then, like Yalçintaş' (2006) example of digital media still driven by the QWERTY keyboard, the utopian genre developed along the path set by its antecedents. Thus Kumar (1978) concludes,

"[U]topia is not universal. It appears only in societies with the classical and Christian heritage, that is, only in the West. Other societies have, in relative abundance, paradises, primitivist myths of a Golden Age of justice and equality, Cokaygne-type fantasies, even messianic beliefs; they do not have utopia" (p. 19).

Interestingly, Zhang [a Chinese scholar writing about the Utopian concept in the East] disagrees with Kumar's conclusion but accepts Kumar's basic premise. He argues that China did develop a concept of utopia but explains that, as in the West, secularization of Chinese culture was the necessary precondition.

The secularizing influence was the rise of Confucianism. Its founder, Confucius, is seen in his Analects as "a thinker largely concerned with the reality of this life rather than afterlife" and "rather ambivalent about gods and spirits," who believes "the way back to ancient perfection is not through faith or divine intervention . . . but by a vigorous human effort at the present, in this world" (Zhang, 2002, pp. 7-8).

If this line of argument is correct then Robinson's trilogy could be Utopian only if his vision is secular. Ann Clayborne's Reds would commune with sublime Wilderness [see Garrard, chap. 4] and Hiroko's Greens would commune with Life. Their visions are transcendant Paradises, not human-built secular Utopias. Boone, Chalmers, Russell and their followers are the realists who seek not transcendant communion but prefer understanding to wonder.



Kumar, K. (1978). Utopia and anti-utopia in modern times. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Yalçintaş, A. (2006). Historical small events and the eclipse of utopia: Perspectives on path dependence in human thought. Culture, Theory, and Critique, 47(1), 53-70.

Zhang, L. (2002). The utopian vision, east and west. Utopian Studies, 13(1), 1-20.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Week 11: Slonczewski, Dwelling

A Door into Ocean was a delightful read. But beyond giving a plot summary or simply rhapsodizing about my enjoyment of the work, what can I add to a critique of Door? How can I use Door as an opportunity to understand the utopian genre better?

Thus, as I finished the book, several questions came to my mind:

> Why is Door not generally mentioned in articles we've read so far on feminist utopias?

> Is Door, in fact, really a feminist utopia at all? Is it better seen as a feminist ecotopia, or simply an ecotopia, or a pacifist utopia?

> Does Door fit Gearhart's (1984) definition of feminist utopia? Or fit the descriptions of ecofeminism found in Garrard (2004, pp. 23-27) and in Deegan and Podeschi (2001)?

So I began by searching for journal articles about Door. Not much, in fact, shows up in the article database about Slonczewski in general and Door in particular. But I did find one very good article:

Fitting, P. (1992). Reconsiderations of the separatist paradigm in recent feminist science fiction. Science Fiction Studies, 19(1), 32-48.

Notice the word "reconsiderations" in the article title. Fitting places Door (1986), along with Pamela Sargent's The Shore of Women (1986) and Sheri Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country (1988), as 1980s responses to the feminist utopias of the 1970s. He writes that

the three are very much replies to and reworkings of the central themes of the feminist utopias of the 1970s. A central concern of many of those works was understanding and explaining the violence of patriarchal forms and values. The utopias of the 1970s presented a range of explanations for male violence, grouped roughly around an "essentialist" pole . . . and a more materialist one, according to which male violence is socially produced . . . In any event, the novels of the 1970s often had answers to questions about the differences between men and women and the roots of violence, whereas the novels of the late 1980s are not so certain. At the same time, efforts to break down or blur the differences between men and women . . . have by and large disappeared; and the earlier ideal of "androgyny" is now recognized as a depoliticization and desexualization of the body rather than as a utopian fusion of male and female (p. 33).

Fitting offers an interesting critique of Door's pacifism. You should read it. In the end, while he finds it moving and almost convincing, Fitting believes the happy ending of Door seems contrived. (Slonczewski admits in her website that she changed to ending in order to get her book published and wishes her original ending could have been used.) But in juxtaposing Slonczewski's 1980s utopia to her feminist forebears of the 1970s, Fitting points out,

Although Slonczewski's vision distinguishes between male and female values, this is not ultimately tied to biological sex. There is no essential difference between men and women. Spinel . . . finds a Shoran partner/lover and becomes a full member of Sharer society. . . . On the other hand, the invading Valan troops include both men and women, and Commander Realgar's "interrogator" (or torturer) is a woman. The novel makes a clear distinction between values and plumbing (pp. 40-41).

This distinction extends to technology:

Nor does the juxtaposition of male and female values repeat the essentialist rejection of technology as male . . . The crucial distinction is rather between a machine and what might be called an "organic" technology . . . [T]he emphasis on female values has led to imaginary communities which pay special attention to the "life" sciences like medicine and biology, which are opposed to men's skill with war technology.

Fitting also sees that the 1980s utopias adopt a different strategy than those of the 1970s:

In contrast to the utopias of the 1970s, these three novels do not focus on the evocation of alternative societies in any literal sense. . . . In their dialogue with the utopias of the 1970s, then, these three novels blend literal representations of alternative patterns of life with more rhetorical and figurative evocations of a transformed world. . . . Their very titles—"gate," "door," "shore"—call attention to the transition; each text identifies itself as the representation of a fictional world which, unlike the relative certainty of the '70s' utopias, stands on the edge of or in between the old and the new. Whereas the earlier utopias . . . adopted textual strategies which sought to implicate the reader in the struggle for a better society, rather than simply juxtaposing the utopian society—explicitly or implicitly—with the present, these three novels all situate themselves in an afterwards. . . [T]hese later [1980s] novels, insofar as they stage the reconciliation of men and women, clearly refer to the separatism—real or figurative—of some of the '70s' utopias (pp. 41-42).

Finally, Fitting cites Moylan's description of the 1970s feminist utopias as "critical utopias," and argues that the 1980s utopias are, similarly, "critical reexaminations and reworkings of the now-classic utopias of the 1970s" (p. 44).

Thus we come to the question: Is Door a feminist utopia at all? Here we should recall Gearhart's (1984) definition of a feminist utopia as one that:

> Contrasts the present with an envisioned idealized society (separated from the present by time and space)

> Offers a comprehensive critique of present values/conditions

> Sees men or male institutions as a major cause of present social ills

> Presents women not only as at least the equals of men but also as the sole arbiters of their reproductive functions

Using these criteria, Door is not a feminist utopia. Men or male institutions are not seen as a major cause of present social ills; instead, Door opposes values rather than sexes.

Nor does Door draw explicit contrasts with "the present" and with "present social ills" in the way that, for example, Piercy does. At the time of its composition, Slonczewski explains on her website, "My aim in writing A Door into Ocean was to give students a window into a hopeful future." Only now, in hindsight and "ironically," does Door "give today's post-Cold War students a look back at our dark past."

So is Door an example of ecofeminism? According to Deegan and Podeschi,

Ecofeminists stress the interconnectedness of life, nature, and the environment with the world view of women and reproductive capacity. Ecofeminists also examine the relationship between women's social oppression and nature's exploitation as two faces of patriarchal control (p. 19).

Door may be "ecofeminist" on the first count, that of stressing interconnections. But on Deegan and Podeschi's second count, which links oppression and exploitation to patriarchy, then Door is not ecofeminist. Yes, the distant interplanetary ruler in Door is called the Patriarch. And yet, as Fitting points out, in Slonczewski the domineering power is not specifically male.

Deegan and Podeschi's article claims that the pedigree of ecofeminism traces back to Gillman and Herland. But Gillman's book is an attempt to suggest that women can do whatever men can do, if permitted the freedom. By contrast, Door is not about women in a biological sense, but about the capacity for female Sharer values to achieve an advanced yet humane society.

Yet Garrard give us a different definition of ecofeminism:

Deep ecology identifies the anthropocentric dualism humanity/nature as the ultimate source of anti-ecological beliefs and practices, but ecofeminism also blames the androcentric dualism man/woman. . . . Ecofeminism involves the recognition that these two [dualisms] share a common "logic of domination" (p. 23).

By Garrard's definition, Door may be seen as ecofeminist. In the world of Shora, humanity and nature cooperate in a non-dualistic web of life. And in the societies of Shora and Valedon, social roles are not strictly gendered. Males can adopt female Sharer values (Spinel); females can adopt male Valan values (Jade). Even the dualism organic/inorganic breaks down as the Sharers learn how minerals are vital components of life.

Now let's look a moment at Slonczewski's website. Some thoughts . . .

> The chart of polarities and binaries that are resolved in Door is quite useful. And it set me to wondering two things: (1) Could these be expressed in Greimas semantic squares? (2) Does the focus on binaries mark Door as an essentially modernist work? Even if dualisms are challenged and resolved, it does seem that dualisms set the agenda.

> Having read Dune numerous times (though not lately) I can readily see how Door is a response to Herbert's universe.

> Slonczewski's personal asides—how she conceived of raft trees, how she had to compromise in order to get published—are very interesting and illuminating.

> The amount of space given to explaining pacifist principles leads me to believe that Door could arguably be read as principally a pacifist utopia. If the humanity/nature and man/woman dualisms share a common logic of domination, then wouldn't the most salient rejoinder be a logic of nonviolence?

> This emphasis on pacifism and spiritual values is in sharp contrast to Red Mars, which I've nearly finished reading. In Red Mars, religion and spirituality is virtually absent in the group of the First Hundred and their early society. Then as Mars develops, religion and spiritually are reduced to cultural eccentricities that stand in the way of achieving a humane new order. Of all the books we've read so far, Door seems to have the most sympathy for religious and spiritual values as integral to a humane society.

As for the Garrard and Heidegger readings . . .

Reading Heidegger was, as usual, pretty thick reading and at times impenetrable. But the Garrard reading was the most enjoyable chapter of Ecocriticism so far!

Most of you know my research interest in Holocaust Studies. So it's tough for me to read Heidegger and completely divorce him from history. Garrard did a deft job of summarizing the Nazification of Heidegger's views on dwelling. It was refreshing to read a critique of Heidegger that skipped the customary obeisance and dared to call out Heidegger's shame.

Having grown up with the "Keep America Beautiful" campaign and the tearful Iron Eyes Cody, I found Garrard's incisive critique of the Ecological Indian to also be refreshing. Of course this is a stereotype being appropriated by the establishment. But few have been willing, like Garrard, to point this out.

Neither have I made a secret of being a person of faith. So I found Garrard's critique of Berry to be very interesting. In evangelical circles there is a generational conversation going on between older leaders (e.g., James Dobson) who want to keep the movement's focus on hot-button social issues and newer leaders (e.g., Rick Warren) who want to also address broader issues of social concern such as poverty and the environment.

This conversation was illustrated a few years ago when some younger evangelicals mounted a "WWJD" campaign, where WWJD stood not for "What Would Jesus Do?" but rather "What Would Jesus Drive?" So I'll check out Berry and be interested to learn more about his Christian philosophy of dwelling.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Week 10: Gibson, Cyberpunk

Star Wars is often described as a Western set in a SF universe. Truth be told, I kept wondering whether Gibson's Neuromancer should be similarly interpreted.

My ponderings began with the early and recurrent use of the term "cowboy" to describe Case and his breed of freespirited cyberspatial frontiersmen. Gibson was invoking for his imagined world the enormous power that the frontier myth exerts on American culture.

I tried to imagine myself reading Neuromancer in 1984. Its references to carbon ribbon, computer paper and tape storage, and its assumption that all connections must be wired and the human-computer interface keyboarded, would not have seemed archaic as they do today.

So, yes, I can readily see how Gibson's vision of cyberspace and his move to situate an SF story not in outer space but in a computer matrix, would have appeared groundbreaking and full of new possibilities.

Yet for all that, I found Neuromancer to be rather conventional, a frontier narrative for the computer age. Yes, I understand why we, looking back, read our own preoccupations with postmodern identity, with cyborgs and simulacra, into Neuromancer. Nor do I deny that such readings have merit. Part of Gibson's influence is that he created a prototype world that still works as a canvas onto which we can project our concerns.

But despite the merits of Davidson's invocation of Baudrillardian simulation—and references by multiple commentators to Harraway's Cyborg Manifesto—neither should we miss how Gibson updated the frontier myth in a story with many cowboy Western elements:

> The "hired gun" (Molly) and "faithful sidekick" who is an ethnic Other and speaks pidgin (Maelcum)

> The beloved "horse" (Case's deck) to whom the hero is emotionally attached and that takes the cowboy on swift rides across fantastic frontier landscapes

> The saloon (Ratz's bar in Chiba City) which, of course, was sent up in the famous Mos Eisley scene in Star Wars

> The tension between frontier and border (ably described in Concannon's article) which in Western films (Shane is an arch example) is often played out as a conflict between cattlemen and settlers

> The High Noon shootout between hero and villain, and even the captured maiden who is freed when the hero rides to the rescue

> The ending where the good guys, having finished their task, go their separate ways and ride back to the wild country from whence they came ("Who was that masked man?")

If you fault my reading for not going gaga over simulations and cyborgs, consider that my reading finds some support in the articles we perused for this week:

> Concannon explores the salience of the borderland in Gibson. Cyberspace functions, he concludes, as a "trope" that "reflects a balancing of impossibility and possibility" (p. 441), which is simply another way of expressing the frontier myth.

> While Davidson (p. 192) only notes in the portmanteau "Neuromancer" a cross between neuro and necromancer, Jones points out that the AI of the novel also saw itself as a New Romancer. The SF works of Aldiss, Gibson, Sterling, and Powers have distinct romantic element, Jones argues, perhaps even updating the 19th century romantic tradition.

> Moylan (as quoted by Fair) pans Neuromancer for seeking "refuge in recognizable film noir plots and macho heroes already embedded in the dominant ideology" (p. 97) and—as I too immediately noticed—the instantiation of Maelcum as "basically a humorous sidekick in the ignoble popular culture tradition of Pancho and the Cisco Kid or Tonto and the Lone Ranger" (p. 100).

Young people today might miss these associations, but readers in 1984 would not. Perhaps the closest we come is the allegation that the Jar Jar Binks character introduced in Star Wars Episode 1 is a racist stereotype.

> Several commentators see Neuromancer as modernist, rather than postmodern, in its sensibilities. As quoted by Fair (p. 102 n4):

Scott Bukatman argues that cyberspace achieves the modern ideal of a body dissolved into pure motion and perfect mechanized efficiency. Tony Fabijancic argues that the architecture of both Gibson's cyberspace and nineteenth-century urban spaces "[contribute] fundamentally to a wider moern rhetoric of being and thinking." N. Katherine Hayles writes . . . [that Gibson's] "narrator characterizes the posthuman body as 'data made flesh.' To the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as the instantiation of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition rather than disrupts it."

> In this vein, I was struck by Fernbach's suggestion that Neuromancer has a "conservative dynamic" that belies the "democratizing rhetoric that surrounds the new technology of the internet" and which "tells us that gender and race are not fixed in this space." Instead, she suggests, "The notion that online personas transcend social and cultural hierarchies remains a utopian myth" (p. 248). Thus,

Despite being hailed as the apotheosis of postmodernism, cyberpunk uses the familiar Freudian narrative of a return to the wholeness of the pre-oedipal to discuss the crisis of contemporary masculinity. In cyberpunk, fears about the intrusive potential of technology are displaced anxieties about changes in the social order both now and in future worlds--changes that have already begun to threaten a stable, unified masculine identity that presents itself as the universal subject (p. 249).

> Myers makes a fascinating comparison—which, again, I too picked up—between Neuromancer and detective fiction, especially the atomized urban spaces of Gibson's Sprawl and of Conan Doyle's fogbound London and Chandler's steamy Los Angeles. But I also saw in Neuromancer a connection with the spy thriller genre, a genre that in 1984 (after the 1960s spy genre mania and before Tom Clancy) seemed dated and quaint.

But whether we see elements of film noir, detective fiction or spy thriller in Neuromancer, to me the important point is the one element common to all three genres and to westerns and frontier narratives—namely the archetypal American hero, the loner who keeps going against all odds, all opposition, and finally wins victory and vindication by his/her ingenuity and will power.

> Nixon picks up on this aspect of the quintessential American loner-hero when she writes,

Cyberpunk's fascination with and energetic figuration of technology represents the American cowboy as simultaneously embattled and empowered. In '80s America the Japanese megacorporations did dominate the technological market, but the cowboy's freedom and ingenuity allow him to compete purely on the level of mastery . . . [pitting] pragmnatism and mass production versus American innovation and ingenuity (p. 225).

So far all these reasons, while I can see why Neuromancer is influential as the progenitor of the cyberpunk genre, the work itself impresses me as conventional.

P.S. I checked out Garrard's Ecocriticism and was surprised there appears (at least in the "Wilderness" chapter) to be no discussion of frontier myths. Did I miss something?

Friday, February 27, 2009

Week 8: Sheldon/Tiptree

How very interesting this week! Why? Though readings in past weeks have held their own attractions, this week's readings on Tiptree were different in several respects:

> We read a half dozen short stories rather than a single novel

> As such, we got to read works that represent the body of an author's work over time

> By the same token, we read critiques of the author's entire body of work rather than a single work

> And because we were evaluating a body of work, details of the author's biography became important to the analysis

So this week my own comments are more directed to the panoply of criticism we read, because the differences in interpretations—and in interpretive approaches—was quite interesting.

(For example, most commentators say Lorimer was killed at the end of "Houston," but Lowry claims the drug given Lorimer was the antidote to the truth serum. And while most critiques of "The Women Men Don't See" assert that Parsons seeks escape through alien abduction, Lowry suggests Parsons is herself a stranded alien anxious to get home.)

To my mind, Pei asks the key question:

Are these cautionary tales, or is their goal to show that the human race is irremediably split by the barrier between male and female? Are these stories simply the extreme statement of what we should avoid, or is their purpose to prove that mankind [sic; this article was written in 1979] is ruled by drives . . . ? (p. 278)

Thus let me begin with Pei's article.

> Pei was, for my money, the most successful in drawing together a unifying theme in Tiptree's body of work:

This incompleteness [of male and female], a fundamental characteristic of humanity according to Tiptree, is clearly a two-sided quality. Mankind is made more beautiful and more human by being half of something; yet the race is doomed, and its history reduced to pointlessness by being half of something. This kind of paradoxical doubleness is found throughout the themes of Tiptree's work. To be human is to be half of something (p. 272).

And how does Pei resolve the question of whether Tiptree's stories are cautionary tales or affirmations of an irremediable split between male and female? Pei concludes that Tiptree's corpus is a duality so that the question is never resolved.

Is that a cop-out? No, I'm prepared to accept that Tiptree wrestled with an unresolvable duality. Being only half of something, don't we all?

> Barr offers an extended discussion of "Love is the Plan" as a way of pondering, as did Tiptree, "why the plots of many love stories are enhanced by the woman's death" and if the "destruction of women which sometimes results from their sexual connection to men [is] part of the biological plan of reproduction" (p. 47).

What a thought-provoking perspective, one which did not initially occur to me in my reading. But when I read Barr's observation, my immediate reaction was to note, "Yes, love stories are often enhanced by the woman's death. But war stories as just as often enhanced by the man's death. Is it significant that women die in love stories and men die in war stories?"

Though Barr recognizes that "men and women must live as two distinct and separate biological entities which come together to reproduce before breaking apart," she contends that "we must derive hope [for male-female coexistence] from Tiptree's true identity" (p. 47).

Yet this amounts to a claim that Tiptree/Sheldon's life shows us a move toward resolving the duality. Here I must disagree, side with Pei, and assert that Tiptree's writings and biography suggests the duality remained unresolved (and thus in productive tension) for the author.

> Steffen-Fluhr gives us an informative description of Tiptree/Sheldon's early life, providing a helpful biographical context for the observation, "There are few human women at all in most of Sheldon's early stories [but] there are metaphorical women everywhere" (p. 193).

But just to show how people can read the same words and draw different conclusions, Steffen-Fluhr offers a very different take on duality in Tiptree: "To 'come home' in Sheldon's fiction means to 'be at home' with all the many selves in one's self—to be complete, whole, at peace" (p. 194).

Again, this suggestion is far different than Pei's thesis that humans in Tiptree's work are incomplete and irremediably split in a duality that has no resolution.

Yet Steffen-Fluhr's extended discussion of "Love is the Plan" (pp. 199-202) is quite helpful. Her critique explores the themes of psychomachia (dialogue between various parts of the Self), biology and social behavior, love and devouring, love and possession/bondage, male egocentricity, death and orgasm, erotic and maternal love, change and adaptation.

An extended discussion of "Houston, Houston" (pp. 205-208) is similarly helpful and also introduces a larger exploration by Steff-Fluhr of how "the structure of suicide is the hidden subtext in a number of Sheldon's best stories." Later she notes how "suicide and survival are often link in Sheldon's fiction" as "characters frequently kill themselves in order to save themselves" (p. 208).

But how do we reconcile Steffen-Fluhr's earlier assertion that "coming home" and being at peace with one's self is a theme in Tiptree's work, with her assertion that the stories show how their author "especially feared the disorder that comes from within" (p. 208)?

Nevertheless, Steffen-Fluhr does a nice job of tracing the themes of disorder and death in Tiptree's later works.

> Two articles that focus on specific aspects of Tiptree/Sheldon's biography are offered by Elms and Galef.

The Elms piece is a fine example of bringing our a lesser-known phase of the author's life—namely her years as a psychologist—giving us a thick description of the phase, and then using it as a helpful new lens to illuminate aspects of Tiptree's writing.

The Galef piece brings to bear the literatures on postcolonialism and sociobiology as a lens to explore the tension in Tiptree between cultural relativism and biological determinism. As a child Tiptree/Sheldon was widely exposed to many cultures, but her later work as an experimental psychologist examined the link between biology and behavior.

> Finally, the Larbalestier biography of Tiptree/Sheldon is quite helpful in providing contexts for interpreting the body of the author's work.

In the end, I was also impressed by similarities between Sheldon's biography and mine. She and I spent important parts of our lives tied into the government and university scene around Washington DC. And (if I did my math correctly) she received her PhD at the same age I hope to receive mine.

Though our worldviews and politics are different, I was left with the impression of Sheldon as a writer and a person who struggled honestly with dualities we all face. As such, I've learned from her and from the critiques of her work, and gained some new perspectives.

In my own worldview I might call the root problem by another name (theologians call it "original sin" or "the Fall") but I too ponder the separation between peoples that, I believe, has resulted from the separation between the human and the divine. But new perspectives and insights other than one's own are always instructive, so that Sheldon's struggles with duality speak to me.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Week 7: Piercy, Feminist Utopia

Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (WET) is the subject of several essays which I reviewed this week. Among these I found:

> Ferns ("Dreams of Freedom") usefully describes the development of the traditional utopia and, thus, provides a helpful context in which to better understand LeGuin's and Piercy's departures from that tradition.

> Booker ("Edge of a Genre") offers a nice analysis of how Piercy "draws the lines between utopia and dystopia quite clearly, and the resultant dialogue between the two is an important source of energy for the book" (p. 340).

> Moylan argues that WET neatly navigates the time paradox in a very tidy fashion that, frankly, I did not discern in my own reading.

Though I do not share Piercy's politics, this is not the space to debate them. Yet I readily tip my hat to the author's literary accomplishment in innovating the utopian genre. So with these observations as a setup, this week I will explore two questions:

1. How well does WET navigate what Jameson calls "The Barrier of Time" and how does her solution compare with other sf universes?

2. Our in-class discussion last week about "conservative utopias" prompted me to take a page from Gearhart ("Feminist Utopias in Review") and see if, in a similar way, I could devise a template for defining conservative utopian fiction. Or is "conservative utopia" an oxymoron since "conserving" and "change" are opposites?


Time travel stories have always held a special fascination and enjoyment for me. So I've read and viewed numerous sf treatments of this subgenre.

In his chapter on Piercy, Moylan confidently tells us that the future residents of Mattapoisett deliberately intervened in 1976 to set in motion a chain of events that would lead to revolution and ultimate victory.

But my reading did not see the time paradox as being tied up so neatly. It appeared to me that Luciente and her cohorts never articulate their time travel project so explicitly as Moylan makes out, nor identify Connie as "the" key to their future.

Consider: When Luciente encourages Connie to attempt a second escape, Luciente accepts Connie's admonishment that Luciente doesn't know the odds and is indulging in heroic fantasy. Further, though Luciente encourages Connie in general to resist, Luciente makes no specific attempt to arrange the poisoning incident.

Instead I was constantly bothered throughout WET that, besides one or two weak protestations, Luciente and her cohorts meddled in the past with little apparent concern (as they say in sf) "polluting the timeline."

This brings me to the different ways I have seen time treated in sf works:

> In Wells' The Time Machine (1895), the Time Traveler describes to his friends how objects must have four dimensions to exist: length, width, height, and duration. Why, then, can we not travel along the fourth dimension as we do the other three? (Wells later admitted that sf, to be convincing, must have some suitable patter at such moments.)

> In Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (1952), reputed to be the most re-published short story in sf, a time traveler to the Age of Dinosaurs innocently steps on a butterfly and thereby alters the future.

Another such treatment is the classic Star Trek: TOS episode "City on the Edge of Tomorrow" in which McCoy accidently travels to 1930s America and innocently saves the life of a woman who, in the new future, becomes a pacifist leader and delays US entry into WW2, thereby leading to a Nazi victory and an alternate future without space travel.

In film, this "arrow" metaphor of time is seen in The Terminator and in Star Trek: Nemesis, where beasties of the future travel back in time to attack humanity before it has the capacity to resist.

> In Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955), the inventors of time travel establish a society that secretly intervenes to eliminate catastrophe from human history. They compute and then travel to key historical moments of maximum potential change to ensure that history takes the right turn. But their work is ongoing since their interventions are like casting a stone in a pond. The ripples in time occur for a few centuries until the effects gradually decrease and dissipate.

It seemed to me that Luciente and Mattapoisett must have taken this view of time. Rather than see time as an arrow whose deflection changes everything, they see time as an inert mass which can only be stirred in its broad outlines. Thus they could encourage Connie (and others?) to resist as individuals and contribute in small ways to a revolutionary climate, knowing the broad sweep of the future (and their own existences) would be intact in its basic essence.

> In The Time Tunnel (1966), one of my all-time favorite 1960s sf TV classics, the scientists of America's time travel project are positivists to the core. They take dominion over time, as they do over nature, with no compunction. In episodes where two of the scientists are trapped in an untenable situation (e.g., the Alamo) their cohorts of 1968 heroically intervene (yes, in one case even sending modern weapons!) to save the lives of their two colleagues.

> In a late 1980s or early 1990s episode of Star Trek: TNG the crew accidentally creates a "distortion in the time-space continuum" and brings hundreds of thousands of Enterprises into their own space. Time is seen as a series of infinite branchings and these starships, all from different branches, have been unintentionally thrown into the same branch.

> In the movie Somewhere in Time (1980) the hero lives in 1979 but is inexorably drawn to a woman who lived in 1912. So he rents a Victorian hotel room, dresses in period costume, obtains a pocketful of coins from 1912, removes everything in the room dated later than 1912, and merely "thinks" himself into 1912. Mind over matter! My wife and I saw this movie on Valentines Day (it's a perfect date movie) but both agreed that the patter of Wells' 1895 Time Traveler was much more convincing.

Okay, I've indulged in some tripping down memory lane. But this raises two questions:

1. Which of the conceptions of time, as described above, does Piercy adopt in WET?

2. Does it overcome Jameson's "Barrier of Time" and work as a concept for imagining a utopia? If so, why? If not, why not?


Gearhart proposes that a feminist utopian fiction is one that . . .

> Contrasts the present with an envisioned idealized society (separated from the present by time and space)

> Offers a comprehensive critique of present values/conditions

> Sees men or male institutions as a major cause of present social ills

> Presents women not only as at least the equals of men but also as the sole arbiters of their reproductive functions

Now let me propose that a conservative utopian/dystopian fiction is one that . . .

> Contrasts the present with an envisioned idealized society (separated from the present by time and space)

> Offers a comprehensive critique of present values/conditions

> Sees large (Big Labor, Big Business), centralized (Big Government, USSR), elitist (Big Media, Liberal Establishment), or secularized institutions as a major cause of present social ills

> Presents traditional values as under attack

From this definition, let me sketch out a list of utopias/dystopias written or appropriated by conservatives . . .

> Charles Williams wrote seven novels during 1930-37 which, though out of print in his native Britain, are sold in the US by an evangelical publishing house and retain a following in those circles. The books depict worlds in which time and space are transcended. Williams was among the circle of Christian writers that included Tolkien and Lewis.

> Nineteen Eighty-Four and its dystopian vision of Big Brother was, as I can testify, a symbol of Big Government that captured the imaginations of conservatives in the 1970s. Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) was also a favorite fable of anticommunist conservatives.

> Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945) by C. S. Lewis depict, respectively, the utopia of a Venus whose Adam and Eve are saved from the Fall, and the earthbound dystopia of science hijacked by satanic influence.

> The Last Battle (1956), also by Lewis, offers a utopian vision of the afterlife in which heaven is depicted as a mountain, but the mountain gets bigger the higher you go, and each successive level is more "real" than the previous level.

> Atlas Shrugged (1957) by Ayn Rand, with its dystopia of cloying welfare-state economics control and the utopia of a secretly established laissez-faire community, is still required reading for young libertarian conservatives (and still dismissed by social conservatives for its laissez-faire sex and implicit atheism).

> The Third World War (1982) by Sir John Hackett was a popular book among conservatives, portraying a fictional war between NATO and the Warsaw that breaks out in 1985 when the latter invades Western Europe. Things go bad for NATO at first but resistance stiffens, the Soviets nuke Birmingham, England, and NATO retaliates by nuking Minsk and the USSR collapses. Yet the author also provides an alternate ending in which the Soviets win.

> Red Dawn (1984) is the ultimate anticommunist dystopia. In this John Milius film starring a young Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, the Cubans parachute into Colorado as an advance force for a Soviet land invasion. The first thing the Cubans do, of course, is confiscate everyone's guns. Adult males of military age are put in reeducation camps. But a group of high school students launches a guerilla war that holds up the invasion long enough for the US to prevail.

> This Present Darkness (1986) by Frank Peretti was a landmark in the evangelical publishing world. The novel depicts, in ways perhaps analogous to Piercy's juxtaposition of two worlds by means of telepathy, how evangelicals are contacted by angels to thwart a plot by demons using a New Age Consciousness Society as a front to take over a small college and extend their influence over the Pacific Northwest. (The book, though a religious bestseller, is criticized for its theology even by evangelical scholars.)

> The Left Behind series, launched in 1995 by authors LaHaye and Jenkins, are set during the biblical time of the Great Tribulation when the world is ruled by the Antichrist. An exposition of the eschatology would be too thick for this space. But for evangelicals the Tribulation is the ultimate dystopia.

Does my template, a la Gearhart, work for defining conservative utopian fiction?

Or do we stick with the suggestion, raised last week in class, that modern utopias are all from the Left. Why? Because only the Left wants change while conservatives, by definition, want to conserve?

Which is it?