Construct and the Clone

Nancy Farmer’s straightforward writing style has me constantly comparing Matt to Akin, from Lilith’s Brood. Both characters are products of genetic engineering. The Oankali incorporate foreign species into their genetic make-up, while Matt develops in a cow; this might not seem very much alike until one considers that in Farmer’s universe, an eejit or clone mother with “blunted intelligence” could have brought Matt to term. This inexplicable use of another species to create the clones is reminiscent of the Oankali’s inability or unwillingness to explain “trade.” Matt and Akin both look human, excepting a single feature that must be revealed to be identified (Matt’s tattoo and Akin’s tongue); even so, everyone they encounter doubts their humanity, and tends to treat them as dangerous monsters, objects, animals, unpleasant reminders, and property. Finally, both Matt and Akin have what appears to be above-average mental capabilities: Matt may not have perfect recall, but he excels in math and art and language and music and shares Akin’s almost superhuman ability to bounce back from emotional trauma by applying a logic that sometimes seems too childish, and sometimes seems too adult. In Lilith’s Brood, the salvage site has a distinctly Latin American feel to it, and there’s a definite hispanic flavor to the sort of Christianity to which Akin is exposed. Matt is exposed to the same religious flavors, though he accepts them with the trust of any human child. Finally, there are some amusing similarities in the way that Tam Lin’s first lessons to Matt involve taking him out into the poppy fields, where Matt sees how they are harvest and how humans (read: organisms) are used as tools to harvest, and a secret oasis where he teaches Matt about coyote dens and beehives and how all organisms rely on water, including Safe Horses (read: organism that already serves as a beast of burden being modified to be less an animal and more of a shuttle, not unlike the moving platform-slugs in Lilith’s Brood).

What I find more interesting than the similarities themselves is the fact that once I started entertaining the vague notion that Akin and Matt felt similar and listing actual examples, a great many more examples made themselves apparent. In the interest of a focused entry, I’ve avoided mentioning all the ways Akin and Matt are different. Still- I wonder if their similarities are coincidental, or if this says something overall about the use of wunderkind in science fiction.

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Rewriting Blindsight

CRUNCHER PEELED AWAY the silvery leaded skin from collar to toe. Then he carefully handed Mom’s face to Sascha. It was like passing a chemlight; he receded into the darkness, where he navigated more through knowing- through kenning– than he did by actual sight.

Somewhere, Sascha was shucking Szpindel from his jumpsuit. Susan was catching her breath (metaphorically speaking (spirit, from the Latin for to breathe (was there a more appropriate word for Isaac? (Maybe Hebrew, or Hindi, would offer a solution (not that he was very good with cultural references (he was better at what Sascha had dubbed Psychic Solitaire (from an old card game (except you can play it alone or with others (each player takes turns stacking phonemes, and the first person to accidentally make an existing word is out (and he was good at it, breaking things down to those meaningless little parts (meaning was occasionally overestimated))))))))). Susan was catching her breath, and Michelle was fumbling with seven sorts of silence, experiencing each through a different sense.

There were no words to console Michelle. No words existed in any language that could cut through her despondency. It was a painful aspect of reality, but not one worth brooding over. The lack of such words meant that something in the human brain needed to be left alone, so the Gang took turns doing what Michelle could not bring herself to do, but so desperately needed done. They were family- siblings and cousins- and nobody else was close enough to Michelle to be trusted with such a task. Cruncher, faceless, frowned. They were working together. Were they more akin to pallbearers, or were they Spartans behind a shield wall? Absurd, he knew. They were nothing like pallbearers or Spartans. They were electricity inside proteins inside a skull inside a spaceship inside a narrative, and no analogy would change that.

He would protect Michelle, of course. He was her brother-father-cousin-friend-male. He would have to keep his distance, because Michelle was all about semiotics and it would take some time for her to be ready to deal with another male, let alone one with whom she had been intimate in any definition of the word. With perturbance, Cruncher realized he was going to have to play Public Face while the girls and Mom nursed Michelle, satisfying her every immaterial (and critical) need. He signaled a sigh, which somehow made it through Sascha and out Mom’s lips.

Isaac Szpindel was dead. There was a hole in his head. He would never again assemble random noises into signifiers of his needs or his desires. And really, Isaac Szpindel had been quite good at that. Cruncher had never been intended to be a lady’s man, but perhaps because of that he could recognize Isaac’s unique talents for seduction. The additional senses provided by his sensory programs restricted his capacity for body language and facial expressions, and this would have handicapped a lesser man. Szpindel hadn’t let that stop him. Cruncher had never really enjoyed talking to the man, but he would certainly miss hearing him talk.

I lifted the first line of this rewrite directly from the scene where Siri watches the Gang undress Isaac’s corpse. Despite my love of synesthesia, Cruncher is the most fascinating of the Gang for me. Siri says he seems to have more in common with the non-conscious modules than the hubs of personality, and I tried to bring that out here by combining stream-of-consciousness with Cruncher’s terse parsing. It’s a voice with a lot of tension and friction to write; so many words you want to write just don’t make sense. Lightning becomes electricity, inspiring metaphors become pointless, emotions are completely valid and absolutely ridiculous. Ultimately, I think Cruncher is a very compelling character, because Watts doesn’t give you much to work with- his name only appears 15 times in “Rorschach”- and you walk away from the reading wondering exactly how much you can trust him. I think he’s definitely capable of deceit, and is very human in some ways, and in other ways, represents the very alien thing that Susan James has done to herself. I was inspired by the way Michelle is described near this scene as a “little girl,” basically as an alt that receives abuse- considering that Cruncher was the one talking when they were being attacked, but Michelle was the one that got the trauma of it- and the rant the Gang gives about DID/MPD and the word “alts.”

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Evocation: Rottendo Citricus!

We would bleed from our eyes and mouths and assholes, and if any God was merciful we would die before splitting open like rotten fruit. (Blindsight 173)

The above line isn’t the most important in the story, but it was the most evocative for me. Most of this novel has been so dense that I’ve had to set it aside regularly, to come up for air. This was the first line that had me reeling, though. Do I think it’s the most important line in “Rorschach?” No. But when I had finished “Rorshach,” none of the other lines had created such an emotional reaction in me.

Why? At first I thought it was just the image of the human body being opened like rotten fruit. It’s like the difference we discussed in class about saliva versus spit; everyone but Sarasti is meat, to be hunted, coveted, devoured, but suddenly Watts has us thinking of our own organs as a thing to be rejected. When I had finished “Rorshach,” I still felt obligated to revisit this line. So many great one-liners resonated with the overall themes of the book- what was it about this line that had stuck with me?

Well, I thought, maybe it’s the passive voice. “We would bleed…” is a lot different than “We bled.” There’s a helplessness to it, and it echoes the helplessness the crew feels, sitting in Theseus. There’s also the sudden combination of the mouth and the anus- if science fiction is supposed to “cross boundaries,” this definitely did the trick. Anuses bleed. Mouths bleed. But to be bleeding from both at the same time, mixed with the image of your insides rotting, opening up… it’s a very violent image for such a passive, inevitable demise.

And it is inevitable. The fact that God’s only mercy here would not be salvation, but just a mercy killing, seals everything in this sentence with a chilling sense of resignation. Siri Keeton might be casually expressing fear, but in doing so, he’s provided another bone in the skeleton of this story: helplessness, abandonment, rejection, and a sickening sensation that the individual, the crew, and the human species are alive, but have already lost some aspect of themselves that gives that any worth or meaning. (For example, the value of sentience, which is discussed towards the very end of the section.)

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Salvager Diary Entry – warning, foul language

I’m done putting dates on these things. Another dig-day, found nothing. (Words have changed. “Nothing” used to mean “Nothing important.” Now it just means nothing. Everything’s important. Hell, I’m not even Christian, and even I get excited by those holographic Jesus cards. I’ve never been good at this Survivor stuff, so it’s nice to discover something I can actually name identify, instead of yet-another-plant. I’d kill for a field guide. Get me some Latin up in this bitch. (Get it? Latin? In Latin America? (Wow, too many parenthesis. Parentheses? Grr.)))

Speaking of holographic Jesus cards, we have a “male construct” now. Mrs. Rinaldi (I still can’t bring myself to call her Tate, even though I’m getting as old as she looks now) brought him up to the dig site and he started shoving things in his mouth. RumInt as follows: he supposedly has some Oankali-tongue-thing that lets him do Oankali-tentacle-things, and the plastic did some Oankali-poison-thing. Right. I might have been an English major (fuck. i’m never getting my degree. fuck fuck fuck.) but all we need to do is go to the nearest medical equipment factory and- oh wait, too soon?

Fantastic. We get the only alien species in all of literature to have a latex allergy and we’ve nuked every first-world country in existence. Hahah. Vampires vampires everywhere and all I have is a cupboard full of toothpicks. Lovely.

That’s fine. Whatever. I can wait. Oankali say me live long time, I live long time. I can wait. I’ll wait as long as it takes. Then I’m going to bust a Nerf bullet in some alien ass.

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Cancerous Orange sounds like a band name

What is the single most alien aspect of the world into which Lilith is thrust? Reading mindfully of this question made one scene stand out more than any other. On pp 67-69, Lilith buries some orange peels in Tiej instead of Kaal, and the ground reacts- well- cancerously. I felt Lilith’s shock and helpless panic more keenly here than I did anywhere else, and I had to ask myself why.

See, Lilith is an anthropologist. She makes sense of even the most unusual Oankali characteristics by comparing and contrasting them to things she already knows. Sensory organs are snakes, tentacles, night crawlers, sea slugs (13-14). She compares the near-rape scene with Titus to the way humans treat mares and stallions, then dogs (95). She believes  it’s foolish to think of the ooloi as being male or female, because they’re neuter-sexed (89). Every time the Oankali surprise her, she’s ready with a definition of precisely how they’re similar, or dissimilar, to humanity. Her major in anthropology serves her well- she starts thinking of her life as fieldwork (87). Even the secrecy of the Oankali, while sometimes bizarre, isn’t alien in and of itself. Lilith comes from a world in which the US-vs-USSR conflict went from cold to very, very hot. Government secrecy isn’t something she’s unfamiliar with. Lilith has a formidable array of coping mechanisms at her disposal. She’s a psychological multitool.

But the ship? Man, the ship. So it’s alive, so it can be intelligent, so the Oankali have managed to perfect the idea of a self-sustaining paradise. More importantly, it’s the one thing that Lilith can’t predict. Everything else is reasonable enough, once the initial shock wears off. But to live in a world where the concrete laws of physics are radically different- how can she possibly prepare for that? Imagine trying a car key in your apartment door. Maybe it wouldn’t fit, or maybe it just wouldn’t turn. Now imagine if it turned, and you pushed the door open, only to find yourself walking through the ceiling of a Roman catacomb lit with lava lamps. It just doesn’t make sense. With everything else, there at least appears to be some kind of cause and effect, even when the causes are hidden from Lilith’s knowing. Sure, there’s an obvious cause here- the ship’s got a wonky physiology- but what makes it so alien is that Lilith has no way to anticipate how the ship will react to any given stimulus.

To recap: Lilith is surrounded by alien things, but she’s got plenty of ways to process most of it. Her inability to anticipate the ship, however, makes her much more helpless by temporarily suspending any useful coping mechanisms she might otherwise use. Things on Earth may have taken her by surprise, but at least she had a stable environment in which to try and learn things. That fundamental assumption of science- that experiments are repeatable- seems absent. Yes, there’s probably an explanation- the neighborhoods of Tiej and Kaal have other differences- but it’s the most alienating thing Lilith probably experiences.

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Blog gud?

Well, it’s 11pm. The Fenwick Library computers have gone all HAL on me and don’t want me to open blackboard or load the comic in comiXology. And my phone’s about to die. So much for citing specific pages in the text this week. Luckily, I’ve been thinking about my blog post for a few days now, so I’m not completely stranded. (Unless my phone dies anyway. Then I might be stranded.)

What fascinated me about We3 was exactly what forthefairest picked up on: the emphasis on differences between the animals’ minds and human minds. I attributed the more dense, fragmented panels as expressions of this theme. When my understanding got fuzzy- no pun intended- I tried to go with the the flow and wait for a clear picture again. This is a strategy I picked up in Neuromancer while trying to follow Gibson’s more dynamic action scenes. I found it worked a lot better in We3 than if I had tried to force total, immediate clarity. One thing I’m learning this semester is that we have to give authors and artists the benefit of the doubt; they typically have reasons to momentarily suspend our understanding of something.

That said, it wasn’t the art or the pacing that challenged me the most. It was the dialogue. In most of the stories I’ve seen feature talking animals, there’s an element of wish fulfillment or anthropomorphism. We3 is (are?) nothing like that. Instead, we get an approximation of animal attitudes rendered into broken human speech. We once discussed the definition of uncanny in class; this is the most uncanny thing I’ve encountered in our readings.

While creating massive cognitive dissonance and highlighting the differences between my own thoughts and those of the animals, the dialogue also helped me understand the characters better. By shaving off unnecessary grammar and vocabulary, we can see Bandit’s lingering canine imperatives in 1: obey, protect, home, and most of all, the virtue of being “gud.” We can see Tinker’s vestigial feline condescension when 2 says, repeatedly, “1 know 0.” That 2 never says, “1 knows nothing” strikes me as the most clever thing in the book- the perfect meshing of Sassy from Homeward Bound and absurd computer translation of abstract thought. I even giggled every time 3 said “Uh-oh.” (In my mind, I heard the old ICQ sound. Funny how that’s the most human comment any of the animals ever make. I have to agree with forrest– they found ways to write in some humor.)

So, to recap: I need to find better campus computers, my old black phone just ain’t what she used to be, and We3 uses dialogue to simultaneously make readers sympathize with and be disturbed by its namesake characters.

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Another Frankenstein Thing

Remember when we discussed Shelley’s claims regarding the genesis of the Frankenstein novel? A friend sent me this link.

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Web Redemption

I was going to finish my series with thoughts about the language of Neuromancer and Cyberpunk. The preface of Mirrorshades describes the genre as having “compressed” prose, as Professor Sample said in class. I have to wonder if it’s only that way because of Gibson’s influence; his writing in Pattern Recognition has a very similar style. But now that I’ve been reminded what our prompt was, I’m just going to link you to the funniest video use of Neuromancer. Ever.

I’ll be honest: there isn’t a lot in this book that I find especially foreign. I am familiar with cyberpunk, and am used to seeing the kind of vocabulary used in this novel. I did have trouble identifying the actual, physical location of the Sprawl, but by the end of chapter 2 I already suspected the American East Coast. I still can’t tell you how big the “coffins” are. At first I thought they were just sleeping shells, then people were sitting up in them. Then having sex. I get a claustrophobic feel to it- like a sweaty shirt clinging to the skin- about Molly and Case being in a single coffin. And then, the Cobra. Is it an extendable baton, like an asp? Then it’s described as a metal whip, but then again, people “whip their asps out” in the real world, and things “whip around.” But we already discussed some of this in class today, in our little groups.

Normally, the pacing doesn’t throw me too much. I like the way it jumps back and forth. It reminds me of tabs in a browser, of the way that, when nagivating the Internet, the content you’re viewing and the time it was uploaded and the very framing device you’re using can completely change, repeatedly, in instants. The action scenes are harder to digest. For example, when Linda dies at the end of Part 1, I had to read it several times. In terms of setting, I’m not too confused- but I’m having trouble identifying what actual, physical actions the characters are taking. For me, the book is focusing a lot more on moods and abstract geography. There’s enough details there for me to drift without feeling lost- it’s the real, physical actions that get skipped over, and leave me feeling weird. I wonder if that was intentional. It could be Gibson’s attempt to draw me into the world he’s created, and to make me relieved to leave the messy world of flesh and get back into the vast, abstract vistas of Cyberspace.

In the future my blogs will be more focused on the text itself, like the end of this post. 😉

-Brandon Moore-McNew

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Science Fiction As Its Own Journey, Part 2

Before I start my absurd commute from Shaw to Fairfax (note to self: check internet for hovercar rideshares), I want to take a moment to talk about “The Comet” and “Who Goes There” as short stories and Neuromancer as a novel.

I worry about form a lot. My emphasis is in creative writing, and I write a lot of poetry, so I spend a lot of time asking myself the same question Mike did- why is this what it is? Why didn’t they write it as something else? I do know that there’s the flavor of the times- short stories are quicker to digest, so they can reach a wider audience, and in the early 1900s publishing small poems and short stories was considered a great way for people to get their literary injection for the day. When I really think about it, I can see some parallels to modern social media. I used to blog when I was a wee lad, but I stopped when I went into the Army, and I’ve shied away from most social media ever since. Now I’m starting to see the similarities between the old publishing of short stories and Twitter and FaceBook updates. Freaky. I mean, I understand the value of social media, but now it’s easier to accept, somehow. While I do feel that both “The Comet” and “Who Goes There” could probably be expanded into a full novel, I don’t think it could have without losing focus on the themes that were trying to highlight. It would have been more entertaining, perhaps, by giving us more twists and bends and character development and setting- but then it wouldn’t be as contained and poignant a snapshot of the themes it’s trying to portray. In ENG 305 we’re being taught to ask why someone would want to write a particular story; considering the racial themes and ideas of the authors we’ve discussed in class, I don’t see any reason why they would have made this a novel. The short story makes their points just fine. (As a note: my post about Frankenstein explored Shelley’s work moving into the future. I think it’s interesting to think of the biblical and primal symbolism in “The Comet”, then think of all the tribes that talk about visitors from the sky or the ocean in their legends, and also the way science fiction in the earlier 1900s adapted old art and mythos to create what was contemporary science fiction. But we already discussed that in class.)

Neuromancer, on the other hand, almost begs to be a novel. A lot of people have posted about how the opening chapters have left them scrambling for purchase, and I think that’s a perfectly valid observation. I’d agree. But I think that might be one of the novel’s strengths. If I were able to tell exactly what everything looked like, it might help me focus on the characters and themes going on in the book. But because I don’t have that stable footing, it puts me off my guard and makes me feel the same sort of funky, gritty world where nothing really feels safe, secure, or- sometimes- real. By expanding this story into a full novel, Gibson is really inviting me to get lost in the setting, because so much of Neuromancer, I am starting to think, is about the world it takes place in. That’s a big part of what makes the point, whereas the short stories make their point in more concentrated bursts that worked best as short stories- the setting just helped communicate a mood.

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Science Fiction As Its Own Journey, Part 1

Good evening, everyone. First, my apologies: I haven’t been able to be as involved in this blogging project as we’re meant to be, and I’m sorry for that. Things on the personal front are finally calming down, and I should be able to be much more involved now. Thanks for the patience- it’s been noted, and appreciated. Right- now- to the task at hand! (Be warned: long long post.)

We’ve been prompted to write about Neuromancer. I’m not writing about that here. I just need more time to digest it. More to the point, I forgot we had been given a prompt until this post was writtenDigit.) My next blog will definitely be more about it- I’m interested in comparing it to the only other Gibson work I’ve read, Pattern Recognition- but it’s looking like his writing style is much less crisp in his first book. I can see how certain elements of his style persevere (like the way he treats setting), but I’m getting ahead of myself- Neuromancer and Gibson, specifically, will have to wait a bit. I’m thinking less about the text itself and more about its theme of the mind crossing into new territory, and how that voyage can be seen in the sci-fi genre itself.

Last week, Mike asked why DuBois didn’t make “The Comet” a full novel, and he also raised the question of television’s value in the science fiction genre. I don’t see any reason in adding another post about how interestingly both “The Comet” and “Who Goes There” frame questions of race and social mobility- you’ve all summed that up rather well. As we move from Frankenstein through early sci-fi shorts to the maiden voyage of cyberpunk, I think this might be the best time to talk about the way science fiction, as a genre, evolves- and impacts the evolution of other media along the way.

Let me start with Frankenstein. I realize it’s been a few weeks, but Neuromancer’s author is still alive, and it’s easy to see its influence on movies and games. I will get to it later, but think of this more as a post exploring one of the themes of Neuromancer- ideas and the mind taking the leap into new territory. It isn’t the best example for the purposes of this post. So, Frankenstein! We’ve talked about later adaptations of the text, and we’ve seen how Shelley’s contemporaries influenced her story. We’ve even talked about how Shelley herself dramatically edited the text later in life, emphasizing destiny over free will. The intro to the text mentioned Shelly and her friends passing time in winter by writing these stories, which reminded me of one of my favorite bands, Rasputina. They’re an eerie gothic cello band known for their love of obscure historical events and texts, and rather nicely painted a picture of the world Shelley lived in: 

The lyrics are informative, but as with all music, so much of the song’s flavor comes from the music and vocals- not just the material presented, but how it’s presented. It gave me more empathy for how events in Shelley’s life helped shape the text, and it shows how some of the emotions I felt while reading Frankenstein (the vast, but sometimes crushingly bleak landscapes- the idea of the eerie and unnatural undermining the beauty of human activity and form) were captured by Shelley not only for her own time, but in a way that was able to communicate these feelings to people almost 200 years later.

A more direct use of Frankenstein can be found in the roleplaying game Promethean: the Created. It’s a tabletop storytelling game (think Dungeons and Dragons), the setting is present-day fantasy/horror, and the basic idea is that the players portray characters that are corpses animated by Pyros, the divine fire. In the book’s opening fiction, one of the main characters may or may not be Frankenstein’s Creature, and he’s going by the name Verney. In Promethean, gamers get to explore a dynamic and unique story that explores the way everyday people react to the unnatural and what it means to be human, from the imagined perspective of outsiders. Two of the most interesting aspects of Promethean is that it takes certain myths (like the golem) and recasts them as another variation on necromantic animation, and that Prometheans must make another Promethean as part of their efforts to understand life. After all, they have no normal way of creating it. The game wasn’t as popular as some of the company’s other lines, but it is regarded as one of the most philosophically intense. While a lot of games out there, both science fiction and fantasy in nature, offer a lot of options for exploring certain themes and paradigms, Promethean takes the cake by being one of the only games in which the goal is to lose all your powers and understand the modern, real-world human. Talk about your cognitive dissonance! It challenges you from the perspective of a gamer used to certain types of gaming, as well as from the usual angle sci-fi angle of introducing the uncanny to the otherwise mundane. It builds on Shelley’s themes and existing folklore, but adds completely unique elements that make it a stand-alone work of interactive art.

In an effort to not make this ABSURDLY long in a single post, I’m going to cut here. I’ll be posting again soon about short stories versus novels, the positive and negative aspects of television and film, and eventually, new media. (And, naturally, a more direct look at Neuromancer.) Cheers!

-Brandon Moore-McNew


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