Gray Whales: Just The FAQs

whaleinglassesSuhail Rafidi’s forthcoming novel, Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey (Available September 2016), tells the journey of a pod of endangered Atlantic gray whales searching for their mates. In order to provide some background for the interested reader, we have some some interesting scientific facts about gray whales.

Whales are warm blooded mammals that live exclusively in the sea. They have an internal body temperature similar to ours. To maintain mammalian body temperature in a vast, cold ocean, they have evolved many fascinating adaptations, like blubber. They employ highly sophisticated breathing and sound processing techniques, and possess generationally transmitted intelligence; forming what we may call culture and society. Gray whales in particular are unique in the world of whales because they prefer to live near shore in shallower waters, and they are the only whales who are almost exclusively bottom feeders. Now for the questions!

Why are they called gray whales?
From their body coloration; gray skin accented by white barnacles and mottled patches of white where barnacles have dislodged. It is also common to see patches of orange whale lice.

How do I visually recognize a gray whale?
First, look for the whale’s spout when it surfaces. Because of the position of their dual blowholes (like our nostrils, but with muscle control, and on the top of their heads), a gray whale spout has a heart or V-shape to it. Gray whales’ streamlined bodies are marked by a few (2-5) ventral grooves along their throat.nicegray-whale-med These are pleats that spread open when the gray whale feeds, allowing it too scoop more sea bed. Grays have hatchet tapered rostrums, and a slight overbite, with their upper jaw overlapping the lower slightly. Another helpful visual characteristic is revealed when you watch a gray whale dive. Look at their backs and notice that gray whales do not have a dorsal fin; look instead for a dorsal hump, followed by 6 to 12 dorsal knuckles on the ridge behind the hump. Watch also for the fluke (whaleish for ‘tail’). The gray whale’s fluke is about 3-4 meters (10-12 feet) across, with a deep notch in the center, giving it a fan shape.

What is gray whale skin like?
Gray whale skin is described as feeling like a mushroom or a peeled hard boiled egg. Some of their skin is crusted with barnacles and clusters of orange whale lice, which eat the microorganisms and bacteria on their bodies. Most adult grays have raking and scar marks from orca encounters.

gray_whale_spyhop_chris_johnson_noaanmfs_swfscHow long can gray whales hold their breath?
Gray whales can hold their breath for 20 to 30 minutes. Unlike land mammal physiology, whale breathing is a voluntary action. This means they have to consciously control their breathing at all times. Consequently, a whale could never sleep for hours because it would drown. (Human breathing is an involuntary action, it happens automatically whether we think about it or not. Though when we do think about breathing, we gain a lot of range. Ask any diver or yogi.)

When do gray whales sleep?
There are a couple of scientific theories about whale sleep. One is that gray whales might sleep while swimming, effectively sleeping while in cruise control. Another theory is that whales ever take naps, typically submerged, for approximately as long as they can hold their breath, 20 to 30 minutes.

How big do gray whales grow?
Gray whales can grow to weigh 30 to 40 tons and be as long as 45 feet. Female gray whales grow larger than their male counterparts, reaching 50 feet.


Do gray whales sing?
Yes, gray whales sing. They use various low frequency warbles and gurgling sounds. No one yet understands the exact meaning of whale song, but there are a lot of good guesses. (Ahem, Cetus Finalis)

What are gray whales’ eyes like?
Eye of a Gray Whale, grey whale
The eyes of an adult gray whale are approximately the size of a baseball, and situated above the whale’s jaw. Gray whale eyes are very similar to human eyes and can see about as well. (If you’ve ever tried to see underwater, this might give you an idea why sound is so important to  whales.) A dead gray whale’s age can be determined during an autopsy by the quantity of a certain protein in its eyes.

What is the average life span of a gray whale?
Gray whales typically live between 40 to 60 years, though they can live as long as 80 years.

How long is gray whale childhood?
Gray whales usually hit puberty somewhere between ages 5 and 11. Given a typical lifespan, one female gray could give birth as many as 18 times.

How long is a gray whale pregnant?
Gray whale gestation is one year. Reproductive cycles are closely linked with migratory cycles, because it is best for mothers to give birth in warmer waters. Possibly for this reason, gray whales have adapted something called delayed implantation. A gray whale’s embryo does not begin to develop in the mother’s womb until some months after she has become pregnant (which usually happens at the birthing grounds). This presumably gives her a chance to have one arctic feeding season while pregnant so she can eat for the baby and still get back to warm waters in time to give birth.


Are gray whales attentive mothers?
Yes, gray whales make good mothers, being rather protective of their calves. In fact, one of the old nicknames for gray whales, “devilfish,” was derived because of the violence mothers were capable of when whalers killed their babies, including sinking entire whaling ships.

What are newborn gray whales like?
Newborn gray whales are dark in color, sometimes black, with the distinctive white patchy markings of their kind. They are born weighing between 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, and are about 15 feet in length. They are born with very little blubber and must spend 2 to 3 months in the shelter of the warm lagoons, feeding excessively on their mother’s nutritious, fatty milk (52% fat) until they plump up enough to make the trip north. Baby gray whales nurse for 6 to 8 months, consuming 50 gallons of mother’s milk daily.

What happens after a baby gray whale is born underwater?
The baby needs air, but can not yet swim. So for its first few breaths, its mother will give it a natal lift on her rostrum, bringing the baby to air. Within a couple hours of birth, the calf is able to swim and stay afloat on its own. Though when it tires, it is liable to rest on its mother’s flippers or back.

What is a gray whale’s diet?
Gray whale feeding in the mud flats near Tofino, Canada, 1984
Gray whales eat small shellfish, crustaceans, copepods, amphipods and tube worms embedded in the sediment on the sea floor. Grays sift the fauna out of sea bed silt in the same way that cattle crop an open range. When the food runs low, they move on. To feed, they dive to the bottom, roll onto their right side, and scoop mouthfuls of sea bed sediment. When they close their mouths, the water and mud are squeezed out through their baleen, leaving the food behind in their mouths. They scrape it off the baleen with their tongues and swallow.

How fast are gray whales?
Gray whales swim an average of 3-6 miles per hour. When migrating they cover about 100 miles per day.

Gray Whale Calf, San Ignacio LagoonHow far from shore do gray whales travel?
Gray whales hug the coast, staying within 5 miles of shore. Gray whales pay more attention to the depth of the water than their distance from shore.

When do gray whales eat?
Gray whales do the bulk of their feeding during summers in the arctic. Some suggest that this is the only time gray whales eat; they build up their fat reserves up north, then fast for months during the warm mating times at the southern lagoons.

How much weight do gray whales lose during their non-eating times?
A lot. Migration, mating, and nursing use up a great deal of energy. A 30-ton gray whale, for example, might lose as much as 11 or 12 tons of blubber weight during the breeding grounds and migratory parts of their year. So when they get back to the arctic feeding grounds, they really do have their work cut out for them.

Are gray whales endangered?
In 1994, the Pacific gray whale was finally removed from the endangered species list. The Atlantic grayGray_whale_skeleton whale became extinct in the late 1700s or early 1800s and is the only population of whale to ever be wiped out. Although, in 2010, a gray whale was sighted in the Mediterranean Sea. Subsequent scattered sightings off the coast of Africa, near Namibia, and far flung parts of the Pacific indicate that gray whales are migrating farther than ever before, and could possibly be reentering the Atlantic ocean after hundreds of years. This recent unexpected and unprecedented evidence of whale migrations may also be related to global ecological and climate changes.

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Left Hand Of Darkness

lefthanddarknessLast night’s The Left Hand Of Darkness discussion turned the genre on its head! A bevy of enthusiastic readers pitched in to rock some pizza and admire the handiwork of this deep and multifaceted novel.

In precisely the way Bacigalupi does not, Le Guin actually goes through a lot of trouble to imagine other ways of being. She has crafted a world that does not [yet] know war, coupled with a powerful vision of a world where genders are removed from gender roles.

An interplanetary human Envoy has landed on the planet Gethen, with invitation from the stars to join the interstellar planetary community, the Ekumen. The natives of Gethen are a snow dwelling ambisexual species of humanoid which – though their radios work – have not invented flying, or war. Will complex political intrigue threaten the success of the Envoy’s mission, or rescue it?

Ursula K. Le Guin takes us deep into the pliable notional mysteries of human relationships and meditates on our inclusion in the tapestry of life. Now for the notes!

David: From Le Guin’s introduction. How sci-fi is not limited to extrapolation. Sci fi is thought experiments! Le Guin wrote in the intro, “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”

Meg: Le Guin uses elements of the travel narrative and anthropological soft science fiction to justify her rich and verbose info dumps. She sets the tone for this as a collection of field notes, more than a novel. Erik, who has read “more anthropological field notes than I have read science fiction books,” said that much of this novel read very naturally as if it were field notes and did not smack of a novel. Interesting to note that Le Guin is the child of two heavyweight anthropologists, not just scholarly types, but real celebrity status anthropologists in the Bay Area. (Alfred L. and Theodora Kroeber. In addition to many other things, the Kroebers are the scholars who cared for and documented the life of Ishi.)

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Which genres is she blending? Fantasy and Sci-fi, of course, but many more. The travel narrative, hard sci-fi, political intrigue, romance novel. It’s so fantasy in some regards that readers crave a glossary and maps, the way lots of fantasy books give. But she leaves it to the reader to deduce the world around Genly Ai. Readers are along for the same ride as Genly Ai, to figure out how this world operates, and where its variations are.

Where is the romance novel? Which two main characters begin by disliking and distrusting one another, but discover by the end a deep loving intimacy, but because of their social circumstances are prevented from acting on their newly discovered love…? C’mon, it’ll come to you…. Exactly! A romance novel.

Le Guin’s using high-falootin’ Big Idea sci fi here, like Asimov in the Foundation works. Big political and social spectrum considerations. Getting the reader to think about social structure in the abstract, yet so strongly grounded in these everyday characters.

Erik remarked on the contemporary anti-war climate of the writing at that time (This book was published in 1969.) She is laying out a very strong thought experiment to imagine a world without war. Killing and crime, sure, but not war. (Or as she does in The Dispossessed a thought experiment of an anarchist world and how it might actually operate.)

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Powerful theme of questions and answers. The value of not asking unanswerable questions. P.70 “the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.” P.151 “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

Tangent about Cordwainer Smith as a very important author of the New Wave, and a discussion about reading some of his short stories this Autumn.

Erik: Tangent about Micheal Saler’s book, As If, which discusses the growth of fandom in literature. “Enchanged disenchantment.” Playing with the idea of literary characters being partially factualized and tracked, like with Sherlock Holmes, and later with Lord Of The Rings stuff.

The Foretellers’ ceremony: WOW! It’s about the question, the journey. The answer doesn’t matter. A good question is more valuable than its answers. Just knowing that the planet will join the Ekumen does not tell enough. Nothing about Estraven and Genly’s character changes. Even knowing the Foreteller’s answer does not shorten the road.

She’s advocating a great model of the anthropological approach to everything, being changed by the other and them being changed by you.

p.135, The Ekumen “is an attempt to reunify the mystical with the political,”
We talked about the implication so that short statement for sometime. When were they ever united in the first place? Perhaps in pre-literate oral cultures, where all documents were spoken and remembered only?

Erik: Regarding the Ekumen, Erik mentioned “a sensibility that encourages an incounter with the Other. That interaction has a mystical and spiritual dimension.” Also, A “Human quality of being open to otherness, but with care. To be open to the other, you have to in a sense be broken open to the other. Be at ease with the tension and uncertainty (including the erotic tension) that comes with the charge of difference.

Suhail: Le Guin is even dispensing with the assumption that we have to resolve or somehow flatten or homogonize that charge of otherworldly difference before we can begin meaningful interactions and exchanges. The uncertainy is permanent. Dualities are experienced simultaneously instead of with mutual exclusivity.

See you next time!

Struck off on a tangent of other sci fi writers culminating in the most humorous comment of the night, from David Gill: “If you’re into Dick, you can’t go deeper into Moorcock.”

Commentary about the modern syndrome of needing security, security fetishization, security theater (in Naomi Klien’s words), and how creepy it is.

Meg: By being ambisexual androgenes, the Gethenians are an embodiment of the contradictions. Making peace with permanent uncertainty.

Meg: When this book 1st came out it was derided as a radical feminist screed. Le Guin actually had to write an apology article to the male sci fi scene. Male sci-fi writers attacked her for being a feminist. But she did not describe herself as feminist, as much as they introduced the label into the discourse for the purpose of sullying it and her. She was criticized for the sexuality and kemmering stuff, and the foretelling. But they did not note her very powerful vision. Or maybe their attack is how they did note her powerful vision. As Le Guin says in chapter 11: “To oppose something is to maintain it.”

Le Guin’s incredible versatility. She writes all sorts of stuff: Poetry, children’s books, YA, essays, etc.

Meg: “She brings optimism, but she is not sentimental, and that’s why it’s so great. She deftly illustrates the sophistication of all these mixed emotions and THAT is the greatness of literature.”

Erik: “She’s super smart, super aggressive, but not sentimental.”

This novel actually tries to imagine “other ways of being,” a phrase Le Guin uses in her National Book Award Acceptance speech. We ended our session by watching this elegant 6 minute speech. Now here’s a link for you to watch it:

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Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Windup Girl

windupgirlLast night’s The Windup Girl discussion was a real deal literary salon! Distinct opinions arose. The scope and technical skill of Windup Girl were undeniable; complex, impeccable world-building, a vast swath of ultimately interconnected characters, none seeming more important than the others. Of the half dozen people who attended the meeting last night, 3 of the 6 did not finish reading the book. Two of the 6, one who finished and one who had not, did not recommend the book. Four of us thought it was excellent, even masterful.

David said, “If a student asks, ‘What is the state of science ficiton today?’ then it is this book.” What did he mean by that? Well, we asked: This book, in contrast to Metropolis, is entirely mimetic. It has limited itself to completely believable descriptions of a material world and the mundane movements of people within it. Using that vehicle, it delivers an extraordinary vision that must be largely deduced by the reader.

“He never lets you peek behind the curtain,” said Suhail.

“Nary an infodump. Not a single one,” noted Meg. Every piece of information regarding the very masterful and complex world building is embedded in the prose and actions of the characters. Show-don’t-tell is followed to the letter, with incredible discipline. So much discipline that the reader is wondering, David observed, “Am I seeing this right? Is this what’s happening?” We must rely entirely on the slow and gradual reveal of contextual details. Chris says that this “puts the reader in the same position as every character in the book!” And there was a murmur of assent that this was a good thing. Suhail replied that “there are different philosophies about how a reader should be treated.”

Suhail was one of the people who did not finish the book, and did not recommend it to others. Nowell finished it, but also did not recommend it to others.

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 6.57.16 PMNowell: This guy needed an editor. The book is at least 100 pages too long for what it does.

Suhail: This is technically masterful, socially innocuous, status quo-reinforcing fiction in the same ilk as Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. It is written so well that it doesn’t suck, so you can get to the end, but so what? I don’t care about any of the characters, no matter how well rendered, and I’m not surprised by any of the plot developments. Some sci fi does a good job at making the present feel like the future. But this makes the future feel like the present. The calorie man is the oil baron. The kink springs are steam industry. White men in corporations are going to fuck everything over in the process of taking it for themselves, and the brown people will run off into the woods again. Too bad, folks, get used to it. The megodonts are Jurassic Park. I just couldn’t stay interested, no matter how MFA the writing was.

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 6.57.05 PMAu contrer, say Meg and Chris: This book asks for more patience than the average one-off sci fi book. “It is a slow burn,” said Meg. [To which, Suhail responds, a slow burn leading to a meager guttering puff of expiration.] This slow burn concept came up a few times. It takes a while for all the seemingly unrelated characters to get laid out, but then when their lives start intersecting, you see how masterful and mesmerizing it is.

David was ambivalent, but still interested, as he had not finished the book yet, but wanted to see it all pulled together. Meg assured him the payoff was gratifying. Suhail was resistant, “I hypothesize that you will feel exactly the same way about it after you finish the book.” Suhail also added, to mild disapprobation, “I did not finish reading this book, and may even tell others not to read it.” “Now that’s a little harsh,” replied Chris.

Meg also admired the significantly researched hard science in this science fiction novel. Every technology Pacigalupi described was backed up by present scientific knowledge, so detailed in fact that it is a little opaque to the reader. This lead to a tangential discussion of Kim Stanley Robinson, and perhaps reading him next year.

Meg also said she could not teach this novel, because she’d have to spend so much time explaining and rationalizing to the students the literary purpose of the very “triggering” scenes and images strewn about the book. (Like the way Emiko, the Windup Girl, is treated, as well as other vivid, normalized depictions of racism and oppression; but mimetic, like David said, purely descriptive, not judgement-laden.) Suhail connected this need for filtration with the implicit status-quo whiteness of the book’s backdrop. “For people (like multicultural university students) who are less sympathetic to white privilege, I imagine this book has a lot less luster.”

Suhail admitted toward the end something about his prejudice. “Regarding David’s accurate observation that this book is entirely mimetic, it gives no symbolic trapdoor for interpretation, it is so antithetical to the storytelling style of Metropolis (which I enjoyed so much) – I think that fact motivates my prejudice against this book; because ever since I began reading books, I’ve gravitated more toward the symbolic, representational, iconographic flavor of storytelling. Also, thank you for trying to convince me to read The Windup Girl. I promise in the future I will not abuse this indulgence of skipping the reading.”

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Pizza Party!! I love this group!

Wrap up: 3 of 6 finished reading The Windup Girl. 4 of 6 recommend reading The Windup Girl. We’re taking off July 4th, but be reading LeGuin!!!

See you July 11th for Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness. [Geek trivia: One of David Gill’s cats is named Ursula.]

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Metropolis


Last night’s Metropolis discussion was so Babylonian-modern that I forgot which century we were in! The high turnout was almost entirely via call-ins and I was delighted. Sadie put it best when she said, “It’s like we’re in the future.” That comment brought up some good jests, and hearkened back to the recent Internet anecdote about an AI’s posted video memory of watching Blade Runner, how that remembered copy is not subject to copyright authority.

Metropolis nurtured a rich discussion. It is clearly a literary piece of work. Every frame, every motion, is carefully considered. Metropolis was made in 1927, the heyday of the silent film industry. It is a work made by a master of the medium, who knew all of its limitations and how to exploit them. The robot in this movie would look at home next to C3PO.

We were also astounded that it still felt so current. It’s been 90 years, and science fiction movies are still rehashing this movie. Brought up some interesting ideas about where science fiction of today differs and by how much, especially in the treatment of AIs and the social justice implications of high technology and surveillance. Very powerful themes. It’s still a masterpiece. WATCH THIS MOVIE! Or at least catch the Metropolis Screenshot Slideshow. Now for the notes!


Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 6.34.09 PMDavid: This is one of the most accurate envisionings of the future, from the past, I’ve ever witnessed.

Nowell: I have dreams about bi planes flying around cities like that.

Nowell: That ending scene of Rotwant and Freder fighitng on top of the cathedral roof was “shot-for-shot the ending of The Crow. Proyas is a big fan of this movie.”

David: It’s not mimetic. For example, consider the giant machine Freder first encounters;Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 5.51.31 PMwith all the human parts doing a kind of synchronized dance to the machine works. It is expressionistic, conveying that anxiety.  “It is not trying to show you what the future will be like. It’s saying, ‘This is what the future is going feel like, you idiots, unless we pull it together and clean up our acts.”

David: One of the 1st texts designed to scare the shit out of you about the future. No realism – powerfully expressionistic and symbolic. It’s curious that it tells Germany’s future so presciently, because sit went down almost exactly like that 10 years later.
This led to a longer thread about the economic and social historical context of Germany when this movie was produced and released.

Definately total roaring 20s style decadance. He just put the present into the future. It is all contemporary technology, but saturated, packed tighter than ever. Look at those sets of Metropolis as viewed from the Frederson’s Babel Tower; the iconic cityscapes.

screenshot sadie says hi

1925 Novel by Thea Von Harbou
1927 Movie by Fritz Lang
The book was being written as the movie was being made. Like Kubrick and Clarke with 2001.
Historical note (which we drilled a lot deeper when Hitler came up later): Thea and Fritz were married. Thea became a Nazi sympathizer in 1933, and they divorced shortly thereafter. Fritz then moved his operation to the United States to wait out the unpleasantness. More on this later.

Hmmm…This movie was panned by H.G. Wells. David added, “I’d be curious to read the context on this. I wonder why that was…?” and we all answered with fun speculations. Maybe Wells was jealous because he was so famous at the time. Maybe Wells just wasn’t into this type of storytelling; he seems more partial to swashbuckling adventure without such glaring, pointed social commentary. Maye he was just panning it because he was a paid shill. Who knows? Please comment below.
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Suhail: I was thoroughly impressed by the full and total use of everything placed before the camera, especially the use of human bodies, their motions and their expressive capacities, as set pieces.

David: An expressionistic portrayal of anxiety. As opposed to Frankenstein, which is very realistic, with letters and journals – Metropolis is unreal, choreographed, symbolized, exaggerated.

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 7.29.12 PMNikita corroborated this expressionistic theme by reminding us of the German expressionist movement in Germany at the time, with things like The Cabinet of Dr. Calighiri.

It also brought up a discussion of Méliès’ Voyage To The Moon (1902). “It’s a visual lark!” said Meg. “A frivolous journey with dancing mushroom people…” Such a different conception of science future high technology than Metropolis. David posited that one of the “primary dialectics of science fiction is: ‘Will it be a good future, or a bad future?’” With Méliès’ imaginary realm at one end, and Lang’s dystopia at the other.

Meg: This was Hitler’s favorite movie. So much so that he wanted lang to be Hitler’s film propagandist. Lang’s mother was Jewish, and this precipitated Lang’s emigration to the U.S.A.

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 6.02.41 PMNowell: And Goebbels (The guy who got the job Lang turned down) liked the theme of social justice. “The Reich certainly saw the value of cinema, and Hitler effectively inserted himself into everything as the “hero”. Makes perfect sense that he would envision Fritz Lang as his propaganda guy. I wonder how the conversation went when they actually found out that he was Jewish.”

Meg: Let’s consider this Mediator theme. It is the opening and closing placard of the movie. Somehow, a revolution by the people alone fails. And the ruling class can’t reform. They need the Mediator. Who is that? The obvious answer seems “Freder,” But there are a lot of arguments for it being Grot, the foreman of the Heart Machine. He may be the Heart between the Brain of the Frederson tycoon and the Hands of the working masses behind him. Hmm, the underestimated Grot.

Suhail: This was around the time of strong organized unions, and the I.W.W. So it can be interpreted as a contemporary cautionary tale that the tycoons need to be cool with the union bosses; there Grot would be the union boss.

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 7.28.20 PMIt confronts an ancient fundamental problem of society. Is progress doomed to always be made on the backs of the poor? The small groups of people who control vast resources, and their willful misuse of large masses of poor, uneducated laborers. This is not a centuries-old story. Lang, with his Babel themes, is saying this is a millennia-old story.

Nikita & Meg: the movie establishes a dystopian urban visual style that set the tone for the next 100 years. (Yeah, when will we think of something new?) Gilliam’s Brazil, Batman’s Gotham, Fifth Element, Dark City (Another Proyas film that does a brief shot-for-shot homage to Lang), The Matrix trilogy, even Clockwork Orange.

Nikita: Lang was inspired by the first Frankenstein movie, a 16-minute film from 1910.

Nikita: By the way, what actually happens, in the plot, from the beginning to end? Just for clarity.

Suhail: [A 10 minute verbal recap of the plot of the movie, to applause.]

David: After hearing that, I am realizing I only understood about 30% of the movie when I watched it.


Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 6.34.52 PMDavid: None of the technology (in the story) is new. It’s tacitly contemporary. If you can make a woman robot, why not make worker robots?

Suhail: Maybe they’re too expensive.

David: Snowpiercer was a Metropolis reboot. But nobody present had seen it. Nowell, who used to work at ILM, and worked on the Matrix trilogy, reminded us that this movie was all over sci-fi.

Meg: The visuals looked so much like World’s fair cities of the future from the 30s and 60s. The technology and the vision didn’t seem that different.

Hel Robot, make-up and eye movements on her remind us of Alex in A Clockwork Orange

The role of creativity, the portrayals of the creative person: the inventor, the engineer. In its didactic purpose it seems to suggest that the creators are corruptible. Social context: a post revolutionary lashing out at the intelligentsia. The working class lost a lot of the brains behind the machines. They could operate them but could not fix or engineer them.

Meanwhile...Nowell's view

David: Anxiety about the switch from craftsmanship to mass production. The relentless and depressingly uniform sameness of the humans, rich or poor.

Look how banal the high technology is treated. There is no consideration of the ethics or anxieties of AI the way Frankenstein does; though both do deal with Othering.

Nowell: It figures, too, that the Hel robot was the “perfect woman” because he could completely control her.

David: Sci fi unfortunately has a history of depicting women that way.

Meg: As we are going to see next week for The Windup Girl…

Here we diverted into our first impressions of Windup Girl. Meg says she’ll get through it, David is curious what we all think so far, Suhail thinks it’s going to be bestseller smoke and mirrors like Afterparty or Franzen’s The Corrections, with no compelling social insights, critiques, or subversive thought. A long, prosaic bore… We’ll find out next week, when we trudge on into the unknown, crowing:

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Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Martian Time-Slip

pkdtimeslip Last night’s Martian Time-Slip discussion brought some dark, fascinating things to the surface! It was a privileged to have two hard-core Phil Dick scholars at the table (Erik Davis and David Gill), because every scene, theme, and psychotic hallucination in the book implied the author behind it – and these gents knew Dick’s life story and publishing history intimately enough to produce some gratifying insights.

We traced interesting aspects of Dick’s personal life during the time he was living in Pt. Reyes writing this book (married to Anne, father of one, abusing amphetamines, the vision of the dark slotted face mask in the sky, and writing nonstop like a demon as his marriage deteriorated). Much of the psychological environment of his personal life glares through in this Bradbury-inspired Mars novel.

A word of warning: the book is depressing, though it has key moments of humor. Also, it ends well for a Dick novel, which is a huge plus. Martian Time-Slip reworks a lot of the themes of overlapping identity-realities in ways similar to Ubik and The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch (How, for example, a particularly aggressive or powerful personality can actually alter the contours of the reality of less-aggressive personalities around it. Also, the notion that emotions are types of AIs or alien consciousnesses that inhabit human beings to see their own greater will done.)

Although, the conundrums in Martian Time-Slip are not created by technology, but rather by psychological states of mind like autism, schizophrenia, and the bleak mood that descends upon a community which has experienced a suicide. Also, in Martian Time-Slip, Dick executes the overlapping identity-realities with the more formal narrative control. In Ubik and Eldritch, it constantly feels like the ground is falling out from underneath the reader’s feet, to the last moment. Here, it holds together better. The character web in this book is impeccable. The plot, almost non-existent. Now for the discussion notes!


Meg: This would make a great early career Peter Jackson movie.

Gill: like Ballard, the culture is so horrifically banal that you’re horrified by that.
No character is really attached.
The plotting: On Meg’s first read, she noted that PKD was writing this book by the seat of his pants, all of these disparate characters, but then he pulls it all together. He’s writing as fast as he can, with almost no revision. A masterpiece of improvisation where the mind is the creative device.
Gill: Shortly after publishing Martian Time-Slip, Dick had a serious bout of writer’s block. During this time, he wrote letter to a fan about the system he uses to build his novels.
In chapter 1, establish the sub-human, then in the next passage introduce the hearty everyman, then in the next passage introduce the power-drunk bossman, etc. There is a very logical progression, an order to Dick’s character web weaving process, right down to how many syllables belong in each character type’s name. And he spelled it out in a letter to a fan.
Erik, added “The logical relational thing is, how tropes keep coming up: the communication device that comes down, the repairman, the mixture of good/bad boss.”
Dick: “schizophrenia is the savage within the man.”
Dick’s use of horror, almost unintentional, but vivid. As though the horror is a personal account of his subjective experience of reality.
Using Manfred to critique normalcy.
Arnie is the one who keeps putting up walls to stop the Manfred affect, but he is the one who ends up destroyed by it. Unlike Jack, who is capable of reflection, and has insight and even notices when Manfred’s world is beginning to take over his own.  That in itself makes him escape Arnie’s fate.
In capitalist utility land, the move toward meaning is to look at pure negativity, the pit. The horror is a call toward meaning, but if you go all the way, it will take you to the flip side of the capitalist utility land.
Distillation of Dick’s economic philosophy
“hated bigness per se. Bigness had destroyed the small business way of life.”
Chris: “How does Dick really feel about Arnie. He tries to redeem Arnie several times; does he identify with him?”
Gill thinks it’s Dick’s way of making round characters. Suhail thinks Arnie is a significant portion of Dick’s personality.
Heavily autobiographical, according to Gill. So much of this book describes Dick’s life in Pt. Reyes to a T.
Erik: “Dick never ever in any book describes the physical beauty of a place. Never describes any sort of natural landscaping in even a gently lyrical way. And the sublime is a source of horror for him, it is the epitome of meaning in the midst of the nothingness, that awareness of being in the pit of darkness is the only meaning.”
Meg: concerning Dick’s contempt for the sublime, the sacred ritual spot is called Dirty Knobby.
Self consciousness about capitalism, environment, culture as a deforming force (the UN is gonna come in and fuck everything up), the public school institution of normalcy. Kids need stable adults to grow but all the adults are fucked up. Not just the knowledge that these people have, but the values.
Heliogabalus: a note in the American library edition – A 3rd century Roman emperor who assumed the name of the Syrian sun god.
On the sublime tip, chapter 4, the description of Manfred as a mysterious creature from a another world “a divine and dreadful place beyond.”
Wrap up: One of Dick’s best books, merits rereading, but it’s a gloomy ride, so decide for yourself!
See you next week!