Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

spinradIronDreamcoverWednesday Nights Summer 2015
Next meet: July 15th, 7PM (Pacific Time)
Have read: The Iron Dream (1972, Norman Spinrad)
Online and San Francisco

Greetings science fiction aficionados! This summer, descend with us into the uncanny valley! The Total Dick Head’s Science Fiction Summer Reading Group is back!
Many of you were participants last year, and all of you are wholeheartedly invited to join this year’s Sci-Fi Summer Reading Group. As last year, it will be moderated by the Total Dick Head, David Gill, and author Suhail Rafidi.

We convene every Wednesday evening at 7:00 PM Pacific Time, webcasting live from our science fiction laboratory here in San Francisco. Special guests will be announced.

Webcast links! Bookmark away!
Google Hangout [https://plus.google.com/hangouts/_/g5stgywth5n76vwbbyicm4jkqea]
YouTube Channel [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vIyebXYXi4]
Facebook Event Page [https://www.facebook.com/events/1586981878218171]

Members of the group who are in San Francisco are encouraged to attend live and enrich the discussion, at the sci fi lab, 812 31st Avenue, SF, CA, 94121. All else please tune in to the webcast.

The group will cover 7 books this summer, one per week, beginning Wednesday, June 10th, until Wednesday, July 29th. [You’ll note this is 8 Wednesdays for 7 books, as we will be skipping one hitherto undisclosed Wednesday in late July.]

Check out the reading list below. The last book(s) are tentative entries, subject to change by the moderator, or by group consensus.

Reading List:
The Space Merchants (1953) – Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
Flatland (1884) – Edwin A. Abbot
A Canticle For Leibowitz (1960) – Walter M. Miller
Starship Troopers (1959) – Robert Heinlein
The Shadow Of The Torturer (Book Of The New Sun, Vol. 1) (1980) – Gene Wolfe
The Iron Dream (1972) – Norman Spinrad
[The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi]
[Afterparty – Daryl Gregory]

Uncanny Valley Digest: A Canticle For Leibowitz

A_Canticle-for _Leibowitz_BookCoverLiterature is like pornography: You know it when you see it. This is the first book we’ve read this summer that is literature. Our A Canticle For Leibowitz discussion ran deep! Notes follow. With so much ground to cover, and a brief visitation by a mystery guest, we had a very satisfying hash of a very stimulating book. We even finished the salami. “It’s definitely a genre smasher.” -Gill


Some Background on Walter M. Miller, Jr.?
A tail gunner in WWII who signed up right after Pearl Harbor. Saw lots of action; 50 missions. Including destroying the Abbey of Monte Cassino, an experience which inspired A Canticle For Leibowitz. He became a Catholic after the war. Unable to shake depression for the rest of his life. He didn’t know how many people he’d killed. Committed suicide in 1996.

It was written at the beginning of the cold war.
So believable, the fear of nuclear war was constantly rising, rising.
Canticle was originally serialized in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine before its hardcover publication in 1960 by Lippencott. Another important book was also recently released by this publisher. That book was Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959). Published by Lippencott in hardcover the year before.

Also in 1959: Russia’s Luna spacecraft is launched. Castro is approaching Havana. Batista is still in charge. Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash.

Hugo Gernsback was a prick!For those of you who believe in Hugo Awards:
Starship Troopers won the Hugo in 1960
A Canticle For Leibowitz won the Hugo in 1961
Stranger In A Strange Land won the Hugo in 1962
Dick won the Hugo in 1963, for Man In The High Castle
Hugo in 1964 goes to Here Gather The Stars by Clifford Semac
Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein 1967
Zelazny wins Lord of Light in 1968
Left Hand Of Darkness by LeGuin in 1970
Wow, quite a sequence.

Dig her site...

“He’s actually underestimating the consequences of nuclear war. A nuclear holocaust would have been a lot worse.” – Gill

Miller’s premises while he explores the human condition:

  1. Human beings destroy other humans not because of something some other human did the actions of others, but because part of the nature of human beings is to destroy other human beings. The violence does not abate, no matter what technological level we get to.
  2. Our entire capacity for goodness and evil is encapsulated in humanity, in the actual living people. Miller often treats humanity as a single organism.
  3. These characters are alienated from their origins. They don’t know why they exist, just that they do. And it tricks the reader! “Oh thank goodness I’m not alienated from my origins as they are, oh wait, I am as alienated, but I’m just more familiar with my own context.” They’re witness to the future, but they’re disembodied from the body of knowledge that brought them there. Alienated from their origins. Everyone in the book. And us. This book is our condition as well.
  4. Human beings need tight control, or shit hits the fan. Discipline is key!
    “When man gets loose, loose gets man.” – Gill

In The Uncanny Valley... Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 8.40.30 PM Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 8.02.04 PM Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 8.01.47 PMTHE THREE PARTS

Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man)
Rediscovering and copying the esoteric knowledge. Building the case for Leibowitz’s sainthood, based on the findings of brave Brother Francis. The manuscripts! The copysits! The Discovery!

The Flame Deluge
Even knowledge was destroyed. Cities were reduced to rubble, the survivors became nomads and villagers. Illiteracy spiked. The mutations caused by the radioactive fallout create an entire outcast grotesque strata of humanity, called Monstrosities, who are avoided and sequestered.

That whole Simplification business, ignorance with pride. Mobs of proud illiterates furious as the smart people who burned the world and mutated their species.  These monks know how to recognize knowledge, but not understand it. They preserve it, against the superstitious simpletons. They make copies of it because they know it matters. He’s recasting the Dark Ages. Leibowitz died protecting knowledge from the simpletons.

1986 Cover Art by Peter ThropeNikita noted the patience of the ascetic life, the non-goal oriented lifestyle of these monks. lives are counted in years, but their actions take lifetimes. Francis spends 7 years as a novice! 15 years on the illuminated blueprint replica!

Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)
Thon Taddeo. Secular intellectual who joined the order to use his mind for work and avoid hard labor, not for God. The pride that comes with knowledge, and the fall that comes with pride.

Argument between Thon Taddeo the scientific scholar and Dom Paulo, the Abbot in charge of the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, where the memorabila reside. Thon Taddeo’s blasphemous idea, after reading a fragment (of Karl Capek’s R.U.R, perhaps? Suhail deduces) about a created race made inferior to their creators. And the Robot revolt, conjecturing that their present race of humans was created by a prior superior form of man, which died off in the Flame Deluge. This incenses the abbot, who points out that text was verified as merely a fragment of a play, then retorts,

“Why do you take delight in leaping to such a wild conjecture from so fragile a springboard? Why do you wish to discredit the past, even to dehumanizing the last civilization? So that you need not learn from their mistakes? Or can it be that you can’t bear being only a ‘rediscoverer,’ and must feel that you are a ‘creator’ as well?”

Good question! Why don’t some people want to believe that humans alone can do all of this? When I hear people attribute great engineering feats of antiquity to aliens, I also wonder something. The pyramids, Stonehenge – why don’t you want to believe that humans were able to do that? If we can do holocausts, we can do pyramids.

Click for the big picture.

The backdrop of this powerful contention between the Abbot and the Thon is the rising power of a marauding empire sending reaching out to engulf the church itself, a political maneuvering meant to take over the church, insisting under pain of death that only the emperor was allowed to license the clergy, not the church, Pope, or Holy See. Progress is coming, so get your bandages, Taddeo warns.

Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let They Will Be Done)
Mrs. Grales forgiving God for his Justice, in the confessional, as the next nuclear holocaust begins. Remarkable imagry. The two headed Mrs. Grales/Rachel speaking of forgiving God, before He forgives her. It opens up a meditation on what forgiveness entails on the part of the forgiver. A relinquishing of anger. Giving before it is necessitated. Forgiving. A very sophisticated emotional condition.

Or this.

Forgiving God to give up mankind’s bitterness at God for allowing pain and suffering. Because if God hadn’t allowed pain and suffering, courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice would be meaningless.

The Order’s position: Leibowitz loved the wisdom of the world more than the wisdom of God, but when that did not make peace and happiness, he turned towards God, crying. The order is showing us what it values in their own endeavor. Their job is to bind knowledge and ethics, a great integrator. A structured hierarchical authority.

There’s something about Miller’s voice.
The humor is very important. The book would be almost impossibly heavy without it. The characters eclipse the plot, first and foremost, but the plot is so powerful it’s difficult to notice. Very character driven. Makes the info dumps are much more palatable.

For example, Chap 24, opening paragraph, culminating in “a race of impassioned after dinner speech makers.”
“If you’re gonna pretty much nail the human condition, that’s how you’re going to do it.” – Gill

Would you like to know more...?

Is this book pro-religion or not?
The ethical imperative of religion’s role in human experience. With as much incrimination of religion that he sneaks in, he gives it its due, responsible for ethics.
It felt authentic, his descriptions of the church hierarchy weren’t contrived. He did his homework. He pays dear deep respect to the church and religion’s ethical imperative.

Nowell felt “Knowledge-impoverished by not having more bible knowledge. They’re blowing right by me, but I don’t have enough Christian bible knowhow to be able to hold my own in this thing.”

What Does It Need?
“Female characters would be nice.”
“What a movie this would make!”
“You could go Lord Of The Rings and go three three-hour movies of this.” – Gill
“That would be incredible.” – Nikita

This book is just aching for a Foucault reading, and a Latin supplement.
An annotated critical edition, with maybe an introduction by Letham?
Tim powers, from OC, Dick’s friend, Hugo award winner, devout Catholic. What does he think about this book?
How would you teach it?Teaching it
Essay Question:
How are the Rachel head of Mrs. Grales and the disembodied eye of the Poet symbolic of the Church’s function in the narrative?
An observer of progress, a preserver of knowledge that it does not understand.
“And it has to be written in latin.” -Nikita
Regarding nukes, check out a documentary called Trinity and Beyond about how many nukes were test detonated overground in the days leading up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and throughout the cold war. We’ve been nuking ourselves for decades.

Wrap up: It’s a masterpiece.

Uncanny Valley Digest: Flatland

flatlandLast night’s Flatland discussion was on point! Notes are included below. Good turnout, close readings, and some laughs! Thank you to Nowell and Robert for coming to the studio for the live table. We had online attendees from L.A., Chicago, and Mexico. Though the book is short, everyone agreed it was a dense and slow read, that was occasionally pleasant. It’s more of a philosophical treatise, or youth primer on abstract thought, than a story. Thoroughly allegorical, and definitely satirical. But, as David remarked, “Is it art?”


Here are notes and thoughts captured from our discussion of Flatland:

Lines, triangles, squares, polygons, nobility. HA! Class stratification based on your number of sides. Also, inevitable generational social advancement, like evolution.

Chapter 3. There is deep intentional satire here.
Assimilate the leaders of rebellion to prevent revolt. The poor and disadvantaged are turned against each other.

Chapter 4. All females are legally and culturally obliged to shake their asses at all times. We’re not kidding.

Come on over!Chapter 5. Touch recognition and sight recognition.
Theme: Being able to distinguish between classes and genders means A LOT to Flatlanders, and that is part of the satire. It takes a lot of expensive training to aptly discern the differences between classes and genders. A tremendous amount of social, cultural, and cognitive energy is dedicated to being able to distinguish between classes and genders.

[Remember: their only organ of apprehension is both an eye and a mouth.]

Outcast, deficient blue-bloods cause most revolts.Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 8.40.29 PM

Chapter 7. Irregulars and Square’s eugenics tendencies. Even though some Irregulars are culture-bearing geniuses, we should still kill them all. DANG!!!

The Color Revolt. Randy art! Even a circle becomes an artist! Ah, lost Belle Epoque!
Then the political treachery. And now the priests keep color locked up tightly all for themselves.

Chapter 18. The fascism. If we can’t explain it, we’ll incarcerate everyone who witnessed it.

Meticulous world building. After laying out all those rules, he makes them really affect the characters later in the book. He follows the rules of his world.

But is it art?
Is this enlightened tongue in cheek satire or is it pedantic pap too conscious of itself?
David Gill: “He doesn’t know about storytelling, he’s painting by numbers.”
It’s as clunky as golden age sci fi.
A ham fisted social critique.
It’s art*. (*The way that it changes you is very pedestrian.)
Problematic (seriously fucked up) woman question:Chapter 4. Concerning the Women

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.48.14 PMInteresting:
Dan found an online edition of Flatland that where the protagonist was female. an apocryphal modern adaptation by Suzanne Fox Buchele. Additionally, Buchele omits the Color Revolution.

Using the math to cushion the fascist state depictions.
Dan mentions: “Despite the class and gender problems, the math angle on it made it a pleasant story, more palatable.” To lure readers into considering the social critique.
Pantocyclus and the Platonic Nazis:Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 8.35.57 PM
If you are not born into a platonic form, you will be changed into one or destroyed in the process.

Gill: “The rod up this things butt has a rod up its butt.”
Even as a critique of Victorian tightness it’s a little tight.

Contemporary CONTEXT
Who are some other writers, thinkers, and artists active during this period?
John Ruskin(Stones of Venice, etc.)
William Morris (Another writer of social utopias, and a father of arts and crafts movement.)
Utopian writers of the time, idealized social and artistic comments.
Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, also contemporaries
Lewis Carroll, working on similar stuff
A contemporary (late 19th century) idealization of medieval times.
“Can you imagine how bad things had to be to get nostalgic for medieval times???”
And Charles Darwin.
Abbott’s Darwinian approach toward polygonism. Each generation has one more side than the last, evolution plays out assuredly.
All are challenging Victorian notions of things. He’s part of this historical current.

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.43.29 PM Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.36.59 PM Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.37.01 PMScreen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.24.41 PM

Nikita: “It’s a very hierarchical rationalist positivist medieval style of writing.”
Nikita commented on “the difference between profundity and insanity.”
David asked, “Is that like the difference between clever and stupid?”

Gill says: The allegorical literary pedigree of this writing is like Baum’s Oz books, especially Wizard Of Oz.
With a deep extended metaphor that has meaning beyond its surface

An excellent illustrated digression toward the end of the discussion.
Cool book, Robert!

Pre-TV reading. Pre-radio reading.
Like Moby Dick (which made it to the table tonight in reference), it is a kind of prose that serves many functions that we now ascribe to TV, Internet, and Radio. All of these desires for entertainment were served back then by reading.

...and Dante in the middle.
Somehow, Divine Comedy and Moby Dick got involved.

Chapter 19
Robert: “It’s Dante. He’s doing Dante here.”
When the 3rd dimension sphere takes him on a tour of the third, the square promptly wants to go to marvel at the 4th, 5th, and 6th dimensions. And the sphere says, no, you’re crazy. We don’t have them.

Suhail: “This is my favorite part of the whole book, thought it took too long to get there.”

Square quickly infers that dimensions musn’t stop at three. Square says about the next dimensions: “Or if it indeed be so that this other Space is really Thoughtland, take me to that blessed Region where I in Thought shall see the insides of all solid things.”
Nikita called it “The eye seeing itself seen.”

Square returns home to Flatland to tell people what happened.
Robert: “There are stages of illumination and if you’re not illuminated, how can you comprehend?”
Nikita: transcendence of your perspectival position
A reading of Dante (Paradiso, Canto 1, Ciardi translation):

“I have been in that Heaven of His most light,
and what I saw those who descend from there
lack both the knowledge and the power to write.
For as our intellect draws near its goal
it opens to such depths of understanding
as memory cannot plumb within the soul.
Nevertheless, whatever portion time
still leaves me of the treasure of that Kingdom
shall now become the subject of my rhyme.”

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.43.14 PM
Nikita studying a portrait of Edwin A. Abbott

Dig This: Robert had a gorgeous annotated edition of Flatland, from the Mechanics Library in San Francisco. One of the annotations explained: color and brightness are also dimensions! We’ve been living in more than three dimensions for a while.

How is it sci fi?
It explores insurmountable differences between simultaneous realities; a very old narrative.
When Dante returns from Paradise, he says he can not describe the extra dimension he’s been to, but he must try. This is what happens to Square. The Sphere is Square’s Virgil. Abbott is using this stuff. It’s his literary and academic context.

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 8.46.55 PM

“A Canticle For Leibowitz will put this piece of dogshit to shame.” -Gill
“How would you write Flatland?” asked Robert.
This lead to a bit about E.M. Forester’s concepts of Flat and Round characters. Flat characters exist only to advance plot, like evil stepmother. Round characters are their own story. David said he’d write flat characters for the 2D parts, then add emotional depth to the characters in the 3D parts.

Wrap up: Most didn’t like it as a narrative, but all agree, “It got me thinking about things.”


Uncanny Valley Digest: The Space Merchants

SpaceMerchantsThe Space Merchant’s discussion was piping hot! Thank you to David and Nowell for being in the studio. And Nikita for his dogged, enthusiastic participation in spite of technical difficulties.

I’ve condensed some of the notes, quotes, and thoughts we explored in The Space Merchants, included at the end of this post. It was unanimously considered by the group to be a brilliant satire, although with plenty of the clunky writing associated with Golden Age science fiction.

Next week: Flatland! This book is short, so if you finish early, start right in on A Canticle For Leibowitz, because it’s on the long side (but a marvelous book!)

Captured points from our discussion of The Space Merchants

A wry commentary on the character of the Board members:
“I don’t think any of us would feed opium derivatives to the world for money alone. But listening to Fowler Schocken speak, hypnotizing ourselves with the antiphonal responses, made all of us capable of any act that served our god of Sales.”
-Chapter 1

Key satire. good sarcasm. The thing that he is writing is the opposite of what he is saying.
“The Conservationists were fair game, those wild-eyed zealots who pretended modern civilization was in some way ‘plundering’ our planet. Preposterous stuff. Science is always a step ahead of the failure of natural resources. After all, when real meat got scarce, we had soyaburgers ready. When oil ran low, technology developed the pedicab.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 1.41.22 PM“I had been exposed to Consie sentiment in my time, and the arguments all come down to one thing: nature’s way of living was the right way of living. Silly. If ‘Nature’ had intended us to eat fresh vegetables, it wouldn’t have given us niacin, or ascorbic acid.” -Chapter 2

This passage raised considerable interest because it did not match the newer editions of the novel. In David’s recent edition, it read “If nature had intended us to eat fresh vegetables, it wouldn’t have given us the can.”

Weird, right? It led to us discovering other passages that had been cleaned up or scientifically corrected, or watered down in satire or subversiveness.

Tildy Mathis, and copywriters being the modern manifestation of lyric poets:
“She doesn’t know she’s a poet; she thinks she’s a boss copywriter. Don’t enlighten her. It might make her unhappy.”
“There are only so many people capable of putting together words that stir and move and sing. When it became possible to earn a very good living in advertising by exercising this capability, lyric poetry was left to untalented screwballs who had to shriek for attention and compete by eccentricity.”

“I wondered how rich I’d have to be before I could buy privacy.”
Ask Mark Zukerberg

At the consumer camp: “a hopeless, trapped feeling that things were this way, that they would always be this way.” His initiative is “sapped.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 1.35.08 PMAs it is written by two authors, some passages have distinctive flavor. There are some that make us ask, Pohl or Kornbluth?
On Indiastries: “His Boards and he had organized all of India into a single giant cartel, with every last woven basket and iridium ingot and caddy of opium it produced sold through Fowler Schocken advertising. Now he could do the same with Venus. Potentially this was worth as much as every dollar of value in existence put together!”

Pick your stand, then build the perceived reality around it! Theres plenty of evidence to go around! The scandalous implications of the satire are relentless.

From Nikita:
Here is a possible historical connection to all the discussion about class.
Maybe Kornbluth got the protagonist’s name from the House of Courtenay–founded by some lord or other, who acquired land for his estate. Kornbluth’s novel is all about land possession is it not?

The women are written atrociously, real messy, trite shallow depictions. The women are used like silly putty to fill in any plot holes. Another comment: The woman is like a polyp growing out of the man’s ego.

Pacing is scattered in this novel. Part of it could be because it was serialized in a magazine and needed cliffhangers. Part of it could be because of the dual authorship.

“I couldn’t very well tell him that three days was the optimum priming period for a closed social circuit to be triggered with a catalytic cue-phrase, which was the book answer”

Disseminating the idea that these conglomerates trade in making and shaping “folkways.” And a desire to take those means from them. In 1953. Board room manufactured reality.

Yes, in effect branding means ownership.

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 1.45.19 PMThe corporate states are something. Little America interesting. And Indiastry.
class stratification. In other books, too. Brave New World, 1984.

Chicken little and the horn. So Cronenberg creepy. It becomes and important image later because when Courtenay finally reinfiltrates Fowler Shocken and meets Fowler himself, the old man thinks it’s patently insane. A secret room under a chicken flesh monster? C’mon, man!

In some ways, this book’s value is that at the height of the golden age of the golden age of science fiction, this one comes in and whispers in ears, “You can use sci fi to satirize shit, and make subversive commentary about society.”

The book has a shit-stirring tendency.

In a very Dickian way, it explores the peculiar state of being where multiple simultaneous realities have insurmountable differences.

And my personal favorite comment:
Those capitalist pigs! If Grandfather Stalin would have gotten his hands on this book, the Soviet U. would have won the cold war. [Thank you, Nikita, for that one!]

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 1.46.14 PM