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.”

Screen shot 2016-06-27 at 6.52.21 PM
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.
Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 6.34.22 PM
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:

Screen shot 2016-06-20 at 7.28.20 PM


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!

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Fifth Head Of Cerberus

wolfecerberusLast night’s Wolfe discussion knitted and warbled! Attendance was high, dinner was stimulating, so much that we got in front of the camera a few minutes late (forgive us, Nikita!). It was a pleasure to be in the presence of some fun-loving scholars with a firm grasp of the text. (At least as firm a grasp as Wolfe allows, which is something like the grasp a Labrador retriever has of an iPad; you know it’s important, but – FLAN!) Now for the discussion notes:

An anthropologist from Earth comes visiting the twin planetary systems of Saint Anne and Saint Croix. In a colonial civilization mired in infinitely replicating and simultaneously decaying dualism, this scientist is perusing facts to verify the legend of a race of aboriginal planetary natives reputed to be shapeshifters. Shapeshifters, it is alluded to, who may have already supplanted most of the planets’ human beings.

Dinner was such fun…we were late to the camera. Sorry, Nikita! 😀

As Meg said, “The book offers so much of the ‘Clue’ mystery – so many parts, the wrench, the living room…the clones, the scientist – But never pulls it snug together.” It’s intentional, and it works! It is as though Wolfe uses blocks of unknowability, inscrutable puzzles, as matters of form; they are never meant to be fully illuminated.

Erik noted, Wolfe is Catholic-with-a-capital-C, so he is definitely portraying Fallen worlds.

Meg, who has read this book 4 or 5 times, (and taught it) observed, “Everything has meaning in this work – but what does it add up to?”

Ryan couldnt stay, but wished us well.
Ryan couldn’t stay, but wished us well.

The discussion turned to the multilayered shifting footing of the realities in the book, at least the glimpses of reality the “unreliable narrators” afford us. It is beyond just peeling through the layers of an onion, it’s as if the onion layers are braided. Erik said, “If everything is repeating, you lose dynamics.” David followed up with, “Like cancer, it reproduces so much it will kill itself.”

Erik identified this book as coming from “a zone of science fiction that is anthropologically driven.” Meg verified that it was part of the new wave in the 60s and 70s. “A departure from the hard science sci-fi, into sci-fi for the softer sciences – psychology, anthropology, linguistics, etc. – yielding writers like Le Guin, Wolfe, Dick, etc.” David called it, “A changing of the sci-fi guard at the end of the 50s.”

A visit from Laura, who plans to rejoin us for Le Guin on July 11th.
A visit from Laura, who plans to rejoin us for Le Guin on July 11th.

Meg told an excellent story about the time she met Gene Wolfe at a church service in suburban Illinois, while creating a sci-fi course curriculum (at SFSU) featuring the Wolfe-man himself! It would be a disservice to tell the story for her, so look her up.

L. Ron Hubbard’s “Fear” novella. Very good; recommended by Erik Davis.

Nikita’s description of The Anti-Psychiatry Museum in L.A., funded by Scientologists, and how some of their most effective methods are borrowed from psychiatry, so they are very against it.

He forgave us.
He forgave us.

As you can see, toward the end, the discussion took a few digressions into other forms of science fiction which we are already living, here an now. And also some exploration of the religious backgrounds of various sci-fi writers, who, though they may espouse certain dogmatic religious views (Catholic, Mormon, Scientologist, etc.) also maintain

One thing I must say for Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head Of Cerberus: it stimulated sustained and fruitful discussion and, remarkably, did it without the novel being sufficiently precise about anything. It left us discovering that there would be many insights to gain by a careful rereading, though no more certitude. (Wikipedia reports that, in a letter to Neil Gaiman, Wolfe wrote: “My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.”) It’s a conversation-starting book, but definitely not conversation-finishing. We had to change subjects to finish the conversation. The Fifth Head Of Cerberus is most certainly worth the read, but it will behoove you to make peace with uncertainty beforehand.

Thank you and goodnight! See you next week in the sci fi lab!
A full boat to discussion island…

See you next week for Dick’s Martian Time Slip!
Thank you for reading! Reading Rules!