Uncanny Valley Digest: Manjula Padmanabahn

Hello, and welcome back to lip-smacking science fiction in the Uncanny Valley! Our “Sharing Air” discussion was the champagne’s bubbles! What happens when you’re buying air like bottled water? Are you aghast at the prospect? Or proud of how many flavors you can afford? This tidbit-length story packed a conversation-rich wallop.

“Sharing Air,” by Manjula Padmanabahn was published in 1984 in New Delhi’s New Sunday Express magazine. Another story of ideas; a pollution and climate change story that sets us up for Kim Stanley Robinson next time. Padmanabahn depicts the absurdity of the new culture that settles in after we adapt to rampant pollution.

Why the shortest story in the penultimate meeting? This week is our deep breath before a plunge. Our next discussion will be a full length novel, the latest from Kim Stanley Robinson: New York 2140. We will reconvene Even though you’ve still got four weeks to read it, Robinson’s book is nearly 700 pages long, so start now. Now for the notes!

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Padmanabahn’s story contained some essential character expression that was sorely lacking in Borges. The double edged satire of our flawed character narrating the story gives the sci-fi reveals a nice crackle.

"Are we there yet?" "Maybe we passed it."Welcome to HelDavid: “This story would be a great final exam. Come in, read it, then – based on the stories we read this semester – answer this question in an essay: ‘Is this story a utopian or a dystopian story?’ It’s clear they’ve solved a lot of environmental problems, after some serious setbacks (only 2 million humans left on all of Earth, for example). At the same time, you get the sense that they’ve got it worse than us.”

David and Nowell: “I am fascinated that this was 1984.” “Yeah, it seems 10 years too early.”

David: “It’s so clearly political that sci-fi magazines in the 80s would not have wanted it. That’s why it wasn’t never published in a sci-fi magazine. In some ways it resembles H.G. Wells, writing as a vehicle to get people to understand and become activists.

Huh...?

Nowell: “I like the flaws and self-critique of the main character. The mask and the radio communications, never seeing actual faces or hearing actual voices.”

p. 927, col. 2, “I own a brood of virtual children whom I share with other members of my thought-group.” A great, insidious line.

Not that kind of sharing...David: “The indignant narrator is what makes it work so well. The self-righteous narrator can’t see the things being preached to us. Just as heavy handed as the anti-nuke writing of the golden age. Sci-fi writers have something to learn from this writer.”

Nowell: “It turns on itself well, with good reveals. It’s like a dialectic.”

David: “Yeah, dialectic is a good word for this. But so heavy handed, it’s like a New Yorker piece.”

Suhail: “Another good example of a story of ideas. But at least this one has an engaging, flawed character to keep pace with. So much more effective.”

One smile?!David: “It’s not quite so dry. Telling, not showing; essay format, but nails it.”

Suhail: “It has a character. A narrator with a good conundrum of disdain for the past while still fetishising the past. (she still order boutique ‘Five Cities’ scented air.)”

p. 926, col. 1, “More like bleary with a touch of pleasurable panic,” The Radiohead syndrome. Modern technologized paranoia.

p. 926, col. 2, “They breathed one another’s air, for goodness’ sakes! Recycling all their airborne germs, their waste products, their cast off bronchial ceils, every kind of organic junk.” Contamination anxiety [This came up in The Iron Dream, also.], not just about pollution. People hermetically sealing their lives off from the organic living juices of other life forms; an unhealthy utopian perfection syndrome.

p. 926, col. 2, “The polluted earth itself!” By the end, a nice tidy, obvious, playful, heavy-handed, and mercifully short satire.

The reveal: A depression plague killed them, TJ & Tosc style, and who knows if it’s over. Self-loathing killed them. No trees, no air, no food, and she’s convinced she’s living in a modern utopia (because the propaganda apparatus works so well).

Did I mention the pizza was delicious?Did I mention the pizza was delicious?Did I mention the pizza was delicious?Did I mention the pizza was delicious?

See you August 24th for Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, New York 2140.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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“Bloodless; but it’s big in Uqbar.”

What I say?

Hello, and welcome back to the Uncanny Valley! Our Borges discussion this week left us stimulated but mystified. In some ways, the story did not meet the criteriaof science fiction, and it brought up questions as to why this particular Borges story was included in the anthology. Possibly because the relationship between Tlön and Orbis Tertius toys with inter-dimensional travel.  An interesting discussion, though incessantly cerebral. And no fictional technology. Now for the notes!

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Jorge Luis Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” is deft and erudite, but also dry and expository. In some regards, it is unclear why it is even included in a science fiction anthology.  It’s more of a linguistic and academic fantasy. It’s the kind of dry ideas-only story that makes grad students horny, so it gets niched into the canon via academia.

Part 1, Uqbar is just the phantom article, the hook clue leading to one mention of Tlön.

Part 2, A single volume of an encyclopedia from Tlön. A consequent linguistically deduced anthropology of Tlön from the articles in this one volume, somehow translated. Described on p. 148 as a “vast and systematic fragment.”

Part 3, A 1947 post script implying that Uqbar was invented by a cabal of intellectuals who wanted to create a fictional country, and that Tlön kind of grew out of that like a fan fiction universe or something. And now the world of Tlön, like the world of literature, is washing back and forth into our material reality.

Published in 1947. Borges is like Orwell or Huxley; sci-fi which is excluded from sci-fi by virtue of being literature. Gill: “Margaret Atwood’s publisher forbids her from labeling herself a sci-fi writer.” How is it sci-fi? It’s not; it’s a fantasy story. David: “If I had to tie Borges into science fiction, I’d bring him in on the branch that contains Poe.”

Nowell: “Reminds me of Flatland. It’s a thought experiment, not a story. It’s written as an essay. It’s a little dry.”

David: “You could Letham it up a bit. At least give it some characters. Make him a bookseller with an incontinent dog or something, tracking down this book, etc. Add some characters. Add some suspense.”

Suhail: “It reads like it should have a bibliography, but it doesn’t. Reading it reminds me of being in grad school. It’s all intellectual. It’s like a ripple of the Futurist movement. Modernist, stream-of-consciousness esoterica.”

David: “I like stories about feelings, not stories about ideas. That’s what I did when I was a pretentious teenage writer: ‘Wasn’t it Balzac…’”

Nowell: “No decoding of the ideas, very didactic. My favorite line of the whole story: ‘Transparent tigers and towers of blood.’ I laughed out loud and starred it.”

A people, a planet, a species who live in a different material experience of time and place. Much like the language conundrum in “Story of Your Life.” A different syntax describing a previously inconceivable reality. A different means of reaching similar ends. By page 150, infinite regressions teasing the horizons of human cognition.

p. 150  “The future has no reality except as a present hope, and the past has no reality except as a present recollection.”

p. 150 “crepuscular memory” or twilight memory. Is that like the pre-death dream in the last moments of life?

p. 150, footnote to “eleventh century”: “A ‘century,’ in keeping with the duodecimal system in use on Tlön, is a period of one-fourteenth of a year.” HA!

p. 151 A fun word here, “heresiarch.” A kingpin of heresy; czar of hearsay.

Escherp. 151 Tlön’s geometry. No nouns in their language, two types of geometry to account for the utter totality of the relative experience of reality. “As one’s body moves through space, it modifies the shapes that surround it.”

Other aspects of Tlon’s culture as characterized by pure and total idealism. Tlön’s literature: One plot, infinite permutations. Different means, same ends.

You start to get a clue that “Tlön” is a way of seeing Earth. Different means, same ends.

p. 152 “hronir”. “Secondary objects” that spring into existence out of distraction or confusion. These ultimately make it “not only possible to interrogate, but to modify the past, which is now no less plastic, no less malleable than the future.”

p. 152 “ur”, A related term. But an object with his brought into existence by suggestion, out of hope. (like the gold mask dug up by the students.)

Post Script – 1947. Tlön was “an invention, a satire.” Now some folk in Tlön wrote a book about us called Orbis Tertius. Also, two material objects from Tlön have been found here on earth.

p. 154, column 2. Really esoteric almost coherent language. David: “This sounds like Exegesis stuff, by the way.”

p. 154 The compass “intrusion.” Tlön starts leaking into our world. Like the porous exchange of ideas between the world of the written word and the world of our material experience. And the heavy cone, a Tlön-ian artifact; “an image of the deity.”

p. 154-5 Tlön is quite possibly overtaking Earth. Our sciences are transforming.

Suhail: “It is curious to note here that, in Arabic, ‘uqbar’ means ‘greater than,’ or ‘larger than.’”

David: “A bunch of stuff that prefigures the post-modernism. Juxtaposition of fictional, historical, and modern people and places. The Pynchon connection holds up. There’s a guy who picks out non-fictional elements and goes down the rabbit hole with them.”
Some gems:
-The language with no nouns. Nouns are described as moments, sense experiences. (p. 149, “There are famous poems composed of a single enormous word; this word is a ‘poetic object’ created by the poet.”
-Borges is trying to smash boundaries that at the time seemed insurmountable; but it’s a bloodless and cerebral mind puzzle.
-The porous realities between Tlön and Earth, now that Tlön has been discovered or set into existence, now others create fan fiction and artifacts from Tlön arrive in Earth.

Like this pizza.

David: “Like Star Wars or Middle Earth, these fictional worlds have their own mass and shape and consequence.”

Tune in next time for a taste of something you’ve never snarfed before, our discussion of Manjula Padmanabahn’s “Sharing Air.”

See you soon. Thank you for reading. Reading rules!