Uncanny Valley Digest: Arthur C. Clarke (and Kubrick’s) 2001: A Space Odyssey

Our 2001: A Space Odyssey discussion was a voyage of Discovery! (wink) Welcome to our new members, and thank you for your participation. It was also great to see folks who’ve become prized and familiar over the past 5 years. (Yes, that’s right, readers, this summer is our 5th in the Valley. Here’s to many more!)

We started the discussion with what we liked about the book: the readability, the predictions (like the app-style UI of reading the news sounds just like an iPad), Clarke’s light touch and fun with science and technology popularization, the impressiveness of the long journey through time and across the entire solar system, the tiny creative ways in which Clarke teaches the reader about science and physics. (Even though you may only weigh 30 pounds on the Moon, you’ve still got that 180 pounds of mass, so be careful when changing direction, it’ll be harder than it seems.)

Suhail was particularly taken with the subtlety of HAL’s corruption. HAL was set on the course for psychosis because he was ordered by Mission Control to withhold information from the crew regarding the existence of the monolith. But it goes even deeper. In essence, Mission Control gave the monolith assignment to HAL, making the crew redundant backup workers that HAL was required to keep alive. HAL cracked, then panicked, because he was tasked to lie to the crew. Where does murder come from? Can a computer commit it? In this vein, David mentioned that Clarke very literally takes us into Mashahiro Mori’s original Uncanny Valley, regarding the aesthetic moment when a robot resembles a human just truly enough to creep out a real human.

The second half of the discussion was about what we didn’t like about the book: the obvious, to the point of being almost entertaining rather than offensive, western white male characterization of women (and reality) as mere extensions of space-man’s noble goals. The naming of space pods after women because of “their unpredictability.”  Also, Clarke’s lack of a voice other than his parochial pedagogical scientist-father narrator.

Chris thought the book might have been more interesting if Clark had tried inhabiting characters that weren’t mere duplicates of himself (basically all knight-in-shining armor western problem solvers like Heywood Floyd, Frank Poole, Dave Bowman, et al.) Clarke’s conceit runs deep in that regard because he basically frames all of the evolution of intelligent life on earth as a process meant to lead homo sapiens into space ships. Kind of silly when you take it in the big picture. Clarke does not seem to know how to write about the true unknowns, the inscrutable puzzles of existence. He has to fit everything in a box. But since the end of the book is literally about transcendence, there is some difficulty in making the ending come together.
Suhail: “He doesn’t have a mystical voice.”
David: “He can’t tackle the sublime, the Eldritch, the unknown. Life isn’t that certain and simple-”
Suhail: “-but Clarke is.”
Group: HAHAHAHAHA!

Kubrick's 2001: A Space OdysseyMovie/Book Relations: The movie significantly enriches the book’s characterizations. Alternately, the book makes the movie’s scenes (the dense, long shots) make more cohesive sense. Kubrick’s characters are a lot richer than Clarke’s. It’s a great symbiosis, even with the inevitable alterations which an adaptation to the screen brings. (Especially the technical “show-don’t-tell” syndrome, Clarke’s authoritative jargon for his enthusiastic popularization of science.) Lots of the book and the movie come off almost like an R & D video for Lockheed Martin. (Here’s how it’ll be, folks.)

David: “This book is precisely what sci-fi is reacting against now. A really racist sexist paradigm that convienently ignores the uncertainties of reality. I’m proud of today’s sci-fi for tackling this paradigm, actually.”

This lead to some discussions about Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, and way beyond, to where science fiction may have began. On the origins front, we were torn between Shelley’s Frankenstein being the first sci-fi, or Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (The Dream).

BANANA BREAD BREAK! (Thank you, Marta!)

Octavia E. ButlerAdditionally we kicked around some demarcations for what constitutes science fiction. For example, Octavia Butler’s genre-straddling Kindred is considered sci-fi because of the time travel, but doesn’t contain a single technological element after that. It’s mostly a historical novel, but it works as sci-fi somehow, because it shows us the world of slavery through the perceptions of a modern feminist. Suhail thought that sci-fi was marked by any presence of “fictional technology.” David added that sci-fi is characterized by an attempt to “literalize the figurative.” This bit of the talk got good, but my notes are insufficient, because I was so involved.

The 2001 novel, written from 1964-68 (before the moon landing, mind you) is the last ornament on Golden Age sci fi, science popularization, cheap gender and culture tropes, lots of love for the gear, explaining how the hard science might actually work. Nikita mentioned how this was similar to Gernsback’s Ralph 124C41+.

Nikita: “The element of sci-fi where explaining the technology is a pleasure in itself.”

Lena: “The science fiction and fantasy arena could be anything. So why not make it anything? Where are the diversities? Why the hostility toward other voices?”

Wrap-up: A great book, and movie. It’s worth your time, but also give yourself a chance to see how much things have changed (especially culturally) based on Clarke’s approach.

Please join us next week where we discuss “The Star,” by H.G. Wells.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!
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For more detail, here are page-by-page reading notes.

Clarke’s Introduction
viii – Going for “mythic grandeur”
xvi – Written in 1964-68, before the moon landing.

Part 1 Primeval Night (p. 1 – 40)
The history of humanity in 33 pages.

Part 2 TMA-1 (p.41 – 104)
All of short Chapter 7. Indicative of a dense technical style. Clarke’s better at this than characters. Lots of detail about how this technical process of space travel might realistically be manifest. (pp. 42, 46, 48, 60-64, etc.)
44, 45- social/political problems are as bad as ever. overpopulation, food supply, starvation, nukes, etc.
49- The last space opera before space travel IRL
51- virus mutations
46- Space travel as common as air travel. Why hasn’t this happened?
47- Trite and flat spoonfed characterization. Just get used to it.
48- Technical detail, plays like an R & D video for Lockheed Martin.
54- Planetary erosion. How many moonrocks are no longer on the moon?
55- Clarke, the great predictor, heh. The tone, though.
56- Movie Note: In the movie, at least he calls his daughter, not the secretary. Flat, Heinlein-y characters
61- Easy to relay in space.
61-62 He oversells space food.
63- Detailed, app-style UI/UX descriptions
65- Am I watching Mad Men? White privilege paragraph
66-68 A well-written passage about scale, where 1000s of feet is miniscule.
72- Art for sanity’s sake.
72-3 Good detail about moon life and weight vs. mass
73- Classic technological optimism style.
77- The space-born humans —- I dunno.
83- Nice contrast to Moon Watcher’s 1st experience with the monolith.
90- Sagan stole this trick in Contact.
94- Good detail.
98- None of the sci-fi writers seem to have predicted the digital camera – heh.
99- What do the primes mean? What are they telling us? That ET realization.
104- The trap sprung.

Part 3 Between Planets (p.107 – 146)
108- We’re going to Saturn, not (as in the movie) Jupiter.
108- The sequel is built in. (Also 137, at Europa)
110- Hibernaculum. A joke to Dave’s homunculus problem. Heh.
110-11 Foreshadowing. Trip lights. emotion
112-3 Space infancy. Mother’s milk.
116- The HAL/IBM joke. Fixed it!
117- Tiny white privilege reveal
117- AI fact check. What course did AI actually take?
119, 129 HAL foreshadowing
120- Chapter 17 Technical. R & D Video for Space Exploration
122- The advancement of cross-disciplinary learning at the expense of colleges and universities.
125- Scientifically speaking, Discovery has Salvadors
128- Clarke’s uptight dweeb side: Why not just let them have their porn and masturbation instead of drugging their sex away?
130- Great scaling of the asteroid belt.
132- The asteroid flyby. Still target practice

Part 4 Abyss (p.149 – 211)
150- An important consequence of isolation.
169- Silence as a response. Tsk, tsk.
180- Poole attacked. Maybe HAL was just trying to get the AR-35, not Poole.
180- When it’s time to emote, it’s all “show-don’t-tell”
182- Movie Note: Poole’s death is very different.
184- How is murder born? Can a computer commit it?
192- Chapter 27. HAL’s mind. The lie. Redundancy. The Fatal Flaw. (123- HAL’s size, 127 Games)
197- A potent image. Trapped in an air bubble in space, from air island to air island.
(And the powerful contrast of how unnecessary all that will be once Bowman transcends.)

Part 5 The Moons Of Saturn (p.215 – 255)
218- BARSOOM. Heh. Nod to John Carter’s Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs)?
219- Sounds cruel. Does that even qualify as an experiment?
220- The core of AI is the study of our own human psychology.
220-1 Don’t Panic :o). HAL’s motivations laid out. They forced him to lie, and it made him implode.
225- Heh. Neils Bohr: “Your theory is crazy – but not crazy enough to be true.”
227- For Clarke, technology is a rung on the ladder to God. If consciousness could be housed in a machine instead of an organic body, eventually it wouldn’t need the machine, either. (245 – 6, and 249)
231- Clarke as a science popularizer.
232 Saturn’s rings and the monolith and us.
234- “the western side” of an orbit. Cute white privilege seep.
238- Bowman holding it together.
242- “Call it the Star Gate.” Why? :o)
243- Second monolith, EXPLAINED. Chapter 37 (Part 1 callback)
246- Ensconced in a comforting world-view that all of evolution was set up to lead homo sapiens to spaceships. A playful, and silly, conceit. Clarke’s uptight dweeb side.
249- Star Gate’s job is to bridge the organic to machine interface of mind, to be the next rung on Clarke’s Mind ladder – from body to machine to transcendent spirit in space.
251- “In all history, he was the only man to have seen this sight.” Heh, Clarke’s white privilege pipe dream in a nutshell.
251- Brave, chivalrous Bowman.
254- Bowman won’t be needing air anymore.

Part 6 Through The Star Gate (p.259 – 297)
260- Movie Note: The long psychadelic light show of the Star Gate travel.
261- A nice way to approach hallucinogenics: “a sense of calm expectation.” “The world around him was strange and wonderful, but there was nothing to fear. He had traveled these millions of miles in search of mystery; and now, it seemed, the mystery was coming to him.”
262- seems to be describing an interstellar freeway exchange at these monolith Star Gates all situated on one synthetic planet, a hub of Star Gate pathways.
263- A conceit.
263- Cool shipwreck image! Missed the interchange, ha.
264- A passing ship.
265- He takes his highway.
267- Handy, scientific, globular cluster deduction for guessing how far he might be from home.
269- He visits a binary star system
271- He visits a starship graveyard
275- He visits a dying red star orbited by a tiny brilliant white dwarf, which is drawing up an energy column of flame wider than the earth and several many thousand miles long.
291- Bowman set back to Zero. Next stage in Clarke’s body-machine-transcendence Mind ladder
292- Callback to Part 1
294- The double star was a re-birthing place.
295- Like when a drug trip grazes near “bad,” but all is well. The life form Clarke is trying to describe reminds me of Cordwainer Smith’s “Game of Rat and Dragon” space entities (but less malevolent).
297- Bowman pauses at Earth, stops nuclear war, then heads out to the great beyond. Last page.

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Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

If you buy one book this summer...Science fiction lovers, attend! Summer is smiling upon us, and the weather is balmy in the Uncanny Valley. Who needs Virgil when you’ve got Total Dick-Head David Gill and sci-fi author Suhail Rafidi to guide you through the storied landscape of shadows and wonders, crafted by some of science fiction’s best writers, past and present.

This summer, we’re reading one novel and six short stories over the course of six Monday evening gatherings. For those who traversed the Valley with us last summer, good news! All of the short stories are selected from same anthology we used last year, The Big Book Of Science Fiction, edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer. So if you bought that prodigious doorstop of a book, crack it open – time to go again!

Where & When? (IRL and Online)
Six Monday night discussions, 6:00 PM Pacific (6/25, 7/2, 7/9, 7/16, 7/23, & 7/30)
If you’re in the Bay Area and can make it live, contact us for the address.
Otherwise, the Google Hangout link:

https://plus.google.com/hangouts/_/g5stgywth5n76vwbbyicm4jkqea

What Are We Reading?
The novel first. In honor of the 70mm re-release of Kubrick’s classic, we’re reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This novel was simultaneously written as a screenplay, forged in collaboration between author and director, as the film was being produced. Much like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.H.G. Wells, care of Tantor Media

June 25th: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Arthur C. Clarke

July 2: “The Star” (1897) – H.G. Wells  [Download PDF]

July 9: “Sultana’s Dream” (1905) – Rokheya Shekhawat Hossain

July 16:“The Triumph of Mechanics” (1907) – Karl Hans Strobl (Gio Clairval 1st English translation, 2016)"Violence cannot destroy the body of the Goddess, for Her body is the world itself." - Rachel Pollack

July 23: “Burning Sky” (1989) – Rachel Pollack
“Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” (1995) – Geoffrey Maloney

July 30: “The Poetry Cloud” – Cixin Liu (1997)

BONUS NIGHT (TBA): In honor of this year’s Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odysseyre-release of the groundbreaking film, we will be hosting a Sunday screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stay tuned, and get reading!

Mark your calendars. Start reading 2001: A Space Odyssey, and join us for the first meet on Monday June, 25th. From David and myself, see you Monday evenings this summer.

With The Total Dick Head Himself!

Keep track on our Facebook Page:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/496095803825881/

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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!

“Reiko’s Universe Box,” by Kajio Shinji

Where “Story of Your Life” is a story about almost too much science, in “Reiko’s Universe Box,” by Kajio Shinji, the science only functions metaphorically. Gill said it gave him insight into what kind of writer he is. “I’m more ‘Reiko.’”

Not Reiko.

“Reiko’s Universe Box,” by Kajio Shinji (published 1981, translated into English in 2007). This translation time lag led to a tangent about the western sci-fi scene naively “discovering” sci-fi which had always been in Asia -China, Japan, Russia, India – when they’d been reading ours the whole time.

A clean 3 act structure
1. Set up the characters and the situation, boom: universe in a box.
2. Husband punches the universe box.
3. Shit goes down. Black hole style.

From Indiana.edu

Sparse physical description, much is left to the reader’s imagination, and deftly. This story is about the marriage, their mismatch,  and the divergent relationship imploding.

Gill: “A superego marriage where society and social similarities have mandated that we be together.”

by Yoriko Nagasaki. Click for more...Cool, funky, red herrings; stuff like the anonymity of the gift giver, the detail about the manufacturer, all the false leads. Stuff you get excited about that goes nowhere. Some tangential stuff about how this is a pattern in Japanese erotic writing; little useless ancillary pleasures that function as foreplay.

The progression of their negligence of the marriage is very tidy. First he warns her about working late, then calling when late, then occasionally calling when late, never calling when late, then late more often. Their seperate lives are forming while Reiko gets more and more engrossed in the universe box. So by the time he is cheating on her, she isn’t even remembering to make him dinner anyway. And it is interesting the way her husband gets angry at her for not getting angry at his habits. Well, hey, you warned me, so what do I have to get angry at?

Each of them failed at the marriage. Like the universe box, the marriage was accelerated to its end within months.

In an improvisational way, the marriage is a universe box. Their marriage is predicated on their mismatch. There unimpassioned bond. “A superego marriage,” Gill called it. They’re both good but they don’t link up quite right and they consequently don’t have harmony. Then some forces come along that need harmony. Their lack of it affects the changes.

When the husband punches the universe box, things speed up. He shows violence. Gill referenced the “Confrontation Curve” at the husband’s outburst. A psychedelic time lapse of their marriage deteriorating. The sun is named after him, and the planets are their children.

Gill: “I’d be curious to learn about the translation process, because the way it’s described, it’s more of a solar-system box. The story has almost nothing to do with science. It is all about this couple, and what their worlds are, and what their engagement to their worlds does to them.

p. 718 “The flow of time of the universe box had accelerated drastically.”
p.    “The white giant had turned into a major black hole.”
A refrain of that theme of the two being mismatched in the beginning.
p.   “He must be a good guy, she would tell herself.”

From UniverseToday.comStock characters for the exploration. Reiko goes out and finds books and learns elementary astronomy. She becomes more addicted to staring at it. The husband stays stock, but his negligence of the marriage progresses in step with Reiko’s increased involvement with the universe box.

Did the husband become a black hole, too? (Being the namesake of the star and all.)

Given the theme of infinite regression (when Reiko speculates on another Reiko in her universe box), perhaps instead of dying like her husband, perhaps Reiko was quantum transported like an electron. Yeah, sure – no.

Tune in next week when we discuss the master of mysticism, Jorge Luis Borges‘ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” [Download PDF]

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Ted Chiang

“Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang

This skillfully and scientifically executed short story (published 1998) was recently released as the film, Arrival, which I enjoyed very much. If you’ve seen it, good, because this is an instance where the screenwriting effectively enhances the story. As a short story, it is cerebral, nostalgic, thought provoking, and in some ways underwhelming. As a movie, many of the storytelling elements, like tension and conflict, are filled out much better.

Gill says the thing that caused the salty discharge from his eyes was the parent’s choice to have the child, no matter what the future. The notion that Chiang toys with is that even if you know the future, you can’t change it. In fact, knowing the future obliges you to fulfill it.
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The heptapods bring a new temporal awareness to humanity, conveyed through their written language. Non-causal, telelogical reality. Knowing the end as you begin and going through all of the performance of communication anyway to get there. Similar ends, different means.

Nope.

Set in opposition, narratively speaking, to the human’s causal linear historical style of thinking. Word order is entirely irrelevant to heptapods, as is the practical difference between the present and the future. One tempting anecdotal illustration of the concept in humans: the child insisting on the story being read to her, not because she wants to know the end, but because she wants to hear it read aloud; the performance, like listing to the music of life, like listening to a good album. You know exactly how it ends before you begin, then immerse yourself in the cycle of songs. A good album can be listened to hundreds of times without losing relevance. That is what the heptapod time perception resembles, based on the clues in their languages. And since linguistic context builds a person’s world (the controversial [is language a technology or a biology?] Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a cultural comparison through language. Which engenders the old sink hole of “aliens” basically just being some other terrestrial ethnicity. How outside the box is it possible to get?) Again, same ends, different means, but in heptapod, ends and means are essentially interchangeable and each integral.

More like this.

Of course Arrival was a pleasing enhancement of “Story of Your Life.” The short story uses scant suspense or tension, all of the surprises aren’t; because well, that’s the nature of heptapod’s temporal awareness – no surprises. The bits that the movie did which were very satisfying, like the Chinese prime minister stuff (the secret he gives her in the future), the keyed up military intrigue, and the explanation that the heptapods came to us now because they already knew they would be helped by us in the far future (which echos the Chinese prime minister stuff) – none of that is in the short story. Kudos, Arrival. Way to use a good screenplay.

Telelogical vs. Causal
When you know the future, if you can see the future, you can’t choose to live otherwise; having the child or not, though already knowing the future of the child.

Gill: “Philosophically, it’s bullshit. A good existentialist would say that’s not some choice you can make.”

Heptapod, by Anna Deef
by Anna Deef

Knowing the future doesn’t empower you to change it, even if you have the illusion that you can change it. Living out the present becomes a performance of well-known music, rather than a causal chain of events.

A good pairing/contrast with Reiko’s Universe Box. Where “Story of Your Life” is about almost too much science, in “Reiko’s” the science only functions metaphorically (except for the elementary astronomy Reiko begins reading).

Gill: “This contrast of the two stories, these two uses of science, gave me some insight into the kind of science fiction writer I am.”

Tune in next time for more on science fiction that does not ask you to learn science, and trip out with us over “Reiko’s Universe Box.”

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: James Tiptree, Jr.

Hello science fiction lovers! Welcome back to the Uncanny Valley. Last week, we let Cordwainer Smith take us on a insightful, dangerous, but somehow whimsical ride through the human mind. This week, leave behind the whimsy, ’cause we’re going to Big Junction, where the only people laughing are the aliens!

“And I Woke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side” (1972), by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Bradley Hastings Sheldon)

DerStandard.atThe Bio: Tiptree was a raised by intellectual parents, a lawyer father and writer mother, and before joining intellectual life, worked for the military, then the intelligence community. In 1942, she joined the war effort as a cryptographer and rose to the rank of Major. After WWII, she worked briefly as a CIA spook (‘52-’55), then returned to academic and artistic pursuits;  very conversant in military culture, and that made her gender deception more believable. She published under a pseudonym to protect her academic reputation, and a male pseudonym at that to conveniently sidestep sexist prejudices.

Another interesting biographical tidbit, thought by David to be a rumor, that just before she died, Tiptree killed her husband. Meg verified this bare fact with elaboration. Tiptree and her husband had a sort of death pact. Rather than decay into dotage, they chose to go before the very end. She shot him and then herself.

The story: A news reporter visiting a human built, alien-populated space station interviews  a human sex slave drug addict who is bitterly  enthralled with the aliens and tells a cautionary tale or two.

David: A weird gender dysphoria, or misidentifcation or dysfunction.

Meg has taught this story by giving it blind to students,  hiding the author biography. Then asking them if they felt any differently about the story after learning that it was written by a women. (The fact that Tiptree had expertise in psychological warfare may have had something to do with it, too.)

Getty

The colonialism theme. That line about balance of trade and the fall of the Polynesians. It’s not just about desire and sex and power, it is also about empire and servitude and conquering. The aliens get off on being admired, and tantalize and torture the humans, who wish for nothing more than to conquer this unconquerable population.

Nikita: There’s a whole element of addiction to it. That’s why the guy explaining it to the newsman is so bitter. A desire that leads nowhere, like sitting on a plastic egg. Like an impotent sexual addiction. There is a comparison to skag addiction earlier in the story.

P.614 “Sex? No, it’s deeper…Some cargo cult of the soul.”

Although, despite it being deeper than sex, the humans are attracted to the aliens for very physical reasons. The “smiling” animated body markings, etc., the strange bodies. Next thing you know they’re mopping up alien vomit “like it’s holy water.”

Detail of "The Thrall," By Dustin LeonMeg: During the space race, when this was published, there was a strong and public We’re-going-out-there, mentality. To the stars to the great unknown. And the aliens laugh, because they don’t have that. And they exploit that fascination in humans to make them gimpy freak slaves.

Suhail: And the way Tiptree describes it transcends technology. This kind of abusive addictive power play conquest has been played far back into time, with some humans doing it to others. An unpleasant thing to be made so vividly aware of, yet fascinating. Hmm.

David: A profound sense of sexual identity being alien, a far-out, fake, assembled, inhabited identity. None of this makes any sense biologically. Or in other words, that your sexuality is not inherent in your gender.

“Now we’ve met aliens we can’t screw, and we’re about to die trying.”

Cycle of abuse power dynamic being replayed over the Procyas by the Humans. Procyas are the little aliens who take abuse from humans, out of fascination.

p. 613 “Can’t you see, man? That’s us. That’s the way we look to them, to the real ones.”

Like the way it feels to be totally in love with someone who has contempt for you. That power posture, exploited to addiction and self destruction.

Tiptree was outed as a woman in ‘76 or ‘77.

David: I wonder what Phil Dick thought of that? It must have been a real blow to his world view. It would be interesting to see if there was a letter about it.

Meg: Remember, we are in unreliable narrator territory. This is a drugged up addict, with an inside knowledge of the addiction, speaking to a news reporter. But what is that person missing? And can we see anything through the story that he is not giving us? It’s one monologue to the newswriter.

Suhail: An idea that the Aliens represent Patriarchy doing to humans what men do to women. No, it’s a more subtle, diffuse power play even than that. Adoration and the urge to conquest thwarted, desire unfulfillable, and hence irresistible.

Suhail: and the end, it reminds me of The Story Of O (Pauline Reage, 1954).

David: Even if you know what happens, when you hear the muse’s call, you can’t help yourself.

Meg: Tiptree pulls the title from a line out of a John Keats’ poem, called “La Belle Dame sans Merci”  about a knight at arms spirited away by a fairy lover who seduces him and disappears, leaving him with nothing, haunted, on a cold hill side. But he is also relieved of his illusions.

Meg & David got into a thread about how they might teach this to undergrads: A commentary on Hook-up culture. “Collect them all,” attitude about lovers. How many different kinds of fascinating weirdos can you sleep with and how will they hurt you? The humans are attracted to the humans for very visceral, physical, sensory reasons. Look at the markings and colors on that body.

Nikita: A critique of consumerism. Those useless baubles, (Meg: “Trade beads!”) that humans collect to try to win the fickle favor of the aliens.

Meg: This is a great Tiptree story, but my least favorite.

Meg recommends “Houston, Houston, do you read?” “The Women Men Don’t See” and  “Love Is The Plan. The Plan Is death.”

David: Interesting pair of stories. Both have the erotic other and the consequence of unattainable, visceral desires. This would go well with the Frederick Pohl story, “Day One Million.”

Suhail: Coincidentally, Frederick Pohl is the one who encouraged Cordwainer Smith to publish his first story.

Meg’s off to Taos Toolbox in New Mexico to write! Sooper cool!

Be Advised: our next meeting is 6/22. Read “Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chaing (Yes, the story that became Arrival[Download PDF] & “Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji [In the book].

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Cordwainer Smith

Hello, readers. Welcome back! Last night’s discussion took a turn for the kink in us all. Reading more short stories this summer, instead of a book-a-week, has been very favorably received by the rest of the group. Great turnout last night, with two California call-ins and three live crew in the sci-fi lab. Each reading session covers two short stories by hand-picked authors. I’m going to dedicate one post to each short story, and publish them spaced apart. Now, to digest some Cordwainer Smith:

“The Game of Rat & Dragon” (1955), Cordwainer Smith (Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger)

Interesting pairing. Both of these authors (Cordwainer and Tiptree) worked for the military and U.S. intelligence. Cordwainer was an Army Colonel and an expert in psychological warfare.  As Paul M. A. Linebarger, he literally wrote the book on the subject, called Psychological Warfare (which, by the way, he dedicated to his wife).

Both authors used pseudonyms to publish their science fiction. Though Tiptree said she was doing it to preserve her academic reputation, Cordwainer more likely did it to hide his ties to the intelligence community. (You’ll forgive me for referring to him by his first name, but “Cordwainer” is too quirky and rare a word. I want to take every opportunity I can to use it in this post, because there are scant other places I’ll get to use it.)

Meg: Both of these stories are anthologized a lot.

Nikita: I’ve never seen them before they’re a real treat.

Cordwainer was a New Wave precursor, who inspired those reality shifters in the 60s. How many did he influence? LeGuin, it clearly seems.

Gill: Early LeGuin-style interspecies mind melding stuff. I thought it would be gimmicky, all about the pinlighting and the terminology.

Nikita: I thought it was going to be more of a dragons in space fantasy. But it turned into a cool conceptualization of traveling at light speed.

Pinlighting? it’s the use of light to dispel the dark malevolent consciousness-eaters that dwell in the interstellar dark.

Gill: Very freudian dark abyss void staring back at us

It’s treat that the Partners (cats) help prevent against that kind of psychosis.

Planoforming- using telepaths to navigate faster than light travel.

Gill: It’s a really coherent imagining of a really far-out, different system, tangentially connected to our reality..

Nowell: Yet it doesn’t feel stilted either. Doesn’t feel wooden. Totally sat with me. The language is somehow lean and commonplace, but the things described are complex and subtle.

Suhail: Lots here for the cat lover.  Cat relations and emotional intelligence and psychology.

Meg: He’s messing with human vs. alien archetype. Gets into that hubris about astronauts. The fact that as a species the cat is equivalent and necessary to our survival.

Illustration from the magazine edition, from Gutenberg.netNikita: A little flavor of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game. These pinlighters are retiring at age 26 after 10 years service. These pinlighter telepaths start as children (much like Linebarger did). For example, the little girl new recruit, West, being leered at by the cat, Captain Wow. It has visceral undertones, not explicitly carnal, but deeper. And no one is concerned about it. That’s just the way it is.

David wonders how this went over back when it was published in ‘55. Must have seemed quite subversive. Hmm.

Being telepathic and melding with the cats has somehow made Underwood a pariah in polite female society. Pinlighters are creepy and bad with the ladies. And by the end, Underhill can not imagine a bond greater than that he feels with his cat Partner. How could a woman ever compare? Can’t.

Meg: The sexualization of pinlighter/cat pairings. If you’re a male pinlighter do you have to be paired with a female cat for it to work best? The girl West was paired with Captain Wow, but Underhill gets the Lady May.

The author did that, yes, but he also includes a description of how Partner pairings are done by a roll of dice. So maybe just a slip in style there.

P.297  Telepathy as a platform for very good and nuanced descriptions of interacting and changing states of mind.

p.297 Lady May experiences things before Underhill.

Illustration from the magazine edition, from Gutenberg.netP.296 “Human eyes and cat eyes looked across an immensity which no words could meet, but which affection spanned in a single glance.”

Lady May’s survival is unclear. And she saved Underhill. He’s struggling with language and humans at the end. “Words were all that could reach ordinary people, like this doctor.” it’s a step down to have to deal with other humans after being in this mind meld with a cat.

The little kitty football rockets with thermonuclear magnesium light cannons. That’s awesome. Imagine how well trained they are (anyone who’s ever tried to strap a cat into a pet carrier understands).

A lot of this story deals with desire and sex, and makes cats partially analogous to human females in a way because neither can ever be understood by patriarchal oafs. Ha.

Underhill is damaged at the end, some kind of damage from coming in direct contact with a Dragon (or Rat, depending on your perspective). He may be out of work, in that special part of the hospital where dragon survivors go?

"Hes hot for the cat now!"David: Look at this ending! He’s hot for the cat now!

p. 299 Underhill is having girl problems. For some reason, girls think that guys who fly with partners are creeps. Maybe it’s the telepathy. In the end, he loves his cat more than women.

Gill: It is really engaging and fun. The structure lures you into thinking you’ll be deciphering the tech vocab, but it twists far away from that and brings in some dynamic psychological and narrative elements.

Thanks for reading. Reading rules!