Burning Sky by Rachel Pollack (1989)

"Violence cannot destroy the body of the Goddess, for Her body is the world itself." - Rachel Pollack“Burning Sky” (1989) by Rachel Pollack (4489 words)

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Sometimes I think of my clitoris as a magnet, pulling me along to uncover new deposits of ore in the fantasy mines. Or maybe a compass, like the kind kids used to get in Woolworths, with a blue-black needle in a plastic case, and flowery letters marking the directions.

Two years ago, more by accident than design, I left the City of Civilized Sex. I still remember its grand traditions: orgasms in the service of loving relationships, healthy recreation with knowledgeable partners, a pinch of perversion to bring out the flavor. I remember them with a curious nostalgia. I think of them as I march through the wilderness, with only my compass to guide me.

*

Julia. Tall, with fingers that snake round the knobs and levers of her camera. Julia’s skin is creamy, her neck is long and smooth, her eyebrows arch almost to a point. There was once a woman who drowned at sea, dreaming of Julia’s eyes. Sometimes her hair is short and spiky, sometimes long and straight, streaming out to one side in the wind off Second Avenue. Sometimes her hair is red, with thick curls. Once a month she goes to a woman who dyes her eyelashes black. They darken further with each treatment.

Julia’s camera is covered in black rubber. The shutter is a soft rubber button.

The Free Women. Bands of women who roam the world’s cities at night, protecting women from rapists, social security investigators, police, and other forms of men. Suits of supple blue plastic cover their bodies from head to toe. Only the faces remain bare. Free Skin, they call it. The thin plastic coats the body like dark glistening nail polish.

Julia discovers the Free Women late one summer night when she can’t sleep. She has broken up with a lover and can’t sleep, so she goes out walking, wearing jeans and a white silk shirt and high red boots, and carrying her camera over one shoulder. On a wide street, by a locked park, with a drunk curled asleep before the gate, a man with a scarred face has cornered a girl, about fourteen. He flicks his knife at her, back and forth, like a lizard tongue. Suddenly they are there, yanking him away from the girl, surrounding him, crouched down with moon and streetlights running like water over their blue muscles. The man jerks forward. Spread fingers slide sideways. The attacker drops his knife to put his hand over his throat. Blood runs through the fingers. He falls against the gate. The women walk away. Julia follows.

Julia discovers the Free Women one night on the way home from an assignment. Tired as she is, she walks rather than take a taxi home to an empty apartment. She has just broken up with a lover, the third in less than two years. Julia doesn’t understand what happens in these relationships. She begins them with such hopes, and then a month, two months, and she’s lost interest, faking excitement when her girlfriend plans for the future. Recklessly, Julia walks down the West Side, a woman alone with an expensive camera. She sees them across the street, three women walking shoulder to shoulder, their blue boots (she thinks) gliding in step, their blue gloves (she thinks) swinging in rhythm, their blue hoods (she thinks) washed in light. Julia takes the cap off her lens and follows them, conscious of the jerkiness in her stride, the hardness in her hips.

She follows them to a grimy factory building on West 21st Street. As they press buttons on an electronic light Julia memorizes the combination. For hours she waits, in a doorway smelling of piss, thinking now and then that the women are watching her, that they have arranged for her to stand there in that filth, a punishment for following them. Finally they leave and Julia lets herself inside. She discovers a single huge room, with lacquered posts hanging with manacles, racks of black handled daggers along the walls, and in the middle of the floor a mosaic maze, coils of deep blue, with the center, the prize, a four pronged spiral made of pure gold. On the wall opposite the knives hang rows of blue suits, so thin they flutter slightly in the breeze from the closing door.

Over the next weeks Julia rushes through her assignments to get back to the hall of the Free Women. She spends days crouched across the street, waiting for the thirty seconds when she can photograph them entering or leaving. She spends more and more time inside, taking the suits in her hands, walking the maze. In the center she hears a loud fluttering of wings.

She tells herself she will write an exposé, an article for the Sunday Times. But she puts off calling the paper or her agent. She puts off writing any notes. Instead she enlarges her photos more than lifesize, covering the walls of her apartment, until she can almost imagine the women are there with her, or that the maze fills the floor of her kitchen.

And then one day Julia comes home—she’s gone out for food, she’s forgotten to keep any food in the house—and she finds the photos slashed, the negatives ruined, and all the lenses gone from her cameras.

Julia runs. She leaves her clothes, her cameras, her portfolios. She takes whatever cash lies in the house and heads into the street. Downtown she takes a room above a condemned bank and blacks out all the windows.

Let me tell you how I came to leave the City-state [earlier it was just “City”] of Civilized Sex. It happened at the shore. Not the ocean, but the other side of Long Island, the Sound connecting New York and Connecticut. I’d gone there with my girlfriend Louise, who at nineteen had seduced more women than I had ever known.

Louise and I had gotten together a few months after my husband Ralph had left me. On our last day as a couple Ralph informed me how lucky I was not to have birthed any children. The judge, he said, would certainly have awarded them to him. He went on to explain that it was no coincidence, our lack of children, since any heroic sperm that attempted to mount an expedition in search of my hidden eggs (Raiders of the Lost Ovum) would have frozen in “that refrigerator cunt of yours.” Ralph liked to mix metaphors. When he got angry his speech reminded me of elaborate cocktails, like Singapore Slings.

I can’t really blame Ralph. Not only did I never learn to fake orgasms properly (I would start thrusting and moaning and then think of something and forget the gasps and shrieks) but even in fights I tended to get distracted when I should have wept or screamed or thrown things.

Like the day Ralph left. I’m sure I should have cried or stared numbly at the wall. Instead I made myself a tuna sandwich and thought of sperms in fur coats, shivering on tiny wooden rafts as they tried to maneuver round the icebergs that blocked their way to the frozen eggs. I don’t blame Ralph for leaving.

Anyway, he went, and I met Louise window shopping in a pet store. That same night we went to bed and I expected to discover that my sexual indifference had indicated a need for female flesh. Nothing happened. Louise cast her best spells, she swirled her magician’s cloak in more and more elaborate passes, but the rabbit stayed hidden in the hat.

I became depressed, and Louise, exhausted, assured me that in all her varied experiences (she began to recite the range of ages and nationalities of women she’d converted) she’d never failed to find the proper button. It would just take time. I didn’t tell her Ralph had said much the same thing. I wondered if I’d have to move to my parents’ house upstate to avoid safaris searching for my orgasms like Tarzan on his way to the elephants’ graveyard.

*

Julia runs out of money. She disguises herself in clothes bought from a uniform store on Canal St. and goes uptown to an editor who owes her a check. As she leaves the building she sees, across the street, in the doorway of a church, a black raincoat over blue skin. Julia jumps in a taxi. She goes to Penn Station, turning around constantly in her taxi to make sure no blue hooded women sit in the cars behind her. At the station she runs down the stairs, pushing past commuters to the Long Island Railroad where she searches the computer screens for the train to East Hampton.

On track 20 she hears a fluttering of wings and she smells the sea, and for a moment she thinks she’s already arrived. And then she sees a trenchcoat lying on the floor. Another is falling beside her. A flash of light bounces off the train, as if the sun has found a crack through Penn Station and the roof of the tunnel. She tries running for the doors. Blue hands grab her wrists. Blueness covers her face.

*

No. No, it happens along Sixth Avenue. Sixth Avenue at lunchtime, among the push carts selling souvlaki and sushi, egg rolls and yoghurt, tofu and pretzels. Julia’s pants are torn, the wind dries the sweat on her chest, she’s been running for hours, her toes are bleeding, no cabs will stop for her. She turns a corner and tumbles into a class of twelve-year-old girls. The girls are eating hot dogs and drinking Pepsi Cola. They wear uniforms, pleated skirts and lace up shoes, brown jackets and narrow ties. The girls surround Julia. They push her down when she tries to stand up. Somewhere up the street a radio plays a woman singing “Are you lonesome tonight?” The girls tear off Julia’s clothes. They pinch and slap her face, her breasts. Grease streaks her thighs. The girls are whistling, yelping, stamping their feet. Now come the wings, the smell of the sea. The girls step back, their uniforms crisp, their ties straight. They part like drapes opening to the morning. A woman in blue steps into the circle, bright shining as the sun. Spread fingertips slide down Julia’s body, from the mouth down the neck and along the breasts, the belly, the thighs. Wherever the woman touches, the welts disappear. She lifts Julia in her arms. Slowly she walks down the street, while the crowd moves aside and the whole city falls silent, even the horns. Julia hears the cry of gulls searching for food.

*

Over the weeks Louise changed from bluff to hearty to understanding to peevish as her first failure became more and more imminent. She suggested I see a doctor. I told her I’d been and she got me to admit the doctor had been a man. She lugged me to a woman’s clinic where the whole staff consisted of former lovers of hers. While Louise went in to consult the healer on duty I sat in the waiting room.

I got into conversation with a tall skinny woman wearing a buckskin jacket, a gold shirt, and motorcycle boots. She showed me the French bayonet she carried in a sheath in her hip pocket, explaining it would “gut the next prick” that laid a hand on her or one of her sisters. I asked her if she’d undergone any training in knifeware. Not necessary, she told me. Pricks train. The Goddess would direct her aim. The Goddess, she said, lived in the right side of the brain. That’s why the government (99% pricks) wanted to burn lefthanded women.

“Janie’s a little strongminded” Louise told me as she led me down a corridor to see Doctor Catherine. The corridor’s yellow striped wallpaper had started to peel in several places, revealing a layer of newspaper underneath.

“Did you sleep with her?” I asked.

“Only a couple of times. Did she show you her bayonet?” I nodded. “She kept it under the pillow in case the police broke in to arrest us for Goddessworship. That’s what she calls women screwing.”

I didn’t listen very closely to Catherine, who didn’t like the name “Doctor.” I wanted to think about pricks training for their life’s work. They probably do it in gym class, I decided. While the girls try backward somersaults and leap sideways over wooden horses the boys practise erections, and later, in advanced classes, learn to charge rubber simulations of female genitals. At the end of each lesson the instructor reminds them not to speak of this in front of their girlfriends.

Catherine didn’t find my G spot or raise my Mary Rose (I strongly identified with Henry Vlll’s sunken flagship and all its chests of gold. I cried when they raised it, all crusted in barnacles and brine. That left only one of us hidden in the murk.). She did give me some crushed herbs for tea and a bag of tree bark to chew on while I lay in the bathtub. Louise raged at me whenever I neglected my treatment. “You can’t let yourself get negative,” she shouted. “You’ve got to believe.”

In the ritual hall Julia spends days hanging from copper, then brass, then silver manacles. Six, no, nine of the women weave in and out of sight, sometimes whispering to each other, sometimes laughing, sometimes standing before Julia and silently mouthing words in a foreign language. Across from her the blue suits rustle against each other.

Julia learns to catch bits of food thrown at her from across the room. Twice, no, three times a day one of the women brings her water in a stone bowl. A gold snake coils at the bottom. Sometimes the woman holds the bowl in front of her, and Julia has to bow her head and lap up as much as she can. Or the woman moves the bowl away just as Julia begins to drink. Or throws the water in her face. At other times she gently tilts the bowl for Julia. Once, as Julia drinks, she discovers that a live snake has replaced the metal one. The head rises above the water and Julia’s own head snaps back so hard she would bang it against the wall if a blue hand wasn’t there to cushion her.

They shave her head. No, they comb and perfume her hair. They rub her with oils and smooth the lines in her face and neck, slapping her only when she tries to bite or lick the cool fingertips sliding down her face.

Once or several times a day they take her down from the wall and force her to run the maze. The women surround the tiled circle, hitting the floor with sticks and trilling louder and louder until Julia misses a step or even falls, just outside the gold spiral. When she’s failed they yank her out of the maze and hold her arms out like wings as they press the tips of her breasts into champagne glasses filled with tiny sharp emeralds.

On the day Julia completes the maze the women dress her in shapeless black overalls and heavy boots. They smuggle her out of the country to an island where a house of white stone stands on top of a hill covered in pine trees. The women strip Julia. With their sticks they drive her up a rock path. The door opens and a cool wind flows from the darkness.

A woman steps out. Instead of blue her suit gleams a deep red. It covers the whole body, including the face, except for the eyes, the nostrils, the mouth. Her muscles move like a river running over stone. Her name is Burning Sky, and she was born in Crete six thousand years ago. When she walks the air flows behind her like the sundered halves of a very thin veil.

*

One night, after a fight, Louise kicked the wall and ran from the house. The next morning, the doorbell woke me at 6:00. Frightened, I looked out the window before I would open the door. There stood Louise in a rough zipper jacket and black turtleneck sweater. She saw me and waved a pair of rubber boots. Afraid she planned to kick me I didn’t want to let her in but I couldn’t think of how to disconnect the doorbell. She’d begun to shout, too. “For heaven’s sake, Maggie, open the fucking door.” Any moment the police would show up.

While I buttered toast and boiled water Louise announced our plans for the morning. We were going fishing. Dress warm, she said, and gave me the spare boots she’d brought for me. I had to wear two pairs of socks, and my feet still slid around.

In her pickup truck I tried to sleep, despite Louise’s cheerful whistle. But when we got all our gear and bodies in a rowboat out in the Sound, it turned out that Louise didn’t plan to fish at all. “Now, goddamnit,” she said, “you can’t whine and get away from me. I’m not taking this boat back to shore until you come and I can feel it all over my fingers.”

“What?” I said, ruining her powerful speech. Her meaning became clearer as she began to crawl towards me. She scared me but she made me want to laugh too. It reminded me of the time Ralph had locked us in a motel room with a bottle of wine, a bag of marijuana, and a pink nightgown. At least motel rooms are comfortable. Maybe Louise considered rowboats romantic.

I decided I better hold my face straight. “You rapist prick!” I shouted, and tried to grab an oar to threaten her but couldn’t work it loose from the lock. I snatched the fish knife and held it with both hands in front of my belly. “Keep away from me,” I warned.

“Put that down.” Louise said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

“I’ll hurt you, you prick.”

“Don’t call me that. You don’t know how to use that.”

“The Goddess will show me.”

Apparently this all became too much for her. “Shit,” she said, and turned around to grasp the oars for the pull to shore. I sat slumped over and shivering. My hands clenched around the knife.

*

In a ceremonial hall hung with purple silk and gold shields the women tattoo a four-pronged spiral in the hollow of Julia’s neck. They present her with a blue suit. With four others she returns to New York on a cruise ship secretly owned by the Free Women. They wear disguises, like the Phantom, when he would venture out as Mister Walker, wrapped in a trench coat and slouch hat, to rescue his beloved Diana from Nazi kidnappers.

Despite the women’s clever tricks someone on the boat recognizes them. A television anchorwoman, or maybe a rightwing politician. This woman once served Burning Sky, but disobeyed her leader on some assignment. Now she comes to their suite of cabins and begs the Free Women to readmit her. They play with her, attaching small intricately carved stone clips all over her skin. She suffers silently, only to have them announce she had forgotten how to break through the wall. They can do nothing for her. She goes away, later becomes Prime Minister.

When we got back to the rental dock Louise began to lug the boat onto the wooden platform. “If you want to go home,” she said “give me a hand.” I took hold of the rope to tie it to the iron post that would hold it fast when the hurricane came.

At that moment a woman came out of the water. Dressed in a black wet suit with long shiny flippers and a dark mask that completely hid her face, she stood for a moment rotating her shoulders and tilting her head up to the sun. Her spear gun pointed at the ground.

My heart began throwing blood wildly around my body: my vagina contracted like someone running for her life. “Will you come on?” Louise said.

I stammered something at her. Louise had never heard me stammer before. “What the hell is the matter with you?” she said. Then her eyes followed the invisible cable connecting me and my beautiful skin diver. She looked back and forth between us a couple of times while a wolfgrin took over her face. “Sonofabitch,” she said, and laughed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know,” I said, and Louise got to see another first. I blushed.

It was certainly a day for firsts. That evening, in the sloppy cavernous apartment Louise had inherited from her grandfather, she took out her collection of “toys”: whips, handcuffs, masks, chains, nipple clips, leather capes, rubber gloves, and one whalebone corset, c. 1835. No wet-suits, but it didn’t really matter. I hope none of Ralph’s sperm remained camped inside me anymore. The spring thaw came that night, and the flood would have washed the courageous little creatures away forever.

*

The Free Women order Julia to go alone to her apartment and renew her professional contacts. At first she finds it hard to function without her instructors. She hates going out “naked,” as she thinks of her ordinary clothes. With no one to command her she forgets to eat and one day passes out while photographing a police parade in the South Bronx.

Gradually the dream fades. Julia stops dressing up in her Free Skin at night, she goes on holiday with a woman reporter who asks about the tattoo on Julia’s neck. Julia tells her she got it to infiltrate a group of terrorists. When the woman falls asleep Julia cries in the shower and thanks the Virgin Mary for her deliverance. She wonders how she ever could have submitted to such strange and wretched slavery.

An order comes. Something simple, maybe embarrassing a judge who suspended the sentence of a man who raped his five-year-old daughter. Something with a clear moral imperative.

Julia takes off from work to decide what to do. In a cabin in the woods she tries on her Free Skin and lies in bed, remembering Burning Sky’s face, and the way her fingers looked extended into the air. She remembers lying with the other women in a huge bed, how they slid in and out of each other, while their bodies melted inside their blue suits. She remembers hanging from silver manacles, remembers dancing to the heart of the labyrinth.

Julia returns to the city and locks the blue suit in a metal cabinet. The day of her assignment passes. She falls into a fever, attended by her reporter friend. When she recovers and the woman has left, Julia opens the cabinet. Her Free Skin has vanished. In its place lies a Chinese woman’s dagger, five hundred years old, with an ivory handle bearing the same spiral sign that marks Julia’s neck. Terrified, she waits for retribution. Weeks pass.

*

And so I left the City of Civilized Sex in one great rush on the back of a skindiver. Now that she’d preserved her record Louise lost interest very quickly, but at least she gave me some leads to “your kind of trick,” as she delicately put it. I didn’t know whether she meant the lovers or the activities.

I discovered not only a large reservoir of women devoted to farfetched sexual practices, but several organizations, complete with buttons, slogans, jackets, and conflicting manifestoes. After a while they all began to strike me as rather odd, not just for their missionary zeal, but their hunger for community. Had I left the City only to emigrate to another nation-state?

It wasn’t so much the social as the sexual conformity that disturbed me. Everyone seemed to agree ahead of time on what would excite them. I began to wonder if all those people in the Land of Leather really liked the same sort of collar (black with silver studs) or if each new arrival, thrilled at finding a town where she’d expected only a swamp, confused gratitude with eroticism, and gave up her dreams of finding leather clothes and objects of exactly the right color, cut and texture.

As my imagination began to show me its tastes I became more and more specific with the women who tried to satisfy me. That first night with Louise she could have tied me up with a piece of filthy clothesline and I wouldn’t have complained. A few months later I was demanding the right ropes (green and gold curtain pulls with the tassel removed) tied only in particular knots taken from the Boy Scout Handbook.

And even that phase didn’t last. For, in fact, it’s not actions that I’m hunting. No matter how well you do them they can only approximate reality. City dwellers believe that fantasies exist to intensify arousal. Out here in the Territories the exiles should know better. I want to stand on a tree stump and yell through the forest, “Stop trying to build new settlements. Stop trying to clear the trees and put up walls and lay down sewers.” I want them to understand. Sex exists to lay traps for fantasies.

*

Julia’s life becomes as pale and blank as cheap paper. She goes to bars and picks up women. They all go away angry when they get back to Julia’s apartment and Julia just sits on the bed, or else goes to the darkroom and doesn’t come out. Julia returns to the ritual hall. She finds it replaced by a button factory.

She drives out to the beach on a hard sunny day in December. Ignoring the cold wind she strips naked and walks toward the water, both hands gripping the Chinese dagger. She raises it to the sun to watch the light glint off the blade. But then she notices flashes beyond the knife. Small spots on the horizon. As she watches, they grow larger, become blue sails, then a row of boats coming out of the deep. Each one contains a single woman. The sails rise out of their shoulders like wings. They call to each other like birds, their voices piercing the wind. When they land they detach their skins from the boat masts and the plastic snaps back against their bodies.

Julia falls down in the wet sand. A wild roaring in the Earth drowns out the sea as the six women lift her to her feet (six is the number of love, with Julia they become seven, the number of victory). They wash the mud and loneliness from her and dress her in the Free Skin she abandoned for an illusion of freedom.



The only true happiness lies in obedience to loving authority.
Charles Moulton, speaking as Queen Hippolyte of Paradise Island to her daughter, Princess Di,
Wonder Woman Comics, c. 1950

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Uncanny Valley Digest: Sultana’s Dream By Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Our Sultana’s Dream discussion clinked like porcelain at a tea party! The story had the same essay quality and social critique agenda of The Star, but in a firmly feminist perspective. Everyone present appreciated the story for it’s intentions and for it’s technological whimsy, but it was not exactly “fun to read.”

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, (also Begum Rokeya) was a British Indian citizen. She was a Bengali Muslim educator and feminist social activist. Pioneer of education on the Indian subcontienent. A heroine of Bengali and greater Indo Pak Bangla culture. Her life was all pre-partition India, so in modern terms her homeland during her lifetime was the Indo-Pak-Bangla subcontient. She advocated for total gender equality, and education of girls and women was the first necessity to establish equality.

Suhail: It was cool. It was imaginative. BUT, another essay story. Ho hum. I liked the way she thought out the technological solutions to basic needs problems. She sticks to the basics and gets thorough: unlimited clean water, unlimited solar energy, no violent weather, no need for rain (or mud). Homes are more secure. Clean transportation technology is exclusively aerial, making streets and railroads obsolete. Garden and plant technology has made even streets and

What do you do when you miss your train of thought?

David: The flying cars. It’s right out of Ralph 124C41, plus.

Suhail: There is a parable-like oversimplification of men and women, but even here again she sticks to basics. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with her that on the whole men are more violent than women, but to imply that only men are violent is too convenient. BUT, the beauty of it being a simple inversion is that any criticism we can apply to the way the women run things is merely a valid criticism of the way the men are already doing it.

Wait in the station for the next one.

Chris: Heh, nice.

Nowell: Interesting narrative, especially for the time. Love the floating personal airship thing, seems like something out of anime, very steampunk. Intrigued as to what the whole “sacred” discussion was about, with certain men relegated to the zenana being “sacred” by relation. Didn’t have time to research, maybe someone else can provide some insight. I didn’t read the intro from the anthology, did it say things about any backlash or was the tale kept secret for many years? At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it has a very pointed, angry criticism of the men in India. And if I had to wager a guess, rightfully so!

Ryan: Colorful, silly, cute short story during a time of woman’s suffrage. A political statement at a time o the precipice of great change in gender dynamics. Her tone is utterly defiant of men for thier foolishness and oppression. It’s the inverse of Indian culture of the time. The imagination was embracing a science consciousness, one of peace and harmony in a world without men.

Suhail: I like the alternate history of the wise Queen’s legacy and the keen way in which Lady Principal won the war – by blinding the enemy with sunlight cells.  Trouble is, and it belies the flaw of a lot of Utopia stories, What made that the final war? It’s a “mannish” flaw, women won the final war with an ultimate weapon, and for some reason no one ever begrudged them anything again. Unlikely. What happens when the losing country develops their own sun cell bombs? That decisive overwhelming military victory is the precondition for all of this utopia. But that is a flaw in most utopia stories: “If we just use my for of dictatorship, everything will be fine.” Socially, I like the way she’s reversing the roles for a commentary and satire, especially at her historical moment for the feminist movement.

Ryan: It was a dream, which I find interesting having written Asleep In Green. And because it was a dream it’s allowed to be anything the author wants, to flying cars and solar power have a grounding. Also important to mention these hadn’t been invented yet, which makes it sci-fi.

Tasty BBQ wins the evening.

Chris: It’s not superstitious, just a little ‘stitious.

Suhail: Heh, nice.

David: From an academic perspecive, it’s fascinating to grad students.

Chris: Our list is interesting as artifacts in sci-fi development. But they’re not that fun to read.

Suhail: She thought this out. It’s cool, and many aspects of it are likely, if we accept the premise that women are without sin simply by virture of being women. But no, Suhail, it posits that even sin in women, among women, would be rectified in a peaceful and fruitful way instead of (as with men) in an aggressive and punishing way.

David: This would be good for Lena’s race and gender class. Like Wells, it’s designed to move the needle of public opinion.

Chris: She just flipped one switch, reversing the gender roles. It’s not some explicit political magic.

David: A bit of both. It’s not colonial oppression that she’s bothered by (because she doesn’t mention it, at all), it’s the lack of women’s equality.

Women’s rights march on Fifth Avenue in New York City, 1976. Courtesy of Bob Adelman

Tune in next time when we cover Karl Hans Stobl’s “The Triumph of Mechanics.”
Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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Margin notes:
P.1 A walk in the garden. A utopia story. Crowds, but no men.
P.2 Purdah and the purdahnishin. The Muslim practice of full social segregation of women and men. Women wear full body clothing and veils, they live in zenanas, separate partitions of the house from men. The near total seclusion of men from women.
P.2 Park and Garden technology. Grass is a cushion. Carpets of moss and flowers. These are streets! Street flower technology that can not be harmed by being stepped on.
P.2 Men in society are equivalent to wild animals in a marketplace.
P.3 Animal/parable response. A lion is stronger than a man, but does not dominate men. Strength is not a sufficient condition.
P.3 The female new world order. 2 hour work days in the lab. Because men used to smoke and bullshit for 6 hours of their workday anyhow.
P.4 Disease is cured. Solar ovens. Solar power cells for all energy! How did it become this way? The back story begins.
P.4 The good queen. The two women’s universities. The solar power, and water harvesting balloons. Weather control. All invented by women while men were building their military arsenals.
P.5 The men called the women’s abundant energy and clean water “a sentimental nightmare.” The men ended up in the zenanas. They were not overpowered by arms.
P.5 Do not reply with words, reply with deeds if you get the opportunity.
P.5 A refugee crisis leads to way. The war wipes out all men over age 16. The surviving boys are kept in the zenanas. The women decided NOT to fight in their mens’ stead. Use your brains, ladies! says the Queen.
P.6 The women agree that they would rather commit suicide than be enslaved. So they will try one wild hope first. The boys are hidden away in the mardanas (renamed zenanas). Lady Principal with 2,000 ladies marches out and use the solar cells to blind, panic, and fry the opposing forces. Then they concentrate the solar cells even more and destroy all of the enemies weapons and munitions.
P.6 How lucky. What happens when the vanquished aggressors develop their own solar battery nukes?
P.6 None of the women commit crimes. And if they do they need only be chastised. And the young boys who grew into the mardana system became excellent fathers and good cooks.
P.7 All aerial travel. No roads or railroads. Nice! Mechanical farming. We don’t need burly men for manual labor, either. All necessities are easily cared for and seen to.
P.7 Bare bones religion: “Love and Truth.” Liars are exiled unless they repent sincerely.
P.8 A quick assembly hydrogen bubble helicopter air-car. It’s how everyone gets around without roads.
P.8 Men are less moral. Women prize knowledge of the gifts of nature. A different value system.

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Star by H.G. Wells

Author H.G. Wells (1866 - 1946) Shown: H.G. Wells (1932)Our recent H.G. Wells discussion careened into the sun! This essay-style short story (published in The Graphic magazine, December 1897) sets the tone for the whole “catastrophe-from-space” impact genre of sci-fi (Armageddon, Deep Impact, Hale-Bopp, etc.). The idea that a rogue celestial body could blindside the earth in it’s orbit has been a consistent cultural and astronomical concern for over 1000 years.

When Halley’s comet made it’s 1857 pass by earth, 40 years before “The Star” was published, earthlings were terrified because many were sure it would crash into us and tear the planet asunder.

In fact, just 13 years after this story was published, Halley’s comet made it’s 1910 pass by the earth. Using new instruments, astronomers discovered a poisonous gas, called cyanogen, in the comet’s tail. Sensational panic spread that the cyanogen would kill all life on earth.

Planetologists and cosmologists theorize about impact events all the time. It’s an integral component of theories explaining the formation of the solar system and the planets. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab runs a program tracking and documenting Near Earth Objects. In fact, last month a tiny asteroid disintegrated in our atmosphere above southern Africa. And that is what happens to most objects that collide with earth; they’re too small or fragile to make it through our atmosphere. But several do make it through. As far as the ones that crash into the oceans, we never hear about them.

We were reminded this evening that H.G. Wells contributed significantly to the zeitgeist of science and science fiction culture. Like it or not, this white Englishman was a good writer, and brings a lot to the table. He strongly believed that literacy in the physical sciences was the pathway to the betterment of humanity.
Chris: Early cli-fi. A solid piece of apocalyptic fiction.

Wells was born poor and won a writing contest when he was a young boy. But he wrote well enough to carry it off and make a lifelong vocation of writing. In his lifetime he became world famous for his journalism, fiction, and science fiction. Though today he is remembered exclusively for his science fiction. [The Time Machine, War Of The Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island Of Dr. Moreau] The scientists of his era credited him with the scientific imagination that would point the way for actual scientific endeavors. “How smart will the robots be, Herbert?”

David: He’s a Darwinist when Darwinism was new, and he’s explicitly political and socialist. He’s using art to move the needle of public opinion. That shift to ‘human beings are not important, you’re not divinely created, so get used to it.’ That was an excruciating thing for Victorian England to wrap it’s mind around.
Chris: It’s inconceivable! [in Princess Bride voice]
HAHAHA!
David: It’s the anti- “everything-happens-for-a-reason” story.

From the Wells bio in the Anthology:
“But Wells found such stunts from his rival [Jules Verne] annoying and was less interested in whether a mecha-elephant could actually clomp and clank across the earth than in carthing the effect of mass societal changes in technology and biology.”
David: To me that sounds like the major dichotomy in sci-fi today.

Like Poe’s “Descent Into the Maelstrom.” But in Poe the protagonist uses his scientific knowledge to save the day. In Wells’ story, we’re sitting ducks.
C: Well we’ve had maelstrom, let’s have femaelstrom.
YES!


David: Why are human beings driven to stories about these incredibly hard tales? Why do we get hung up on disaster narratives? Especially if Freud said that people are basically motivated by pleasure – then why this romance with catastrophe? “Nature doesn’t care about you. You’re on your own. It’s just you and your ingenuity and reason.”

Nowell: Maybe to have the experience without the danger. Like catharsis in Greek tragedy. The Greeks had entire festivals for that stuff.
Chris: An Ozymandias quality, that everything falls apart, but it comes back together better. It’s almost a culling, and Wells says the only way to get better is by enduring the cullings.
Nowell: It’s like an antidote to hubris.
David: As if you could get around it.
Suhail: People get very touchy when you apply scientific observations about the animal kingdom to human beings.
Chris: Just try denying your animal nature.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

David: Did you know that Wells was one of the authors behind the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights?
Chris: No, I didn’t.
David: And he visited with Roosevelt, and then Stalin, within 10 days of each other, as WWII was waning.
Chris: A modern day socialist Thomas Jefferson.

Chris: All of his depictions of people outside of Europe are racist and patronizing, BUT-
David: -but they are represented.
HAHA!
Chris: BUT they do move the story forward. Also, he put the worst damage to the earth in India. Death on a grand scale happens outside of Europe, and outside of Christendom.
Suhail: And Greenland and Iceland become verdant paradises. Also, think about India in relation to England in 1897, in the heyday of the colonial grip.

Calling all science fiction lovers...Suhail: I didn’t appreciate that it was all an essay. No dialogue, no main character.
David: It’s a long pullback – to Mars. The last paragraph, showing what the Martians think of our catastrophe and (page 9) “how small the vastness of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.”
Nowell: It’s a pullback to Mars, that’s brilliant. The whole story was an intro to a much bigger narrative. That first-to-last paragraph about how people live after the catastrophe, that seems like where the story starts.
Suhail: But that first-to-last paragraph was written in the same distant fleeting tone as the rest of the story. Still, I see what you mean. He wrote the story from a few million miles away. And the last sentence makes it on purpose.
David: The Simpsons did a whole episode dramatizing this story, where Bart sees the star growing in the sky.
Suhail & Nowell: Ha, I gotta see that.
Regarding the lack of characters:
David: The whole world is the protagonist. A cosmic force is the antagonist. That’s Wells’ profession, his actual job – the great imaginer. And the scientists came to him for imaginings of technologically driven social changes of the future.

Highly recommended by Chris: Two books by David Zindell “The Ignorant Gods” (Beautiful and strange. All the cetaceans are sentient, and humans are a problem. One of the killer whales wants to communicate with humans) and even better, “Neverness” (which everyone should read) Zindell is a great unsung American writer. Designed to be read out loud.
See you next week!Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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Reading notes:

P. 1 Waxes poetic about the size and scope of the solar system and a tiny observation of an object approaching Neptune. Hardly anyone notices, especially if they didn’t know science.

P. 2 The light starts changing in the sky. Observatories are abuzz. “And where science has not reached, men stared and feared…these firey signs in the Heavans.” The object strikes Neptune and the two celestial masses become one flaming almost-star. And it’s growing.

P. 3 “It is Nearer.” “It is nearer.” Ominous. A tour of the world remarking on the event. This page contains the most dialogue in the entire story (all packed into a couple paragraphs). And some romantic and evocative images that work best in brevity, like the African lovers in the can break calling the new star their own.

P. 4 The “master mathematician” makes his decree, “Man has lived in vain.” “What was that about ‘lived in vain.’?” The new star is coming for us. It’s falling toward the Sun and it’s going to hit us along the way. It’s still growing. The air is heating.

P. 5 Nearly daytime at night. “In the cities the lamps burnt yellow and wan.” Religious panic spreads. Bells tolling. End of days hubbub. “Throughout Christendom a somber murmur hung in the keen air” “and this murmurous tumult grew to a clangor in the cities.” People fleeing blindly en masse, leaving land for the seas, in the hopes of surviving the floods afloat. Noah’s arks everywhere.

P. 6 The star is getting faster, and brighter, and hotter. Unprecedented natural disasters are foretold. But despite these panics, 9 out of 10 people are either ignorant or trying to ignore it and go about their business. Comets had come near us before, and we did just fine. Remember the year 1000. Precedence and common sense were against a collision. There were still plenty of fold around to laugh at “the master mathematician.” Then the laughter ceased.

P.7 The heat brings thaws and devastating floods (global warming stuff! 🙂 The gravitational tides bring tidal waves and volcanic eruptions and hurricanes and thunderstorms. Even the snow in the Himalayas melts away.

P. 8 The star gets faster, hotter, brighter, closer. People still on land swarm to high ground, packed like sardines. The star, towing the black disc of Neptune, finally crashes into the sun, missing earth. The world is covered in clouds (TJ & Tosc style) BUT “the thunder and lighting wove a garment around the world;” “a downpour of rain as men had never before seen.” Volcanoes became mudslides and “the earth littered like a storm-worn beach.”

P. 9 “But the star had passed.” People could now creep back to the ruins. A new brotherhood among men, preserving the lost knowledge, “the saving of laws and books and machines.” Iceland and Greenland become green and lush places. Mankind migrates toward the hotter poles (global warming). Life will become impossible near the equator.
Last paragraph: The Martian astronomers observing the scene on earth. “One wrote, ‘it is astonishing what a little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained.” “how small the vastness of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.”

The Star by H.G. Wells (1897)

This short story by H.G. Wells is frequently anthologized, and is considered a story that well frames the traditional 20th century science fiction genre. I’m posting this tasty morsel of public domain literature to facilitate our upcoming discussion. Enjoy!

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“The Star”
(1897) (4450 words)
by H.G. WellsH.G. Wells, care of Tantor Media

It was on the first day of the New Year that the announcement was made, almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of the planet Neptune, the outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun, had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news was scarcely calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause any very great excitement. Scientific people, however, found the intelligence remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an unprecedented kind.

Few people without a training in science can realise the huge isolation of the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that almost defeats the imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth or light or sound, blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed before the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few comets more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human knowledge crossed this gulf of space, until early in the twentieth century this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky, heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any decent instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass could attain it.

On the third day of the new year the newspaper readers of two hemispheres were made aware for the first time of the real importance of this unusual apparition in the heavens. “A Planetary Collision,” one London paper headed the news, and proclaimed Duchaine’s opinion that this strange new planet would probably collide with Neptune. The leader writers enlarged upon the topic; so that in most of the capitals of the world, on January 3rd, there was an expectation, however vague of some imminent phenomenon in the sky; and as the night followed the sunset round the globe, thousands of men turned their eyes skyward to see–the old familiar stars just as they had always been.

Until it was dawn in London and Pollux setting and the stars overhead grown pale. The Winter’s dawn it was, a sickly filtering accumulation of daylight, and the light of gas and candles shone yellow in the windows to show where people were astir. But the yawning policeman saw the thing, the busy crowds in the markets stopped agape, workmen going to their work betimes, milkmen, the drivers of news-carts, dissipation going home jaded and pale, homeless wanderers, sentinels on their beats, and in the country, labourers trudging afield, poachers slinking home, all over the dusky quickening country it could be seen–and out at sea by seamen watching for the day–a great white star, come suddenly into the westward sky!

Brighter it was than any star in our skies; brighter than the evening star at its brightest. It still glowed out white and large, no mere twinkling spot of light, but a small round clear shining disc, an hour after the day had come. And where science has not reached, men stared and feared, telling one another of the wars and pestilences that are foreshadowed by these fiery signs in the Heavens. Sturdy Boers, dusky Hottentots, Gold Coast Negroes, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, stood in the warmth of the sunrise watching the setting of this strange new star.

And in a hundred observatories there had been suppressed excitement, rising almost to shouting pitch, as the two remote bodies had rushed together; and a hurrying to and fro, to gather photographic apparatus and spectroscope, and this appliance and that, to record this novel astonishing sight, the destruction of a world. For it was a world, a sister planet of our earth, far greater than our earth indeed, that had so suddenly flashed into flaming death. Neptune it was, had been struck, fairly and squarely, by the strange planet from outer space and the heat of the concussion had incontinently turned two solid globes into one vast mass of incandescence. Round the world that day, two hours before the dawn, went the pallid great white star, fading only as it sank westward and the sun mounted above it. Everywhere men marvelled at it, but of all those who saw it none could have marvelled more than those sailors, habitual watchers of the stars, who far away at sea had heard nothing of its advent and saw it now rise like a pigmy moon and climb zenithward and hang overhead and sink westward with the passing of the night.

And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds of watchers on hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces, staring eastward for the rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it, like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into existence the night before cried out at the sight of it. “It is larger,” they cried. “It is brighter!” And, indeed the moon a quarter full and sinking in the west was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little circle of the strange new star.

“It is brighter!” cried the people clustering in the streets. But in the dim observatories the watchers held their breath and peered at one another it is nearer,” they said. “Nearer!”

And voice after voice repeated, “It is nearer,” and the clicking telegraph took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand cities grimy compositors fingered the type. “It is nearer.” Men writing in offices, struck with a strange realisation, flung down their pens, men talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in those words, “It is nearer.” It hurried along wakening streets, it was shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages; men who had read these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting the news to the passersby. “It is nearer.” Pretty women, flushed and glittering, heard the news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned an intelligent interest they did not feel. “Nearer! Indeed. How curious! How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!”

Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to comfort themselves–looking skyward. “It has need to be nearer, for the night’s as cold as charity. Don’t seem much warmth from it if it is nearer, all the same.”

“What is a new star to me?” cried the weeping woman kneeling beside her dead.

The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled it out for himself–with the great white star shining broad and bright through the frost-flowers of his window. “Centrifugal, centripetal,” he said, with his chin on his fist. “Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And this–!

“Do we come in the way? I wonder–”

The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the later watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. And it was now so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself, hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African City a great man had married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride. “Even the skies have illuminated,” said the flatterer. Under Capricorn, two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits, for love of one another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fire-flies hovered. “That is our star,” they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the sweet brilliance of its light.

The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white phial there still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had given his lecture to his students, and then had come back at once to this momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Half way up the sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys and steeples of the city, hung the star.

He looked at it as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy. “You may kill me,” he said after a silence. “But I can hold you–and all the universe for that matter–in the grip of this little brain. I would not change. Even now.”

He looked at the little phial. “There will be no need of sleep again,” he said. The next day at noon–punctual to the minute, he entered his lecture theatre, put his hat on the end of the table as his habit was, and carefully selected a large piece of chalk. It was a joke among his students that he could not lecture without that piece of chalk to fumble in his fingers, and once he had been stricken to impotence by their hiding his supply. He came and looked under his grey eyebrows at the rising tiers of young fresh faces, and spoke with his accustomed studied commonness of phrasing. “Circumstances have arisen–circumstances beyond my control,” he said and paused, “which will debar me from completing the course I had designed. It would seem, gentlemen, if I may put the thing clearly and briefly, that–Man has lived in vain.”

The students glanced at one another. Had they heard aright? Mad? Raised eyebrows and grinning lips there were, but one or two faces remained intent upon his calm grey-fringed face. “It will be interesting,” he was saying, “to devote this morning to an exposition, so far as I can make it clear to you, of the calculations that have led me to this conclusion. Let us assume–”

He turned towards the blackboard, meditating a diagram in the way that was usual to him. “What was that about ‘lived in vain?'” whispered one student to another. “Listen,” said the other, nodding towards the lecturer.

And presently they began to understand.

That night the star rose later, for its proper eastward motion had carried it some way across Leo towards Virgo, and its brightness was so great that the sky became a luminous blue as it rose, and every star was hidden in its turn, save only Jupiter near the zenith, Capella, Aldebaran, Sirius and the pointers of the Bear. It was very white and beautiful. In many parts of the world that night a pallid halo encircled it about. It was perceptibly larger; in the clear refractive sky of the tropics it seemed as if it were nearly a quarter the size of the moon. The frost was still on the ground in England, but the world was as brightly lit as if it were midsummer moonlight. One could see to read quite ordinary print by that cold clear light, and in the cities the lamps burnt yellow and wan.

And everywhere the world was awake that night, and throughout Christendom a sombre murmur hung in the keen air over the country side like the belling of bees in the heather, and this murmurous tumult grew to a clangour in the cities. It was the tolling of the bells in a million belfry towers and steeples, summoning the people to sleep no more, to sin no more, but to gather in their churches and pray. And overhead, growing larger and brighter as the earth rolled on its way and the night passed, rose the dazzling star.

And the streets and houses were alight in all the cities, the shipyards glared, and whatever roads led to high country were lit and crowded all night long. And in all the seas about the civilised lands, ships with throbbing engines, and ships with bellying sails, crowded with men and living creatures, were standing out to ocean and the north. For already the warning of the master mathematician had been telegraphed all over the world, and translated into a hundred tongues. The new planet and Neptune, locked in a fiery embrace, were whirling headlong, ever faster and faster towards the sun. Already every second this blazing mass flew a hundred miles, and every second its terrific velocity increased. As it flew now, indeed, it must pass a hundred million of miles wide of the earth and scarcely affect it. But near its destined path, as yet only slightly perturbed, spun the mighty planet Jupiter and his moons sweeping splendid round the sun. Every moment now the attraction between the fiery star and the greatest of the planets grew stronger. And the result of that attraction? Inevitably Jupiter would be deflected from its orbit into an elliptical path, and the burning star, swung by his attraction wide of its sunward rush, would “describe a curved path” and perhaps collide with, and certainly pass very close to, our earth. “Earthquakes, volcanic outbreaks, cyclones, sea waves, floods, and a steady rise in temperature to I know not what limit”–so prophesied the master mathematician.

And overhead, to carry out his words, lonely and cold and livid, blazed the star of the coming doom.

To many who stared at it that night until their eyes ached, it seemed that it was visibly approaching. And that night, too, the weather changed, and the frost that had gripped all Central Europe and France and England softened towards a thaw.

But you must not imagine because I have spoken of people praying through the night and people going aboard ships and people fleeing toward mountainous country that the whole world was already in a terror because of the star. As a matter of fact, use and wont still ruled the world, and save for the talk of idle moments and the splendour of the night, nine human beings out of ten were still busy at their common occupations. In all the cities the shops, save one here and there, opened and closed at their proper hours, the doctor and the undertaker plied their trades, the workers gathered in the factories, soldiers drilled, scholars studied, lovers sought one another, thieves lurked and fled, politicians planned their schemes. The presses of the newspapers roared through the night, and many a priest of this church and that would not open his holy building to further what he considered a foolish panic. The newspapers insisted on the lesson of the year 1000–for then, too, people had anticipated the end. The star was no star–mere gas–a comet; and were it a star it could not possibly strike the earth. There was no precedent for such a thing. Common sense was sturdy everywhere, scornful, jesting, a little inclined to persecute the obdurate fearful. That night, at seven-fifteen by Greenwich time, the star would be at its nearest to Jupiter. Then the world would see the turn things would take. The master mathematician’s grim warnings were treated by many as so much mere elaborate self-advertisement. Common sense at last, a little heated by argument, signified its unalterable convictions by going to bed. So, too, barbarism and savagery, already tired of the novelty, went about their nightly business, and save for a howling dog here and there, the beast world left the star unheeded.

And yet, when at last the watchers in the European States saw the star rise, an hour later it is true, but no larger than it had been the night before, there were still plenty awake to laugh at the master mathematician–to take the danger as if it had passed.

But hereafter the laughter ceased. The star grew–it grew with a terrible steadiness hour after hour, a little larger each hour, a little nearer the midnight zenith, and brighter and brighter, until it had turned night into a second day. Had it come straight to the earth instead of in a curved path, had it lost no velocity to Jupiter, it must have leapt the intervening gulf in a day, but as it was it took five days altogether to come by our planet. The next night it had become a third the size of the moon before it set to English eyes, and the thaw was assured. It rose over America near the size of the moon, but blinding white to look at, and hot; and a breath of hot wind blew now with its rising and gathering strength, and in Virginia, and Brazil, and down the St. Lawrence valley, it shone intermittently through a driving reek of thunder-clouds, flickering violet lightning, and hail unprecedented. In Manitoba was a thaw and devastating floods. And upon all the mountains of the earth the snow and ice began to melt that night, and all the rivers coming out of high country flowed thick and turbid, and soon–in their upper reaches –with swirling trees and the bodies of beasts and men. They rose steadily, steadily in the ghostly brilliance, and came trickling over their banks at last, behind the flying population of their valleys.

And along the coast of Argentina and up the South Atlantic the tides were higher than had ever been in the memory of man, and the storms drove the waters in many cases scores of miles inland, drowning whole cities. And so great grew the heat during the night that the rising of the sun was like the coming of a shadow. The earthquakes began and grew until all down America from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, hillsides were sliding, fissures were opening, and houses and walls crumbling to destruction. The whole side of Cotopaxi slipped out in one vast convulsion, and a tumult of lava poured out so high and broad and swift and liquid that in one day it reached the sea.

So the star, with the wan moon in its wake, marched across the Pacific, trailed the thunderstorms like the hem of a robe, and the growing tidal wave that toiled behind it, frothing and eager, poured over island and island and swept them clear of men. Until that wave came at last–in a blinding light and with the breath of a furnace, swift and terrible it came–a wall of water, fifty feet high, roaring hungrily, upon the long coasts of Asia, and swept inland across the plains of China. For a space the star, hotter now and larger and brighter than the sun in its strength, showed with pitiless brilliance the wide and populous country; towns and villages with their pagodas and trees, roads, wide cultivated fields, millions of sleepless people staring in helpless terror at the incandescent sky; and then, low and growing, came the murmur of the flood. And thus it was with millions of men that night–a flight nowhither, with limbs heavy with heat and breath fierce and scant, and the flood like a wall swift and white behind. And then death.

China was lit glowing white, but over Japan and Java and all the islands of Eastern Asia the great star was a ball of dull red fire because of the steam and smoke and ashes the volcanoes were spouting forth to salute its coming. Above was the lava, hot gases and ash, and below the seething floods, and the whole earth swayed and rumbled with the earthquake shocks. Soon the immemorial snows of Thibet and the Himalaya were melting and pouring down by ten million deepening converging channels upon the plains of Burmah and Hindostan. The tangled summits of the Indian jungles were aflame in a thousand places, and below the hurrying waters around the stems were dark objects that still struggled feebly and reflected the blood-red tongues of fire. And in a rudderless confusion a multitude of men and women fled down the broad river-ways to that one last hope of men–the open sea.

Larger grew the star, and larger, hotter, and brighter with a terrible swiftness now. The tropical ocean had lost its phosphorescence, and the whirling steam rose in ghostly wreaths from the black waves that plunged incessantly, speckled with storm-tossed ships.

And then came a wonder. It seemed to those who in Europe watched for the rising of the star that the world must have ceased its rotation. In a thousand open spaces of down and upland the people who had fled thither from the floods and the falling houses and sliding slopes of hill watched for that rising in vain. Hour followed hour through a terrible suspense, and the star rose not. Once again men set their eyes upon the old constellations they had counted lost to them forever. In England it was hot and clear overhead, though the ground quivered perpetually, but in the tropics, Sirius and Capella and Aldebaran showed through a veil of steam. And when at last the great star rose near ten hours late, the sun rose close upon it, and in the centre of its white heart was a disc of black.

Over Asia it was the star had begun to fall behind the movement of the sky, and then suddenly, as it hung over India, its light had been veiled. All the plain of India from the mouth of the Indus to the mouths of the Ganges was a shallow waste of shining water that night, out of which rose temples and palaces, mounds and hills, black with people. Every minaret was a clustering mass of people, who fell one by one into the turbid waters, as heat and terror overcame them. The whole land seemed a-wailing and suddenly there swept a shadow across that furnace of despair, and a breath of cold wind, and a gathering of clouds, out of the cooling air. Men looking up, near blinded, at the star, saw that a black disc was creeping across the light. It was the moon, coming between the star and the earth. And even as men cried to God at this respite, out of the East with a strange inexplicable swiftness sprang the sun. And then star, sun and moon rushed together across the heavens.

So it was that presently, to the European watchers, star and sun rose close upon each other, drove headlong for a space and then slower, and at last came to rest, star and sun merged into one glare of flame at the zenith of the sky. The moon no longer eclipsed the star but was lost to sight in the brilliance of the sky. And though those who were still alive regarded it for the most part with that dull stupidity that hunger, fatigue, heat and despair engender, there were still men who could perceive the meaning of these signs. Star and earth had been at their nearest, had swung about one another, and the star had passed. Already it was receding, swifter and swifter, in the last stage of its headlong journey downward into the sun.

And then the clouds gathered, blotting out the vision of the sky, the thunder and lightning wove a garment round the world; all over the earth was such a downpour of rain as men had never before seen, and where the volcanoes flared red against the cloud canopy there descended torrents of mud. Everywhere the waters were pouring off the land, leaving mud-silted ruins, and the earth littered like a storm-worn beach with all that had floated, and the dead bodies of the men and brutes, its children. For days the water streamed off the land, sweeping away soil and trees and houses in the way, and piling huge dykes and scooping out Titanic gullies over the country side. Those were the days of darkness that followed the star and the heat. All through them, and for many weeks and months, the earthquakes continued.

But the star had passed, and men, hunger-driven and gathering courage only slowly, might creep back to their ruined cities, buried granaries, and sodden fields. Such few ships as had escaped the storms of that time came stunned and shattered and sounding their way cautiously through the new marks and shoals of once familiar ports. And as the storms subsided men perceived that everywhere the days were hotter than of yore, and the sun larger, and the moon, shrunk to a third of its former size, took now fourscore days between its new and new.

But of the new brotherhood that grew presently among men, of the saving of laws and books and machines, of the strange change that had come over Iceland and Greenland and the shores of Baffin’s Bay, so that the sailors coming there presently found them green and gracious, and could scarce believe their eyes, this story does not tell. Nor of the movement of mankind now that the earth was hotter, northward and southward towards the poles of the earth. It concerns itself only with the coming and the passing of the Star.

The Martian astronomers–for there are astronomers on Mars, although they are very different beings from men–were naturally profoundly interested by these things. They saw them from their own standpoint of course. “Considering the mass and temperature of the missile that was flung through our solar system into the sun,” one wrote, “it is astonishing what a little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained. All the familiar continental markings and the masses of the seas remain intact, and indeed the only difference seems to be a shrinkage of the white discoloration (supposed to be frozen water) round either pole.” Which only shows how small the vastest of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.

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!

“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!