Uncanny Valley Digest: Rachel Pollack’s Burning Sky

Our Burning Sky discussion left no question answered! This is my favorite story of the summer so far. It grapples with potent, ambiguous questions about the inevitability of violence and grievance as a justification for force. It’s also a superhero/sexual awakening story. Find your kink, for goodness sake; there’s all sorts. In fact there are two parallel story lines in this short story: 1) a recent divorcee with a nubile narcissistic lover, and 2) a journalist who stumbles upon a vigilante hideout and is taken to task for her intrusion.

In many respects the story is style over content, and there’s a literary, modernist echo to this prose. Dave didn’t like it because it needed so much deciphering. For some reason it wasn’t okay for the author to just tell us what was going on. Lots of detective work on the reader’s part, and frankly there is no tidy finish. Dave predicted that the mood of ambiguity and uncertainty were going to largely remain unresolved, and he was right. It creates a mood and leaves it there. Personally, not Dave’s style preference.

But Pollack is also a poet, comic book writer, and industry-recognized tarot specialist, so in context her approach packs ample content into the style, and deciphering the substance from the images is part of the process.

By some standards, it isn’t even science fiction. No fictional technology at all, just sheer, sensuous Free Skin body suits. It’s value lies deeper than that, more literary I think, and the superhero vigilante element lets it posture into the sci-fi frame.

The story’s real power to me, is the questions it raises about boundaries, force, and the abuse of power across the sexes. Lots of weird things about Louise’s need to get Maggie off, to preserve an undefeated record, and a genuine wish to get Maggie in touch with her self, the pleasure center, the deep orgasmic grounding. At the same time Julia is contenting with being abducted and subjugated by the Free Skins after violating their privacy and photographing their hideout. The idea that it is an initiation is almost secondary.

P. 965 “In the ritual hall Julia spends days hanging from copper, then brass, then silver manacles…”
The abusive/bondage/power play/rape initiation into the Free Skin, but as a form of consequence for her stalking them, for getting too close.

P. 966 The “rapist prick” scene, when Louise takes Maggie out on a rowboat and says “I’m not taking this boat back to shore until you come and I can feel it all over my fingers.”

Suhail: Yeah, to hell with that. On one hand Louise only wants you to get off, to activate your potential. On the other hand, Louise only wants it for narcissistic reasons. “Louise” must make you come, so it becomes rape.

Then the discovery in the Maggie/Louise timeline that Maggie is turned on by latex and skin suits, when she sees the skin diver in the lake and gets flush. Her kink finally discovered, she is delighted to get off at last. Good I’m glad she gets to come.

Interesting thematic note that the central image of the Julia/Free Skin story line is the skin suits, and that is the central image in Maggie’s story line, the image that gets her off, frees her to her self, activates her potential.

Sunset dances, from Christiana Gaudet
Good sex at last!

After the journalist Julia is initiated into the Free Skins against her will she is released to be a vigilante like them, a superhero slave gimp.
P.967 “With no one to command her she forgets to eat and one day passes out while photographing a police parade in the South Bronx.”
She’s a trauma survivor, but also a Free Skin? In remembering the initiation, “She wonders how she could have submitted to such strange and wretched slavery.”
Julia is summoned to don her Free Skin uniform and take out a corrupt judge. She panics, refuses, and hides the suit. The suit disappears and is replaced with a suicide knife. Julia stews in the guilt of denying the Free Skins.

In Maggie’s quest away from “the City of Civilized Sex,” she discusses a lot of the people in the kink community and what brought them there. Again the themes return of the porous nature of the boundaries between people’s psyches, and the way in which a stronger more aggressive psyche can alter the contours of a less powerful or aggressive psyche. And she dissects what brought people to these communities.

P. 967 “After a while they all began to strike me as rather odd, not just for their missionary zeal, but for their hunger for community.” In taking this deeper, in her next paragraph, the character Maggie narrates: “…or if each new arrival, thrilled at finding a town where she’d expected only a swamp, confused gratitude with eroticism…”

There’s the rub. They want community more than orgasms.

“confused gratitude for eroticism.”
Dave: It takes a psychological problem and makes it a sexual one.

Julia and Maggie sort of switch places. Maggie is freed for discovering the skin suit gets her off. Julia loses her Free Skin and the old hideout becomes a button factory.

We talked about the modernist style ambiguities and stylistic obfuscations in the language. The fact the the story does force you to do some figuring and inferring. Almost like a murder mystery, but not invested in wrapping it up. The Free Skin is also “wretched slavery,” so what is the question?

Dave: But it’s pretty bleak though. It thrives on your uncertainty. At least with a murder mystery you know there’s an answer. In this you can tell right away there will be no answer. But in this genre it I suppose communicates things that you can’t get at in a simple murder mystery.

And there’s the rub: a hunger for community, confusing gratitude for eroticism. This moment in the story backs up Dave’s Freudian observation that these characters are sexualizing a psychological problem. Maggie’s frozen clitoris is her need for fulfillment, actualization. Sometimes sex is part of the process of addressing a psychological problem.

Dave: It avoids the simplicity of men-are-bad, women-are-good social solutions. Power itself is the problem, not who’s wielding it.

David: It’s the the Id and Superego at cross purposes. “You wanna be free?” “Then you gotta be a slave.”

A slave to what? Well, at the end of the story, Julia gets her Free Skin back, but only after she attempts suicide. It gets very Abrahamic. She actually has to heft the dagger and commence the self-sacrifice before the salvation is delievered in the guise of the Free Skin suit grrls taking her back into their fold. They “dress her in the Free Skin she abandoned for an illusion of freedom.” Implying that choosing to avoid your duty is not freedom.

From The Raziel Tarot by Robert M. Place and Rachel PollackP.968 “Sex exists to lay traps for fantasies.”
Suhail: This is the thesis of the entire story, what the story is all about. It’s a good story. It is my favorite this summer so far.

David: But that also speaks to the quality of our list as a whole. Chris dropped out because the list didn’t have any oomph, this story no more than the previous. It style was too complex, intentionally ornamental in a way. It’s like the guy who buys a Harley after someone makes fun of the size of his dick.

Suhail: Like the shock value first sentence about her clitoris being a magnet, or a compass.

David: But that doesn’t follow through. It’s a clever, shocking first sentence more than anything else. It doesn’t end up being a metaphor or actually being the case. No development.

Suhail: It would be nice to read novels again. This short format (5,000 words and under) has it’s limits. We don’t get to see what the author can really do.

David: It’s not really even sci-fi. It’s the literary answer to sci-fi. What is it, 1989, right? This prose is very motivated by the indictment that sci-fi was just pulp writing and not substantial literature. This style heavy heady modernist approach.

Suhail: Yeah, modernist. It’s cultural criticism fiction. Slap a superhero/kink patrol body suit into it and viola, sci-fi! HA! It’s funny how we’re really managed to zero in on the grad school fiction this summer. HA! But this story is still my favorite so far. I feel it brings up things that Tiptree, Jr. addressed, murky questions about exploitation, boundaries, psychological manipulation, power. These are complex, fluid, and uncomfortable notions. Frankly, men seem to write less about conflicted states of empowerment and sex identity, and they’re potent subjects.

We waxed poetic about fun, engaging, stories, like Reiko’s Universe Box, it’s accessibility and airiness, and solid delivery. Tune in next time for our update of “Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffry Maloney.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

 

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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

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Triumph of Mechanics by Karl Stobl

Stobl was influenced by Edgar Allen Poe. He started a fantasy magazine predating Weird Tales by two years. This story was written in 1907, before both world wars. It was not translated into English until 2016, primarily because Stobl was relegated to the literary dustbin for joining the Nazi party prior to WWII, becoming a high official in the Nazi writing and propaganda campaigns. We read this story so you don’t have to.

David: He’s a full on Nazi. This guy likes his shirts brown.

Group: HA!

David: Is there anything Nazi about the story? I don’t think so.

BunniculaChris: Well, there’s a gesture toward the inferior beings reproducing too much.

David: Where’s the sci-fi?

Chris: The self-reproducing mechanism. Earliest instance of a “grey-goo” problem, that disassembles everything into itself, and can build nothing else. A rabbit that has a litter of six overnight.

Here’s looking at you…

Nowell: I feel like this is a mild recapitulation of Frankenstein, though a little more sinister, where the scientist says, “You’d better grant me my wishes or else.” No one understands me, the brilliant scientist, everyone laughs at me until… they feel the wrath of my hideous revenge.

David: It’s still sci-fi if there’s a punchline.

Chris: It’s not really a punchline, more the creepiness of rabbits.

David: At least this is the first story we’ve read this summer that has a character, and scenes.

Nowell: I love the line, “I don’t think you know what a billion is,” and the images of a snow covered city, which is actually rabbits. A fun little vignette. Though let’s be honest, Hopkins is a total asshole. 🙂

Suhail: At least it’s not an essay, like the last two. Another grad school story.

David: Interesting that it, like Rokeya’s story, has been ignored by the canon, but for totally different politically (in)correct reasons.

Suhail: The concept reminds me of that Dick story, do you remember it, Dave? The one with the ant swarm, where the shoes are reproducing like bunnies…

David: That’s “The Short Happy Life Of The Brown Oxford”

Suhail: Yes! That one.

Chris: It reads better as a thought experiment. I think it’s a joke.

Click to enlarge.David: The science fiction and bureaucracy interact and have a Brazil-like effect (the 1985 Terry Gilliam film.)

Chris: It is Brazil-like.

The industrial rivalry. Of course, the mad scientist is a creative American who’s figured this trick out, and he’s playing fast and lose with German expectations.

Chris: An O. Henry story, with rabbits.

David: What do you mean?

Chris: There’s a twist. The story is meant to set up the twist.

David: It’s a fleshed out story. From academic perspective, it’s approaching or prefiguring the pulps.

But, again, not fun to read. We read this one so you won’t have to. Join us next week, when we’ll discuss Rachel Pollack’s “Burning Sky”

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

The Triumph Of Mechanics by Karl Hans Stobl (1907)

“The Triumph Of Mechanics” (1907) – Karl Hans Stobl (3751 words)
Posted here to facilitate our upcoming discussion.

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The town’s toy industry had grown considerably in the last few years. All civilized countries placed orders upon orders, eager to own mechanical toys — multicolored, marvelously precise: the Punchinello puppets banging drums, the indefatigable fencers, the madly fast automobiles, the proud war vessels propelled by veritable steam engines. Through some forceful entreat, one could export the toys to unsophisticated lands — though the demand was not as imperious. One could often find— deep in the forests and out in the deserts of Africa — little indigenous children playing with what remained of those remarkable products. A famous explorer even confessed to having been fooled in the jungle, at the edge of the Malagarassi, by a very peculiar monkey: the beast sat in a palm tree, and the explorer had convinced himself he had discovered another simian species, when he glimpsed his country’s trade mark, D.R.P.[1] N. 105307, which destroyed his hopes. But the independent press soon placed this story in the usual category (as far as explorers of Africa were concerned) of imaginary ravings, and condemned it as one more conspiracy conceived by the abhorred colonial policy.

The automated rabbits from the firm Stricker & Vorderteil were by far in greatest demand. These small animals, exact replicas of the natural creatures, were capable, when their spring was fully wound up, to hop around like their living models, in five or six circles.

A mechanical engineer of universal genius, an American, of course, whose inventions seemed to fall from the heavens directly onto his lap, had designed the humble inanimate beasts specifically for the company. Unfortunately, the moment when the firm’s performance and celebrity peaked, everything collapsed like a house of cards. With the impertinence of the man who believes himself indispensible, Hopkins requested to be paid double, work half hours, and have access to a personal laboratory and a vacation property out of town. Stricker was inclined to accept, but Vorderteil opposed this decision in the strongest possible terms: “We can’t do that, if only for the sake of management’s principles; otherwise, in six months’ time Hopkins will come up with some new whim.”

Stricker agreed. The American, a grin hovering about his face, listened to his boss’s decision and responded by handing over his notice.  The slight consternation and discontent caused by this reaction vanished when the owners realized all the crucial secrets of fabrication were safe and the enterprise risked nothing.

“What if,” said the anxious Stricker, “Hopkins creates a competing firm?”

“Leave it to me,” said Vorderteil in a soothing tone, as he was, through a few discreet dealings, acquainted with the town’s mayor. The defector would receive no permission to start his business.

Meanwhile, Hopkins worked as if nothing had happened. He continued to supervise the factory’s production, changing a few small-scale details, as if he intended to work for Stricker and Vorderteil forever. One could say he invented as easily as he drew breath. During these last weeks, important orders of rabbits came in, and the firm was forced to increase its means of production, to fabricate those legions of small animals. Hopkins, wearing his customary smile, left at the end of his notice, doffed his impeccable top hat and bowed low to his former employers. He remained worryingly quiet about his future projects, and what Stricker’s fretful nature had correctly intuited turned out to be true. Through his discreet dealings with the Mayor’s office, Vorderteil learned that Hopkins had bought a vacant lot and had filed a building permit, to build a new factory.

“Guess,” Vorderteil cried, “what he’s going to fabricate?”

“I have no idea,” Stricker answered, and this time he really had no clue.

“Toys made of glazed colored glass. That’s what he wants to do. Glazed colored glass! Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Stricker had never heard of such a thing, but he deemed Hopkins capable of anything, even of making glazed colored glass toys, which is why he blanched, nodded, shrugged his shoulders, and hunched over, thus losing three centimeters in height.

Vorderteil yelled: “Glazed glass. And colored! Nonsense!”

“Calm down. It’s probably a mistake. Maybe Hopkins meant to say ‘gasified air.’ I think I heard something about it.”

At these words, Vorderteil banged his fist on the table, so forcefully the huge Shannon recorder placed over his head oscillated. He cried:

“This is a serious matter. Don’t be facetious, now that everything we worked for is crumbling around our ears. When Hopkins says glazed glass, he thinks glazed glass, and, if I understand well, he gave an overview of his project, from which it would appear that he has discovered a process to solidify air, a method that allows submitting air to very high temperatures, giving it all the properties of glass, except for fragility.”

“That would be an industrial revolution, and he is very obliging, given that he intends to use this breakthrough technology to make toys. Who knows where he’ll stop?”

“Very obliging, yes. But what if, all of a sudden, children were given dice, skittles, puppets, locomotives made of colored glass that never break, and the toys are completely safe? Maybe he will even make automated rabbits, oh!”

Vorderteil threw himself back so violently in his armchair that the huge Shannon recorder fell on his head. While papers flittered around him, he bounded to his feet.

That must be avoided at all costs, and if you, Mister Stricker, indulge in incomprehensible nonchalance, I myself must thank God for having connections that will help me foil Hopkins’s nefarious plan.”

The following weeks, many discussions took place through the usual discreet channels, between the Mayor and Vorderteil. It ensued that these secret dealings caused a firm refusal of all the requests, appeals and revisions filed by Hopkins. To the point that Stricker, crushed by his associate’s repeated victories, saw himself shrink about two centimeters in height every day.

After the seventeenth rejection of Hopkins’s request, a peculiar din resounded before the City Hall’s door, and the American, flanked by two enormous mastiffs, entered the anti-chamber, which was made narrow by thick folders, all sorts of carefully kept clutter, and rolled-up sheets of paper containing building plans.

Secretaries and clerks took refuge in the adjacent rooms, while the doors moaned under the weight of the mastiffs that were leaning into the panels. Thanks to the two monsters, whose heads reached up to his shoulders, Hopkins was able to get into the Mayor’s office. Here he stood, Hopkins, facing the Mayor, hat in hand, while the mastiffs, giving in to their instinct, sniffed the cabinets all around the room, upending vases and unabashedly leaving the marks of their huge paws on the delicate patterns of the rug, and the Mayor tried to find something to say:

“Don’t you know that dogs are not allowed inside?” he ended up yelling.

“Of course I know,” Hopkins answered, smiling. “Dogs must stay outside.”

“So how dare you introduce your tykes here!”

“These? But they’re not dogs.”

“Oh, yes? What are they then?”

“They’re machines, Mr. Mayor.”

And Hopkins called one of the mastiffs closer, and unscrewed its head so that it was possible to glimpse the gearwheels inside; he also explained how the animals moved their limbs, and sniffed, particularly insisting on the clever mechanism that allowed the dogs to wag their tails.

“What in the Hell is this for — ?” asked the Mayor, an almost imploring expression on his nonplussed face, while the cogs, wheels, springs, and electrical batteries spun frenetically.

Hopkins switched his dogs’ mechanisms off and riposted through another question:

“Why wouldn’t you let me build my factory?”

“For that, you should address the Civil Engineering Office, in order to learn whether it is possible to obtain a building permit.”

“I have already put the same question to the Civil Engineering Office. There, I was told to address the Police Office.”

“Well, then, and — ?”

“From there, I was sent to the Technical Assistance Office.”

“Well, then, and — ?”

“There, they wanted me to go to the Civil Engineering Office again, but at this point I decided to address you directly.”

The Mayor, seeing himself abandoned by all his auxiliary offices, resigned himself to replying.

“We didn’t respond favorably to your request because the legal requirements were not met.”

“But everything’s perfect, and if you don’t believe me, I shall do whatever it takes to obtain your agreement, one way or another.”

Under the dogs’ lackluster stare, which seemed as threatening as the glint in their master’s eyes, the Mayor dared not to contradict his interlocutor. The three creatures that fenced the Mayor inside a magical circle resembled receptacles of accumulated force waiting for a switch-on to explode into action, unleashing destruction.

In a wavering voice, he asked: “And now, what do you intend to do?”

“Oh, I can choose one among hundreds of possibilities … like … rabbits, for example.”

“Ra — rabbits?”

“Yes … I can set a billion mechanical rabbits on the town.”

There, the Mayor burst into laughter. “A billion! And … mechanical … ah ah.”

“I’m under the impression you have no idea what a billion is, and you don’t know a thing about the perfection of mechanics, not to mention the effects of inanimate objects to which one lends movement …”

But the Mayor, who couldn’t control his fits of laughter, kept saying, “Ra — rabbits. Au-tomated … ra — rabbits. Ha ha.”

“Then you take responsibility for it?”

“But of course … of course.”

“All right,” said Hopkins, and he tipped his hat by way of a farewell.

He turned on his dogs’ switches, and followed by the monsters, exited, an amiable smile at the corner of his mouth. It took the Mayor two hours to recover, and only after all the heads of departments succeeded in restraining their serious cases of the giggles, he went home, a vague air of satisfaction about him. Exhausted by his unusual exertions, he couldn’t wait to tell his wife about the joke. In front of the door, he saw in a corner, shyly nestled against the wall, looking miserable, a cute little white rabbit produced according to the renowned process of the Stricker & Vorderteil firm. Amused by the thought that Hopkins had already placed a little white rabbit by his door, the Mayor extended a hand to seize the small beast, but the rabbit hopped away, quickly escaping him. Still intent on the idea of pursuit, the Mayor saw with satisfaction that not far down the street, a few rascals had trapped the animal. The story told by the Mayor was sheer pleasure to his wife as her thrifty nature immediately envisaged the opportunity of procuring children’s toys at no cost. When little Edwige appeared clutching a little white rabbit she had found on the porch, the Mayor’s wife laughed joyously. She burst out laughing again when Richard brought in a rabbit, which settled in on the kitchen table, and again when Fritz and Anna emerged from the dark depths of the cave, each carrying a rabbit.

These animals with dull glass eyes hopped to-and-fro in a frenzy: one had to stack them up into a corner, from which they escaped, causing the children to become noisily nervous. But when Cook, pale in the face, reported that one of the creatures had all of a sudden leaped into a marmalade jar, the mother’s hilarity gave place to the housewife’s carefulness. During the afternoon, the rabbits multiplied in a worrisome manner. They seemed to lurk in every corner, erupt from the cracks in the floorboards; they sat on all the moldings and doorframes; sprang blindly everywhere, so that the general amusement quickly ceased, while a murmur of disapprobation filled the house.

The Mayor, fleeing from the nuisance, went to his club through a twilight peppered with hopping white smudges. There he met friends who, as perplexed as he, had convened to discuss the phenomenon, while rabbits, in ever increasing numbers, came to disrupt the men’s reflections. From time to time, Joseph, the club’s barman, swept the animals out of the rooms, but the next minute, the things shot up from every corner, leaping at one another, their glass eyes red and bulging. Upon the reading table, the creatures devilled the sacred placement of the newspapers. The gentlemen traded furious glances, deeply disturbed by this aggravating intrusion, and left as soon as it appeared that Joseph and his broom were unable to get rid of the vermin.

That same evening, the Mayor felt a hard lump under his bedclothes, and, when he anxiously groped for it, his hand came up filled with a rabbit that stared at him stupidly. Cursing, he threw the thing, but the animal contented itself with uttering a weak high-pitched scream, like a struck instrument, and then resumed hopping. At this proof of resilience, the Mayor flipped his lid, and the effects of his anger troubled his sleep as his dreams teemed with rabbits. Written in letters that reached the sky, the terrible word “UNDESTRUCTIBLE” loomed in the midst of a crowd of rabbits, which went up and down the sign, as agile as the proverbial enchanted cats. The red eyes converged on the same point, the Mayor, who lay paralyzed in bed.

When he decided to wash away the sweat caused by the nightmare, the man found the top of his washing stand invaded by rabbits, and one of them, with its fur thin and dull, twitched pitifully at the bottom of his pitcher. With a satisfying malignant pleasure, he hurled the creature to the floor, but the rabbit slowly straightened and resumed hopping with the usual enthusiasm.

In the streets, the passersby could not take a step without stumbling upon one of the little monsters, which survived the most incredible torments applied by urchins, and even the passage of the heaviest trucks.  Rabbits on the steps of the City Hall. Rabbits in every corridor. Perching on the highest folders, they glanced down at the poor Major, who passed among his employees fighting against more rabbits, to enter his office. Thirteen rabbits welcomed him from his desk, causing the papers to rustle and scattering them in splendid disarray. The Mayor let himself fall into his armchair, invoking all the destroying powers. He cried out in anguish when his hands landed on soft fur. It seemed to him that over the vacuous muzzles hovered an expression resembling a smile. Thanks to the multiplication, the smile seemed to amplify, growing stronger, and finally the Mayor had the impression of seeing Hopkins’s grin repeated a hundred thousand times.

Mustering all his energy, the Mayor called Vorderteil. Aghast, they gazed at each other for some time, until the Mayor recovered a shade of dignity.

“This Mr. Hopkins …” he began.

“Yes, this Mr. Hopkins,” Vorderteil said.

“A billion automated rabbits …”

“Indestructible … Indestructible,” Vorderteil confirmed.

“It’s horrible … A billion automated ra — ” The Mayor had to brush away a rabbit that had brusquely leaped onto his shoulder and wanted to climb his head. “Damned mechanics!” he cried, on the brink of tears.

“Yes, yes, but I don’t understand …”

“What is it that you don’t understand?”

“My factory has never produced so many rabbits before.”

“Where do they come from then?”

Vorderteil was unable to answer as he found himself inundated by the red ink a rabbit had just spilled. His elegant black trousers were ruined. The Mayor laughed convulsively.

Then Vorderteil said, “I think Hopkins has hoarded all the latest orders. That man is the Devil incarnate … and he’s out to get us … but …”

And, ignoring the red tide that continued to spill out between them, he whispered: “But I’m thinking of something even more terrible …”

“What?”

“Have you noticed that two generations of rabbits have presented themselves?”

Yes. It was true. Among the twenty-three rabbits that frolicked on the Mayor’s desk, a few seemed to be smaller, more delicate … younger than the others. Even though all of them hopped about, eyeing the world with the same fixed, stupid gaze, smiling the same hideous smile.

“You see, when Hopkins was still working for us, he alluded to some revolutionary process, something … a kind of natural reproduction of mechanical rabbits, which he called ‘asexual reproduction.’ We made fun of him at the time, but now, apparently, he is using this process. It’s clear now: he’s using it to terrorize us. Yes. These rabbits are admirable replica of life. They’re reproducing, and tonight we’ll see the third generation. Tomorrow morning, we’ll welcome the fifth, and the day after tomorrow, we will sail toward the two billion beasts …”

This conversation met a quick and strange conclusion, which also ended the discreet dealings between the two men. Seized by the irrepressible desire to avoid going insane, and maybe a combination of rage and desperation, the Mayor grabbed by the neck the author of this disaster, spun him around and had him thrown out. Unfortunately, this violent act brought no resolution to the problem of the rampant rabbits. When they had appeared, the town was amused, and then enraged, but now the general sentiment was horror, and disgust. White beasties hopped among the dishes on the tables. They could only be destroyed with axes and fire. With the magistrate’s authorization, bonfires were lit on the streets, and rabbits were brought in buckets, aprons, and hutches. But despite these measures, the number of rabbits increased by the hour until the town’s population gave up. The fires consumed, a reek of burned fur stank up the air. Without anything to keep them at bay, the rabbits destroyed every trade, jammed the traffic, invaded all activities, and even insinuated themselves into the secret of amorous passions.

But it happened that in a region nearby, in Switzerland, a woman gave birth to a stillborn child. The terror experienced by the mother had caused this premature birth, and the child had on its face a mark in the shape of a rabbit. Indignation erupted, and the City Hall was almost assailed by a rioting, armed crowd. In this crucial moment, the Mayor remembered Napoleon III, who succeeded in calming the miserable masses with raucous parties. Fighting an internal disquiet with external actions seemed the right solution, even more so since he had glimpsed the fifth generation of monsters in his own house. So he ordered festivities of the greatest splendor commemorating the poet Schiller. Like a captain casting a last glance from the mast of his floundering ship, the Mayor contemplated his town from the highest spot of the City Hall. Even though the month was September, the rooftops, the streets and parks seemed to disappear under layers of snow, but this peculiar blanket twitched, decomposed and recomposed. It was only the billion rabbits — as promised. Like an old man, the Mayor stepped down from the tower, slipping over the soft backs of a few thousand rabbits, and, as soon as he reached the ground floor, he heard the report of a policeman he’d sent to Hopkins’s home. The man was nowhere to be found, which did not surprise the Mayor in the slightest.

That evening, the townspeople gathered for the commemoration, after braving the mountains of rabbits filling the streets, particularly the crossroads, where the beasties superposed in double and triple layers. Even inside, it was difficult to move about as the rabbits leaped among the revelers’ legs, occupied the chairs and filed up and down the galleries, like a bas-relief conceived by a mad sculptor.

An eminent professor who had considerably contributed to the town’s intellectual life delivered a speech, and when he extracted a rabbit from his suit pocket to toss it away, the gesture seemed to punctuate his words in a customary manner.  A more lugubrious impression occurred when the trumpets released a discordant tune, caused by the rabbits obstructing the instruments. Only the young dramatic singer Beate Vogl created a harmonious atmosphere when she sang a lied in Schiller’s honor. Until a terrible scream broke the crystalline sounds as the singer extracted a rabbit from her cleavage. A rabbit, yes, with nine more newborn rabbits hanging from it. The turmoil had reached a peak when a powerful voice rose above the din.

Hopkins stood on stage, beside the unconscious singer. He waved his impeccable top hat and bowed to the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I beg you to please pay attention to what I have to say.  The painful events visited on you these last days could have been avoided if the authorities had been able to grasp the meaning of the word ‘billion,’ also showing greater consideration for the accomplishments of modern technology. I desire nothing more than putting an end to these disagreements. The rabbits will disappear as soon as my request is accepted.  Although, if my projects should meet more obstacles, then, and only then, would I, against my desire, rest assured, make your situation a little worse.”

Smiling, Hopkins, fished a squirming rabbit out of his pocket, and held it up by the ears. “So far, you’ve seen an innocuous species of rabbit, but, tomorrow at midday, you’ll encounter a new variety: the rabbit that can eat.”

With these words, he presented the animal with a bunch of clover.

The silent crowd watched in consternation as the animal’s muzzle twitched and turned toward the vegetable to swallow it with mechanical delight.

Everyone pictured an army of indestructible, voracious rabbits devouring everything in sight. Dread crushed the assembly. Nobody dared utter a sound.

That night, an extraordinary meeting of the City Council was called, and, come morning, an employee was dispatched to the American’s house with an invitation to the Mayor’s office. This time, Hopkins was at home.

The inventor, upon hearing the decision that gave him permission to build his factory, listened gravely to the question he surely expected.

The Mayor, tired and pensive, his face expressing a deep doubt, said:

“Tell me now.” His hand caressed his forehead as if wanting to dispel an oppressive impression. “I get most of your science. There’s something, though, I don’t understand. It’s the fact that, thanks to your savoir-faire in mechanics, by mastering the process of life, you have created rabbits that can eat. How is it possible? The rabbit you showed us …”

Hopkins gave a smile that was more bitter than usual, and tipped his impeccable top hat. “Well, that one … ‚” he said. “That rabbit, Mayor, the one I showed you, was, quite exceptionally, a real, living rabbit.”

 

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.

Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1905)

“Sultana’s Dream” (1905) by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (3986 words)
First published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Madras, 1905
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One evening I was lounging in an easy chair in my bedroom and thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood. I am not sure whether I dozed off or not. But, as far as I remember, I was wide awake. I saw the moonlit sky sparkling with thousands of diamond-like stars, very distinctly.

All on a sudden a lady stood before me; how she came in, I do not know. I took her for my friend, Sister Sara.

‘Good morning,’ said Sister Sara. I smiled inwardly as I knew it was not morning, but starry night. However, I replied to her, saying, ‘How do you do?’

‘I am all right, thank you. Will you please come out and have a look at our garden?’

I looked again at the moon through the open window, and thought there was no harm in going out at that time. The men-servants outside were fast asleep just then, and I could have a pleasant walk with Sister Sara.

I used to have my walks with Sister Sara, when we were at Darjeeling. Many a time did we walk hand in hand and talk light-heartedly in the botanical gardens there. I fancied, Sister Sara had probably come to take me to some such garden and I readily accepted her offer and went out with her.

When walking I found to my surprise that it was a fine morning. The town was fully awake and the streets alive with bustling crowds. I was feeling very shy, thinking I was walking in the street in broad daylight, but there was not a single man visible.

Some of the passers-by made jokes at me. Though I could not understand their language, yet I felt sure they were joking. I asked my friend, ‘What do they say?’

‘The women say that you look very mannish.’

‘Mannish?’ said I, ‘What do they mean by that?’

‘They mean that you are shy and timid like men.’

‘Shy and timid like men?’ It was really a joke. I became very nervous, when I found that my companion was not Sister Sara, but a stranger. Oh, what a fool had I been to mistake this lady for my dear old friend, Sister Sara.

She felt my fingers tremble in her hand, as we were walking hand in hand.

‘What is the matter, dear?’ she said affectionately. ‘I feel somewhat awkward,’ I said in a rather apologizing tone, ‘as being a purdahnishin woman I am not accustomed to walking about unveiled.’

‘You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.’

By and by I was enjoying the scenery. Really it was very grand. I mistook a patch of green grass for a velvet cushion. Feeling as if I were walking on a soft carpet, I looked down and found the path covered with moss and flowers.

‘How nice it is,’ said I.

‘Do you like it?’ asked Sister Sara. (I continued calling her ‘Sister Sara,’ and she kept calling me by my name).

‘Yes, very much; but I do not like to tread on the tender and sweet flowers.’

‘Never mind, dear Sultana; your treading will not harm them; they are street flowers.’

‘The whole place looks like a garden,’ said I admiringly. ‘You have arranged every plant so skillfully.’

‘Your Calcutta could become a nicer garden than this if only your countrymen wanted to make it so.’

‘They would think it useless to give so much attention to horticulture, while they have so many other things to do.’

‘They could not find a better excuse,’ said she with smile.

I became very curious to know where the men were. I met more than a hundred women while walking there, but not a single man.

‘Where are the men?’ I asked her.

‘In their proper places, where they ought to be.’

‘Pray let me know what you mean by “their proper places”.’

‘O, I see my mistake, you cannot know our customs, as you were never here before. We shut our men indoors.’

‘Just as we are kept in the zenana?’

‘Exactly so.’

‘How funny,’ I burst into a laugh. Sister Sara laughed too.

‘But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.’

‘Why? It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana, as we are naturally weak.’

‘Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace.’

‘Of course not.’

‘Suppose, some lunatics escape from the asylum and begin to do all sorts of mischief to men, horses and other creatures; in that case what will your countrymen do?’

‘They will try to capture them and put them back into their asylum.’

‘Thank you! And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?’

‘Of course not!’ said I laughing lightly.

‘As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?’

‘We have no hand or voice in the management of our social affairs. In India man is lord and master, he has taken to himself all powers and privileges and shut up the women in the zenana.’

‘Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?’

‘Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women.’

‘A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests.’

‘But my dear Sister Sara, if we do everything by ourselves, what will the men do then?’

‘They should not do anything, excuse me; they are fit for nothing. Only catch them and put them into the zenana.’

‘But would it be very easy to catch and put them inside the four walls?’ said I. ‘And even if this were done, would all their business – political and commercial – also go with them into the zenana?’

Sister Sara made no reply. She only smiled sweetly. Perhaps she thought it useless to argue with one who was no better than a frog in a well.

By this time we reached Sister Sara’s house. It was situated in a beautiful heart-shaped garden. It was a bungalow with a corrugated iron roof. It was cooler and nicer than any of our rich buildings. I cannot describe how neat and how nicely furnished and how tastefully decorated it was.

We sat side by side. She brought out of the parlour a piece of embroidery work and began putting on a fresh design.

‘Do you know knitting and needle work?’

‘Yes; we have nothing else to do in our zenana.’

‘But we do not trust our zenana members with embroidery!’ she said laughing, ‘as a man has not patience enough to pass thread through a needlehole even!’

‘Have you done all this work yourself?’ I asked her pointing to the various pieces of embroidered teapoy cloths.

‘Yes.’

‘How can you find time to do all these? You have to do the office work as well? Have you not?’

‘Yes. I do not stick to the laboratory all day long. I finish my work in two hours.’

‘In two hours! How do you manage? In our land the officers, – magistrates, for instance – work seven hours daily.’

‘I have seen some of them doing their work. Do you think they work all the seven hours?’

‘Certainly they do!’

‘ No, dear Sultana, they do not. They dawdle away their time in smoking. Some smoke two or three choroots during the office time. They talk much about their work, but do little. Suppose one choroot takes half an hour to burn off, and a man smokes twelve choroots daily; then you see, he wastes six hours every day in sheer smoking.’

We talked on various subjects, and I learned that they were not subject to any kind of epidemic disease, nor did they suffer from mosquito bites as we do. I was very much astonished to hear that in Ladyland no one died in youth except by rare accident.

‘Will you care to see our kitchen?’ she asked me.

‘With pleasure,’ said I, and we went to see it. Of course the men had been asked to clear off when I was going there. The kitchen was situated in a beautiful vegetable garden. Every creeper, every tomato plant was itself an ornament. I found no smoke, nor any chimney either in the kitchen — it was clean and bright; the windows were decorated with flower gardens. There was no sign of coal or fire.

‘How do you cook?’ I asked.

‘With solar heat,’ she said, at the same time showing me the pipe, through which passed the concentrated sunlight and heat. And she cooked something then and there to show me the process.

‘How did you manage to gather and store up the sun-heat?’ I asked her in amazement.

‘Let me tell you a little of our past history then. Thirty years ago, when our present Queen was thirteen years old, she inherited the throne. She was Queen in name only, the Prime Minister really ruling the country.

‘Our good Queen liked science very much. She circulated an order that all the women in her country should be educated. Accordingly a number of girls’ schools were founded and supported by the government. Education was spread far and wide among women. And early marriage also was stopped. No woman was to be allowed to marry before she was twenty-one. I must tell you that, before this change we had been kept in strict purdah.’

‘How the tables are turned,’ I interposed with a laugh.

‘But the seclusion is the same,’ she said. ‘In a few years we had separate universities, where no men were admitted.’

‘In the capital, where our Queen lives, there are two universities. One of these invented a wonderful balloon, to which they attached a number of pipes. By means of this captive balloon which they managed to keep afloat above the cloud-land, they could draw as much water from the atmosphere as they pleased. As the water was incessantly being drawn by the university people no cloud gathered and the ingenious Lady Principal stopped rain and storms thereby.’

‘Really! Now I understand why there is no mud here!’ said I. But I could not understand how it was possible to accumulate water in the pipes. She explained to me how it was done, but I was unable to understand her, as my scientific knowledge was very limited. However, she went on, ‘When the other university came to know of this, they became exceedingly jealous and tried to do something more extraordinary still. They invented an instrument by which they could collect as much sun-heat as they wanted. And they kept the heat stored up to be distributed among others as required.

‘While the women were engaged in scientific research, the men of this country were busy increasing their military power. When they came to know that the female universities were able to draw water from the atmosphere and collect heat from the sun, they only laughed at the members of the universities and called the whole thing “a sentimental nightmare”!’

‘Your achievements are very wonderful indeed! But tell me, how you managed to put the men of your country into the zenana. Did you entrap them first?’

‘No.’

‘It is not likely that they would surrender their free and open air life of their own accord and confine themselves within the four walls of the zenana! They must have been overpowered.’

‘Yes, they have been!’

‘By whom? By some lady-warriors, I suppose?’

‘No, not by arms.’

‘Yes, it cannot be so. Men’s arms are stronger than women’s. Then?’

‘By brain.’

‘Even their brains are bigger and heavier than women’s. Are they not?’

‘Yes, but what of that? An elephant also has got a bigger and heavier brain than a man has. Yet man can enchain elephants and employ them, according to their own wishes.’

‘Well said, but tell me please, how it all actually happened. I am dying to know it!’

‘Women’s brains are somewhat quicker than men’s. Ten years ago, when the military officers called our scientific discoveries “a sentimental nightmare,” some of the young ladies wanted to say something in reply to those remarks. But both the Lady Principals restrained them and said, they should reply not by word, but by deed, if ever they got the opportunity. And they had not long to wait for that opportunity.’

‘How marvelous!’ I heartily clapped my hands. ‘And now the proud gentlemen are dreaming sentimental dreams themselves.’

‘Soon afterwards certain persons came from a neighbouring country and took shelter in ours. They were in trouble having committed some political offense. The king who cared more for power than for good government asked our kind-hearted Queen to hand them over to his officers. She refused, as it was against her principle to turn out refugees. For this refusal the king declared war against our country.

‘Our military officers sprang to their feet at once and marched out to meet the enemy. The enemy however, was too strong for them. Our soldiers fought bravely, no doubt. But in spite of all their bravery the foreign army advanced step by step to invade our country.

‘Nearly all the men had gone out to fight; even a boy of sixteen was not left home. Most of our warriors were killed, the rest driven back and the enemy came within twenty-five miles of the capital.

‘A meeting of a number of wise ladies was held at the Queen’s palace to advise as to what should be done to save the land. Some proposed to fight like soldiers; others objected and said that women were not trained to fight with swords and guns, nor were they accustomed to fighting with any weapons. A third party regretfully remarked that they were hopelessly weak of body.

‘”If you cannot save your country for lack of physical strength,” said the Queen, “try to do so by brain power.”

‘There was a dead silence for a few minutes. Her Royal Highness said again, “I must commit suicide if the land and my honour are lost.”

‘Then the Lady Principal of the second university (who had collected sun-heat), who had been silently thinking during the consultation, remarked that they were all but lost, and there was little hope left for them. There was, however, one plan which she would like to try, and this would be her first and last efforts; if she failed in this, there would be nothing left but to commit suicide. All present solemnly vowed that they would never allow themselves to be enslaved, no matter what happened.

‘The Queen thanked them heartily, and asked the Lady Principal to try her plan. The Lady Principal rose again and said, “before we go out the men must enter the zenanas. I make this prayer for the sake of purdah.” “Yes, of course,” replied Her Royal Highness.

‘On the following day the Queen called upon all men to retire into zenanas for the sake of honour and liberty. Wounded and tired as they were, they took that order rather for a boon! They bowed low and entered the zenanas without uttering a single word of protest. They were sure that there was no hope for this country at all.

‘Then the Lady Principal with her two thousand students marched to the battle field, and arriving there directed all the rays of the concentrated sunlight and heat towards the enemy.

‘The heat and light were too much for them to bear. They all ran away panic-stricken, not knowing in their bewilderment how to counteract that scorching heat. When they fled away leaving their guns and other ammunitions of war, they were burnt down by means of the same sun-heat. Since then no one has tried to invade our country any more.’

‘And since then your countrymen never tried to come out of the zenana?’

‘Yes, they wanted to be free. Some of the police commissioners and district magistrates sent word to the Queen to the effect that the military officers certainly deserved to be imprisoned for their failure; but they never neglected their duty and therefore they should not be punished and they prayed to be restored to their respective offices.

‘Her Royal Highness sent them a circular letter intimating to them that if their services should ever be needed they would be sent for, and that in the meanwhile they should remain where they were. Now that they are accustomed to the purdah system and have ceased to grumble at their seclusion, we call the system “Mardana” instead of “zenana”.’

‘But how do you manage,’ I asked Sister Sara, ‘to do without the police or magistrates in case of theft or murder?’

‘Since the “Mardana” system has been established, there has been no more crime or sin; therefore we do not require a policeman to find out a culprit, nor do we want a magistrate to try a criminal case.’

‘That is very good, indeed. I suppose if there was any dishonest person, you could very easily chastise her. As you gained a decisive victory without shedding a single drop of blood, you could drive off crime and criminals too without much difficulty!’

‘Now, dear Sultana, will you sit here or come to my parlour?’ she asked me.

‘Your kitchen is not inferior to a queen’s boudoir!’ I replied with a pleasant smile, ‘but we must leave it now; for the gentlemen may be cursing me for keeping them away from their duties in the kitchen so long.’ We both laughed heartily.

‘How my friends at home will be amused and amazed, when I go back and tell them that in the far-off Ladyland, ladies rule over the country and control all social matters, while gentlemen are kept in the Mardanas to mind babies, to cook and to do all sorts of domestic work; and that cooking is so easy a thing that it is simply a pleasure to cook!’

‘Yes, tell them about all that you see here.’

‘Please let me know, how you carry on land cultivation and how you plough the land and do other hard manual work.’

‘Our fields are tilled by means of electricity, which supplies motive power for other hard work as well, and we employ it for our aerial conveyances too. We have no rail road nor any paved streets here.’

‘Therefore neither street nor railway accidents occur here,’ said I. ‘Do not you ever suffer from want of rainwater?’ I asked.

‘Never since the “water balloon” has been set up. You see the big balloon and pipes attached thereto. By their aid we can draw as much rainwater as we require. Nor do we ever suffer from flood or thunderstorms. We are all very busy making nature yield as much as she can. We do not find time to quarrel with one another as we never sit idle. Our noble Queen is exceedingly fond of botany; it is her ambition to convert the whole country into one grand garden.’

‘The idea is excellent. What is your chief food?’

‘Fruits.’

‘How do you keep your country cool in hot weather? We regard the rainfall in summer as a blessing from heaven.’

‘When the heat becomes unbearable, we sprinkle the ground with plentiful showers drawn from the artificial fountains. And in cold weather we keep our room warm with sun-heat.’

She showed me her bathroom, the roof of which was removable. She could enjoy a shower bath whenever she liked, by simply removing the roof (which was like the lid of a box) and turning on the tap of the shower pipe.

‘You are a lucky people!’ ejaculated I. ‘You know no want. What is your religion, may I ask?’

‘Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful. If any person lies, she or he is….’

‘Punished with death?’

‘No, not with death. We do not take pleasure in killing a creature of God, especially a human being. The liar is asked to leave this land for good and never to come to it again.’

‘Is an offender never forgiven?’

‘Yes, if that person repents sincerely.’

‘Are you not allowed to see any man, except your own relations?’

‘No one except sacred relations.’

‘Our circle of sacred relations is very limited; even first cousins are not sacred.’

‘But ours is very large; a distant cousin is as sacred as a brother.’

‘That is very good. I see purity itself reigns over your land. I should like to see the good Queen, who is so sagacious and far-sighted and who has made all these rules.’

‘All right,’ said Sister Sara.

Then she screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen.

My friend lowered the air-car by reversing the action of the machine, and when the car touched the ground the machine was stopped and we got out.

I had seen from the air-car the Queen walking on a garden path with her little daughter (who was four years old) and her maids of honour.

‘Halloo! You here!’ cried the Queen addressing Sister Sara. I was introduced to Her Royal Highness and was received by her cordially without any ceremony.

I was very much delighted to make her acquaintance. In the course of the conversation I had with her, the Queen told me that she had no objection to permitting her subjects to trade with other countries. ‘But,’ she continued, ‘no trade was possible with countries where the women were kept in the zenanas and so unable to come and trade with us. Men, we find, are rather of lower morals and so we do not like dealing with them. We do not covet other people’s land, we do not fight for a piece of diamond though it may be a thousand-fold brighter than the Koh-i-Noor, nor do we grudge a ruler his Peacock Throne. We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems, which nature has kept in store for us. We enjoy nature’s gifts as much as we can.’

After taking leave of the Queen, I visited the famous universities, and was shown some of their manufactories, laboratories and observatories.

After visiting the above places of interest we got again into the air-car, but as soon as it began moving, I somehow slipped down and the fall startled me out of my dream. And on opening my eyes, I found myself in my own bedroom still lounging in the easy-chair!

 

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.”