Uncanny Valley Digest: The Left Hand Of Darkness

lefthanddarknessLast night’s The Left Hand Of Darkness discussion turned the genre on its head! A bevy of enthusiastic readers pitched in to rock some pizza and admire the handiwork of this deep and multifaceted novel.

In precisely the way Bacigalupi does not, Le Guin actually goes through a lot of trouble to imagine other ways of being. She has crafted a world that does not [yet] know war, coupled with a powerful vision of a world where genders are removed from gender roles.

An interplanetary human Envoy has landed on the planet Gethen, with invitation from the stars to join the interstellar planetary community, the Ekumen. The natives of Gethen are a snow dwelling ambisexual species of humanoid which – though their radios work – have not invented flying, or war. Will complex political intrigue threaten the success of the Envoy’s mission, or rescue it?

Ursula K. Le Guin takes us deep into the pliable notional mysteries of human relationships and meditates on our inclusion in the tapestry of life. Now for the notes!
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David: From Le Guin’s introduction. How sci-fi is not limited to extrapolation. Sci fi is thought experiments! Le Guin wrote in the intro, “Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”

Meg: Le Guin uses elements of the travel narrative and anthropological soft science fiction to justify her rich and verbose info dumps. She sets the tone for this as a collection of field notes, more than a novel. Erik, who has read “more anthropological field notes than I have read science fiction books,” said that much of this novel read very naturally as if it were field notes and did not smack of a novel. Interesting to note that Le Guin is the child of two heavyweight anthropologists, not just scholarly types, but real celebrity status anthropologists in the Bay Area. (Alfred L. and Theodora Kroeber. In addition to many other things, the Kroebers are the scholars who cared for and documented the life of Ishi.)

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Which genres is she blending? Fantasy and Sci-fi, of course, but many more. The travel narrative, hard sci-fi, political intrigue, romance novel. It’s so fantasy in some regards that readers crave a glossary and maps, the way lots of fantasy books give. But she leaves it to the reader to deduce the world around Genly Ai. Readers are along for the same ride as Genly Ai, to figure out how this world operates, and where its variations are.

Where is the romance novel? Which two main characters begin by disliking and distrusting one another, but discover by the end a deep loving intimacy, but because of their social circumstances are prevented from acting on their newly discovered love…? C’mon, it’ll come to you…. Exactly! A romance novel.

Le Guin’s using high-falootin’ Big Idea sci fi here, like Asimov in the Foundation works. Big political and social spectrum considerations. Getting the reader to think about social structure in the abstract, yet so strongly grounded in these everyday characters.

Erik remarked on the contemporary anti-war climate of the writing at that time (This book was published in 1969.) She is laying out a very strong thought experiment to imagine a world without war. Killing and crime, sure, but not war. (Or as she does in The Dispossessed a thought experiment of an anarchist world and how it might actually operate.)

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Powerful theme of questions and answers. The value of not asking unanswerable questions. P.70 “the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.” P.151 “To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

Tangent about Cordwainer Smith as a very important author of the New Wave, and a discussion about reading some of his short stories this Autumn.

Erik: Tangent about Micheal Saler’s book, As If, which discusses the growth of fandom in literature. “Enchanged disenchantment.” Playing with the idea of literary characters being partially factualized and tracked, like with Sherlock Holmes, and later with Lord Of The Rings stuff.

The Foretellers’ ceremony: WOW! It’s about the question, the journey. The answer doesn’t matter. A good question is more valuable than its answers. Just knowing that the planet will join the Ekumen does not tell enough. Nothing about Estraven and Genly’s character changes. Even knowing the Foreteller’s answer does not shorten the road.

She’s advocating a great model of the anthropological approach to everything, being changed by the other and them being changed by you.

p.135, The Ekumen “is an attempt to reunify the mystical with the political,”
We talked about the implication so that short statement for sometime. When were they ever united in the first place? Perhaps in pre-literate oral cultures, where all documents were spoken and remembered only?

Erik: Regarding the Ekumen, Erik mentioned “a sensibility that encourages an incounter with the Other. That interaction has a mystical and spiritual dimension.” Also, A “Human quality of being open to otherness, but with care. To be open to the other, you have to in a sense be broken open to the other. Be at ease with the tension and uncertainty (including the erotic tension) that comes with the charge of difference.

Suhail: Le Guin is even dispensing with the assumption that we have to resolve or somehow flatten or homogonize that charge of otherworldly difference before we can begin meaningful interactions and exchanges. The uncertainy is permanent. Dualities are experienced simultaneously instead of with mutual exclusivity.

See you next time!
HA!

Struck off on a tangent of other sci fi writers culminating in the most humorous comment of the night, from David Gill: “If you’re into Dick, you can’t go deeper into Moorcock.”

Commentary about the modern syndrome of needing security, security fetishization, security theater (in Naomi Klien’s words), and how creepy it is.

Meg: By being ambisexual androgenes, the Gethenians are an embodiment of the contradictions. Making peace with permanent uncertainty.

Meg: When this book 1st came out it was derided as a radical feminist screed. Le Guin actually had to write an apology article to the male sci fi scene. Male sci-fi writers attacked her for being a feminist. But she did not describe herself as feminist, as much as they introduced the label into the discourse for the purpose of sullying it and her. She was criticized for the sexuality and kemmering stuff, and the foretelling. But they did not note her very powerful vision. Or maybe their attack is how they did note her powerful vision. As Le Guin says in chapter 11: “To oppose something is to maintain it.”

Le Guin’s incredible versatility. She writes all sorts of stuff: Poetry, children’s books, YA, essays, etc.

Meg: “She brings optimism, but she is not sentimental, and that’s why it’s so great. She deftly illustrates the sophistication of all these mixed emotions and THAT is the greatness of literature.”

Erik: “She’s super smart, super aggressive, but not sentimental.”

This novel actually tries to imagine “other ways of being,” a phrase Le Guin uses in her National Book Award Acceptance speech. We ended our session by watching this elegant 6 minute speech. Now here’s a link for you to watch it:

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et9Nf-rsALk

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Martian Time-Slip

pkdtimeslip Last night’s Martian Time-Slip discussion brought some dark, fascinating things to the surface! It was a privileged to have two hard-core Phil Dick scholars at the table (Erik Davis and David Gill), because every scene, theme, and psychotic hallucination in the book implied the author behind it – and these gents knew Dick’s life story and publishing history intimately enough to produce some gratifying insights.

We traced interesting aspects of Dick’s personal life during the time he was living in Pt. Reyes writing this book (married to Anne, father of one, abusing amphetamines, the vision of the dark slotted face mask in the sky, and writing nonstop like a demon as his marriage deteriorated). Much of the psychological environment of his personal life glares through in this Bradbury-inspired Mars novel.

A word of warning: the book is depressing, though it has key moments of humor. Also, it ends well for a Dick novel, which is a huge plus. Martian Time-Slip reworks a lot of the themes of overlapping identity-realities in ways similar to Ubik and The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch (How, for example, a particularly aggressive or powerful personality can actually alter the contours of the reality of less-aggressive personalities around it. Also, the notion that emotions are types of AIs or alien consciousnesses that inhabit human beings to see their own greater will done.)

Although, the conundrums in Martian Time-Slip are not created by technology, but rather by psychological states of mind like autism, schizophrenia, and the bleak mood that descends upon a community which has experienced a suicide. Also, in Martian Time-Slip, Dick executes the overlapping identity-realities with the more formal narrative control. In Ubik and Eldritch, it constantly feels like the ground is falling out from underneath the reader’s feet, to the last moment. Here, it holds together better. The character web in this book is impeccable. The plot, almost non-existent. Now for the discussion notes!

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Meg: This would make a great early career Peter Jackson movie.

Gill: like Ballard, the culture is so horrifically banal that you’re horrified by that.
No character is really attached.
The plotting: On Meg’s first read, she noted that PKD was writing this book by the seat of his pants, all of these disparate characters, but then he pulls it all together. He’s writing as fast as he can, with almost no revision. A masterpiece of improvisation where the mind is the creative device.
Gill: Shortly after publishing Martian Time-Slip, Dick had a serious bout of writer’s block. During this time, he wrote letter to a fan about the system he uses to build his novels.
In chapter 1, establish the sub-human, then in the next passage introduce the hearty everyman, then in the next passage introduce the power-drunk bossman, etc. There is a very logical progression, an order to Dick’s character web weaving process, right down to how many syllables belong in each character type’s name. And he spelled it out in a letter to a fan.
Erik, added “The logical relational thing is, how tropes keep coming up: the communication device that comes down, the repairman, the mixture of good/bad boss.”
Dick: “schizophrenia is the savage within the man.”
Dick’s use of horror, almost unintentional, but vivid. As though the horror is a personal account of his subjective experience of reality.
Using Manfred to critique normalcy.
Arnie is the one who keeps putting up walls to stop the Manfred affect, but he is the one who ends up destroyed by it. Unlike Jack, who is capable of reflection, and has insight and even notices when Manfred’s world is beginning to take over his own.  That in itself makes him escape Arnie’s fate.
In capitalist utility land, the move toward meaning is to look at pure negativity, the pit. The horror is a call toward meaning, but if you go all the way, it will take you to the flip side of the capitalist utility land.
Distillation of Dick’s economic philosophy
“hated bigness per se. Bigness had destroyed the small business way of life.”
Chris: “How does Dick really feel about Arnie. He tries to redeem Arnie several times; does he identify with him?”
Gill thinks it’s Dick’s way of making round characters. Suhail thinks Arnie is a significant portion of Dick’s personality.
Heavily autobiographical, according to Gill. So much of this book describes Dick’s life in Pt. Reyes to a T.
Erik: “Dick never ever in any book describes the physical beauty of a place. Never describes any sort of natural landscaping in even a gently lyrical way. And the sublime is a source of horror for him, it is the epitome of meaning in the midst of the nothingness, that awareness of being in the pit of darkness is the only meaning.”
Meg: concerning Dick’s contempt for the sublime, the sacred ritual spot is called Dirty Knobby.
HA!
Self consciousness about capitalism, environment, culture as a deforming force (the UN is gonna come in and fuck everything up), the public school institution of normalcy. Kids need stable adults to grow but all the adults are fucked up. Not just the knowledge that these people have, but the values.
Heliogabalus: a note in the American library edition – A 3rd century Roman emperor who assumed the name of the Syrian sun god.
On the sublime tip, chapter 4, the description of Manfred as a mysterious creature from a another world “a divine and dreadful place beyond.”
Wrap up: One of Dick’s best books, merits rereading, but it’s a gloomy ride, so decide for yourself!
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See you next week!

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Fifth Head Of Cerberus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He forgave us.
He forgave us.

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

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

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

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

Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

lefthanddarknessNext Meet: July 11, 2016 (Monday, 6:30-8:30 PM, Pacific)
Have Read: The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Where: Google Hangout Online and San Francisco

Greetings science fiction aficionados! It’s your favorite time of year. Descend again with us into the Uncanny Valley! The Science Fiction Summer Reading Group is back with a new and improved lineup! Look forward to Monday nights this June and July. The series will again be moderated by editor of Pravic magazine, David Gill (the web’s illustrious Total Dick-Head!) and author Suhail Rafidi.

Members of the group who are in the San Francisco Bay Area on any given Monday are encouraged to attend live at the sci fi lab and enrich the discussion! Contact David or Suhail personally for details.

We’ve incorporated the comments of readers and participants from last year. This summer’s lineup is shorter, contains one movie, and has 2-week reading windows for the longer books. Be ready for discussion by the dates listed below. Without further ado…

Science Fiction Summer Reading Group 2016 Schedule
June 6: The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) – Gene Wolfe (San Francisco)
June 13: Martian Time-Slip (1964) – Philip K. Dick (Oakland)
June 20: MOVIE Metropolis (1927) – Fritz Lang (San Francisco)
Be reading Bacigalupi for next week!!!
June 27: Wind Up Girl (2009) – Paolo Bacigalupi (Oakland)
July 4: No Meeting. Be reading Le Guin for next week!!!
July 11: The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969) – Ursula K. Le Guin (San Francisco)

As usual, the group will also convene online, from 6:30 – 8:30 PM, Pacific Time
Click the link below to enter the Google Hangout:
https://plus.google.com/hangouts/_/g5stgywth5n76vwbbyicm4jkqea

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!