Uncanny Valley Digest: Stanisław Lem’s “Let Us Save The Universe”

lemsavetheuniverseLast night’s Stanisław Lem discussion was a joyride in a cosmic salvage craft! (In Polish, the “ł” is pronounced as a soft “wa,” between “L” and “W” on the English speaking palate.) Lem’s most well-traveled character, Ijon Tichy, delivers a wry and corrective missive to humanity.  “Let Us Save The Universe,” was first published in 1971. The English translation was published in the December 14, 1981 issue of The New Yorker. In it, Tichy laments the “growth of cosmic tourism,” and all the litter in its wake. He culminates in a call to action to clean up the solar system, with Lem-ish levity.

The asteroid belt is littered and defaced. Eros is graffitied with lovers’ names and “arrow-pierced hearts in the worst taste.” Ceres is plastered with 3D family photos like a Fotomat of Mt. Rushmores. Juno has been chipped and eroded away by vandals and souvenir hunters.

stanislawlemBoth stars in Centaurus are growing dim because they’re orbited by so much litter. One large planet in the system has a Saturn-like ring of “beer bottles and lemonade containers…tin cans, eggshells, and old newspapers. “There are places where you cannot see the stars for all the rubbish.” There’s also the problem of inconsiderate tourists expectorating into space. “Individuals who fall sick during a voyage seem to consider outer space their personal toilet.” That gunk freezes! Instant micro meteorites, quite dangerous. Also, “Alcoholism is a special problem.”

Oxygen supply lines are delayed across the 6 light years between Beluria and Palindronia. “People who go there to sightsee are forced to freeze themselves and wait.”

You get the point. The first third of the story reads, and I’m memory-quoting Chris here, “like a crotchety old man at the park complaining about all the people ruining his peace and quiet.”

phoca_thumb_l_krzeslawka

The rest of the story is a tongue-in-cheek monsters compendium of plants, insects, and animals, that have mutated to lure, capture, and devour hapless human tourists. Like bottombiter chair ants, “that group together and mimic wicker furniture,” until a weary tourist comes along and instinctively plops into a random wicker chair, never to rise again.

There is a plant, the furiol, that attracts loud, misbehaving, destructive children, who love to kick and crush it because it cracks like an egg. It releases spores that get into their systems and infect the children.

“The child develops into an apparently normal individual, but before long an incurable malignant process sets in: card playing, drunkenness, and debauchery are the successive stages, followed by either death or a great career.”

phoca_thumb_l_pismaczek

That part’s funny enough, but he follows up by saying, in response to those who want to eradicate this plant, “Those who say this do not stop to think that children should be taught, instead, not to kick objects on foreign planets.”

There is a bird, hunted and eaten to the brink of extinction, called the scribblemock. It mimics humans much like a parrot does, but in writing. “Some people deliberately infuriate the bird by taunting it with spelling errors.”

Discussion ensued:

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Yes, that’s a Lord Of The Rings, Black Orc Porter

David: “Welcome to the Cosmic Confluence on Channel 28 Cable Access.”
Nowell: Yeahhh.
David: I found it a little bit impenetrable.
Meg: It correlates with increasing cultural awareness of pollution as a problem.
Suhail: It reminds me of Sharing Air.
Chris: Ecological talk of species mimicry betrays a gentle paranoia, of all these beasties that lure people in and devour them.
Meg: There’s another Tichy story with an electronic bard that spouts some really excellent poetry.
Nikita: Another famous one – The 14th Journey Of Tichy. There was an Azerbaijani-Russian collaboration animated movie of it.
David: The litter. Here’s the result of all that golden age sci fi going-out-into-the-great-beyond, colonizing space, and owning the universe stuff. So here’s all your junk and bullshit strewn everywhere. It’s an early cynical response to golden age sci fi, like, going out there isn’t going to be as great as we think.
Meg: It’s a big deal when a sci fi story gets published in the New Yorker. How much is it characteristic of Lem or how much is it New Yorker’ed? Because it’s very quaint in tone, with the sketches, with a Thurber-y, New-Yorker tone.
Chris: He was considered one of the most intellectual of sci fi writers. Not cynical so much as world weary and penetrating.
solarislemmovieNikita: Solaris is a masterpiece.
Chris: The only other Polish author I’ve read in depth is Sapkowski’s Witcher books (fantasy, recommended).
A recommendation of The Clockwork Man, by William Jablonsky.
Meg: In Poland or Eastern Europe, is sci fi literary? Seems like yes.
Nikita: Sci fi was taken very very seriously. “using Aesopian language to get past the censors.”
Suhail: Like the coded indictment of Cold War Russia in The Master And Margarita, by Bulgakov.
We went on a Bulgakov tangent about that masterpiece. Meg reads The Master And Margarita every couple of years; loves it. Nikita and Meg suggested strongly The Heart Of A Dog, also by Bulgakov.
Chris: Lem has 36 writing credits on IMDb. A Tichy series, 14 episodes. TV shorts. TV Movies. The most recent is a sci fi film in Hungary called, “His Master’s Voice.” Sounds like a ton of films to be explored.
Had a great free association from Meg that lead to Alfred Jarry being an influence on Lem. And David noticing that a character in Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? steals that name. “It’s Al Jarry, a B-movie actor from Indiana who plays Mercer in the Mercerism simulations.”
Chris: And Mercerizing is the industrial process of polishing threads of fabric for textiles. Just as the thread connecting these subjects has been made more lustrous.
Nice one, Chris!
Nikita: Clearly, Tichy is blaming humans for polluting what we assumed to be infinite spaces, but they’re not.
Meg: An extension of the fallacy that humans are at the top of the food chain.
Nikita: Things are in disrepair. There’s litter everywhere. Alcoholism is rampant. It’s a total reflection of the deteriorating soviet block social state of affairs (1971-81).

“Some people believe it is all right if humans eat creatures from other planets, but when the reverse takes place they raise a hue and cry, call for military assistance, demand punitive expeditions, etc.”

HA!
The story ends on a call to action, for us to enforce the laws and clean things up: “let us save the universe.” Sardonic; and all right in the middle of the environmental movement! (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962. Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970)
David: Now that we’ve had at it, I take back what I said about it being impenetrable.
Suhail: I also read it as a random flight of fancy at first, until Chris pointed out that these creatures are all evolved to devour humans because of cosmic tourism.

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Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.52.14 PMNikita suggested an animated Russian film from 1981 called “The Mystery of the Third Planet.” We shared around the YouTube link, to watch it later.

On that note, join us next week, for our discussion of We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder

stealingworldsschroederA spunky burglar is on the run for her life after helping her now-murdered father rob a corrupt ecological securities firm. Schroeder’s virtual worlds detective caper, set in the near future, is a young adult primer on the implications of blockchain and AI in our corporate futures.

This didactic novel is strong on ideas, and makes up for that strength in character development and VR setting descriptions. One of our favorite ideas in Stealing Worlds is the advent of philosophies about AI design. Face it, our current economic systems are exploitive and increasingly destructive. As we automate our economic systems they become more aggressive, faster, less humane. Chris put it best when he said, “The money tree is the only tree that when you shake it, the fruits and nuts fall upwards.”

The Automated CEO
In Stealing Worlds, synthetic sentiences have not only taken over manufacturing and accounting jobs, but corporate boards. By automating and blockchaining the decision matrixes of a corporate board, theoretically you can filter out greedy and corrupt decision-making. It’s a simplistic view of morality, but Schroeder’s on the case.

blockchainAIThe main flaw, highlighted by Meg: “Okay, here’s this terrible state of affairs caused by the misuse of powerful technology. And the solution is…even more technology that’s even more powerful, and it can’t be hacked! I’m skeptical.” In this context, the solution is often worse than the problem.

Epistemology Acting Up Again?
Of course, the new technology does get hacked. Unwilling to fault the idealized blockchain, the problem is in its sensory apparatus. Even though the blockchains remain incorruptible, the sensors are hacked – the uncountable multitude of minuscule sensors that provide all the big data to the blockchain-girded AIs. Giving a blockchain AI phony data is a great way to control its decision making.

The book glosses over just how many millions of tiny sensors are needed to generate sufficient data to formulate these blockchain AIs. Every tree, every person, creature, piece of fruit, quantity of water, soil sample, etc. Any aspect of the material world that can be monitored by sensor generates data. Talk about microplastic litter, on a new massive global scale. (What is blockchain anyway? A type of software ledger that can verify and ensure an original digital phenomenon. With infinite identical digital reproduction, how can you tell which file is the original? For example, blockchain is used to generate bitcoins, which cannot be copied. They exist in a finite, global quantity, and that is why the work as money.)  It’s funny that the sensors are hacked, corrupting the data which the perfect blockchain AIs unwittingly absorb. It’s like the state of journalism, ha!

This is a classic replay of the flaw of technological romance, the insistence that the newest, most promising, most powerful technology is of course immune to human greed and corruption. It’ll fix everything this time, we’re sure of it!

chardevSetting and Characterization
Meg noted, despite Schroeder being a futurist with a degree in Foresight Studies, “he had a hard time describing virtual places.” Many agreed, there was an unconvincing and random quality to the VR interfaces. Everyone agreed that the Peruvian rainforest segment was beautifully described. Maybe that was not a mistake, since by the end of the book, the aim is to sort of re-diefy nature.

Also, the romance and sex in the book was so trite it was barely there. Nikita pointed out that Schroeder was raised in a Canadian Mennonite community. This was during the portion of our discussion about the book’s unidimensional characterizations. Regarding the protagonist, Sura, Meg said, “I never worried about her. Too much like a video game figure. But at least video game characters get to die.” Ha! Chris said, “She didn’t have an arc, a hero’s journey.” Dave added, “No – she has a payoff, namely the meaning of her parental loss.”

Schroeder doesn’t do women, doesn’t do sexy, but the ideas hold it together. Gill’s last word, “You never get a sense of what makes these characters tick. But it was worth the ride.”

Waving compass character cartoon styleThe Character of Compass
Compass is a friend of Sura’s who turns out to have a selective type of amnesia. Compass remembers who she is in the present, but she can not remember how she got here. She is unable to recollect her own past to conjure a continuous identity, so she lingers in different VR character frames to keep herself sane. In Chris’s words: “prosthetic personality disorder.”

A Special Announcement
During our end-of-discussion chat, Meg shared some delightful news: she’s had a story accepted for publication by Analogue Science Fiction Magazine!!! It’s a 10,000 word novella (of which they only print 2 per issue) called “Flashmob.” Watch for it. WAY TO GO, MEG! Too cool! 😀

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Join us next week for our discussion of Stanislaw Lem’s “Let Us Save The Universe.”


Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

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P.S. The notes!

p.88 – is it the end of drudgery, or a new running wheel for capitalism’s rats?

p.89 – good rant on the new economy. Shoveling garbage IRL becomes an in-game resource. People are getting paid in virtu for proxy tasks in situ. It’s like spending real world money on Warcraft gold. Virtual worlds are only instantiated if they have an economy. That’s a threadbare “world.”

p.82 – the Cahokian Elder and the orchard forests of the past.

p.89 – the thundering roar of forest sounds in the days before humans, and lumber.

p.89 – another rant that puts me in the mind of  “Everybody Knows” by Don Henly (also, covered by Concrete Blonde in the 90s!). The “black people standing around” line gave me pause. In the Henly song, the lyric is: “old black Joe’s still picking cotton. Everybody knows.”

p.91 – geography bows under the weight of the gaze

p.106 – luck talk/monopoly. The illusion of the self-made man.

p.113 Proudly Eagle Owned! carshare service. A blockchain AI corporation with no human members. requires lots of sensors.

p.120-1 – All that ‘splainin’ and I still don’t get it. How is this different than using USD to buy Warcraft tokens.

p.122 – oracles? I am not gripped. Who understands this?

p.130 – my eyes are glazing over

p.167 – parallel Americas: poverty-stricken and wealthy, clean and surveilled or filthy and private?

p.169-70 – How the wealthy cope with privacy loss. “Whitelisting” your face in the recognition databases.

p.169 “Who really runs the show?”
This question, this premise, the axiomatic belief itself that a “who” clandestinely wields world-controlling power. There is the kernal of God and conspiracy theorist in that simplistic framing of the question.
CONSIDER THIS: The show runs us. Even if humans “built” it.
So many forces at play, so many instances of greed and stupidity, as well as genius and generosity, so many people out for themselves and their ilk that no one runs the show, because everyone’s is. Think of Caesar’s assassination. Everybody was in on it, and almost none of them agreed with each other on any other points but the knives’.

p.177-8 – nice touch. the case for total surveillance. Pf. So, how to preserve privacy in this total immersion surveillance?

p.178 – Andrew Yang outlines some of this in real life terms in The War On Normal People

p.179 – an idea similar to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock

p.183 – the most important thing about AI is not what it thinks, but what it thinks it is.

p.190 – totally, the “solution” is as bad as the problem.

p.199 – the virtues of blockchain avocado tracing.

p.212 – the human heart, at it again.

p.260 – actants and deodands: AIs acting on behalf of externalities and non-human life. We’ve tagged every plant, animal, and square foot of soil in this stand of forest. Nevermind the litter. Now, using an interface we’ve written, the big data from those sensors can manifest as an interactive AI.

p.264 – so it’s basically like a mushroom trip in nature, but instead of mushrooms to talk to the forest spirits, you use sensors that represent every living thing in the forest and talk to the AI that is amalgamated from that sensor data. How’s the bear doing? How are the moles doing? How’s the fungal soil layer doing? It’s all somewhere in there.

p.264 – “There are more organizational principles at work in just this one forest than humanity has invented in ten thousand years”

p.265 – the mycelial mind

p.271 – Phil Dick homage line: “They are that which is still there, even when you stop believing in them.”

p.272 – An AI with a unique worldview, not borrowing a human worldview.

p.287 – The interface is the mask.

Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading

Grab your gear, reader, summer’s on! Join us for another sunbaked expedition into the Uncanny Valley, with your intrepid hosts, David Gill and Suhail Rafidi.

Where & When? (IRL and Online)
Wednesday night discussions, 7:00 PM Pacific (6/17, 6/24, 7/1, 7/8, 7/15)
For those reading along at home, you can tune in live via Zoom link, which is emailed out the day of the discussion. Contact myself or David for the link. As usual, I will post the discussion after the event.

What Are We Reading?
Three novels, a novella, and a short story covering 5 authors: Karl Schroeder, Stanislaw Lem, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip K. Dick, and Martha Wells. Get your copy from your local library, bookstore, online store, or friend’s shelf. The Stanislaw Lem story is available at the New Yorker archives, but requires a free subscription.

The Meetings
June 17:
Stealing Worlds (2019) – Karl Schroeder
June 24: “Let Us Save The Universe” (1971) (In English in the New Yorker in, 1981) – Stanisław Lem.
July 1: We (1924) – Yevgeny Zamyatin
July 8: We Can Build You (1962, published 1972) – Philip K. Dick
July 15: All Systems Red (2017) – Martha Wells

stealingworldsschroeder

Karl Schroeder’s 12th novel is a virtual worlds detective caper set in the near future. A young adult primer on the implications of blockchain and AI in our corporate futures. For some background, listen to Schroeder’s interview on The Bitcoin Podcast #288.

lemsavetheuniverseStanisław Lem’s short story “Let Us Save The Universe,” was first published in 1971. The English translation was published in the December 14, 1981 issue of The New Yorker. A call to action to clean up the solar system, with Lem-ish levity.

zamyatinweLike many thought-provoking Russian novels of its time, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 authoritarian dystopia, We, was first published in translation outside of Russia. I’m pleased to announce that we’ll have Russian scholar Nikita Alligre joining us for this discussion. He’ll give us some sweet sweet literary background on Zamyatin and the circle of writers he ran with. This looks to be a groovy session.

wecanbuildyouPKDAs we are hosted by the Internet’s first and foremost Total Dick-Head, we’re definitely going to Phil up this summer! We’re tapping David’s expertise this season, and reading PKD’s We Can Build You, written in 1962 and not published until 1972. This book stands as a conceptual prequel to Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.

marthawellsallsystemsredMartha Wells kicked off her Murderbot Diaries with this well received adventure novella. Weighing in at just under 100 pages, it is reputed to be a potent and accessible gateway drug into her subsequent novels.

Now crack a book, and let’s DO THIS! See you soon.


With The Total Dick Head Himself!

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

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: 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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait in the station for the next one.

Chris: Heh, nice.

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

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

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

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

Tasty BBQ wins the evening.

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

Suhail: Heh, nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

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

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

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

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

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Reading notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BANANA BREAD BREAK! (Thank you, Marta!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With The Total Dick Head Himself!

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

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Manjula Padmanabahn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh...?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

“Bloodless; but it’s big in Uqbar.”

What I say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this pizza.

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

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

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