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!


Uncanny Valley Digest: Ted Chiang

“Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang

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

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


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

More like this.

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

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

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

Heptapod, by Anna Deef
by Anna Deef

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: James Tiptree, Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Cordwainer Smith

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

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

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

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

Meg: Both of these stories are anthologized a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

Gill: Very freudian dark abyss void staring back at us

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

Planoforming- using telepaths to navigate faster than light travel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

p.297 Lady May experiences things before Underhill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading. Reading rules!

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:

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.

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:

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

Chili Bill’s Book Release Party!

chili_book_3-01 - EditedMost widely recognized as the San Francisco folk hero on “a quest to eat at every Chinese restaurant in San Francisco,” local culture-champion William “Chili Bill” Eichinger lived his life to its fullest. Upon his death, Bill left behind a considerable body of writing (aside from his published restaurant reviews); a rich fount of local history and cultural commentary.

This Sunday, December 6th, at 3:00 PM, join us at Finnegan’s Wake (Bill’s last place of employment) to celebrate his life and the long-awaited release of Chili’s book of collected works. Join his fans, friends, and loved ones as we toast and feast to Chili Bill; and learn more about San Francisco history than you knew before.

In the spirit of Herb Caen, Chili penned scores of essays recounting his post-WWII midwestern childhood, and vividly illustrating his development, as well as the nation’s, as the powerful cultural currents of the 60s took hold and spread. Bill was at the epicenter of that blossoming here in San Francisco.

chili_book_3-01 - Edited (1)Chili first visited San Francisco during the Summer of Love when he was in college. Like many others, he left his heart here. He briefly returned to his hometown Kansas City just long enough to finish college. In 1970, he migrated to San Francisco with the counterculture movement and lived out the rest of his life in his beloved City by the Bay.

Chili Bill achieved local fame for his restaurant review blog, thechilidog.net, sporting the motto “Eat to live; live to eat.” It was the platform for his “Quest to eat at every Chinese Restaruant in San Francisco.” He covered over 430 Chinese eateries before his death in September of 2013.

This Sunday, December 6th, come to the book release party for The Collected Works Of William “Chili Bill” Eichinger! At last, his humorous, insightful, cantakerous voice is immortalized in a beautiful, photo-laden volume.

Sunday, December 6, 2015
3:00 PM – until the books sell out!
Finnegan’s Wake
937 Cole Street
San Francisco CA 94117

Purchase The Paperback Online:

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More on Chili Bill:



Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

spinradIronDreamcoverWednesday Nights Summer 2015
Next meet: July 15th, 7PM (Pacific Time)
Have read: The Iron Dream (1972, Norman Spinrad)
Online and San Francisco

Greetings science fiction aficionados! This summer, descend with us into the uncanny valley! The Total Dick Head’s Science Fiction Summer Reading Group is back!
Many of you were participants last year, and all of you are wholeheartedly invited to join this year’s Sci-Fi Summer Reading Group. As last year, it will be moderated by the Total Dick Head, David Gill, and author Suhail Rafidi.

We convene every Wednesday evening at 7:00 PM Pacific Time, webcasting live from our science fiction laboratory here in San Francisco. Special guests will be announced.

Webcast links! Bookmark away!
Google Hangout [https://plus.google.com/hangouts/_/g5stgywth5n76vwbbyicm4jkqea]
YouTube Channel [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vIyebXYXi4]
Facebook Event Page [https://www.facebook.com/events/1586981878218171]

Members of the group who are in San Francisco are encouraged to attend live and enrich the discussion, at the sci fi lab, 812 31st Avenue, SF, CA, 94121. All else please tune in to the webcast.

The group will cover 7 books this summer, one per week, beginning Wednesday, June 10th, until Wednesday, July 29th. [You’ll note this is 8 Wednesdays for 7 books, as we will be skipping one hitherto undisclosed Wednesday in late July.]

Check out the reading list below. The last book(s) are tentative entries, subject to change by the moderator, or by group consensus.

Reading List:
The Space Merchants (1953) – Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
Flatland (1884) – Edwin A. Abbot
A Canticle For Leibowitz (1960) – Walter M. Miller
Starship Troopers (1959) – Robert Heinlein
The Shadow Of The Torturer (Book Of The New Sun, Vol. 1) (1980) – Gene Wolfe
The Iron Dream (1972) – Norman Spinrad
[The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi]
[Afterparty – Daryl Gregory]

Uncanny Valley Digest: A Canticle For Leibowitz

A_Canticle-for _Leibowitz_BookCoverLiterature is like pornography: You know it when you see it. This is the first book we’ve read this summer that is literature. Our A Canticle For Leibowitz discussion ran deep! Notes follow. With so much ground to cover, and a brief visitation by a mystery guest, we had a very satisfying hash of a very stimulating book. We even finished the salami. “It’s definitely a genre smasher.” -Gill


Some Background on Walter M. Miller, Jr.?
A tail gunner in WWII who signed up right after Pearl Harbor. Saw lots of action; 50 missions. Including destroying the Abbey of Monte Cassino, an experience which inspired A Canticle For Leibowitz. He became a Catholic after the war. Unable to shake depression for the rest of his life. He didn’t know how many people he’d killed. Committed suicide in 1996.

It was written at the beginning of the cold war.
So believable, the fear of nuclear war was constantly rising, rising.
Canticle was originally serialized in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine before its hardcover publication in 1960 by Lippencott. Another important book was also recently released by this publisher. That book was Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959). Published by Lippencott in hardcover the year before.

Also in 1959: Russia’s Luna spacecraft is launched. Castro is approaching Havana. Batista is still in charge. Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash.

Hugo Gernsback was a prick!For those of you who believe in Hugo Awards:
Starship Troopers won the Hugo in 1960
A Canticle For Leibowitz won the Hugo in 1961
Stranger In A Strange Land won the Hugo in 1962
Dick won the Hugo in 1963, for Man In The High Castle
Hugo in 1964 goes to Here Gather The Stars by Clifford Semac
Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein 1967
Zelazny wins Lord of Light in 1968
Left Hand Of Darkness by LeGuin in 1970
Wow, quite a sequence.

Dig her site...

“He’s actually underestimating the consequences of nuclear war. A nuclear holocaust would have been a lot worse.” – Gill

Miller’s premises while he explores the human condition:

  1. Human beings destroy other humans not because of something some other human did the actions of others, but because part of the nature of human beings is to destroy other human beings. The violence does not abate, no matter what technological level we get to.
  2. Our entire capacity for goodness and evil is encapsulated in humanity, in the actual living people. Miller often treats humanity as a single organism.
  3. These characters are alienated from their origins. They don’t know why they exist, just that they do. And it tricks the reader! “Oh thank goodness I’m not alienated from my origins as they are, oh wait, I am as alienated, but I’m just more familiar with my own context.” They’re witness to the future, but they’re disembodied from the body of knowledge that brought them there. Alienated from their origins. Everyone in the book. And us. This book is our condition as well.
  4. Human beings need tight control, or shit hits the fan. Discipline is key!
    “When man gets loose, loose gets man.” – Gill

In The Uncanny Valley... Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 8.40.30 PM Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 8.02.04 PM Screen shot 2015-06-24 at 8.01.47 PMTHE THREE PARTS

Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man)
Rediscovering and copying the esoteric knowledge. Building the case for Leibowitz’s sainthood, based on the findings of brave Brother Francis. The manuscripts! The copysits! The Discovery!

The Flame Deluge
Even knowledge was destroyed. Cities were reduced to rubble, the survivors became nomads and villagers. Illiteracy spiked. The mutations caused by the radioactive fallout create an entire outcast grotesque strata of humanity, called Monstrosities, who are avoided and sequestered.

That whole Simplification business, ignorance with pride. Mobs of proud illiterates furious as the smart people who burned the world and mutated their species.  These monks know how to recognize knowledge, but not understand it. They preserve it, against the superstitious simpletons. They make copies of it because they know it matters. He’s recasting the Dark Ages. Leibowitz died protecting knowledge from the simpletons.

1986 Cover Art by Peter ThropeNikita noted the patience of the ascetic life, the non-goal oriented lifestyle of these monks. lives are counted in years, but their actions take lifetimes. Francis spends 7 years as a novice! 15 years on the illuminated blueprint replica!

Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)
Thon Taddeo. Secular intellectual who joined the order to use his mind for work and avoid hard labor, not for God. The pride that comes with knowledge, and the fall that comes with pride.

Argument between Thon Taddeo the scientific scholar and Dom Paulo, the Abbot in charge of the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, where the memorabila reside. Thon Taddeo’s blasphemous idea, after reading a fragment (of Karl Capek’s R.U.R, perhaps? Suhail deduces) about a created race made inferior to their creators. And the Robot revolt, conjecturing that their present race of humans was created by a prior superior form of man, which died off in the Flame Deluge. This incenses the abbot, who points out that text was verified as merely a fragment of a play, then retorts,

“Why do you take delight in leaping to such a wild conjecture from so fragile a springboard? Why do you wish to discredit the past, even to dehumanizing the last civilization? So that you need not learn from their mistakes? Or can it be that you can’t bear being only a ‘rediscoverer,’ and must feel that you are a ‘creator’ as well?”

Good question! Why don’t some people want to believe that humans alone can do all of this? When I hear people attribute great engineering feats of antiquity to aliens, I also wonder something. The pyramids, Stonehenge – why don’t you want to believe that humans were able to do that? If we can do holocausts, we can do pyramids.

Click for the big picture.

The backdrop of this powerful contention between the Abbot and the Thon is the rising power of a marauding empire sending reaching out to engulf the church itself, a political maneuvering meant to take over the church, insisting under pain of death that only the emperor was allowed to license the clergy, not the church, Pope, or Holy See. Progress is coming, so get your bandages, Taddeo warns.

Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let They Will Be Done)
Mrs. Grales forgiving God for his Justice, in the confessional, as the next nuclear holocaust begins. Remarkable imagry. The two headed Mrs. Grales/Rachel speaking of forgiving God, before He forgives her. It opens up a meditation on what forgiveness entails on the part of the forgiver. A relinquishing of anger. Giving before it is necessitated. Forgiving. A very sophisticated emotional condition.

Or this.

Forgiving God to give up mankind’s bitterness at God for allowing pain and suffering. Because if God hadn’t allowed pain and suffering, courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice would be meaningless.

The Order’s position: Leibowitz loved the wisdom of the world more than the wisdom of God, but when that did not make peace and happiness, he turned towards God, crying. The order is showing us what it values in their own endeavor. Their job is to bind knowledge and ethics, a great integrator. A structured hierarchical authority.

There’s something about Miller’s voice.
The humor is very important. The book would be almost impossibly heavy without it. The characters eclipse the plot, first and foremost, but the plot is so powerful it’s difficult to notice. Very character driven. Makes the info dumps are much more palatable.

For example, Chap 24, opening paragraph, culminating in “a race of impassioned after dinner speech makers.”
“If you’re gonna pretty much nail the human condition, that’s how you’re going to do it.” – Gill

Would you like to know more...?

Is this book pro-religion or not?
The ethical imperative of religion’s role in human experience. With as much incrimination of religion that he sneaks in, he gives it its due, responsible for ethics.
It felt authentic, his descriptions of the church hierarchy weren’t contrived. He did his homework. He pays dear deep respect to the church and religion’s ethical imperative.

Nowell felt “Knowledge-impoverished by not having more bible knowledge. They’re blowing right by me, but I don’t have enough Christian bible knowhow to be able to hold my own in this thing.”

What Does It Need?
“Female characters would be nice.”
“What a movie this would make!”
“You could go Lord Of The Rings and go three three-hour movies of this.” – Gill
“That would be incredible.” – Nikita

This book is just aching for a Foucault reading, and a Latin supplement.
An annotated critical edition, with maybe an introduction by Letham?
Tim powers, from OC, Dick’s friend, Hugo award winner, devout Catholic. What does he think about this book?
How would you teach it?Teaching it
Essay Question:
How are the Rachel head of Mrs. Grales and the disembodied eye of the Poet symbolic of the Church’s function in the narrative?
An observer of progress, a preserver of knowledge that it does not understand.
“And it has to be written in latin.” -Nikita
Regarding nukes, check out a documentary called Trinity and Beyond about how many nukes were test detonated overground in the days leading up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and throughout the cold war. We’ve been nuking ourselves for decades.

Wrap up: It’s a masterpiece.

Uncanny Valley Digest: Flatland

flatlandLast night’s Flatland discussion was on point! Notes are included below. Good turnout, close readings, and some laughs! Thank you to Nowell and Robert for coming to the studio for the live table. We had online attendees from L.A., Chicago, and Mexico. Though the book is short, everyone agreed it was a dense and slow read, that was occasionally pleasant. It’s more of a philosophical treatise, or youth primer on abstract thought, than a story. Thoroughly allegorical, and definitely satirical. But, as David remarked, “Is it art?”


Here are notes and thoughts captured from our discussion of Flatland:

Lines, triangles, squares, polygons, nobility. HA! Class stratification based on your number of sides. Also, inevitable generational social advancement, like evolution.

Chapter 3. There is deep intentional satire here.
Assimilate the leaders of rebellion to prevent revolt. The poor and disadvantaged are turned against each other.

Chapter 4. All females are legally and culturally obliged to shake their asses at all times. We’re not kidding.

Come on over!Chapter 5. Touch recognition and sight recognition.
Theme: Being able to distinguish between classes and genders means A LOT to Flatlanders, and that is part of the satire. It takes a lot of expensive training to aptly discern the differences between classes and genders. A tremendous amount of social, cultural, and cognitive energy is dedicated to being able to distinguish between classes and genders.

[Remember: their only organ of apprehension is both an eye and a mouth.]

Outcast, deficient blue-bloods cause most revolts.Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 8.40.29 PM

Chapter 7. Irregulars and Square’s eugenics tendencies. Even though some Irregulars are culture-bearing geniuses, we should still kill them all. DANG!!!

The Color Revolt. Randy art! Even a circle becomes an artist! Ah, lost Belle Epoque!
Then the political treachery. And now the priests keep color locked up tightly all for themselves.

Chapter 18. The fascism. If we can’t explain it, we’ll incarcerate everyone who witnessed it.

Meticulous world building. After laying out all those rules, he makes them really affect the characters later in the book. He follows the rules of his world.

But is it art?
Is this enlightened tongue in cheek satire or is it pedantic pap too conscious of itself?
David Gill: “He doesn’t know about storytelling, he’s painting by numbers.”
It’s as clunky as golden age sci fi.
A ham fisted social critique.
It’s art*. (*The way that it changes you is very pedestrian.)
Problematic (seriously fucked up) woman question:Chapter 4. Concerning the Women

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.48.14 PMInteresting:
Dan found an online edition of Flatland that where the protagonist was female. an apocryphal modern adaptation by Suzanne Fox Buchele. Additionally, Buchele omits the Color Revolution.

Using the math to cushion the fascist state depictions.
Dan mentions: “Despite the class and gender problems, the math angle on it made it a pleasant story, more palatable.” To lure readers into considering the social critique.
Pantocyclus and the Platonic Nazis:Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 8.35.57 PM
If you are not born into a platonic form, you will be changed into one or destroyed in the process.

Gill: “The rod up this things butt has a rod up its butt.”
Even as a critique of Victorian tightness it’s a little tight.

Contemporary CONTEXT
Who are some other writers, thinkers, and artists active during this period?
John Ruskin(Stones of Venice, etc.)
William Morris (Another writer of social utopias, and a father of arts and crafts movement.)
Utopian writers of the time, idealized social and artistic comments.
Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, also contemporaries
Lewis Carroll, working on similar stuff
A contemporary (late 19th century) idealization of medieval times.
“Can you imagine how bad things had to be to get nostalgic for medieval times???”
And Charles Darwin.
Abbott’s Darwinian approach toward polygonism. Each generation has one more side than the last, evolution plays out assuredly.
All are challenging Victorian notions of things. He’s part of this historical current.

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.43.29 PM Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.36.59 PM Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.37.01 PMScreen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.24.41 PM

Nikita: “It’s a very hierarchical rationalist positivist medieval style of writing.”
Nikita commented on “the difference between profundity and insanity.”
David asked, “Is that like the difference between clever and stupid?”

Gill says: The allegorical literary pedigree of this writing is like Baum’s Oz books, especially Wizard Of Oz.
With a deep extended metaphor that has meaning beyond its surface

An excellent illustrated digression toward the end of the discussion.
Cool book, Robert!

Pre-TV reading. Pre-radio reading.
Like Moby Dick (which made it to the table tonight in reference), it is a kind of prose that serves many functions that we now ascribe to TV, Internet, and Radio. All of these desires for entertainment were served back then by reading.

...and Dante in the middle.
Somehow, Divine Comedy and Moby Dick got involved.

Chapter 19
Robert: “It’s Dante. He’s doing Dante here.”
When the 3rd dimension sphere takes him on a tour of the third, the square promptly wants to go to marvel at the 4th, 5th, and 6th dimensions. And the sphere says, no, you’re crazy. We don’t have them.

Suhail: “This is my favorite part of the whole book, thought it took too long to get there.”

Square quickly infers that dimensions musn’t stop at three. Square says about the next dimensions: “Or if it indeed be so that this other Space is really Thoughtland, take me to that blessed Region where I in Thought shall see the insides of all solid things.”
Nikita called it “The eye seeing itself seen.”

Square returns home to Flatland to tell people what happened.
Robert: “There are stages of illumination and if you’re not illuminated, how can you comprehend?”
Nikita: transcendence of your perspectival position
A reading of Dante (Paradiso, Canto 1, Ciardi translation):

“I have been in that Heaven of His most light,
and what I saw those who descend from there
lack both the knowledge and the power to write.
For as our intellect draws near its goal
it opens to such depths of understanding
as memory cannot plumb within the soul.
Nevertheless, whatever portion time
still leaves me of the treasure of that Kingdom
shall now become the subject of my rhyme.”

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 7.43.14 PM
Nikita studying a portrait of Edwin A. Abbott

Dig This: Robert had a gorgeous annotated edition of Flatland, from the Mechanics Library in San Francisco. One of the annotations explained: color and brightness are also dimensions! We’ve been living in more than three dimensions for a while.

How is it sci fi?
It explores insurmountable differences between simultaneous realities; a very old narrative.
When Dante returns from Paradise, he says he can not describe the extra dimension he’s been to, but he must try. This is what happens to Square. The Sphere is Square’s Virgil. Abbott is using this stuff. It’s his literary and academic context.

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 8.46.55 PM

“A Canticle For Leibowitz will put this piece of dogshit to shame.” -Gill
“How would you write Flatland?” asked Robert.
This lead to a bit about E.M. Forester’s concepts of Flat and Round characters. Flat characters exist only to advance plot, like evil stepmother. Round characters are their own story. David said he’d write flat characters for the 2D parts, then add emotional depth to the characters in the 3D parts.

Wrap up: Most didn’t like it as a narrative, but all agree, “It got me thinking about things.”