Uncanny Valley Digest: Rachel Pollack’s Burning Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset dances, from Christiana Gaudet
Good sex at last!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

 

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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.
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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.

Nope.

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.)

Getty

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!