Uncanny Valley Digest: The Triumph of Mechanics by Karl Stobl

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

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

Group: HA!

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

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

David: Where’s the sci-fi?

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

Here’s looking at you…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suhail: Yes! That one.

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

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

Chris: It is Brazil-like.

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

Chris: An O. Henry story, with rabbits.

David: What do you mean?

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

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

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

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

The Triumph Of Mechanics by Karl Hans Stobl (1907)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So how dare you introduce your tykes here!”

“These? But they’re not dogs.”

“Oh, yes? What are they then?”

“They’re machines, Mr. Mayor.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, then, and — ?”

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

“Well, then, and — ?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ra — rabbits?”

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

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

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

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

“Then you take responsibility for it?”

“But of course … of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This Mr. Hopkins …” he began.

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

“A billion automated rabbits …”

“Indestructible … Indestructible,” Vorderteil confirmed.

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

“Yes, yes, but I don’t understand …”

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

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

“Where do they come from then?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Uncanny Valley Digest: 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]
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.

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.
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!

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.”

“Reiko’s Universe Box,” by Kajio Shinji

Where “Story of Your Life” is a story about almost too much science, in “Reiko’s Universe Box,” by Kajio Shinji, the science only functions metaphorically. Gill said it gave him insight into what kind of writer he is. “I’m more ‘Reiko.’”

Not Reiko.

“Reiko’s Universe Box,” by Kajio Shinji (published 1981, translated into English in 2007). This translation time lag led to a tangent about the western sci-fi scene naively “discovering” sci-fi which had always been in Asia -China, Japan, Russia, India – when they’d been reading ours the whole time.

A clean 3 act structure
1. Set up the characters and the situation, boom: universe in a box.
2. Husband punches the universe box.
3. Shit goes down. Black hole style.

From Indiana.edu

Sparse physical description, much is left to the reader’s imagination, and deftly. This story is about the marriage, their mismatch,  and the divergent relationship imploding.

Gill: “A superego marriage where society and social similarities have mandated that we be together.”

by Yoriko Nagasaki. Click for more...Cool, funky, red herrings; stuff like the anonymity of the gift giver, the detail about the manufacturer, all the false leads. Stuff you get excited about that goes nowhere. Some tangential stuff about how this is a pattern in Japanese erotic writing; little useless ancillary pleasures that function as foreplay.

The progression of their negligence of the marriage is very tidy. First he warns her about working late, then calling when late, then occasionally calling when late, never calling when late, then late more often. Their seperate lives are forming while Reiko gets more and more engrossed in the universe box. So by the time he is cheating on her, she isn’t even remembering to make him dinner anyway. And it is interesting the way her husband gets angry at her for not getting angry at his habits. Well, hey, you warned me, so what do I have to get angry at?

Each of them failed at the marriage. Like the universe box, the marriage was accelerated to its end within months.

In an improvisational way, the marriage is a universe box. Their marriage is predicated on their mismatch. There unimpassioned bond. “A superego marriage,” Gill called it. They’re both good but they don’t link up quite right and they consequently don’t have harmony. Then some forces come along that need harmony. Their lack of it affects the changes.

When the husband punches the universe box, things speed up. He shows violence. Gill referenced the “Confrontation Curve” at the husband’s outburst. A psychedelic time lapse of their marriage deteriorating. The sun is named after him, and the planets are their children.

Gill: “I’d be curious to learn about the translation process, because the way it’s described, it’s more of a solar-system box. The story has almost nothing to do with science. It is all about this couple, and what their worlds are, and what their engagement to their worlds does to them.

p. 718 “The flow of time of the universe box had accelerated drastically.”
p.    “The white giant had turned into a major black hole.”
A refrain of that theme of the two being mismatched in the beginning.
p.   “He must be a good guy, she would tell herself.”

From UniverseToday.comStock characters for the exploration. Reiko goes out and finds books and learns elementary astronomy. She becomes more addicted to staring at it. The husband stays stock, but his negligence of the marriage progresses in step with Reiko’s increased involvement with the universe box.

Did the husband become a black hole, too? (Being the namesake of the star and all.)

Given the theme of infinite regression (when Reiko speculates on another Reiko in her universe box), perhaps instead of dying like her husband, perhaps Reiko was quantum transported like an electron. Yeah, sure – no.

Tune in next week when we discuss the master of mysticism, Jorge Luis Borges‘ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” [Download PDF]

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

If you buy one book this summer...Pravic for the people!Crack a book, science fiction lovers! Summer is back and so are we. Attend four stellar Thursday nights this Summer. (6/8, 6/22, 7/6, and 8/24) Join Editor of Pravic Magazine David Gill and science fiction author Suhail Rafidi as they once again brave the Uncanny Valley, searching out the latest and greatest in science fiction writers.

Page on!This summer, we’ll be reading 6 short stories over the first 3 sessions (6/8, 6/22, 7/6) counterweighted by one thick novel (Kim Stanley Robinson’s, New York 2140) for the fourth and final discussion (8/24). So plenty of time to get started on the whopper. If pages were years, this book’d have millennia. Let’s rock.

How’s It Go?

Four Thursday night discussions, 7:00 PM Pacific (6/8, 6/22, 7/6, 8/24)
If you’re in the Bay Area and can make it live, contact us for the address.
Otherwise, the Google Hangout link:

June 8
“The Game Of Rat And Dragon,”
-by Cordwainer Smith [Download PDF]
“And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side,”
-by James Tiptree, Jr. [Download PDF]

Yes, that Ted Chaing story...June 22
“Story Of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang [Download PDF]
“Reiko’s Universe Box,” by Kajio Shinji

July 6
“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” by Jorge Luis Borges [Download PDF]
“Sharing Air,” by Manjula Padmanabhan

August 24
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Mark your calendars! Start reading now and join us this summer in the Uncanny Valley.
See you Thursday nights! (6/8, 6/22, 7/6, & 8/24)

In The Uncanny Valley...Bring it!
Dude, it’s Nowell & Nikita.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!