Tag: science fiction

Must we mean what we telepathically say?

Theodore Sturgeon
Vintage, 1999

Sturgeon’s novel is the most classically SF work on the McCaffery 100, and it helped explain why the commentary I read about him stress the short fiction. This book is actually a fix-up, common during the 50s, and the transition from pulp to book-length publishing, with short pieces getting anthologized into “novels.” MTH is made of three novellas, “The Fabulous Idiot,” “Baby is Three,” and “Morality,” and the form fits the theme: the novel is bearing witness to a gestalt, multiple human bodies comprising a single organism, the next stage in our evolution.

Homo gestaltus arises in the country side, with children and adults developing ESP, teleportation, and telekinesis — strikingly, it includes two little black girls with the rest of the white children, striking given that it was written in the eaerly 50s. The issues of integration are baked into the book’s structure, but I figure it caught the eye of McCaffery because it resonates so much with early 20th century theories, namely phenomenology and psychoanalysis.

 The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead. (1)

These great opening lines introduce Lone, a mute. “many-windowed” is an elegant way to de-familiarize clothes with holes, voids that expose and reveal but also admit light and with it perception.

The narrator is descriptive but struggles to articulate the “thing” inside Lone:

All around it, to its special senses, was a murmur, a sending. It soaked itself in the murmur, absorbed it as it came, all of it. Perhaps it matched and classified, or perhaps it simply fed, taking what it needed and discarding the rest in some intangible way. The idiot was unaware. The thing inside. …

Without words: Warm when the wet comes for a little but not enough for long enough. (Sadly): Never dark again. A feeling of pleasure. A Sense of subtle crushing and Take away the pink, the scratchy. Wait, wait, you can go back, yes, you can go back. Different, but almost as good. (Sleep feelings): Yes, that’s it! That’s the — oh! (Alarm): You’ve gone too far, come back, come back, come — (A twisting, a sudden cessation; and one less “voice.”)… It all rushes up, faster, faster, carrying me. (Answer): No, no. Nothing rushes. It’s still; something pulls you down on to it, that’s all(Fury): They don’t here us, stupid, stupid…they do…They don’t, only crying, only noises.

Without words, though. Impression, depression, dialogue. Radiations of fear, tense fields of awareness, discontent. (3)

Lone does not yet understand that he can read minds, and is picking up the infantile psychic utterances of the children of the gestalt. The first novella is a bracing string of micro scenes with space breaks — more narrative/thematic dis-integration, and the novel racing to set up all the dominoes which fall across the next two, leisurely paced sections.

I like how the text dives headfirst into the question of thinking and language, stating that psychic thoughts arrive “without words” then immediately proceeding to put them into words. If I could send a message directly to the mind, it seems too easy to imagine a verbal utterance in one’s head, like when a movie puts reverb on an actor’s line. Would it be an incomprehensible mush of abstract feelings and organic sensations? To me the novel argues that however telepathy works here, it operates as a linguistic code, which can be represented with words and tampered with via psychoanalysis and recovery of the repressed.

After an important contact with Alicia Kew, who grew up under an unltra-repressive father,  Lone, mauled and nearly unconscious, is taken in by a kind farmer couple named the Prodds. And indeed they prod him into speech, and raise him as a surrogate son. He leaves them when he can read that they want him gone, but still visits. After breakfast one day:

When he was finished they all sat around the table and for a time nobody said anything. Lone looked into Prodd’s eyes and found He’s a good boy but not the kind to set around and visit. He couldn’t understand the visit imagea vague and happy blur of conversation — sounds and laughter. He recognized this as one of the many lacks he was aware of in himself — lacks, rather than inadequacies; things he could not do and would never be able to o. So he just asked Prodd for the ax and went out. (41)

Brazenly, the word “visit” is categorized as an “image.” If that seems too easy, I think it’s in the service of lucid but not too conventional narration: it highlights the formal sound patterns embedded in language like a structuralist would, as well as the signifying nature of “visions” from the unconscious, as a psychoanalyst would.

Delany has a sophisticated, semiotic distinction between SF and so-called literature, but for simplicity I’ll just say that SF as a genre (genre itself being a bundle of historical assumptions constantly being undermined) is preoccupied with questions of technology. Like I said about Butler’s “Speech Sounds”, language can be related to as a technology in SF. Paul de Man described language as both the material and the tool; it’s embedded in the world as we perceive it, yet fundamentally different from reality. And despite reading and writing being solitary and silent activities, language is fundamentally a social tool.

We shall welcome the gestalt (and the anti-gravity engine, but that’s a McGuffin) as the purest expression of this aporia that has conditioned our existence. It may be clear why SF fans stick with the short stories, but it’s also clear why Delany, in his Paris Review interview, included Sturgeon with Bester, Zelazny, Russ, and Disch as science fiction’s high brow crew.

lady friends on the lady planet


the Straight Agenda strikes again.

my punishment for skipping out on the Mariner books copy of Stanislaw Lem’s SOLARIS is enduring George Clooney’s ugly mug and having this repulsive heterosexuality thrust in my face. Lem’s disappointment with both the Tarkovsky and Soderbergh film versions is well documented, but the latter has extra salt, reducing a complex sci-fi concept into a metaphor for a troubled marriage and heterotopia. granted, the love story in SOLARIS was really compelling and had a lot of pathos at the end. but ill get the shit out of the way first.

there must be a sub-genre of the novel of ideas in which a woman (or a mechanical reproduction of a woman) is destroyed for the man to actualize himself. THOMAS THE OBSCURE belongs where this circle and the Existentialist Male Sociopath circle overlap.

so here we join Kris Kelvin who travels so many light years to encounter Solaris and its surface-spanning ocean; a planet size white whale, something categorically beyond human imagination. the ocean is also coded as a woman. the ocean probes Kelvin’s memories and constructs a simulacrum of his dead wife who committed suicide (Kelvin feels responsible). the other chauvinist scientists on board have lady friends too: the late Gibrarian was visited by a “primitive Negress” and she has every Orientalist/colonialist visual cliche.

moreover, the ocean itself embodies female characteristics. it creates spaces, holes, openings, accommodating the aircraft that fly through it; it kills an expedition of scientists by engulfing them, as opposed to the masculine act of penetration and rupture.

The reproduction of Rheya has no memories or volition other than what Kelvin’s memories construct her to have, but womanly instincts are beyond such things. in the library which holds a century plus of Solaristics and probably has your standard liberal arts catalog, she goes for the cookbook, and is happy to clear the table and do the dishes while the male scientists sit around, being crazy slobs, ruminating out loud about that damn ocean. what does she want?!

and then when Rheya Prime is finally granted agency, she kills herself. whomp.

but ill be kinder to this 60s sci-fi now. after all, the given in the story is that Solaris and the ocean are beyond patriarchy, beyond the gender binary, beyond language, beyond analogy, beyond everything!

there are long discussions about the ocean and the structures it builds. they’re my favorite parts. (an ocean of text to match the mysteries of the ocean; the imperialist impulse within literature cropping up once again.)

It is almost certain that the unlikely descriptions are unverifiable, since the ocean seldom repeats itself. The freakish character and gigantic scale of these phenomena go too far outside the experience of man to be grasped by anybody observing them for the first time, and who would consider analogous occurrences as ‘sports of nature,’ accidental manifestations of blind forces, if he saw them on a reduced scale, say in a mud-volcano on Earth. (111)

these structures, which sprout up and out of the ocean like a solar prominence, but are also intricate in their architecture like Gothic cathedrals, serve no purpose that the scientists can figure out. (notice the inadequate analogies i resort to.) they dont have any apparent instrumental value. the scientists cant even be sure they’re meant to communicate anything at all. they are a-semiotic.

not that a lack of instrumental value is a bad thing (though the notion might be more and more unpalatable to a neoliberal culture run by a STEM and managerial mindset). the first time i tripped on mushrooms is still my favorite psychedelic experience because it was the strongest and also because i had no intentions of “getting anything” out of it. my mind was simply there, you know? it was a transitory and glorious moment of experience untainted by meaning.

but the narrative also suggests the ocean is just as helpless in understanding humans as they are of it. the interrogation of Berton, which Tarkovsky moved to the beginning, brings up this point. while flying over the ocean he sees a giant baby, another one of the ocean’s structures:

The movements I saw were…er…yes, that’s it, they were methodical movements. They were performed one after another, like a series of exercises; as though someone had wanted to make a study of what this child was capable of doing with its hands, its torso, its mouth. (82)

Kris’s station mate Snow brings up another point, which im paraphrasing because i didnt note it down because im a good reader: that if the ocean is just one ocean, it doesnt have a conception of the Other which burdens humankind. it doesnt understand limits, and so freely penetrates the minds of the human scientists who just as freely drop nukes on it.

a final note on something i cant “read” into significance: along with the other dualisms in the novel is the fact that Solaris orbits a binary star system: a red giant and a blue giant. i dunno how it fits, or if the red days and blue days make a pattern. but the descriptions of the different lighting were beautiful, and a third adaptation of SOLARIS should do something with that.

space noir in blue, red, and green

IMG_0047The second rip of Burroughs’s Nova Trilogy has left my brain blown apart into discrete pieces before being pasted back together like the collage of consciousness presented in the book — which is to say i dont know where to begin. (The beginning of the book, in a slightly different version than my edition’s text, can be heard aloud from the author here.)

There might be at least three global catastrophes involving the mass combustion of the Earth, a Lovecraftian or Event Horizon-esque descent into violence and depravity and madness among the human population, and the swift destruction of all language leaving silence in its wake. There’s also a brief scene of a boiler explosion on a ship. There’s an odd Biological Court bureaucracy in which lawyers fold-in their reports with pages from Kafka. We learn a bit about the elusive Nova Mob, opposed by a righteous Nova Police Agency. A noir story in outer space is spliced in with newspaper articles, Shakespeare, THE GREAT GATSBY, Conrad, and Joyce’s DUBLINERS (typically the final words). Although NOVA EXPRESS is often listed as the third book, Oliver Harris’s introduction informs us that it is in fact the middle volume, although it’s also the third book of a trilogy including NAKED LUNCH and THE SOFT MACHINE, which is explicitly acknowledged in the text. Nothing’s ever straight with W S. B.


battle of the sexes in 70s SF

image found here
image found here

James Tiptree Jr.’s novelette “The Women Men Don’t See” has not gotten any less relevant or interesting since 1973 — at least that’s my impression.

Our narrator is some middle aged d00d who seems to work for the government. He has crashed with a Maya pilot and two plain women, mother and daughter. With the mother, Ruth Parson, he crosses the bay, a mangrove swamp, for freshwater. It’s a first-person present tense narration, even though he’s situated in the future recalling the narrative. It keeps the reader a little off-kilter, much like he is in this sweltering jungle, with an injury, and on painkillers. His descriptions of the plane, the weather, and the environment are precise — he understands everything around him except the women, naturally.


two SF shorts on language

image found here
image found here

In Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” a pandemic virus has swept the globe, killing a huge amount of people and leaving survivors permanently brain-damaged. The language center is hit hardest — some people can no longer form speech, others are illiterate. Our protagonist Rye used to be a teacher but she can no longer read, and the sickness has wiped out her entire immediate family. She can speak, but it’s not safe to verbalize in this post-virus Los Angeles where appearing “superior” draws the violence of envious strangers.

It’s a rollicking story, entirely action-driven. And it’s an interesting take on the post-apocalypse — the collapse of civilization and the loss of all advanced technology determines the setting, but the focus of the story is the loss of less concrete things. We aren’t used to seeing money or language as technologies, but if these constructs go, we can see how everything else will go after it. How do you employ language to relate the events in such a world? Butler makes really cool decisions in narration and detail, and on the first reading i flew right past their cleverness.


interplanetary nastipiece

image found here
image found here

[CN: Racism, antisemitism, misogyny, lewd sex, drugs]

For some reason my default reading of the title is a machine that produces soft, rather than a machine that is soft…i dont really know what’s up with me either.

A notion from Simon O’ Sullivan that I really like is that when political/ethical/theoretical discourse gets stuck in a rut and begins looping itself, literary fiction comes along and “scrambles the known codes, upsets the accepted formulae.” Burroughs’ experiments with cutting up text and with chance-based composition square with the upheavals occurring in the humanities in the sixities — THE SOFT MACHINE rails against the comforting neutrality of language and reality, showing words, time, and space to be finite dimensions that can bottom out at any moment. Not that Burroughs had any stock in reality to begin with. His serious investment in conspiracy theories embodies all the antisemitism that implies, and his contempt for women reeks from at least a few of these pages.

His style was the kind of discipline that cant really be accommodated by books or by publication since his texts arent things that can be “finished.” Like Wong Kar-wai, whose movies are made in the editing room with change after change right down to premier hour, Burroughs constantly re-mixed and re-issued, even cutting and taping changes to the galleys. Oliver Harris in the introduction has to inform us that SM is not only the first volume of the Nova trilogy, but is itself a trilogy of three different editions.

Needless to say you dont really know what’s going on as you read this work, which is basically the result of cutting together deleted scenes from NAKED LUNCH with a swath of other material, both original and from other writers, to form an acid space opera. But im totally on board with this cut-up/fold-in practice. If conventional novels create stable, “realistic” worlds that you could almost step into and explore, then SOFT MACHINE itself, like the best experimental novels, feels alive with all its undulating sliminess and organic froth. Not recommended for readers with insect phobias.