Monthly Archives: April 2007

Iain M. Bank’s Use of Weapons

Iain M. Bank’s Use of Weapons is an interesting SF novel about the Special Circumstances division of the Culture. Banks plays with the narrative structure to tell two stories about different people, who we’re led to believe are stories about the same individual.

The Culture is indebted to the imperialistic, white man’s burden of British history as well as the policing/meddling of post-WWII America. Banks portrays the Culture as an anarchistic collective of worlds filled with people who follow “agreed upon objectives” instead of “orders.” Also, the Culture is made out to be an altruistic bunch, who have the good of others as well as the galaxy in mind. Actually, it’s Minds with a capital M, A.I.s, that determine what’s best for the destiny of other worlds not yet part of the Culture. In a sense, Banks’ universe is full of machines that incidentally contains people who go rushing about with knees bent to fulfill the simulated vision of the machines.

I don’t buy into the altruism of the Culture, and I’m not sure if Banks wants us to do so either. In Use of Weapons, the protagonist, Zakalwe is a mercenary who implements the Culture’s plans for other worlds. The omniscient narrator describes his thoughts on this about a third of the way through the novel:

[He] saw that which cannot be seen; a concept; the adaptive, self-seeking urge to survive, to bend everything that can be reached to that end, and to remove and to add and to smash and to create so that one particular collection of cells can go on, can move onwards and decide, and keeping moving, and keeping deciding, knowing that–if nothing else–at least it lives.

And it had two shadows, it was two things; it was the need and it was the method. The need was obvious; to defeat what opposed its life. The method was that taking and bending of materials and people to one purpose, the outlook that everything could be used in the fight; that nothing could be excluded, that everything was a weapon, and the ability to handle those weapons, to find them and choose which one to aim and fire; that talent, that ability, that use of weapons (159-160).

Zakalwe is a tool of the Culture. However, he enjoys the things that he’s assigned to do. The people that Zakalwe and the Culture manipulate are objectified as means to an end. As a result of their work, real people suffer and die. Yes, it can be argued that the Minds are attempted to reduce the amount of suffering in the universe, but altruism on a macro scale is problematic, because statistically there is unlikely they’ve collected enough data from previous altruistic work with control groups (as mentioned in Banks’ “The State of the Art”) to effectively gauge the “right” course of action. Also, the unique factors in any given conflict on a variety of worlds with different mores and cultural norms would make understanding a conflict, much less guessing the best course of action, mind numbingly complex to the nth degree (I don’t care how mind boggling intelligent and inductive the Minds are–Banks makes them seem too godlike).

There is a redeeming quality to Zakalwe in the Use of Weapons. As Le Guin uses a bargain to establish the utopia of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Banks uses Zakalwe as a character that makes the Culture utopia possible. He’s made to suffer physically and psychically so that the Culture may do the things it sees best, and Zakalwe gets to enjoy the life he wants to lead despite its many discomforts. Essentially, he gets his hands dirty so that others don’t have to. By extension, the Green Berets in Vietnam or Special Forces in the Global War on Terrorism serve a similar purpose to maintain the American World Power hegemony, which may be described as an “American utopia.” Yet, Zakalwe chooses to take responsibility for the things that he’s done.

Banks engages questions about utopias that many earlier authors neglected. What is the real nature of utopia? He approaches this through a singular cynical humor that can be quite enjoyable, but you don’t always know if he’s joking. Also, he builds his utopia on narrative voices that aren’t particularly human such as with the multitudinous machines and different species. Additionally, he uses opposing or shifting dialogs to present different yet overlapping stories in the novel to further explore the Culture’s utopia.

Use of Weapons is a fun novel to read, but there are some character decisions that clash with what we’re led to believe is their history. This causes a bit of confusion, but it’s all explained in the end. It would also be useful to read more about the utopian framework of the Culture in Banks’ novella, “The State of the Art.” To learn more about the author and his works, check out his official website here.

Paul J. McAuley’s “Karl and the Ogre”

Paul J. McAuley’s 1988 short story, “Karl and the Ogre” is a fascinating story about a fairy tale future brought about by our genetically building super smart children who overthrow the adult hegemony. The “superbrights” were even further different than the adults who engineered them. However, the children knew children’s stories and fairy tales, so they transformed the world as they believed it should be.

In this future, Karl and Shem are normal people who were children at the time of the changing. They were allowed to grow up, and they serve the interests of the “changelings” by hunting “ogres,” normal people who escaped the change and hid in the forest.

This story mirrors many Cold War narratives of command and control systems or intelligent systems overthrowing humanity. In this case, our offspring rise up and over throw the adult/parental system, because they can. What child wouldn’t want to have things their his or her way? And, with new found abilities inscribed by the parental system, the children enforce their world view. This goes back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and continues through films such The Forbin Project (1970) and The Terminator (1984).

It’s interesting to note that the hunters are all male in the story, though we’re told that hunting parties are either all male or all female. Additionally, Karl remarks that the ogre they track down is another female, implying that there were others and this is common. The ogre, who we learn has the name Liza Jane Howard, is a virgin, which is important, because we learn that the unicorn would have speared her with his hor had she not been a virgin. Even though we’re told that boys and girls (i.e., the generic ‘children’) contributed to this magical world, what we see is a world where men are privileged over women (e.g., the water girl changeling transforming into a moth, human to insect, does this represent a loss or a lessening?).

I read this story in The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories. If you’d like to find out more about the author, you can find his official website here, and his blog here.

New Zhora Scene Shoots for Blade Runner

SCI FI Wire reports that Joanna Cassidy finished reshooting scenes for a special Blade Runner DVD re-release.  They gleaned this information from her official website.  Cassidy played the replicant Zhora.  I’m interested to see how much new material Ridley Scott is producing for a new director’s cut.  However, I have to admit that I’m a purist when it comes to movies.  I don’t like the recent revisions to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. or George Lucas’ original Star Wars Trilogy.  I guess I wouldn’t mind so much, as long as the originals are made available along side the revised works.  Unfortunately, this isn’t always done as in the case of E.T. and belatedly with Star Wars.  Just because new video formats arrive, doesn’t mean that these classic films should be changed.  Instead, they should be preserved continually as new audio/video technology is developed.


Further Thoughts on The Wild Shore

On April 15, I wrote about Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1984 novel, The Wild Shore. We talked about this and the other two books in his Three Californias Triology: The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge, during our Utopias seminar today. Before class, I collected some notes that I wasn’t initially aware of when I read The Wild Shore.

John Clute’s entry on Robinson in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has a lot of relevant information about the author and this trilogy. The author earned his PhD in English from the University of California in 1982 and his dissertation was published in 1984 as The Novels of Philip K. Dick, which is still an authoritative work on the subject.

Clute goes on to state that The Wild Shore was originally released as an Ace Special, and he says that, “[it] lucidly examines the sentimentalized kind of US SF pastoral typically set after an almost univeral catastrophe” (1015). Also, the three books, “may be read as three versions of the same story, each nesting within the other” (1015). Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to read the other two novels yet. Sunshine and Christian each took one of the other novels to speak about in class.

Another valuable resource is Helen J. Burgess’ “‘Road of Giants': Nostalgia and the Ruins of the Superhighway in Kim Stanley Robtinson’s Three Californias Triology,” which appears in Science Fiction Studies, #99, Vol. 33, Part 2, July 2006. Burgess writes about the highway infrastructure of the United States and how it came about as a corporate construction of the mythopedic ideal of the open road and American expansion into the West of the future. Car manufacturers utilized nostalgia of American west expansion and they projected that nostalgia into the future to sell more cars and construct new roads. Nostalgia is therefore turned into a created construct when it’s applied to futurity. She draws parallels between this and William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum,” because of the use of nostalgia and the choices we make about the future.

She goes on to makes an argument about the uses of nostalgia in The Wild Shore:

The Wild Shore uses the longings of a group of people in post-apocalypse America to show that nostalgia for the technological ‘progress’ of the past, and the wish to rebuild that past, repeat dubious patterns of nationalism and manifest destiny. The Wild Shore thus attempts to make a distinction between irresponsible uses of nostalgia as a tool in the service of reconstruction (278).

Connected to this is Robinson’s recurring character in the trilogy, Tom Barnard (however, each novel is a separate time line sharing the same space so Barnard in The Wild Shore is not the same Barnard in the other novels):

[He's] a kind of oracle/conscience/trickster voice, a story teller relating sometimes nostalgic, sometimes critical tales of the past in The Wild Shore. Barnard is a tricky and unreliable narrator, often lying about or concealing true details–for example his age of his location at the time of the holocaust. But he uses the details chiefly didactically, in the service of parables that convey both nostalgia for the past and the recognition that the past was destructive (286).

Through Barnard, Robinson uses parable and stories to reach out to the other characters as well as the reader to instruct and guide as is often the case of the guide in utopias.

Again, I recommend The Wild Shore, and I’m looking forward to reading the J.G. Ballard-like dystopia of The Gold Coast and the utopic vision of Pacific Edge.

Giant Robots in World War II

My friend Mark Warbington sent me a link to an awesome 13 minute long CG film by Cee-Gee Digital Worlds that’s called CODE GUARDIAN.  It’s an alternate history short movie that features a Nazi mecha/robot attacking an American naval base, and that’s just the beginning!  You can download it from the official site, or you can stream it online here.  Watch it, and find yourself impressed!

It makes me wish that we had mecha add-ons for Codename Eagle or Battlefield 1942.

Pamela Sargent’s “Gather Blue Roses”

Pamela Sargent’s 1972 short story, “Gather Blue Roses” comments on the shared sufferings of a people as made personal through the psionic empathy shared between mother and children as well as siblings. The narrator is Esther Greenbaum, and her brother Simon, growing into their empathic powers to feel and make manifest in their own bodies, the pain and suffering of others. They are the children of Samuel and Anna Greenbaum. Anna is a holocaust survivor with her Nazi supplied identification number tattooed above her breasts. This physical mark is left on her body near the point where she would have given milk to her suckling children. The mark of suffering is imposed on the giving of life to that of her children, and it symbolizes a transference of her gift/curse to her children.

However, Esther’s lack of empathy for her mother as exemplified by some of her thoughts concerning her mother’s WWII imprisonment is interesting. In a way, she blames her mother for the wrongs done to her that she must imagine, but not openly speak or ask about of her mother. Esther thinks to herself:

By the time I reached my adolescence, I had heard all the horror stories about the death camps and the ovens…the women used, despite the Reich’s edicts, by the soldiers and the guards. I then regarded my mother with ambivalence, saying to myself, I would have died first, I would have found some way rather than suffering such dishonor, wondering what had happened to her and what secret sins she had on her conscience, and what she had done to survive” (250).

As a young woman, Esther should realize that had her mother died, “rather than [suffer] such dishonor,” she would not have been born. Her empathic powers that she’s growing into, just as she’s growing into adulthood, reveal the inability of one far removed from the trauma of war to consider life and living in a pragmatic way. In a way, Esther’s ability will enforce a conscientiousness and emotional awareness that is lacking in most people. She will feel things as only the “other” can.

At the end of the story, Esther’s mother says, “it will be worse with her, I think, than it was for me” (254). This ironic twist of the holocaust survivor saying that her daughter’s life will be worse than her own is striking. Is Sargent saying that those who come after the war will be unable to cope with the horrors of the past, or will we be unable to avoid making similar mistakes unless the emotional and physical impact are carried over and inculcated in the next generation? Also, is it possible to pass on this shared suffering to those who were not actually there?

I read “Gather Blue Roses” in The Norton Book of Science Fiction, but you may read it online here.

I would like to note that Sargent is also well known for her anthologies. There are three collections that she edited in the 1970s that I’d like to have a chance to read in the near future: Women of Wonder (1975), More Women of Wonder (1976), and The New Women of Wonder (1978).

Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”

During my six hour layover in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on Sunday, I read Harlan Ellison’s Hugo and Nebula-winning short story, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” It was originally published in the December 1965 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, and it can be readily found today in The Essential Ellison.

It’s a story about a future ruled by efficiency and time keeping. Whenever you’re late, that time gets docked from your projected lifespan. If you’re late too much, as is the story’s joker-hero, Harlequin, you’re “turned off.” The Master Timekeeper, or as he’s called behind his back, the Ticktockman, is responsible for policing and enforcing the law of punctuality.

Ellison explicitly relies on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, particularly in the ending when Harlequin, aka Everett C. Marm is broken. However, he breaks with Orwell by making Harlequin a character that can actually disrupt the system instead of an individual who is a ball of yarn to the state-cat.

One element that I found lacking in the story is the way in which the lone speaking female character is portrayed. She is put off by Harlequin “annoying people,” and she’s ultimately the one that betrays him. This betrayal is voluntary, unlike Julia’s betrayal of Winston in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It seems like Ellison is painting the woman in a traditional role as betrayer rather than a less stereotypical role.

That being said, I do like “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” a great deal. It’s a postmodern narrative that features great dialog exchanges that sound strange reading them, but perfectly normal if you say them out loud. Also, I like the way in which he employs jelly beans to create a cascading breakdown in system efficiency–most inventive!

We need more Harlequins today more than ever!

Rewarding Trip to Pittsburgh

I arrived back in Liverpool after an almost nineteen hour, overnight trip from Pittsburgh. A layover at JFK and a long train ride from London Euston to Liverpool Lime Street made for a less than enjoyable endurance test. However, I had an enjoyable chat about SF with Eric, the coder sitting to my left on the British Airways flight.

I had a great time in Pittsburgh with Laura, and we’re now “Facebook Official.” During the day, she had classes, so I spent my time reading, working in the University of Pittsburgh library, and sightseeing. In the evening, Laura showed me the town and I got my fill of American food and drink. I met several of Laura’s friends including Jessica, who went out to Fat Joe’s with us for good beer and better burgers. On Friday, Laura drove me to Kent, Ohio to check out the Kent State University campus. I feel a lot better about that school now that I know what the university looks like. Before I left, we watched a few episodes of The Office. It was like old times, but much, much better. Oh, and I learned more German that I ever had before ;-)  I most certainly didn’t want to leave, but I had to get back to finish up the semester at the University of Liverpool.

While in Pittsburgh, I picked up copies of Julie Phillip’s James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon and the 1979 edition of Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I’ll use these for my utopias module paper that’s due on 18 May.

Gene Wolfe’s “How the Whip Came Back”

I’ll be honest–I don’t particularly like the short fiction of Gene Wolfe, but I keep finding myself reading it. Go figure.

I first read his story, “The Woman Who Loved the Centaur Pholus,” then “Feather Tigers,” and now, “How the Whip Came Back.” Originally published in 1970 in Damon Knight’s collection, Orbit 6, it’s set in a far future nearly devoid of religious faith and it’s about a UN vote to impress prisoners into slavery for the duration of their sentence.

Wolfe’s prognostication that there would be a quarter of a million Americans in prison in the future is a bit off. Also, it’s interesting that he chose to write the story when he did, but it was a time of criminal offense reform. The United States began to criminalize things that were not once considered felony offensives (particularly in regard to drug related offenses and the introduction of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 during the Nixon administration).

In 1970, there were 196,429 incarcerated persons in US prisons according to the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics Online. That year was actually part of a low plateau following a jump over 200,000 inmates in the years 1958-1965. Since that time, the prison population has jumped exponentially in a near constant upward trend. In 1980, there were 315, 974 prison inmates, 739,980 prisoners in 1990, and 1,461,132 prisoners in 2005.

It’s important to see how these numbers relate to the United States population during those years. Using data from the U.S. PopClock Projection, I arrived at these percentages of prisoners as compared to the total population. In 1970, 0.096% of the population was in prison. In 1980: 0.139%. In 1990: 0.297%. In 2005: 0.493%. This increase is staggering, but the reasons for increased prison populations is a complex issue that goes far beyond the belief that there are merely more criminals today than in the past. Perhaps Wolfe, as others did, recognized that criminalization of previously non-felony offenses would lead to increased prison populations, and therefore, a higher cost to society in maintaining the prison system (however, his estimated costs are infinitesimal in comparison to other budgetary concerns such as defense).

Besides a cultural commentary on prison and the utility of prisoners, this story also features a gendered power inversion. The protagonist, Miss Bushnan, goes from being an observer of the delegation proceedings to having a vote in the treaty that would create a forced, leased workforce of the world’s prisoners. What makes her character interesting is that she’s an American female, and the proceeding needs her approval to move ahead. Furthermore, she’s threatened by the male “American delegate” to vote in favor of the proposal for her sake, and she’d also be given the choice to lease her husband. Ultimately, she decides to vote in favor of the proposal and the story ends with her fantasizing about the type of manacles she will have built to control her husband. Her new found power over a male figure, i.e., her husband, is only possible by the male hegemony giving her that power. Her new power is precarious and unstable, because it may be withdrawn by the male power structure. However, this isn’t an immediate concern of hers at the conclusion of the story.

This is an interesting story with a unique inversion of power politics. I read it in The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories.

Gene Wolfe’s “Feather Tigers”

Gene Wolfe employs a far future perspective in his 1973 short story, “Feather Tigers.” In the distant future humanity is dead and aliens that look like blue, baby rabbits visit Earth for biological and anthropological study.

It reads as an anti-Vietnam story for two reasons. The first comes from an exchange between a flying car with artificial intelligence, a human artifact, telling the alien, Quoquo, about the long war over the Mekong River. Quoquo doesn’t believe anything that the car attempts to explain to him.

The second reason comes from the Quoquo’s subject of study: The People of the Yellow Leaves. These are a nomadic people who live in Thailand and have a myth/tale about “feather tigers.” They believe that tigers are capable of projecting their spirits beyond the body in order to scout the land. One may observe this spiritual manifestation in the shifting patterns of light passing through the jungle foliage. For Quoquo, this myth has more substantiation than the facts that the technological artifact tries to tell him. This, and the fear that Quoquo exhibits later, destabilizes and undermines the traditionally privileged position of technology, which may represent the advanced technology of war making.

“Feather Tigers” is a romp-like story that reads more like a ghost tale than a SF story.