Taiwanese Publisher Who Printed My Dissertation Ruined by Inferno

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I was sad to learn that Zonghe Zhuangding, Ltd., the publisher who worked with Y’s father to print an exquisite hardcover edition of my PhD dissertation, “Brains, Minds, and Computers in Literary and Science Fiction Neuronarratives,” shuttered their business after their shop burned down. Zonghe Zhuangding provided printing and book binding services for publishers in Taiwan until the fire consumed their entire facility.

Y’s father insisted that we publish my dissertation after I defended it in 2012. Zonghe Zhuangding did an amazing job printing the book-version of my dissertation, which I had to layout with opposing running headers and other book-design features. The gold-typeface on the cover and spine look very impressive. And, the stitched-in red ribbon bookmark was a surprise bonus (see below).

After Y defended her dissertation last year, her father had her dissertation printed there, too.

N.B.: In Chinese, zhuangding means binding or book binding.

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Site Update: Course Syllabi and Assignments Added Under Teaching Section

Over the weekend, I added new pages under the Teaching menu option for the courses that I have taught, am teaching, and will teach. Each course page includes descriptions, syllabi, and assignments arranged chronologically by school:

If any of these materials might be useful to your course and assignment design, please feel free to adopt or modify as needed.

While assembling these pages, I discovered that some assignments and supporting materials were missing. Of course, it is best pedagogical practice to reflect and archive these kinds of materials for reference, improvement, and growth.

A Brief Note on Steven Lynn’s Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction

When I asked Dr. Courtney L. Werner, a friend and colleague at Kent State University where we earned our PhDs (find her blog here and connect with her on Twitter here), what I should read that captures the theoretical breadth and historical depth of her discipline of study–Rhetoric and Composition–I dutifully wrote down what she told me: Steven Lynn‘s impressive Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction. I think that it has been about three or four years since I jotted down her suggestion, but I’m happy to report that I finally got around to reading it over the past few days and I’m certainly the better for it.

For those of you who might be like me–not really knowing anything about Rhetoric and Composition when going into graduate school, but wanting to learn more about this important discipline after learning of its existence–I recommend Lynn’s book as a thorough starting point.

Lynn begins his book with a chapter on the relationship and interconnectedness of Rhetoric and Composition. He guides his reader through seeing them separately and together while peppering his discussion with an exhaustive and concise (what a balancing act throughout the book) theoretical-historical context.

In the chapters that follow, he designs them around the five canons of rhetoric as an art: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Each chapter combines discussion of the historically relevant development of the canon, its major contributors, its past and present scholarship, and applications for the classroom. The final chapter on delivery has a lot of helpful material for first time composition instructors, too.

During my time at Kent State, I am glad that I taught in the writing program and I am glad to have had the opportunity to learn from and share ideas with graduate students and faculty in the Rhetoric and Composition Program, including Brian Huot, Pamela Takayoshi, and Derek Van Ittersum. In retrospect, however, I wish that I had made it a point to join a Rhetoric and Composition seminar (for credit or to audit), because I see now how it would have enriched my scholarship and pedagogy in pivotal ways. If you are like me in this regard or still on your path to a terminal degree, I recommend Lynn’s book for learning Rhetoric and Composition’s ideas, debates, and scale as a student, incorporating its ideas into your daily practices as a teacher, and opening up new possibilities in your thinking as a scholar.

Lynn, Steven. Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Defense Opening Statement, May 15, 2012

This is the sixty-fourth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

I prepared this brief statement to introduce the thinking behind the choices that I made on which writers to include and the emergent theme of the dissertation that would lead to my current research: technological ephemerality. This statement is part justification and part roadmap for where I am now and will be in the future.

To set the stage for making this statement, imagine me sitting at the head of a conference table. Behind me on a podium is a Powerbook 145 with Gibson’s eBook of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive open and the big box for the Neuromancer video game adaptation from the late-1980s.

Dissertation Defense Opening Statement

Jason W. Ellis

15 May 2012

            I would like to thank you all for reading my dissertation, “Brains, Minds, and Computers in Literary and Science Fiction Neuronarratives” and for meeting with me today. I am looking forward to your questions and our discussion. Before we begin, I would like to take this opportunity to describe my project’s goals, it’s origins, my methods of research, and what I hope it accomplishes. As you will see, my iPad figures prominently in these things.

In my dissertation, I draw on my interdisciplinary interests in literary studies, science fiction studies, history of science and technology, and evolutionary psychology to situate science fiction’s emergence as a genre in the early twentieth century within the larger context of the human animal’s evolutionary co-development with technology. In a sense, I sought the raison d’être of the genre in a Darwinian and cognitive context. I believe the communal teaching aspect of science fiction to be an integral part of the genre itself, and it is this aspect that I gave the name “future prep.” From another perspective, I define science fiction as the kind of literature that performs this function. I also wanted to take one related thread from the genre’s overall development—that being brains, computers, and artificial intelligence—and trace it through the work of three significant writers, namely: Asimov, Dick, and Gibson.

My dissertation originates in part from my long interest in the biology of the human brain. Perhaps this is a byproduct of the conceptual metaphors that I learned in school or in books that the brain was a type of computer and the computer was a type of brain. We know that these are imperfect analogies, but you can imagine that they can have a strong influence on the development of a curious mind. Even at an early age, I strongly felt the link between brains and computers as evidenced by a sustained performance that convinced my kindergarten classmates I was a robot. More recently, I fell into the physics of mind when I was in high school. Thanks to Stephen Hawking, I stumbled onto the work of his collaborator Roger Penrose, who had done other work arguing that the brain is not a Turning-type computer and that quantum phenomena must play some part in the emergence of human consciousness. Much later, during my MA at the University of Liverpool, I made a deal with a friend in the neuroscience program to give me a digital copy of my brain in exchange for my participating in his neural correlates of facial attractiveness study. However, the most recent and profound shift in my thinking came about in a serendipitous way. During the preparation for my PhD exams, I met with Professor Clewell to discuss my readings for the postmodern theory exam. I recall our conversation veering toward computers and the human brain. I learned from Professor Clewell about the emergent discourse surrounding the human brain and the human experience from a Darwinist/evolutionary rather than a Freudian/psychological or Marxist/social perspective. As invested as my work up to that point was in cultural theory, I was very intrigued by the interdisciplinary possibilities that neuroscientific topics and evolutionary psychology might provide for my work in literary history. Without a doubt, this was a pivotal moment in the development of my dissertation. It provided me a direction to expand the scope of my project from one author—originally on the fiction of Philip K. Dick alone—to three by developing a new theory of the genre in terms of the human brain’s evolution. This was new territory for the literary history of science fiction, and I wanted to trek an unexplored path into this uncharted territory.

The next stage was to select the literary focus of my research. I chose Dick’s work, because I believe his awareness of the brain’s role in human experience and in our relationship with technology strongly connects to my theory of science fiction. Then, I selected Asimov as a connection between the early editors who shaped the genre and later writers including Dick, whose androids obviously respond to Asimov’s robots. Finally, I decided on Gibson, because he reinvented Dick’s concerns about technologization of the human experience in a more nuanced manner than Dick’s paranoiac division between the android and the human.

Research and writing of my dissertation presented its own challenges, but I was very pleased that part of the subject matter inspired my own processes of work. In my reading and research, I leveraged computer technology to my advantage to build efficiencies and speed into my work. In particular, I wanted to make all of my research—primary and secondary sources—available on my computer, iPad, and iPhone. The primary reason for this was to make it easier for me to track my research and use digital tools such as textual analysis software and key word search on materials I had read or skimmed. Having the materials on my various computing devices made it easy to search the same or multiple documents very easily and quickly while taking notes or writing in Microsoft Word on my MacBook. Of course, my brain did the work of configuring, contemplating, and creating the dissertation itself.

The issue of obsolescence, which I discuss a bit about in the concluding part of my dissertation, was also a driving force behind my efforts at digitization of my research materials. For example, the last half of the second chapter presented a unique problem—I needed to read the editorials of the old pulps—particularly Amazing Stories and Astounding—but these pulps are not widely available in library collections, and when they are, it can be difficult to handle and read them due to their extreme fragility. Luckily for my research, legions of science fiction pulp collectors have made much of this material available online as scanned copies. Obviously, there are tensions between the efforts of cultural preservationists and the Disney-fication of copyright law, but due to the nature of my research and its importance to the long literary history of science fiction, some of which is egregiously at risk of disappearing, I side with the preservations. Unfortunately, the scanned materials were not always complete, but they did provide me with some useful evidence and clues to more. I filled these missing holes with interlibrary loan requests that took several weeks to complete. For other primary sources, I was able to track down circulating text files—such as for Asimov’s, Dick’s, and Gibson’s novels, and others, I purchased either through Amazon’s Kindle shop or Apple’s iBook store. I should note that I used these non-paginated materials for research purposes, and I cross-referenced any findings there with the physical copies that I own or borrowed from the library—the only exception being Dick’s Exegesis.

I also converted many sources on hand into digital copies for my personal use. Generally, I took photos of pages, created a PDF, and ran OCR software to generate searchable text. Due to my limited time, this was especially useful during my research trip to UC-Riverside’s Eaton Collection in February. In addition to my typewritten notes on my MacBook, I captured over 1000 pages of rare and interesting primary research for the Dick and Gibson chapters with my iPhone 4S’s built-in camera. Some of this research is included in the dissertation, but there is much left for me to review as I begin the process of transforming the dissertation into a publishable manuscript. This extra work paid off by revealing quotes overlooked during skimming or reading. While I am reading to you from my iPad, I also have my dissertation manuscript, primary sources, secondary sources, notes, and much more all available at the touch of my finger. However, I have to remain vigilant with my archival practices to ensure my access to my data now and in the future. It is also a challenge to find software that maintains compatibility and preserves my workflow.

As Gibson warns us in his afterword to the Neuromancer e-book, technology’s fate is obsolescence. As he foretold, it was nearly impossible to access his e-book in its original version. First, I had to wait several weeks to receive a copy of the e-book’s disk from one of the three American universities that hold it. Then, I had to find an older Macintosh with a floppy disk drive to read the disk and in turn allow me to read the e-book. Unfortunately, there are no Macs with floppy disk drives anywhere near Kent State. I turned to eBay to find an early PowerBook, but unfortunately, the first one I purchased was destroyed during shipping. Eventually, I was able to read the e-book with this PowerBook 145, but it took time, money, and know-how. What does the future hold for those of us who want to read the stories these technologies have to tell us, and what effects do these technologies have on our cognitive development? These are questions I plan to investigate following the dissertation.

In closing, I hope that my work on the literary history of science fiction accomplishes two things. First, I believe that science fiction’s roots run deep, and my dissertation is meant to show how it is a literature that emerges as a byproduct of powerful evolutionary forces of the development of the human brain in conjunction with the human animal’s co-evolution with technology. Second, I hope that my work facilitates further cross-discipline discussion and leads to additional research into the brain’s role in the emergence of human experience and the enjoyment of fiction—especially science fiction.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Paragraph Summaries Before Defense, May 2012

This is the sixty-third post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

When my dissertation defense date approached and my dissertation was completed, I wanted to help myself recall my arguments and examples more clearly. To that end, I wrote out by hand short summaries of each paragraph in my dissertation, which you can read as this PDF. I divided my handwritten notes by chapter and section. Each paragraph summary contains the main thought and a brief synopsis of examples or other supporting evidence. In some ways, it is like a reverse outline, but the dissertation was already completed and the summaries were not used for reorganizing the layout/arrangement of the dissertation’s logic. I am currently sending an expanded version of my dissertation around for possible publication. This PDF of my dissertation paragraph summaries are not the original form of the dissertation–only a summarization of each of its constituent paragraphs. For my students, I recommend this exercise–summarizing essay paragraphs during drafting to help you think about the logical order of your essay/argument and to help you know the material better for discussing, teaching, or presenting your work.

In my next Recovered Writing entry, I will post my dissertation defense opening statement. Stay tuned!

Recovered Writing, Unpublished Essay, Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative, 26 March 2009

This is the sixty-first post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This publishable-length essay, “Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative,” is a significant expansion of a presentation that I made at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in 2008. I sent the longer form of the essay around for publication, but at the time, I could not invest the necessary time to meet the demands of the anonymous reviewers. It was around that time that I began studying for my PhD exams. The dissertation followed closely thereafter. Now, I think too much time has passed and too many more examples have appeared for me to re-engage with these ideas–at least at the present time. I’m confident that I would need to begin almost from scratch. Also, my research interests have moved into other areas, which would require retooling for the demands of this research as opposed to my current approaches (of course, there are texts and ideas contained here that I might bring over to my current scholarship). Thus, the essay, quotes, and works cited might best serve my readers’ purposes and interests as another Recovered Writing post. Perhaps one of you are working on a project in this vein and this essay can serve as a foil to test your approach, or this essay might encourage you to pick up the reigns and take these ideas further. If nothing else, maybe you’re a fan of the Transformers and want to think about the cultural underpinnings of these characters and their stories (if you are in this camp, you can find another essay that I wrote about Transformers and gender here).

Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative

Jason W. Ellis

26 March 2009

The towers, for their part, have disappeared. But they have left us the symbol of their disappearance, their disappearance as symbol.

Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Twin Towers.”

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America have unequivocally and paradigmatically shifted the cultural outlook and fearful anticipation of people within and without the borders of the United States. It is the subject of this essay to explore how that shift is manifested in American Science Fiction (SF) film in the aftermath of that mid-September day through the linkages to earlier SF film rooted in American Cold War culture. Before 9/11, American imaginative fear and anxiety was firmly entrenched in the symbol of the thermonuclear bomb–a thing delivered by rockets and targeting computers, and after 9/11, that anxiety changed to the suicide bomber–a cyborg uniting ideology, high explosives or other technological means of mayhem, and the person. The Cold War threat was removed from the personal, and the inaction of thermonuclear war realization resulted in the science fictional imagining of what could be rather than a reflection of what was. The post-9/11 threat presents a reconfiguration of threat as something personal, up-close, and very real–something that has come to pass and may occur again. It is the fact that 3,025 U.S. citizens and persons from other countries were killed on September 11, 2001 that caused a transformation in the perception of anxiety, fear, and threat from elusive enemies and resulted in a new kind of personal response narrative in SF film.

It is important to more fully interrogate the differences between American Cold War SF and its milieu, and the radical changes that followed the Cold War and the intervening years prior to the September 11 attacks. John Lewis Gaddis significantly connects the “images” of the Cold War with the distancing of the threat from the everyday lives of Americans:

Despite moments of genuine fear, however, as during the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, the only images we had of destroyed American cities were those constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels. Real danger remained remote. We had adversaries, but we also had the means of deterring them.

Even cold war insecurities, therefore, never meant that Americans, while living, working and traveling within their country, had to fear for their lives. Dangers to the American homeland were always vague and distant, however clear and present overseas dangers may have been. The very term “national security,” invented during World War II and put to such frequent use during the cold war, always implied that both threats and vulnerabilities lay outside the country. Our military and intelligence forces were configured accordingly. (Gaddis 8)

The threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was a real fear, but the only imaginative representation of that threat was “constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels” (Gaddis 8). It was left to the realm of fiction to create representations of the attack that never occurred. Additionally, as Gaddis points out, wars took place elsewhere and not on American soil. The Cold War dueling powers–the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.–worked out their frustrated advances in other places–particularly in Southeast Asia–rather than take the fight to either country’s home front. It was the fantasy of films such as John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984) that Communist forces would invade the American heartland during World War III. In Red Dawn and all other films of that era that confronted or alluded to the nuclear annihilation of North America and/or the rest of the world were constructing one of many possible scenarios, but none of these were based on the reality of thermonuclear warfare made possible by scientific and engineering advances during the long 1950s. Fat Man and Little Boy, the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last phase of World War II, pale in comparison to the potential devastation of warfare involving fusion bombs never once used outside of the isolated testing environments in deserts, atolls, and the upper atmosphere. Thus, there was real data about the effects of nuclear warfare, but it was this very speculative aspect of nuclear holocaust that sets Cold War SF apart from that which came after the very real, graphic, and televised hijacked airplane attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

It is evident that with the number of American Cold War SF films from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Dr. Strangelove (1964) to Escape from New York (1981) that a lot of creative energy and capital went into grappling with nuclear annihilation from outside. Part and parcel with this massive undertaking of the potential annihilation of the United States and the rest of the world is the inescapable realization that these imaginings were something that we all to some extent entertained. It is unavoidable that the threat of nuclear war and apocalypse entered into the cultural consciousness, and it was something that we all thought of alone or in the communal engagement of films that represented implicitly or explicitly the potential horrors of nuclear war unleashed from without.

The cultural currency of apocalypse did not leave SF film in the years between the Cold War and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In fact, the imaginative target reconfigured or transformed in the intervening post-Cold War years where the threat and fear lost focus. Instead of a clear and present danger presented by the former Soviet Union, there were “uprisings” and “hotbeds of activity” around the world after George H. W. Bush’s Gulf War I. It was the transformation of threat and the dream of horror, even visited upon our soil and friends and family, that culminated in the dream-turned-real on September 11, 2001 when nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners and turned history’s path into the undiscovered country. Jean Baudrillard approaches this counterintuitive and unspeakable truism of the dream in his shockingly provocative essay, “The Spirit of Terrorism:”

The fact that we have dreamt of this event, that everyone without exception has dreamt of it–because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree–is unacceptable to the Western moral conscience. Yet it is a fact, and one which can indeed be measured by the emotive violence of all that has been said and written in the effort to dispel it. (Baudrillard 5)

What if things were not as they were? What if this government or that multinational corporation were done away with, then what would happen? It is these kinds of “what if” questions that we all entertain. However, we do not all consider the full ramifications of our wishes, or what might have to be done to make our wishes come true. For Baudrillard, it doesn’t matter how innocent our dreams might have been. The fact is that we wished for that other future in our own daydreams or in the SF that we enjoyed. In any event, the unconscionable wish came true when we awoke, and there was no possibility of returning it to the imaginative ether. Baudrillard continues:

At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it. If this is not taken into account, the event loses any symbolic dimension. It becomes a pure accident, a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics, and all that would then remain would be to eliminate them. Now, we know very well that this is not how it is. (Baudrillard 5)

It is true that Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah piloted the hijacked-airliners-turned-flying-bombs into the civilian and military targets within the American homeland. However, it was the dream and wish we each held or bought into through the apocalyptic visions presented in SF film that implicates each of us in some way to the events of that day. Furthermore, it is necessary to make an account of this dimension of the events of September 11, 2001, because otherwise would be to isolate the event from the greater rhizomic networks within which it is connected. It is essential to any understanding of that tragic event, including all those things that led up to it and all those things that followed, that we also understand our own relationship to the event personally and culturally.

Understanding the September 11 attacks as a symbolic act against the United States’ economic, military, and interventionist hegemony requires juxtaposing the event with an earlier sneak attack–December 7, 1941, what former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called, “a date which will live in infamy.” However, the juxtaposition of these two events is not as well defined as was proclaimed ad infinitum on television during and following the attacks. On this point, Baudrillard offers:

The Americans lacked such a wound (at Pearl Harbor they suffered an act of war, not a symbolic attack). An ideal reverse of fortune for a nation at last wounded at its heart and free, having atoned for it, to exert its power in all good conscience. A situation science fiction dreamed of from the beginning: that of some obscure force that would wipe them out and which, until that point, merely existed in their unconscious (or some other recess of their minds). And all of a sudden, it materializes through the good grace of terrorism! The axis of Evil takes hold of America’s unconscious, and realizes by violence what was merely a fantasy and a dream thought! (Baudrillard 61-62)

The United States had not suffered a symbolic wound, or in other words an unexpected strike against the national body that carries a greater signification than nation-state warfare, prior to the September 11 terror attacks. The Pearl Harbor attack were certainly a strategic blow to United States preparedness prior to World War II, but that strike was accompanied, albeit late, by a declaration of war by another nation-state, Japan. The September 11 attacks are analogous to what Baudrillard identifies explicitly as a situation originating in SF–the attack from the “invisible man,” or the unexpected devastation by Heinlein’s bugs in Starship Troopers. The September 11 terror attacks represent the unexpected from without, from the alien Other, from out there and targeted against us. Al-Qaeda’s operation represents the culmination of this imaginative impulse that began much earlier during the Cold War era, but turned out from fear of nuclear annihilation toward the symbols of hegemonic power rooted in capital and military power. However, most alarmingly, George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and “Global War on Terrorism” solidified the American imagination around the events of September 11, 2001 back out toward loci of ideological difference, tension, and conflict. Furthermore, Slavoj Žižek corresponds with Baudrillard when he says the following in his essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!”:

The Wachowski brothers’ hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic [the logic of experiencing the “real”] to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic megacomputer to which we are all attached; when the hero . . . awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins–what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.” Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the “desert of the real”–to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions. (Žižek 386)

Here, the main point is that the imaginative was made real. Hollywood had been there first with images of vast destruction, albeit from a distance, that became real that early September 11th morning. The terror attacks required no computer generated effects or a special effects department. Could George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) have engineered a spectacle on the scale of the events in New York and Washington that day? Perhaps, but the reality of the spectacle shared away from the computer and television screen brought something to the event that no effects house could reproduce. The lives lost, the physical destruction, and the political aftermath are real effects, as tangible as tears, which make the events of September 11, 2001 more real than any Hollywood simulation.

Žižek further elaborates on the realization of the imaginative through a discussion of another tragedy, albeit one sentimentally and visually recreated through film–the HMS Titanic:

            When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the twentieth century, that of the Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the nineteenth-century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold for these bombings?

Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested–just recall the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. The unthinkable that happened was thus the object of fantasy: in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise. (Žižek 386-387)

Žižek’s point is that in tragedies such as the sinking of the HMS Titanic, or the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that the news media and entertainment media prompted or prepared the United States and the world for the inevitable execution of imagined horror. Also, Žižek, like Baudrillard, invokes SF as an example for the imaginative dream for the attacks. However, it is the brilliant observation that the surprise was not the attacks, but the realization that the United States received the results of a dream transformed into reality. Hence, the fantastic became real on September 11, 2001.

Like the Ouroboros, the fantastic-become-real in the symbol of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks returns with serious consequences for the fantastic and SF in the post-9/11 world. The key element of American Cold War SF and the SF that follows the 9/11 terror attacks is anxiety over the possibility of harm from the Other. In Cold War SF, the anxiety comes about from an anxiety of a terrific and horror-laden future resulting from thermonuclear war. However, this nuclear future was not made real–it represented an anxiety over an amorphous and transparent future of non-reality. Essentially, the bomb was not made real in the sense of fulfilling its purpose–detonation over enemy targets. Additionally, it bears repeating that the only use of atomic weapons took place during state-to-state warfare during the Second World War. It was literally on the other side of the world from the United States that the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar performed their respective atomic bomb missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two Japanese cities largely unknown to the American people prior to the war. Also, there was not the build-up and immersion in the impending actions by the United States government and military against the Japanese people in the media (it does not seem plausible that a significant number of readers had perused Cleve Cartmill’s 1944 short story, “Deadline,” and realized its immediate implications). Therefore, the anxiety over nuclear attack was nicely isolated around a particular aggressor (i.e. the Soviet Union), and the attack itself was not made real beyond the limited and largely non-engaged Japanese home front. On the other hand, the September 11 terror attacks by the religious and ideological al-Qaeda soldiers against the symbols of American hegemonic power and all persons in the vicinity of those symbolic places reconfigured the locus and understanding of anxiety of attacks by the alien Other. The threat was made surprisingly real, and the battleground shifted radically from elsewhere to here. Furthermore, it is in this reconfiguration of anxiety over the 9/11 terror attacks that resulted in something else in SF film narrative concerning the way in which individuals engage their anxiety made real. In the following section, I will discuss the transformation of anxiety into citizen soldiery through the emblematic and representative example of Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007).

Michael Bay’s Transformers is a slick and action packed summer blockbuster brimming with special effects featuring the battle between the Manichean Transformers in the here-and-now of planet Earth. Obviously, Bay’s film suffers from a certain amount of blockbuster engineering. On the surface, the film is about a one-dimensional conflict between the good Autobots who serve as humanity’s protectors and the evil Decepticons who aspire to kill and destroy anyone and anything in their path towards recovering the regenerative “All Spark.” Luckily, the film is about much more than meets the eye.

A useful point of entry into Transformers is the movie poster tagline, “Their war. Our world.” This sums up the autonomous robot, alien Other war between Autobots and Decepticons. Their war moves from the barren and resource-depleted Cybertron to the lush and resource-rich Earth, which is effectively mirrored in the resource producing Middle East and resource consuming American West Coast. However, the Transformers tagline can be read as applying to the here-and-now of the Global War on Terror. “Their war” is what the military analyst William S. Lind calls Fourth Generation warfare:

Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al Quaeda [sic], Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing. (Lind par. 13)

Fourth Generation warfare is essentially non-state actor controlled guerilla warfare, i.e., between non-governmental organizations and states. This is the kind of war al-Qaeda wages with America, and its symbolic declaration was the September 11 attacks. Furthermore, “our world” is another way of saying the United States of America–our supposedly isolated world safe from threats abroad and the hot zones of war during the Cold War and post-Cold War years leading up to the September 11 attacks. Thus, Transformers is a veiled SF narrative that points the way to a reconfiguration of SF narrative following the changes in American homeland isolation and the false sense of safety following the end of the Cold War.

The reconfiguration of SF narrative post-September 11 is best approached by returning to Žižek’s potentially inflammatory essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” In this work, he describes the fantastic origins of the terrorist attacks on the United States and the uncertainties surrounding our post-9/11 future. However, the point that bears discussion on the transformation of post-9/11 SF film is where he writes:

We don’t yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics, war this event will have, but one thing is sure: the United States, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of thing only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. (Žižek 389)

The key to understanding new post-9/11 SF narratives has to do with Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” During the Cold War, and in the post-Cold War years before 9/11, United States citizens indulged in viewing war and conflicts around the world from the armchair comfort of their own home. The television screen separated the viewer from televised war, and the real-world distance between viewer and those enduring war was great. Improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings were largely a world away. It was understood that there was no war within the American homeland. It took place elsewhere, and that elsewhere was safely very far away. And as I discussed above, Americans dreamed about the destruction delivered on September 11, 2001 in the way that we all imagine the annihilation of oppressive hegemonic powers. The anxieties of the American Cold War do not hold up any longer when the threat was made real during the 9/11 terror attacks. Following the realization of the fantastic dream, individuals must respond to a threat in ways before that were speculative at best. It is the transformation of anxiety that yields a new kind of personal response to the anxiety of the real. I argue that Michael Bay’s Transformers represents a reconfiguration in SF film narrative following the September 11 terror attacks and the beginning of what former President George W. Bush labeled the Global War on Terror. Instead of revealing anxieties and veiling commentary in a Cold War mode of SF narrative, post-9/11 SF narrative focuses on the threat to the American homeland, and the way “directly involved” citizens deal with that threat. The border between the supposedly safe American homeland and the dangerous outside world is broken, and the threat is transferred from a visually imagined somewhere else to here. Thus, anxiety over the fantastic is transformed into a response to that anxiety made real.

The visual narrative that interconnects the film with the intensive media coverage of 9/11 facilitates the direct involvement of citizen soldiers in Transformers. Visual cues and the film’s edited form construct these correspondences. First, the overall narrative structure shifts between images of the American homeland and American war-making abroad. The former includes the large and well-manicured Witwicky home, a high school, and a relatively peaceful lake setting populated with young Americans. The latter includes scenes from Qatar in the Middle East, the Pentagon, and the President’s Air Force One aircraft. The film is edited to repeatedly show a war scene away from the home front followed by a scene at the home front until climaxing with a juxtaposition of the two–war on the home front. For example, the first scene of the film features Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his team of American soldiers returning to their “home base” in a state-of-the-art vertical-lift V-22 Osprey air transport. Soon after arrival, the Decepticons Blackout and Scorponok, disguised as a U.S. military helicopter, attack the base with advanced weaponry and gigantic robotic brawn. Instead of seeing American war making in the Middle East, the audience is treated to a special effects extravaganza of killer robots from another planet simultaneously attacking physical and virtual nodes in the American military Communication, Command, Control, and Intelligence (3CI) network.

Following the visually dazzling attack on the American military, the film transitions to an idealized, quiet high school setting on the West Coast where Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) hocks his great-great-grandfather’s belongings. Among these artifacts is his ancestor’s glasses, which bear the imprint of an otherworld sublimity from the so-called “ice man,” who we later learn is the Decepticon leader, Megatron. The film is consciously edited in such a way to transition between there (desert and military) and here (high school and suburbia). However, it is significant to the narrative build-up that the violence and intensity of the confrontations on the home front increase as Captain Lennox’s team moves closer to the American homeland. In a sense, Lennox’s team is radioactive and their return heralds a critical mass explosion and narrative release at the end of the film. Hence, the away-war overlaps the homeland creating a new war on the home front. Therefore, the recall of Lennox and his soldiers to America is the basis for the reconfiguration of the American homeland as an isolated space to the new battlefront in the Global War on Terror veiled within the Autobot/Decepticon war.

Bay’s film further embraces 9/11 narratives through borrowed rhetoric and visual images left unseen during the television coverage of the terror attacks. The first mise-en-scène is prominent at the beginning of the film with our introduction to Sam’s high school. There is a newspaper, half folded on his history teacher’s desk with the visible headlines: “Smash Jap” and “War Extra: Yanks Sink.” This homage to the director’s pre-9/11 film Pearl Harbor (2001) connects it to the circuits leading to and from 9/11. The September 11 attacks are imbued with the sneak attack narrative of Pearl Harbor despite the obvious differences between the two discussed above. However, the sneak attack narrative embeds this newspaper image, as well as Transformers, with the overarching American sense of victimization at the beginning of our involvement in World War II and its reemergence almost sixty years later on September 11, 2001.

Further engaging 9/11 narratives, and perhaps visually exploiting them, Transformers sets up the final confrontation with a plane and a building. The end bracket situating Transformers within a 9/11 narrative takes place during the climatic battle between the good Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, and the evil Megatron (Hugo Weaving), leader of the Decepticons. Megatron transforms into a menacing otherworldly aircraft and flies toward his nemesis. Optimus Prime grabs and holds onto Megatron who then swoops up and through a high-rise office building. The audience sees Megatron’s aircraft with Optimus in tow enter, fly through the building, and exit with a visibly wounding and destructive effect. Joshua Clover describes this short sequence as, “by far the most detailed reconstruction of what was hidden from our human eyes within the spectacularly visible violence of September 11, 2001” (7).

Perhaps more importantly than the film’s engagement of 9/11 narratives is the way in which Transformers represents Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” The home front lead characters of the film are Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox)–two average Hollywood-generated uncanny high school kids. Initially, Sam is protected by his Autobot guardian, Bumblebee (Mark Ryan), but after the temperature of the home front war increases with the arrival of Captain Lennox and the release of Megatron from the hidden caverns in the Hoover Dam complex, Sam is required to step-up in the heat of battle. His charge is to get the transforming, technoscientific All Spark MacGuffin out of the combat zone and into the hands of the U.S. military, which is believed capable of protecting the All Spark from the U.S. military doppelganger Decepticons. During a moment of reluctance on Sam’s part to become “directly involved,” Captain Lennox grabs his shirt collar and yells, “You’re a soldier now,” which effectively drafts Sam as a young citizen soldier. Additionally, Mikaela, without needing a soldierly pep talk, employs her knowledge gained on the other side of the law from her car thief father to steal a tow truck and extricate her wounded Autobot friend, Bumblebee, from the fight. However, in the escape, she, with Bumblebee’s approval, decides to turn around and fight. In doing so, she makes a more active contribution to the battle than Sam’s thrilling getaway and rescues Lennox’s team from a storefront firefight reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). This, along with earlier scenes revealing Mikaela to be a knowledgeable and strong female character presents a complicated picture of the gender politics in the film that deserves further study. Additionally, Mikaela’s decision to turn back, and Sam’s last minute choice to use the All Spark to destroy Megatron reveal another major difference from earlier American Cold War narratives. One such film is the previously mentioned Red Dawn, which is the kind of story that Tom Engelhardt calls “the American war story,” in which, “you had no choice. Either you pulled the trigger or you died, for war was invariably portrayed as a series of reactive incidents rather than organized and invasive campaigns” (Engelhardt 4-5). Transformers develops from a series of events that present choices whereas the teenagers of Red Dawn react to the conditions placed upon them by the Communist invaders. Therefore, Sam and Mikaela, as young U.S. citizens, are drafted into the Global War on Terror as signified by the Autobot-Decepticon war raging between the buildings and on the streets of the fictional Mission City–a city that emblematizes the mission of promoting the new ideal of the American citizen soldier protecting the now invaded homeland within the intertwined Transformers/September 11 narrative.

Within that narrative space, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the new war on the homeland hinges on his family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory.” This is an often repeated saying in the film, particularly between Sam and his father, Ron (Kevin Dunn). The family motto, made famous, or perhaps infamous, by Sam’s explorer great-great-grandfather, Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard), is ingrained in Sam’s identity and figures heavily in his character’s overt motivations. As a “directly involved” citizen soldier in the Global War on Terror, Sam’s family motto connects him to the professional soldiers in the film during a scene in the Sector Seven bunker at Hoover Dam. Captain Lennox and his men have a showdown with the Sector Seven operatives, because they agree with Sam that Autobot Bumblebee should be freed to aid in the fight. During this confrontation, the Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight) tells Agent Simmons (John Turturro), “Losing’s not really an option for these guys.” As Secretary of Defense, he represents the armed forces of the United States, and his saying “losing’s not really an option” conjures the memory of a whole host of losses that America still struggles with in maintaining a decaying triumphal identity following World War II. Additionally, Engelhardt notes that “with the end of the Cold War and the ‘loss of the enemy,’ American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity” (Engelhardt 10). The faltering of American triumphalism during the Cold War and after is emphasized by this exchange between Keller and Simmons. Furthermore, Sam’s family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory,” represents the American need for triumph in this new struggle brought to the American homeland from afar while acknowledging the necessity for sacrifice. Thus, Sam’s identity as a citizen soldier bound by his family motto operates as an analog of the professional American soldier’s need for fulfilling a historically and culturally constructed belief in triumphalism.

Unfortunately, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the Autobot-Decepticon transformation of the Global War on Terror falters, because he appears to make no real sacrifice. Sam’s central role seems to primarily fulfill what Peter Clines reports Steven Spielberg wanted to be the focus of the film–“a boy and his first car” (32). Furthermore, Sam runs away from danger in the hopes of passing along the All Spark to military authorities, but in the end, he destroys the All Spark in order to defeat Megatron. This sacrifice costs Sam nothing, and destroys the Autobots’ hopes for revitalizing their dead planet. Besides this heavy loss, the only apparent American/Autobot casualties are Jazz (Darius McCrary) and a few U.S. military “red shirts.” So, what did the American citizen soldiers really give up? Apparently nothing. Sam gets the girl as well as a car that transforms into a robot, and Captain Lennox is delivered home by Autobot Ironhide (Josh Harnell) to see his wife and baby girl. The majority of the Decepticons are killed and disposed of in the deep waters of the Laurentian Abyss. Therefore, humanity, read as Americans, gives up very little to win their war with the Decepticon disguised technological threat without having to consider Žižek’s question regarding the “surprise” of the average American to suicide attacks: “Does not this surprise reveal the rather sad fact that we, in the first world countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life” (388)? How can we accept Sam risking his life as cars tumble about him, and windows are blown out by explosives when we know as a literate film audience that in general he is not in a great deal of danger? We see Sam hanging on the precipice, but in the back of our minds, we understand that it is only a film and tremendous safety precautions are in place, or he is merely lying on his back on a green screen devoid of any real danger. Sacrifice cannot be simulated, or can it?

The only characters shown in the film to sacrifice are the heroic Autobot Transformers, but these computer-generated characters are simulacra masquerading as human technologies. In the case of the Autobots, the origins of their name come from the fact that original Transformers toys were organized such that the automobiles were the good guys or Autobots, and everything else (pistol, F-15, microcassette recorder) were the bad guys or Decepticons. In Bay’s film, the Autobots tell Sam and Mikaela that their name means, “autonomous robotic organisms.” This is a clever explanation, but an unsatisfactory one. In fact, Autobot can stand for all of the Transformers, just as Decepticons, an amalgamation of “deception” and “con,” represents the deceptive nature of all of the Transformers to infiltrate and hide via the mask of human technology. What does it mean for the heroes and the villains of the film to carry the same transformational signification? I assert that this underlies the most significant source of the post-9/11 anxiety, which is the fear of the invisible Other. Americans learned on 9/11 that the ideological enemy carries no flag and wears no uniform–those persons who perpetuated the terror attacks infiltrated American society by a transformative performance. Depending on the context of their surroundings and the exchange of information and messages between cells, these Fourth Generation warriors used the assumption of a social contract to their advantage in the preparation, staging, and implementation of their attacks on the United States. Unlike the Transformers in Michael Bay’s special effects laden film, the 9/11 attackers are true transformers in the sense that they were shadow warriors who hid in plain sight. However, the 9/11 attackers are not the same as the earlier Cold War image of the subversive Communist agent. The 9/11 attackers and their ilk do not desire to sow discontent, but rather intend to create a symbolic event from the death of others facilitated by their martyrdom. Therefore, the reality of the al-Qaeda operative is far removed from any imaginative belief in the elusive Communist agent during the American Cold War.

Transformers is evidently connecting to a number of emblematic issues in the post-9/11 cultural landscape including anxiety of the dream made real, citizen response to the real, concern over sacrifice in response to the real, and the issue of distinguishing friends from enemies. There are a number of other SF films that connect to and explore these issues as part of a growing trend in post-9/11 narrative creation. One such film that I argue is science fictional due to its uncanny recreation of the events of September 11, 2001, is Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006), which presents a strong example of citizens turned soldiers. Films such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield (2008) engage narratives of the city under attack, and individuals attempting to save their own lives and the lives of others while trying to make sense of an imminent, seemingly unstoppable threat. Also, the expansion of superhero movie franchises including Spider-Man (2002, 2004, 2007) Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and Iron Man (2008) all represent citizens turned soldiers who make choices and sacrifices to contend with unexpected threats made real. Alfonso Cuarón’s film interpretation of Children of Men (2006) further strengthens the concepts of responding to anxieties inspired by the unexpected real. Another film adaptation is Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007), which presents a reevaluation of the protagonist Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his providing the genesis for the future through a cure he developed to the transformative vampire virus. Another perspective is presented by George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) in which a chosen son falters down the wrong path, guided by the elusive and hidden-in-plain-sight evil mentor in the hope that his choice will protect his wife. These are only a sampling of the many SF films released after the September 11 terror attacks, but there is obviously a trend in the representation of and personal response to anxiety resulting from the fantastic made real.

How long will the new post-9/11 SF film narrative be with us, and what is its long-term meaning for American culture? Unmistakably, the new post-9/11 SF film narrative developed from two deeply rooted historical developments–the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the ensuing call for a “Global War on Terror” by then President George W. Bush. The attacks initiated an unparalleled realization of vulnerability and a new call for individuals to deal with matters that were, until that point, dealt with a world away by the United States government and its military forces. The realization came that the government and its military might is incapable of fully deterring Fourth Generation warfare. This catalyzing comprehension initiated the anxiety of the real, true event that Baudrillard and Žižek confronted in their respective works. Furthermore, the Global War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security’s “National Threat Advisory” (currently yellow, signifying “Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks”) serve to sustain the anxiety of the catalyst event, and it is evident that the perpetuation of that anxiety of the real event that has taken place and may take place again has worked its way into the capital-driven cultural productions in American cinema. It has taken almost eight years to arrive at our present position from the September 11 terror attacks, and there was little chance of a shift in perspective during the Bush administration, which launched a retaliatory war in Afghanistan and a war of misguided retribution in Iraq. These wars are still with us today, and will be for some time. However, there are shifts in perspective taking place within the United States government following the historic election of President Barack Obama that may soon find resonance in SF film. According to a report in The Washington Post on March 25, 2009, the Obama administration, as aware of the incendiary and rhetorical power of words as its predecessor, quietly backed away from the use of the phrase “global war on terror” (par. 1).   The monolithic and essentializing conceptualization of the “global war on terror” served to increase the anxiety initially generated by the September 11 terror attacks by sustaining it through Bush’s dualistic stance, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Unfortunately, the problems emblematized by the September 11 terror attacks are not so simple as to align a country against “terror.” The term “terror” cannot contain or represent the complexity of problems that brought about an equally complicated network of persons with varying (and sometimes conflicting) ideological and religious beliefs as al-Qaeda. Additionally, al-Qaeda is not the only group (or individual) engaged in the use of non-declared attacks against civilians in the United States, or elsewhere. And, it is the issue of elsewhere that the new President of the United States, and entire American citizenry, should turn their attention. Following the September 11 terror attacks, there was a massive turning inward, a collective mourning for those persons lost in the attacks, but more significantly for the loss of innocence and the separation between the individual and the real. Žižek puts it more directly:

Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude, “Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here!”–leading to more aggression toward the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out–or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from “Things like this should not happen here!” to “Things like this should not happen anywhere!” (Žižek 389)

Unfortunately, Transformers and the other post-9/11 SF films falter on this very point. The new post-9/11 SF narrative is still hung up on the idea that real events like the terror attacks should not happen to America and Americans. These new films resist an ethical cosmopolitanism that symbolic events with real casualties and destruction should not happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The new American President, elected in part on Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” and “Change” political artwork, has not yet embraced this cosmopolitan attitude as evidenced by his retaining Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the unabated use of unmanned Predator aerial drones to kill al-Qaeda militants and Pakistani civilians. Will new post-9/11 SF films engage and critique this most significant aspect of the pain and anxiety Americans face when confronted by the real? It is certainly my hope that the SF films in the future question the change that remains the same, and that audiences walk out of the cinema troubled, angry, and eager to make change real.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2002.

Bay, Michael, dir. Pearl Harbor. Touchtone Pictures. 2001.

—. Transformers. Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures. 2007.

Carpenter, John. Escape from New York. AVCO Embassy Pictures. 1981.

Cartmill, Cleve. “Deadline.” Astounding Science Fiction 33:1 (March 1944): 154-178.

Clines, Peter. “Transformers.” Creative Screenwriting 14:3 (May-June 2007): 32-33.

Clover, Joshua. “Dream Machines.” Film Quarterly 61.2 (2007): 6-7.

Cuarón, Alfonso. Children of Men. Universal Pictures. 2006.

Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War American and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Favreau, Jon. Iron Man. Paramount Pictures. 2008.

Gaddis, John Lewis. “And Now This: Lessons From the Old Era For the New One.” The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11. Eds. Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 1-21.

Greengrass, Paul, dir. United 93. Universal Pictures. 2006.

Kubrick, Stanley. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures. 1964.

Lawrence, Francis. I Am Legend. Warner Bros. 2007.

Lind, William S. “Understanding Fourth Generation Warfare.” ANTIWAR.com. 15 January 2004. 17 March 2008 <http://www.antiwar.com/lind/index.php?articleid=1702&gt;.

Lucas, George, dir. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Twentieth Century Fox. 2005.

Milius, John. Red Dawn. MGM/UA. 1984.

Nolan, Christopher. Batman Begins. Warner Bros. 2005.

—. The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. 2008.

Raimi, Sam, dir. Spider-Man. Columbia Pictures. 2002.

—. Spider-Man 2. Columbia Pictures. 2004.

—. Spider-Man 3. Columbia Pictures. 2007.

Reeves, Matt, dir. Cloverfield. Paramount Pictures. 2008.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Black Hawk Down. Columbia Pictures. 2001.

Spielberg, Steve, dir. War of the Worlds. Paramount Pictures, 2005.

Wilson, Scott and Al Kamen. “‘Global War on Terror’ Is Given New Name.” The Washington Post 25 March 2009. 26 March 2009 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/&gt;.

Wise, Robert. The Day the Earth Stood Still. Twentieth Century Fox. 1951.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (Spring 2002): 385-389.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 3 of 3, Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler, 7 June 2010

This is the sixtieth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

After resting over the weekend, I took my final PhD exam on Philip K. Dick. My dissertation director Donald “Mack” Hassler administered this test for me. We had spent time discussing Dick’s novels and stories during an independent study. However, this minor exam required me to read the entire Dick oeuvre and a good amount of scholarship on the writer’s work. We agreed on this reading list. During the year of preparation, I would walk down to Mack’s house–a few blocks from the house my wife and I rented in Kent–and we would sit and discuss my progress.

In this exam, I discussed in broad strokes Dick’s career in the first question, I explored the major theme of authenticity in the second question, and I examined his personal ontological insights in his VALIS trilogy in the third question. Like the postmodern theory minor exam, I had four hours to write the following response.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald Hassler

PhD Minor Exam: Philip K. Dick

7 June 2010

Question 1

Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist, whose most recognized works were in science fiction, but he also wrote a significant number of realistic fictions, only one of which was published during his lifetime. The majority of stories are closely related to California, where he spent most of his life. Also, the loss of his twin sister Jane and his life with his mother following his parents’ divorce severely affected his personal life and colored his fictions. In his stories, there are a number of recurring character archetypes and themes. His primary recurring characters include the serviceman or blue collar worker who works for someone else and is trapped at home and work, the castrating harpy or bitch is usually the serviceman’s wife, the dark-haired girl is a younger woman who serves as a distraction or seductress to the serviceman, and the patriarch who is the father figure or boss of the serviceman and he is sometimes helpful, sometimes not, and may compete for the attention of the dark-haired girl. The themes that Dick explores in his fictions include the relationships between men and women, humans and machines, the plight of the everyman, psychological rupture, authenticity versus inauthentic, philosophy, ontological uncertainty, and theological questioning.

Using Brian McHale’s theory of postmodernism, I have divided Dick’s oeuvre into three phases based on the epistemological or ontological dominant evident in the fictions. As he argues, epistemologically dominant issues or questions (i.e., how do we know particular things, what can we know, how do we know ourselves, etc.), when pushed far enough, transform or lead to ontologically dominant issues (i.e., creation of a world or worlds, making sense of one’s place in a world, etc.). Even though he is arguing for a division between the modern (epistemological) and the postmodern (ontological), his idea that these dominants coexist on different levels within texts provides a way of engaging Dick’s writing.

The first phase includes his writing to the end of the 1950s during which time Dick was performing two kinds of writing: an overwhelming number of science fiction short stories and a handful of novels including a number of mostly unpublished realistic novels. These fictions promote a epistemological dominant. The second phase with its emphasis on ontologically dominant issues includes the 1960s and the early 1970s. The third phase, which overlaps with the second phase (Dick mentions gnosis in The Penultimate Truth (I will capitalize book titles and not italicize to save time typing), for example, in 1964, and theology in some of his earlier works), includes primarily his fictions of the late-1970s to the early-1980s in which he returns to epistemological questions through his exploration of theology and Gnostic beliefs as he attempts to interpret his own subjective experiences beginning in February and March of 1974.

Dick’s first writing phase begins with his first published story: “Beyond Lies the Wub” (1952), in which an intelligent and telepathic Martian pet takes over the mind of a ship’s captain after it is killed and eaten. Uncertain borders between inside and outside, such as in this story, define the paranoiac tensions in his fiction that turn up again and again. This theme is most fully developed in his mid-1960s novel, Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) when Bill exchanges minds with Hoppy Harrington. Other notable stories from this period include “Imposter” (1953), which is about a man who discovers that he is actually an android, “Second Variety” (1953), which is about a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by men and killer androids that are indistinguishable from humans, “Autofac” (1955), which is about automatic factories that cannot be turned off when they are no longer needed, and “The Minority Report” (1956), which is about stopping crime before it happens and questioning determinism. Minds, paranoia, human-machine relationships, and knowability are issues in his early fiction that he continues to develop throughout his career.

While writing an extensive amount of short fiction in the 1950s, Dick also began writing realistic fiction and science fiction novels, with greater publication success with the latter. His first novel published was Solar Lottery (1955), which depicts a future in which chance defines life and the ultimate lottery is the one that determines the world leader or Quizmaster. Other early novels include The Cosmic Puppets (1957), which features a remote town torn between two competing Zoroastrian gods. This novel combines the issues of a simulated reality with the paranoia of something lying beyond our immediate perception of reality controlling the lives of what Patricia Warrick terms the “little men.” Another early novel is Dr. Futurity (1959—interestingly, published the same year as Heinlein’s “All You Zombies”), which revisits the question of free will through the tribulations of a time travelling surgeon, snatched 400 years into the future to help and inadvertently kill an Iroquois chief. Other notable novels from this period include The World Jones Made (1956), Eye in the Sky (1957), and The Man Who Japed (1956).

During this time, Dick wrote a significant amount of realistic fiction, because he wanted mainstream success. Science fiction, as a result of his agent and publisher, never paid well for Dick. He desired mainstream success and recognition. His first written novel was in fact a realistic novel, Gather Yourselves Together. Written in 1950, it is about three American business people preparing to leave post-WWII China as the Communists begin to control the mainland. The principle characters, two men and one woman, deal more with their interpersonal sexual relationships than with the impending social revolution just outside the gates. In 1952, he wrote Voices from the Street, which is an early appearance of his trademark Modern TV Sales and Service, and it is about its owner and his breakdown from the effects of the mundane. Mary and the Giant, written in 1954, is an interracial love and love-lost story that Dick described as a retelling of Don Giovanni. The Broken Bubble, written in 1956, is about two couples who essentially swap wives, and learn life lessons from the economy of sexual relationships. In 1957, Dick wrote Puttering About in a Small Land which shares elements with Voices from the Street. It is about Roger Lindahl, who runs a TV shop, and who develops marital problems after having an affair with a dark-haired girl/woman. It ends with him not going insane, but instead, skipping out on his wife and lover with a car full of his own TV sets. In 1958, he wrote In Milton Lumky Territory, which is about a warehouse manager turned typewriter sales shop manager. Confessions of a Crap Artist, written in 1959, was the only realistic novel published in Dick’s lifetime. It is a story about the death of a man seen from his and three other character perspectives, and how each constructs a particular view of reality. As in Dick’s most important science fiction, this novel demonstrates Dick’s belief that reality is a subjective experience. The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1960) is about real estate troubles fueled by racism and a poisoned water supply. In fact, racism is viewed as more problematic than the effects of contaminated ground water. And Dick’s last realistic novel from the early period is Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, which was written in 1960. It is a story about two cooperative business owners split apart by an outside entrepreneur. All of the remaining mainstream novels have since been published after Dick’s death in 1982.

The second phase of Dick’s writing career begins with his 1959 science fiction novel Time Out of Joint. It combines the epistemological issues of knowledge and self and the ontological world building that defines Dick’s central works. In the novel, Ragle Gumm is maintained by the world government in a 1950s simulacral enclave in what is really 1997 (note also the exchange of time by place—a postmodern development that figures large in Dick’s middle period). Gumm discovers that he has been placed in the enclave to assist with his psychotic regression from the pressure he was under in the real 1997 predicting where Lunar missiles will strike the Earth. In the simulacral 1950s, he plays a daily contest, “Where are the Little Green Men?” in order to supply the Earth forces with the data they need to prepare for the next attack.

The novel for which Dick won the Hugo Award for Best Novel was his 1962 The Man in the High Castle. The novel takes place in an alternate history where Japan and German won WWII and divided the United States between them. This represents one ontology, or world. Within the story there is another novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This novel, developed with the help of the I-Ching or Book of Changes, tells our story, or what we know as reality. This represents another ontology. It is only at the end of the novel that one character, Juliana Frink, questions the I-Ching and learns that Grasshopper is “Inner Truth” or the true reality. This novel provides a denouement that Dick’s later ontological mysteries dismiss favored a deferred meaning.

Martian Time-Slip (1964) takes time and ontology into another direction. In this story about Martian immigrants and the displaced peoples of Mars, the bleekmen, Arnie Kott tries to capitalize on the precognitive abilities of an autistic boy, Manfred. Manfred’s reality is shaped by a different perception of time, seeing slices of time extending into the future, people appearing and disappearing as they move about. With the mystical help of the bleekmen, Kott’s manservant Heliogabalus guides Kott and Manfred to Dirty Knobby, a place that will help focus Manfred’s ability. Instead of helping Kott, it allows Manfred’s already powerful ability to control the reality of those around him by sending Kott back in time to try to interfere in the original course of events that took the claim of the FDR Mountains from him. The original time line is maintained and upon his return Kott is killed by Zitte, a smuggler whose warehouse was destroyed by Kott’s men. Kott dies believing that he is still in the world controlled by Manfred.

Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) is a post-apocalyptic story about a group of survivors living in the California countryside. Instead of a straight ontological Dick story, this novel is about the control of reality by technoscientific means. First, Dr. Bluthgeld/Jack Tree/Dr. Bloodmoney, representing the military-industrial complex and the man held responsible for the devastation of the war, and seemingly innocent and eccentric member of the neighborhood family, once marshaled his abilities to ruin the world and society as it then existed. Now, threatened, he attempts to use his force of will to rein terror down on humanity once again. He is stopped by Hoppy Harrington, a phocomelus, a human mutant reliant on his mental powers and technological apparatus to move about and do his work. Hoppy destroys Bluthgeld, and in turn, becomes like Bluthgeld. Mad with power, Hoppy and his stunted child-like mind demand favors and attention. Hoppy is in turn defeated by Bill, Edie’s unborn brother who lives inside her body. Hoppy uses his power to remove Bill, but Bill uses his own mental powers to switch bodies with Hoppy—leaving Hoppy to die and Bill to take over his new, yet deformed, body. This world is dependent on the interconnections between the characters and the unifying voice of Walt Dangerfield, endlessly orbiting Earth in his manmade satellite. Disruptions to the web of connections lead to ontological instability and the threat of more bombs. The elimination of Hoppy and Bluthgeld restores stability to the world and breaks the cycle of mad power hunger represented by these two characters.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) is a demonstration of drug-induced ontologies. Can-D is a drug for Martian colonists to interact with their Perky Pat layouts—the ultimate commodity fetishism through virtual immersion. However, the Perky Pat layout is limited to only Pat and her boyfriend Walt, which means several persons may inhabit these virtual selves at a given time. Palmer Eldritch, or something purporting to be Eldritch, returns from a mission to the Prox System with a new and improved drug that he calls Chew-Z. Unlike Can-D, Chew-Z creates a world just for the person who uses it. What Eldritch doesn’t say is that every world, all of those separate ontologies, are inhabited and controlled by him. His three stigmata—mechanical arm, stainless steel eye, and metal teeth—become ubiquitous. The ending gestures towards the uncertainty of reality or the certainty of a subjective reality that Dick will explore more in this period culminating with Ubik and A Maze of Death.

The transition from his second to third phase of writing begins with the richly complex Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). I will speak more on this novel in the second question, but for now, it suffices to say that this novel returns to Dick’s earlier dominant theme of epistemological questions through an ontological subplot. The primary issue in the novel is the human builds machine, and then the human becomes the machine. The main character, Rick Deckard, struggles with his own identity as he retires or kills escaped androids for money that would allow him to own a real live animal sheep. In this future Earth populated by those who cannot or choose not to immigrate to the outer planets, Fredric Jameson’s waning of affect is clearly evident when the other characters are surfaces to be painted by emotion delivered by the Mood Organ and the Empathy Box. The Empathy box is far more important to the story, because it allows an individual to interface with every other person using an Empathy Box. In that other realm, the individuals merge with Wilber Mercer, an apparently old man who struggles up a steep and barren hill against the killers—those who would take from Mercer his ability to return the dead to life. Interestingly, Mercer is revealed to be a fake and a fraud, and yet, he transcends his realm of the Empathy Box into Deckard’s world to warn him of the androids waiting for him at the end. Mercer tells him that he will do the thin that conflicts with his identity—the thing he wants to refuse to do—and that thing is the taint on all creation. By Dick’s own description of an android and how humans can become androids, Mercer is telling Deckard that there is no escape—that in some way we are all androids when we experience this identity crisis.

Ubik (1969) is arguably the finest example of Dick’s ontological experiments in fiction of the 1960s. The story is structured around a series of ontological puzzles, one cliffhanger explanation after another, where the characters are caught in a deadly entropic world trying to figure out where they are and how they can survive a world in constant flux beyond rational analysis. The characters may be in half-life, or they could be in a world created by a telepath with a unique time-altering ability undetectable by precogs. This dark-haired girl is particularly dangerous to men and women who stand in her way to the men she desires. Their boss may be alive, or he may be dead. They may be in a real world and their boss trapped in half-life. All the while, one by one they die off by an accelerated entropy, the gubble or kipple in Martian Time-Slip or Do Androids, that ages their bodies in a matter of moments. An anti-entropic force is at work in this changing world that provides the main character Joe Chip with Ubik, a commodified chemical substance that keeps his body safe and immune to the effects of entropy. However, it is difficult to come by Ubik, and its effects are only temporary. Jory, a boy in half-life who apparently is feeding off the life force of those caught in half-life will ultimately return for another chance at Joe. This novel interweaves ontological dilemmas with a heavily commodified culture that has become ubiquitous to the point that there is no outside advertising fueled capitalism (cf. The Space Merchants). It can be argued that this capitalism, which Jameson and others point to as giving rise to postmodernism, is what causes the ontological crisis for the characters in the novel. This idea complements McHale’s formulation of epistemological/modernism and ontological/postmodernism.

Further bridging Dick’s earlier work with his increasing integration of religion and in particular gnosticism into his fiction is his novella “Faith of Our Fathers” (1967). In this story, the world is ruled by the Chinese Communist government and its one supreme ruler. Everyone on Earth is given prescribed hallucinogenic drugs. The protagonist, Tung, obtains an illegal anti-hallucinogen, which causes him to see the supreme ruler as he actually is—a multiply and shifting appearance from the machine to the monstrous to the natural. Tung discovers that the leader is actually an alien or demiurge with fantastic powers, but who rationalizes his actions as not being as bad as other beings in the universe. At the end, Tung dies wishing to regain his hallucination, because it was a much more acceptable reality than the one he now finds himself in.

In A Maze of Death (1970), Dick begins to combine theology with ontological instability. A group of specialists converge on a mysterious planet, Delmak-O, and begin dying off one by one. In this world, people can contact their religious deities through a network of transmitters and amplifiers. Interestingly, each person sees a mysterious building on the planet in different ways and in different places prior to the planet’s complete dissolution. Also, the tenches, large techno-organic beings, serve a role providing I-Ching-like advice and duplicates of artifacts that the colonists need. It is believed by some of the colonists that the tenches play a significant role in the world that they are on, but it is later revealed that Delmak-O is merely a simulation of reality, slightly distorted for each participant. The inhabitants of this virtual world are trapped aboard a spacecraft orbiting a distant star. The final destabilizing moment of the novel comes when Morley is visited by his deity from within the simulation in the real world. The deity offers him an escape from the ship, which Morley gladly accepts.

Largely based on Dick’s troubles as a result of increasing involvement in the California drug scene, A Scanner Darkly (1977) develops a more elegant depiction of drug-induced ontologies and the resulting epistemological troubles that arise from an uncertain reality. Bob Arctor is a NARC who is assigned to infiltrate the Substance-D(eath) scene. As a NARC, he wears a scramble suit in the police building and at official functions, so no one really knows what Bob looks like. On assignment, Bob makes friends, each with their own personality quirks and psychoses that develop from their use of drugs including Substance-D. The thing about this drug is that it severs the cross talk between the two brain hemispheres and effectively divides the self into two. For Bob, this is particularly troubling, because he loses grasp on the division between his undercover and professional selves. The drug makes the division real, which precipitates the crisis leading to his girlfriend (a dark-haired NARC) taking him to the New-Path Facility, a special detox and rehabilitation center that the authorities believe are behind the production of Substance-D. Bob didn’t realize that his mission lead to this point where he would, hopefully be able to alert the authorities of his findings. The important thing to take away from this novel is that what we know is determined by the biology of our brains, which can be influenced or destroyed by chemical dependence. Furthermore, subjective experience of our ontology is determined by the physicality of our brain.

Dick’s last three novels VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981), and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) are loosely collected as the VALIS Trilogy (I will talk about these more in the third question). Dick refocuses his writing on epistemologically dominant questions as he processes the meaning of his 2-3-74 experience. Beginning in February 1974, Dick experienced what he described as a bright pink laser beam, which filled his vision and imparted information about his life, those around him, and the universal structure of things. Described as 2-3-74, due to the most impressive visions having happened in February and March of that year, Dick began attempting to make sense of the experience. He began writing what he called his Exegesis. It was a remembering of knowledge that he believed he had lost, or anamnesis, and a rational explanation of what these new memories meant for himself and his understanding of the universe. Part of Dick’s revelatory experience is that it was grounded in Gnosticism—an early Christian belief that the world was created and ruled by a lesser being, the demiurge, and that Christ was the emissary of the distant supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge or gnosis of whom enabled the redemption of the human spirit. Some critics have written on Gnosticism in Dick’s earlier works, but these ideas unequivocally play a defining part in these, his last three novels. VALIS is a metafictional account of the author as a divided character in a novel who watches a movie about his personal spiritual experience and seeks to understand it with the help of his close friends. The Divine Invasion is a fictional story that relates the author’s Gnostic vision in a far future story of personal salvation. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is a theologically based realistic fiction that is told in flashback by his most realized and sympathetic female character, Angel Archer. It is about loss, the human and the android, and redemption through giving and empathy. I will address these novels more in the third question.

Throughout his fiction, Dick’s characters are usually little men or the everyman. They may get tangled up on something much larger than themselves (e.g., politics or the battle between good and evil). Populating their worlds are numerous simulacra or androids—mechanical beings but lacking affect or emotion. In Dick’s worls, however, the humans often become or are already androids themselves—beings who lack empathy. Late capitalism and commodity fetishism turn men into machines—unfeeling, disconnected from humanity, acting on programming or instructions. In Dick’s fictions, it seems like he began with epistemological questions, which led him to push them into the realm of the ontological. I believe this is what caused his career to circle back to the beginning so to speak. He was almost always concerned about the interiority and psychology of his characters even while exploring how people figure out the world in which they find themselves. Dick’s turn to theology was only another turn in this questioning of subjective reality. He believed that his 2-3-74 experience was the next path to explore and that it might lead him to explore and that it might lead him to some explanations, however problematic they may be, and those explanations seem to have made sense to his subjective experience, which for Dick, was all that really mattered.

An important element of Dick’s writing has to do with his development of female characters. Until Angel Archer, the majority of Dick’s women characters were spiteful, controlling, and emasculating to the men around them. Without knowing the full context of Judith Merril’s “domestic patriots,” which I suspect is related to Lisa Yaszek’s work in Galactic Suburbia and Elaine Taylor May’s Homeward Bound, these women protected the home and community in the face of nuclear Armageddon. However, they do this in confrontation with men’s power and authority. Dick’s relationships with women including his mother is troubled to say the least, and it could be that his women characters are by-and-large representations of the way he saw women who tried to take authority away from men, including himself. However, I do not get a sense that his women character’s gradually change over time. Angel Archer is a specific shift in writing for Dick, and I am suspect to how much Angel was an authentic attempt at a female narrative voice or merely Dick’s assuming a new tact at controlling women through his fiction. In effect, he have crafted Angel so well to control her (in opposition to the controlling female characters in the past stories), and to assert his command as a writer who can also write in a feminine voice (a topic particularly exacerbated by the Robert Silverberg introduction to the James Tiptree, Jr. collection, but I do not know if Dick weighed-in on this or not).

Dick doesn’t seem to give up on his fears of fascism. Even in The Transmigration, Tim Archer is besieged by the invisible church authorities and in The Divine Invasion the world is controlled by Belial. Dick is always looking for the ‘penultimate truth’ and the next layer underneath what we perceive as reality and the social. Even in his last fictions, Dick still perceived something underneath everything that maintained control. Most famously, at the convention in Metz, France in 1977, Dick asserted his beliefs that we now think of as an invention of the Wachowski Brothers in The Matrix (1999).

 

Question 2

Dick’s underlying concern in most (if not all) of his works is authenticity. He is concerned about the authenticity of experiences, things, and phenomena. What is authentic reality? What is my authentic experience compared to someone else’s? Are these goods authentic or ersatz duplications? These questions recur in Dick’s fiction and essays and concern his fictional creations as well as his subjective experience of the supposed real world. Dick is particularly concerned about authentic human beings and their inauthentic simulacra. However, Dick did not formulate a simple dichotomy between real humans and androids. Much more interestingly, he observed that humanity is embroiled in its simulacral creations, and one may transform into the other. It is the contemporary challenge of humanity to not become the android as the world changes in various ways with the forces of technoscientific advancement and the effects of late capitalism. Coming before the work of Fredric Jameson and his lament for the waning of affect and Bruno Latour’s demonstration that the moderns artificially purified subjects and objects while hybrids continued to proliferate underneath the surface, each qualified for engaging Dick’s ideas about humans and androids. Patricia Warrick began to theorize the meanings of Dick’s ideas about human authenticity and inauthenticity through the work of Bruce Mazlish.

Warrick’s analysis of Dick’s fiction in regard to humans and androids relies on the work of anthropologist Bruce Mazlish. He perceived a discontinuity between man and his machines that could be breached in the future. Mazlish’s argument goes that this is another artificial division to be deconstructed by modernity. Copernicus taught man that he was not the center of the Universe. Darwin taught man that he was not separate from nature, but instead part of and evolved from the animal world. Freud taught man that he was not a wholly rational creature with a centered self. Mazlish believes that man should recognize his nature as being continuous with the tools and machines that he constructs. Warrick shows that after the 1950s, science fiction literature that should support Mazlish’s claims exacerbates the discontinuity between man and intelligent machines. However, there are some writers who show the creative potential in man and machine symbiosis.

Warrick compares Dick to Isaac Asimov in her analysis. Dick and Asimov are wildly different writers who both present futures where the distinction between man and machine is erased. Dick, unlike Asimov, is more concerned with androids than robots. Importantly, Dick believes that machines can be androids and humans in certain circumstances, largely from what we think of as late capitalism, can become androids. The central theme in Dick is to define the authentically human and to distinguish those who are non-human with alien elements from the authentically human. Dick and Asimov share a humanistic outlook and believe in the idea of progress, but they are also divergent in a number of significant ways. Asimov is identified with world, objective reality, discursive logic, scientist, sanguine, pre-WWII, no post-holocaust stories, psychohistory, man does not change, static environments, and future is a fictional model of present reality. Dick, on the other hand, is identified with mind, subjective reality, terminal metaphor, humanist (in regard to culture and oriental philosophy), pessimism, post-WWII, post-holocaust stories, future is radical and unexpected, transformation of technology leads to transformation of man, new forms appear as a result of science and technology, and the future is a fictional alternative to current fiction (subjective view point), hence a metafiction.

In Dick’s fiction, there is an evolving reciprocal relationship between man and machine. Man fights automated machines, becomes more un-alive and machine-like, withdraws into schizophrenia as they reject exploitation by economic and political machinery, and schizoid humans turn into androids with mechanical/programmed personalities. In contrast, machines transition and evolve: electronic constructs/automated machines, alien and enemy robots masquerading as human, robots becoming human, will to survive, and robots becoming superior to humans.

Warrick develops her own tripartite classification to Dick’s writing based on the relationship between the human and the android. In the first period, primarily the 1950s, Dick wrote mostly dystopian short fiction that explores the horror of paranoiac militarism, totalitarianism, and manipulation of the little man through mass media persuasion. A few representative works from this period include: “Imposter,” robot/bomb replaces scientist and the scientist tries to prove his innocence/humanity. “Second Variety” is about robots who masquerade as humans in post-apocalyptic landscape. “The Defenders” is about the leady, artificial soldiers who stay above ground while the humans go under while the robots fight on. Unbeknownst to the underground dwellers, the robots make peace and rebuild the world above. And in the novel Vulcan’s Hammer, the Vulcan III computer rules over all humans (not as kindly as the robot controllers in Asimov’s “The Evitable Conflict”). Things become alive and people become things, mere pawns at the control of the computer. This story is emblematic of machines as destructive humans. This illustrates the importance of metaphor in Dick. He sees the computer as a metaphor that runs in two directions: machines/computers can be like humans who kill, but humans, driving by unrecognized impulses (going back to Freud), become machines that kill. This latter metaphor is demonstrated in The Man in the High Castle by the totalitarian state becoming a machine of domination and destruction. In this way, Vulcan’s Hammer and The Man in the High Castle form the opposite poles of a dichotomy that Dick would later more fully explore in a single work.

Dick’s middle period shifts from a focus on militarism and a third person point of view to economic and political structures and multiple narrative foci. He also more fully develops these two main ideas in his fiction: 1) the outcome of the war, be it military or economic, is not victory or defeat, but transformation to the opposite (e.g., human/machine, ally/enemy, us/other), and 2) media images replace the actual (i.e., the image becomes reality). Technologies transform man into new, unexpected, and possibly ironic forms, and technologies through communication media create fictional realities that are more powerful than the real. Just as machines are programmed to perform, people are made subjects who are programmed with a certain view of reality. Some examples include: In Martian Time-Slip, Jack Bolen sees other people as machines. For him, schizophrenia is a way to deal with an inhuman environment. Insanity is represented as absolute reality, because the schizoid sees beneath the surface of things. Manfred, the precognitive autistic child, is the more authentic character. His ‘madness’ allows him to see what no one else wants to or can see. And possibly the most human character in the novel is the Martian aborigine, Heliogabalus, who is able to connect with Manfred with empathy. Dick relies on empathy as the basis for his humanistic value system—something we see repeated to better effect in Do Androids. Also, it is important to note that Manfred does not commune with the teaching androids in the school. His mental disconnection from the rest of humanity does not necessarily make him a machine. It only makes him different and in some ways more human. Palmer Eldritch is like Arnie Kott in Martian Time-Slip: both characters use a form of economic domination to oppress or control others. Kott fails when Jack tries to escape this, but Eldritch’s ubiquity seems inescapable. Eldritch’s stigamata—the mechanical arm, stainless steel teeth, and artificial electronic eye signify his otherness from humanity. The being that returned from the Prox System is more than likely not human. He has returned to devour the little men. His stigmata infiltrates all humanity, and it is through his drug Chew-Z that he gains power of manipulation over reality. His created reality/hallucination replaces the real. The Simulacra has double inauthentic leaders: Nichole Thibodeaux, the supreme leader who is forever young thanks to an endless supply of actresses, and der Alte, her husband, elected every four years, and served by an android. The media and robotic electric technologies allow for this level of manipulation. In The Penultimate Truth, Stanton Brose is the hidden economic-oriented dictator, and the representative of the honest government to the masses is President Talbot Yancy, a programmed simulacra. However, in Dr. Bloodmoney, transformations save the day. Hoppy Harrington transforms into Dr. Bluthgeld as a power-hungry techno-scientist, but the caring Bill subverts their power when he changes bodies with Hoppy.

In the third period, not taking into account Dick’s theologically oriented works, Dick shifts to the inner workings of the mind. Robots haunt the human from within, and the human is seen as a machine and android. Dick outlines these thoughts in his speech “The Machine and the Android.” He argues that the android mind has a paucity of feeling, predictability, obedience, inability to make exceptions, and inability to alter with circumstances to become something new. The finest example of this is Dick’s Do Androids. Unlike most of his middle period works that feature multiple narrative foci, Do Androids focuses on Rick Deckard and J. R. Isidore. Rick Deckard, the android hunter, is left brained, rational, and unfeeling. Isidore is right brained, intuitive, and empathizes with all things, including androids. The novel has further proliferating pairings: people/things, subject/object, animate/inanimate, loving/killing, intuition/logic, human/machine, Deckard/Resch, and Rachael/Pris. Wilber Mercer seems to take a pragmatic, transcendent middle way—the one who could resurrect the dead, but conceding the reality of the universe: you will be required to do the thing that you don’t want to do, the thing that will violate your own identity. Deckard, as in the earlier stories, represents man who created machines that kill/man becomes the machine that kills. However, Deckard is unlike Resch. Deckard is troubled by what he has become. He wants a real live animal so badly that he is willing to kill androids for $1000/each, even while acknowledging that they can give something back to the world (e.g., Luba’s gift as an opera singer). To survive in this world, you have to let go of the inauthentic division between man and machine, living and nonliving. This is what Deckard and Iron do at the end with the mechanical frog. Isidore, considered a chickenhead by many, points the way to the power of the right hemisphere of the brain and its creative power to transform us from machines into authentic humans. In the film version of Do Androids titled Blade Runner (1982), Deckard is figured as an android with his own implanted memories and alone in the world. He falls for Rachel Rosen, a Nexus 6 android, and at the end, he runs away with her. She has come to love him, and he her. If they are both androids, they have demonstrated what Batty and the other escaped androids were trying to tell the humans all along—they can see and feel just like humans. Our constructs are just like us, and it is our responsibility to acknowledge that. Perhaps it is this realization that drives Deckard to run away with Rachel—that through living, however short a time they may have, they will achieve the thing humanity denies androids. For humanity to acknowledge the lives and emotions of its constructs, it would ultimately destabilize and undermine the importance of the human in a universe otherwise devoid of intelligent beings (at least those we have personally encountered). Humanity in this sense is a fascist regime—it denies agency and emotional depth to other creatures. Humanity is the oppressor, and it is unfortunate that Deckard must retire so many androids before he comes to realize his part in the fascism of humanity—something that is hinted at through Mercer’s words to him in the novel.

It is through the film Blade Runner that Dick’s work most colorfully contrasts with that of Asimov. Asimov’s robots, especially R. Daneel Olivaw in the robot and later Foundation novels, contend with the self-imposed superiority of humans over robots. However, the robots have the last laugh through the Zeroth Law—assuming a position of ethnical authority over humanity and its development. Dick’s androids take no stand against or for all of humanity (except perhaps the Machiavellian Vulcan computers in Vulcan’s Hammer). Dick’s androids are, like his humans, individuals trying to find their way in a very unfriendly ontological creation. In Do Androids, they want to hide out and live their lives away from the deadly bounty hunters. In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott shows us how the androids act and behave toward one another as mutually caring individuals.

“The Electric Ant” is another emblematic story of this period of Dick’s writing. Like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Garson Poole wakes in a hospital bed and discovers that he is actually a robot. Learning this fact forever changes the way he sees himself and the world around him. He realizes that he is programmed to act and behave in a particular way according to the instructions on his tape, but he also realizes that he can reprogram himself, change his tape, and experience the world differently. Thus, his reality tape is a subjective reality, just as our own acculturation and education creates in us a subjective reality for seeing and interacting with the world. We are programmed in various ways, and Dick understood how this can be a very bad thing if left unacknowledged—leading to fascism and blindly following internalized rules or behavior.

Ultimately for Dick, he sees the irony in our situation. He observed that seeing everything as alive or everything as dead means the same thing. He seeks a middle path: namely that everything is lived through. Life and living are processes, not an end unto themselves. Recognizing this in ourselves and in our simulacra can lead to a more creative and accepting worldview that will eventually come—Dick was there and came back to tell us about it.

 

Question 3

            Dick’s fiction represents the author’s continuing emergence and development as a writer, but unlike his earlier fiction, Dick’s last three books take a decidedly different turn in relation to the author. Dick acknowledges his autobiographical elements in all of his fiction, but it is in the VALIS trology that the author breaks the fourth wall and creates his most postmodern works, particularly with the novel VALIS. The author’s earlier works may have been about his own life in various ways, but it is in these last novels that Dick explores his own subjective experiences and psychosocial traumas. The author’s voice in these works is more developed in these three novels than in his earlier work, because he assumes the role of the mighty Oz and pulls back his own curtains to reveal to the reader what lies beneath the surface of his writing. This curtain hides the underlying beliefs of the author and the author’s own subjective experience known as 2-3-74. Dick’s Gnostic beliefs, already present in his fiction prior to the 1970s, comes to full fruition in the VALIS trilogy as a return of the apostolic age—the juxtaposition of the time of Gnosticism in ancient Rome with Dick’s modern day California—a juxtaposition of returning belief structures united through time transformed into space.

It is through the VALIS trilogy that Dick explores the apostolic age reinvention through the author’s belief in VALIS, the satellite connecting him to the Supreme Being through its Gnostic transmissions. In his last three novels, Dick creatively uses voice in ways much different than in his earlier works to bring his subjective experience to his reading audience. I believe that Dick’s VALIS trilogy represents a strong example of Bakhtin’s monologism. VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer are monologic novels, because the characters are subordinate to the authoritative discourse found in the trilogy. Following Dick’s 2-3-74 experience in which he believed to have been contacted by a super intelligent being who passed along information and awakened Dick’s anamnesis, or a remembrance of things past outside of Dick’s existence in the here-and-now, he sought an explanation for his visions. Through his textually heavy Exegesis, Dick employed his extensive book knowledge and reasoning to come up with possibilities and counter possibilities. Like a Derridean trace, Dick’s ultimate understanding was in the end forever deferred and inconclusive. However, Dick repeatedly circled back to Gnosticism: the early Christian belief in the demiurge, a lesser divinity who controlled and created the universe, and the personal salvation of the individual through esoteric knowledge delivered by Christ, emissary of the greater supreme being. Dick believed that the bright pink laser beam that struck him in 1974 was just such a message, which supplied the possibility of salvation by uncovering the artificiality of reality created by the demiurge. Dick recorded his thoughts and personal conversations regarding his experience in his extensive Exigesis. It is from this collection of notes that Dick began development of VALIS.

The many character voices in VALIS are subservient to Dick’s professed desire to make sense of his experience in a fictional format that could be shared with his readers. He employs a particular rhetoric to do this through the use of character voice—representations of himself in various guises. It is important to note that Dick described VALIS as a picaresque novel populated by picaroons, or rogues. In much of his earlier work, Dick created characters identified by what they did for a living. There were salesmen, repair men, managers, pot healers, etc. Then after he fell into the California drug scene in the 1970s after his then-wife left him and he populated his house with various people from that scene, Dick noted that they were all rogues of various kinds. These were not workers, but users of people, things, and drugs. They would do whatever they needed to do to score a hit. Observing these new friends and acquaintances, Dick, in several late interviews, begins to see everyone as rogues of one sort or another. This realization on Dick’s part informs the central characters of VALIS.

In VALIS, Phil Dick is a science fiction author, much like the real author, Philip K. Dick. Phil creates a persona named Horselover Fat (Philip is Greek for horselover, and Dick in German is Fat) who is a character unto himself, but connected to Phil. Phil explains that he created Fat for some much needed objectivity. Phil and Fat’s friends are David, a catholic, and Kevin, a skeptic who wants to ask the creator why his cat was run over by a car. These four characters banter back and forth about the meaning of Fat’s experience with the pink laser beam transmission from what he calls VALIS, or Vast Active Life Intelligence System. Phil could be said to be rational, left brained persona of the author, Philip K. Dick, and Fat could be the intuitive, right brained persona. Some critics argue that David and Kevin are further psychic splits of the author represented as characters within the novel. However, the underlying point about which they all orbit is Fat’s experience and VALIS. They may provide alternative explanations, but they are each a manifestation of the various ideas that the author explored in his Exegesis. They are straw men for the central idea that the author imagines was his 2-3-74 experience.

To complicated matters, it can also be argued that VALIS is a dialogic or polyphonic novel. The characters do provide a unique voice or point of view to the events that Fat experiences. After VALIS’ contact with Fat’s mind, Fat comes to realize that he lives in two time-space continua—the present day California and ancient Rome. However, in ancient Rome, he is Thomas, who Fat considers the dominant personality. So, Dick has created another schism, another split, another voice. Thomas notwithstanding, the California group, who call themselves the Rhipidon Society, are also an example of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Order is inverted—the serious is made silly and the silly is made serious. These picaroons debate the reasonable and the not-so-reasonable in ernest. Dick, the author, is challenging the accepted dogma of a good deal of the Christian world through these rogue characters. Thus, the novel is not completely monologic, but the playful irony and parody within the novel still presents a singular view about 2-3-74 that Dick himself asserted. It is this fact that makes me agree with Christopher Palmer who believes that the most postmodern and fascinating thing about the VALIS trilogy is that Dick was being serious. He points out that Dick pushes the boundaries of belief in all of his works, but in VALIS, Dick’s real belief that he uses to literary effect while denying textuality. VALIS is a view into Dick’s own beliefs that came about as a result of his 2-3-74 experience. Dick pushes the truth of VALIS onto Fat, and the possibility the reader is confronted with through this maneuver is that Dick really believes in VALIS. Dick demonstrates the postmodern turn from new as entertainment to entertainment as news: his novel denies its own fictionality. The other novels in the trilogy do not take this exact turn, but they do continue to carry the author’s voice in different ways.

The Divine Invasion’s Herb Asher is the little man who would like to be left alone, doing his job in the outer reaches of the solar system, rebroadcasting entertainment for his similarly trapped space colonists. Herb is like Dick—isolated and desiring aloneness with his music. The irony of course is that for Dick’s agoraphobia, he liked to surround himself with friends. Then there is Rybys’ immaculately conceived child Emmanuel who Herb only meets much later after surviving in emergency cryofreeze after the fateful wreck. Emmauel, one half of the godhead, the creator, returned to Earth to carry his message to the people and save them from the demiurge, meets Zina, the other half of the godhead, signifying wisdom. Zina guides Emmanuel to remember, to recover through anamnesis, like the VALIS laser beam supposedly helped Dick. Emmanuel and Zina signify Dick and his twin sister Jane. Two halves separated and then reunited. Dick imagines the twin to be wiser and more in control than he himself is. This biographical element of Dick’s life seems to play itself out here in these two characters. The important aspect of Dick’s new belief system that he developed as a result of his embrace of Gnosticism following 2-3-74 is that salvation is a personal thing—salvation is a choice that each person must make and it is on that microscale that salvation is accomplished. In VALIS, Phil chooses to listen to Sophia and regain control over Fat—essentially banishing him from his psyche. In The Divine Invasion, Emmanuel and Zina bring salvation to Herb through the beside-helper Linda Fox. When Belial is about to kill Herb, the singer Linda Fox saves him, because Herb has accepted her not as a pop idol but as a human being who he would like to be with. Much like VALIS, The Divine Invasion borders the difference between monologic and dialogic forms. The central Gnostic message is the point around which the different character voices orbit, but they do take on particularly unique voices in comparison to some of Dick’s earlier work. I cannot say that these voices are better than those in VALIS in terms of their development and representation of a rounded character, but they do represent a trend in Dick’s development as a writer. He was a writer exploring personal salvation and the meaning of 2-3-74 while also thinking about his craft as a writer. He wanted to share his epiphany, but he does so through the development of his writing and the crafting of narrative voices.

In The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Dick achieves a fully dialogic novel that subtly engages the carnivalesque. The protagonist is Angel Archer, the counter character to Bishop Timothy Archer (styled on Dick’s friend James Pike). Dick said of Angel that she was created out of Zeus’ head—out of nowhere. This is in opposition to earlier remarks by Dick in which he asserted that no character can come from nothing. All characterrs for Dick up to Angel were based on people he actually knew. We cannot completely rely on what Dick said about Angel, but I do believe that there is the desire on Dick’s part that Angel was a new kind of character for the author that surpassed his earlier work on voice and characterization. Dick says of Angel that she is smarter, more rational, and more knowledgeable than himself. Angel was a character that Dick says he fell in love with and that he enjoyed her company. Angel could represent his dead sister Jane, but she could also represent himself and a love for the part of himself that he believed was missing via his lost dead sister. On the other hand, Bishop Archer, Angel’s father-in-law, could represent Dick’s voice in the novel. Bishop Archer was based on Dick’s friend Bishop Pike who died in the Middle Ease under similar circumstances to Archer, but Archer is directed by his textuality, his love of knowledge contained in books, and the authority invested in books. Archer is disconnected from the here-and-now, because he circles back to textual authority time and again. Angel is guilty of this, too, something she blames on her extensive college education and personal reading. It is this connection that allows Angel her ability to reflect on herself and the things that she realizes give her wisdom and the capacity to love others, particularly Archer, despite his own inability to reflect on his own without reliance on books. Dick, particularly in some of his realistic fiction from the 1950s, reveals his own indebtedness to books and intertextuality that was probably ahead of his agent’s ability or desire to promote for sale. Angel and Tim Archer could be two voices for Dick, each representing two ideals or two sides of his own psyche. Angel is the rational, adaptable, and wise, and Tim Archer is the imaginative yet restricted book-thinker. Further evidence for follows Tim Archer’s death when Angel decides that she cannot go any further. She has lost her husband, her best friend, and now Tim Archer. She becomes the android, a machine—recording and playback only without any feeling for the things that pass her play/record assembly. The one half of Dick’s voice is destroyed, which causes Angle, the other half, the devolve into the dreaded machine, incapable of being a fully realized human being any longer. She becomes like Kristin’s hebephrenic son Bill. However, Edgar Barefoot, the boat guru, gives her back her humanity as part of a deal. He gives her a rare LP, music, Romanticism, the soul, all of those things that revive Angel, and in return, she need only give back to another person—Bill. She regains her empathy and love, the kind of love for others that she lost when Tim Archer died. Furthermore, Angel’s development as a character and voice for Dick reveals not only a realized character, but one that changes over time in response to real life events. Dick’s earlier characters reacted to the ontological changes around them, but the characters generally did not change as a result of the process. They may go mad on one extreme, or carry on with their lives as best they can on the other. Angel’s progression as a character takes on more than a positive or negative change in relation to where she began. There are positive and negative changes that do not add up to the same point at which she began. The experiences of loss and the supposed transmigration of Tim Archer’s soul into Bill’s body have left an indelible mark on her. And it may be through Angel that we can see Dick, the author, finding his own true voice, discovering himself finally through a character that represents his most successful and believable female character in all of his novels.

In each of the VALIS trilogy novels, apocalypse is encountered by individuals on a small scale. Gone are the convenient out of frame wars in Dick’s earlier fictions that creates an inhospitable ontology for his characters to explore. Instead, the characters in the VALIS trilogy have smaller apocalypses in their own lives that mirror their personal salvations. In almost every story, Dick is concerned about individuals and how they deal with the ontology in which they find themselves. In these last novels, the same is true, but the individual is given a way out through the author’s Gnostic beliefs gained supposedly from his 2-3-74 experiences. Dick certainly has his fun in the personal apocalypses, especially in VALIS where the primary concern seems to be Kevin’s cat and not Phil’s dead friends. However, there is earnestness in the way Dick proposes and promotes Gnosticism that brings his stories back to a monologism that cannot be ignored. The author is very much alive in these stories, and perhaps he found some solace in that before the end.