Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Paper 2, Projecting Victorians into the Future Through the Works of H.G. Wells and Steampunk, Jan 8, 2007

This is the seventh 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 is the second major essay that I wrote for Professor Andy Sawyer’s Genre Definitions module in the MA in Science Fiction Studies program at the University of Liverpool. I condensed this essay into a briefer presentation that I gave first at the Faculty and Postgraduate School of English Seminar and then in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University’s SF and the Canon Conference [more details here].

In this essay, I work with texts that span the genre’s history from its proto-stage with H.G. Wells to its contemporary postmodern phase with Neal Stephenson. I explore the origins and meaning behind steampunk.

I spoke recently with Hal Hall about my Recovered Writing project. He had a similar idea to collect the papers at the major conferences. I might turn his idea to my own work and include my past presentations as a part of my Recovered Writing project.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Andy Sawyer

Genre Definitions Module

8 January 2007

Projecting Victorians into the Future Through the Works of H.G. Wells and Steampunk

Contemporary steampunk science fiction (SF) is best described as “the modern subgenre whose sf events take place against a 19th-century background” (Nicholls 1161).  These stories recall the early influential works of H.G. Wells.  In his future stories, Wells projects the people, customs, and culture of his own time, the late nineteenth-century Victorian era, onto the future.  Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come” is a powerfully illustrative story of that type.  Using this as a model, I argue that this is representative of one of two types of steampunk narrative.  The first, like Wells, projects Victorians forward into the future.  I call this type, “Wellsian steampunk,” and a significant example of this would be Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  The second type does the opposite and places present and/or future science and technology into the Victorian past.  I call this “hard steampunk,” because these stories best fit the accepted definition for the subgenre.  Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” is a prime example, and it presents a solid contrast between these two types of steampunk stories.

            Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come” serves as a model for the Wellsian variety of steampunk as well as the basis for steampunk and SF in general.  Also, this story and Wells’ other science fictional works are important to English literature.  This is one work in which he demonstrates, “the ability he shared with Dickens of taking subliterary forms and transforming them into intelligent literature” (Bleiler viii).  Additionally, he combines, “credible characterizations and a good story vehicle with the exposition necessary to a utopia…for the first time in English literature” (Bleiler viii).  His story is about people working their way through a utopian future (arguably dystopian), but along side that narrative, “he seems to have been the first to recognize that a society different from our own will have different social dynamics, and that the plot must grow out of the stresses peculiar to each imaginary society” (Bleiler viii-ix).  Therefore, Wells recognized the importance of sociology to developing a SF story set in a utopic or dystopic future.  However, Wells also realized that the estranging qualities of his story needed to be connected to his present, which generates, “His basic situation…that of a destructive newness encroaching up on the tranquility of the Victorian environment” (Suvin 208).  Thus, he projected the Victorians along a trajectory into his imagined future, which resulted in the estranging character of the Victorians in a future surrounded, and in some ways consumed, by new, far-future science and technology.

First published in 1899, Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come” is set in a technologized London in the early twenty-second-century.  The narrative concerns the fall of a young couple from the heights of the middle class into the dregs of the blue clad workforce and their miraculous re-ascent to the class of their birth by the self-motivated sacrifice of one of the woman’s earlier suitors.  Important themes within the story that identify this as a projection of Victorians into an imagined future include the Victorian obsessed young couple, class division, and the emerging technocrat.

The young couple (Elizabeth and Denton) is obsessed with Victorian artifacts and ideals.  One example of their obsession is the fact they resist their society’s conventions of using the latest audial and visual technology and choose to “read and write…and instead of communicating by telephone, like sensible people, they write and deliver…poems” (Wells 198).  Later, when they leave the city, “she wore a new dress of white cut in an old-fashioned pattern,” which is a contrast to the “pleasant pink and amber garments of air-tight material” that her father wears (Wells 194 and 212).  When they enjoy their independence as a middle class couple, they, “joyfully [buy] early Victorian treasures, veneered furniture, gold-framed steel engravings and pencil drawings, wax flowers under shades, stuffed birds, and all sorts of choice old things” (Wells 224).[1]  Thus, these two future Victorians clearly desire to live two hundred years in their past.

Connected to their desire for the past is their identification as Victorians transplanted into a future they are unprepared to meet.  During a powerful scene where the two encounter their first hailstorm, they “[seize] hands, these children of the city [and run] down the hill to their home in infinite astonishment” (Wells 216).  They are “children” not only of the city, but also of time.  As identified as forward flung Victorians, they are children of an advanced “age of cities” (Wells 219).  Their world is continually made helter-skelter after they reenter “the city that had swallowed up mankind” (Wells 220).  They are unprepared to deal with the reality in which they find themselves, because they engage Victorian ideals and cling to an alien past.  Therefore, their literal fall from the heights of middle class comes about, because they do not actively engage the future, but instead look back to the past.

Elizabeth and Denton’s fall from the middle class was not as terrible as it could have been, because “the new society was divided into three main classes” (Wells 221).  Wells copies the growth of the three classes from the Industrial Revolution and their solidification during the Victorian era.  The novella’s class system included, “at the summit slumbered the property owner, enormously rich by accident rather than design,” “the dwindling middle class [including] the minor rich,” and “the enormous multitude of workers employed by the gigantic companies” (Wells 221-222).  Additionally, the division is greatest between the lower and middle classes, which the narrator reveals by saying, “[Denton’s] taste would have seemed extreme to a man of the nineteenth century.  But slowly and inevitably in the intervening years a gulf had opened between the wearers of the blue canvas [indicating lower class, Labour Company workers] and the classes above, a difference not simply of circumstances and habits of life, but of habits of thought–even of language” (Wells 236).  In this passage, Wells establishes the amount of separation between the two most widely divergent classes as well as continue to reinforce his ideas about the perils inherent in the future of class division that he establishes in The Time Machine (1895).[2]  This reinforces Suvin’s observation that, “Wells’ first and most significant SF cycle (roughly to 1904) is based on the vision of a horrible novum as the evolutionary sociobiological prospect for mankind” (208).  The “horrible novum” in this example is the distancing between classes, which generates a conflict illustrating how, “the conflicts in his SF are therefore transferred–following the Social-Darwinist model–from society to biology” (Suvin 217).  However, the author links the poor of the future to those of the Victorian era when he writes, “In the refinement of life and manners these lower classes differed little from their ancestors, the East-enders of Queen Victoria’s time” (Wells 209). Therefore, Wells imagines that time produces a widening of the gap between the lower and middle classes, but the class members maintain a connection to their respective Victorian class members.

Associated with the Victorian era, early capitalist monopolization, and the middle class is the rise of the technocrat.  With capitalism’s greater reliance on science and technology at the turn of the twentieth-century, scientists and engineers began to accrete greater political power and some believed that they were better equipped to deal with the problems facing humanity such as war and class struggle.  Wells’ most fervent technocrat in “A Story of the Days to Come” is the last doctor that Elizabeth’s former suitor, Bindon, visits at the end of the novella.  After nonchalantly informing Bindon of his impending and social Darwinian necessitated death:

We hardly know enough yet to take over the management…Science is young yet.  It’s got to keep on growing for a few generations…You won’t see the time.  But, between ourselves, you rich men and party bosses, with your natural play of the passions and patriotism and religion and so forth, have made rather a mess of things…Some day…men will live in a different way…There’ll be a lot of dying out before that can come” (Wells 257).

After hearing his doctor’s monologue, Bindon considers to himself, “That these incompetent impostors, who were unable to save the life of a really influential man like himself, should dream of some day robbing the legitimate property owners of social control, of inflicting one knew not what tyranny upon the world.  Curse science!” (Wells 258).  Despite his protestations, this illustrates a power play between ideologies.  Also, Wells was not behind any one group who might choose to use the new sciences of the Victorians as Bleiler points out when he writes, “Wells was not optimistic about the future.  He believed that power had escaped moral control, and that injustice was in a position to perpetuate itself indefinitely with the new tools created for it by the physical and psychological sciences” (vii).  Thus, Wells projects his concern over social control through scientific developments of his day into the future populated with Victorian characters that have to deal with the consequences.

Neal Stephenson extends Wells’ work through his Wellsian steampunk novel, The Diamond Age (1995).  The story is about a nanotechnologically driven near future that follows in the footsteps of Stephenson’s earlier cyberpunk work, Snow Crash (1992).  The complex narrative primarily follows a young girl, Nell, who learns about life through a specially constructed teaching device known as The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which is designed by the artifex engineer named John Hackworth.  They live in a world pieced together where, “the processes of decentralization, fuelled by a collapse in place-based politics, win out to produce a sprawling, centreless urban landscape composed of small claves” (Kitchin and Kneale 26).[3]

Even though Stephenson follows Charles Dickens’ narrative style and use of chapter headings, he most closely follows Wells’ model of projecting Victorians into the future by creating the transnational group or tribe known as the neo-Victorians.  The neo-Victorians are a group identified by their dress, morals, etiquette, and speech to closely align themselves with English culture of the Victorian era.  Becoming a neo-Victorian does not depend on national allegiance, but it does depend on meeting certain requirements and taking an oath.  Hackworth (middle class technocrat) has a conversation with Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw (an upper class, landholding Equity Lord) about why Hackworth chose to be a neo-Victorian:

My life was not without periods of excessive, unreasoning, discipline, usually imposed capriciously by those responsible for laxity in the first place.  That combined with my historical studies led me, as many others, to the conclusion that there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models.

Well done, Hackworth!  But you must know that the model to which you allude did not long survive the first Victoria.

We have outgrown much of the ignorance and resolved many of the internal contradictions that characterised [sic] that era (Stephenson 24).

Neo-Victorianism is a “behavioral discipline that [they] impose upon themselves” (Stephenson 23).  Therefore, they believe that nineteenth-century English cultural values and mores are superior to anything else that has come along in the intervening years, and therefore, they chose to “emulate” the Victorians while resolving “internal contradictions.”

However, this group is not without its issues such as the restriction of news based on social status.  Stephenson writes, “One of the insights of the Victorian Revival was that it was not necessarily a good thing for everyone to read a completely different newspaper in the morning; so the higher one rose in the society, the more similar one’s Times became to one’s peers’” (37).  This example of double talk indicates another form of social control and stratification through the access to, and flow of, information.  Thus, the neo-Victorians are not literally Wells’ Victorians transferred into the future, but they are a logical extrapolation of that culture in the future with embellishments to their conception of what it meant to be Victorian.

Stephenson approaches preparing the young for the future from a different tact than Wells.  Nell, the young, lower class girl with a copy of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, grows up to be a knowledgeable and capable young woman who is destined to lead an army of women against the existing male-dominated power structure.  The reason that the Primer is constructed in the first place is because Finkle-McGraw wants Hackworth to design a subversive teaching aid for his granddaughter.  Hackworth realizes the true nature of the Primer when he thinks to himself, “Finkle-McGraw, the embodiment of the Victorian establishment, was a subversive.  He was unhappy because his children were not subversives and was horrified at the thought of Elizabeth [his granddaughter] being raised in the stodgy tradition of her parents.  So now he was trying to subvert his own granddaughter” (Stephenson 82).  Conservatism is at the core of Victorian thought, and one of the most highly regarded neo-Victorians, Finkle-McGraw, wants to radically alter the system from within through education with new technology (The Primer).[4]  Finkle-McGraw came to this plan after realizing that his success derived from his real-life experiences gained prior to becoming a neo-Victorian, and he wanted to endow his granddaughter with similar success derived from her teachings gained from the Primer.  However, it ends up affecting his granddaughter, Nell, as well as a quarter-of-a-million Chinese girls.  Thus, The Primer is a symbol for preparing the neo-Victorians to face a future that Wells’ Elizabeth and Denton could not face as is made clear at the end of “The Story of the Days to Come” when, “Denton’s thoughts fluttered towards the future in a vain attempt at what that scene might be in another two hundred years, and recoiling, turned towards the past” (Wells 261).  Nell has no such “recoil” from facing the future.  Thus, Stephenson presents hope for the future, however ambiguous, in opposition to Wells’ lack of faith in humanity’s future.[5]

Nell’s destiny and future success is afforded by the work of technocrats such as John Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw.[6]  The very basis of everyone’s life, nanotechnology, is the technocrat’s “gift” to humanity, because it’s a technology of equalization.  For example, after Nell and her big brother, Harv, run away from home, Harv says, “For starters, let’s get some free stuff” (Stephenson 216).  The author goes on to write, “They made their way to a public M.C. [matter compiler] on a street corner and picked out items from the free menu:  boxes of water and nutri-broth, envelopes of sushi made from nanosurimi and rice, candy bars, and…huge crinkly metallized blankets” (216).  Underlying the gift of nanotechnology is the fact that the megacorporations and black market handlers such as Dr. X control much of it.  Even in a nanotechnological future, there is still a cost associated with using specially designed items created by nanotechnology, and use of the Feed, “a bundle of molecular conveyor belts” that move molecules from the Source to matter compliers (Stephenson 8).  Additionally, the nanotech designers such Finkle-McGraw and Hackworth and kingpins such as Dr. X draw on the Feed in order to build the future molecule-by-molecule.  The technocrats may not rule the world, but in this story, they set about subverting their world’s status quo by empowering an orphan woman to lead an army of orphaned girls, but the one way of completely reinventing the world through the Seed, a nanotechnological device that would work like a plant seed except on a larger scale and for making all sorts of fantastic things, is left ambiguous at the end.  This ambiguity reflects how, “social and personal struggle persist, as does material need, despite the highly developed capacities of nanotechnology” (Berne and Schummer 466).  Thus, Stephenson provides no clear future utopia with Wells’ technocrats regardless of the power they yield in a completely technologized society unbounded by post-capitalism.

Traveling in a temporal direction opposite that of Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come,” and Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, is Ted Chiang’s short-story, “Seventy-Two Letters.”  It’s about a Victorian past constructed in a world where golem-like engineering and homunculi are realities.  Within this alternate history, the nomenclator Robert Stratton, who automates inanimate objects by using the kabalistic seventy-two letters, is faced with the problem of the human species dying out unless there is a way to combine his science of nomenclature with the biology of human reproduction.  As Smith points out, “Chiang’s primary method is to change underlying natural laws or symbolic systems, creating worlds and situations that are fantastic to us but utterly rational to the characters that must live with them” (par. 3).  Chiang does exactly this:  he alters “underlying natural laws” within a nineteenth-century, Victorian setting, and the characters within his imagined world rationalize these changes by employing science and the scientific method.  Furthermore, Chiang states, “[the story is] based on certain out-of-date ideas about the natural world, but they’re science fictional because the characters in them follow a scientific worldview” (Smith par. 25).  Thus, the story has fantastic elements, but they are set down and followed in a scientific manner through experiment and mathematics placing the story in the realm of SF.

“Seventy-Two Letters” is described as, “one of the finest representations of the SF subgenre of steampunk” (Beatty par. 2).  Using the comparative definition of steampunk that states, “while cyberpunk works in a setting of late capitalist decay and anarchy, with computer technology as its primary trope, steampunk revisits nineteenth century capitalism, especially Britain, and its primary trope is the steam engine,” I extend this to mean what I call “hard steampunk” (Beatty par. 2).  Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” and other hard steampunk stories follow this more accepted definition of steampunk.  Thus, Chiang’s story of returning to the Victorian past follows a different temporal focus than Wellsian steampunk, but it does so in order to explore issues of the present through the past instead of taking the present to the future.

Despite the differences of past and future in hard steampunk and Wellsian steampunk, Chiang’s story engages many of the same themes found in the works by Wells and Stephenson.  The obvious connection is the use of Victorian setting and characters.  This unifying element of steampunk is described by Beatty as, “this magical Victorian England is the other side of a metaphor.  It is what we are being compared to, via the golem and nomenclature, so that we can reconceptualize two things in our own time:  the economy, and science on the broadest level” (par. 21).  Thus, the otherness of the Victorians actually allows the reader to reconceptualize the here-and-now, and I agree that this is true for steampunk in general.

Beatty’s use of the “economy” evokes the conception of capitalism as presented in these works.  Free trade, wages, and ownership are connected to the class systems described in the works by Wells and Stephenson.  Chiang also employs social stratification to develop the plot of “Seventy-Two Letters.”  The middle class Stratton wants to mass produce powered looms at a cheap price through the use of dextrous automata, because, “Cheap cloth is bought at the price of worker’s health; weavers were far better off when textile production was a cottage industry” (Chiang 190).  He desires to improve the conditions of the working, lower classes.  However, Master Sculptor Willoughby resists Stratton’s plans, because he feels, “these automata of yours would put sculptors out of work,” and, “disrupt our entire system of manufacturing” (Chiang 191).  Thus, the story reveals the complexity involved in mass production and how the consequences from one change can wreak havoc upon other elements of the system.  Additionally, Willoughby, though an artisan, represents the impediments to change within a sufficiently complex industrial-capitalist system such as the one that had developed by the middle of the nineteenth-century.

“Science on the broadest level” connects to both social stratification and control through the efforts of the technocrat.  There are three powerful technocrats in “Seventy-Two Letters,” and they are Stratton, Dr. Nicholas Ashbourne–Stratton’s former college professor, and Lord Fieldhurst–“a noted zoologist and comparative anatomist, [as well as] president of the Royal Society” (Chiang 194).  Fieldhurst, building on the prior work of French scientists, confirms that the human species will be sterile in five generation unless there is scientific intervention.  He employs Ashbourne, and later, Stratton, to discover a method of using nomenclature to “animate” dormant ova within women.  However, his plan is to control future births, thus ensuring separate ruling and working classes, as well as conjuring the specter of social Darwinism.  In his position with substantial government connections, he is a powerful technocrat, but Stratton and Ashbourne secretly devise a way to ensure unrestricted future births through the use of a recursive epithet that obviates control by Fieldhurst.  Therefore, Chiang, evoking Wells, presents a dim future for the past at the hands of elitist technocrats, but salvation arrives from a compassionate technocrat, following a model more closely aligned with Stephenson.

Genre building, like Chiang’s nomenclature, depends on the proper application of names.  Through these examples, I have identified two types of steampunk based on their chronological focus of looking forward to the future or backward to the past.  It is a subtle, but important, difference between Wellsian steampunk and hard steampunk.  Additionally, grounding their differentiation in the canonical works of H.G. Wells adds greater import to the models that I have described.  Thus, based on these two delineations, further scholarly work may be conducted in the steampunk subgenre of SF by employing a descriptive naming convention such as this, thereby achieving a greater level of critical review on existing and future works.

Works Cited

Beatty, Greg.  “The Bridge Between Truth/Death and Power/Knowledge:  Ted Chiang’s ‘Seventy-Two Letters.’”  Strange Horizons.  16 April 2001.  25 December 2006 <;.

Berne, Rosalyn W. and Joachim Schummer.  “Teaching Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology to Engineering Students Through Science Fiction.  Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society 25.6 (2005):  459-468.

Bleiler, E.F.  “Introduction to the Dover Edition.”  Three Prophetic Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1960.  vii-x.

Burstyn, Joan N.  Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood.  London:  Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.

Chiang, Ted.  “Seventy-Two Letters.”  Stories of Your Life and Others.  New York:  Tom Doherty Associates, 2002.  179-239.

Kitchin, Rob and James Kneale.  “Science Fiction or Future Fact?  Exploring Imaginative Geographies of the New Millennium.”  Progress in Human Geography 25.1 (2001):  19-35.

MacKenzie, Norman and Jeanne.  The Life of H.G. Wells:  The Time Traveller.  London:  Hogarth Press, 1987.

Nicholls, Peter.  “Steampunk.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Terry Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 1995.  1161.

Smith, Jeremy.  “The Absence of God:  An Interview with Ted Chiang.”  Infinity Plus.  2003.  25 December 2006 <;.

Stephenson, Neal.  The Diamond Age.  London:  Penguin Books, 1996.

Suvin, Darko.  Metamorphoses of Science Fiction:  On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre.  London:  Yale University Press, 1979.

Wells, H.G.  “A Story of the Days to Come.”  Three Prophetic Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1960.  189-262.

—.  The Time MachineThree Prophetic Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1960.  263-335.

[1] The consumerist theme in these three works deserves its own study in a separate paper.

[2] In The Time Machine, Wells reveals a far future where the classes are divided on evolutionary grounds.  The pleasure seeking Eloi on the surface evolved from the bourgeoisie, while the underground workers, the Morlocks, evolved from the working classes.

[3] Stephenson’s sprawl is in opposition to Wells’ high walled cities.  This idea of city building can be connected to the respective author’s ideas of bounded social structures that are further described in this paper.

[4] Using technology to change female lives in a future connected to Victorianism is connected to the fact that, “Technological advances changed women’s social and economic roles in nineteenth-century England, and polarised [sic] the life experiences of working and non-working women” (Burstyn 30).  Those changes were not always necessarily empowering, but it reflects the historical and SF observation that new technologies effect social change.

[5] Finkle-McGraw’s character is partially representative of Wells, in that he wants to shake things up, just as Wells, “eagerly used alien and powerful biological species as a rod to chastize [sic] Victorian man” (Suvin 209).

[6] Nell’s anti-Wellsian, hopeful ascent from humble beginnings is another Dickensian element of Stephenson’s novel, and as in the works of Dickens, Nell’s destiny is the exception rather than the rule.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Paper 1, Mega-text and the Cyberpunk Subgenre, Nov 13, 2006

This is the sixth 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.

As I remember it, Professor Andy Sawyer led the Genre Definitions module of the MA in Science Fiction Studies program, but we had some seminars with Professor Peter Wright. This is the first of two major essays from the Genre Definitions module. It allowed me to begin my research in an area that I was very interested in (i.e., cyberpunk) but that I had not yet seriously researched.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Andy Sawyer

Science Fiction Studies Core Module 1: Genre Definitions

13 November 2006

Mega-text and the Cyberpunk Subgenre

In Bruce Sterling’s preface to Mirrorshades:  The Cyberpunk Anthology, he sets about constructing a definition of cyberpunk. Sterling points out “the Cyberpunks as a group are steeped in the lore and tradition of the SF field” (x).  However, cyberpunk authors changed traditional science fiction (SF) vectors by “overlapping…worlds that were formerly separate:  the realm of the high tech, and the modern pop underground” (Sterling xi).    Therefore, cyberpunk is arguably a subgenre of SF, because its practitioners build on earlier SF works while writing stories based on a new fusion of ideas.  Additionally, the dialog between works of cyberpunk and other works of SF provide a connection to an overarching meta-text.  This connecting dialog is accomplished by the sharing of language, terminology, and situations.  I would extend this argument by saying that cyberpunk operates within its own mega-text that is particular to works decidedly cyberpunk in orientation.

Two works of cyberpunk in mega-text dialog with one another are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  Gibson’s early work is said to be the foundation of cyberpunk[1], and Stephenson’s work is equally considered essential to the movement.  I argue that there exists a dialog between the works of Gibson and Stephenson that forms the basis of a cyberpunk mega-text that is also connected to the larger SF mega-text.

Christine Brooke-Rose first put forth the concept of a mega-text, or megastory.   She writes, “The realistic narrative is hitched to a megastory (history, geography), itself valorised, which doubles and illuminates it, creating expectations on the line of least resistance through a text already known, usually as close as possible to the reader’s experience” (Brooke-Rose 243).  SF authors, unlike mimetic authors, have to rely on anchoring their stories into ideas, concepts, and language that have been employed in previous works by other authors.  Essentially, SF is reliant on its situation within a network of texts including both non-fiction (e.g., science and technology) and fiction (e.g., SF, detective fiction, and other genre fiction).

On the one hand, SF’s central theme is that it’s extrapolated from real and theoretical scientific and technological concepts of the here-and-now.  This means that authors draw on the large body of scientific works and technological developments that SF readers may be acutely or tangentially aware of.  Additionally, SF, like science itself, is based on building upon prior works.  This is not to say that subsequent SF works have citations pointing back to passages and data contained in other works, but it does mean that SF is not written within a vacuum.  SF authors build on ideas that they have received from reading works within and without the genre.

Damien Broderick extends Brooke-Rose’s concept of the megastory by a closer reading of its importance to SF, and in so doing, he coins a new term, the mega-text.  His concept of the mega-text refers to the overlay of SF texts, themes, and ideas as, “the mutually imbricated sf texts” (59).  SF stories, for the most part, are an imbrication of texts in a three dimensional space where concepts and terminology float freely between the layers formed by the many stories thus arrayed.

The mega-text is a double-edged sword that represents the shared space of terminology, ideas, and themes that serve to both familiarize, as well as defamiliarize the reader.  He goes on to write, “But that familiarity, so necessary in alerting trained readers to the appropriate reception codes and strategies for concretising an sf text, maintains at its heart a de-familiarising impulse absolutely pivotal to the form’s specificity” (Broderick 60).  The SF mega-text is a shared space of concepts and terminology that many SF writers draw upon in the crafting of their stories.  SF readers rely on authorial use of the ideas contained in the mega-text in order to situate themselves in an otherwise (more or less) overwhelmingly fantastic place.  However, it is the shared elements of the mega-text that form the “de-familiarising impulse absolutely pivotal to the form’s specificity.”

The shared elements, or as Gary K. Wolfe labeled them, icons, are built-up “using a strategy of semiological compensation, or redundancy and overcoding…[The] sf mega-text works by embedding each new work…in an even vaster web of interpenetrating semantic and tropic givens or vectors” (Broderick 59).  The mega-text serves as the “text tube” where ideas react with one another and form new compounds and substances, as well as reveal litmus colors that indicate how one text is related to another across the mega-text network.  Reagents in the SF mega-text include computers, spaceships, robots, and solvable problems.  Cyberpunk icons include networked computers, the network, multinational corporations, virtual reality, disembodiment facilitated through technology, and problems sans solution.

Gibson’s Neuromancer is widely accepted as the foundational cyberpunk work, and it first lends itself to the SF mega-text by the author generating cognitive estrangement[2] through the establishment of setting in its opening sentence.  Gibson begins, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (3).  The description of the sky is estranging from the way in which one would normally characterize the sky, and it is rationally described through the language of technology (i.e., television).

Also, Gibson employs terminology that connects to a shared SF terminology that reinforces this text’s membership in the SF mega-text.  For example, Gibson’s description of the protagonist, Case, is densely packed with powerful descriptions and technologically-oriented words that elicit the feel of an SF story:

Case was twenty-four.  At twenty-two, he’d been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl…He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high…jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.  A thief, he’d worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provide the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data (5).

Gibson re-envisions a cattle ‘rustler’ with the future occupation of a data ‘thief.’  Future corporations that protect their data behind ‘bright walls’ instead of fences, replace the ranches of the past.  And most importantly, Case ‘jacks’ into ‘cyberspace’ using a ‘custom deck’ that leaves him ‘disembodied’ within the ‘consensual hallucination,’ which is an artificial construct of reality known as the ‘matrix.’  Old becomes new and therefore, estranging.

In addition to Gibson’s use of computer technology in this narrative, he also conjures other images in crafting Neuromancer.  The style of the novel is distinctly noir.  Case’s world is ambiguously not dualistic and there is no apparent resolution at the end.  Also, he features the female cyborg Molly, the AI Wintermute, who wants to engage in the capitalist system, the near-immortal Tessier-Ashpool S.A. family/mega-corporation, and the spiritually positive Zion cluster Rastas.

Neal Stephenson extends these cyberpunk icons through the use of language and narrative style in his novel, Snow Crash, published eight years after Gibson’s Neuromancer.  Again, from the opening lines of the text, the reader is thrown into a world that is recognizable, but subtly different than the here-and-now:

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order…Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night.  His uniform is black as activated charcoal…A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest.  Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel…[that] protects like a stack of telephone books (Stephenson 1).

‘The Deliverator’ has a ‘Terminator’ ring to it, and the name is capitalized.  He’s on his ‘third mission,’ wearing a black uniform that is protected by ‘arachnofiber weave’ and ‘sintered armorgel.’  All of this protection and militarized language (e.g., mission, bullet, napalmed forest, and armor) is established for “pizza delivery” (Stephenson 3).  Thus, today’s mundane is rendered tomorrow’s exotic.

In addition to the dense and destabilizing openings to these cyberpunk stories, Stephenson relies on a shared set of terminology to describe the computer-based-scapes in which his character, Hiro Protagonist, shares an affinity with Gibson’s Case.  Hiro writes “microcode (software)” (Stephenson 3).  When he uses his computer, he wears “shiny goggles that wrap halfway around his head” that “throw a light, smoky haze across his eyes and reflect a distorted wide-angle view of a brilliantly lit boulevard that stretches off into an infinite blackness.  This boulevard does not really exist; it is a computer-rendered view of an imaginary place” (Stephenson 19).  The ‘imaginary place’ that is projected onto Hiro’s eyes from the goggles is another description of Gibson’s “consensual hallucination that was the matrix” (Gibson 5).

Following Stephenson’s technical explanation of Hiro’s goggles, he best makes the connection to Gibson’s Neuromancer when he writes:

So Hiro’s not actually here at all.  He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones.  In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.  Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse.  It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It (22).

This passage establishes another characteristic of cyberpunk:  the desire to leave physical reality and escape into a computer generated world.  Gibson describes Case’s crisis over losing the ability to disengage his body and enter cyberspace when he writes,  “They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin…The body was meat.  Case fell into the prison of his own flesh” (6).  The ‘meatspace’ is undesirable to the computer jockey.  Cyberspace and physical disembodiment is the desired space in which to work and live.  In the lives of both Case and Hiro, they live in a dirty and harsh world that doesn’t compare to the beautifully rendered and clean spaces found in their respective cyberspace or Metaverse.

Other icons in Stephenson’s novel that engage the discussion began by Neuromancer include:  a noir style, cyborgs (the mixed race Hiro, the mixed education of Juanita, and the gargoyle information gatherers), language as a programming language, media conglomerates, Cosa Nostra pizza delivery, Burbclaves, and the negative spirituality of the Reverend Wayne Pearly Gates franchise.

Gibson’s groundbreaking novel, Neuromancer, founded what became to be known as cyberpunk, and Stephenson extended cyberpunk by adding to its mega-text through his work, Snow Crash.  These novels engage in a dialog between themselves, as well as in a wider network of SF texts and real-world science and technology. [3]

SF constitutes a mega-text based on historically established terminological and stylistic icons that SF writers are free to draw from, as well as add to, in their own writings.  Cyberpunk is a literary movement that came about in the 1980s as some SF writers decided to strike off in a new direction by remixing historical tropes from SF and detective fiction, as well as bringing together new technology and pop iconography.  Therefore, cyberpunk is connected to and in dialog with the SF mega-text, but it has its own mega-text founded on icons unique to the cyberpunk movement.

Works Cited

Broderick, Damien.  Reading by Starlight:  Postmodern Science Fiction.  London:  Routledge, 1995.

Brooke-Rose, Christine.  A Rhetoric of the Unreal:  Studies in Narrative and Structure, Especially of the Fantastic.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Gibson, William. Burning Chrome.  London:  HarperCollins, 1995.

—.  Neuromancer.  New York:  Ace, 1984.

Nicholls, Terry.  “Cyberpunk.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Terry Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 1995.

Oshii, Mamoru.  Ghost in the Shell.  Manga Video, 1996.

Scott, Ridley.  Blade Runner.  Perf. Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer.  Warner Brothers, 1982.

Stephenson, Neal.  Snow Crash.  New York:  Bantam Books, 2000.

Sterling, Bruce.  “Bruce Sterling’s Idea of What Every Well-Appointed ‘Cyberpunk SF’ Library Collection Should Possess.”  EFF Publications–Bruce Sterling Archive August 1996.  5 November 2006 <;.

—.  “Preface.” Mirrorshades:  The Cyberpunk Anthology.  Ed. Bruce Sterling.  New York:  Ace, 1988.  ix-xvi.

Suvin, Darko.  “Estrangement and Cognition.”  Speculations on Speculation:  Theories of Science Fiction.  Eds. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria.  Oxford:  Scarecrow Press, 2005.

Wachowki, Andy and Larry Wachowski, dirs.  The Matrix.  Perf. Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne.  Warner Brothers, 1999.

[1] Gibson first coins the term  “cyberspace” in his short story, “Burning Chrome.”  However, he gives it a more thorough treatment in his novel, Neuromancer.  Cyberspace is arguably the element that solidified the cyberpunk movement.

[2] Darko Suvin writes in “Estrangement and Cognition,” “SF is, then a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environments” (27).  Suvin introduced the idea of cognition to SF studies when he paired it to the notion of estrangement.  This resulted in an explicit division between fantasy and SF, thus further solidifying SF as a distinct genre.

[3] This survey of two cyberpunk novels offers only a glimpse of the dialog between texts that generates the mega-text definition of the cyberpunk subgenre.  Other cyberpunk mega-text contributors include Greg Bear, Greg Egan, Rudy Rucker, Lewis Shiner, Paul Di Filippo, and Pat Cadigan.  Cyberpunk oriented films include The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell.  Furthermore, there are, to borrow Peter Nicholl’s phrase, “cyberpunk ancestors” (289).  These pre-cyberpunk authors were writing stories that share a cyberpunk orientation.  These ancestors include Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree, Jr., and J.G. Ballard and films such as Blade Runner (288-289).  Further cyberpunk mega-text works can be found in “Bruce Sterling’s Idea of What Every Well-Appointed ‘Cyberpunk SF’ Library Collection Should Possess.”

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Time and Consciousness Module Final Paper, Artificial Self-Creation in the Science Fiction of Greg Egan, Jan 8, 2007

This is the fifth 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.

During the first semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies program at the University of Liverpool, I wrote this final essay for the Time and Consciousness module directed by Professor Barry Dainton in the Department of Philosophy. As I recall, Sunshine, Christian, and I had some of our most heated debates in Professor Dainton’s seminar. It was during this time that I first appreciated the writing and ideas of Greg Egan, too.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Barry Dainton

Consciousness and Time Module

8 January 2007

‘Inducing lasting and profound changes in one’s personality by artificial means is not just foolhardy, it is wrong.’  Assess this claim.

Artificial Self-Creation in the Science Fiction of Greg Egan

Psychologically invested Science Fiction (SF) stories have gained prominence within the genre particularly since the beginning of the SF New Wave in the mid-1960s (Nicholls 865).  One SF theme concerns personality and self-creation through artificial means.  Two recent works by Greg Egan, Diaspora and “Axiomatic,” are of particular interest to the discussion surrounding the transformation of one’s personality, and therefore, self.  His stories encourage the reader to consider whether making permanent changes to one’s personality is reckless, or inspired.  Also, he presents a graying of borders that present an ambiguity between right and wrong.

In these two stories, Egan writes about invested persons with freedom of will who desire to change their outlook or change their will regarding a particular issue or dilemma.  I argue that his characters operate within a Nietzschean framework of the superman to effect personal transformation (moral imperative) or personal dissolution (moral wrong).  Within this argument, right and wrong is determined by following the moral imperative to transform one’s self so that it progresses towards the superman.  There are other considerations such as moral responsibility to self and others that will also be discussed later in the paper.  However, before we can explore this argument, the basis for changing personality needs to be qualified.

Changing one’s personality can take place in one of two ways.  The first is a slow, engaging process of self-creation through work.  This might involve reading, studying, or taking part in psychotherapy.  The second is an artificial process, mediated by technology such as drugs or nanotechnology, to change the mind and/or body in some way to make one’s personality better fit the way that one would like it to be.  Additionally, we all, in some way, change over time depending on our experiences through life.  For example, one may hold anarchist beliefs early in life and later, have conservative beliefs (or vice versa).  These deeply held belief systems have a lot to do with our personality because they form the “rose colored glasses” through which we see and interact with the world.  Drastically altering our personality and beliefs will have the effect of transforming or changing us into “someone else.”

A corollary to the ways in which one can effect transformation deals with the authenticity of the way in which the change is made.  Using American culture as an example, it is considered more authentic to make change through doing things (e.g., personal work and the talking cure) rather than taking an “inauthentic” route such as the use of medicine.  DeGrazia borrows the term “cosmetic psychopharmacology” to describe the use of taking medicines to effect a change in personality or performance when there is no real medical need (36).  However, he points out in regards to a patient taking medicines to achieve a personality transformation that she desires:

That it is “unnatural”–that it works directly on her biochemistry rather than indirectly, as therapy does–simply seems irrelevant:  the shortcut would still be authentic because Marina’s values and self-conception are the basis for the chosen means (38).

Therefore, authenticity is established by the desires of the individual who wants a change in their personality.

There are two philosophical systems regarding self that are applicable to one’s desires and will and the application of that will towards personal transformation.  The first is Harry G. Frankfurt’s concept of freedom of the will, and the second is Frederick Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch, or superman.  The former theory has to do with building a conceptual framework about what makes one a ‘person,’ and how the ‘person’ can change through exercise of free will.  The latter concerns a moral imperative to transform the self into something greater than it was before.

Frankfurt’s philosophical conception of a person is essential to discussing artificial transformation of the self.  There are four elements that Frankfurt describes as distinguishing a person from a non-person.  They are first-order desires, second-order desires, second-order volitions, and freedom of the will.

The two types of desires provide an elaboration of lower-order and higher-order desires.  First-order desires “are simply desires to do or not to do one thing or another” (Frankfurt 7).  Humans and other animals share these.  The “essential difference” between humans and other animals are second-order desires, which is a distinction, “found in the structure of a person’s will” (Frankfurt 6).  Second-order desires are those in which one wants to possess a particular desire, or one wants a particular desire to be one’s will (Frankfurt 10).  Therefore, first order desires are those of acting and reacting, whereas second-order desires are based on introspection and a nesting of desires.

From second-order desires, Frankfurt derives that which is “essential to being a person,” second-order volitions (10).  This uniquely human quality, to want a want to be one’s will, is the volition of one’s will.  Thus, it provides a necessary part of what allows a person to think and conceive regarding personal transformation.

The final element that Frankfurt describes that allows personal choice of transformation of the self to take place is “freedom of the will.”  Specifically, one has freedom of the will if, “he is free to will what he wants to will, or to have the will he wants” (Frankfurt 15).  Therefore, one’s awareness of one’s own will and the enacting of changing one’s will to match one’s wants is freedom of the will.

Freedom of the will is an essential element of the discussion about changing one’s personality.  First, a person must have some desire to want to change their personality.  This want to want to change is a second-order desire.  Second, there is the expression of freedom of the will by choosing to make an artificial modification to one’s personality.  By following this line of argument, one exercises their freedom of will by electing to a modification, because it reveals the fact that the person is in fact a ‘person’ with second-order volition as well as freedom of the will.

Continuing on his theory regarding the freedom of the will, Frankfurt questions moral responsibility in relation to having a free will.  He states that “For the assumption that a person is morally responsible for what he has done does not entail that the person was in a position to have whatever will he wanted…This assumption does entail that the person did what he did freely, or that he did it of his own free will” (Frankfurt 19).  Therefore, one does not have to have freedom of the will to be held morally responsible for his/her actions.[1]

Questions regarding freedom of the will and moral responsibility are addressed in the philosophy of Nietzsche and his ideas regarding personal transformation.  He engages the discussion surrounding personal will by developing his moral imperative of self-transformation.

Some argue that Nietzsche is “an ‘instinctualist,’ urging us to act ‘out of instinct’ instead of with reflection and deliberation,” but this isn’t the case at all (Solomon 196).  Solomon points out that Nietzsche, “surely urges us to act in accordance not only with our natures (that is, with our first-order desires born of that nature) but also with second-order, ‘higher’ goals and aspirations” (196).  Therefore, he is aware that we, as individual persons, have base, instinctual needs as well as desires and ambitions above mere instinct, which maps onto Frankfurt’s concept of self-necessitating first-order desires and second-order volitions.

The other essential element of Frankfurt’s theory that we can use to read Nietzsche is that, “we can interpret Nietzsche as holding that we are free and responsible (that is, we have what he refuses to call ‘free will’) insofar as we act not only in accordance with our desires, ‘instincts,’ and character, but also in accordance with our higher-order desires (also derived from our character, presumably)” (Solomon 196).  For Nietzsche, there is an imperative to act “in accordance with our higher-order desires,” because we are persons with free will.  Thus, Nietzsche would hold that it is necessary, when faced with an opportunity that brings one’s “higher-order desires” to fruition that the opportunity be utilized.

Nietzsche first touches on this idea of self-building when he writes, “Active, successful natures act, not according to the dictum ‘know thyself,’ but as if there hovered before them the commandment:  will a self and thou shalt become a self” (232).  “Will a self” is intimately linked to the necessity of following higher-order desires or in Frankfurt’s terms, second-order volitions.  Therefore, Nietzsche would agree that for someone to be a person, to be a self, one must hold a desire to become that person comprised of a particular set of characteristics and personality.

Developing his philosophy further, Nietzsche chooses the symbol of the Übermensch, or superman, as representing the ultimate end of personal transformation.[2]  He writes, “And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people:  I teach you the superman.  Man is something that should be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?” (237).[3]  This character desires to “overcome” what it is to be human.  It is by second-order volition and freedom of will that humanity can rise above itself to become something greater:  the Übermensch.  Additionally, Nietzsche uses a metaphor of rope to situate humanity in relation to the superman when he writes, “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and superman–a rope over an abyss…What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going” (239).  This reinforces the transformative element of man in moving toward attaining the goal of the superman.  Man is “going-across” the rope, but man is also “down-going” for eventual replacement by the superman.  He is arguing that man must strive toward becoming the superman, but eventually, the superman will supersede and replace humanity.  There is no right or wrong associated with this transition, only that this should be the goal toward which humanity strives.  Also, it is this element of the idea of the superman that strongly supports the argument for artificially changing one’s personality.  Thus, transformation of the self is moving across the rope toward the superman.

SF is a literary space where concepts such as the Übermensch and Frankfurt’s freedom of will and second-order volitions can be demonstrated in a “cognitively estranging” story-scape about artificially changing one’s personality in permanent and drastic ways.  Some questions that these texts raise include:  What are the ways that these changes can be effected?  Are these changes irresponsible?  Are they wrong?

There are two SF works by Greg Egan that strongly engage the issues raised by artificially changing one’s personality.  They are his novel Diaspora and short story, “Axiomatic.”  Diaspora deals with an accepted form of personality change for computer inhabiting sentient beings.  “Axiomatic” is about a man who chooses to alter his personality so that he loses any concern about the well being of others, which facilitates his ability to commit murder and fulfill his need for revenge.

Egan’s Diaspora touches on the issues of personality change through artificial means.  The protagonists in the novel are sentient beings that live within a computer construct known as a polis.  These beings, some based on the minds and memories of humans, have continued to evolve literally as deus ex machina.  They have developed a way of altering personality called an “outlook.”  Egan writes, “Each outlook offered a slightly different package of values and aesthetics, often built up from the ancestral reasons-to-be-cheerful that still lingered to some degree in most citizens’ minds” (Diaspora 50).  However, outlooks “[affect] neural structures,” which means that outlooks can have far reaching changes on the individual with some alterations becoming permanent and drastically effecting the citizen’s personality.

In the first encounter with outlooks, Yatima and Inoshiro employ a temporary outlook in order to more effectively experience an art display.  This is the least harmful example of cosmetically altering one’s personality within these three texts.  After Yatima applies the outlook that Inoshiro gives her, she noticeably realizes that it has effected a great change in her perception.  Egan narrates, “Yatima still felt distinctly modified; the equilibrium had shifted in the tug of war between all the symbols in vis [sic] mind, and the ordinary buzz of consciousness had a slightly different tone to it” (Diaspora 52).  Yatima goes on to say, “I’m still myself.  I think,” and Inoshiro replies, “pity” (Diaspora 52).  Yatima hesitates to activate the outlook, because she is fearful of altering her identity, whereas Inoshiro is a foolhardy individual who is eager to experiment and try new things.  Yatima is cautious and methodical, while Inoshiro rushes in and feels too much.  Their personality differences leads to Inoshiro eventually altering his personality permanently.

Later in the novel, Yatima and Inoshiro attempt to save the remaining humans on the planet by inviting them to be “downloaded” into the polis before a planet-wide gamma ray threat bombards the surface.  Their entreaties are met with derision and revulsion, which causes their mission to fail save for a few dying individuals who are incorporated without their permission.  Inoshiro takes the loss very hard, and he decides, alone, to take on “an old outlook” that “imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving” (Diaspora 148).  This outlook differed from their artwork outlook, because “the outlook was universally self-affirming.  Once you ran it, you could not change your mind.  Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it” (Diaspora 148).  It became a part of Inoshiro and it changed his personality into something very different than it was before.  Yatima comments to herself, “What you are now is not Inoshiro” (Diaspora 148).  To Yatima, Inoshiro had become a different person than her friend who had led her on wild adventures.  Despite Yatima’s protestations, Inoshiro acted with freedom of will, because he expressed his second-order volition to change his personality in such a way that he could cope with the horrors that he witnessed after the gamma ray burst killed many human “fleshers.”  However, as Egan emphatically narrates, “Inoshiro had made vis [sic] choice, destroying vis [sic] old self and creating a new one to follow the ancient meme’s dictates, and no one else had the right to question this, let alone the power to reverse it” (Diaspora 149).  This particular outlook is designed to lock the individual into this outlook/personality forever without the possibility for change.  Inoshiro is effectively reduced to something less than a full person, because he no longer has freedom of will.  The new outlook may allow him to have second-order desires, but he cannot act on anything other than those volitions built into the outlook in which he is locked forever.  Additionally, Inoshiro’s choice would not follow Nietzsche’s idea of transformation towards the superman.  If Inoshiro’s choice had allowed for the possibility for further change or a will to change, then it would satisfy Nietzsche’s moral imperative to work towards becoming more than human.[4]

Egan presents a Nietzschean superman-like character in his short story, “Axiomatic.”  It’s about a widower named Mark Carver who desires to exact revenge on the murderer of his wife, but he is unable to follow through with that revenge, because of his moral compass.  He believes that “revenge was for the morally retarded” and “taking human life was wrong” (“Axiomatic” 97).  His belief that “human consciousness had always seemed to me the most…sacred thing in the universe” is deeply embedded in his psyche in so far that “[he] could no more devalue it than believe that one plus one equaled zero” (“Axiomatic” 97).

Despite the protagonist’s initial morality, he maintains a second-order volition of wanting to have the will to kill the man responsible for his wife’s death.  However, he is held back from executing his plans, because he was “safe in the knowledge that no amount of hatred or grief or desperation would ever be enough to make me act against my nature” (“Axiomatic” 98).  His “nature” is his moral beliefs and his personality.  He realizes that without changing that “nature,” he will be unable to put his will into action.  Clearly, the protagonist has freedom of will according to Frankfurt, because he entertains second-order volitions despite his inability to achieve them within himself.  Therefore, he seeks an artificial means of effecting the change in his personality that would allow him to carry out the execution of his wife’s killer.

Toward that end, the protagonist purchases an “axiomatic implant” that would burrow into his brain and enact the change that he desires.  These implants “were derived from analysis of actual neural structures in real people’s brains, they weren’t based on the expression of the axioms in language.  The spirit, not the letter, of the law would prevail” (“Axiomatic” 98).  Thus, the implant rewires his own neural structures to mimic the neural structures in someone who had once felt the way that he desires to feel.

The implant that the protagonist purchases is intended to allow him to “[hold] the belief that human life was nothing special” (“Axiomatic” 100).  Changes within his brain would only cause him to have this belief for a period of three days, which is based on his choice.  Additionally, he points out that “the next three days would simply reveal how I reacted to that belief, and although the attitude would be hard-wired, the consequences were far from certain” (“Axiomatic” 100).  His free will would be preserved to choose his actions based on the “the attitude…hard-wired.”  Also, the protagonist is correct that “the consequences were far from certain” beyond the scope of his intended mission.

The effect of the axiomatic implant on the protagonist allows him to kill his wife’s murderer, but it also has unintended consequences for his outlook in general and in regard to his memories.  It does allow him to achieve his second-order volition by making his desired will be his own through artificial self-creation.  The protagonist attains transformation of the self, but the ramifications of that transformation are beyond what he initially considered.  Prior to killing his wife’s murderer, he realizes, “it was all so clear now…I understood the absurdity of everything I’d ever felt for Amy–my ‘love’, my ‘grief’.  It had all been a joke.  She was meat, she was nothing.  All the pain of the past five years evaporated; I was drunk with relief” (“Axiomatic” 104).  Just as the axiomatic implant’s operational vector was to make him believe that “life was nothing special,” it blanketed that belief to all forms of life, including those he once believed were most significant to him.  Therefore, it altered a universal axiom within in his mind, but the new belief, which fit his desired personality, also affected his perception of all life, including his former love.

Another element of this unintended consequence concerns the complexity of the change that has taken place in his mind.  The widower considers:

My one mistake was thinking that the insight I gained would simply vanish when the implant cut out.  It hasn’t.  It’s been clouded with doubts and reservations, its been undermined, to some degree, by my whole ridiculous panoply of beliefs and superstitions, but I can still recall the peace it gave me…and I want it back.  Not for three days; for the rest of my life (“Axiomatic” 105).

His “one mistake” indicates that despite his careful planning, his decision to use the axiomatic implant to transform his personality was a foolhardy decision.  Had he been more careful, he might have realized that the complexity involved in self-creation would have produced consequences antithetical or tangential to his desired will.  However, “[he] wants it back,” because “the insight” that he gained is befuddled with his prior moral outlook that was replaced while the implant was operational.  The result could be self-dissolution as described by Frankfurt:

If there is an unresolved conflict among someone’s second-order desires, then he is in danger of having no second-order volition; for unless this conflict is resolved, he has no preference concerning which of his first-order desires is to be his will.  This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person.  For it either tends to paralyze his will and to keep him from acting at all, or it tends to remove him from his will so that his will operates without his participation (Frankfurt 15-16).

The axiomatic implant makes his second-order volition regarding the devaluation of human life a first-order desire, but that desire conflicts with his prior first-order desires regarding the sanctity of human life.  He must resolve the conflict before his personality self-destructs or he is disconnected from control over his will.  However, this in some sense is the case, because he chooses to make the axiom changes permanent only after he realizes the conflicts and the loss of “peace.”  But, the protagonist is engaging in self-creation as evidenced by the last lines of the story:  “Part of me, of course, still finds the prospect of what I am about to do totally repugnant.  No matter.  That won’t last” (“Axiomatic” 105).  The protagonist realizes that he will become the personality centered on his will to act and the act of killing his wife’s murderer.  It was his desire to assume that personality, but like a drug, it pervaded his mind in ways that he did not realize would take place, and as a consequence, brought him other attitudes and feelings that he found pleasurable.  His motivation based on his initial second-order volition is transformed through his new personality to permanently affect his new personality through a new second-order volition.  Therefore, Nietzsche would approve of his self-building through transformation to overcome his human limitations.  In fact, his devaluing of human life makes him inhuman, but does that take him further across the bridge to the side of the superman?

Following Nietzsche’s moral imperative to overcome:  changing one’s personality is not wrong so long as it’s a means, and not an end.  For example, Inoshiro’s foolhardy escapism removes him from any future personal transformation.  He drops out of the progression towards attaining the superman.  On the other hand, the protagonist in “Axiomatic” takes a step toward personal overcoming that does not preclude future transformation.  Nietzsche would commend him on his bold move to radically transform his personality into something “other,” but he would have probably called him a coward had he continued to waffle and not injected himself with the axiomatic implant.  Thus, these two character’s transformations through technologically mediated artificial means are foolhardy, but far from wrong if one assumes the Neitzschean imperative for personal transformation and overcoming.[5]

However, the morality of their actions may be the element that determines right and wrong of personal transformation.  In Diaspora, Inoshiro’s transformation into someone radically different than their original personality as well as lacking any personal drive can be described as suicide.  For Yatima, the “person” she once knew as Inoshiro is dead by his own actions.  Also, there is the figurative dissolution of self when he disappears rather than continue talking with Yatima.  For Inoshiro’s friends, his actions would be morally wrong, because he has not met his moral responsibility to self.  Also, his new “outlook” may remove his freedom of will, but according to Frankfurt, this does not remove Inoshiro from his moral responsibility for his actions to his self.  Additionally, the action of the widower in “Axiomatic” to get revenge on his wife’s murder doesn’t obviate him from responsibility of taking another person’s life.  The widower chooses to take the axiomatic implant that fundamentally alters his moral framework in order to affect his will to kill his wife’s murderer.  His change does not remove his freedom of will, but regardless if it did or not, he is still morally responsible for his actions.  Thus, fundamental transformations of self do not remove one’s moral responsibility for one’s actions despite following Nietzsche’s ideology of overcoming humanity through personal transformation.

Works Cited

DeGrazia, David.  “Prozac, Enhancement, and Self-Creation.”  Hastings Center Report 30.2 (2000):  34-40.

Egan, Greg.  “Axiomatic.”  Axiomatic.  London:  Millennium, 1995.  93-105.

—.  Diaspora.  London:  Gollancz, 2001.

Frankfurt, Harry G.  “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.”  The Journal of Philosophy 68.1 (1971):  5-20.

Kelly, James Patrick.  “Mr. Boy.”  Best of the Best Volume 2:  20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.   Ed. Gardner Dozois.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007.  Advance Copy.  261-317.

Kubrick, Stanley.  Dir.  A Clockwork Orange.  Perf. Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee.  Warner Brothers, 1971.

Nicholls, Peter.  “New Wave.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  A Nietzsche Reader.  Trans. R. J. Hollingdale.  London:  Penguin, 2003.

Solomon, Robert C.  Living with Nietzsche:  What the Great “Immoralist” Has to Teach Us.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.

Swanwick, Michael.  “Griffin’s Egg.”  Best of the Best Volume 2:  20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.   Ed. Gardner Dozois.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007.  Advance Copy.  261-317.

[1] Moral responsibility is important for special cases such as suicide.  A person may choose to have their personality altered so that they can commit suicide when they would not do so without the modification.  This alteration does not obviate the person from their moral responsibility to the self.  There is more on this subject in the section on Diaspora.

[2] It should be noted that “superman” is an imperfect translation of Übermensch.  Literally, Über is translated as “trans-“ or “over.”  Therefore, the term Übermensch is literally translated as trans-man (i.e., someone transcending humanity and becoming something far greater than human) or overman (i.e., someone that is beyond or above what it is to be human).  I adopted the term “superman,” because it is the accepted usage in A Nietzsche Reader.

[3] Zarathustra is not the superman, but he is Nietzsche’s alter ego and proselytizer in his work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[4] The polis citizens have attained a posthuman existence that could be argued as being superman-like, because they have escaped the bounds of physicality.

[5] There are works by other authors that also engage this discussion.  Among them are Michael Swanwick’s “Griffin’s Egg,” which is about a group of people cut off from Earth on a moon base choosing to use nanotechnology to reengineer their minds to face the challenges of the future.  Another story is James Patrick Kelly’s “Mr. Boy.”  It’s about a twenty-five year old who is maintained as a twelve-year-old in both body and mind.  A popular film example is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which is about a young criminal who is offered a choice to have his violent tendencies removed through an experimental medical procedure.

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Postcolonialism Final Paper, Identity and History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Fall 2004

This is the 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.

This essay was my final paper in Professor Narin Hassan’s Postcolonialism class at Georgia Tech in Fall 2004. Besides this being an important class in forming my ideas and attitudes about the postcolonial experience, Professor Hassan’s enthusiasm for the subject matter and encouragement to us to understand its theoretical underpinnings led me to want to read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and to meet the author when he visited Emory University during that semester. This class and the work that it inspired me to do led to my further work in the field as a graduate student with Professor Masood Raja at Kent State University. Also, it broadened my reading and viewing interests, which led to presentations and publications.

Like my previous post from my undergraduate Gender Studies class, I am including some “special features” on this post after the essay. These include my project proposal, annotated bibliography, and outline. These might be interesting to you and my students.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Narin Hassan

LCC 3316 Postcolonialism

November 29, 2004

Final Paper: Identity and History in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie uses a nonlinear personal narrative to work through issues of identity, truth, and history in his novel, Midnight’s Children.  Rushdie writes Midnight’s Children from the point of view of the main character, Saleem Sinai, who is in turn writing his confessional autobiography.  Rushdie and Saleem each have their own unique histories, which play a part in the construction of this novel.  Saleem drifts between his present, his own past, and past events (which are not part of his direct experience).  The narrative centers on Saleem being born at midnight at the birth of India’s independence (along with 1,000 other children).  There is a connection between Saleem and India as well as between Saleem and the other Midnight’s children.  Saleem, however, is the narrator, and his choices and admissions reveal the fluidity of memory as well as the choices that one makes in remembering the past in a particular way.  Rushdie challenges the reader to reflect on why Saleem records the past in the way that he does and why he is the voice for the birth of a nation.  Additionally, Saleem uses the narrative to construct his own identity by connecting memory and self to the new nation, India.

Rushdie uses a nested structure to form the non-linear narrative of Midnight’s Children.  Speaker (Saleem) and audience (e.g., the reader, Padma) form the inner layer of the matryoshka-like novel.  The author, Rushdie, writes a novel that is a memoir written by a character, Saleem Sinai.  Saleem’s narrative expands in different directions with his story being told for the audience to read, his conversations with Padma in the present, his written description of his nightmares, and his telling of stories about people and events that are outside of his own experience.  Saleem seems to record everything, but he cannot commit every thought and action to paper.  Rushdie, through Saleem, is making choices about what he should and should not record.  In effect, Saleem’s voice is not objective, but is based on his memories as well as the choices that he makes in recording those memories for his audience.  Rushdie uses Saleem’s memory and choices to present a particular view of the birth of India, as well as to construct a voice for a young India.

Memories are the central theme of Midnight’s Children.  Rushdie writes in his essay, “Imaginary Homelands”:

…what I was actually doing was a novel of memory and about memory, so that my India was just that:  ‘my’ India, a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions.  I tried to make it as imaginatively true as I could, but imaginative truth is simultaneously honourable and suspect, and I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was, let us say, willing to admit I belonged (“Imaginary Homelands” 10).

Midnight’s Children is “a novel of memory and about memory.”  Because Rushdie unifies Saleem’s birth and life with the birth and life of India, he is constructing “[his] India, a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions.”  He claims, “imaginative truth is simultaneously honourable and suspect.”  It is honorable because he is attempting “to restore the past to myself, not in the faded grays of old family-album snapshots, but whole, in CinemaScope and glorious Technicolor” (“Imaginary Homelands” 10).  Rushdie also rationalizes his hybrid state when he says, “I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was, let us say, willing to admit I belonged.”  Rushdie, as a postcolonial writer, connects to his homeland through his memory.  That connection is mirrored in Rushdie’s fictional narrator also connecting to his past through memory.  Rushdie is writing about India and Saleem is writing about his experiences as one of the midnight children.  Rushdie gives voice to the postcolonial subject as he recalls “his” India from memory.  Saleem, in turn, builds his narrative from memory.  In both cases, author and

There are parallels about reclamation in his essay, “Imaginary Homelands” and Midnight’s Children.  He writes in “Imaginary Homelands,” Bombay is a city built by foreigners upon reclaimed land; I, who had been away so long that I almost qualified for the title, was gripped by the conviction that I, too, had a city and a history to reclaim” (10).  In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie writes of the failed business attempts by Saleem’s father at constructing tetrapods to reclaim land around Bombay.  The failures of Saleem’s father reflect the challenge of reclaiming land and of reclaiming memory.  Both the reclaiming of land and the reclaiming of memory are monumental tasks with the former challenging physicality and the latter challenging the psychosocial experiences of the author who in turn applies these to a fictional narrator.

The task of reclaiming the past is as problematic as traveling through time.  Traveling to the past can create a paradox.  Rushdie writes about Saleem’s return to Bombay, “yes, it was my Bombay, but also not-mine…the past failed to reappear” (Midnight’s Children 522).  Memories, recalled by the narrator (or author), replay on the stage of the mind.  One may relive the past, focus on the elements of an exchange, or zoom in on a particular character.  Along with “the past [that] failed to reappear” are Rushdie’s old photographs and his memories of his past.  The reality that he witnesses in the present does not match his expectations and imaginings of the past.  The past and present are two different “places” that are divided by the expanse of time.  Because the past is not a place which can be revisited in a real sense, Rushdie constructs Midnight’s Children as a way to “create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind” (“Imaginary Homelands” 10).

Midnight’s Children presents one of the many possibilities created on the night of India’s birth.  Rushdie writes, “A thousand and one children were born; there were a thousand and one possibilities which had never been present in one place at one time before; and there were a thousand and one dead ends, Midnight’s children can be made to represent many things, according to your point of view” (Midnight’s Children 230).  Saleem and his narrative represent one of these possibilities.  Additionally, Saleem represents one of the author’s possibilities had he remained in Bombay.  He writes in “Imaginary Homelands,” “I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was, let us say, willing to admit I belonged” (10).  Through the narrative, Rushdie establishes his connection to his past and his belief that he has a legitimate claim to the place of his birth.

Rushdie is the successful native who left India for a Western education.  He gains notoriety through his writing in the West.  Frantz Fanon writes about the returning native intellectual about twenty years before Rushdie writes “Imaginary Homelands.”  Fanon writes:

The native intellectual who comes back to his people by way of cultural achievements behaves in fact like a foreigner.  Sometimes he has no hesitation in using a dialect in order to show his will to be as near as possible to the people; but the ideas that he expresses and the preoccupations he is taken up with have no common yardstick to measure the real situation which the men and the women of his country know (Fanon 41).

Rushdie is “the native intellectual who comes back to his people by way of cultural achievements.”  He illustrates the settings and people with cultural signifiers (e.g., the perforated sheet’s drops of blood and the description of Allah’s creation of man from drops of blood), but he is no longer part of that culture.  He also uses words, foods, and locations that are native to India.  Rushdie feels nostalgia for India and Bombay, the city in which he grew up.  He uses his memory to build a (possible) history of himself through Saleem and he does this from a room in North London (“Imaginary Homelands” 10).  Saleem and the other “super power” gifted Midnight’s children are far removed from the actuality of life of the Indian native.  Rushdie is unable “to measure the real situation which the men and the women of his country know” because he is no longer part of the continual dynamism of that country and culture (Fanon 41).

Rushdie builds suspicion in the narrator’s accuracy of recollection in Midnight’s Children because the author is an outsider to his native culture.  He gives the following explanation about why he did this in his essay, “Imaginary Homelands”:

This is why I made my narrator, Saleem, suspect in his narration, his mistakes are the mistakes of a fallible memory compounded by quirks of character and of circumstance, and his vision is fragmentary.  It may be that when the India writer who writes from outside India tries to reflect that world, he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost (“Imaginary Homelands” 10-11).

The author cues the reader to Saleem’s suspect nature throughout the novel such as at the end of the book he writes, “Although already, already there are fadings, and gaps; it will be necessary to improvise on occasion” (Midnight’s Children 442).  Memory is selective and it can be edited for improvisation.  This is the nature of telling stories in general.  One may hear a joke and the individual embellishes it to make the joke “their own.”  Similarly, memories are already our own, but the individual adds their own flavor or perspective to their memories.  This is why Saleem has “the mistakes of a fallible memory compounded by quirks of character and of circumstance.”  Additionally, “his vision is fragmentary.”  This is a different analogy than saying that parts of his memory are lost.  When Rushdie writes, “he is obliged to deal in broken mirrors,” he means that memory within the mind reflects off these mirrors into the mind’s eye.  It is the mirrors that are broken and which “some…fragments have been irretrievably lost.”  When Saleem becomes buddha after being brained by the silver spittoon, his memories are still there, but he cannot access them.  This is an extreme example, but the point is that access to memories and the re-memory of memories may be incomplete, fuzzy, and embellished by the individual.  This process creates a space that is not really the past, but it is not really the present either.  It is a compromise between the two.

Saleem’s memory, however, is also selective.  There is a strong example where Saleem rejects what he sees because of the horror of the situation.  When he is called the “buddha” and he does not remember his past or his name, a fellow soldier, Shaheed, and he walk into the town of Dacca on December 14, 1971.  Saleem records:

Shaheed and I saw many things which were not true, which were not possible, because our boys would not could not have behaved so badly…we saw the intelligentsia of the city being massacred by the hundred, but it was not true because it could not have been true, the Tiger was a decent chap, after all, and our jawans were worth ten babus, we moved through the impossible hallucination of the night…Shaheed was staring at a maidan in which lady doctors were being bayoneted before they were raped, and raped again before they were shot…The notary public was absent, so I could not ask him to verify what was happening” (Midnight’s Children 432).

Saleem could not believe that his fellow Pakistani soldiers were capable of the killing and raping that was taking place.  He says, “it was not true because it could not have been true.”  Saleem’s disbelief is absurd because he records in graphic detail the “many things which were not true.”  Saleem reaches out for an objective source to verify the accuracy of what his eyes are reporting to him.  He notes, “the notary public was absent, so I could not ask him to verify what was happening.”  Rushdie purposely includes the emotive disbelief of Saleem as well as the remembrances of the events that he and Shaheed saw take place in the city of Dacca.  Saleem’s retelling of his memory is more accurate than his giving a non-commentary linked play-by-play list of events.  He is giving the reader a multi-track recording of his memory.  One track is his emotional disbelief of what was taking place.  Another track is what he actually saw (regardless of whether or not he believes it to have taken place).  These tracks are synced and played back for the reader in the text.

Saleem gives the following explanation for his giving the gory details in his narrative in Midnight’s Children:

Family history, of course, has its proper dietary laws.  One is supposed to swallow and digest only the permitted parts of it, the halal portions of the past, drained of their redness, their blood.  Unfortunately, this makes the stories less juicy; so I am about to become the first and only member of my family to flout the laws of halal.  Letting no blood escape from the body of the tale, I arrive at the unspeakable part; and, undaunted, press on (Midnight’s Children 62).

Rushdie does “flout the laws of halal” by relating stories of things that would normally not be permissible to write or talk about.  In this regard, he breaks with tradition so that he can more fully relate the story that he has to tell.  His disregard of halal however is not an attempt on his part to be all truthful or objective.  Saleem’s story is one that is based on memory and re-memory.  Over time, one forgets or remembers things from his or her past, but in doing so, one may embellish or slightly alter that memory (innocently or surreptitiously).  There is the sense that by Rushdie writing, “drained of their redness, their blood…makes the stories less juicy,” that he is taking part in sensationalism.  Thus, his motives for not draining the blood from his stories may not be merely one in which he is attempting to present an unbiased portrayal of the events of the narrative.  On the other hand, his giving greater detail (particularly graphic and focused details) gives Saleem a certain credibility that plays against his suspect narrative.

Expanding on his air of suspicion, Saleem, as narrator, makes an admission toward the end of the novel that he lied about Shiva’s death.  Saleem says, both to the reader as well as to Padma:

To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva’s death.  My first out-and-out lie…Padma, try and understand…I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer, to the illusion that since the past exists only in one’s memories and the words which strive vainly to encapsulate them, it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred (Midnight’s Children 510).

Rushdie puts in print the one issue that is at the core of autobiographical writing when he writes, “I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer…it is possible to create past events simply by saying they occurred.”  Additionally, after Saleem admits the lie about Shiva, he notes that available meteorological data contradicts the long midnight.  M. Keith Booker writes, “The net result is an evocation of the liar paradox, and the reader finds it impossible to reach any satisfactory conclusion as to what in the text is true and what is false.  Moreover, by tying his text so closely to history, Rushdie suggests that the authority of all our representations of the past may be somewhat questionable” (983).  Traditionally, eyewitness testimony and autobiography are believable, but Rushdie destabilizes the believability of the autobiographer as well as the history that is irretrievably linked to the identity of the narrator.  In writing an autobiography, the author claims that the narrative is based on his or her own life experiences.  Rushdie’s novel is more difficult to pin down because it is not a real autobiography.  It is an autobiography of a fictional character, but there are similarities between Saleem and Rushdie that further problematizes this issue.

Both Rushdie and Saleem were born in 1947.  Rushdie was born before India’s independence and Saleem was born at the exact moment of India’s independence.  Both author and narrator are from Bombay.  Rushdie comes from an affluent Muslim family in India, he traveled to England for his education, and he makes his home in the West.  Saleem (due to his switch with Shiva at birth) was raised in a Muslim, middle class home, received his education in India (which was not distinguished), and he lived most of his life in India, and a short while in Pakistan.  Rushdie has maintained a good life because of his notoriety and his writing.  Saleem began with a good start in life, but due to the upheavals that took place in India and Pakistan, he ended up in the slums that his archrival, Shiva, had ascended from.  Rushdie has lived most of his life away from India.  He writes in “Imaginary Homelands, “Writing my book in North London, looking out through my window on to a city scene totally unlike the ones I was imagining on to paper” (10).  Not only is his novel about memory and history, but it was written far away from the physical location of those memories and histories.  In addition, Saleem was biologically half-European and half-Indian.  His birth mother died and he was switched with Shiva so that he became part of the Sinai family.  Rushdie is the product of being born in Bombay and living in the West.  Rushdie, as postcolonial writer, links himself to India through Saleem.  The narrator is Rushdie’s manifestation of what could have been.

Rushdie and Saleem have similar, but also, different hybrid statuses.  The difference between the two is that Rushdie has become a Western intellectual while Saleem ends up writing, pickling, and remaining in India.  Rushdie’s “metropolitan hybridity is underwritten by the stable regime of Western secular identity and the authenticity that goes with it, whereas post-colonial hybridity has no such guarantees:  neither identity nor authenticity” (Radhakrishnan 755).  Rushdie’s hybridity allows him to establish his own identity within the West.  Saleem however represents “post-colonial hybridity” and he “has no such guarantees.”  How would Midnight’s Children been received if Rushdie had published it under the pseudonym of the novel’s narrator?  What if it had been published in Hindi?  These things would have significantly altered the reception of the novel in India and the West.

The autobiography novel that Rushdie constructs around the narrator, Saleem, is different from most Indian autobiographies.  According to Dipesh Chakrabarty:

Our autobiographies are remarkably “public” (with constructions of public life that are not necessarily modern) when written by men, and they tell the story of the extended family when written by women.  In any case, autobiographies in the confessional mode are notable for their absence (9).

Midnight’s Children clearly has a “confessional mode” in that Saleem is writing a narrative similar to that of Saint Augustine in his Confessions.  Saleem is laying out all of his stories and he questions himself and his memory.  His questioning and introspection work to construct his identity.  The Confessions is considered part of the core of Western literary tradition and this reflects in Rushdie’s work because he had an extensive Western education.  Additionally, Rushdie chooses to write this story about his native country in the language of its former colonizer, English.  Rushdie left his homeland to travel to the West for a Western education.  Rushdie is a hybrid postcolonial writer who has usurped the language and literary tradition of the colonizer in order to write “his” story about “his” India.

Rushdie writes Midnight’s Children out of a sense of nostalgia and he uses memory to reconnect him to a place and a time from early in his life.  Saleem makes this admission regarding why he has chosen to write down his story:

Please believe that I am falling apart…I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug–that my poor body…buffeted by too much history…has started coming apart at the seams…This is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget.  (We are a nation of forgetters) (Midnight’s Children 36).

Saleem continues on the next page, “Things–even people–have a way of leaking into each other…like flavors when you cook…the past has dripped into me…so we can’t ignore it” (Midnight’s Children 37).  The “[buffeting] by too much history” has led him “to confide in paper, before I forget.”  The waters of history are going to burst through Saleem’s cracks.  Rushdie’s novel is Saleem’s release.  His memories gush out onto the written page.  Saleem adds, in parentheses, “We are a nation of forgetters.”  Even though the narrative is primarily about Saleem’s trajectory through history, his life is linked to the hardships and atrocities that took place at the time of India’s independence and the subsequent Indian-Pakistani wars.  Additionally, power mongering by Indira Ghandi led to the undoing of the Midnight’s children because she could not be identified as embodying India when those born to symbolize India could usurp her position and power.  This fictional past with the Midnight’s children links to the atrocities that did take place during the wars following independence.  Rushdie, through Saleem, reminds the reader that there are histories and memories that are forgotten by a nation’s people.  Rushdie and Saleem have not forgotten and it is with Saleem’s narrative that these stories are presented to an (Western) audience.

Therefore, Salman Rushdie tries to bridge the gap between the past and memory.  There is not an absolute past for all observers in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.  He writes, “there were a thousand and one possibilities which had never been present in one place at one time before” (Midnight’s Children 230).  The author chooses Saleem from the “thousand and one possibilities” to be the writer of the fictional autobiography.  Saleem’s writing down his memories construct both his own identity along with the history of India.  Rushdie’s act of writing the novel reconnects himself with India through memory.  The narrative structure connects the individual with country and the individual’s memory with the country’s history.  Within Saleem’s narrative, Rushdie also shows there are a multiplicity of truths, voices, and histories which are all interconnected.  Saleem’s narrative is one of many perspectives, but within Saleem’s imagined life, Rushdie allows Saleem to give voice to those persons who have been a part of his life (e.g., Aadam Aziz, Padma, and Parvati the Witch).  Thus, Rushdie utilizes history and memory as the keys to building connections between the past and present as well as between self and country.

Works Cited

Booker, M. Keith.  “Beauty and the Beast:  Dualism as Despotism in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie.”  ELH, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter 1990):  977-997.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh.  “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History:  Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?”  Representations, No. 37, Special Issue:  Imperial Fantasies and        Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992):  1-26.

Fanon, Frantz.  “On National Culture.”  Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory:  A Reader.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1994:  36-52.

Radhakrishnan, R..  “Postcoloniality and the Boundaries of Identity.”  Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, On “Post-Colonial Discourse”:  A Special Issue (Autumn 1993):  750-771.

Rushdie, Salman.  “Imaginary Homelands.”  Imaginary Homelands.  New York:    Penguin, 1992:  9-21.

—.  Midnight’s Children.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1991.


Jason W. Ellis

LCC 3316 Postcolonialism

Final Paper Proposal

My final paper will be a close analysis of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1980).  I will be arguing that Rushdie uses a nonlinear personal narrative to work through issues of voice and truth.  Rushdie writes Midnight’s Children from the point of view of the main character, Saleem Sinai, who is in turn writing his autobiography.  Rushdie and Saleem each have their own unique histories which play a part in the construction of this novel.  Saleem drifts between his present, his own past, and past events which he doesn’t have a direct experience of.  The narrative revolves around the point that Saleem was born at midnight at the birth of India’s independence (along with 1,000 other children).  There is a connection between Saleem and India as well as between Saleem and the other midnight children.  Saleem, however, is the narrator, and his choices and admissions reveal the fluidity of memory as well as the choices that one makes in remembering the past in a particular way.  Rushdie challenges the reader to reflect on why Saleem records the past in the way that he does and why is he the voice for the birth of a nation.  Additionally, Saleem uses the narrative to construct his own identity (through memory and layers of the self, community, nation, sex, race, and religion) which mirrors the emerging identity of India.

I have found two articles that I will use as starting points for my research.  The first is Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History:  Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?”  (Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories.  (Winter 1992):  1-26).  The second is R. Radhakrishnan’s “Postcoloniality and The Boundaries of Identity” (Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, On “Post-Colonial Discourse”: A Special Issue. (Autumn 1993):  750-771).

Annotated Bibliography

Jason W. Ellis

LCC 3316 Postcolonialism

Final Paper Annotated Bibliography

Booker, M. Keith.  “Beauty and the Beast:  Dualism as Despotism in the Fiction of            Salman Rushdie.”  ELH, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Winter 1990):  977-997.

Keith writes about Rushdie’s use of dualism in his novels.  He notes that dualisms (e.g., good vs. bad, yin and yang) are not like real life because they do not contain the ambiguity present in the real world.  He begins with discussing Rushdie’s use of the game, Snakes and Ladders in Midnight’s Children as an illustration of dualism and its breakdown if applied to real world experiences.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh.  “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History:  Who Speaks for          “Indian” Pasts?”  Representations, No. 37, Special Issue:  Imperial Fantasies and        Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992):  1-26.

Chakrabarty is writing about the subalternity of India and its written history.  He argues that histories of colonized spaces such as India are inevitably histories of Europe.  The history of India is subject to the history of the west.  If this is the case, is there a one, true history of India, and if so, who has the authority to write it?

Prakash, Gyan.  “Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World:  Perspectives         from Indian Historiography.”  Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 32, No. 2 (April 1990):  383-408.

Prakash attempts to “map the different positions occupied by India in the post-Orientalist historiographies” (384).  He writes that the third world consists of shifting positions of historical discourses such as “Orientalist, nationalist, Marxist, and other historiographies” (384).

Radhakrishnan, R..  “Postcoloniality and the Boundaries of Identity.”  Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, On “Post-Colonial Discourse”:  A Special Issue (Autumn 1993):  750-771.

Radhakrishnan writes that hybridity is part-and-parcel of postcoloniality and that identity colors our perceptions and attitudes.  In addition, the representation of one’s identity and location (i.e., the elements of hybridity) give weight to the representation of truth in claims made by the author.


Jason W. Ellis

LCC 3316 Postcolonialism

Final Paper Outline

I.          Non-linear narrative, chained structure

A.        Rushdie writes Saleem writes memories retold

1.         Salman Rushdie and Saleem Sinai – similarities, differences, why                                        does Rushdie choose to write through Saleem?  why does he                                               mention his last name in the novel in a way that would be                                                      indicative of his “real” self?

B.        Events roughly follow chronological order, but Saleem’s memory fails                                 him, dates are wrong, events are interchanged, tells it as best he can

C.        Structure (3 books) and chapter titles, Saleem is telling a story that he is                              writing down, speaking with Padma which he also writes down, his                                    dreams in sickness are also written down

II.        Big Truths and little truths

A.        Memory (Saleem’s)

B.        Saleem’s narration, retelling, recalling from his memory, choosing what to                           include, what to tell, what to embellish

C.        Is there an ultimate truth?  Is one person’s truth/perspective valued over                              another’s?  Multiple realities, multiple possibilities.

III.       Building Saleem’s identity/India’s identity

A.        conflicts (e.g., Indira takes issue with the midnight’s children–she wants to                        be identified as India)

IV.       Voice (links to section I)

A.        Whose voice is represented here?

B.        Audience

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Postmodernism Final Paper, Family and Kinship in King Rat and American Gods, Summer 2005

This is the 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.

I wrote this essay at the end of the Summer 2005 semester in Professor Eugene Thacker’s LCC 2216 Science, Technology, and Postmodernism class at Georgia Tech. Besides being introduced to many of the important figures in postmodern theory, Professor Thacker offered us the class opening, “What is the postmodern? The postmodern is ‘whatever.'” Our class discussions and private conferences were invaluable to forming my thinking in the years to follow about 20th- and 21st-century literature and the condition of living in postmodernity.

My final essay draft below explores kinship in China Miéville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. King Rat was one of the novels that we read as a class. American Gods was a novel that I had recently read on a recommendation from my friend James Warbington (who I worked with on two 48 Hour Film Festival projects and interviewed here. He has gone on to shoot the feature film, The Black Earth).

Below, I am including my final essay, an earlier and signficantly different draft of the essay, and notes. Professor Thacker met with me to discuss the earlier draft and said, as I recall, “This is trying to do too much. Your essay is going in too many directions.” He talked me through the  dominant ideas in my essay and offered me significant advice about focusing my argument and discussion. I offer these essays not only as explorations of China Mieville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but as an example of significant revision for my students (put another way: revision is not copyediting).


Final Paper

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Eugene Thacker

LCC 2116 – Science, Technology, and Postmodernism

Summer 2005

Family and Kinship in Two Postmodern Fictions:  King Rat and American Gods

King Rat and American Gods are two recent postmodern fictions that explore issues of hybrid identity by looking at relationships based on family and kinship.  Family relationships are represented by father-son conflicts and kinship is illustrated by the coalitions that are formed between different people within the novels.  Family and kinship are two of the ways that we think about our identity.  For hybrids such as the protagonists, Saul and Shadow, ambiguity surrounding identity leads to questions asked but not necessarily answered.  This is what leads to conflict for these characters.  Both authors use hybrid characters to explore what it means to have a hybrid identity in postmodern fictions and how those identities interact with others.  Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg coupled with Chela Sandoval’s idea of affinity politics are two useful guides in exploring these relationships.

What is the difference between family and kinship?  For the purposes of this paper, I define family as relationships based on blood ties and kinship as relationships that are chosen or based on emotional ties.  Family is a connection that is unavoidable, but it can be ignored or unknown (e.g., a child may not know one or both parents or a male may not know that he sired a child).  Kinship is a connection that is chosen by two or more people “on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship” (Haraway 156).  Family and kinships figure prominently in King Rat and American Gods because both novels feature father-son relationships as well as affinity based coalitions.

The primary representation of family in King Rat involves the father-son relationship of the protagonist, Saul, and King Rat.  King Rat rapes Saul’s mother in order to conceive a child who King Rat plans on using as a tool to destroy his archenemy, The Piper.  Saul is therefore rendered as a technological artifact that is capable of evading the song played by The Piper.  According to Donna Haraway, “a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149).  Saul is a cyborg because he is the fusion of human and animal (i.e., rat) and he is also the combination of reality (e.g., modern London) and the fantastic (e.g., King Rat).  When Haraway writes, “Modern medicine is also full of cyborgs, of couplings between organism and machine, each conceived as coded devices, in an intimacy and with a power that was not generated in the history of sexuality,” she could as easily be talking about biotechnology.  Breeding and purposive species diversification are simple forms of biotechnology.  King Rat wanted a “secret weapon” that would be capable of occupying both the rat world and the human world (Miéville 188).  Only such a creature would be able to defeat The Piper, because, as King Rat says to Saul, “ You’re rat and human, more and less than each.  Call the rats and the person in you is deaf to it.  Call to the man and the rat’ll twitch its tail and run…He can’t play two tunes at once, Saul.  He can’t charm you” (Miéville 134).

At first, Saul’s cyborg/hybrid identity is ambiguous and mediated by his father, King Rat.  His father wants to utilize and control the actions of his son in order to arrive at the destruction of The Piper.  These issues conjure images of military command and control.  King Rat is at war with The Piper, and Saul is the military technology under his command.  Haraway writes, “The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism…But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.  Their fathers, after all, are inessential” (151).  King Rat represents “militarism” because he lusts for revenge after being humiliated by The Piper in Hamelin.  He represents “patriarchal capitalism” because he is a male monarchical ruler who, in the past, used his rat hordes to appropriate the means of production.  He, in effect, becomes the “the boss-man” or manager of the town of Hamelin (Miéville 127).  After Saul learns the truth behind King Rat’s machinations, he becomes “exceedingly unfaithful” to his origin and blood-related father, King Rat.  His father is “inessential” because he wasn’t there to raise Saul.  This further indicates King Rat’s objectification of Saul because King Rat “killed the usurper” (i.e., Saul’s human father) in order to bring about the chain reaction that supplies King Rat with his weapon (i.e., Saul) (Miéville 34).

Before Saul’s ascension to a hybrid awareness, he maintained a kinship with several close friends.  Natasha, Fabian, and Kay are Saul’s friends and they all share a deep interest in Jungle and drum’n’bass music.  This musical core forms another layer of Saul’s hybrid identity because this musical genre is itself based on appropriation, remixing, and pulling things together into something new.  Miéville describes Jungle as “the child of Raggamuffin, the child of Dancehall, the apotheosis of black music” and it’s “rhythm was stolen from Hip Hop, born of Funk” (Miéville 59).  The spirit of this music and Saul’s chosen kinship with his friends is related to Sandoval’s conception of affinity politics.  Haraway discusses Sandoval’s argument surrounding the political cohesiveness of “US women of colour” thus, “This identity marks out a self-consciously constructed space that cannot affirm the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification, but only on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship” (Haraway 156).  The affinity between the Saul’s friends is the musical style of Jungle.  Interconnected to that musical style are politics, movements, ideologies, and activism that connect the music to the people and the people to one another.  A hybrid musical style like Jungle is best representative of the affinity and political kinships that Haraway is writing about.  Because the music is based on different genres, naturally it represents those genres within itself.  Jungle becomes something new and representative of those different groups through the people that choose the affinity of Jungle.  Kinships form when “the capacity to act on the basis of natural identification” is not possible.  These kinships form in-between the borders of the larger groups.  Miéville writes about this when he says, “The rhythms of London are played out here, in the sprawling flat zone between suburbs and center” (15).  He is talking about a physical location, but it is representative of the in-between space.  By extension, Jungle is a type of border music that exists on the edges of other music.  Thus, it is aptly suitable for representing kinship and affinity politics.

Affinity politics and the power of kinships are embodied within the character of Saul.  Saul uses the power of Jungle embedded within himself to overcome the charms of The Piper.  Because Saul listens for the bass within the treble dominated “Wind City” song, he “rediscovered himself.  He knew who he was.  He danced again” (Miéville 300).  Saul fights back against The Piper’s flat version of drum’n’bass and he says, “One plus one equals one, motherfucker…I’m not rat plus man, get it?  I’m bigger than either one and I’m bigger than the two.  I’m a new thing.  You can’t make me dance” (Miéville 301).  Saul is making the point that he is not the addition of two separate selves.  He is the creation of something new, whole unto itself, from the human and rat biological components that came from his mother and King Rat.  His hybrid identity thus sets him apart from his family, both human and rat alike, while his hybrid identity brings him closer to those he has kinship with, such as his human friends in the Jungle scene.

The representations of family and kinship in American Gods is similar to those in King Rat in many respects.  Again, there is a father-son relationship that forms the core of the narrative.  The protagonist, Shadow, learns that he is a human-god hybrid whose father is a god called Wednesday.[1]  As in King Rat, Shadow is conceived to serve a utilitarian purpose for Wednesday’s plans.  The father envisions the son as a technological tool that will fulfill a particular task.  Wednesday is, in part, a god of war and death.  He concocts a plan whereby the new gods of credit cards, the Internet, industry, and media feel that they need to wipe out the old gods of mythologies and beliefs that are a part of our cultural history and memory.  The battle will be dedicated to Wednesday, which will give him more power.  Shadow’s purpose is to redirect attention from Wednesday’s trickery.  The cyborg analogy for Saul in King Rat does not completely apply to Shadow in American Gods.  However, there are two ways of approaching technological issues brought about in the relationship of Shadow and Wednesday.  First, the parlor tricks and coin tricks that Shadow does through out the novel are a technology because they are a type of skill.  The tricks appear to be magic, but they are in fact sleight of hand (i.e., a special effect) that he does to pass the time and impress others.  Additionally, Wednesday teaches Shadow how to use technology to pull off larger tricks in order to make money.  Using social engineering and the local Kinkos printing service, Wednesday and Shadow are able to convince many local business people to give their deposits to Wednesday instead of the ATM that they hung an “out of service” sign on (Gaiman 106-116).[2]  Thus, Shadow and Wednesday use technology for different purposes.

The relationship between Wednesday and Shadow shifts from that of employer-employee to father-son through the course of the novel.  Wednesday sets events into motion that allow his path to cross that of Shadow’s.  Because Shadow has nothing left for him after he is released from prison, he agrees to work for Wednesday.  This capitalist relationship points back to Haraway’s analysis of the framework in which cyborgs exist.  In reading Shadow as a cyborg, he is the son of the god of war, or “the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism” (Haraway 151).  Additionally, Wednesday doesn’t tell him that he is Shadow’s father.  Instead, he offers Shadow a job within the capitalist system.   Later, Shadow proves to act “exceeding unfaithful” to his origins (Haraway 151).  This shift takes place after Gaiman presents Shadow and Wednesday as doubles of one another.

The author doubles father and son through the mythic story of Odin’s attaining the nine runes.  Early in the novel, Wednesday tells Shadow how he came in possession of nine runes which give him certain powers:

Those were the first nine charms I learned.  Nine nights I hung on the bare tree, my side pierced with a spear’s point.  I swayed and blew in the cold winds and the hot winds, without food, without water, a sacrifice of myself to myself, and the worlds opened to me (Gaiman 288).

Wednesday is able to endure his “sacrifice of myself to myself” because he is a god.  Shadow’s vigil (which is a mirror of Wednesday/Odin’s “sacrifice of myself to myself”) is the galvanizing point where Gaiman doubles father and son.  Mr. Nancy, the human form of the African mythological creature, Anansi, tells Shadow what is required of him in the vigil.  He says, “The person on the vigil–gets tied to the tree.  Just like Wednesday was.  And then they hang there for nine days and nine nights.  No food, no water.  All alone.  At the end they cut the person down, and if they lived…well, it could happen.  And Wednesday will have had his vigil” (Gaiman 451).  Despite Mr. Nancy’s protests, Shadow agrees to endure the vigil.  Shadow doubles Wednesday because his being tied to the tree is “just like Wednesday was.”  Through the act, both are granted understanding which is what leads to power.  Wednesday gains the use of the nine runes, while Shadow learns his true identity[3].  Once Shadow learns that Wednesday is his father, he acts to mitigate the damage that his father wrought in order to solidify his identity as being separate from that of his father.

Shadow’s hybrid identity is also reflected in his ambiguous physical appearance as well as the kinships he makes with others in the novel.  People within the novel see certain traits in him, but when he is asked about it, he tells them that he isn’t the ethnicity in question.  For example, Shadow picks up a hitchhiker named Sam on the way to Cairo and they have this conversation:

“Mm.  You got Indian blood in you?

“Not that I know of.”

“You looked like it, was all” (Gaiman 166).

Shadow represents an amalgamation of American identities.  He is, in a sense, the prototypical American.  Sam, not-coincidentally, is part American-Indian.  Therefore, the people that Shadow encounters see themselves embodied within him.  Also, Sam represents what it means to be an American (i.e, to exist in a state of hybridity, to be American-Indian).  We are a nation of hyphenated ethnicities and nationalities.  This point is made earlier in the novel when Wednesday tells Shadow, “Nobody’s American…Not originally” (Gaiman 105).  The author’s point is that America has been a land of immigrants for a very long time.

Because people see a bit of themselves in Shadow, this allows him to connect with many different kinds of people and gods through affinity politics.  He connects with the American-Indian college girl, Sam, he works for Mr. Ibis and Mr. Jacquel, he becomes friends with the people of Lakeside (under an assumed name/identity), his dead wife, Laura, continues to help him, and he is rescued from jail by his friends, Mr. Nancy and Czernobog.  His human-god hybridity allows him to be the focus for both human and god relationships.  Shadow is able to walk in the real world and the in-between world of the gods or “backstage.”  He forms kinships with the people and gods that he meets who want what he wants–to live and not be troubled by the kind of conflict that Wednesday is brewing.  Ultimately, he reveals his father’s plans in order to achieve a peace between the old and new gods.  Shadow uses his new found powers to expose his father for the liar that he is.  Shadow stops the battle at the end of the novel and says in response to the question, “who are you?” by saying, “I am–I was–I am his [Wednesday’s] son” (Gaiman 539).  He goes on to say, “You know…I think I would rather be a man than a god.  We don’t need anyone to believe in us.  We just keep going anyhow.  It’s what we do” (Gaiman 539).   Perhaps Shadow is similar to King Rat’s Saul in that “[he’s] bigger than either one and [he’s] bigger than the two” (Miéville 301).  Clearly, Shadow has become something different than what he thought he was before he got out of prison.  He struggles through the realization that he is a hybrid of human and god and he mediates that challenge by connecting to those around him who share similar goals.  Therefore, it is his hybridity that allows him to connect with others.

What do these two novels have to say about one another?  Both feature a father-son relationship that is based on deception on the part of the father.  The father lies to the son about his origin in order to lead the son on a path of the father’s design.  Additionally, the son is conceived to be a technological tool for the father’s use.  The fathers, King Rat and Wednesday, are not concerned about the welfare of their sons.  Their sons are made to be objects that fulfill a particular purpose and once that purpose is fulfilled, they may be discarded.  The father and son relationship is, from a psychoanalytical perspective, based on competition and conflict where the son, at an early age, desires to kill the father and assume the father’s role with the mother.  The father-son conflicts in King Rat and American Gods is not delineated along those lines.  Instead, the conflict arises out of the fact that the son gains awareness of his hybrid identity.  The son’s question of “who am I” leads to conflict because the father in these two examples is trying to mediate the son’s hybridity as a technological artifact instead of as a hybrid identity.  The fathers want to objectify the son completely because if the son becomes a subjective hybrid identity, the son will become a threat to the power of the father over the son.  The family blood-ties therefore is a weak link for the son, once the awareness of hybrid identity is awakened.  It is kinships shared by the son that offer salvation, as well as understanding of what it means to have a hybrid identity.  Kinships are interstitial connections built of different identities who share a common political affinity.  Therefore kinships offer a character with a hybrid identity a community for mediating the growing awareness of what it means to be a hybrid.  These two examples show that Haraway’s connecting cyborg identities with feminist awareness is equally applicable to other hybrid identities.

In conclusion, King Rat and American Gods are two novels that explore identity by investigating father-son conflicts and the kinships that form in response to the familial conflict.  These father-son conflicts can be viewed using Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg as representing a person with layered, non-inclusive identities such as “US women of colour” (156).  Hybrid identities can serve to exclude one from the group identities that make up one’s whole identity, but Sandoval’s conception of kinship through political affinity allows the hybrid to form new groups around the intersection of goals and ideologies.  Therefore, these two novels represent hybrid identities in postmodern fiction while engaging the ideas of cyborg identities and affinity politics.

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil.  American Gods.  New York:  HarperTorch-HarperCollins, 2001.

Haraway, Donna J..  Simians, Cyborgs, and Women:  The Reinvention of Nature.  New York:  Routledge, 1991.

Miéville, China.  King Rat.  New York:  Tor, 1998.

[1] Wednesday is actually the Norse god, Odin, but I will refer to him as Wednesday unless I am quoting a passage that directly references Odin.

[2] Another approach to technology in American Gods surrounds the new gods.  The new gods are all based on modern technologies ranging from industrialization to information systems.  Gaiman is commenting on where our beliefs are placed in the here and now with these forms of technology being held in the same realm as our beliefs in gods and mythologies.

[3] Shadow, who is neither completely god nor completely man, must decide how to approach the problem at hand.  In a sense, he becomes a problem solver (i.e., an engineer).  Shadow’s problem solving is analogous to that of the lone inventor who experiments by trial-and-error.  Shadow uses his tools of dreams, questions, and insight for better understanding.  However, it is his vigil for the dead Wednesday that leads to his great break-through.


Draft Paper

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Eugene Thacker

LCC 2116 – Science, Technology, and Postmodernism

Summer 2005

A Comparison of Two Postmodern Fictions:  King Rat and American Gods

China Miéville’s King Rat and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods are two recent postmodern fictions that speak to one another because they each feature a hybrid protagonist who is caught up in an appropriated mythic framework.  The authors of these two books use postmodern literary techniques to appropriate and reinvent those myths in their own narratives.  Both authors explore questions of identity by utilizing postmodern characteristics in these two novels.

Because both novels feature a mythic character based on the spider semi-deity from African mythology known as Anansi, let’s begin by examining this connection.  Anansi from King Rat and Mr. Nancy from American Gods, serve as a bridge connecting the two novels because they are both drawn from the same African myths.    Edward Parrinder gives the following description of this mythic figure in his book, African Mythology.  He writes, “In West Africa, where the Spider is called Anansi, the Annancy of America, he is the cleverest of animals and often appears in a mythology where he is the chief official of God though at first he has no name.”  The appropriation of Anansi by Miéville and Gaiman is best described using the terminology of Fredric Jameson who formulated two kinds of literary appropriation:  parody and pastiche.  These are defined thus, “Parody, according to Jameson, has a critical edge:  it challenges and subverts that which it mimics.  Pastiche, on the other hand, is concerned only with the superficial appropriation of different modes and genres for the generation of its own performative style” (Malpas 25).   Neither work is challenging the myths of Anansi by mimicking them.  However, they are appropriating the character and his stories in order to reinvent, remix, and recreate Anansi as is required by their narrative.

Miéville’s Anansi and Gaiman’s Mr. Nancy are based on the same source material, but they are represented in different ways in the two works.  Miéville describes Anansi as “a tall, fat man” with “very dark skin and a massive belly jutting over his belt, but arms and legs that were ridiculously long and thin” who speaks “to himself in patois” (114, 116-117).  Some of these descriptions are distinctly spider-like.  For example, he writes that he has “ridiculously long and thin” limbs, a “massive belly jutting over his belt” that reminds the reader of a spider’s abdomen, and Anansi’s unending supply of “rope” is reminiscent of spider’s silk.  Gaiman uses a different tact in describing Mr. Nancy at the beginning of chapter six in American Gods.  First, Mr. Nancy is introduced as an “old black man” with “a faint twang in his voice, a hint of a patois that might have been West Indian” (Gaiman 124-125).  Then, Shadow observes the multifaceted reality of Mr. Nancy as they are traveling to a meeting of gods.  The narrator reports Shadow’s observations thus:

He was looking at Mr. Nancy, an old black man with a pencil mustache, in his check sports jacket and his lemon-yellow gloves, riding a carousel lion as it rose and lowered, high in the air; and, at the same time, in the same place, he saw a jeweled spider as high as a horse, its eyes an emerald nebula, strutting, staring down at him; and simultaneously he was looking at an extraordinarily tall man with teak-colored skin and three sets of arms, wearing a flowing ostrich-feather headdress, his face painted with red stripes, riding an irritated golden lion, two of his six hands holding on tightly to the beast’s mane; and he was also seeing a young black boy, dressed in rags, his left foot all swollen and crawling with blackflies; and last of all, and behind all these things, Shadow was looking at a tiny brown spider, hiding under a withered ocher leaf.

Shadow saw all these things, and he knew they were the same thing (131).

Whereas Miéville strips Anansi of most of his cultural connections and reinvents him for the purposes of his novel, Gaiman is showing the multifaceted reality of Mr. Nancy.  Mr. Nancy is the composite of “an old black man,” “a jeweled spider,” “an extraordinarily tall man,” “a young black boy,” and “a tiny brown spider.”  The mythic character of Anansi exists as Mr. Nancy for Gaiman, but the author is also pointing to the many other faces that are that character also.  He is showing that Mr. Nancy has a history beyond that which the author has concocted, but he is not crossing over into parody because he is not subverting Anansi.  Both authors are building and adding to Anansi’s mythic history.[1]  Therefore, Miéville and Gaiman appropriate the mythic Anansi in order to invent their own imagining of Anansi based on that character’s history along with their own creative vision.[2]

Connected to the authors’ appropriation of cultural mythologies is the way that they situate their narratives within culture by linking to culture outside the novel itself.  This postmodern characteristic is called referentiality.  Miéville and Gaiman reference culture throughout these two novels.  One literary reference in King Rat appears at the final battle when Saul enters the warehouse.  Miéville writes, “The rats and Saul left the relative safety of London’s night lands and entered the warehouse, the frenzied jaws of Drum and Bass, the domain of smoke and strobe lights and Hardcore, the Piper’s lair, the heart of Darkness, deep in the Jungle” (281-282).  “The heart of Darkness” is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness.  Conrad’s novel takes place in a literal jungle whereas Miéville is referring to the Jungle music.  American Gods is also peppered with literary references.  For example, after the beginning of the novel, Shadow is speaking with one of Odin’s ravens.  Gaiman writes:

“Hey,” said Shadow.  “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”

The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.

“Say ‘Nevermore,’” said Shadow.

“Fuck you,” said the raven (158-159).

Odin’s raven does not appreciate Shadow’s reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven.”  The literary references that Gaiman employs points to a sort of American mythology because they integrate into the characters of the novel such as one of Odin’s ravens (i.e., an American poetic work connected to a Norse/imported myth).  These cultural references integrate these works into a web of relationships beyond the work itself.  Building these connections not only positions the novel in relation to culture, but it also helps the reader orientate their own relationship to the novel.

Both authors also utilize referentiality in constructing the hybrid identity of their respective protagonists.  The postmodern usage of hybridity involves the mixing of two dissimilar things into something new.  Miéville, in particular, combines a thesis (human/political awareness-Marxism) and an antithesis (rat/monarchy) in order to construct a synthesis (human-rat hybrid/“Citizen Rat”).  He also does this on multiple layers of a character’s identity in King Rat.  On a biological level, Saul is a human-rat hybrid.  His biological mother is human and his biological father is King Rat.  Additionally, he was conceived because of King Rat’s desire to have a hybrid child who would be capable of defeating the Piper.  King Rat reasons to Saul, “You’re rat and human, more and less than each.  Call the rats and the person in you is deaf to it.  Call to the man and the rat’ll twitch its tail and run…He can’t play two tunes at once, Saul.  He can’t charm you” (Miéville 134).  Saul’s dual biological identity empowers him against the unrelenting force of the Piper.  Layered on top of Saul’s biological self, he is a hybrid of two worlds with different experiences and teachings.  He grew up in the human world of London where his human father taught him about Marxist ideology in an industrialized world.  Then, Saul finds himself separated from the human world by choice, but it was a decision brought about by events outside his knowledge.  He finds himself in a “new world” that King Rat describes as, “This is the city where I live.  It shares all the points of yours and theirs [i.e., human], but none of its properties.  I go where I want.  And I’m here to tell you how it is with you.  Welcome to my home” (Miéville 32).  King Rat later adds, “You can’t go back now, can you” (Miéville 43)?  Once he makes the decision to follow King Rat, he cannot return to his former identity and orientation in the human world.  Then, King Rat goes about teaching Saul how to be rat.  He says, “You’ve an awful lot to learn, matey, and you’re looking at the teacher, like it or not” (Miéville 48).  As the novel progresses, Saul become more and more rat-like and it becomes apparent that King Rat and Saul are doppelgangers, or doubles of one another.  Saul “was shedding his humanity like an old snakeskin, scratching it off in great swathes.  It was so fast, this assumption of a new form inside” (Miéville 83).  Later in the novel, Saul even begins to look like King Rat with his face hidden in shadow.  But at the end of the novel, Saul recaptures his past and decides to found a revolution in the rat world based on his understanding of his human father’s teachings.  Instead of telling the rats that he was the new King Rat, he breaks up the hierarchical monarchy system and he says, “I’m just one of you…I’m Citizen Rat” (Miéville 318).  Thus, Saul ends the novel by choosing to be both rat and human which is his formulation of being “Citizen Rat.”  Therefore, Saul becomes a hybrid of his human self and experience and of his new, rat self and experience.[3]

Miéville further develops Saul’s hybrid identity by connecting it to the musical genre of Jungle or drum’n’bass.  Jungle is a hybrid style of music that the author describes thus:

This was Jungle.

The child of House, the child of Raggamuffin, the child of Dancehall, the apotheosis of black music, the Drum and Bass soundtrack for a London of council estates and dirty walls, black youth and white youth, Armenian girls.

The music was uncompromising.  The rhythm was stolen from Hip Hop, born of Funk…

And above the bassline was the high end of Jungle:  the treble.  Stolen chords and shouts that rode the waves of bass like surfers.  They were fleeting and teasing, snatches of sound winking into existence and sliding over the beat, tracing it, then winking away (Miéville 59).

He reveals that Jungle is a “child” of various other musical styles and it’s “rhythm was stolen from Hip Hop.”  Jungle is created by taking from these many other styles and remixing them into something new.  It is a style based on appropriation of other musical forms of expression.  Saul and his friends are a part of the Jungle scene, but it is ultimately only Saul who is capable of using Jungle to his advantage during the final battle with the Piper.  Saul knows that the treble in Jungle should be “fleeting and teasing, snatches of sound.”  The Piper inundates his controlling Jungle song, “Wind City” with more flute than a real Jungle song would have.  He says, “Your friend Natasha…showed me how to make my flute multiply” (Miéville 297).  This allows the Piper to play to both the rat and human within Saul.  But Saul realizes as “the flutelines swirled around him…urging him to dance, teasing his rat-mind and his humanity in turn…But something inside him had hardened.  Saul was straining for something else.  He was listening for the bass” (Miéville 299).  This breakthrough allows Saul to seize his own identity and to dance his own dance (Miéville 300).  Therefore, Jungle, as a hybrid musical genre, is the keystone that allows Saul to connect his separate selves into a hybrid whole.

Gaiman’s protagonist in American Gods, Shadow Moon, is also a hybrid character.  First, the story is about gods that travel to America with the people that brought them along through faith and belief.  Being American is itself a state of hybridity.  We are a nation of hyphenated ethnicities and nationalities.  Wednesday tells Shadow, “Nobody’s American…Not originally” (Gaiman 105).  Taking hybridity to another level, Shadow is the child of his human mother and the god, Odin (who is masquerading as Wednesday).  Shadow, and probably his mother, did not know that Shadow’s father was the physical manifestation of the god Odin.  Like King Rat, Odin wanted a child that would serve a particular purpose that only a hybrid could accomplish.  Shadow is never really described other than being a big guy.  People see things in him, but when he is asked about it, he tells them that he isn’t the ethnicity in question.  For example, Shadow picks up a hitchhiker named Sam on the way to Cairo and they have this conversation:

“Mm.  You got Indian blood in you?

“Not that I know of.”

“You looked like it, was all” (Gaiman 166).

Shadow represents an amalgamation of American identities.  He is, in a sense, the prototypical American.  As the conversation continues, Shadow is revealed to be a double of Wednesday/Odin.  Shadow tells Sam what she is doing in school when he says, “I figure you’re at school…Where you are undoubtedly studying art history, women’s studies, and probably casting your own bronzes.  And you probably work in a coffeehouse to help cover the rent” (Gaiman 167).  Sam’s response is to “put down her fork, nostrils flaring, eyes wide” and she says, “How the fuck did you do that” (Gaiman 167)?  This is similar to the first conversation between Shadow and Wednesday when the god begins telling Shadow things that a complete stranger should not know.  There are also numerous examples of Shadow being a trickster (usually for good) like Wednesday (usually for selfish reasons or evil) (Gaiman 36-37, 110-116, 166-167, 587).  Additionally, the doubling is symbolized by the fortune that Shadow receives early in the novel at the House on the Rock.  It said, “EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING…Motto:  LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON” (Gaiman 121).  At that time, Shadow did not know that Wednesday/Odin is his father and the “EVERY ENDING IS A NEW BEGINNING” phrase points to the Shadow’s vigil for Wednesday.  This relates to one of Odin’s mythic exploits, “involves his self-sacrifice on Yggdrasill.  He hangs on the tree for nine nights and wounds himself, an offering of “myself to myself,” as he says.  His reward is a draft of mead — creative insight” (Stitt, par. 4).  Mr. Nancy describes the vigil to Shadow when he says, “The person on the vigil–gets tied to the tree.  Just like Wednesday was.  And then they hang there for nine days and nine nights.  No food, no water.  All alone.  At the end they cut the person down, and if they lived…well, it could happen.  And Wednesday will have had his vigil” (Gaiman 451).  Shadow agrees to go through with Wednesday’s request for him to hold the vigil.  Wednesday doesn’t anticipate Shadow surviving the vigil and Shadow being granted understanding of what is actually taking place in the narrative.  This mirrors Wednesday’s own self-sacrifice that he endured to gain new wisdom.  Earlier in the novel, when Shadow and Wednesday are discussion Shadow’s dead wife, Wednesday says:

Those were the first nine charms I learned.  Nine nights I hung on the bare tree, my side pierced with a spear’s point.  I swayed and blew in the cold winds and the hot winds, without food, without water, a sacrifice of myself to myself, and the worlds opened to me (Gaiman 288).

Shadow and Wednesday endure similar trials on the “World Tree.”  Shadow’s sacrifice is really for himself because they are doubles of one another (i.e., if the vigil is intended for Wednesday it reflects back onto Shadow).  Shadow’s self-sacrifice leads to knowledge that allows him to act to the end the battle brought about by Wednesday’s selfishness.  Therefore, Shadow and Wednesday are doubles of one another, but Shadow’s hybrid identity, like Saul’s in King Rat, leads him to make different choices than his father.

These novels can be described as fantastic because they feature mythic and almost unbelievable elements.  Because they are considered fantastic, they require a suspension of disbelief from the audience in order for the narrative to unfold.  This characteristic is defined as an awareness that is projected by the work to the audience that indicates that the work knows what it is and it is also aware that the audience knows what it is.  It is employed to a great extent in American Gods, but to a lesser extent in King Rat.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the concept of the “suspension of disbelief” when he wrote in Chapter XIV of his Biographia Literaria, “it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith” (par. 3).  He is talking about making something fantastic believable enough that a reader will be able to enjoy it without immediately balking at how unbelievable the story really is.  Most fiction works because of the suspension of disbelief.  The audience has to “buy into” the story otherwise the story doesn’t work.  The suspension of disbelief is linked to the postmodern characteristic of reflexivity.  Postmodern reflexivity, however, casts aside the need for the suspension of disbelief.  Of the two works, American Gods presents the most bald-faced example of reflexivity.  Gaiman writes near the end of American Gods, “None of this can actually be happening.  If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as a metaphor.  Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all…So none of this is happening.  Such things could not occur.  Never a word of it is literally true.  Even so, the next thing that happened, happened like this” (508).  What follows is the climax and denouement of the novel.  Before that point, he relied on the suspension of disbelief for approximately five-hundred pages to tell his story about gods and how they came to be in America.  By doing this, Gaiman is engaging the reader to think about the story in more than the literal presentation of the narrative.  He is asking the reader to consider the other implications he has brought up during the course of the book.  One can argue that it is his statement that “None of this can actually be happening” is really the climax of the book.  That is the flag signaling that there he hopes the reader will consider the novel in a new way (i.e., metaphorically, not literally).

Miéville, on the other hand, never pulls back the curtain in King Rat in the same way that Gaiman does in American Gods.  He does, however, drop reflexive hints throughout the narrative.  One example takes place during Saul’s jailbreak at the beginning of the novel.  Saul thinks to himself, “Here be monsters…and [he] felt ridiculously close to giggling” (Miéville 37).  The idea of monsters in the real world is almost funny to him.  Another example is when he first encounters the homeless woman, Deborah.  Saul says, “Listen to me.  You won’t understand this, but don’t worry…They won’t hurt you, do you understand” (Miéville 165)?  He begins with telling her that she won’t understand, but then he asks her if she does understand.  Granted, Saul knows he is talking to someone with mental problems, but at the same time, the author chose to write this passage like this.  Miéville is indicating to the reader that it is okay to both understand and to not understand what is going on.  The author is reinforcing the (sometimes) necessity of the suspension of disbelief with this passage.  Therefore, in regard to reflexivity, American Gods is the more postmodern of the two novels because Gaiman relies on reflexivity to make a point about his novel whereas Miéville uses it teasingly to reinforce the traditional usage of the suspension of disbelief.

King Rat and American Gods are examples of postmodern fiction that closely relate to one another because the authors employ shared postmodern characteristics to develop a hybrid protagonist who must grow into and mast his “synthesized” identity.  Both novels appropriate myth, reference culture, investigate hybrid identities through doubling, and pull back the curtain with reflexivity.  Thus, King Rat and American Gods are connected to one another through appropriated mythologies and postmodern investigations of identity.

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.  Biographia Literaria.  1817.  24 July 2005 <;.

Gaiman, Neil.  American Gods.  New York:  HarperTorch-HarperCollins, 2001.

Malpas, Simon.  The Postmodern.  New York:  Routledge, 2005.

Miéville, China.  King Rat.  New York:  Tor, 1998.

Parrinder, Edward Geoffrey.  African Mythology.  London:  Hamlyn, 1967.

Stitt, J. Michael.  “The Norse Pantheon:  Óðinn.”   English 480 Mythology.  Course home page.  Dept. of English, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  July 24, 2005 <;.

[1] In fact, Anansi exists in many different stories that have different origins and those stories have changed over time.  Some of the many stories that come from Africa about Anansi include, “Anansi and the Corn Cob,” “How Anansi Tricked God,” “Anansi and the Chameleon,” “How Anansi Became a Spider,” and “Tales of Spider and Hare” (Parrinder, 128-131, 136-139).  Gaiman relies on Anansi’s past in order to create his present while Miéville loosely bases his character on Anansi for the purposes of his story.  One representation of Anansi is not more accurate or essential than another.

[2] It should be noted that others have appropriated the Anansi stories.  The stories originally come out of an oral tradition which lends to embellishment and reinvention due to the creative capacities of the human mind as well as the fallibility of memory.  A popular retelling of the Anansi stories are those by Uncle Remus.  Parrinder writes, “All across Africa fables are told of the cleverness, deceit, and triumph of the Spider or the Hare, called by various names according to the language.  These yarns were taken to America by slaves and became the Brer Rabbit tales related by Uncle Remus” (128).  Uncle Remus’ tales are not verbatim retellings of the original African stories.  The stories have been added to and subtracted from due to differences in language, personal experiences, and setting.  This reflects the fact that postmodern devices can be found historically outside of the postmodern era that is typically identified as occurring since the end of World War II.  Reinvention and appropriation are tried and true tools of storytellers both in oral and literary traditions.

[3] The novel can be considered a bildungsroman story because Saul builds a new, hybrid identity after he learns that there is more to his identity than he could have possibly imagined.  In a sense, it is a coming of age story or, more accurately, a building of identity story.



In the same vein that “no one lives in a vacuum,” no work of literature exists in a vacuum.  These authors embrace the interconnections because they add to their work by allowing the reader to build connections between the work being read and works the reader may have already read or knows of.  Referentiality only works when the reader has a certain cultural knowledge or historical awareness of what has come before, but it is effective in situating a work within that which is familiar to the reader.

Another reference made in King Rat features the musical genre of Drum’n’Bass or Jungle. 

The author’s choice of using Drum’n’Bass is important not only because he is employing referentiality, but because he is also using it to highlight another postexists almost as a separate character within the story.  The reason that it is so important to the story is that it represents remixing, resampling, and reinventing by taking two different things and putting them together to form something new.  Saul, the protagonist of the novel, is a hybrid himself. 

It is that kind of music, that at first seems to be the way the Piper will subdue Saul, but it actually sets Saul free.  At the climax of King Rat, Saul thinks to himself, “fuck the treble, he thought, because when you dance to Jungle what you follow is the bass…Saul rediscovered himself.  He knew who he was.  He danced again” (300).

Another form of hybridity that relates to appropriation is Fredric Jameson’s conceptions of parody and pastiche.   Miéville employs pastiche when he created the character of Loplop because he appropriates.  Loplop isn’t derived from a mythic creature like Anansi.  Loplop is described as the alter-ego of the German painter, Max Ernst.

Gaiman is presenting Mr. Nancy as the synthesis of all of the Anansi stories and myths.  Mr. Nancy represents all of these things simultaneously in this reserved space where gods are able to reveal themselves in ways that they cannot in the modern world.

These characters represent the epitome of the postmodern.  They are reinvented and remixed into something new while at the same time they remain connected to their past representations.



Another interesting postmodern element that both novels exhibit is reflexivity.  Reflexivity is the awareness exhibited by the work that it knows what it is.  The author is essentially winking at the reader.

Postmodern fictions provide a space for authors to explore contemporary issues by reinventing and reinterpreting mythologies and religions.

The novel is a bildungsroman in that from the point that Saul is rescued from jail by King Rat, Saul must come into his own based on the circumstances that he finds himself in.  In a sense, it is a coming of age story or, more accurately, a building of identity story.

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Gender Studies Final Paper on Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, April 26, 2004

This is the second 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 essay is particularly important to me, because I can confidently say that it was my day spent speaking with and listening to Kathleen Ann Goonan that helped me decide to study SF as a profession. Ms. Goonan is a very important contemporary science fiction writer. I wrote the essay as my final paper in Professor Lisa Yaszek’s Gender Studies class at Georgia Tech in Spring 2004. I had already thought a lot about teaching on the college-level after having great learning experiences with (to name a few in no particular order) Professors Lisa Yaszek, Carol Senf, Kenneth J. Knoespel, Eugene Thacker, Narin Hassan, Hugh Crawford, and Robert Wood. I wanted to do good work in the classroom like they had done for me, and I wanted to publish original research in those fields that I wanted to teach. However, I was not yet decided. My conversations with Ms. Goonan on that day helped the tumblers of my mind fall into place and unlock the door that lead to the present. Now, Ms. Goonan and I teach at Georgia Tech, which is a lucky happenstance.

In addition to the leading essay on Queen City Jazz, I am including below my outline and essay notes. I am copying them as-is from my files without any corrections. Think of these extra additions as the “special features.” However, I cannot vouch for their completeness for quotations and citations–I can only do this for the essay itself. Therefore, the “special features” are meant to be an interesting appendix for readers and my students (who I will send her to look at my approach to writing at that time).

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Lisa Yaszek

LCC3224 – Gender Studies

April 26, 2004

Final Paper: Gender Issues in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz

            Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz is a novel that takes place in Earth’s future that is about women taking the initiative to save the people of the nanotechnology mediated city of Cincinnati.  The story uses new technologies and the dangers associated with them to illustrate the development of a strong heroine who uses many elements of the history of feminist thought to fulfill her destiny on her own terms.  Cincinnati was envisioned as a city built on nanotechnology assemblers and modifications to the city’s inhabitants so that they can receive and send information pheromonally.  The city would provide for everyone’s needs and wants because of the near zero cost of nanotech assembled goods and foods.  Rose, a woman from the time of the first Conversion, sets events into motion that will eventually lead to the breaking of the cycle of unending rebirth instituted by the Flower City architect, Abe Durancy, and controlled by his mother, India, the Queen Bee.  Rose’s plan culminates with the return of a (prodigal) child formed in the city, Verity.  Verity is a hybrid of nanotechnology and a life spent outside the Seam (the nanotechnology barrier between the outside world and Cincinnati).  Only a hybrid can make her way into the heart of the city to bring about fundamental change that will give the inhabitants a choice about their futures.

The reason the story begins is because a son becomes a bad father and a mother becomes an evil Queen.  If Abe Durancy hadn’t perverted the Flower City model to the end of bringing his mother back from death, then none of this might have happened.

Both Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and Abe Durancy are the products of bad parenting.  Victor Frankenstein was allowed to continue his reading of the great alchemists and Abe Durancy was allowed to feed his appetite for books without being taught to complete what he had started.  Verity experienced one of Abe’s memories, from when he was twelve.  Rose comes over to his house to watch him while India is away.  He tied up his hammock in a haphazard way.  Rose said, “oh, you’re always so careless…just don’t want to take the time to do it right” (Goonan 397).  Rose proceeds to take the hammock down and tie it up correctly.  Frankenstein never learned the value of family and personal responsibility.  It doesn’t seem like Durancy was ever disciplined or taught personal responsibility either.  Verity experiences no memories of Durancy learning from someone else except in this example with Rose.

Durancy recalls, in a memory that Verity experiences, that instead of being in Cincinnati when it had the vote for conversion, “I went up to the Big Lake.  The beach was gratifyingly cold:  windy, with distant islands gray smudges like cardboard blips on the knife-edge of the horizon” (Goonan 281).  Abe is confident that the vote will go in favor of Conversion.  This vote is in a sense the birth of the Flower City, or at a minimum, its choice to be conceived.  Victor Frankenstein secluded himself from family when he was creating his monster.  When the creature first opened its “dull yellow eye,” Victor runs away from his creature (Shelley 58).  Abe’s Flower City was not yet a reality, but he makes the choice not be there at the vote that would enact its creation.  He turns away from his responsibilities.

After India had been infected with a nanplague, she agreed to let her mind be transferred to the City archives.  There were complications though.  Katy, Abe’s coworker and ex-wife, said to Abe, “I have to tell you, there was something odd about the redundancy tests…I’m not sure if the copy is any good.  She–died in the middle of it, you know, and there was some sort of break” (Goonan 329).  Abe “turned and walked out onto the snowy streets of Cincinnati a completely changed man (Goonan 329).  The memory continues, “Abe was never sure why he chose to live, that night.  Maybe it was just some odd, bizarre, sprouting hope.  The hope that Katy was wrong.  And the beginnings of the formulation of his Great Plan, wherein Cincinnati had to vote for conversion.  Only in that way could his mother live again” (Goonan 330).  Abe changes after his mother dies.  He might have had the best intentions for the City before her death, but now the City serves a purpose to him instead of to the people of Cincinnati.  He wants his mother to live because, in a sense, that is the only woman he really loves.  He could never bring himself to go against the way his mother felt about Rose.  Durancy became a selfish person who thought of his mother as a thing to be recreated for his own gratification.

India’s storage in the City archives was imperfect.  Because she died during the procedure, some parts of her mind were destroyed or corrupted.  Dennis Durancy explains to Verity, “Where exactly was the place where I stopped giving and she started taking.  Where you see…it’s hard to talk about…I just don’t exactly know when that simple and powerful childlike part of her that was indelibly, powerfully saved, without any sort of older personality overlay, any kind of maturity, took over.  Simply took over the City” (Goonan 339).  “It’s hard to talk about” it because Abe lies under the surface limiting what Dennis can do or speak about.  Abe’s intentions might not have been for his mother to assume complete control, but it does seem inevitable.

The recording of India’s mind into the City archives seems to have captured her id but little of her ego and superego.  She has created her own new set of rules that apply to the Flower City that goes against the reality outside the Seam.  Inside the City Ignatz Mouse, a cartoon-like character, may throw a brick at you, or a woman can be transformed into a human with a lion-like appearance.  Famous (dead) authors, musicians, and playwrights inhabit the Flower City.  The people of the City have not developed but have been infused with memory that may or may not have been their own.  The Queen controls these functions.  She may have been a good mother who had experience tempered with maturity, but after India’s death during the memory transfer, her “self” became unleashed from the maturity she had gained though time and experience.  She became a Queen who rules for her own fancy.  A new Queen must take the place of India in order to save the City.

Verity makes her way to Cincinnati in an attempt to save the young man she loves, Blaze, and her dog, Cairo.  Blaze and Cairo had been shot, but they were wrapped in preserving nansheets that Russ had hidden away long ago.  Verity’s destiny had been to return to Cincinnati one day despite the tragedy she encountered at her home on Shaker Hill.

Verity learns from unlocked memories that she was created in the Flower City of Cincinnati.  She listens and watches from within herself when she was very young.  A woman is talking to Dennis Durancy, “She’s the brightest one we have, Dennis…We need someone different” (Goonan 331).  After doing some other things to Verity, they wrap her up and send her out of the city carried under one of the large Bees.  She is dropped off near a house around Edgetown.  She knows her own history from that point on.  Her family at Shaker Hill brings her to their home from Edgetown.  They raise her in a neo-Shaker tradition where she able to show off her Gift of Dance.  She has other gifts such as a gift of pictures (her memory is based on pictures and she can communicate with Cairo through projected pictures), internal maps, and she can access the Dayton Library and it’s information cocoon.

Verity is a mestiza, a hybrid.  She is originally from the Flower City of Cincinnati.  She has memory sponges implanted in her skull.  She is permitted access to memories and maps at certain times during her life.  Once a year, a resonating Bell calls her to the Dayton Library where she interfaces with the information cocoons that give her more information (that she may not recall after getting out of the cocoon, but she feels changed after every visit).  To be able to challenge the City, Rose devised a plan where a young girl (Verity) would be made from the Flower City, and sent to the outside world.  Verity would live a life that was unknown to the City and the Bees.  This would make it more difficult for the Bees to control Verity when she returned.  Also, she would gain experience of life that would hopefully help her fulfill her destiny to become the new Queen Bee.  Choice is made possible by having options and knowledge about those options.  Her choices are aided by Durancy’s memories she experiences throughout the story.

Verity exhibits elements of Third Wave Feminism in obtaining her final goal of becoming the New Queen of Cincinnati.  The first is her reliance on other people who have different goals than she does.  She engages in coalition politics along her journey to the Flower City as well as once she is in the City.  Verity’s primary goal in the beginning is to find a way to save Blaze and Cairo in Cincinnati.  Over time, this changes to saving all the people in the City as well as saving Blaze.  After Verity is set adrift by the woman with the ferry, she aligns herself with Cheyenne, a boy who hunts Bees to earn a bounty.  Verity is fascinated by the Bees (particularly after her “Day of Miracles” and she used to dream of the flower topped buildings when she was little) (Goonan 16).  She cannot understand why someone would want to destroy the Bees, but she is hungry and Cheyenne offers his help in return for Verity helping him carry off the dead Bees.  After Cheyenne takes off with Verity’s solar car, she meets the musician, Sphere.  Sphere also wants to go into Cincinnati to explore his musical interests.  In the city, he becomes a hybrid of the outside world and nan that is more than the people who have always lived there.  He attains his goal of becoming more musical.  The waitress, Dezeray, helps Verity, Sphere, and Blaze.  Dezeray puts Blaze in a cocoon to help him out of his arrested state.  She hides Verity from the Queen’s thugs who are looking for her.  She also “initiated” Sphere with nanotech assemblers that allow him to interface with the City and music in ways that he could not before (Goonan 373).  Blaze is also a hybrid.  He was born in the outside world and he was altered twice by nanotechnology.

The story emphasizes new science and technology.  From Verity’s standpoint it is not so much a discovery of new technology but a rediscovery of old technology.  Shaker Hill had come about because of the nanplagues and the break down of the Flower Cities.  After the plagues, earthquakes, and the mysterious radio blackout (supposedly caused by a quasar in our galaxy’s nucleus) there was tremendous social upheaval.  Instead of developing new technologies, those technologies that were not nan (Enlivened) were scavenged and used as need required.  Before the fall of the Flower Cities, nanotechnology was the cutting edge technology that would allow humanity to create a real utopia.  Nanotechnology would allow people to reach their full creative potential because food, goods, and shelter would cost virtually nothing (similar to what was said about nuclear energy in its infancy–electricity would drop to near zero prices).  Reality often differs from the hopeful possibilities of a new technology.  There were risks and dangers associated with the new technology that wasn’t voiced as loudly as it should have been (or was that voice even allowed?).  Verity, however, uses the old/new technology to save Blaze and the inhabitants of Cincinnati.  She turns the nanotech system against itself, not in a destructive way, but in an unforeseen way that shifted the power of choice from the Queen Bee to the individual.

Verity’s Gift of Dance is analogous to the concept of the “riot grrl.”  Dance and music are essential ingredients of the neo-Shakers that Verity lives with.  After Verity’s “Day of Miracles,” “she heard Blaze begin to play once more, as if from far away, a melody which hummed like a swarm of bees, then burst like bright flowers within her vision, and she heard the shuffling steps of others as, one by one, they joined her.  She opened her eyes and watched as she and they scattered, re-formed, swirled, and finally stopped, all in the same moment, as if they had practiced but they had not:  this Dance, this manifestation of her Gift, was new” (Goonan 27).  She is challenging the status quo because “until Verity, the New Shakers had just imitated old pictures and descriptions” (Goonan 27).  Verity’s Gift of Dance empowers her.

The Shaker tradition itself is an attempt to overthrow patriarchy.  The neo-Shakers lived a simple life where Verity’s “days and nights were part of a larger Shaker cycle bound to the land, exploiting nothing, using what they needed” (Goonan 15).  Utility and usefulness was valued over beauty.  When Verity walks in on Tai Tai building something she says, “That’s beautiful” and Tai Tai responds “Beauty has a purpose too” (Goonan 48).  Verity’s thoughts continue with, “everything had to be useful, have a function” (Goonan 48).  Shakers traditionally believed that living a celibate life removed sexism and the power struggles of the private sphere that existed elsewhere in the world.

At the final moment of decision on Verity’s part, she had used her background and experience to develop a solution to the problem of Cincinnati.  Her approach was much like the Second Wave Feminist era’s Radical Feminism.  She knew that she could not change the system from within.  She had to overthrow the system (or at least catch it unawares) by introducing an element from outside.  In part, her being there to assume the role of the Queen Bee was an outside factor.  The other part was her using the Territorial Plague that had infected Blaze.  The nansheets and the cocoon in the train station had arrested the progress of the plague in Blaze.  In doing so, it had been analyzed and categorized in the Cincinnati information system.  Verity needed to assemble as many people as possible to enact her plan.  Goonan writes, “The sorting she initiated in the Hive had shuffled down to a common interest swiftly.  Everyone…seemed to remember baseball, the one constant core element that could draw them all together” (385).  She then had the City put the Territorial Plague assemblers in the food, drink, and air (released by large flowers by the scoreboards) in the baseball stadium.  The plague broke the cycle of the Bees controlling the emotions and decisions of the inhabitants of Cincinnati.  Some people decided to stay, and the others were drawn to the river so that they could proceed to Norleans–the plague’s attractor.  Verity wanted as many people as possible out of the City before Conversion took place.  Conversion would change the City again, but she had made the choice to not be there when it happened.  She was going to relinquish her crown as the new Queen Bee.

The Flower City of Cincinnati was billed as a utopia.  Because of Abe’s desire for his mother to live again, the possibility for a utopia is lost to the fact that the City is governed by a despot who is more a creation of Abe than the reality of his mother before she died.  Utopia is essentially not obtainable in this life.  The process of working towards utopia is the goal.  Abe wanted it all right now without the process.  After Abe creates the Flower City, his program, “perhaps his living intelligence, hiding deep within the Hive, so deep that it no longer had any vestige of humanity–had been able to keep [Dennis’] understanding limited.  And each time the whole sad mess began again” (Goonan 403).  Durancy succeeded in having a part of his mother live again, but the incomplete India was more selfish than he was.  She maintained a utopia of one by controlling the lives of the people of Cincinnati.

Queen City Jazz uses elements from the history of feminist movements and ideologies to create a story about a mature 16-year-old girl who reacts in a competent way to a challenging set of circumstances.  She makes her own decisions and she offers others the opportunity to make their own choices.  Verity seeks to democratize the Cincinnati system by giving people the choice to leave.

Works Cited

Goonan, Kathleen Ann.  Queen City Jazz.  New York:  Orb, 2003.

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus.  London:  Penguin Classics, 2003.

Outline for Final Paper

Queen City Jazz – Outline for Final Gender Studies Paper

1)         Verity is a mestiza, a hybrid.  She was created in the nancity, Cincinnati.  Her creators sent her away from the city to learn and live away from the influence of the Bees.  Her experience would be unknown to the Bees who might attempt to influence her thoughts and decisions.  Only a hybrid, made of nan, but with a life experience of the world outside the nancity, would be capable of challenging India, the old Queen.

2)         Elements of Third Wave Feminism

a)         Verity’s path to and through Cincinnati is accomplished by her willingness to engage in coalition politics.  She aligns herself with others to forward her primary goal (to go to Cincinnati to save Blaze and Cairo who are rapped in the nansheets).  The people she works with may not necessarily share her same views or have the same goals as she has, but she recognizes the need she has for the help of others.  Additionally, in each encounter with others, she learns something new.  This learning can be about the views of others, a clue about her past or about Cincinnati, or something that triggers a memory or the presence but not physicality of a memory.  She aligns with Cheyenne (the Bee killer) and Sphere (who follows her into the city).  She also aligns with people in Cincinnati:  Azure (offers her coffee and an insight into the religion built up around the Bees and Verity as the future Queen Bee, p320), Dezaray (the waitress that helps the arrested Blaze by putting him the cocoon and later, she initializes Sphere).

b)         There is a strong emphasis on new science and technology.  Verity has grown up on Shaker Hill with the neo-Shakers.  They avoided enlivened/nanotechnology because of fear of the nanplagues.  After Blaze and Cairo are shot by John (who is in turn killed by Verity’s throw of her “radio stone”), Russ wraps the dead bodies in nanwraps in the hope that they will be preserved until they can be carried to a place like Cincinnati.  Everyone except for Russ and Verity had caught the Territory Plague which changes the mind of the person infected in strange ways as well as makes the person drawn to go down the Ohio River to Norleans.  At this point the fear of technology is a moot point.  Russ helps Verity to begin her journey to Cincinnati with Blaze and Cairo.  They pull out the old solar car that had been hidden under the floor of the barn.  It is not so much an interest in new technology, but a rediscovery or a return to technology because of these people’s needs.

c)         Verity is a riot chick and a net chick all rolled into one.  This links back to her identity as a mestiza.  These Third Wave Feminist identities are based on women grabbing the new technology and using it for their own purposes.  Verity didn’t pick up a guitar, but she did have the Gift of Dance.  The importance of Dance for Verity and her family at Shaker Hill is different than our concept of Dance.  Dance was integral to the religious beliefs of the neo-Shakers.  Verity had a skill of Dance that was unrivaled by any of the other inhabitants of Shaker Hill.  It relates back to technology because of the way she gained the Gift of Dance and the purpose for which it was used.  She was able to get others to dance with her, the way that she did.  Her skill of Dance was necessary for her later destiny to become the new Queen Bee of Cincinnati.  She used this ability with her family on Shaker Hill and she used her Dance to become the new Queen of the Hive in Cincinnati.

Her status as net chick rose from her yearly calling to the Dayton Library which had a cocoon that she could interface with to get information and maps.  She did not always remember the things that she learned but they were stored in her mind to be accessed when the necessary chemical pathways were laid down when she went to Cincinnati.  Her ability to handle the burden of information when she gave herself over to be the Queen of the Hive illustrates her power and abilities.

Her control over these gifts and her decision to use them might not have been as conscious as a woman picking up a guitar or building a website, but these were things that were built into her, Verity, a young woman.  They were not abilities given to a male character.  A woman had to have these abilities to save the City.

3)         Sons Who Become Bad Fathers

Abe Durancy was the primary architect of the nancity of Cincinnati.  Following parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he leaves the city on the eve of the vote for conversion to nan just as Victor flees his creation when it comes to life.  Also, the humanity of Abe is lost to some strata far beneath the surface of the city.  Dennis Durancy (who looks and acts like Abe, but is not Abe) is the creation of Rose as a mechanism to try to save the city.  There was an interplay between Abe and Rose about saving the City.  Abe would make one move to have the city his way and Rose created another mechanism to combat that.  Each time Abe won the upper hand until Verity came along.

Abe tried to save his mother from death by integrating her into the City.  Unfortunately, India died during the process of transferring her mind (her “self” and memories) into the City.  They captured her youthful self without the overlay of maturity and superego.  India was the Queen of the City to do with it as she pleased.  When the pain of her past intruded she would wipe the city clean and start over (conversion/surge).

Abe was the father of the City but he gave birth to a city that was ruled by his insane mother (she had literally lost most of her mind) and the Bees.  The people of the city lived their lives like stage actor robots who read their lines for the benefit of the Bees who collected and disseminated pheremonal memories.  Memories were the “junk” that got the Bees off.  India ruled the City so that she could relive the past through the present by creating a landscape of the books and people that she enjoyed in her youth.

Verity was designed by Rose to be the random factor that could throw the system off kilter.  Anyone who lived a life (which was uncoupled from age) in the City was easily controlled by the Bees and the pheremonal information network.  Verity lived an age linked life outside the city with her neo-Shaker family.  Her experiences and the information given to her in the Dayton Library cocoon shaped her in a way that was unknown to the Bees.  She had been given choice (to a certain extent).  As much as this story is about self-awareness (memories are what make us human) it is also a story about destiny.  Verity was designed to become the new Queen Bee, but there were some things that had to be done that were outside her control to get her to become what she was destined to be.

4)         Verity’s choices to save the people of Cincinnati are examples of Radical Feminism.  Verity tries to save the inhabitants of Cincinnati by giving them a choice to leave.  Because of their connection to the city merely giving them the choice to leave would not have been feasible.  Instead, she choose to infect everyone with the Territory Plague that Blaze had before he was shot by John (the nanwraps and lockers in the terminal in Edgetown had arrested the Territory Plague).  The plague changed the people in ways similar to the way the City could change a person through conversion, but it only targeted the mind.  The people wanted to leave for Norleans by rafting down the Ohio River.  Some decided to stay in spite of the plague.  Sphere, who had been initiated by Dezaray to interface with the City, decided to stay because he was changing in ways that he wanted.  He wanted to become infused with music and his ideal could only be accomplished by staying in the City.

She could not work within the system of patriarchy which was ruled by India.  It was a patriarchy because it was built by a man, Abe Durancy.  He was the “mad scientist.”  He worked mostly alone and he constructed a system that was very complex.  It was filled with his ideas about how things should be.  Did the people who voted for conversion really know what Abe had in mind for them?  Rose had reservations about Abe’s plan for a Bee City.  That is why she decided to build-in systems to put his machinations in check.  Ultimately, Rose’s plans, through Verity, saved the inhabitants of Cincinnati by giving them the ability to leave before the next conversion came.

I.          Verity is a mestiza/hybrid

II.        Elements of Third Wave Feminism

A.        Coalition Politics

B.        Emphasis on New Science and Technology

C.        Roles of the Riot Grrl and Net Chick in Verity

III.       Sons Who Become Bad Fathers and Mothers Who Become Bad Queens

IV.       Verity’s Solution – Radical Feminism

Notes for Final Paper

Abe had convinced his mother to be encoded in the City archives before she passed away.  He had promised her eternal life to enjoy her books and stories that had brought her joy in life.  Because of Abe’s love and adoration for his mother, he had placed her at the head of the Bee hierarchy that controlled and mediated the processes of the City.  She was the Queen Bee.  Using nanotechnology assemblers and DNA and pheromonal encoded information, she ruled over the City to make it the landscape for her own memories and the stories that she loved.  In life, she was probably a good mother to Abe.  Abe followed in her footsteps regarding his love for books.  India might have been a little overbearing and too vocal in her scorn for Rose (and Rose’s mother).

Why is Abe Durancy not present when Verity enters the City?  Before Conversion took place, Rose was killed on her way back to Cincinnati after leaving the family house on the lake.  India had died from a nanplague while her memories were being transferred to the City archives.  When Verity returns to India’s home on the hill overlooking the City, she confronts the core memory.  She rips down the wind chime that was the source of the resonating Bell that had guided her whole life.  Below, in the garden, she witnesses a crisis between Dennis Durancy and the young India.  Dennis says to India, “You’re not her…and I’m not him.  We’re both imperfect, incomplete, insane” (Goonan 365).  He pulls a gun out of his jacket and he first points it at India.  He then brings it up to his head and he kills himself.  Verity is a witness to this in a way that Rose and India could not have been in real life because they were both dead.  Dennis, reacting to his inability to “live” and act in the way that he wanted to, he shot himself to resolve the frustration.  The young India thinks of Dennis as her Abe.  She reacts violently toward Verity because India believes that Dennis had brought Verity/Rose there to save himself.  India blames Verity for the loss of her son, Dennis/Abe.  Abe might have killed himself at some point before Conversion.  He had not included himself in his program that controlled the development of the City.  He had placed all control in his mother, the old Queen.

The people of Cincinnati choose to “buy into” conversion of their city to a utopian Flower City.  Abe Durancy recalls about the illegal memory sponges that he had implanted in his head, “they interfaced directly with the brain, and could hold an infinite variety of assemblers and pheromonal analogs.  They terrified and exhilarated me.  Encyclopedic information flooding into the brain–but whose information, and under whose control” (Goonan 281)?  The memory sponges come part and parcel with Cincinnati once it becomes a flower city.  This is part of the mechanism that allows information to be passed by the Bees and the City through corner interstices.  It could also be perverted into a dangerous weapon because malevolent assemblers could be unleashed in a city to change how a person thinks or to cause injury to the person’s body or mind.  Durancy’s own concern about the memory sponges and implications of the pheromonal information network are pushed aside in his mind when he asks himself, “was I any better than those imagined fascists” (Goonan 281)?   Durancy proceeds with his plans for a Flower City.  He doesn’t try to stop the vote.  Clearly he must consider himself to be better than those who would do evil.  His ideas were good because they were to better humanity in the City of Cincinnati.  He was a fascist, but he did not perceive himself to be so.

Verity uses many different skills to figure out what she must do to correct the cycle of Conversion in Cincinnati.  She is a strong example of someone who steps up to the plate when she is needed by others.

Goonan uses Verity not only to end the rebirth cycle of the Flower City, but Verity also gives voice to those that that have none.  Through Verity we hear Abe Durancy.  We “see” her before she is sent out of the city.  We hear Verity’s thoughts concerning where she fits into the complex game that is played out between Rose and Abe.

The story seems like the progression of destiny.  For example, the characters are travelling down train tracks.  But there are points where the tracks set off in another direction and it is the choice of the character to make the engine jump the tracks in the other direction.  This is the concept of choice in Goonan’s novel.

Abe said in one of Verity’s flashbacks, “some of us, you see, never learn” (Goonan 290).

Rose’s program had been designed to match, play by play, Abe’s program.  Rose’s final action was the creation of the hybrid girl who would be born from nan, be left outside the City to live and experience life that was different from the City, and then be called back to save the City and its inhabitants.

After the Flower City is created and it has undergone (possibly) several iterations of conversion, what has become of Abe Durancy?  What happened to Rose?

Verity interacts with a creation of Rose called Dennis Durancy.  He looks and acts like Abe did, but he is a physical construct.  Dennis is and of the city.  He was never a real person.  Verity contains many of Abe’s memories.  In a sense, Abe Durancy is a part of Verity.  Before the conversion, “Rose, unbeknownst to anyone, had quietly kept herself fully updated in the City archives, as had Durancy” (Goonan 403).  Their memories and experience was encoded in a storage medium.  The life cycles that the City had gone through since Conversion were a game of chess, or a game of tag-you’re-it between Rose and Durancy.  Durancy had built the City to perpetuate his ideas of how the City and its people should be.  Rose had introduced herself to play against Durancy’s narcissism.  Dennis Durancy was a program designed by Rose.  “Abe’s program–perhaps his living intelligence, hiding deep within the Hive, so deep that it no longer had any vestige of humanity” had moved beneath the surface (Goonan 403).

He is like Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein in that he secludes himself when attention is most needed.  Abe has a certain responsibility regarding the creation of the Flower City as did Frankenstein to his creation of the monster.

Verity’s role as mestiza is rooted in the ideas established in Third Wave Feminism.

Verity, a 16 year old young woman, in Kathleen Ann Goonan’s novel, Queen City Jazz, is structured around

Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz is a novel that is rooted in Third Wave Feminist ideas.  It is also about the mestiza, Verity, who is a hybrid that returns to the city from which she came to unravel its unending cycle of rebirth.  Goonan also uses the mestizos, Blaze and Sphere to augment Verity’s destiny.

Choice is a theme that runs through out the book.  Verity has a choice to become or not to become the Queen Bee of the nancity Cincinnati.  But she was built to fulfill a particular role.  The likelihood of her success was slim (and had been failed by her sisters that tried before her).  The architects of the city (Abe Durancy and Rose)

Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Science Fiction Final Paper, Exploring SF Themes of Human Technomediation in Blake’s 7, July 26, 2002

This is my inaugural post in a new series titled, “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 essay was my final project in Professor Lisa Yaszek’s Science Fiction class at Georgia Tech in the summer semester of 2002. My friend Mark Warbington had recently introduced me to Blake’s 7, which I immediately liked. There were a lot of cross-connections between the subject matter of our SF class and Blake’s 7, which I found exciting and pointed the direction for some of my future scholastic work. Specifically, I wrote about technological mediation of human experience, memory, and perception in this groundbreaking British SF series.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Lisa Yaszek

LCC3214 Science Fiction

July 26, 2002

Final Paper: Blake’s 7

Blake’s 7, the BBC science fiction television show that ran from 1977-1981, has many characters who are either computers/robots or cyborgs. These characters are either all technology or their person has been radically altered by technology. Their character traits or level of technical mediation often is reflective of their role as “good” or “bad.” These representations bring into question concepts such as “human” and “identity” in a world where technological mediation is dictated by an oppressive government.

Roj Blake is the main character of Blake’s 7 and he is a cyborg. His life experiences have been mediated with the use of chemicals and psychological treatments designed to alter his memories and divert his way of thinking in a way different from how he would have wanted it to be. When the series opens in the episode, “The Way Back,” the first scene is of a menacing black video camera, topped by a red indicator light, diligently scanning the prosaic passing by of pedestrians along a corridor. The black video camera serves as an always watchful eye over the citizens of the Earth Federation. Among the pedestrians is Blake. He is meeting with a young woman, Ravella, who is going to take Blake to meet with a man who has news of Blake’s family–at least as far as Blake knows. As they are walking Ravella asks Blake, “And eating and drinking — you’ve managed to do without?” Blake answers in an irritated voice, “Well, since you were so insistent I’ve done without food or drink for thirty-six hours.” Ravella asks him if he feels any different. Blake says that he does not. She then says, “All our food and drink is treated with suppressants. Going without for a day and a half, they should be wearing off.” Blake says laughing, “Not that again.” Blake doesn’t know that he has been modified by the Federation after he gained prominence as a renegade leader against the Federation. Instead of making a martyr out of Blake, the Federation turned him into a pawn for their uses. They had him admit his guilt and then denounce the work he had once done against the Federation. Later Blake finds his way back to who he really is, but as is shown in later episodes the Federation programming is still a part of him. This long term programming does not cause him to be “bad,” but it will allow control over his thought processes to an extent that the Federation can bring Blake to them as part of a ruse.

An extension to Federation reprogramming of people to serve a purpose is the use of Mutoids. In the second season episode “Duel,” Space Commander Travis has set a trap for Blake. Travis’ helmsman is a female Mutoid. Prior to the space battle between Travis’ ships and Blake’s Liberator, the Mutoid takes a small vial of liquid and places it in a recess on her chest. During their discussion the Mutoid refers to Travis as “an unmodified” and Travis acknowledges her “need for blood serum.” The Mutoid also notes, “Opponents of mutoid modification call us vampires.” The reason for this reference is made later in the episode when the Mutoid is in need of serum and she tries to supplant her needs by draining the blood out of bat like creatures. Then the Mutoid captures Jenna of Blake’s crew and the Mutoid extends a long hypodermic needle from her arm gauntlet, but Travis stops the Mutoid before she is allowed to use it. On the night before Jenna’s capture Travis and the Mutoid are waiting up in a tree for daylight. Travis asks the Mutoid, “Tell me something, do you remember who you were?” Travis is referring to the Mutoid’s life before she was “modified.” Travis is clearly attracted to the Mutoid and he tries to interest her with information about her past, “Your name was Keyeira…You were very beautiful, very much admired.” Unfortunately for Travis the Mutoid had no interest in her past life. Her transformation from Keyeira to the Mutoid was complete and unencumbered. The chemical and technological alterations to her body made her a cyborg. Her mental programming however made her much more like a robot in that she was self aware, but uninterested beyond what her duty was. The role of the Mutoid is a tool. She is to follow orders and be a contributing officer of the Earth Federation.

During the second season the viewer is introduced to a clone of Blake in the episode, “Weapon.” Clonemaster Fen makes two clones of Blake based on the Federation’s “DNA identity profile” of Blake which the Clonemasters were able to deduce “a full genetic pattern” which they used to build the multiple Blakes. Clonemaster Fen says of these new Blakes, “We may copy life. We may not create new forms. This man is a copy of Blake, a physical copy only, because he was not grown from a cell taken from Blake. And since he has not Blake’s experiences, he cannot be Blake. We have given him some background knowledge, the beginnings of identity, and the basis of understanding.” This clone of Blake is a being grown in a laboratory and has its memory imprinted by technological means. It is a cyborg in that it was not born of woman and that its knowledge and mind were developed inside a computer and implanted with technological equipment. This clone soon meets up with another cyborg, Rashel.

Rashel is a labor-grade slave who Coser, the inventor of IMIPAK, brings with him on his escape from the Federation. At the beginning of the episode, “Weapon,” Coser and Rashel are watching their space craft explode. Rashel keeps answering Coser as “yes, sir.” Coser responds loudly to her, “And don’t call me, sir. You’re not a slave anymore. You’re with me now. I set you free.” Not much is said of how a labor-grade slave comes to be, but looking at how the Federation has a special corp devoted to reprogramming of persons to fitted roles in society, I venture that Rashel was likewise programmed. This could have taken the form of being raised with psychological conditioning and administered drugs as in Huxley’s Brave New World, or she was like the Mutoid in “Duel,” with a unique past which was taken from her when she was reprogrammed by the Federation. Coser who says he has freed Rashel has his own problems adjusting to Rashel’s new station as a free person. He constantly bosses her around and physically acts out in rage about her sometimes not understanding a situation or something that he has said. After Rashel has been assaulted by a monster inhabiting the planet they are on, she says, “Perhaps that was the only one.” Coser angrily says, “Perhaps, perhaps! Just get on with it, will you?!” Rashel yells back to Coser, “Stop treating me like a bond slave! [Coser picks up the projector] You set me free.” In a way it seems that Rashel was programmed to fill a certain role in society and those around her who know her station respond in kind. Coser has his own programming to overcome, but he is soon killed by the weapon he created so he doesn’t have the chance to deprogram the remains of Federation control over him.

Rashel and the clone Blake team up to make the Federation leave the abandoned planet where the action takes place in “Weapon.” Using IMIPAK they “tag” Servalan and Travis so that if anyone activated the trigger on IMIPAK Servalan, Travis and anyone else within a million miles range who has been tagged would be killed. The Clonemasters who made the Blake clone follow “the Rule of Life.” The clone Blake slips into this mode of thinking in his conversation with Coser when they first meet. Blake laces his fingers together and says, “All life is linked.” Servalan and Travis after obtaining IMIPAK wish to use it to demand absolute control over all. If someone is tagged with the IMIPAK projector then they could be killed at any point of their life with the IMIPAK trigger. When Coser was talking to the clone Blake about the potential of IMIPAK he said, “Selected victims, groups, whole populations. You can be like God.” The clone Blake understands the potential of this weapon and it violates the primary foundation of the Clonemaster’s programming. When the life of Rashel is threatened by Travis, the clone Blake throws his arms around her and says, “No! All life must have reverence.” The clone of Blake and the freed labor-grade slave, Rashel are more positive roles of cyborgs compared to Mutoids and the negative reprogramming done by the Federation. The Clonemasters value life and instilled that in the clone of Blake. Rashel was given the opportunity of freedom despite the one who freed her not quite coming to terms with that. Together they start out as Rashel says at the end of “Weapon,” “Then we could start to explore our planet.”

The Mutoid is the most cyborg of the characters in that her memory is erased and her body has been modified to handle much different situations than an unmodified human. The trade off is that her body is dependent on a blood serum. In being the most modified of the characters she is representative of the Federation and evil. The less technically mediated characters are those of Blake, Blake’s clone, and the freed labor-grade slave, Rashel. These characters break out of their assigned and programmed roles that the Federation has prepared for them. In doing so they become identified as “good” and they work against the Federation which is “bad.” Blake’s clone and Rashel work together to claim a planet for themselves by using a Federation weapon against that oppressive government. Blake reclaims his memories and identity after being forced to do so when the renegade organization he once led asked him back after he had been reprogrammed by the Federation to denounce them.

After Blake, Jenna, and Avon take control of the alien space ship that Blake calls the “Liberator,” they are introduced to the ship’s computer, Zen. In the third episode, “Cygnus Alpha,” Zen introduces himself and the crew begin to see how he operates and what his and the ship’s capabilities and limitations are. Zen can control the ship on voice command. It can also monitor ship’s internal (how badly have we been damaged?) and external sensors (are there ships following us?). Zen’s integration with the ship is not completely revealed. One way of looking at Zen is that of a robot who follows certain rules and obeys orders. The difference is that the robot is built into the ship and is referred to as a “computer.” Zen is not merely a device to figure things out and process information. Zen is able to perform assigned tasks and monitor other maintenance systems onboard ship such as the automatic repair function. There is a negative side to Zen’s abilities in that it can be “taken over” and controlled by remote. Another computer/robot called Orac was able to do this, and the alien builders of the “Liberator” were able to take control of Zen and fly the “Liberator” back to its home station.

Blake’s crew also encounters another computer called Orac who becomes one of the crew. This computer is able to view all Federation communications traffic as well as it has access to all computer stored information owned by the Federation. It is able to do this because it was built by the creator of the computer chips of most of the Federation’s computer systems. In his chip design there is a special part that Orac has access to–a kind of backdoor. Orac’s processing ability and it’s almost infinite access to information reveals that it is a very powerful computer. Again, Orac is also much like a disembodied robot in that it is able to perform assign tasks and it operates on a set of built-in rules. Orac is able to control other computer systems including Zen in the “Liberator.” Orac is subject to subversion on some of the carrier waves it uses for communication with other computer systems because it extends into dimensions outside of our own. An intelligence in another dimension once tried to use this carrier wave to enter our universe/dimension through Orac.

Zen and Orac serve positive roles in that they serve Blake and his crew. But they are subject to the same kind of problems that affect any centralized computer system. If the central computer is compromised then the whole system is compromised.

The prison ship serves as an analogy for the Federation in general. The ship relies on the central computer. Blake is trying to convince Avon to assist with the takeover of the ship. Blake knows that Avon’s skills are invaluable to his plan. Blake quizzes Avon on his abilities to operate the prisoner ship’s computer in the second episode, “Space Fall.” Avon responds, “ I could open every door, blind all the scanners, knock out the security overrides, and control the computer. Control the computer and you control the ship.” The Federation is also integrated to a great deal with it’s computer systems. In later episodes which culminate to the second season’s finale, “Star One.” Star One is the hidden base of the Federation’s central computer system. This computer system organizes and modulates all systems of production, economies, and weather systems on all the Federation’s worlds. It’s location is hidden even from upper command of the Federation because knowledge of its existence and its control would be the ultimate power in the Federation.

Centralized computer systems are the norm in Blake’s 7. Those that serve good are often more humanized than those that serve the forces of oppression and the Federation. Orac and Zen have names whereas the computers of the Federation are merely “computers.” Orac and Zen talk and have a higher level of interaction with the characters than do the computers of the Federation. Federation computers often involve Federation personnel reading off displays and dials what is going on. Orac and Zen have human elements of thought and action. The Federation computers require a human mediator to supply information and retrieve information.

Computers and cyborgs in Blake’s 7 both offer insight into the ideas of human and machine integration and interaction. Computers fill the role of the robot and information processing systems. Computers which are on the side of “good” are often more human than those on the side of “bad.” Cyborgs are presented as varying degrees of humanity reprogrammed and modified to serve a role dictated by the oppressive Federation. Some cyborgs are able to break out of this programming and in turn innovate their own programming. Others must maintain their role because of chemical necessity as is the case of the Mutoids. Those cyborgs who are less chemically mediated tend to be the more positive roles such as Blake, the clone of Blake and the labor-grade slave, Rashel.

Recovered Writing: A New Theme of Personal Digital Archive Rediscovery for 2014

Happy New Year!

In addition to writing about my research and teaching, I have decided to rummage through my archives of unpublished undergraduate and graduate school writing. It is my plan to post some of these artifacts to my blog in an unedited form (besides the accommodations of reformatting word processing documents for the web). Each posting will include a preface indicating the course, professor, and date of writing. The title will also clearly state, “Recovered Writing,” so as to distinguish these unedited posts of older writing from my up-to-date writing on

I have had to don a helmet and swing a pickaxe to uncover some of these unpolished gems from the dustbin of my digital archive. I hope that my efforts will excite and interest some readers for their nuggets of insight and glimmerings of research.

Some of the ideas that I will present here serve as signposts reaching into the past of my thinking and scholarly development. Some of the ideas that I will present here might provoke discussion or lead to new discoveries.

Unlike Smaug, I do not covet my hoard of gems. I would like to share them for others to see, because their dim light might help others see their own gems misplaced or not yet discovered.