Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Module, Notes on Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C+1, Sept 25, 2006

This is the nineteenth 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.

Hugo Gernsback looms large at the beginning of the SF genre’s formalization. These notes are about his scientifiction novel, Ralph 124C+1. I began our seminar discussion on Gernsback’s novel in the Genre Definitions Module of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme at the University of Liverpool.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

Genre Definitions Module

25 September 2006

Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+

Malcolm J. Edwards writes in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that, “While deficient as fiction, [Ralph 124C 41+] clearly shows [Gernsback’s] overriding interest in SF as a vehicle of prediction, being a catalogue of the marvelous technology of the 27th century” (490).  It, much like George Lucas’ recent Star Wars prequels, is more about the technology, than the characters that inhabit his imagined future world.

I haven’t had the chance to read the original twelve-part serial of Ralph 124C 41+, but I would conjecture that Gernsback was already cognizant of his rules for scientifiction, and later, science fiction while he was revising Ralph 124C 41+ for its 1925 publication (one year prior to his founding Amazing Stories).  These rules are important to a reading of his work, as well as other early pulp SF.  Gernsback’s first rule is that the story should be educational.  SF should teach laypeople something about science and technology.  His description of the comet during the aerial carnival is right on the mark when he writes, “While the spectacle was in progress a white ‘comet’ with a long tail traveled across the paths of the planets, turned a sharp corner around the ‘sun,’ its tail always pointing away from that body, recrossed the orbits of the ‘planets’ again on the other side and lost itself in the darkness” (118).  Also, the author goes into copious details about the way in which his imagined inventions work.  Some of his explanation is on the mark (e.g., his extrapolation of what we know as radar), but there are other instances where he refers to outdated or simply incorrect explanations (e.g., his neglect of Einstein’s theory of general relativity in his discussion of the gyroscopic drive system of his spacecraft).  His second rule is that the story should have a specific narrative structure consisting of 75% romance, and 25% science.  You can see that he was playing around with this rule in the accidental love affair between Ralph and Alice.  However, in this novel, I would say that the percentages are switched.  His third and final rule is that the story should contain a “prophetic vision.”  Essentially, the story should imagine new scientific and technological futures extrapolated from current sciences and technologies.  This stems from Gernsback being one of the players in the development of critical technocracy (i.e., a literary movement typified by the belief in the inevitability of scientific progress and the need to apply scientific principles to “inefficient” aspects of human culture, as well as in terms of style, mobilizing the technocratic emphasis on efficiency and precision allowed SF editors to begin forging a specific SF style, which interestingly, parallels the emphasis on clarity and brevity found in high modernism).  One example of his prophetic vision would be his lecture in Chapter VII, “The End of Money.”  In this, he restructures monetary exchange on a pseudo-Marxist basis of labor.  Additionally, on the final page of the text, Alice points to Ralph’s role in Gernsback’s imagining of prophetic vision, when she says his name out loud, “one to foresee for one” (293).

There are also some interesting parallels between Ralph 124C 41+ and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  One clear example is the conflict between the scientist and nature.  Gernsback writes, “He felt that Nature herself was punishing him for his daring assault upon her dominions.  He had presumed to see the laws of Life and Death at variance, and this was the penalty, this living death, shut in with the living dead” (287).  In Frankenstein, M. Waldman tells Victor that, “these philosophers…penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places” (57).  Victor goes on to narrate, “Such were the professor’s words—rather let me say such the words of the fate—enounced to destroy me” (57).  Victor does pay the ultimate price in the loss of his friends and family as well as his own life, whereas, Ralph suffers a moment of dystopic anguish, while the fate of his beloved Alice is not yet determined.  Furthermore, both character’s distress, in part, comes about because they have developed processes that either prolong or restore life to dead animal tissue.  Victor uses this ability to become a male progenitor of life, while Ralph uses it to bring his girlfriend back from death, thus granting life, through science, to that which was lifeless.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Module, Notes on New Wave SF, October 9, 2006

This is the eighteenth 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.

For each of our meetings in the Genre Definitions Module during the first semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme at the University of Liverpool, we were assigned days to lead discussion. For one of these meetings, I began our discussion on the SF New Wave. Below are my prepared notes that I used as an introduction to the topic.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

Genre Definitions Module

9 October 2006

New Wave SF

New Wave science fiction is characterized as a turn away from the hard sciences to the soft sciences of psychology and sociology, as well as a shift from linear, clear window narratives to experimental narrative styles, as well an adoption of higher literary standards.  The stories in which the term New Wave can be said to describe have no clear historical demarcations.  Most scholars accept the beginning date of New Wave to coincide with Michael Moorcock becoming the new editor of the UK SF magazine, New Worlds in 1964.  Moorcock, as editor and writer, promoted stories that fit the New Wave model.  New Wave ran through the 1980s, but its decline began in the 1970s when conservatism began to erode the counterculture that began in the late-1960s.

New Wave SF cannot be said to have been a formal literary movement, because many authors labeled as New Wave do not accept the designation. Therefore, it is problematic to define it as such.  However, there are certain elements that are identified as being New Wave.  The first, and most important element of New Wave, is the belief that SF should attain a respectability, which would result in SF being taking seriously as literature.  In a sense, it was time for SF to mature and move from a younger, adolescent audience to an adult audience that understood the cultural changes taking place at that time.  It was with this in mind that SF authors began implementing a higher style of writing, as well as undertaking a great deal of literary experimentation in their works.  However, others, such as Damien Broderick in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, propose that this shift in style has more to do with the greater education the upcoming New Wave writers had than their predecessors.

Another element of New Wave has to do with extrapolation taking place through the soft sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology, and linguistics) instead of the hard sciences used in earlier SF.  Linked to this shift is a turning inward to crisis and introspection of the mind and psyche.  Additionally, New Wave stories are concerned with the near-future, and there are many stories with dystopic elements.  Other New Wave themes are listed by Peter Nichols in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  He writes that New Wave SF stories include, “an interest in mind-altering drugs and oriental religions, a satisfaction in violating taboos, a marked interest in sex, a strong involvement in Pop Art and in the media landscape generally, and a pessimism about the future that ran strongly counter to genre SF’s traditional optimism, often focused on the likelihood of disaster caused by overpopulation and interference with the ecology, as well as by war and a general cynicism about the politics of the US and UK governments” (866).  Additionally, New Wave authors didn’t buy into the perfectibility of humanity, salvation through science and technology, or faith in human intelligence.  New Wave was a response to the cultural changes taking place in the world beginning in the late-1960s.  It was linked to the counterculture born of that era, and it brought SF out of basements and bedrooms.

We should place New Wave in relationship to earlier SF.  As R. A. Lupoff writes in The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, traditional SF is about, “physical problem solving and/or combat.  Conflict is seen in terms of good protagonist versus bad antagonist (or occasionally natural catastrophe).  Moral and psychological ambiguities are few.  Style tends to be simple and structure of narration straightforward” (328).  On the other hand, “New Wave writers frequently saw problems as social or psychological in nature, subject to resolution only through radical alternations of the psyche or similarly radical restructurings of society.  The conflict they wrote about is between the victimized individual and oppressive society or nature, or it takes the form of a pathological society at war with itself.  Moral and psychological ambiguities lie at the heart of most New Wave stories.  The movement is characterized by an emphasis on style and experimentation; the structure of the narration could be anything an author found successful” (Lupoff 328).

A short list of New Wave authors includes:  Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison, Philip José Farmer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad, and Roger Zelazny.  Not all of these authors embraced the New Wave label, but their stories nevertheless reflect key elements of a new style that moved the SF genre forward.

New Wave was a sea change in the direction of SF, and it most assuredly had its detractors.  Before New Wave exploded, there had developed a conservatism within the SF ranks, which resulted in reused themes and stories.  The New Wave, in part, reacted to this stagnation by trying something radically new.  However, as Asimov was quoted on the back of Judith Merril’s 1968 New Wave anthology, England Swings SF (US title) or The Space-Time Journal (UK title), “I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth, the vast and solid short of science fiction will appear once more” (qtd. in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction).  Regardless of fears held by the old guard, New Wave was a driving impetus toward better SF in both style and story, as well as the foundation for new SF styles such as cyberpunk.  Essentially, New Wave created a bridge between classic SF and postmodern SF.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Utopias Module, James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Bridging Herland to the Stars, June 8, 2007

This is the seventeenth 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 second semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme, we had two modules: ENGL612: Utopias and Dystopias and ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin. We also pitched our dissertation projects and began meeting with our assigned advisor (I was very happy to have worked with Dr. David Seed on mine–more on that in another post).

In the Utopias and Dystopias module, we read a library’s worth of utopias and discussed them in depth during our meetings with Mr. Andy Sawyer, Dr. Peter Wright, and Dr. Seed (depending on the work being considered during a seminar session, we met with different faculty).

After studying under Dr. Lisa Yaszek at Georgia Tech, some texts stuck out in my mind–namely stories by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Julie Phillips had very recently published her excellent and authoritative account of Sheldon’s life, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. Reading Phillips’ biography of Sheldon rekindled some ideas from my SF and Gender Studies classes at Georgia Tech, which I brought into our seminar discussions in the Utopias and Dystopias module. This essay is the culmination of those discussions and further research. Also, it permitted me to think about how First and Second Wave Feminism related to these two very important writers and their work. This essay was the final project in this module.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

ENGL612: Utopias and Dystopias

June 8, 2007

James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” Bridging Herland to the Stars

What women do is survive.  We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.

James Tiptree, Jr., “The Women Men Don’t See”

The above quote by Ruth Parsons in James Tiptree, Jr.’s 1973 story, “The Women Men Don’t See” is probably one of the most quoted lines from Tiptree’s stories, because it’s a powerful indictment of male patriarchy as well as a shout from the heart of the author behind the pseudonym, Alice B. Sheldon.  It’s interesting that Tiptree employed the word, “chinks” to describe the space in which women may inhabit in the overwhelming male created world-machine, because chinks can describe an opening, crevice, or aperture as in the gaps between gear teeth.  However, chinks may also describe a weakness in one’s armor either figuratively or literally.  It’s within the weaknesses of the patriarchic hegemony that women may find their own space, but it’s confining and forever shifting.  Sheldon, through Tiptree, developed a voice that challenged the “world-machine” in many of her stories including the later published, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

What’s engaging about Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” besides its own message and vector is that it maintains a striking similarity to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, which was first published serially in Gilman’s groundbreaking monthly magazine, The Forerunner in 1915.  In fact, “Houston” could be referred to as a far-future retelling of Herland in outer space.  Additionally, these two works form their own geared system where one’s earlier movement within First Wave Feminism propels the other’s movement in the much later era of Second Wave Feminism.  These actions in turn inspire later feminist SF.  It’s this interlocking and intertextual engagement between the two stories that positions “Houston” as a bridge between Gilman’s classically utopian story and First Wave Feminism with the SF impulse in later utopian writing and Second Wave Feminism.


Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Alice B. Sheldon

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born in 1860, and endured a childhood of near-poverty and dislocation along with her brother and single mother, Mary A. Fitch.  Gilman’s father, Frederic Beecher Perkins, a member of the well-known Beecher clan, left Fitch following Gilman’s birth.  Rising above her beleaguered childhood, she maintained a certain independence by working, “as a designer of greeting cards, an art teacher, and a governess” while living at home, and later establishing herself as a writer and lecturer on socialism and women’s issues (Lane vi).  Her life is accented by an early marriage to Walter Stetson, with whom she had a daughter, Katherine.  However, the marriage didn’t last, and it was later agreed that Stetson and his second wife, Gilman’s friend, Grace Ellery Channing, should raise their daughter.  Through her first marriage, and the years following it, she returned to a nomadic existence of writing and public speaking in part to avoid attacks from the press, “particularly in California, for ‘abandoning’ her child and for being an ‘unnatural mother’” (Lane viii).

During this tumultuous time, Gilman wrote her most famous work, Women and Economics and it was first published in 1898 (Lane viii).  She went on to write many more books that further galvanized her prominence and reputation.  Following her second marriage to George Houghton Gilman in 1900, she began publishing The Forerunner in November 1909 until December 1916.  The Forerunner was a monthly magazine that contained articles and stories that supported socialism, Edward Bellamy’s “Nationalism,” and women’s rights issues.  It was during 1915 that her comedic utopian novel, Herland found its first and only publishing during her lifetime.

Alice B. Sheldon, who later assumed the pseudonyms James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon, was born on August 24, 1915 to Mary Wilhelmina Hastings and Herbert Edwin Bradley (Phillips 12).  Mary was a socialite and writer, and Herbert established his wealth with shrewd Chicago housing investments.  Together, they traveled on safaris in Africa, and they brought Alice along with them.  Alice was never left wanting, and her early life was punctuated by adventure and attention (though not always welcomed).  Before the Second World War, she had a tumultuous marriage to William Davey, and she considered a life in making art.

Unlike Gilman, Sheldon didn’t settle on one career earlier in life.  She worked at photoreconnaissance in World War II, where she met her second husband, Huntington Denton Sheldon, and subsequently worked for the CIA.  Between the war and joining the CIA, Sheldon and her husband ran a chicken hatchery, and she earned a PhD in experimental psychology following her work with the CIA.  It was during the final stages of her dissertation, that she rediscovered SF, something that she had enjoyed in her youth, and wrote four stories of her own, which she mailed out to magazines under the pseudonym, James Tiptree, Jr.

Gilman, Sheldon, and First Wave Feminism

Before continuing, it’s important to describe the political movements that both of these authors arrive from initially.  Gilman and other women around the turn of the century were building political power for change and improvement to the lives of women.  Today, we call this movement in America, First Wave Feminism.  First Wave Feminism has deep roots and an established history that goes back hundreds of years.  Many historians and critics point to the Enlightenment as the beginning of feminist thought, because it was also the time when established systems of political control and patriarchy were challenged.  A notable date for American First Wave Feminism is the year 1776 when Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors” (par. 1).  John Adams incredulous response was, “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight” (pars. 7 and 12).  The struggle for women’s rights and issues would be a long and arduous one, but significant change was on the horizon when Gilman was born.

Gilman grew into a world where many women were fighting for universal suffrage and additional rights for women at the turn of the twentieth century.  There were two prongs to this and they were the woman’s movement and feminism.  The woman’s movement preserved sex and gender differences while taking back the language of patriarchy and supporting municipal housekeeping (i.e., if a woman can run a household, why can’t she run things in the public sphere).  On the other hand, feminism challenges the idea that there are fundamental difference between men and women.  This idea grows out of the increasing awareness and promotion of socialism at that time.  Feminists sought women’s rights rather than supporting assumed concepts of “duties.”  Also, proponents viewed economic and sexual freedom as intertwined.

Gilman, following a writing tradition established by revolutionary writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and her 1792 published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, employed writing to get her vision promoted with reasoned arguments.  Her most recognizable work is Women and Economics first published in 1898.  However, her rediscovered serialized novel from 1915, Herland, is a more humorous story that uses the utopian tradition to elucidate liberal humanist themes and her thoughts on women’s issues.  The major liberal humanist themes that Gilman promotes in Herland include:  meditations on the changeability of human nature (usually for the better), inevitability of human progress, inevitability of human rationality and reason, and the danger of unexamined authority.  Also, these themes can be seen through a feminist lens as including:  the danger of women’s economic subordination and the need to replace existing male-dominated power structures with new ones based on female nurturance and cooperation.  Furthermore, Ann J. Lane describes Gilman’s particular approach to enacting change:

Convinced of the plasticity of human nature, she vehemently sought to destroy the molds into which people, especially but not only, female people, were forced.  Her specific contribution to this wing of Social Darwinist thought was her assertion that women, as a collective entity, could, if they so chose, be the moving force in the reorganization of society (x).

Gilman, as did other leftist thinkers at the turn of the century understood, it was the power and will of the people that could evince change.  For her, it was the power of women, as half of the population, to “be the moving force in the reorganization of society.”  She hoped to enact this political shift through the ideology of First Wave Feminism and the woman’s movement:

In her utopia, Charlotte Perkins Gilman transforms the private world of mother-child, isolated in the individual home, into a community of mothers and children in a socialized world.  It’s a world in which humane social values have been achieved by women in the interest of us all (Lane xxiii).

“A world in which human social values have been achieved by women in the interest of us all” is the central, defining theme of Herland.

Where does Alice B. Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr. fit into Gilman’s and other First Wave Feminists’ ideologies and plans?  Sheldon was born the same year that Herland was serialized in Gilman’s The Forerunner.  Her mother, Mary, was clearly an independent woman who was well respected, published, and not afraid of hunting in the unexplored wilds of Africa at the turn of the century.  However, Mary played a role of the socially active and ebullient woman who flirted, hosted parties, and enchanted men with her stories and charms.  Also, Sheldon considered getting married again after her first failed marriage to Davey in order to achieve independence from her parents prior to getting an art critic job at the Chicago Sun (Phillips 104).  In fact, Sheldon didn’t espouse hard line feminist ideals in her early life beyond wanting to do the things that she was interested in, and that was not something available for compromise, which is something Gilman learned the importance of in her first marriage and the medical treatment she received during the depression following her daughter’s birth.

It was after World War II that she began to find out more about women’s rights and issues.  Phillips writes about Sheldon’s discovery:

What Alli finally discovered in the 1950s was women’s work.  She read Hannah Arendt, who led her to Simone de Beauvoir.  She studied Rebecca West and Mary Wollstonecraft.  In 1955 she told Dr. K that she was reading Lady Murasaki and that a man friend had just given her Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (192).

It’s highly unlikely that Sheldon read anything by Gilman, because Gilman was not largely rediscovered until late Second Wave Feminism.  Additionally, Phillips responded to an email query that neither Alice or Mary mention Gilman in their personal writing.  This makes the connections between these two authors’ works that much more interesting.

Sheldon’s late awakening to First Wave Feminism beyond her own headstrong and striving character to lead her own life and propagate negentropy (altruistic adding information and order to the universe), situates her in a unique position as a bridge between the old guard and the approaching Second Wave marked by the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966.

Second Wave Feminism and Its Influence on Sheldon

Following World War II, the short term freedoms won by women both on the home front (e.g., jobs, economic independence, and greater self-esteem and personal worth) as well as on the front lines (e.g., the Women’s Army Corps, of which Sheldon was a member during her photoreconnaissance work in WWII) didn’t last for long.  However, there was a backlash against women in the wake of the war that by-and-large forced them back into the home.

Many women struck back at these trends to enforce culturally derived notions about a woman’s place in society.  Leading up to Second Wave Feminism there were several key events and shifts taking place that led to the new wave.  First, Esther Peterson was named Assistant Secretary of Labor and Director of the United States Women’s Bureau for President John F. Kennedy.  She directed investigations and commissions that uncovered discrimination against women across the board, which led state and city governments to follow suit and form their own commissions.  Another impetus was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963, and it disseminated what is best described as a popularized version of the government reports.  Then, in an attempt to kill the Civil Rights Act of 1964, certain members of Congress included sex along with race and religion as criteria barring discrimination.  However, this ploy failed, and as a result, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, and religion.  And finally, women were already involved in the civil rights and peace movements, but they were restricted from attaining the higher positions within these organizations.  Therefore, women had to go out on their own and found organizations, such as NOW, to address issues with which they were most concerned.

These new organizations, as well as individuals, were concerned about several key issues.  The Equal Rights Amendment was hoped to establish equality by employing simple language:  “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” (Paul sec. 1).  There were also struggles over reintegrating women into the public sphere and the work place.  One way to accomplish this was achieved in the 1972 Title IX Education Codes, which regulate how education is done in public schools.  It guarantees access to education regardless of sex.  Other important goals involved women’s health care issues (e.g., physical, mental, and spiritual), and domestic issues such as having access to the things that make a household work (e.g., having a credit card in one’s own name).

Sheldon was aware of the growth of women’s rights, and she contributed to the effort through letter writing and research that ultimately didn’t result in a book as she had initially hoped.  After Sheldon had begun writing SF as James Tiptree, Jr., she paused in the spring and summer of 1973 to begin a new project.  It was to be “a book under her own name, on the nature of women, to be called ‘The Human Male’” (Phillips 291).  It was to be an “answer to all the ‘scientific’ studies men had produced over the years on Woman” (Phillips 291).  Sheldon set out to counter male centric views in these ways:

It would review current research on gender differences while serving as a guide for young women to the male world and the male agenda…At the same time, by talking about men from a woman’s point of view, it would illustrate women’s way of looking at the world (Phillips 291).

Had “The Human Male” been completed and published, it would have been a work much like Gilman’s earlier works about women, and it would have employed a strategy similar to that Gilman uses in Herland.  However, Sheldon never finished “The Human Male,” but she did utilize “talking about men from a woman’s point of view” in a future Tiptree story, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Twice Told Tales:  Herland and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”

Sheldon, as Tiptree, wrote stories about women either escaping the bounds of Earth and male patriarchy, as in “The Women Men Don’t See,” or women who entered the patriarchic circuit found only pain and death as in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”  However, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a compelling example, because it follows on the footsteps, most probably unknowingly, on that of Gilman’s Herland.  Both works appropriate a male voice, but the dissonances and contrasts reveal a woman’s point of view speaking of men.

Herland is about a group of three male adventurers who discover an isolated land only attainable by the then new technology of powered flight, and there they discover much to their initial disbelief that only women populate it.  In fact, as Lane describes:

In Herland women have created a utopia without men at all.  Again this world is unfolded through male eyes and a male consciousness, not in the traditional manner of a dialogue, but through the dramatic confrontation that occurs when three American men stumble on an all-female society (xiii).

The “dramatic confrontation” allows “Gilman [to romp] through the game of what is feminine and what is masculine, what is manly and what is womanly, what is culturally learned and what is biologically determined male-female behavior” (Lane xiii).  The author’s questioning of accepted sex/gender roles through contrasts and confrontation breaks with the typically didactic approach of earlier utopia fictions.

Gilman explores male points of view through her three American male creations in the story:  Terry, Jeff, and Van.  Terry is a hyper-masculine chauvinist, who is rich, a dilettante, and mechanically inclined.  Jeff is a sentimentalist who is the opposite of Terry, because he idolizes women and reads poetry.  Between these polar opposites is Van, a sociologist.  He represents a synthesis of Terry and Jeff, but he’s also a willing learner and he never fit in well in our world outside Herland.

The men are presented with a world created by Gilman that combines elements of “the new woman” and “the true woman” into what Rebecca Holden labeled, “the new, true woman.”  This amalgamation combines the “new woman’s” concept of “angels in the household” with the “true woman’s” “cult of domesticity” and “cult of true woman,” both of which were debated during the era of First Wave Feminism.  Examples of the “new woman” in Gilman’s Herland include:  Celis insisting on carrying her own basket (92), the women’s control over their own sexuality and the sheer force of will to procreate (56), breaking the linkage between child bearing and childrearing (102-103), the women are “people” (137), switched gender roles, and Herlanders radical departure from Christianity (109).  Examples of the “true woman” in Herland overlaps some of those of the “new woman” and include:  sexual purity and non-sexuality, always considering the future, having children and nurturance, municipal housekeeping (e.g., Herland is like a great big house where the cats are quiet, everything has a purpose, it’s tidy, and there’s no distinction between public and private spheres), switched gender roles (e.g., Moadine was “patient…courteous,” but also described as “some great man” on page 74), and the religion of Herland as the worship of Motherhood or the cult of true womanhood (109).

James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” echoes the issues and narrative themes in Gilman’s Herland, though through a far-future lens and in light of the shift from First Wave Feminism to Second Wave Feminism.  Tiptree’s approach to this relied on her, “[embracing] evolutionary biology as a source of hope.  Only when people understood their biological drives, she believed, could they transcend them, learn to control their emotions, and achieve real cultural change” (Phillips 293).  She embraced this in her writings as James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon.  Also, her transcendent beliefs mirror those held by Gilman in that culturally derived containers that box people, particularly women, in, are something to be resisted and overcome.  However, Sheldon, as an experimental psychologist, believed that much of our behavior is wired into us, and “one of the ironies of [Sheldon’s] career as Tiptree is that she insisted most on the biological, essential nature of gender at the moment she seemed to be proving that it was all an act, that gender was what you said it was after all” (Phillips 294).

She did embrace the consciousness raising works and Second Wave Feminism beliefs, at least in part, because she realized how dated her own mother’s views were regarding equality of the sexes.  Her mother’s “independent spirit had begun to tarnish in Alli’s eyes.  Like many older women, Mary resisted the new wave of feminism, and Alli now described her as ‘distinctly unliberated’” (Phillips 296).  Additionally, her correspondence with other women SF writers, most notably Joanna Russ, further fueled her recognition of the plights of Second Wave Feminism.  However, these exchanges were tempestuous at times, because Sheldon performed herself as the male James Tiptree, Jr. in her correspondence as well as her writing until her identity was revealed in late 1976.

Sheldon, as Tiptree, received a real education about Second Wave Feminism from Russ, but she had been exposed to all major varieties through her reading.  The four types of Second Wave Feminism included liberal humanist feminism, Marxist feminism, radical feminism, and lesbian separatist feminism.  Betty Friedan is most closely associated with liberal humanist feminism.  Gilman and the contemporary critic, Shulamith Firestone are aligned with Marxist feminism and it’s analysis of reproduction with production.  The Catholic philosopher Mary Daly is a well known radical feminist who believes that patriarchy can not be changed from within–the entire system would need to be scraped and rebuilt from the ground up.  Lesbian separatist feminism is often connected to radical feminism, but it also holds that emotions for another woman are feminist ideas, and that only women can be feminists.  Joanna Russ runs the gamut between radical and a lesbian separatist both in her fiction and professional writing.  For example, Russ “wouldn’t accept [Tiptree] as an admirer, only sometimes as a sympathetic figure, and as a feminist not at all” (Phillips 305).

With these things at heart, Sheldon, as James Tiptree, Jr., began contemplating a new story for Vonda McIntyre’s upcoming anthology, Aurora:  Beyond Equality.  McIntyre and her coeditor, Susan Janice Anderson tasked Tiptree, Russ, and others to write “fiction that explored what the world might look like after equality between the sexes had been achieved” (Phillips 304).  The result for Tiptree was “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”  “Houston” is about a space mission with three men onboard who are flung several hundred years into the future after encountering an energetic solar flare at pointblank range.  These men discover that they are in a future inhabited only by cloned women who exist in an anarchistic culture of creativity and exploration on planets and in space.  In the end, two of the three spacemen react against their female rescuers and all three are ambiguously confined, because as Lady Blue tells Dr. Lorimer, “We can hardly turn you loose on Earth, and we simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems” (Tiptree 221).

The obvious connection to Herland in “Houston” has to do with the fact that it’s a society of women with a unique means of reproduction.  Lorimer, the beta physicist of the three men, realizes when talking to the “twin” female Judys, “You aren’t sisters…You’re what we called clones” (Tiptree 206).  Judy Dakar replies, “Well, yes…We call it sisters” (Tiptree 206).  Gilman’s parthenogenesis in Herland, if there were some kind of scientific basis to it, would result in cloned children of the mother.  In “Houston,” there are many copies, but each copy is an individual with her own personality, goals, and abilities possibly shared with the other clones, but not necessarily so.  The elimination of men in the story necessitates women finding a way to continue the species.  However, a double meaning underlying the cloning is the solidarity and shared experience of women that’s realized through the “book” that each of the 11,000 clone types share to pass along information and experience across and between generations (Tiptree 207).  As sisters, they are human beings that sing, “Adventure songs, work songs, mothering songs, roaming songs, mood songs, trouble songs, joke songs–everything” (Tiptree 207).  Also, they have love–friendships as well as deeper, physical love, which is diametrically opposite to the asexualized beings in Herland who literally consider one another sisters.  Another layer of meaning to the clones comes from a letter Tiptree wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin, in which she wrote, “the clone fantasy arose…from, ‘my own loneliness and longing for siblings–sisters especially’” (qtd. in Phillips 311).  Additionally, clones imply the elimination of having to make choices, which for Sheldon would have seriously considered in order to relieve her own stresses imposed by pushing herself professionally and creatively (Phillips 311).

A further parallel between Herland and “Houston” is that mothering and childcare take place behind the scenes.  In both cases, there’s a portion of telling, but little showing by either author.  Tiptree briefly describes the implementation of enucleated ovum in a mother’s womb, and Gilman recounts the parthenogenesis and restrictions placed on potential mothers in Herland.  These stories are significantly different than Joanna Russ’ Whileaway in The Female Man and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in the way that childbirth and rearing are carefully described.

Sheldon breaks with Gilman regarding the ‘new true woman.’  Sheldon’s Second Wave Feminist ideals enables these future women to be sexual beings that enjoy one another and establish relationships beyond friendship.  In part, this is probably a wish fulfillment on Sheldon’s part, because of her own unrealized lesbian fantasies and relationships.

This is one of the things that the three astronauts in “Houston” are unable to wrap their patriarchal minds around.  Unlike Terry, Jeff, and Van, the astronauts aboard the Sunbird are all more or less chauvinistic.  Dr. Orren Lorimer is a physicist, and the narrator of the story.  Often there, but observing instead of acting, he’s accompanied by the alpha males of his crew compliment:  Major Norman (Dave) Davis and Captain Bud Geirr.  Bud rapes one of the female crew members aboard the Aurora, Dave tries to kill them all in support of his Judeo-Christian fundamentalism, and Lorimer watches and is slow to act in favor of the women with whom he’s supposedly aligned.

The actions and reactions of the male astronauts propelled into the future, “raises many more questions than it answers, including ‘Are men/women really like that?’ and ‘Is this society really happy?’” (Phillips 311).  On the one hand, these characters are extremes or archetypes that Tiptree employs to realize her utopia.  Additionally, “Tiptree said at the time that he was enjoying imagining the world of ‘Houston.’  It’s a world of cool, competent women who take care of practical matters while the men flounder in a useless search for hierarchy and authority” (Phillips 311).

As Phillips points out, the story very much rests on the problems of the men choosing to either conform or react to their new surroundings.  They come from a society very much entrenched in hierarchy and based on a command structure.  Coupled to that structure is the belief that as men, they are superior to women physically, mentally, and morally.  Cracking under the pressures of arriving in a ‘brave new world,’ Dave reverts to the patriarchy of his religion to enforce order, and Bud lapses into misogynistic power over women through rape.  Dave exceeds his rank by noting his middle name of “Paul” and proselytizing, “I was sent here…You have spared us from the void to bring Your light to this suffering world.  I shall lead Thine erring daughters out of the darkness.  I shall be a stern but merciful father to them in Thy name” (Tiptree 218).  Dave’s self-righteousness as a male, Christian leads him to the conclusion that the new world order is evil and it’s up to him as the ranking male to enforce God’s will on these feminine profaners.

When Bud rapes Judy in the bower, he openly speaks his inner thoughts under the influence of a drug administered by the women.  Between telling Judy sweet nothings and coaxing her towards sex, he says, “You can tell you’ve been out too long when the geeks start looking good.  Knockers, ahhh–,” and “Ass-s-s…Up you bitch, ahhh-hh” (Tiptree 213).  For Bud, the women are objects subject to his will and exist for his gratification.  His hostility to women marks him as a misogynist surpassing even Terry in Herland.  However, even more interesting about this character is his refusal to believe that he and his two crewmates are literally the last men.  Judy, held and shaken by Bud, asks, “Why do there have to be men,” and Bud replies, “Why, you stupid bitch…Because, dummy, otherwise nothing counts, that’s why” (Tiptree 215).  For Bud, Dave, and even Lorimer, men are the unit by which progress and life are measured.  Without male patriarchy, “nothing counts” in their antiquated worldview.

One final comparison between the two stories involves the use of plants in both stories.  Herlanders cultivate the Earth by means of a harmonious arrangement that doesn’t serve to deplete or destroy their isolated ecosystem.  The female spacefarers of “Houston” use plants for air and food on their long journeys.  It’s necessary for them to maintain a balanced ecosystem within the metal confines of their ship holding out the vacuum of space.  In Herland, Van comments on Jeff by recording, “Jeff, with his gentle romantic old-fashioned notions of women as clinging vines” (Gilman 21).  Tiptree mentions vines, particularly kudzu, within the confines of the women’s spaceship Gloria.  The literary identification of the vine with Eve/woman has a long history.  Horace and Virgil both wrote of the vine wedded to the elm, and in Christian theology and related literature such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, the identification falls between the vine/Eve and the elm/Adam.  However, Gilman and Tiptree use this imagery for different effect.  Gilman further develops Jeff as the hopeless romantic who idolizes women, and therefore doesn’t understand them as people, but as objects worthy of worship as defined by man.  Tiptree specifically names the vine as kudzu, which is a peculiar choice compared to the more pleasant vines like ivy (168).  Kudzu would be useful in a space environment, because it grows very quickly and spreads out to cover a large area.  In this sense, when the reader later discovers that the Earth has been overrun by women and the men metaphorically suffocated by a disease induced failure at the genetic level, it’s apparent that kudzu is more than a scientifically minded choice on Tiptree’s part.  However, kudzu’s enormous growth potential must be controlled, just as the cloning and expansion of the new feminine-only humanity is controlled collectively.

Tiptree’s use of kudzu and other troubling imagery in “Houston,” could be a warning about what might appear as a perfect lesbian separatist utopia, which Philips described thus:

Alli decided after all to write about an all-female world, as seen through the eyes of a male narrator.  She wanted to know what women would be like as themselves, outside men’s shadow.  The world of ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’ is more peaceful than ours, and knows neither greed nor power.  But it does not seem like a free or comfortable place–certainly not a utopia in which Alli could live (310).

This is where the story derives its power.  Additionally, the story explores recurrent Tiptree themes:

The question of the alienness of women to men and men to women is an important one in her work.  The alienation of one sex from another stands as the paradigm, one to which she repeatedly returns, of other forms of difference, of the relation between self and Other (Lefanu 108).

Typically utopian authors build utopia to match their ideal world, but in this case Tiptree/Sheldon uses the utopian setting to challenge and provoke the reader.  And, it is this skill that she employed on her other stories to make them memorable and notable as great SF.


Reading and engaging Gilman’s Herland and Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” provides a new insight into the literary development of feminist literature in transition from First Wave Feminism to Second Wave Feminism.  Furthermore, reading these two works together brings out further meaning from each singular story.  They are in dialog with one another thematically, narratively, and culturally, and therefore, deserve critical analysis together even if the connection was not deliberate.

Herland provides a primarily upbeat and comical utopian fiction about the successes of a race of women, while “Houston” reveals darker themes about a female utopia threatened by the male penetrating force as well as the conviction of the new female-only world order.  First Wave Feminists such as Gilman were fighting for something that they had not had before, while Sheldon as a product of First and Second Wave Feminism shows a hidden anxiety about the potential loss of gains made, but she also makes clear that women are capable of confining threats and ultimately, building utopia.

The most fascinating thing about the parallels between Gilman and Sheldon’s lives and works is that Sheldon probably didn’t know about or read Herland.  The parallels in theme and narrative elements are unmistakable, but they are telling very different stories.  Tiptree’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” is a bridge between time as well as ideological and political ideas.  Even today, these works are invaluable cultural resources that tell us about where we’ve been and they point the way to way to the future by challenging us to consider new possibilities as well as warn us about our launching pad.

Works Cited

Adams, Abigail and John.  “Letters Between Abigail Adams and Her Husband John Adams.”  The Liz Library Collections.  1998.  15 May 2007 <;.

Friedan, Betty.  The Feminine Mystique.  New York:  Dell, 1963.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  Herland.  New York:  Pantheon, 1979.

Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington trans. London: George Bell and Sons, 1882. 17 May 2007 <;.

Lane, Ann J.  “Introduction to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.”  Herland.  New York:  Pantheon, 1979.  v-xxiii.

Lefanu, Sarah.  Feminism and Science Fiction.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana UP, 1989.

Milton, John.  Paradise Lost.  1674.  16 May 2007 <;.

Paul, Alice.  “Equal Rights Amendment.”  National Organization of Women.  1921.  16 May 2007 <;.

Piercy, Marge.  Woman on the Edge of Time.  London:  The Women’s Press, 2000.

Phillips, Julie.  Email to the author.  7 June 2007.

—.  James Tiptree, Jr.:  The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

Russ, Joanna.  The Female Man.  London:  The Women’s Press, 2002.

Tiptree, James, Jr.  “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”  Warm Worlds and Otherwise. New York: Ballantine, 1975. 79-121.

—.  “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”  Her Smoke Rose Up Forever:  The Great Years of James Tiptree, Jr.  Wisconsin:  Arkham House, 1990.  168-222.

—.  “The Women Men Don’t See.”  The Year’s Best Science Fiction No. 8.  ed. by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss.  London:  Sphere, 1976.  57-88.

Vergil. Bucolics, Aeneid, and Georgics Of Vergil. J. B. Greenough. Boston: Ginn & Co, 1900.  17 May 2007 <;.

Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin, Final Paper, Voices of the Alien Other During Wartime in the SF of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Haldeman, May 17, 2007

This is the sixteenth 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 as the final project in ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin module of the MA in Science Fiction Studies at the University of Liverpool. This module was challenging and fun. We read a lot of Le Guin’s writing alongside criticism, theory, and historical context. Around this time, I also had read Robert Heinlein and Joe Haldeman. The overlapping resonance in their works led me to write this essay.

At the end of the essay, after its works cited list, I am including a Coda that I cut from the first draft in order to fit the assignment’s word count. Also, it wasn’t germane to my overall discussion. However, including it here might be useful for readers interested in other fictions related to the three discussed in the main essay by Heinlein, Haldeman, and Le Guin.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

ENGL681: Special Author: Ursula K. Le Guin

May 17, 2007

Voices of the Alien Other During Wartime in the SF of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Haldeman

Years ago at an MLA conference I saw a young man, a graduate student, read a paper on one of Ursula Le Guin’s science-fiction novels.  After he had finished and it was time for discussion, a handsome, middle aged woman at the back of the room rose and said emphatically, “You’re wrong.  I didn’t.”  It was Le Guin.

Joanna Russ, “Letter to Susan Koppelman”

Writing academic criticism about living authors is a problematic enterprise, particularly involving metaphorical and textual meanings, but it’s a practical and essential element of literary exploration and discussion.  Regardless of the intentions of authors, readers bring their own point of view and cultural education to a text, so there are myriad connections between stories and cultural frameworks in which these texts are situated.  A significant intersection within the cultural web has do to with SF stories about the Vietnam War and the loss of a voice from the objectified alien other.

War, military conquest, and military adventure all have a long history in SF.  However, the stories that came out during and around the hot zone phase of the Cold War (i.e., around the time of the Korean War and more markedly, the Vietnam War) show a growing disparity of belief involving the militarized might makes right in earlier SF.  To explore the shift in tone and meaning of military SF as a social message, it’s best to begin by looking at the text most recognizably identified as the model for post-WWII military SF:  Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.  Following that work are the very different, but analogously connected anti-Vietnam War texts:  Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest.  Haldeman’s novel is a reaction to Heinlein’s militarized future seemingly always at war with the alien other.  Le Guin’s novel, based on her earlier 1972 novella of the same name, goes beyond the singular voice of the war makers and includes the cacophony of voices on both sides of conflict.  Her approach, as illustrated in many of her earlier works, is a more elaborate synthesis of the (mis)communication and (mis)understandings that lead to war (i.e., the aggressive self-righteous and apparently technologically superior oppressing the native alien other and the oppressed appropriating the power of the oppressor in order to fight back and gain agency in the power system engaged between the two groups).

“The Only Good Bug is a Dead Bug”

It’s important to put Haldeman’s and Le Guin’s identifiably anti-Vietnam War texts in perspective both textually and historically, and this is best accomplished by looking at Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, because it set the stage for future SF works dealing with the military and war themes.  Starship Troopers is historically located at the historical apex of the first phase of the Cold War.  The novel was originally published six years after the end of the Korean War, five years before the Gulf on Tonkin Incident, and the same year as the Cuban Revolution and the founding of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam.  Strictly speaking, this is a novel created in the midst of the Cold War as well as at the crux of some of the bloodiest ‘hot spots’ in the protracted conflict between Western and Eastern powers during that era.  Instead of presenting a reaction against protracted and ambiguous wars, Heinlein presents a militarist utopic future that glorifies the role of the soldier as the only person capable and permitted to be a voting citizen.  The author idealizes the military and the way he believes the military could be employed to elevate the citizenry of a future society.  However, the way in which Heinlein engages the conflict between humanity and the alien other (i.e., the Skinnies and the Bugs) are the most telling elements of the novel despite the fact that human-alien conflict actually occupies a small portion of the text in comparison to his utopic world building.

The reader learns about Heinlein’s militarized future and the war with the Bugs through the protagonist and narrator, Juan “Johnnie” Rico.  It’s interesting that the author chose to have a narrator who is decidedly Filipino as evidenced by his name and the fact that he tells Bernardo at the end of chapter thirteen that his native language is Tagalog (Heinlein 218).  The Philippines are a strategic military location for the United States, particularly during World War II and the subsequent Korean War, both of which took place prior to the novel’s publication.  For all of the novel’s flaws, Heinlein’s presentation of racial equality on Earth is one positive element of an otherwise militaristic future utopia, and I mean utopia in the sense that it’s a wish fulfillment on the part of the author, otherwise it’s decidedly a dystopia for the civilians sans suffrage.

The other element of Johnnie’s character has to do with Heinlein’s choice for his name.  First, his nickname, Johnnie, recalls the famous American World War I song, “Over There.”  Written by George M. Cohan in 1917, it begins, “Johnnie, get your gun/Get your gun, get your gun/Take it on the run…Over there, over there.”  Hence, one of the nicknames of Americans fighting in the Great War:  Johnnies.  This creates a dual identity for Johnnie as both American as well as a member of a group of people ceded from Spain to the United States following the Spanish-American War, and eventually achieving independence after World War II.  Johnnie’s first name, Juan, derives from the Spanish form of Hebrew names such as Yohanan, which may be translated as “God favors.”  This may be true as the narrative follows Johnnie through training and battles until the final drop, which provides an ambiguous ending possibly to Johnnie’s life as well as that of the war.  His last name, Rico, is of Italian origin and its root meaning is rich or powerful.  Johnnie is from an apparently wealthy family, but his mother and father lack enfranchisement, because they have not served a term in the military, which is necessary before one is allowed to vote.  Another way of looking at his name, according to root meanings, is that Juan Rico means “God favors the rich” or by extension, “God favors the bold.”  This bears a similarity with Virgil’s famous quote, “Audentes fortuna iuvat” or “Fortune favors the bold.”  This often quoted motto can easily be used as a call to arms, particularly for the military hegemony of Johnnie’s future reality in the twenty-eighth century are bold in their routing of alien species in the planned annexation of more planetary space for humanity.

Johnnie’s bold comrades in arms come from all corners of the Earth in their united attack on the alien other.  This is an interesting turnabout by Heinlein that seems to point to the possibility that people will always find an alien other.  After (most) vestiges of inequality along racial and gender lines are removed, humanity has to look elsewhere for the alien other to objectify and therefore, become the literal and figurative targets of humanity’s need for a group to lower in comparison to ourselves.  Heinlein create two literal alien species in the novel, known only by their derogatory names:  the Skinnies and the Bugs.  There is only one battle, in the first chapter, with the Skinnies.  Johnnie describes them as, “local yokels,” and, “geezers [that are] humanoid, eight or nine feet tall, much skinnier than we are…[and] they don’t wear any clothes” (Heinlein 15 and 16).  Johnnie, clad in his “powered suit” that looks like “a big steel gorilla” leaps over buildings firing as many weapons as possible so that he rejoins the other soldiers with all ammunition expended.  Of course, the side effect of using a great deal of rockets, miniature nuclear bombs, and a flame thrower in close proximity to the enemy, there is a lot of collateral damage, carnage, and death.

Heinlein’s treatment of the Bugs is even more telling about the way the enemy is objectified in the course of military engagements.  Halfway through the novel, Johnnie describes them as:

The Bugs are not like us…They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive” (Heinlein 117).

The enemy’s human-given derogatory name, ‘Bugs,’ itself implies a pest, which necessitates eradication.  The multicultural and racially diverse Mobile Infantry belies the racial hatred and prejudice of the alien Skinnies and Bugs.  Additionally, these eusocial arthropod-like organisms represent an evolved form of communism, which mirrors social Darwinian issues propounded by earlier authors such as H.G. Wells.

Heinlein’s Bugs are colonizing social insects on a much larger and more developed scale than mere pests.  They are clearly intelligent creatures, albeit different that ourselves, but nonetheless worthy of a narrative voice.  What is their side’s view of the conflict?  What do the inhabitants of Klendathu think of humanity and humanity’s military?  Heinlein, through Johnnie, removes all volition and agency on the part of the Bugs.  The fact that it is an intelligent and evolved species means nothing, because they are not us.  Their difference marks them, like their given name, as worthy only of a boot stomping on them forever, and this itself leads to an unwitting reversal on humanity, which I’ll return to in more depth later in this paper.

The ambiguity of the Bug war along with the one-sided view presented to the reader combine to shutout the alien other from any possibility of discourse.  As a Cold War narrative, Starship Troopers mirrors the ambiguity of the post-WWII tension and remotely engaged overt hostilities between the democratic West and the communist East.  For the West, it was impossible to popularly envision giving a voice, much less a privileged voice, to communist sympathizers or Politburo officials.  The reason for this is the West’s view of the subversive nature of communism.  Giving the enemy (i.e., the communists) a voice would be adverse to the stability of democracy.  Heinlein recreated this political narrative of his here-and-now in the pages of his military SF masterpiece.  The Bugs are an enemy that lie under the surface, hidden, burrowing to find new avenues of escape into the open, which represents the political consciousness of the West (i.e., privileged humanity).  Therefore, the Bugs cannot be allowed to speak, because they would undermine the military and political effort to eradicate both their race as well as their (literally) evolved political ideology.

Heinlein’s novel is not about the Vietnam War, but it sets the stage for future military SF stories.  However, it is written on the heels of the Korean War, which has many parallels with the Vietnam War.  One of those parallels is the continuous nature of protracted war in the post-WWII era.  Joe Haldeman and Ursula K. Le Guin draw on this as well as issues of voice, agency, and enemy identities as presented in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in their Vietnam War based SF works, which are as much a reaction against Heinlein’s treatise as the war itself.

When Will This War Ever End?

In the “Authors Note” at the beginning of the 2004 Gollancz edition of The Forever War, Joe Haldeman writes that it, “was not an easy book to sell back in the early seventies.  It was rejected by eighteen publishers before St. Martin’s Press decided to take a chance on it.”  The publishers that turned him down said to Haldeman, “Pretty good book…but nobody wants to read a science fiction novel about Vietnam” (“Authors Note”).  And Vietnam is precisely what the novel is about, because as Haldeman writes, “that’s the war the author was in,” but he also says, “it’s mainly about war, about soldiers, and about the reasons we think we need them” (“Authors Note”).

Haldeman’s novel is a reaction to the year he spent as a draftee in Vietnam in 1968-1969 (ten years after the publication of Starship Troopers), and it relies on the military SF history provided by works such as those by Heinlein and earlier pulp stories by E.E. “Doc” Smith.  Like Starship Troopers, the majority of the novel is concerned with the minutiae of soldiering life, though not as much about the training as in Heinlein’s novel.  However, this is reflective of the differences in the two authors’ military backgrounds.  Heinlein graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy on an officer track prior to the Second World War.  Haldeman was a Vietnam draftee who, as did many of the young soldiers from that war, received basic training and were subsequently dumped into the action just as the reader is at the beginning of The Forever War with the opening line, “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man” (3).

William Mandella, the protagonist and narrator of The Forever War, does in fact kill.  However, like Johnnie Rico, the military encounters are few and far between.  Both novels, as Haldeman claims about his own novel, are “about soldiers and about the reasons we think we need them” (“Authors Note”).  The role of the soldier, or in this case, William Mandella, is integral to our understanding of the alien other, because he’s the soldier who interacts with the alien other through the sights of a loaded weapon.

Haldeman’s protagonist’s name is an interesting choice that has meaning within the context of humanity and its relationship with the alien other.  First, William has its origins in German, but it’s a widely popular name in English speaking countries and in particular the United States, but it has also been the name of several notable kings and historical figures.  The German version of William is Wilhelm, which breaks down into the roots, der Wille and der Helm.  Der Wille means will or volition and der Helm means helmet or protection.  As a soldier, his will is to protect the fatherland, and to fight promotes his will.  However, he’s an educated person who is a draftee.  His family name, Mandella, is more engaging due to its obvious association with the word, mandala.  A mandala is a symbol, sometimes described as a dynamic symbol, or as an archetype in Jungian psychology that represents the unity of self and completeness.  Haldeman’s choice here is almost, but not nearly as transparent as Stephenson’s Hiro Protagonist in Snow Crash.  Here, Haldeman is clearly employing this character to represent something else.  This includes the eponymous everyman soldier involved in a conflict that is far removed from their experience and everyday reality, but it also must mean the divided individual who through training and subversion has found him or herself changed and made less whole by the experience of engaging in war making.  Another example of this kind of mandalic character is Joseph Heller’s ambivalent Captain John Yossarian in his 1961 novel about World War II, Catch-22, which might have also been another of Haldeman’s influences.

It wasn’t Mandella’s desire to be a soldier, but the military provides his volition, or rather, removes his volition and replaces it with theirs through the use of post-hypnotic suggestions.  In the first battle with the Taurans, Sergeant Cortez (the similarity of the name with the Spanish conquistador is unmistakable), shouts over the com channel to his subordinates:

Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled;

Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,

Welcome to your gory bed,

Or to victory (Haldeman 66)!

This is the opening stanza to Robert Burns’ poem, “Scots Wha Hae.”  The poem is meant to be what Bruce said to his troops prior to the Battle of Bannockburn against Edward II.  This is an ironic selection for the future military to chose, because the poem also refers to the oppression of the Scottish by the English.  The poem’s future purpose is an oppression of the will of the soldiers, because it turns them into killing machines.  It obviates the possibility of discussion with the alien other, the Taurans.  Therefore, the poem’s meaning is subverted to a military need for a breakdown in communication, because without communication, the propagation and continuation of war is able to continue unimpeded.

The military needs the disconnect between individuals on humanity’s side and the objectified Taurans as targets (possibly another word association on the author’s part).  After the war begins with a Gulf of Tonkin-like incident between Terran and Tauran ships far from Earth, the unwillingness of the humans to discuss the situation with the other side illustrates the extent humanity will go to in order to ostracize and make an object of other groups:  in this case, literal aliens.  Toward this end, the author is skillful in selecting what the reader is presented in terms of physical description of the Taurans in order to promote the objectification taking place within the narrative.  For example, the soldiers don’t really know what a Tauran even looks like on their first mission.  At first, they mistake what they call “teddy bears” as the Taurans.  Unfortunately, the soldiers are wrong, and that species’ psionic powers kills or debilitates several humans with psychic abilities.  Then, when the platoon actually encounters the Tauran forces, Mandella describes them thus:

The creature riding it was a little more human-looking than the teddy bears, but still no prize…He had two arms and two legs, but his waist was so small you could encompass it with both hands.  Under the tiny waist was a large horseshoe-shaped pelvic structure nearly a meter wide, from which dangled two long skinny legs with no apparent knee joint.  Above that waist his body swelled out again, to a chest no smaller than the huge pelvis.  His arms looked surprisingly human, except that they were too long and undermuscled.  There were too many fingers on his hands…His head was a nightmarish growth that swelled like a goiter from his massive chest.  Two eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs, a bundle of tassels instead of a nose, and a rigidly open hole that might have been a mouth sitting low down where his adam’s apple should have been (Haldeman 59-60).

Mandella continually compares the Tauran with humans as the norm.  Also, his “nightmarish” description of “eyes that looked like clusters of fish eggs” and “a bundle of tassels instead of a nose” are reminiscent of BEMS.  Haldeman’s alien other is objectified as being too foreign, and too strange, to be acknowledged as a group of individuals with minds, opinions, and volition.  The slaughter of the Taurans that follows this description further reinforces the lack of volition and agency on the part of the aliens, and literally makes the beings targets for the human military machine.  However, Haldeman’s objective is differentiated from that of Heinlein.  The Forever War is about Vietnam and the military practices that Haldeman experienced while in the military.  U.S. soldier’s identification of the Viet Cong as “Charlie,” drawing from the racist Charlie Chan films, is one way in which the enemy were made objectified targets by the military in order to rationalize and relieve soldiers’ consciences about the wholesale slaughter induced in the protracted “conflict.”

Everyone Deserves a Voice

Ursula K. Le Guin is known for her anthropological approach to SF in many of her stories.  In some novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness, the reader is presented with different, and sometimes contradicting, observations from two different characters.  Having a shifting narrative, particularly when Genly Ai and Estraven are on the frozen wasteland of Gethen, reveals the way in which deceptively simplistic matters such as gender and cultural norms are far more complex than at the first look.  Other stories, such as Le Guin’s “The Matter of Seggri” read like an anthropological notebook full of stories by Seggrians as well as Hainish observers along with anecdotes and other miscellanea.  Another story of this kind is her novel, Always Coming Home, which was also released with its own soundtrack of imagined songs of the Kesh in the far future of Northern California.

In these stories and many of her others, Le Guin is actively working to answer the question, “What about the cultural and the racial Other?” (“American” 94).  What she means by the “racial Other” is, “the Alien everybody recognizes as alien, supposed to be the special concern of SF” (“American” 94).  The alien other is an important element of SF, but the way in which authors engage and challenge our understanding of it has changed over time.  For example, “in the old pulp SF it’s very simple.  The only good alien is a dead alien–whether he is an Aldebaranian Mantis-Man or a German dentist” (“American” 94).  Here, Le Guin is talking about BEMS (Bug Eyed Monsters), which are a recurring component of SF, particularly in the pulp era.  Its in this passage that she’s also referring to the presentation of the alien other in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War.  In both cases, aliens are targets, not real characters/beings/persons.  What constitutes the alien other may not necessarily be an alien in the strictest sense of the word.  The alien other may be quiet familiar but objectified, given no voice, and therefore, without volition or agency.

The objectification of the alien other in this manner elicits a power relationship between the subject with power and the objectified without power.  This kind of power relationship can lead to a turnabout for the power subject:

If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself–as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation–you may hate it or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality and its human reality.  You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship.  And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.  You have, in fact, alienated yourself (“American” 95).

Le Guin argues that turning others into mere things, “has been remarkably strong in American SF” (“American” 96).  This leads to what we encounter in Starship Troopers and The Forever War, to which Haldeman was ironically reacting against:

The only social change presented by most SF has been toward authoritarianism, the domination of ignorant masses by a powerful elite–sometimes presented as a warning, but often quite complacently.  Socialism is never considered as an alternative, and democracy is quite forgotten.  Military virtues are taken as ethical ones (“American” 95).

Heinlein’s military-only enfranchised citizenry serves as the power elite in Starship Troopers, and even though it isn’t fully developed, the reader is capable of extrapolating the perpetuation of war as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and un-disguising Eisenhower’s conception of the military-industrial complex gone awry and power hungry.  Additionally, Heinlein builds a moral and ethical system around military codes of conduct in the didactic “History and Moral Philosophy” classroom flashbacks.  Haldeman’s William Mandella finds himself drawn to the ‘security’ and ‘safety’ of the military, because the author inverts the battlefield with the home front.  The ignorant masses of civilians are unfettered by the power elite who pursue war while neglecting social systems and the civilization at home on Earth.  War for war’s sake is pursued until the two sides in the conflict, humanity and the Taurans, come together to discuss how the conflict began, and that it should end before both species were destroyed not necessarily from without, but from within.  However, the reader doesn’t actually get to hear this from a Tauran, but from far future descendants of humanity.

Le Guin must have had these stories or similar military SF stories in mind when she wrote The Word for World Is Forest.  She originally penned the story as a novella in 1968 while she was staying in London for a year, and she titled it, “The Little Green Men.”  Before it’s inclusion in Harlan Ellison’s collection, Again, Dangerous Visions, he “retitled it, with [her] rather morose permission” (Word 7).  She describes the source for writing the story as a need to fill a void left by her disengagement with the anti-war movement in the United States.  She writes in the introduction to the novel:

All through the sixties, in my home city in the States, I had been helping organise and participating in non-violent demonstrations, first against atomic bomb testing, then against the pursuance of the war in Viet Nam.  I don’t know how many times I walked down Alder Street in the rain, feeling useless, foolish, and obstinate (Word 7).

Her involvement against the rise of Eisenhower’s prophesied military-industrial complex ran the gamut of Cold War conflict escalation.  In England, she was disconnected from the outlet that she enjoyed in the United States, which was to non-violently demonstrate against the Johnson-Nixon-Kissinger mushroom cloud carrying a fallout of death and suffering from promoting Western ideology by treating other groups of people as objects and not subjects.

The Word for World is Forest is constructed around the importance of voices, even those most disgusting and reviling.  The novel’s narrative is presented through the voices of three males involved in the struggle on a planet distant from Earth known as Athshe, which means ‘forest’ in the native language.  Two of these narrators are Terrans from Earth and the third is a native Athsean.  It’s important to consider hidden meanings in the choice of names, because as Le Guin has stated in the introduction to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in her collection, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters:

I sat down and started a story, just because I felt like it, with nothing but the word “Omelas” in mind.  It came from a road sign:  Salem (Oregon) backwards…Salem equals schelomo equals salaam equals Peace.  Melas.  O melas.  Omelas.  Homme hélas.  “Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?”  From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally.  Where else? (276)

However, this example illustrates that more than reading road signs backwards goes into the pool from which she catches her stories.  Stream of consciousness and word association plays an integral part into developing the seed that germinates into a realized story.  For this reason, some attention should be directed towards possible points of origin for the names of the protagonists in The Word for World is Forest.

Chapters one, four, and seven are explicated from the perspective of Captain Davidson.  This character is best described as a purely evil person who has a near-psychotic self-righteousness that manifests itself in his debasement of the Athseans or creechies as well as of other Terrans including his commanding officer.  Further scrutiny of his name may belie Le Guin’s choice for it.  Davidson is a surname of English origin that literally means, “Son of David.”  However, this character is no Solomon!  Another connection may come from historical persons involved in the Vietnam War.  Two notable persons are Lieutenant General Phillip Buford Davidson, Jr., who served as Westmoreland’s J-2 in Vietnam  (Ford par. 18), and Major General Alexander K. Davidson, who provided tactical airlift services to the Vietnam theater of operations during the late 1960s (Air Force Link par. 4).  However, it’s most likely that Le Guin wanted to place Davidson in opposition to Captain Raj Lyubov not only in their firmly held beliefs of one another, but also through the connection between Davidson’s English name and Raj’s given name, which implies the British term of empire in India.  Therefore, further conjuring the image of the oppressors and the oppressed, and by extension, the oppressed and the formerly oppressed seeking to help out those persons in a similar situation.

Captain Raj Lyubov occupies chapters three and five.  He makes a point to learn Selver’s true name and to become his friend after Captain Davidson nearly kills Selver.  Lyubov is a “spesh” or a specialist and scientist.  In essence, he’s Le Guin’s avatar or representative within the narrative as an anthropologist trying to figure out these native relatives of humanity.  His name is particularly interesting.  His given name, Raj, literally means ruler, prince, or royalty, but it also reminds the reader of England’s imperialistic history and its oppression of India during the ‘Raj.’  He’s not a character to actively aid Selver’s people, but he doesn’t warn his own people about an impending attack, which in itself is a traitorous act of rebellion against oppression.  Additionally, his surname, Lyubov is typically identified as a feminine Russian given name.  Could this imply that Lyubov has a ‘feminine’ side, or that he’s a hybrid personality that exhibits both the masculine and the feminine?  He’s in a male dominated military hierarchy, but he’s willing to consider and question the masculine rape of the land while not actively participating in it himself.  His full name also implies this hybridity, because of its combination of Indian and Russian names.  Le Guin fashions the other (i.e., Indo-Asian) with Davidson’s assumed ethnic superiority as ‘white’ while touching on a unity bridging the West and the East during the midst of the Cold War.

Selver, the native Athshean, occupies chapters two, six, and eight.  He’s the most powerful character in the novel, but he comes from a world without the power relationships inherent on Earth at that time or in Le Guin’s future.  His people invest great meaning in dreams and their interpretation.  Selver’s dreams lead him to a realization of how to remove the oppressors by appropriating the Earthmen’s tool of murder.  Of the three main characters, Selver’s name is the most interesting, and the one possibly the most full of hidden meanings.  Relying on Le Guin’s use of word play, it’s useful to explore anagrams of Selver and his home world, Athshe.  Two telling anagrams of Athshe are heaths and sheath.  A heath is land that has not yet been developed.  Before the arrival of Terrans to Athshe, the Athsheans lived in harmony with the land.  The Terrans’ develop the land by clear cutting it of all wood.  This development is actually destructive both to the planet and to its native inhabitants, and the act of destruction is itself in part handled by the natives in their forced support of the Terran occupiers.  The other anagram, sheath, implies a weapon not yet drawn.  The weapon is Selver’s awakening from dream with the means to lead and unify his people to remove the oppressors from Athshe.  Selver has two anagrams that describe his character.  One is revels, which comes from Old French, reveler, which means to rise up in rebellion.  The other is levers.  The obvious connection here is to Archimedes’ boast that given a long enough lever and place to stand, he could move the Earth.  What is more interesting is Thomas Paine’s use of Archimedes’ story in relation to the American revolution in his 1791 treatise, The Rights of Man.  He wrote, “What Archimedes said of the mechanical powers, may be applied to Reason and Liberty: ‘Had we,’ said he, ‘a place to stand upon, we might raise the world.’ The revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics” (Paine, par. 1 and 2).  Selver is the revolutionary both in action and ideology.  He brings the ideas of revolution from the dream realm to the reality of his oppressed people.  As Paine argues, “Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think,” it is true too that Selver is the person to break free of “the slavery of fear” (par. 2).

Le Guin’s three protagonists create a spectrum of views within the conflict on Athshe between the Terrans and the Athsheans.  Lyubuv and Davidson are two opposing views on the Terran side.  Evoking her use of dualisms, these two characters represent good/evil, liberally open-minded/conservatively closed-minded, sane/psychotic, low self-confidence/egomaniacal self-image, and anthropologist-observer-preserver/soldier-reconnoiter-destroyer.  Together, Lyubuv and Davidson provide a Taoist resolution to humanity’s division.  Then, Selver is part of another Taoist matrix amongst his people as well as the other:  humanity.  Among the people of the Forty Lands, he is a god, a bringer of new ideas from the dream world to the waking world.  Unfortunately, he brings death and murder, but these are concepts also imported by humanity to Athshe by their inhumane treatment of the Athsheans and their contemptuous wholesale destruction of a once viable ecosystem.  Creating an analogous three dimensional matrix, Le Guin writes Selver as the other half of a ying-yang image with humanity.  Selver represents the living, but assumedly fragile forest, with his green fur and small stature.  However, he, like the forest containing his people, is a spring waiting to unleash its stored energies against the encroaching humans who threaten his world and his utopic existence.  In some ways, humanity in this story may feel threatened by the possibility of a utopic pastoral existence as that experienced by the Athsheans and it’s for this reason that their world and people are made to suffer.  Therefore, Le Guin completes her narrative of opposites with Selver appropriating the means of the oppressor to gain the respect and agency from humanity, and she accomplishes this both literally in the story and figuratively by giving Selver and his people a narrative voice, history, and spiritual life that one may only assume about Heinlein’s Bugs or Haldeman’s Taurans.


            These three political works by Heinlein, Haldeman, and Le Guin operate within a shared cultural space in the historical moment of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  These texts directly engage the increasingly technologized means of warfare and its relationship with political ideologies in ways that are unavailable to mainstream popular culture.  Therefore, it’s no surprise that Frederik Pohl argues, “there is very little science fiction, perhaps even that there is no good science fiction at all, that is not to some degree political” (7).  And, it’s the political message(s) within Starship Troopers, The Forever War, and The Word for World is Forest that make them enduring works.  However, these three novels remain classics, because they each spoke to and about a politically divisive time in the third quarter of the twentieth century.  They were engaged by readers at the time in which they were first published as well as in the intervening years to the present.  Just as much as these stories evoked what was in the minds of readers then, they continue to give the present an understanding and awareness of the times in which they were written.

Of these three authors, Le Guin creates a synthesis of the military SF tropes along with her recognizably anthropological approach to SF.  Her decision to do this facilitates multiple narrative voices that are necessary to better understanding the complexities of war and the way people on different sides of a conflict objectify and subjugate the alien other.

Works Cited

Burns, Robert.  “Scots Wha Hae.”  19 March 2002.  7 April 2007 <;.

Cohan, George M.  “Over There.”  2 August 2002.  7 April 2007 <;.

“Davidson, Major General Alexander K.”  Air Force Link.  September 1991.  6 April 2007 <;.

Ford, Harold P.  “Episode 3, 1967-1968: CIA, the Order-of-Battle Controversy, and the Tet Offensive.”  CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers:  Three Episodes 1962-1968.  1998.  6 April 2007 <;.

Haldeman, Joe.  The Forever War.  London:  Gollancz, 2004.

Heller, Joseph.  Catch-22.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Heinlein, Robert A.  Starship Troopers.  London:  New English Library, 1977.

Le Guin, Ursula K.  “American SF and the Other.”  The Language of the Night.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.  93-96.

—.  “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  The Wind’s Twelve Quarters.  London:  Gollancz, 2000.  275-284.

—.  The Word for World is Forest.  London:  Victor Gollancz, 1977.

Orwell, George.  Nineteen Eighty-Four.  London:  Penguin, 2000.

Paine, Thomas.  “Introduction to Part the Second.”  The Rights of Man.  9 April 1998.  6 April 2007 <;.

Pohl, Frederik.  “The Politics of Prophecy.”  Political Science Fiction.  ed. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox.  Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 1997.  7-17.

Russ, Joanna.  “Letter to Susan Koppelman.”  To Write Like a Woman:  Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction.  Bloomington and Indianapolis:  Indiana University Press, 1995.  171-176.

Stephenson, Neal.  Snow Crash.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1992.


Coda to the above essay’s first draft.

One anti-Vietnam SF story that predates Le Guin’s novel, but provides multiple voices in a tangential way, is J.G. Ballard’s “The Killing Ground,” which shows how in a “world wide Vietnam,” English insurgents respond to captured American troops, and how an American officer uses his voice to mislead the English commander.  Another Vietnam era story is Gene Wolfe’s “Feather Tigers,” which is about an alien anthropologist studying the ruins of Earth, but it refuses to acknowledge the stories about the Mekong River Valley from a human created A.I. artifact.  A recent work similar to “Feather Tigers” is Robert J. Sawyer’s novel, Humans, which offers an interesting chapter that features different voices, one from our universe and one from a parallel Earth populated by Neanderthals, talking about the Vietnam War while looking at the memorial in Washington, D.C..  And finally, Bill Campbell’s Sunshine Patriots combines Heinlein, Haldeman, and Le Guin in a reactionary story against the John Wayne mythos and the first Iraq War.

Works Cited

Ballard, J.G.  “The Killing Ground.”  The Day of Forever.  London:  Panther, 1971.  138-146.

Campbell, Bill.  Sunshine Patriots.  Tucson:  Hats Off Books, 2004.

Sawyer, Robert J.  Humans.  New York:  Tor, 2003.

Wolfe, Gene.  “Feather Tigers.”  The Norton Book of Science Fiction.  eds.  Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery.  London:  W.W. Norton and Company, 1993.  280-286.

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.