Lorenzo Reading: Heather O’Neill’s Daydreams of Angels

Last Thursday November 24th, I had the opportunity to attend Heather O’Neill’s Lorenzo reading for her collection of short stories, Daydreams of Angels. It was only about halfway through her reading that I made the connection that I’d previously read her novel Lullabies for Little Criminals!

Though I didn’t have the opportunity to read Heather’s book in advance, I did hear all about it from Rachel, especially about the story that Heather chose to read: “Where Babies Come From.” As Rachel had said, the story was very sweet and had the evocative poetic imagery I associate with her writing, an element she explain was a holdover from her beginnings as a poet before she became a novelist.

After reading “Where Babies Come From,” Heather took questions – some very general and relating to her other works, some about the specific stylings of the stories in her new collection. No matter the length of the question, she usually has no problem formulating a quite lengthy response. Following that, she read from her upcoming novel, The Lonely Hearts Hotel. Her voice when writing is so distinctive that it seems to me that her works almost blend together, especially Thursday night, when everything she read ran in a similar sort of vein of magic realism.

When having dinner with Heather and the rest of the Lorenzo members afterward, it was intriguing to hear her talk about Montreal and her undergrad, and a fun conclusion to a lovely reading.

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Pretty Boy Crossover

Pat Cadigan’s “Pretty Boy Crossover” is almost irritatingly non-political, despite all the ways it sets up the possibility for political commentary. The story illustrates a parable for prostitution, constructs an oppressive political system, and brainwashing, but refuses to comment on any of these elements directly.

The entire story can be read as a parable for prostitution, but Cadigan is carefully neutral about the whole affair – the protagonist and Billy both thrive on attention, but Billy caves to the promise of more and more attention and uploads his consciousness. The narrator resists and turns down all like offers, but is fully aware of and strongly tempted by Billy’s fate. Cadigan balances the appeal and the flaws of this ‘uploading,’ she remains distant from any sort of moral judgement.

Cadigan also evades any kind of political engagement with the oppressive system that she constructs within the story. Though she makes it clear that the system is indeed oppressive, she doesn’t condemn it directly. The narrator literally refuses to engage with it – he just walks away whenever they extend an offer to him. Although she tries to avoid engaging with that system at all, she fails simply by including it in her story – she can’t present an entirely unbiased perspective, it’s not possible. Though unwilling, Cadigan does engage with the oppressive system on some level, because she must describe it somehow, must emphasize that it is indeed oppressive somehow, so some kind of moral judgement must take place, which necessitates some kind of engagement.

Cadigan also mentions the Noise, which is a omnipresent form of brainwashing that prevents people from thinking coherently. Despite the fact that this is clearly not a morally ambiguous invention, Cadigan downplays this fact and focuses on the narrator’s ability to think around the Noise. The narrator is similarly resistant to actively condemn the system around him: he still seeks their interest for self-validation, and although he is dissatisfied with their existence, won’t act against them in any kind of proactive way.

I find it difficult to explain away Cadigan’s seeming political apathy in this story. What’s the point of constructing a story containing these structures, create a narrator that engages with them, but avoid commenting on them in any negative way?

 

Raptor Porn and ‘Good Storytelling’

I’d heard about the debacle around the Hugos, but hadn’t looked into it before because it seemed to be sort of issue that is always cropping up in media: the push (sometimes successful) for better representation in [insert media type here], and the inevitable backlash from people who say that such changes would be to the detriment of the media itself. It always seems to be a ridiculous issue to me, and reading articles about what was actually happening with the Hugo Awards seemed to solidify that opinion.

First of all: it just seems ridiculous to not want progress in a genre that is often very concerned with the progress and development of humanity. Or, even silly, thinking that you should be the one to control the progress of the genre and how it changes (both sides of this issue seems to be at fault with this particular issue – though I feel more inclined to pardon any non-Puppies, as they generally seem to be promoting more inclusive, positive visions of SF).

The concern mentioned in one of the articles that we were linked to mentioned that Puppies feel Hugo nominations “have strayed from the larger body of fans.” I don’t think the speaker meant the majority of fans when he said that, I think he meant his idea of who fans of SF/F are. IMO, this feeds into the idea of traditional fans. The idea that science fiction is a boy’s genre is not true (and has never been, at least for authors), and even if it were, genres and their audiences change. On top of that, it doesn’t seem conducive to just have SF/F appeal to just a small group of people if it wants to survive. Diversifying is guaranteed to draw more people into the genre, and ensure that it grows and changes.

One of the ideas that annoyed me was that a concern of the Sad Puppies that good storytelling had been put to the side in favour of just willy-nilly inclusion and diversity. Their intentions seem to be less than pure and that concern with good storytelling seem to be slightly undermined if they’re making joke nominations like Chuck Tingle, and nominating one of their own, in the case of Vox Day. Their concern about storytelling seems to be a safe way to explain away their wish to keep SF/F free of any sort of discussion or exploration of issues of race, gender, sexuality, or religion that deviate from their norm.

Besides, if the Sad Puppies are truly concerned with the quality of storytelling, they would give it time. There is a progression that I’ve seen in fandom (and in taking this class, that I’ve seen in the short stories we’ve read as well), where ideas can sometimes be a step and a half ahead of good writing. There are pieces like The Man Who Evolved by Edmond Hamilton where the idea is what gives a story impetus – the writing itself may be clunky or the characters two-dimensional, but the idea is there. If the Sad Puppies care, they would give it time. The ideas are there, clearly, there have been stories cropping up left, right, and centre about issues and re-imaginings of race, gender, sexuality, and religion in SF/F, so give it time if the storytelling isn’t up to par. Right now, those ideas might be what is giving those pieces life, but ‘good storytelling’ will catch up soon, if that was really the concern here. (I think, for what it’s worth, that ‘good storytelling’ and looking into social issues in SF/F already overlap and the Puppies concern with this is nonsense.)

You Thought You Knew What Was Going On? LOL No: Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million”

Frederik Pohl’s “Day Million” toyed with me when I read it. Much of this story is about messing with our assumptions about people, gender, and sexuality – it gives us a very simple prompt at the the beginning: “There will be a boy, a girl, and a love story” (p. 380). The rest of the story aims to systematically destroy all of the preconceived notions we assigned to that simple sentence.

Right off the bat, gender and physical appearance are divorced from biological sex, and any assumptions you may have made about appearance dictating one’s gender, sex, or humanity are pushed to the side. Our idea of marriage is booted out the way with one sentence – “Of course, they never set eyes on each other again” (p. 383). In the second-to-last paragraph, our ideas of monogamy are thoroughly dismissed.

I like the stories for this week quite a bit – it seems a little silly to me that humanity might evolve to the point where we’re visiting other galaxies or chatting with aliens thousands of years in the future, but we’re still stuck with outdated ideas about gender, sexuality, and relationships. If our technology, civilization, and view of our world and others is changing, why shouldn’t our views of ourselves and how we interact with others change as well?

This story reminded me of Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, particularly the section of the novel where the protagonist lives off-planet and experiment with body modification for a while, and the unearthly female artist he falls in love with. Both works manage to look at this kind of progression in our understanding of self-expression and relationships with a fair degree of fluidity.

The narrator of this story pokes at the reader throughout, and by evoking confusion, constantly makes us aware of how small and constricted our worldview is. We’re mocked a little bit for our confusion, and pushed toward accepting what’s presented to us in order to understand this very simple love story. To me, in the end, this piece is one that has a holistic view of the future. It won’t only be the machines that we’re using that will change, or the things we encounter, we will too, and if we take the idea of spaceship, alien civilizations, or exploring other galaxies seriously, then we should take the idea of exploring our future relationships and personhood seriously as well.

 

C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau”

C. L. Moore is one of the pen names of Catherine Lucille Moore, one of the early female speculative fiction and fantasy writers. “Shambleau” was her first published story and her most popular. The impact of this story at the time of its publication was quite profound, but Lester Del Rey manages to neatly sum it up: “The influences of that story were and are tremendous. Here, for the first time in the field, we find mood, feeling, and colour. In ‘Shambleau’ we also experience as never before both the horror at what we may find in space and the romance of space itself” (p. 2).

There have been attempts to compare C. L. Moore with the Shambleau, notably by Lester Del Rey, who attempts to bring the two together by looking at the response to “Shambleau” the story and Shambleau the creature. The quote from Del Rey I mentioned earlier said that with “Shambleau” there was an introduction of “mood, feeling, and colour” into the science fiction scene that had not been prevalent before. Thomas A. Bredehoft writes “the publication of ‘Shambleau’ is [ . . . ] a sort of ‘original sin:’ the introduction of sex, feeling, and emotion into the ‘mechanistic and unemotional’ masculinist Eden of pre-’Shambleau’ science fiction.” “Shambleau” had a strong draw for readers who had never come across science fiction quite like this before – much like how the Shambleau captures Northwest Smith’s interest. Just as Smith is drawn to and repulsed by the Shambleau, we as readers are attracted to and disgusted by the content of this story.

Firstly, I’d like to take a step back and consider aliens in general as a literary device, and how that works in “Shambleau.” To put it simply, aliens in literature often signify elements of society that are foreign, ignored, repressed, or marginalized. They allow us to take issues or sometimes-unpleasant elements of society and effectively ‘other’ them to examine them in a more removed way. One of the two main themes of “Shambleau” is presented to us in this way, as a repressed element: Sexuality. The Shambleau personifies sex and sexuality, and the fact that C. L. Moore has chosen this to be the Shambleau’s representative element and the way the other people in Lakkdarol, who have full knowledge of what she really is, react to her, gives us a sense of attitudes toward sex at the time the story was written. We don’t have any other women in the story for comparison, but the fact that we have to remove ourselves from the human sphere completely to openly depict a blatantly sexual female being is very telling. “Shambleau” also disrupts any kind of expected gender hierarchy: the idea of men being more the active pursuers and women being the passive pursued ones is dispelled, Northwest Smith is in “a blind abyss of submission” (p. 126) while the Shambleau is enclosing him in her tentacles. It’s not just the gender hierarchy that is flipped on its head, heterosexuality is as well if we consider “the root-deep ecstasy” (p. 127) that Smith takes from the Shambleau’s (fairly phallic) tentacles. Essentially, C. L. Moore uses aliens as a literary device to investigate attitudes toward sex and alter gender hierarchies.

Moore’s description of addiction in “Shambleau” is presented in a familiar way –vampirism is a common metaphor for addiction, and the vampire’s addiction is usually passed on to the victim. C. L. Moore makes this very clear in how she portrays Smith, the victim of this vampire: Smith, when Yarol first sees him clearly, is an addict: “his face was that of some creature beyond humanity – dead-alive, fixed in a grey stare, and the look of terrible ecstasy that overspread it seemed to come from somewhere far within” (p. 129). He’s not just affected physically, however – he can’t quite promise Yarol that he will kill any Shambleau he comes across, and his speech has changed too, the Shambleau has left its mark on him: his speech is disjointed, with plenty of awkward pauses, just like how the Shambleau spoke. The power of Shambleau is made evident toward the end of the story, where the narrative viewpoint shifts away from Smith when he succumbs to the Shambleau to Yarol, then equally to both in about the last page and a half as they both try to process what just happened to them. This leaves it up to the reader to decide which viewpoint to adopt, Smith’s or Yarol’s – but we tend to slide toward Smith, because we can more easily understand his uncertain rejection of the Shambleau, because we know all too well how compelling it can be.

We’re kind of hit over the head repeatedly with the Medusa motif in this story, C. L. Moore is not at all subtle about making sure we notice it. It’s brought up in the prologue: “The myth of the Medusa, for instance can never have had its roots in the soil of Earth. That tale of the snake-haired Gorgon whose gaze turned the gazer to stone never originated about any creature that Earth nourished. And those ancient Greeks who told the story must have remembered, dimly and half-believing, a tale of antiquity about some strange being from one of the outlying planets their remotest ancestors once trod” (p. 111). Having this image of Medusa already in our minds from the very outset of the story puts us on high alert and as a result, we pick up on the very first hint of the Shambleau’s nature before Northwest Smith does, when “the thick lock of crimson moved, squirmed itself against her cheek” (p. 119). When Smith does realize though, Medusa is brought up again. “… in starting waves back from her forehead and down about her in a hideous background writhed the snaky wetness of her living tresses. And Smith knew that he looked upon Medusa” (p. 126). And just in case any of this was slipping by us, Moore really hammers it home at the end of the story, where Yarol kills the Shambleau the same way Perseus killed Medusa, and then explicitly links the two, saying that the Shambleau must have been in Greece three thousand years ago, or humans must have encountered one around that time.

But so what? Yes, there is this recurring Medusa motif, but what purpose does it serve? In relation to “Shambleau,” Thomas A. Bredehoft wrote, “Medusa’s head is very much a representation of the terrifying ‘Other.’” Moore suggesting that an alien is the inspiration behind the Medusa myth makes the “other” element very literal, as the Shambleau is about as ‘other’ as you can get: not from this planet, with a distinctly non-human appearance and style of predatory behaviour. On top of that, Moore’s physical description of the Shambleau alters the traditional image of Medusa. Typically Medusa was very ugly and had snakes for hair, and sometimes, green skin, but other than that, was generally humanoid. The Shambleau, however, is distinctly non-human even before we know about the tentacles on her head: she looks even less human than Medusa – four fingers on each hand, all clawed, a cat-like tongue, and feline eyes. All of this adds up to the image of something that is even more terrifyingly ‘other’ than Medusa. As Yarol makes clear, the Shambleau certainly explains why Medusa was considered such a terrifying monster to the Greeks.

And why does Moore phrase this retelling of Medusa’s story as she does? Why doesn’t the Shambleau have actual snakes growing from her head, why doesn’t she turn people to stone, why, WHY, is it set on Mars? At this point in time, after thousands of years of retelling, Medusa’s story doesn’t immediately provoke terror in readers. We accept the description of Medusa as monstrous, but it is such a familiar, pervasive image that it doesn’t immediately terrify us – kind of like how Twilight thoroughly toned down the scare factor of vampires. Common cultural tropes lose their effectiveness over time and through overexposure, so Moore manages to reinvigorate Medusa’s story by synthesizing a new sort of Medusa from elements of the traditional story and vampiric behaviours to bring the unfamiliar and therefore more effective visions of Shambleau to mind. Moore setting the story in a city on Mars is another way for her to introduce this sort of novelty and to highlight the alien aspects of this story. I think it’s a fairly effective way to make these sorts of creatures scary again.

C. L. Moore shaped the Shambleau to be as other as possible: alien, addict, animalistic, and disruptive of gender hierarchies: she may look human at first glance but she is anything but. Moore not only introduced readers to a colourful, emotional version of science fiction, she also made them face familiar but ignored concepts like sexuality and addiction.

Thomas A. Bredehoft’s article

Lester Del Rey’s introduction to The Best of C. L. Moore

Some helpful background information about Medusa and the Medusa myth

And beside that, some fun tidbits that I couldn’t fit into my presentation:

  • It’s fairly commonly accepted that Northwest Smith had some influence over the construction of Han Solo as a character, or at the very least had a strong contribution to the Space Cowboy trope.
  • “Shambleau” also influenced “Queen of Blood,” a 1966 film that tells the story of another female vampiric alien.
  • The song Northwest Smith is whistling, “The Green Hills of Earth,” inspired the title of Robert Heinlein’s story of the same name: listen to it here, if you wish!

Just a thought to consider: between the description of the Shambleau and the nature of Northwest Smith’s addiction, which do you think is more frightening, and why?

And lastly, some images of the Shambleau, which are useful so you can actually see the visual similarities between the Shambleau and Medusa:

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I’m My Own Grandpaw!

“‘All You Zombies – ‘” by Robert A. Heinlein caught my eye this week, mostly because it took me two read-throughs to understand exactly what had happened.

(And as a side-note: I found this video that explains the plot in a fairly clear way, though I found it a little late!

A much more concise explanation of everything that happened!)

This story interested me at first because of the way that gender is played with in this story – the main character (and only character, I guess) is intersex at birth, and later has their female sex organs removed after giving birth – because of this character has to be, in a weird sort of way, both the chicken and the egg. This strange sort of self-contained immortality is neatly represented at the end of the story by the character’s ouroboros ring, with the symbol of symbol of “The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail” (p. 336) representing both the concept of time travel, and the circular nature of this character’s life.

The issue of free will is one that is interesting to consider in light of time travel stories, however Heinlein avoids it completely. I suppose, in this case, it may not be an issue of free will – the character (Jane? I’m going to go with Jane) needs to ensure their birth in order to carry on existing – but just that Heinlein chooses a deterministic timeline because that issue may be impossible to answer.

A short three sentences at the end introduce solipsism into the story:

“The Snake That Eats Its Own Tail, Forever and Ever…I know where I came from – but where did all you zombies come from?

I felt a headache coming on, but a headache powder is one thing I do not take. I did once – and you all went away” (p. 336).

Solipsism is a philosophical idea that states that one’s mind is all that can be known to exist. Because Jane’s existence is self-contained and circular, she can be sure of her own origin and the entirety of her existence. If nobody else can be so sure of their existence (and they can’t, not everybody is so lucky as to be their own mother, father, and self) then do they even really exist? Jane seems to think they don’t, because if just a headache powder can make everybody else in the world disappear, she must seen them all as projections from her own mind – zombies.

(And just a fun tidbit – I found that this story went through a series of titles before it was published, one of them being ‘The Solipsist!’)

The Cage of Sand

In a story called “The Cage of Sand,” a theme of entrapment seems obvious. Bridgman, Travis, and Louisa Woodward won’t leave deserted Cape Canaveral, each for their own reasons – Bridgman because he’s haunted by the idea of a Martian city he designed that was never built, Travis is trapped by the memory of his failed first launch as an astronaut, and Louisa stays because of the memory of her dead husband whose orbit around the earth she can see clearly from the Cape. The wardens can’t convince them to leave, so they eventually enclose them, building fences around the area where Bridgman, Travis, and Louisa are staying.

J. G. Ballard makes the theme obvious not just in the sense of physical entrapment, but mental. Even as the fence closes around them and the wardens search for them, Bridgman, Travis, and Louisa won’t leave, each of them captivated by their personal attachment to this location. This kind of mental entrapment makes each of the characters seem slightly deluded, though each of their reasons sound quite reasonable if this were indeed a post-apocalyptic world.

But it doesn’t seem to be. Bridgman acknowledges that if he were caught by the wardens, he’d be placed in quarantine for a year and then could return to society and his job as an architect. Clearly this post-apocalyptic landscape the three of them are living in is limited, not worldwide. To me, this is what makes each of the characters seem delusional: why stay in this place, with the potential to catch a deadly disease from another planet, constantly in hiding without many of the comforts of normal life? In this context, their reasons don’t seem to hold as much value as I assumed.

Despite this, the story doesn’t seem to mock these characters for their delusions, it affirms their value – likely because it is told from the point of view of one of said delusional characters. We get a glimpse of their reality toward the end of the story, though – when the wardens have captured Travis, he’s described as “a wild dog” in the way he acts, and Bridgman shouts out to the vaporized astronaut whose spaceship crashed nearby, “We made it!”

In this miniaturized post-apocalyptic state, we can see how people react to the end of the world – or at least their world, and the drastic changes such an event can cause in a person.

 

All Liberation is Good Liberation (?)

After I read William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth”and stopped to think about it, I had a hard time pinning down why I liked it. It wasn’t quite the subject material, that’s clearly not the cheeriest. I don’t think it was the plot of the story either – when I looked back over it, it was a bit repetitive with the repeated invasions – and it wasn’t because it was especially funny (although in comparison to “Thunder and Roses” it seemed nearly hilarious).

I don’t usually find allegories to be very entertaining, because once you’ve unpacked them and maybe admired how neatly the author managed to covey two layers of meaning, it’s more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. However, I did like the allegorical nature of Tenn’s story. It certainly wasn’t the most subtle, but that’s why it works, and partly why I enjoyed it. Tenn was alluding to the Korean War and the imperialist reality behind liberations with clear warnings about the consequences, but his commentary remains relevant because we humans just can’t seem to stop invading each other’s countries on the assumption that we must help those poor souls whose way of living is different than (and, we presume, inferior to) ours. Invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, of Ukraine, of Gaza…we have real love affairs with liberation and hegemony, and so Tenn’s satire stays fresh.

What I found funniest throughout the story was how the language the speaker uses still reflects the language of the liberators – even if they blew apart their planet and have driven humans to the verge of extinction, humans still refer to the aliens’ comings and goings as “the Holy Day of the second Liberation” (pp.277) or “the Holy Day of First Reliberation”(pp. 280) and their language, even as they struggle to survive and breathe, reflects that of their liberators: “the lengthiest and most nearly-perfectly-fair trials in the history of Earth” (pp. 278) and “why, killing was almost too good for [the Troxxt interpreters.]”

This is where I find the value of soft science fiction, or just science fiction in general. To predict our future we must examine ourselves in the present, because the future is a product of the present.

And – just a though that’s just occurred to me – what’s the purpose of military science fiction? Is it to make us examine the motivation behind conflict or the moral dilemmas that often come with it in a more emotionally distanced and more objective way than we might examine the motivation behind contemporary, real-life conflicts and the moral dilemmas they pose?

To be (human), or not to be?

“Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak struck me in a rather interesting way – especially when placed in contrast with “The Man Who Evolved,” by Edmond Hamilton, which I read directly beforehand. The two seem to be diametrically opposed in their approach to modification of the human form: In Hamilton’s story, Pollard’s choice to abandon humanity as we know it is just that, a choice, albeit one his friends wish he will not make; in Simak’s it is a necessary procedure that is done because it must be done.

“The Man Who Evolved” places huge value on the human form and human experience, to the point where Pollard is willing to experiment on himself (with unknown results) to know the full potential of humanity. He’s willing to undergo evolutions with no known result because  he believes in the inherent value of humanity  – whatever the final evolution of humanity is, it must be pretty great, right?

If “The Man Who Evolved” is humanist, then “Desertion” is anti-humanist, or perhaps even post-humanist. Simak places no stock in the inherent value or superiority of humanity, but instead, as the anthology mentions, describes Fowler’s abandonment of his humanity as “a consummation devoutly to be wished” (p. 178). To Fowler, once he has transformed, his humanity has no intrinsic value and is in no way special, and seems deeply unpleasant: to exist as a human means existing in an “aching, poison-laden body,” that carries a “fuzzy brain” full of “muddled thinking” (p. 188).

The contrast between these two stories and their portrayals of humanity forces a consideration of the value of being human. Should we believe humanity has an inherent value and should be pursued to its ultimate form, or should we accept we cannot know the objective value of being human until we abandon humanity completely? To me, the biggest question these two stories raised was if humanity and being human has any intrinsic value, and I suppose for now, considering we can’t abandon our humanity and determine the objective value of it just yet, that humanity only has what value we assign it.

 

“‘mrmee, mrmee, mrmee, mrmee'”: ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman

“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison describes a dystopian future where time is strictly regulated and punctuality is not just expected, but mandatory – with strict consequences if people are not exactly on time. Order and chaos have been personified in Ellison’s story by the Harlequin and the Ticktockman, and Ellison comments of the necessary balance between the two forces.

The Ticktockman is the Master Timekeeper, and he believes that order is what makes the world go round, and that it is imperative and normal that people live by a strict schedule. He arranges schedules, ensures people conform to them, and carries out the consequences when they do not. As the manifestation of order, he clashes with and ultimately captures the Harlequin.

The Harlequin, Everett C. Marm, is a man who does not live his life by the schedule and who is perpetually late. The Harlequin makes it his goal to insert a bit of chaos into people’s strictly regulated lives in any way he can, either the directly rebellious or the silly and subversive: by yelling at them through a bullhorn, encouraging them to ignore their schedules, or by showering jellybeans over walkways till they break down and delay people’s schedules. He is the chaos to the Ticktockman’s order, both in his role as the Harlequin and in his normal life as Marm, where he is regularly late – which leads to his eventual capture conversion.

Even in a world that is so orderly, chaos exists one way or another. For the majority of the story, it seems that the Harlequin is the force of disorder resisting the Ticktockman’s order. However, the ending of the story hints that chaos is always there, not just present in the Harlequin. At the end, the Ticktockman is informed that he is three minutes behind schedule, a serious case of disorder for the most punctual. This ending suggests that disorder and chaos are not fabricated and acted upon a naturally orderly and punctual world, but are naturally occurring forces that can crop up anywhere and can’t be completely repressed.lf