Friday, March 11, 2011

Awesome Visual of Sci-Fi History

Excerpted. Map by Ward Shelley.
From io9. You guys should really take a look at it, especially the large version.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

the struggle for something better

From The Morning and the Evening and the Night:

Two men and three women. All we had in common was our disease, plus a weird combination of stubborn intensity about whatever we happened to be doing and hopeless cynicism about everything else. Healthy people say no one can concentrate like a DGD. Healthy people have all the time in the world for stupid generalizations and short attention spans” (39).

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the power of hopelessness in James Tiptree Jr.'s science-fiction writing. Octavia Butler appears to incorporate a similar theme in The Morning, a story in which the young protagonists are afflicted by a neurodegenerative genetic disorder. In addition, people with the Duryea Gode disease tend to be intense in their academic undertakings, displaying an almost savant-like ability to focus. Lynn, a biology major with an uncanny ability to relate to other DGDs, contests for much of the story that her achievements are a product of motivation and hard work. The hopelessness associated with the inevitability of disease onset seems to drive people like Lynn to accomplish more in less time.

A visit to the cutting-edge DGD research center Dilg, however, reveals that savantism does exist among this population. In addition, Lynn's empathy is explained by a genetically inherited pheromone. The woman in charge of the facility, Beatrice, also possesses the pheromone and causes Lynn to be irrational and hostile; this is because the “queen bees” (as Alan calls them, 64) are physiologically predisposed to be “territorial” (62) towards one another. At the same time, they provide a calming effect to DGDs who only inherited the disease from one parent. These scientific explanations first seem to undermine Lynn's beliefs regarding struggle and accomplishment, but actually serve to set up another obstacle which Lynn intends to overcome. Despite Alan's objections at being “ a goddamn smell” (63), Lynn insists that he would do the same as her if he were in her place; that is, she would accept the responsibility that came with her natural ability and work to better the world for people with DGD.

Within the Dilg facilities, the struggle that the DGD patients experience in holding onto reality also reflect the dichotomy of adversity and progress. Furthermore, DGD actually spawned from a miraculous treatment for cancer. In attempting to fight off one epidemic, humankind not only created a sicker and more deadly one but also unlocked another level of human potential. The line between savagery and savantism is a thin one, though, and on this line stands people like Beatrice and Lynn whose power and responsibility are enormous (Uncle Ben, anyone?). Within the greater story of struggle and progress is a more personal one, one that everyone can relate to: overcoming fear and adversity to accept the challenge of doing something great.

One of the reasons I posted on this topic is because it struck a chord with my experiences working at a research foundation for Huntington's disease. In October, they set up a presentation featuring a 29-year old PhD student symptomatic for HD. He was working in a genetics lab, and had a keen interest in the study of his own inevitable fate. I was struck by how dedicated he was, despite starting to lose the ability to think lucidly and concentrate. Unlike the DGD patients in Butler's story, HD patients lose a lot in terms of cognition and focus. The aspiring genotherapist told us that, to counteract his deteriorating condition, he might have to give up his dreams and become a spokesman and activist for HD research instead. Despite what life had thrown at him, despite the hopelessness that many would feel in his situation, he fights on. I believe that this is a very human trait, one reflected by history, religion, and of course, science fiction.

Near of Kin: Wheres the Sci fi?

When I read “Near of Kin,” the what ran through my head while I read it was “when is this going to be a science fiction story?” There were no whiz-bang flying cars or androids or anything else. It was only about two thirds of the way through the story that I realized that the spectacle I had come to expect of science fiction was not going to happen. The entire story takes place in one room, hardly a showcase for technology or alien civilizations, and even the surprise twist ending I was sure would come on the last page did not come.
However, perhaps there is a sci fi aspect to the story. While the characters start off seemingly completely normal, throughout the story there is a constant alienation of the characters from the reader, as you learn more and more of their disturbing past. In this case, this would not be science fiction in the literal sense, but an appropriation of the emotions and conventions of science fiction in order to achieve the same alienation (alienation that is usually in a literal sense) in a contemporary, non-speculative story. This alienation arises, of course, from incest.
Incest is the ultimate taboo, and to see this universally reviled act is treated, as the author herself calls it: “a sympathetic story about incest,” creates a huge disconnect between the reader and the characters. I am confident that upon asking any person whether they could be sympathetic toward incest, they would almost always answer with an immediate and emphatic no. Furthermore they would find it difficult to understand the situation in which such an act could even possibly be sympathetic. To be dropped into a world where the narrator’s uncle, while not condoning, has somewhat accepted incest as part of his life is completely unrelatable in the same way as asking a person point-blank what their opinions on incest are.
But then comes the next greatest power that science fiction has: the ability to make the alien relatable, to sympathize with something completely foreign. Octavia’s story is surprisingly relatable. The characters handle incest in a sympathetic and relatable way, and the gradual introduction of the issue in the story, rather than beating the reader over the head with it (a sci fi trope which the story thankfully avoided). So while not a literal science fiction story, Near of Kin appropriates perhaps the best parts of the genre, and employs them in an unexpected, yet no less alien setting.

Speech Sounds: Interior World and Radio Imagination

In Speech Sounds I was particularly interested by Rye's description of the new world's hierarchy: "The least impaired people tended to do this--stand back unless they were physically threatened and let those with less control scream and jump around. It was as though they felt it beneath them to be as touchy as the less comprehending. This was an attitude of superiority." In this diseased society communication has seriously deteriorated, and I found it interesting that the new basis for a class hierarchy here was based on ability to communicate. Also, the violence that came out of this seems crucial--the higher classes (those with more ability to communicate and understand) were able to contain themselves and not react with violence to the lower classes (the more impaired). In a society that is largely a society of interior existence, as these people have trouble understanding and communicating with each other, people turn to violence. Then, it seems that people can only rely on violence as a means of communication, and everyone is out only for himself or herself. Is this human nature on its most basic level, when the confines of society and codified means of communication are destroyed?
In this story, I was very aware of Butler's 'Radio Imagination.' In the 1997 interview she describes how characters often live in her head, have voices, motivations and are created without any real sense of a physical presence. In Speech Sounds, I definitely noticed this, as each character, especially Rye, has an extremely evolved inner life, and virtually no physically descriptive presence. In fact, the main focus of the story for me was on how people cope with their own interiors, and looking at the human interior through the lens of a disease that has severely impaired the interior and ability to communicate in a lot of ways, is an excellent way to do this. Ultimately, it comes down to violence and basic human emotions: jealousy, lust, greed, anger, fear. I found the world that Butler constructs here to be very much a reflection of her 'radio imagination' and an interesting lens to look at basic human nature. It seems that Rye has a major advantage, as she is less impaired than most, and I would honestly have liked a glimpse into the mind of the people with more severe impairments. For example, the man who kills the woman at the end. I think it would have been incredible to hear the thoughts (however basic) going on in his mind as he murdered his wife and the stranger (Obsidian) who attempted to save her. On the other hand, the moment in the car when Rye and Obsidian reveal to each other their strengths is a fantastic insight into this. Watching them both experience and suppress a wave of bloodthirsty jealousy explains a lot about how Butler imagines the human interior.

How to be a Successful Artist


Butler's commentary about her lack of self-confidence as a young black writer and Conor's concern about reading blackness into an a-racial narrative reminded me of the above video by Hennessy Youngman. The video - which contains "the n word"* - highlights the tendency of critics to read the minority status of an artist into artwork. In reflecting on the video I noticed how, even in our own class discussions, we’ve fallen into this discursive trap. Orson Well’s radio play was never cast as product of his suburban, Caucasian upbringing and a radical reification/reaction against white essentialism. Our classroom discussion of Tiptree, however, was primarily concerned with her gender, sexuality and even the courses she took her freshman year of college.

In resolving the “a-historicity” of white males should we, as critical readers, bear our tools of autobiographical inference on the white, heterosexual male too? Or should we simply do away any and all autobiographical interpretations of readings? Is it productive, or even possible, to divorce the writer from their work?

Butler’s writing, in particular, is focused on a specific interplay and reimagination of race and gendered experience. It seems quit bizarre to attempt a reading of “Blood Child” without paying special attention to the gendered experience of pregnancy. In Butler’s interview on Radio Imagination she claims that she imagines her characters as bodiless and it is only in the act of writing that she genders, sexes and races them (Mehaffy and Keating 50). The characters, like people, have a internal free floating personality that is brought into conflict with external classifications and racialized/species-specific scripts for them to perform.

Choosing an appropriate analytical lens for understanding the world and worldview of Butler may be something of an impossible project. I am tempted to liberate her from the assumption that “blackness” is the primary determinant of a works meaning but that does a certain violence to her lived experience. Perhaps Butler provides her an alternative. A confused interviewer wonders how Butler can be unconcerned about biological determinism and Butler responds:

Don't worry about the real biological determinism. Worry about what people make of it. Worry about the social Darwinism. What we have to do is learn to work with it and to work against people who see it as a good reason to let the poor be poor, that kind of thing-the social Darwinism: "They must be poor because of their genes," that kind of foolishness. [Mehaffy and Keating 57]

It is possible to read racial autobiography into the work but only insofar as such a reading doesn’t obscure other, equally valid, interpretations. To assert the role of blackness over themes of, say, patriarchy is to work against the multitudinous narratives working within Butler’s texts.

* that means "nigga"

Show and Tell

I’m interested in Butler's portrayal of sight, particularly in Bloodchild and The Evening and the Morning and the Night, in connection with her description of her own “radio imagination.” In both stories, the trauma of characters seeing, particularly seeing their own futures, seems to gesture toward representation problems. Gan has long been prepared for what awaits him with stories, diagrams and drawings, but he does not really understand it until he witnesses Bram Lomas’ horrific birth experience. In The Evening and the Morning and the Night, Lynn does not fully understand DGD until she comes face to face with patients in the ward, and Alan develops a more complicated perspective on Dilg, despite having read copious literature on what to expect, once he actually looks around there. Since seeing is so crucial for to each character's understanding of the world, I’m interested in why Butler often obscures the vision of her own readers. How are we to really understand if we cannot see?

Like Ellen, I initially imagined Lynn as a man (perhaps because I was overcompensating for assuming Gan was a woman until he revealed that he wasn’t). Furthermore, even when physical descriptions were provided, they did not always help me. For example, I could never quite conceptualize what T’Gatoi looked like. Butler provides a meditation, if not an answer, in her description of her own “radio imagination,” casting physical appearance almost as an afterthought in her work. She has never thought first in terms of what her characters looked like. This connection between not seeing and representing comes into play with Naomi Chi’s art. Having gouged out her own eyes, she works as a sculptor, representing what she can feel and, at least in Lynn’s assessment, representing it well – “in a way that seemed impossible for a blind sculptress” (56).

I feel, then, like there are conflicting messages on the need to see. In some ways, in the acts of representation that Butler and Naomi perform, it appears words and imagination are sufficient. Maybe the key is feeling, not necessarily in the tactile sense, although that’s where Naomi’s inspiration comes from. As I said, I couldn’t see the characters, but when they described the awful spectacles that had made them understand the truth far more vividly than words could, I could conjure up a sense of what they saw. Not necessarily an image, but a feeling, an understanding of the disgust of being exposed to the violence of bodily destruction.*

I’m left grappling with Gan and T’Gatoi’s discussion of seeing at the end of Bloodchild. T’Gatoi concludes that “humans should be protected from seeing,” but Gan argues instead for being “shown.” I don’t think Butler's exclusion of physical descriptions is meant to protect her readers. She shows us the truth in other ways, and reveals that vision in terms of feelings can be just as strong as vision in terms of sight. Even Gan couches his argument for showing in terms of the tactile, explaining that all Terrans see of birth is “pain and terror and maybe death” (29). I feel like I’m left struggling to put my understanding of vision in Butler’s world to words, but I guess that’s appropriate.

*Of course, I imagine I couldn’t feel it as strongly as the character could, since my main exposure to such drastic bodily harm still comes in the form of representation, though visual representation. I was impressed that Gan’s description of the birth scene could produce such a visceral reaction in me, but also wondered if I would have shuddered so much if I couldn’t produce some vision in my mind, a mixture of medical TV shows (the documentaries and the fictionalized) and, most recently, the disturbing imagery in Black Swan.

Martha, Job, and Joby

Keywords: Reality, Body, Self, Utopia, Expectation

Before I started to write this sentence I planned to say that 3 stories really stuck out for me from Olivia Butler: Bloodchild, Speech Sounds, and The Book of Martha. However, when I glanced at the table of contents so I could mention the other stories they all came flooding back to me as well.

Generally, what I enjoyed about all of her stories were the expectations that were not played out. You don't expect men to volunteer to let aliens lay parasites in us; but then again in a perverse way that is exactly what a fetus is for a woman. Similar, you don't expect to find sympathy for an incestuous relationship, but that comes out as well in Near of Kin.

I have a desire to ramble aimlessly about all of the stories but I think I'm going to instead focus on The Book of Martha. Self-described as her "utopia" story it has an interesting conceptual conclusion; that the only real utopia possible would be one in which everyone had their own version of utopia. Because inevitably; whatever is perfect for one person would be just the opposite for everyone else.

The Book of Martha is more fantasy than science fiction, but as I've said before I don't really think the distinction is important. My favorite part of this work is the ongoing dialogue between God and Martha in which the Almighty basically pokes holes in each of her possible ideas to save humanity and avoid the necessity of another flood (or worse).

The idea of a character interacting directly with God obviously can be traced back to the Bible but it is a popular theme in fantasy literature as well. Heinlein wrote Job: A Comedy of Errors and recently in 2007, Mark Ferrari wrote The Book of Joby. Of those, I actually prefer the latter, because Ferrari writes God with the same type of voice that Butler does. In both cases God is, for lack of a better word, sassy. He's a bit of a know-it-all but he doesn't come across as omniscient or omnipotent but rather just like a parent talking to a child. Although I am not personally religious, I find that that idea of a creator figure is much more comforting that one wielding lightning bolts.

In fact, although the Devil plays no direct roll in Butler's story, I see the connection to Job, Heinlein, and Ferrari in that sense as well. In each of those cases, the story hinges on a wager made between God and the Devil about corrupting one individual and the redeeming nature of God's decision to grant humanity free will. The idea of free will is central to Butler's story; it is Martha who will decide how to save the world, not God. I can almost imagine a prologue to the story in which God and the Devil grab a cup of coffee and Satan bets that if given the power to change the world for the better any human will inadvertently change it for the worse.

Insane in the Brain

Octavia Butler's "Crossover" is a hard look at mental disorder, perhaps schizophrenia or some other serious form of delusional hallucination, which as Conor wrote could be an association between black artistry and insanity. (I sort of assume that it's schizophrenia, but I use the term loosely…) What I find curious is Jane's flickering sense of self-awareness throughout her relapse, her rejection of identity, and the possibility she affords herself to liminally pass between acceptance and denial of her constructing and deconstructing of identity via substances: alchohol and sleeping pills.

What is a neurological problem is instead framed in terms of identity: "There were few things she hated more than her own name" (118), "I'd rather be dead than here picking up where we [I] left off three months ago" (117). Like Lynn in "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" (whose name is also mentioned rarely), Jane experiences her problems with herself, which are left vague but visceral, through an external aspect of biology. Given the glancing mention of advanced technology in her factory, there are still alcoholic bums and schizophrenic Janes—they live within the confines of an identifying world but they are thrown aside. Yet Jane refuses to see the street people: "He did not matter any more than the others" (114), "She almost ran from him, barely controlling her disgust" (114). Here, Jane pushes herself from them despite her similarity; she female and schizophrenic, but physiologically dependent on the same alcohol and physically located in the same booze store. This splitting is parallel to the first appearance of Scarface.

Unlike Brad Pitt, Scarface had never been handsome.

Jane's dark descent happens in part because she goes for the alcohol—she takes the blue pill. Scarface taunts her for throwing away her (dependency forming) sleeping pills, which led to his 3 month disappearance. These substances are parts of Jane's constructed identity highlighted by their artificiality, and the end result is not pretty. In the same way, technological advances have not really done Jane any good; her thankless manufacturing job in a high-tech factory and her easy access to alcohol and sleeping pills have sped up her degeneration, while she lacks medical attention. On the other hand, because her sickness occurs by the hand of her world, it is also labeled by the same; here, the association with Lynn is greatest.

But Jane's dependency signifies that she has adopted substances into her life, whatever the external influences which she ignores as best she can. In this identity there is hope: "[T]hey had eaten and made love" (116), "What would a decent-looking guy want to do with me?" (116). She oscillates wildly between ambivalence and depths of rage. Her uncertainty gives the created identity equal footing with the unadulterated one she lives gloomily in at work. Her substance abuse has both obstructed and facilitated her search for calm, but it is not at all clear whether her equilibrium is exactly at one identity or two. The fact that she can drink and still wait for her hallucination to vanish (119) shows that she has a degree of control on her insanity—that the splitting of herself into drinking Jane and scarface is itself a creative act of identity.

Are these substances stand-ins sui generis? This very short story was written in 1970, so the impetus is there. But more broadly, can we interpret them as agents of the process of cognitive estrangement? Similarly, one may read the story as Jane's painful explication of her own neurological estrangement to construct an identity compatible with her head splitting schizophrenia. Or, estrangement from blackness to achieve an introspective creative identity. Or, estrangement from technology to understand one's fundamental wants and desires. (Although when it comes to estrangement, mpreg can make everything else look like child's play, at least to one readership.)

Edit: After a moment of further thought, I'm putting more chips on writing about drugs and substances: altering cognition, sleep, conscious perception. For example, why sleeping pills, except for the comparison with liminality? Why not anesthetics? Why does Jane have to perceive her world as solid and exact at all, with only its complex characters (real and imaginary) causing so much pain in their fluidness, and her alcohol relieving it? This goes back to "The Evening and the Morning and the Night," where drugs are ineffective but natural pheromones work. For this to work assumes the existence of a "natural state" where drugs are bad and DARE officers are good, a presumption which must presumably be turned on its head.

Bloodchild and MPreg

Okay, first of all-if you haven't yet come across the term "mpreg" and can't guess what it stands for, it's a shortening of "male pregnancy" and is mostly used in fanfic with slash pairings. I don't know enough about it to do more than speculate (I wash my hands of mpreg fics) but I guess there's an impulse to give a happy couple a baby and when the couple comprises of two men, one of them has to step up and be the bearer (because apparently surrogacies don't exist...?). According to this Wikipedia article of Fan Fiction Terms, mpreg is something that often comes with a warning. So, presumably, the Implied Reader finds it not to their taste, for whatever reason.

I go into this because in her afterword to "Bloodchild", Butler says, "'Bloodchild' is my pregnant man story" (30). The prevalent motif in the story itself, to me, was pregnancy. I read it mostly as a way of understanding how people deal with having children, how people raise their children to have children, how the process of child-bearing can be alternately vilified and deified. What makes this story's version of mpreg horrifying, rather than whatever mpreg is in fanfic (again, haven't read enough to make any sort of sweeping generalization, but I am aware of how female pregnancy often works in fanfics) is the effort taken to make it horrifying. Seeing Lomas birthing these "long, thick grubs" (16) fills Gan with disgust; he vomits, and weeps, seeing "red worms crawling over redder human flesh" in his mind's eye (17).

They don't look so bad now, but just wait until they lay eggs IN YOU. I understand why Butler had to work through her fears through storytelling. Image source: J. Eibl, U.S. Department of Agriculture, via Wikipedia

Until he is confronted with Lomas, and the truth about birth, Gan is able to believe that "this was a good and necessary thing Tlic and Terran did together--a kind of birth" (16). He continues, "I knew birth was painful and bloody, no matter what. But this was something else, something worse. And I wasn't ready to see it. Maybe I never would be" (16-17). Suddenly confronted by the reality of the situation he has been prepared for all his life, Gan finds himself horribly, violently disgusted. The terms he chooses to represent this process, however, reveal a strange analogy with human reproduction itself, even though he attempts to establish human sexual reproduction as good and natural.

The story parallels the (Terran) male experience of interspecies pregnancy with the (Terran) female experience of human pregnancy. The clearest indication of this parallel is the interchangeability of Gan and his sister, Xuan Hoa--either will serve willingly as bearers of T'Gatoi's child(ren). Hoa, however, has another duty ahead of her: "to bear [her] own young" (21). When T'Gatoi points out that Hoa would find it easier to bear Tlic children than Gan, because "she has always expected to carry other lives inside her" (26), this similarity becomes a point of difference, as the other lives were always intended to be human (26). Interchangeable, parallel, but different, and not just in the species of their children; Gan has seen birth and accepts it knowing that he will be cut into and have writhing worms plucked from his flesh. He makes an informed choice, partly driven by fear, partly by the desire to protect his sister...and partly by love (what is love?). His choice is almost more meaningful now, because he has seen what he was not supposed to see, what T'Gatoi expected would turn him away from the duty he was raised to perform. Almost.

Gan's lack of real knowledge about the process of birth accompanies a belief that he does know, from "diagrams and drawings", and from T'Gatoi's efforts to "ma[ke] sure [Gan] knew the truth as soon as [he] was old enough to understand it" (13). This assurance gives him the self-confidence to help Lomas, though both T'Gatoi and Qui believe for different reasons that he wasn't supposed to see the act (10, 21). Gan identifies the effect that watching Lomas has on him, in contrasting himself with Xuan Hoa. He thinks "Hoa wanted it...She hadn't had to watch Lomas. She'd be proud. . . . Not terrified" (25). Without the actual knowledge that he gains by watching Lomas, Gan would be proud and self-assured, as he was before, as Hoa is now. After learning the truth (the truthier truth?), terror replaces pride. The truth about birth is one that T'Gatoi believes should be avoided (28) and that Gan believes should be welcomed (29).

I can't help but carry this parallel to its other side: human reproduction. If the knowledge that Gan gains through experiencing birth in this way is both more terrifying and more crucial than the knowledge gained from diagrams and expectations, then what of the total absence of this sort of experience with respect to human birthings? Gan's mother gave birth to "'huge' children" (14), hinting at some difficulty during the process. Gan believes that Hoa should give birth to "[h]uman young who should someday drink at her breasts, not at her veins" (26), but ignores the period of gestation, during which the developing embryo absorbs nutrients indirectly from the mother's blood. One could argue that the absence of a detailed glimpse into (human) pregnancy and birth is justified by most human readers' experience with and knowledge of birth, but there is a suggestion that human pregnancy and human birth is itself as terrifying and disturbingly alien as the interspecies parasitism masquerading as "a kind of birth" (16). First she alienates the reader by having a man bear the young, and then Butler draws the parallel experiences together to offer an insight into human fears, with the full powers of cognitive estrangement at work.

Birth! You should have seen this diagram in Sex Ed...right? Image source: Seth's post

Treatments of treatment

Although a large part of what I liked about Octavia E. Butler’s work is its avoidance of strict allegory without any compromise in its imagination, I found myself strongly inclined towards an allegorical reading of the medicalization of black embodiment into “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” In the end, I’m not sure I could balance all the story’s terms according to such a schema—certainly I was surprised to find her afterword drawing connections exclusively to the medical. In retrospect, I indulged an impulse to automatically project blackness onto a black author’s work that may not be without merit, but certainly should not be undertaken without circumspection.

It might be worthwhile to share a more proximate cause of my reading of blackness into the medical domain of the story that, however relevant, may not be eagerly received in an academic setting. Just a few days before opening the Butler, I was shown the music video for Lil’ Boosie’s “Mind of a Maniac” for the first time. The video’s somewhat disturbing and problematic (even by the standards of rap videos—music videos in general, actually), but those interested can watch it below:

As is often the case with rap tropes, the association of black artistry with insanity could be construed as offensive in the hands of a less self-conscious (or whiter) performer. (Whether critical analysis falls subject to this same problem is largely behind my initial hesitation to discuss the video and embed it in my post.) But what I find remarkable about the video’s construction is the way in which Lil’ Boosie manages to perform his own conscription into a white, critical establishment that reads his performance (mostly the rapping, though the familiar child’s trick of inverting the eyelids might count as an even less ambiguous signifier) as a medically diagnosable “behaviorial trait.” All of the deviant performative gestures in the video, meant to read as tics, only appear under the confining interpolation of the medical establishment; in the studio and on “the street,” where Boosie’s performance reads more “naturally,” his intensity and verve deserve admiration, rather than the administration of treatment. Not only does it become impossible, then, to advance from Boosie’s media presentation to his actual condition*; one becomes aware of the quasi-medical and racist motivations for just this movement.

I’m happy to end with Butler, since her story of the medical interpolation of “deviant” embodiment has a much happier ending. Instead of the escalating interiorized spiral of self-destructive performance (which I’m tempted by essentialism to ascribe to masculinity and rap), we see a de-escalating interpersonal spiral of ameliorative care, which Butler’s terms allow us to associate with femininity and the family. If there’s any genuine overlap and not merely overeager superimposition in my comparison, it comes with the revelation of the Dilg facility, which (again) represents the positive inversion of the medical system in “Mind of a Maniac,” a place where “‘out-of control [“deviants”] create art and invent things’” (48). A final point—and to me the most compelling one offered by such a straightforward allegorical reading—requires we observe how the cure of feminine care for self-destructive violence seems to threaten the male with disenfranchisement. His response is initially rejection; the way Butler writes the womanly counter to and incorporation of this rejection back into the curative system strikes me as excessively optimistic, but the more beautiful for it. “Inside the car, Alan said something to the guard. I couldn’t hear what it was, but the sound of his voice reminded me of him arguing with her—her logic and her scent.” (68) Alan can no more reject the potential of the Dilg treatment than someone can choose not to smell; he is inscribed within a materialist logic of feminine care.

* Thus I resist mentioning at all the actual predicament Boosie currently faces—the death penalty—though provides most of my emotional motivations for bringing in this video, and listening to Boosie in general. Arguably, there is some justice in mentioning it, for rather than entailing any claims about Boosie’s guilt or madness, it requires we become once more attentive to the enormous and ongoing injustices in the practice of legal confinement, medical interpolation and labor exploitation in the American prison system.

Symptoms of the Modernist Disease

The Evening, the Morning and the Night

As a black woman writing science fiction Octavia Butler admits to constantly dealing with the question, "What good is science fiction to Black people?" Her response was, "At its best, science fiction stimulates
imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what "everyone" is saying, doing, thinking- whoever "everyone" happens to be this year. And what good is all this to Black people?" (page 134-135). I would argue that it is as important as any other literature to readers, especially Black people. Thus by her own admission science fiction is a way to look again at what we are doing as a society. Science fiction brings with it a hint of stereotype as is inherent in genre by way of focusing on topical issues and enlarging them to occupy a space of cosmic importance.

It is in this light that the short story "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" functions as an examination of the modernist condition of people, black or white, in the world. Lynn expresses a real dread of failing to meet the challenges before her. "For long, irrational minutes, I was convinced that somehow if I turned, I would see myself standing there, gray and old, growing small in the distance, vanishing" (page 68). In this quote she displays an extreme fear of fading away and not accomplishing anything in her lifetime. One of the questions I still haven't found an answer to is how much of this is due to her disease and how much is related to her position as a person in society?

Butler examines several issues of all people through the lense of a specific group of people subject to a degenerative disease known as Duryea-Gode disease (DGD). DGD is influenced by three real world diseases: Huntington's disease, phenylketonuria (PKU), and Lesch-Nyhan. The specific symptoms of which relate to the dominance of the disease in all offspring, the necessity of dietary restrictions, and a desire to self-harm leading to eventual mental impairment.

The long-run symptoms are not pertinent to this discussion, as the Butler chose to focus the story on a woman still in her twenties looking to establish herself in a world which she is slightly askance of by virtue of her genetics. This feeling of otherness works on a number of levels as a metaphor for displaced youth, black people in society, women's role in society, and especially black women in society. Sufferers of DGD are prone to a number of immediate symptoms including burning out faster than most other people, a drive to leave a mark before their premature deaths by the disease, alienation from others, and a feeling of being trapped in their body.

Pablo Picasso displays Modernism in action
Many of these symptoms seem pretty typical to people in Modernist literature. A shorter-lifespan gives them a different perspective on human accomplishment than others, and is most likely the cause of their great breakthroughs in the scientific fields. Their alienation from others is not a direct effect of the disease, but rather a result of outside perception on their dominant disorder. Finally, their feeling of being trapped in their bodies is a deliberate reference to eastern religions. As Butler described it, the DGDs feels "imprisoned within their own flesh, and that the flesh is somehow not truly part of them" (page 70). This belief isn't necessarily tied to the disease, as many different religions including Buddhism hold that the body is a trap for the spirit and that only through accomplishments can we seek a higher vessel in our next trip through the world.

Their shorter-lifespans may exacerbate the problems facing all people for those suffering from DGD, yet that doesn't make them any different from any historically mistreated or distrusted group. Through this genetic disorder Butler is able to take on issues of social Darwinism, racial superiority, and other divides in society by way of discussing a very real genetic distinction between the in-group and the out-group. Lynn seeks to justify this in a dialogue resisting the genetic. She claims that the reason DGDs were good at the sciences was "terror and a kind of driving hopelessness" (page 37). She denies that this drive towards the sciences is anything but a indirect result of the disease, choosing to believe that it stems from their shorter lifespan rather than a genetic predisposition. Lynn adds dismissively, "healthy people have all the time in the world for stupid generalizations and short attention spans" (page 39). The implication is there though.

Beatrice relates the story of the man who constructed the locks in Dilg as "nobody in particular... But sometime in his life he read a science-fiction story in which palmprint locks were a given. He went that story one better by creating one that responded to voice or palm" (page 65). This ties back to the underlying implication that science fiction holds some of the answers, whether they be as metaphors for current societal ills or as inspiration for steps forward in the fields of technology, genetics, and especially how society would best cope with these changes.

Living with the Other in "Bloodchild" & "Amnesty"

tags: power, control, living with the Other, identity, change

In her both her short stories “Bloodchild” and “Amnesty”, Octavia E. Butler explores two different worlds in which human beings live side-by-side with an alien race of beings. In “Bloodchild”, this race is the insect-like Tlic, and the world is their own, a planet to which human beings fled to escape the persecution of other human beings. In “Amnesty”, the world is our own Earth, to which the alien Communities came on a one-way transport – the reason why they left their home is, of course, never given.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live

In The Book of Martha, Octavia Butler presents what she calls her "utopia story" (214). The only place utopia can occur, she suggests in the story and in her afterword, is "in everyone's private, individual dreams" (214). However, I was troubled by this "utopia," as it suggests that true happiness must come at the cost of reality. Martha decrees that everyone "would have their own personal best of all possible worlds during their dreams" (203), but if everyone has their "best possible world" handed to them in dreams, what can possibly motivate them to make a better world in reality? How can society progress, or even survive, when its inhabitants are wrapped up deep in their own imagination?

"Each person will have a private, personal utopia every night" (204), Martha suggests, but the words "private" and "personal" here suggest that this "utopia" is actually very isolating. Each person can play in their ideal fantasy world, but they cannot share it with others. They will make friends, fall in love, have adventures, but always alone, always with figments of their own imagination. God's comment, "Everything is real. It's just not as you see it" (208) and Martha's power to shape God and Heaven (or whatever we want to call the place in which she finds herself) to her own specifications suggests that this loneliness is intentional, that everything in life is both real and a dream, constructed by what a person "sees." "Reality" is formed by each person's perspective, and therefore is always to some extent a figment of their imagination, always a somewhat isolated experience, separate from the experiences of others. Is Martha's suggestion therefore little different from the "reality" that she already inhabits, improved to allow people to taste their own idea of happiness?

"If only I could wake up," Martha whispers, at the start of her story (189), but by the end, she only wants "to forget" (213). From one perspective, Martha therefore undergoes a great change during the course of the story, moving from a desire to experience truth, to the desire to escape it. However, a second perspective suggests that Martha is always filled with the desire to escape unwanted reality. When she whispers, "If only I could wake up," she is aware that her experience is real, but wishes it could be a dream so that she could escape it and return to her more-familiar life of before. Although the desire is framed differently each time, Butler therefore suggests that Martha is always eager to "forget" the unwanted, and turn to a more comforting experience of almost-reality.

Yet will Martha's solution even provide everyone their own private utopia? Her idea relies upon the idea that people know what they want, and will be happy when they get it. Indeed, one might consider Martha's own experience with God as her own dream; as an author, she finds herself able to play God, to shape the world to her liking, to allow people to experience their fantasies. Yet Martha finds that she hates this power in "reality," and ultimately wants to forget the experience. If we consider Martha's experience in this story as one of the dreams that she creates, experiencing "whatever people love to do most... whatever grabs their attention, whatever they desire" (204), it seems that having "whatever you desire" might ultimately be a negative experience, that too much power and influence, even within your own private world, is terrifying. Will Martha's "utopia," like many before it, therefore crumble into dystopia, even in people's dreams? Is total happiness impossible, even when it is lived as a figment of one's imagination? What happens when one's desires are not bounded by reality?

Body Language

One theme I noticed throughout several of Octavia Butler’s short stories was the importance of the body in communication. This theme is the most blatant in “Speech Sounds”, which is set in a dystopian world where an unspecified illness has robbed most of the remaining population of their ability to speak and understand language. Throughout the story, we see the extent to which body language has come to compensate for any verbal or written communication, expressing both aggression and love at different points in the story. In “Bloodchild”, although dialogue is informative, most meaningful interaction is physical. While the reader instinctively shies away from the idea of giant centipede-like creatures holding a position of power within a human household, the way T’Gatoi cradles Gan and his mother, adored but “caged”, illustrates the dynamic of the family unit more effectively than could pages of conversation. Butler’s shockingly visceral depictions of the conception and birth of the worms, paired with the clear indication that this arrangement operates under the consent of the human host, are similarly demonstrative of the complex relationship between Terran (human) and Tlic.

As Alexandra suggested in her post, much of the key “body language” in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” is tied up in the violent, generally self-destructive behavior of the DGD victims as they attempt to literally dig themselves out of their own bodies. Given Butler’s use of the body as an expressive tool, this characterization of the disease is particularly telling, as it implies that those with the disease are, through the act of self-mutilation, removing themselves from society in a wholly physical way, destroying their own methods of communication—their bodies. In keeping with this theme, DGD victims are only judged to be members of society again when they regain the ability to create and express themselves with their bodies, through acts such as painting, molding clay, or building inventions. Alan’s mother, a DGD victim who destroyed her own eyes, signals her relative freedom from the effects of the disease by running her fingers over Alan and Lynn’s faces. With Beatrice’s guidance, she even manages to hug her son—a symbol of acceptance and affection that needs no words.

When asked about her emphasis on the body in her interview with Marilyn Mehaffy and AnaLouise Keating, Butler replies, “the body is all we really know that we have. We can say that there’re always other things that are wonderful. And some are. But all we really know that we have is the flesh” (59). Given this presentation of the body as a sort of fundamental truth, combined with the essentiality of the body and body language in her writing (as described above and as Mehaffy describes in the interview), I was surprised at Butler’s seeming unwillingness to describe her protagonists. In none of the three of the stories I mentioned do we receive a physical description of the protagonists, and in two out of the three (“The Evening and the Morning and the Night” and “Speech Sounds”) I found myself drastically altering my perceptions of the main characters partway through the story, as Butler withholds basic demographic information for several pages—far longer than the norm for such brief works. (I had initially imagined Lynn to be male, which was not really refuted until Alan’s introduction, and I had imagined Rye to be quite young.) Similarly, race is generally ignored in Butler’s works, despite the enormous role it played in the author’s own life. Given that most authors seem to slip in basic descriptive information at the very beginning of their stories (albeit subtly), I can only assume that this is purposeful on Butler’s part—perhaps as a way of generalizing the experiences of her characters across a spectrum of physical traits.

Edit: I somehow missed Kai's post when writing this, so I'd like to make a belated acknowledgment to his exploration of the same theme I discussed above.

Butler's Utopia Story

“The Book of Martha” is technically not science fiction at all. It reads as a romantic dream fantasy - Butler calls it her “utopia story” (214), and it ends the second edition of the Bloodchild stories beautifully. It also serves as an excellent way of thinking through some of the concepts Butler discusses in the “Radio Imagination” interview with Marilyn Mehaffy and AnaLouise Keating.

When God offers Martha, an author, a chance to alter one facet of humans in order to prevent them from destroying themselves, she claims that she doesn’t believe in utopias - “[I]t’s [not] possible to arrange a society so that everyone is content, everyone has what he or she wants” (202). God agrees - humanity is dominated by covetousness, the aggression inspired by wanting what one’s neighbor has (and more). This, to me, seems strikingly similar to the “human contradiction” that Butler writes about in the Xenogenesis Trilogy - “human beings have two characteristics that don’t work well together… Hierarchical behavior and intelligence” (“RI” p. 53). Martha hopes that by allowing everyone to have vivid dreams about their own “private, perfect [or imperfect] utopia every night… it might take the edge off their willingness to spend their waking hours trying to dominate or destroy one another” (204). The idea of private dream utopias traces back to Butler’s idea that one utopia cannot be ideal for everyone - a utopia is usually “perfect” only to the person who envisions it.

In “The Book of Martha,” utopia is relative, just as Martha’s image of God is relative - as God first appears as an old white man, then a black man, then a black woman who looks related to Martha, Martha learns that “you see what your life has prepared you to see” (209). That is, I think, the basis of “radio imagination”- Butler mentions in her interview that “I realize that I have been writing about people for years and I’ve never seen any of them. I have the kind of imagination that hears. I think of it as radio imagination” (48). Her interviewers believe that “in radio narration, the socially-built body… in Butler’s fiction…. Is initially displaced and delayed…. The ‘punch’ of such an aesthetics… allows readers to ‘see’ and to ‘hear’ characters’ situational relations and ‘problems’ before classifying those relations within familiar idioms of race, gender, or sexuality” (48). So, in “The Book of Martha,” we can see Butler’s fascinating concept of radio imagination extended to “relative utopias,” which offers a way to subvert the hierarchical/dominant thinking inherent in the “human contradiction.” Beautiful.

And then I became slightly confused about “The Book of Martha” - as God prophesied, Martha will become the lowest rung on the new social hierarchy she creates, simply because she has created “the end of the only career [she’s] ever cared about” (213). She and God (and Butler) seem to take it for granted that “pleasure reading” would suffer in a world where people live inside their own fantasies every night (212). This, to me, seems like a fairly pessimistic view of what human intelligence means - socially constructed worlds that people are born into naturally prevent them from seeing beyond normative ideas of race, gender, sexuality, etc. As Butler claims in “Radio Imagination,” she aims to “stretch minds” (53). Without pleasure reading, the ability to read about alternate possibilities of life, how will people stretch their dreams beyond their daily experiences? I'd like to hope that in Martha’s ideal dream utopia world, the market for pleasure reading (especially novels that present entirely new or speculatively realistic worlds) would actually spike. I hope that the “intelligence” aspect of the “human contradiction” would motivate people to think beyond their own imaginations and strive to understand other people’s. Would individual utopias - more specifically, the inherent “hierarchical” inclination to privilege one’s own utopia above anyone else’s - prevent people from cooperating to enact changes? What would a humanity that doesn't perceive a need for speculative fiction look like? Does the end of fantasy writing in "The Book of Martha" contradict Butler's fictional aims to stretch the human mind?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Coping with Disaster

One thing that fascinated me about Octavia Butler's stories were their in-depth and frank discussion of human reactions to our baser fears. Whether the feared disaster are the diseases in "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" and "Speech Sounds," or the forced but necessary condition in "Bloodchild," the result is that the characters must cope with some disruptive change with what we as the readers see as a normal life. The interesting thing is that the revulsion we feel for the described situations is not solely biological, but rather socially constructed. All three stories deal not with a true apocalypse, but rather with a situation arising from a loss of control. We as social and sapient beings fear both biological and social disasters yet it is interesting in that the latter both affects and is created by a purely arbitrary construct. To summarize, there is no "instinct" for crafting a society.

The titular story in the collection deals with two fundamental human fears: that of parasitic (non-human) life growing within us (a purely primal fear) and that of loss of control to a non-human or human-defined entity. The latter is a far more interesting case to discuss, as it deals not with a biological impulse but rather with a social one. Over the past few thousand years, humans have adapted to be the rulers of the planet with no serious rival. However, in "Bloodchild" that principle is turned on its head as humans appear to be little more than 'pets with rights' for the Tlic. While the Tlic may seem worried for their humans at times (see page 18), it still remains that humans live on a "preserve" and that there is only a limited timespan in which grubs can be safely removed from their host before the latter is fatally injured/eaten (as almost happened to Lomas).

A Worst-Case Scenario, and One That We Fundamentally Fear

Fortunately for us, Butler does not restrict herself in her portrayal of humans' reactions to this situation. Gan's family shows the full range of emotions related to the biologically parasitic arrangement: the mother's passive-agressive fear, Qui's agressive disgust, Xuan Hoa's adoration, and Gan's hesitation yet decision to "sacrifice" himself to save his sister. As would be expected, he majority fear this situation in which they lack dominant power. However, I think it was an excellent creative choice on the author's part to show the whole spectrum of reactions rather than simply the two extremes. Humans must often deal in a "grey area" and I think "Bloodchild" does a good job of addressing our fears of change and lack of control.

While I don't have enough space here to give "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" and "Speech Sounds" a proper analysis in this manner, I do hope to touch upon their focal points. The former somewhat parallels "Bloodchild" in that it deals with humans losing control to some degree. Once more, the fear addressed is not solely biological as we also fear both a lack of self-control as well as ostracism from society. However, this disease does not affect everyone so the majority continue with their lives. In "Speech Sounds," society collapses after an epidemic (mostly) wipes out speech and apparently heightens agression. Once more, the fear is social in that we would either suddenly lack the means for effective communication, lose control of our baser impulses, or be ostracized because we were in the minority who were affected in a different manner. Nevertheless, some manage to persevere and the very fact that a bus still runs is testament to that.

Even Without Easy Communication, Transportation is Still Valued

In summary (and I apologize for a long post), Butler addresses our baser fears that aren't necessarily rooted in evolution or instinct. Nonetheless, we seem to fear these situations equally as we have developed beyond our own baser impulses and have moved into the realm of human-constructed reactions, desires, and fears.

Creation Through Destruction

I have included in my post two images from the work of Vesalius, who studied and wrote on human anatomy in the sixteenth century. As Vesalius’ book progresses, the layers of the body are gradually stripped away, revealing various muscles and organs and eventually leaving behind only the bare skeleton. In part, this process of looking deeper and deeper into the body was a quest for a certain quintessence that makes us human, and in philosophy led to ideas like Cartesian dualism and other theories about the mind/body relationship. Is there a physical manifestation of the soul, the spirit, the mind, or whatever you may want to call it, hidden away within ourselves? Or are our bodies mere matter, an earthly cage for the soul and nothing more?

In Octavia Butler’s story “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” those in the more advanced stages of Durea-Gode disease seem to be propelled to destroy themselves while trying to get at something deep within. The most we get about the mental processes that drive the self-mutilation phase of the disease is in the brief description of the fate of Lynn’s parents. The actions of Lynn’s father and other DGD sufferers are repeatedly described as “digging” (36, 53), and the ultimate goal seems to be reaching the heart, which could be seen as the most innermost point of the body, protected as it is by the ribcage and sternum. According to Lynn, this digging is an attempt to escape: “They try so hard, fight so hard to get out” of “Their restraints, their disease, the ward, their bodies” (53). For their entire lives, all those with DGD are in some sense restrained. They are confined by the knowledge of the ultimate path of their disease and are limited by the prejudices against them, until an attempt to escape, no matter how violent or destructive the means, is inevitable. Are not only other people, the other sex, or other species alien to ourselves, but even our own bodies somehow separate from us? Can a digging inward be seen as an escape attempt—going in, in order to “get out?” It is similar to Qui’s problem in “Bloodchild” whenever he tries to run away from home—“there was no ‘away’” in the Preserve (19). All outward trajectories eventually lead right back in again.

I was fascinated by the how that the destructive, inward force of DGD could be redirected to other pursuits, mainly to the creation of art and inventions. As Beatrice puts it, her patients are taught to “channel their energies” (49). Suddenly, an overwhelming urge to rip open and break down is dramatically transformed into a creative impulse. What is the connection between destruction and creation? Are the forces that drive them similar or in fact the same? Do the two always necessarily go together? “Bloodchild” touches on this issue as well, with its gruesome scene of the emergence of new Tlic. Gan had been told all his life “that this was a good and necessary thing Tlic and Terran did together—a kind of birth” (16). After witnessing a “birth,” Gan decides that the “whole procedure was wrong, alien” (17) and yet in the end chooses to undergo that very procedure. Does creation have to be violent and harmful to the creator? Is it the extremely delicate balance of creative and destructive forces that makes DGD patients so innovative and artistically gifted? It seems that creation depends to some extent on successfully hovering right on the edge of death and destruction.