Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Civilization & Superstition

I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing -Darth Vader

Hey everyone! Sorry this is so late. A midterm on Tuesday and Ulysses took most of my time for the last few days. I noticed several themes cropping up while I was reading Nova this week. The physicality of the characters, how much of their individuality and personality was tied into their bodies and forms of expression. Another theme I picked up on was the immense distance between objects in space, the vastness of the void and how transportation was the hub on which all people relied on in order for the societies in the Pleiades Federation outer rim planets to function in any form remotely resembling modern society. Delany also forms a commentary on current forms of expression in Katin's proto-novel, an archaic form in the future where the senses can be directly stimulated by an instrument and the wonders of the universe are open to them. Issues of labor and scarcity crop up through the concept of the "ports" which the people use to plug-in to technologies and Illyrion.

Futurama's Holophoner = Sensory Syrinx
What struck me most about Nova was the juxtaposition of the modern and the anachronistic as provided by examples such as Katin's novel and the tarot cards in the story. When Katin describes what a novel is to Mouse he states it is an, "archaic art form superseded by the psychorama" (page 27). He claims that it was capable of "vanished subtleties, both spiritual and artistic, that the more immediate form has not yet equaled" (page 27). Through the use of anachronistic, outdated forms such as the novel Delany calls attention to the barbarous tendencies of societies regardless of the passing of time.

This barbarism is called out most specifically in Lorq's recollection of watching the futuristic "cock-fight" he saw with Ruby and Prince. The lizards used in this practice works as a metaphor for how things fall apart, "the offspring of that race's gods, dwarfed by evolution, were mocked in the pits by drunken miners, as they clawed and screeched and bit" (page 95). The god's of a race may beget the lowest of the low, taken as game by those that follow. Time will lay objects of worship down to objects of sports– displaying the barbarism in society regardless of how far we have advanced.


Another example of continuity in the futuristic society of Nova is the Tarot cards, which now serve as a sort of prediction of the future based on the Jungian symbolism. This is in fact a reversion back to past superstition. Katin may make plas to justify this practice as embodying basic symbols that crop up all throughout human history, but really all he is doing is prescribing a framework that only fits the events in retrospect. Indeed, people who see the future in light of these symbols find the symbols prescriptive because they believe in them: if you think you will meet a stranger who will change your life for the better, you are more likely to be open to that sort of thing or if you think all you have built will fall to ruin you may take any sign of adversity as the coming of this and facilitate your own downfall. In a society where the wonders of far-flung galaxies are within our grasp it seems dubious that such a silly thing as the tarot would carry weight. Irony aside this shows the ebb and flow of culture over time; as time passes something out of vogue falls back in again and we find our understanding of our surroundings cast into doubt by the light of discovery.

There will be Carpet


Delany imagines a future where strife, discord and discontent are solely the province of the super-rich heirs of intergalactic corporations. Man has developed a stunning array of technologies liberating him from contagion, disease and, for the most part, death. Travel between solar systems is quotidian, virtual reality is the main mode of entertainment and barren moonscapes are terraformed into thriving megacities. In his bewildering vision of the future there is also lots of beige carpet. Creating an entirely new universe of experience is a difficult project and I don’t look to belittle Delany’s project so much as point out the function of the science fiction novel.

Delany’s project looks to problematize or remedy the major constraints and deficits of our current period – objects and issues which don’t strike the author as possible causes of tension are left intact. Katin serves as our guide through the historical developments which have led to the current conditions of the 31st century and often explains, somewhat pedantically, how major issues of conflict were resolved. Katin lectures about the end of contagion, the end of alienation vis-à-vis mechanization, and the collapse of great distance by interstellar travel. Throughout the novel Delany hints that education is largely a process of downloading information, travelling many times the speed of light on “bliss” is common and resurrection is possible. These scenes highlight a resolution of problems which plague 20th century man. What I found most interesting are the issues and problems which are not mentioned.

Race, as a discourse, is largely absent in Delany’s work. His cast is a multicolored, from different parts of the galaxy and the greatest differences between them are wealth and dialect. Even the difference between being a citizen of Draco or Pleiades seems to matter only to Prince and Lorq; two elite playboys for whom adventure and conquest are polite games and the massive redistribution of wealth and peoples is a minor inconvenience. Save for Lorq’s scar, Katin’s height and the ebony and ivory twins we receive little information about what, exactly, the characters look like. They largely exist outside of, or perhaps beyond, the staid racial categories of the 21st century. Whereas race is one of the defining characteristics of mobility and labor choice Delany’s future suggests that labor movement and resettlement is totally disconnected from race. Rather, powerful families and corporations control the means and modes of production and care little about race. Delany suggests that without physical markers of difference to separate people, they exist peacefully, without war.

A World Without Novels

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Subtleties, anachronism, metaphor, language, balance

From the very title throughout the entire book, Nova is a novel centered on metaphor. Katin and his desire to write a novel in a world where the form has become obsolete seemed to be the character that explicitly states the elements of metaphor through his recordings. Described as a brilliant and eccentric by the narrator and a self-proclaimed anachronism, the Ivy leaguer and possible author connected back to our own time better than some of the other characters.

The large metaphor of the nova, more specifically balance in general, sprang up throughout the novel. Katin, possibly because of his education and his potential status as a writer, seemed to make the most explicit statements about balance through recording notes and speaking with other characters. In one of Katin’s first recordings, he explains the balance of the novel itself in just a few paragraphs. He describes a nerve cluster in the human brain that “balances the perception of the world outside with the knowledge of the world within” (36). This seems to be the essence of understanding, reading, learning, interpreting, and acting, among other things, the base of life among interacting species. Balance must be kept for an individual or a world to continue to function and exist, but Nova is a novel about when that balance is lost.

As Katin states, “occasionally something goes wrong with the tiny bodies balancing the perceptual pressures on the human brain” (36). Sometimes governments “cannot handle the worlds they govern” which would theoretically lead to civil or world war. And when “something goes wrong with the balancing mechanism inside a sun, the dispersal of incredible stellar power dephases into the titanic forces that make a sun go nova-“ (37). This metaphor and its spread from the individual up to the universe and the sun, could be subtlety found throughout the novel, but why does Delaney use Katin to so explicitly tell the reader and the other characters these subtleties?

Katin’s desire but failure to write a novel place him in a unique position compared to other characters. The novel is described as an “archaic art form…capable of vanished subtleties, both spiritual and artistic” (37). In a world without the novel, learning and interpreting are on a different level. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. Readers no longer interact with characters and fictional situations; all interactions are in reality. Similarly, the English language of reading and writing would no longer exist as a dominant. As Mouse acknowledges, he is not a proficient in reading and writing English as “the letters don’t have nothing to do with the sounds you make” (37). To which, Katin replies, “That’s why English was such a fine language for novels” (37). The balance Katin finds with explaining the larger nova metaphors to characters such as Mouse, as well as respecting the novel and its lost art of subtlety creates an interesting choice by the author.

The Problem With Ashton Clark, Also, How Much I Hate Katin

In Nova, the figure of Ashton Clark seemed to be a somewhat enigmatic, yet fascinating entity in the backdrop of the action. At first, I perceived him to be a futuristic religious figure, and one who had been around long enough to made his way into the colloquial language to boot (“thank Ashton Clark”, and “Ashton Clark go with you” seemed to just be normal, modern, phrases with “God” replaced by AC). Moreover, I initially took this as a parody, perhaps some sort of neo-scientology that worshipped a man whose name definitely would not seem out of place on a sci fi cover. Katin’s eventual explanatory pontification on Ashton clark (one of many by Katin, which, to be frank, I found annoying) I realized it was not satire, but some sort of representation of an idealist economic theory cum spiritualism.

Ashton Clark brings up the of how religion works in a society where science has progressed that engineers become prophets. While there are many differences, this secular religion still seems alarmingly similar to the least attractive aspects of spiritualism. Take, for instance, Mouse’s seeming lack of understanding about the origin of Ashton Clark (which is arguably also just a weak device in order to get Katin to explain to the reader what is going on): he knows literally nothing about the religion, and yet uses its terminology as a reflex. Though he does not believe in it per se, growing up as an outsider in a Gypsy colony, the admission that they “swear by Ashton Clark” proves an equal acknowledgement of his spiritual clout, though for them as a devil rather than a saint. In that case, it is somewhat troubling that Mouse knows so little. A theoretical attraction to a “scientific religion” is the same attraction we have to science right now, hopefully there is a rational logic behind it that allows us to only accept it because we agree with that logic. However, in the case of AC, humanity is ascribing to a social/political/scientific position simply as a matter of faith. Though ailments like disease, nationalism and the limits of the speed of light seem to have all been eradicated, the world of Nova appears to be a dystopia none the less, for more reasons than the political conflict which frames the narrative. The “solution” to religion that Delay provides in conjunction with his solution to disease and space travel (all long-windedly explained by Katin, I’m sorry, I’m just not going to let this go) proves to only be more of the same. Too bad for the future.

Making Contact: Sam's Connections to Self, Others, and Audience

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Like many classmates, I was struck by the bleak isolation of Moon. In particular I focused on Sam’s desire for physical human contact. Early in the Sams’ time together, Sam-5 tells Sam-6, “I just want to shake your hand. Will you shake my hand,” only to be denied by a gruff, “Maybe later.” These dueling desires for contact and separation make sense in light of the Sams’ unique experiences. Sam-5 has spent three years of his life without direct contact with another human. Sam-6 “remembers” being on Earth a week ago. The Sams’ first real physical interaction (after another rejection – this time of a high-five) is a fairly serious fight, heightened by the fact that Sam-5’s deteriorating health quickly brings on a nosebleed, even though Sam-6 “barely touched [him].” Again, physical contact has a greater impact for Sam-5 than it does for Sam-6, this time represented by a physical manifestation of its effect. Finally, near the end of the movie, having reached a mutual understanding (and aware that neither of them has ever really experienced human contact before), the Sams exchange a high-five. In another film (and at first in this one) I would have seen this gradually-formed connection between doubles as symbolic of the protagonist accepting himself. But that doesn’t quite work here because, as Kai pointed out, the question of human identity is so overtly unstable within the movie. It’s hard to distinguish the protagonist, because neither Sam is the original. They are projections of someone who came before.


This idea of projections of someone else’s life carries through into the video messages from Tess and the accompanying implanted memories. From a meta-narrative perspective, I was reminded of our discussion of Total Recall and the importance of distinguishing the real within fiction. In a sense, characters are always projections to us. We use them for entertainment instead of energy, but we’re the ones who bring them to life for a predetermined period and with a predetermined course to follow. Their lives begin there, and all reference to the time before come from implanted memories (in the form of words or flashbacks) that we’re expected to accept as part of their reality. When it’s over, the characters basically stop existing, though thanks to DVDs and the internet we can bring the same character back to life and start the story over again. The whole movie, then, can be seen as a movie about movies, although looking at it this way kind of muddles any important messages that come through when we look at it in terms of outsourcing. It's something of an oversimplification to connect the destruction of each Sam to the end of a movie, since characters can certainly stick with the audience and the audience can imagine the rest of a character's life. But Sam-6’s story incorporates this idea as well. He gets out of the cycle of the character, leaving viewers with a specific question of what happens next. Like each Sam with his implanted memories, the audience forms a strong connection to video projections. We get invested in them almost as if they were real people. Movies are a form of connection through projection, even though we know they’re not real.


As a related tangent to the idea of isolation and connection, reality versus fiction, I also thought about Sam as a prophet, beginning with the references to different work areas as Gospel writers and culminating with Sam-6’s voyage to Earth to spread his version of the truth (it seems to mixed reception). I noticed a few connections between Sam’s story and the Gospel stories of Jesus. Like Jesus, each Sam had three crucial years before death and resurrection (of another Sam). Sam wasn’t quite a carpenter, but he did spend 938 hours (the 39 days falling just short of the Biblical 40) doing some careful woodworking. By the time I started doing math to prove my point, I was beginning to feel a little unsure about making the connection in the first place, but I think if the references were intentional then perhaps so was their lack of credibility. Having followed Sam through the entire movie, the audience is left never knowing what exactly we should believe in.

Human Capital

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Wikipedia defines “human capital” as the “stock of competences, knowledge and personality attributes embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value.” It is also described as “the attributes gained by a worker through education and experience.” Our readings this week, however, allow us to imagine how technology, particularly in the sphere of bio-genetic engineering, can revolutionize and re-conceptualize labor. In Moon, the need for human capital is reduced considerably by automation; all Lunar Industries needs is one person to oversee its helium-3 harvesters. Unfortunately, it costs quite a lot of money to house and compensate someone for the lonely mission, so Lunar Industries figures out a way to cut the latter cost. That is, they create a system that replaces clones every 3 years so that they would never have to pay for the minimal amount of human capital required to run their operation.


Moon challenges the way we think about labor by putting a price on the creation of life—and, of course, the playing of God. Lunar Industries is presumably driven by the value of its bottom line; by effectively reducing labor costs to zero, they no doubt maximize their profits in a big way. At the same time, they provide an important and rare source of clean energy. Perhaps the astronomical costs of attaining this energy simply make paying someone the amount of money necessary to compensate a 3-year sentence to the moon impossible from a business standpoint. If this were the case, how does one begin to balance the price of individual human lives (albeit artificially created ones with implanted memories) against the desperation of humanity's energy crisis?


Sleep Dealer, meanwhile, imagines the future of labor as robotic drones controlled by third world workers across great distances. Here, the value of human capital remains essentially unchanged; it is the demand for actual humans that has declined. This conceptualization of high-tech labor highlights the dichotomy of man and machine, equating them in a productive and mutually beneficial relationship. At the same time, however, the source of this productivity stem directly from the human element. The machine element only enhances the application.


Notably, I thought that this week's texts really epitomized Margaret Atwood's assertion that science fiction allows us to explore the consequences of our deepest, darkest desires. Both of the films treat manpower (as Josh might put it) as a valuable commodity and thus something that could be exploited with technology. Moon's juxtaposition of cloning, labor, and business emphasize not only the greed of capitalism, but also the ingenuity and innovation that spawns from such greed. Sleep Dealer also explores the power of dissociation between thought and action: the long-distance drone control technology is also used in the military, and to great effect. Such dissociation challenges traditional notions of accountability while expanding the potential of human capital. How might one apply himself when it is not his body he is applying? How might he work or fight if he need not worry about physical danger or potential trauma? Most importantly, how will mankind's propensity for vice interact with his advancement in technology?

"Man"power

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Labor, “Man”power, Nodes/Sockets, Energy, Ethics


This was the first week I hadn’t seen any of the films or read the book prior to them being assigned for this class, so I went into it not knowing how each one would fit into the theme of new frontiers of energy. My initial guess was that we would be dealing with new types of raw materials found among the stars and reading Nova, at first I thought my guess had been correct. However, what I was drawn to most in Nova was actually the concept of socketing and the fact that it was basically required to exist in modern society. Beyond that, the philosophical father of the socket idea was the most revered person of the future age.


As I jumped into the movies I was concerned they would be more about mineral energy and I would lose the chance to really examine the change in human power brought about by socketing in Nova. Thankfully, both the movies featured new ways of exploring human power.


The most interesting dilemma presented by the assigned works for this week was the way ethical labor practices go out the window if you can’t see the people doing leather. In Moon, the 3-yr duration clones (apparently made from donor DNA from a person on Earth) have been working, living, and dying with implanted memories for 15 years mining the “energy of the future” and there seems to be no moral concern among the company executives running the project. Additionally, people on the Earth seem unaware of the idea of cloning because you would expect (hope) that people would object to people dying for their energy. This also raises the question of “are clones real people,” “do they have souls,” etc.


In Sleep Dealer, the labor of the 1st world comes in the form of robots operated not by high-tech computers but by the thoughts and mental energy of 3rd world labor transmitting their directions and thoughts over great distances. Now there is no need to worry about harsh labor conditions because it’s A) Just mental energy and B) the laborers aren’t physically present at the job sites. This prevents any 1st world “ethical” labor laws from limiting the amount or type of work that can be done. At the same time, another disjunction occurs in the techno-military organizations of this world, where all combat is done purely by drones run by humans from great distances. Suddenly it’s easier to kill people when it seems like killing people in video games.


In general the most interesting and disturbing ramifications of this week’s assignments were the ones that did the exact opposite of what socketing supposedly did in the world of Nova. Rather than empowering laborers it merely pulled them farther away physically from their work, which made the treatment of laborers no longer an issue. Capitalism suddenly drives everything with no sign of moral blinders.

Plugging in: Futuristic Labor Opportunities in "Nova" and “Sleep Dealer”

Both Nova and “Sleep Dealer” introduce a novel new system of labor: humans as part of the machines they work with. In both the book and the movie, workers are implanted with “nodes” or “sockets” that interact directly with their nervous systems, allowing them to control larger machines by literally plugging themselves in and engaging in what I understood to be a sort of virtual reality interface. What I found striking, however, was the difference in the way each work describes the societal impact of the two nearly identical technologies.

In Nova, Katin explains the introduction of neural plugs as a psychologically beneficial method of labor, developed by psychologist cum pseudo-deity Ashton Clark in an attempt to reverse the mental damage wrought by the labor practices we, the 21st century readers, consider modern. He explains,

There was no direct connection between where he worked and how he ate and lived the rest of the time…Ashton Clark pointed out how psychologically damaging this was to humanity. The entire sense of self-control and self-responsibility… was seriously threatened… He [Man] must exert energy in his work and see these changes occur with his own eyes. Otherwise he would feel his life was futile (195).

On the other hand, in “Sleep Dealer”, the “plug-in” system seems to act as the ultimate distancing agent. Not only are workers hired without knowing what job they’ll be doing, they don’t even need to reside in the same country as the machine that they’re controlling. The surreal nature of this sort of work takes a dangerous turn when it becomes military. Working from his distant controls to a soundtrack of canned applause and supportive commentary, Rudy is so removed from the death and destruction he is causing that it is not until coming into direct contact with Memo’s story that the video game-like illusion is broken and his actions begin to feel real.


While these two presentations oppose each other, I personally do not believe that the effects of the plugs are that black and white in Nova vs. “Sleep Dealer”. Despite Katin’s words, the neural plugs in Nova are not without negative consequence. Although the work seems more direct than in “Sleep Dealer” (the workers remain in the same location as the machine, and seem to choose their own work rather than being assigned a position), the ease with which workers can slip into and out of jobs seems to limit ambition, at least in the working class. Without the need to dedicate themselves to learning a chosen trade, the crew members that Lorq recruits have grown up to be somewhat listless, even apathetic. While they have their chosen individual pursuits (Katin’s novel, Mouse’s instrument, etc.), these pursuits never graduate from hobby to vocation. This state of mind leaves the crewmember ripe for the picking when Lorq recruits them, ready to be swept off, unquestioning, into the grayish power games of the wealthy and powerful. Ashton Clark may have intended to restore a “sense of self-control and self-responsibility” with his new method of labor, but the crewmembers’ willingness to drop everything to blindly follow Lorq suggests quite the opposite.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

12 parsecs

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I highly recommend this background reading on interstellar trade by none other than our own Professor Krugman. My favorite quote: “I do not pretend to develop a theory which is universally valid, but it may at least have some galactic relevance.”

The reason I mention the above paper, which explains how economics is compatible with special relativity (and does it with exceptional sass), is because Nova’s economics is much more straightforward: vaned spaceships do not obey relativistic time dilation, and interstellar communication is uninhibited by causality; these have become traditional assumptions in SF. Yet Nova also comes with a history of political, economic, and cultural shifts—the Von Ray family, the Outer Colonies, and the Vega rebellion—which in part depend on former technological constraints which have since become irrelevant. For all of the benefit associated with the new system of labor and the prospect of sudden “regime change” sitting on the new Illyrion-nova economy, there is nothing quite new about the overall system of economics, which proceeds as a larger-scaled but faster (not slower as in Krugman) version of events which may conceivably have happened on Earth. Part of this is that time in Nova is more or less linear, which brings to mind the notion of progress and the anthropological equating of long times into the past with long distances out in space.

In Nova, the past invariably revolves around the 20th century, but there is no clear allegorical reading which suggests that going to Earth, or any other destination (like Phoenix’s Alkane Institute), is equal to going to the past. On the other hand, since Katin is the author of the narrative constructed after its described events, what we are reading is more closely the narrative of Katin’s (read: Earth’s) relationship to its own history, some recent events experienced firsthand but most designed as retellings, e.g. of Lorq’s past (originally argued about Maus by Young). Because Katin’s perspective of time is the same as everyone else’s, his narrative has historical value when he synthesizes the narratives of those he encounters, like Mouse, into his own narrative. In other words, in the world of Nova all narratives see other narratives in parallel, so that there is not only egalitarian labor but also egalitarian history. As a commentary on history, the narrative also uses nonhistory—tarot readings and myth—not so much as irony than as a continuation of putting ideas and retellings of the past equally. This was not true in The Time Machine, where the Traveller’s mind is not in the same time as the future world and repeatedly fails to analyze it using 19th-century methods, or in The Left Hand of Darkness, where the express nonlinearity of the different perspectives of time available to Genly Ai makes it difficult to write an unbiased linear history.

Nova’s simplified economics allows the narrative to present a presumedly fair scheme of historical retelling (historical outsourcing, anyone?), because Katin’s narrative stands in for Terran introspection toward Earth’s own history. But it’s not really fair, as there must have existed interpretations of history, especially that of Vega, which were selected against and disappeared from the contemporary perspective in which Katin participates.

Alienation, isolation, production

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Moon and Nova seem particularly difficult but fruitful to compare, as each appears especially like an overdetermined document of its moment of production when contrasted with the other—the rollicking, zany world of 1968 seeming to speak a language different from the spare, bleak world of 2009. In order to go about the business of posting, then, I’m going to have to take the somewhat tenuous step of interpreting the absence of what interested me in Nova from Moon as significant (though it’s likelier just a contingent result of the film’s premise): I’d like to compare Delany’s tandem articulation of communal artistic and mechanical production to Moon’s frontier, which seems to be without use for art and humanity alike.


Though it begins to appear this way by comparison, the future of art presented in Nova is hardly undimmed sunny 1960s optimism; not only does Katin’s perpetually delayed ambition to write a novel often seem personally pathetic, but it could easily be dismissed as a senseless and retrogressive anachronism. Still, by the end of our novel his thoughts on the parameters of his seem to me to come into line with the world’s harmony between man and machine that, by Moon’s standards, is almost impossibly hopeful. Katin does, at times, articulate a recognizably contemporary (and perhaps modernist) sense of a novel’s purpose, however cynically: “‘[Novels’] popularity lay in that they belied the loneliness of the people who read them, people essentially hypnotized by the machinations of their own consciousness.’” He tries again to articulate his ambition immediately afterward, by which point he seems to have already moved on to the postmodern “systems novel” (of which his excessive research would seem to be a recognizable symptom), contrasting it with Mouse’s own marvelous, but to a modern reader quite mysterious, form of artistic production: “‘I could sit and watch you play for hours. But they’re only momentary joys, Mouse. It’s only when all one knows of life is abstracted and used as an underlining statement of significant patterning that you have what is both beautiful and permanent.” (178-179) We might make sense of the differing theories by reference to the 1960’s own peculiar amalgams between incipient postmodern paranoia and nostalgic romantic or modernist affection for the heroic, suffering, male and martyred artist, but it might be more effective—if more tenuous—to relate one of Katin’s final decisions regarding his project to the novel’s own world. Just after explaining Ashton Clark’s gift to humanity—an authentic relation between man and machine, reversing Marx’s alienation of the industrial laborer by giving him a proximate knowledge and control over both the means and end of his labor—Katin discovers his true subject: his own time, and his own companion. Against the reigning wisdom that “[t]here seems to be a certain lack of cultural solidity today,” Katin will render Mouse an exemplar of the novel’s turbulent creole society. (217-220) In reaching this conclusion, Katin not only fulfills every previous plan for his novel—from the notion that it must concern relationships (178) to the idea that it should represent “[e]ach individual as a junction in that net” of larger cultural and economic forces (174)—he also achieves the kind of harmony between his form of life and his artistic labor that would have otherwise seemed impossible for a novelist after the death of his form (and can today seem impossible, without an Ashton Clark to save us).


Anyway—Moon is difficult to read closely along these lines, which is precisely my point. Sam’s seems to be a life without art, just as it is quite literally a life without purpose and function. His mine is the perfect example of the “factories run by a single man . . . an uninvolved character who turned a switch on in the morning, slept half the day, checked a few dials at lunchtime, then turned off before he left in the evening” that Ashton Clark seems to have been secularly sanctified for rendering obsolete (219). It is fitting, then, that his self-alienation is total: Sam is a man uninvolved even in his own character, because he has none; even his wife (his only passion) is a fiction. It may be odd to say that Sam’s trouble seems to be as much as his alienation from the machines around him as his humanity—and from artistic as much as mechanical production—but the hints of Marxism in Delany’s narrative may provide some ground.

Energy and Alienation

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Several times throughout Nova, characters use “Ashton Clark” as part of “good luck” phrases, and it is only towards the end of the novel that Mouse asks Katin why. Ashton Clark was a 23rd century philosopher-psychologist whose theories found a solution in neural plugs. He believed that the separation between a person’s work/production and their everyday life was “psychologically damaging” to humanity, and that unless people exerted their own energy in their work, they’d feel that their lives were futile (218). So Souquet invents neural plugs and sockets, and all major industrial work becomes broken down from factories that could be operated by one man at the push of a button into “jobs that could be machined ‘directly’ by man” (219). This philosophy “returned humanity to the working man,” eliminating many feelings of alienation and rendering war impossible.

I’m not very familiar with Marxist theory (feel free to correct me if any of this is off), but one of Marx’s general ideas is that the Industrial Revolution (with mass production and assembly lines) caused an increasing alienation between workers and the products they put together - at best, they would produce one small aspect of a product, and then they would have no direct connection to that product other than the money they received for it. The wages they received, abstract representations of their connection to their products, were too small to allow them economic access to many of the materials they were producing. As technology improves, and industrial labor becomes less specialized and more machine-based, the alienation between worker and the economy continues. So when Ashton Clark proposes bringing humanity closer to the intimate control of machines to remedy human alienation from production, he’s responding to Marxist theory (I found it interesting that Marx wasn’t mentioned at all in the novel, though). The tradeoff for this “return to humanity” is a sacrifice of distinct cultures and certain art forms (and the rise of sensory art forms like the sensory-syrynx). Individuals become tied to their machines, dependent on energy and victims of wealthy families’ energy wars, or they can be like Mouse, part of a Gypsy class that resists plugging in, still attached to cultural traditions.

Sleep Dealers, which has some uncannily similar technologies to Nova, shows an opposite effect of alienated labor. Memo comes from Oaxaca, a village in Mexico where people do not work through nodes (somewhat like Mouse before he gets sockets). He moves to escape his father’s death, gets nodes, works in one of the sleep-dealer factories, where he plugs into jobs thousands of miles away. This is part of “the American dream”: “work without the workers.” Americans can profit off of this cheap factory labor without being forced to recognize the laborers as “human,” and the workers are entirely alienated from the work sites. (Paradoxically, the neural networks are also supposed to bring people closer together.) Like the Gypsies in Nova, the people in Memo’s community live completely outside of this new kind of labor. Also like Nova, the people who do “plug in” become dependent on energy - the workers literally have the energy trained from their bodies. (Also, as a sidenote, writing turns into a sensory memory experience, just like novels and other art forms in Nova).
Moon shows an entirely different aspect of alienation from the labor force. The Sam Bell clones are replaced every three years. They work on the moon, harvesting energy and sending it back to power the Earth. To motivate the clones, they are charged with Sam Bell’s memories and video clips from his wife - the clones think that they are actually Alex, and after three years of solitary labor, they can return to their family. This, I think, is supposed to bridge the gap between total alienation from the product. If a clone is stuck by himself on the moon, expected to send energy back to a world that he will never be a part of, he will have no motivation or connection to that life. Or he might decide to rebel against his fate, as one of the Sams does. The Sam at the beginning of the film, however, blissfully unaware that he's a clone, also seems heavily alienated from society - he represents exactly the type of worker that Marx was cautioning people against — people whose entire existence drives towards harvesting energy that will drive further types of production that they will never directly benefit from.

Does Nova really offer a solution to labor alienation? Is it fair to tether people to their machines to the point where their identity becomes based on the work that they do rather than any other cultural identity? It seems slightly better than the alternatives offered in the two movies — sapping the working class of their energy from thousands of miles away so that wealthy Americans don’t have to look at them or implanting clones with human memories and emotions so that they can feel connected to a life they will never have — but I’m still unsure whether solving alienated labor is worth the sacrifice of cultures.

GERTY and HAL 9000

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**Spoilers abound for both Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey**

It's pretty obvious to me that Jones had 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of his inspirations for Moon (luckily Wikipedia agrees with me on this one; parallels between HAL and GERTY include but are not limited to: the eye, the voice, the "I can't let you go outside, Sam"/"I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that"). And with that knowledge, the ending became even more poignant. In many ways, GERTY reflects a conception of AI that HAL also reflects. They both have programming, a mission, and something which seems to exist beyond those: emotion. In the movie version of 2001, it is not so clear that HAL really has human emotions, except for a few moments where HAL seems to speak with pride in its perfect operational record. In the novel, Clarke ventures deeper into HAL's subjectivity, and gives HAL a complex set of motivations and emotions that turn it into the most human character in the novel (in my opinion, at least). Back to the movie version of 2001: the ultimate confrontation in the narrative is not between Dave and the alien intelligence as represented in the monolith, but between the human intelligence in human form-Dave, and the human intelligence in computer form-HAL. Dave and HAL find themselves opposed to the point of death, as they feel that their mission is compromised by the other's existence. Dave wins this battle, in perhaps the saddest scene in the entire movie.


The entire sequence leading to HAL's death, with its efforts to persuade Dave not to kill it, Dave's slow removal of the vacuum tubes, HAL saying "I'm afraid", HAL's singing of "Daisy Bell"

Throughout the movie, HAL only interacts with the crew through its eye and through its voice. GERTY, on the other hand, has a convenient screen for expressing emotions. Though this screen should help establish GERTY as a more human character, I actually found this screen almost distracting as it was such a transparent effort to give GERTY a recognizable face.


Two images of GERTY, one of its crying face and one of its robotic arm reaching out to comfort Sam. Which seems more human?

It detracted from GERTY's actions, which on their own create a dynamic, conflicted character. It attempts to keep Sam (#2, I think, even though he seemed to be clone 6 in the movie; it's just more convenient to label the two Sams we see #1 and #2) inside the base, but then it turns around and saves Sam #1. It hides the live feed from the Sams, but then reveals to Sam #1 that he is a clone, one of many. It helps Sam #1 access the logs, and asks Sam #2 to effectively kill it because it will tell the ELIZA crew what happened. GERTY is obviously programmed by the LUNAR company (so many acronyms in all caps!), but has developed a sort of personality through the years of working with Sams on the base. It likes Sam, beyond its programming. (True, a computer should not develop things outside of its programming, but I suppose this is in a world where GERTY is a true artificial intelligence and can pass the Turing test easily.)

So it's depressing when the same opposition between human intelligence and artificial intelligence is played out between Sam #2 and GERTY. He kills it, as much as he would be dead if it had killed him. GERTY's personality, all the quirks it developed, all the attachments it made, are wiped out by the restart that GERTY asks Sam #2 to do. This reboot is practically the same thing as one Sam dying, only to be replaced with another one with the same initial memories and same start-up procedure. Yet that death is small and in the background, compared to Sam #2's journey to earth. Sam #2 doesn't feel that death in the same way he feels his own death, perhaps because he doesn't see the similarity between him and GERTY. Yet when he says, "We're not programmed. We're people. Understand?", perhaps he means "Sams and GERTYs" as much as he means "Sams".

Questions

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What do you do when you realize that your whole life, your whole identity, has been a lie? This seemed to be one of the central themes of Moon, but it was a theme that the movie, to me, left unresolved. Obviously, the most immediate answer is to uncover the whole truth, to fight back against the force that had created those lies, and to escape from their influence to reveal the truth to others. As Moon proves, those struggles make a very compelling movie. However, as I watched, I couldn't help thinking about what would happen after the action ended. What happens after the immediate problems have been solved, and you have to go on living the rest of your (albeit short) life, your head full of false memories and emotions, considering the idea that your very existance is a copy, or a lie?

Did Sam do the other clones a favor by restoring a live-feed to Earth? On the one hand, the clones deserve to know the truth. They should not have to live out their short lives in isolation, supported by lies of a family and a future, but is there any actual benefit to knowing the objective truth of the situation? Although the clones of Sam lived a lonely and repetitive existance, they still lived to some extent: they had powerful memories, a friendship with Gerty, love for (and seemingly from) a family, and the expectation that, after his three year contract ends, he will return to normal life. Once the live-feed to Earth is restored, however, the Sams are left with nothing. Their lives, their memories, their expectations, all prove to be a lie, and once the 6th Sam has revealed the operation to the rest of the world, they also have no mission, no new goals, to fill this void. Would they be happier if they continued to live under the lies provided by Lunar Industries? Does happiness based on false perceptions count as actual happiness? Does expected happiness have anything to do with this dilemma? The 5th Sam seems to die with much greater contentment than the previous Sams, because he both knows the truth and knows that the 6th Sam has escaped and will attempt to "make things right," but the later Sams cannot get this sense of satisfaction. The dramatic discovery and escape plot can only occur once. Later Sams must take a more passive approach to accepting their existance.

The movie also leaves the fate of the other hundreds of unactivated clones unanswered, and I think this raises another important moral issue. What should happen to those clones? Should they be left "unactivated"? If they are destroyed, some might consider it to be murder. However, what life can they lead if they are awakened, all of them full of the same memories, love for the same woman, believing that they are, in fact, the same person?

Yet all of these questions might be moot, as the final lines of the movie suggest that many individuals on Earth doubt the 6th Sam's story. Anyone who saw the clone storage facility would be unable to doubt, and so one must wonder if Lunar Industries killed the 7th Sam and destroyed all the remaining clones (or just killed the 7th Sam and reestablished the block on live feed) in order to cover up their secret. In such a situation, did the 6th Sam do them a favor? Is it better to live a lie, or to not live at all?

Moon therefore did not end with a period for me, but with many question marks.

Three Years on the Moon

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I have only had time to see Moon, so far, so that is what I will be posting about this week. Alas, there is plenty to say.
As soon as the infomercial for Lunar Industries at the start concluded, and the heavy handed ominous music began, it was clear to me that something was amiss on the lunar base. The first moment I realized that Sam was probably never going home was when there was an obvious cut in the video communication with his wife, and Sam called out for GERTY to fix it, but he was too distracted to ultimately question what had gone wrong.
As the end of the film approached, it was my understanding that these Sam clones were designed to only have a three year life span, which is why the first Sam became increasingly ill over the final few days before he was 'scheduled to return home.' However, I read somewhere after the fact that his illness was due to overexposure to the atmosphere. Further, that even if the clones were healthy after three years, they were still executed, so that a new Sam could emerge and take over the human duties that need to be performed on the base, and live out his three years. I suppose it doesn't really make a difference as the clones have a three-year life span either way.
Before I begin discussing ideas about cloning and humanity, I had a minor moment of confusion that I am hoping someone can clear up. I understand that they had to call it 'a rescue mission' in order to maintain appearances for the newly awakened Sam, but when the 'rescuers' arrived at the crashed rover they said something along the lines of, "Well he's not going anywhere." Wouldn't that be a given since this Sam was at the end of his three year contract and was scheduled to be executed soon? Was that just an incidental comment, and the point of the rescue mission was to clear up damage from the crash?
Returning to the idea of these clones as having a three year life span--I thought it was very interesting how they kept the clones complacent. The idea of artificial memories being implanted in these clones reminded me immediately of Dollhouse and Total Recall. The Dollhouse's ability to manipulate memory is far more advanced than the manipulation in this film. It seems that the very need to implant these clones with a back- story and family life to enjoy, underscores their humanity. These are definitely not replicants that feel nothing but can perform human tasks -- they are real humans with complex emotional interiors. Of course, this film centers around a glitch in the smooth system of rotating in a new Sam every three years, so we see the whole system fall apart. What is revealed is a morally bankrupt corporation that is participating in the creation of life only to then engage in mass murder of the very lives created--there were many Sam clones waiting on the lower decks.
I liked that the film was couched in terms of energy, because the lack of energy resources on earth already causes such an immense amount of conflict-- wars, bloodshed, and death. It is interesting to see the way this film presents the deaths needed to meet the world's energy needs. Did anyone else think about the many deaths of Sam in the context of current energy crises?

Reading Faces

When Tyÿ first reads her Tarot cards, Katin mentions how they are based on “symbols and mythical images that have recurred and reverberated through forty-five centuries of human history” (113). This reminded me of Jospeph Campbell’s monomyth, and all that comparative studies have shown of how certain stories, symbols, and narrative structures recur in the myths and legends of different peoples all over the world. Certain symbols are universal, appearing, in some form or another, in almost all cultures. Similarly, facial expressions are often spoken of as a universal language. A smile in one part of the world means the same thing everywhere. The importance of faces is referred to several times in Nova. According to Lorq, “In the face the lines of a man’s fate mapped are” (111) and Katin states, “the subject of the novel is what happens between people’s faces when they talk to one another” (179).


Reading faces is an integral part of communication. As long as the universality of facial expressions holds true, faces should not be impossible to read—but we see in the novel that this is not always the case. Lorq’s scar makes it incredibly difficult to see how he feels or to gauge his reactions. He laughs when others expect him to be angry (114), his puzzlement “looks like rage” (115), and “concern appeared a grin” (121). The people around him are constantly misinterpreting Lorq’s expressions. Even Harvard-educated Katin needs a few moments to “interpret the wrecked face’s agony” (152). At one point, Katin’s attempt at interpretation fails completely. He “tried to translate his visage” but it “was indecipherable” (165).


Scars aside, no one can perfectly control the information communicated by their facial expressions. This applies both to hiding emotions and trying to send subtle messages. When Katin tries to look “reservedly doubtful,” the “expression was too complicated and came out blank” (167). Our facial expressions are not something we think about all the time—that would take constant, unsustainable vigilance. Just in the moment between exchanges in a conversation, there is enough time “for a handful of expressions to subsume the Mouse’s face” (137). Mouse’s face is subsumed by expressions—he does not consciously choose to go through this series of expressions. It happens naturally, without his thinking about.


There are numerous ways this natural form of communication can be disrupted—most obviously, with masks like the ones worn at Prince Red’s party in Paris. Also, when Ruby appears on Vorpis, she is wearing a mist-mask (169) and she puts the mask on again when she attacks Lorq with the nets (172). But machines also play a role in the communication breakdown associated with the inability to read faces. It was Prince’s mechanical hand that scarred Lorq’s face, making it so indecipherable. The sockets are also a factor that divides people. Katin is shocked to learn that a whole group of people on earth, the gypsies, live without sockets. Not having sockets, or even getting them late as Mouse did, sets the gypsies apart from everyone else. This relates to Kai’s post on how technology can alienate people from their own human-ness. Facial expressions are universal, but technology has the potential to create a new Tower of Babel, resulting in misreadings and misunderstandings.