Definition of a good book

Milton and Satan illustrated by Edward Sorel

Milton wary of Satan, New Yorker illustration by Edward Sorel

Poet John Milton defined a good book as: “The precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” (Areopagitica, 1644)

The quote appears in Areopagitica, a defence of free speech written by Milton after visiting the famous astronomer Galileo in 1638. Galileo was then under house arrest in Italy, having been forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. The New Yorker article, Return to Paradise, June 2, 2008, describes Milton’s visit. The article contrasts the modernity of Galileo’s view of the world, with Milton’s rather more old-fashioned notions of God at war with his rebel angels. What I find interesting is that the English poet seeks out a scientist and in some ways sees him as a kindred spirit–a man struggling to understand and convey a picture of the universe.

In this post, I focus on Milton’s definition of a good book. The definition is one sentence charged with several metaphors and paradoxes. For instance, “precious life-blood” is a metaphor referring to the human body. In 1628, Milton’s English contemporary William Harvey published his book De Motu Cordis, outlining for the first time the precise way that blood circulated within the body. This “life-blood” contrasts with a “master spirit.” A spirit is immaterial: a personality, a way of thinking and being. The blood of a spirit or immaterial being is a paradoxical concept as ghosts usually lack physical attributes like blood. To modern ears, the phrase “master spirit” sounds pompous and ominous, emerging out of an era of masters and slaves. Slavery was not abolished in England until 1833, a century and a half after Milton’s death. However, Milton most likely meant “master” in the sense of “master of himself,” an independent thinker. The phrase “master spirit” also reminds me of the apprentice system. One is not born an artist; one learns to be an artist through experience and the mastery of a craft. Canadian critic Northrop Frye uses the phrase “the educated imagination” in much the same way. When Milton combines these two metaphors, “the precious life-blood of a master spirit” he suggests that books have a physical element that relate to the laws of nature and science, as well as a spiritual aspect that is more elusive but still shaped by tradition, upbringing and study.

Milton’s phrase “embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” presents a fascinating mixture of associations. Embalming was practised by the royalty in Britain at this time. For example, King James I had his two-year-old daughter Margaret embalmed when she died in 1600. This same period saw a proliferation of funerary monuments, and the wide-spread use of epitaphs on graves, identifying the occupation and interests of the deceased, reflect a new belief in the importance of the individual. “Embalmed and treasured up” the writer acts as mortician and pirate. He is both preserver and thief, with his stolen observations of a particular time and culture. This buried treasure is hidden and the readers of a good book must uncover the rich secrets that lie within. There is a further implication that the value of a good book, like buried treasure, increases as it lives beyond the disappearance of the world in which it was created. That it can give “life beyond life” gives a book a kind of supernatural power. Through books, we move forward and backward through time and converse with the dead. Books promise fame and immortality to their creators, but anyone who reads a book written in the past, participates in this powerful exchange that exceeds the limits of a single life.

Milton uses the word “life” three times in his short definition. Life can mean vitality, as in “he is full of life.” There are kinds and degrees of life: “a life of action and purpose” or “a meager, frightened life.” When we say, “Tell me about your life,” we are asking for a story. A good book is above all else a good story. Ecology is the study of the interaction of many life-forms, as when we speak of “life on earth.” Life beyond life suggests resurrection and a religious state of nirvana or transcendence.

There’s a paradox in this as well. When Milton says, “life beyond life,” isn’t this the same as saying “life beyond death”? Life is also death. A good book is a recognition of this and also an escape from it. It is a recognition of the human condition, with an escape clause built in.

In summary, a good book for Milton is blood, spirit, monument, treasure and time capsule. It is life, but also death and an escape from death. That’s quite a definition.

The Ghosts of Alice Munro

Alice Munro

Alice Munro

When it was announced this week that short-story specialist Alice Munro had won the Nobel Prize for literature, Canadians from coast to coast shook their heads in wonder and smiled inwardly with deep satisfaction. Canada has produced many great writers, but no other writer has such unequivocal support or is more admired than Alice Munro. She writes with modesty, with precision, with insight into human character and has the skill to evoke a powerful range of feelings with subtlety and nuance. She is truly Canada’s Chekhov.

The following quote by Munro has appeared in just about every tribute and news-story about the author: “I want to tell a story in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens.”

But how exactly does Munro achieve this? I approach this question by looking at two stories about neighbors, “The Shining Houses” (from Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968) and “Fits” (from The Progress of Love, 1985). One is the story of the cruelty of supposedly good people; the other traces a town’s reaction to the murder/ suicide of an elderly couple. Both stories have an outward action and an inward action. Events trigger reactions and it is the contemplation of these reactions that awaken a new sense of understanding in the central characters.

Munro's first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades

Munro’s first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, 1968

“The Shining Houses” has a single narrator and the story revolves around her sudden awareness of the vulnerability of an individual who stands apart from the impulses of the community. In a neighborhood that is being gentrified, rapidly changing from sparse unkempt hobby-farms to densely-packed suburb with well-attended gardens and manicured lawns, one old lady who refuses to change is seen as a bothersome nuisance; her home is an eyesore to the movement of progress. A plan is put in place to evict the old lady and have her house torn down. The narrator sees the callousness of this scheme, and the uncharitable lack of sympathy for someone who represents part of the history of the place. The new neighbors act selfishly, but disguise this self-interest as community virtue. This is how Munro describes it: “And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assurance and anger. That was their strength, proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness. The spirit of anger rose among them, bearing up their young voices, sweeping them together as on a flood of intoxication, and they admired each other in this new behaviour as property-owners as people admire each other for being drunk.”

When the narrator refuses to go along, she realizes, as an individual acting in opposition to the group, she opens herself up to a similar kind of targeting. So why does she take the oppositional stance that she does? She is powerless to help the old lady who will be evicted. She has no influence within the group. Still there is a sense that by voicing her opposition, she has performed a small act of courage and held true to her own conscience. She may pay a price for this in the future. In fact that price has already begun as the narrator starts to separate herself from the others in her mind.

The Progress of Love

The Progress of Love, 1985, winner of Governor General’s Award for fiction

“Fits” has a more complex structure with its diverse narrators and multiple back-stories. Reactions to an unexpected and gruesome crime reveal striking differences among the characters, whose values are shaped by long-ago events. A husband thinks back on his former love affairs with married women, affairs he now regards as an avoidance of reality. Munro writes: “‘There are things I just absolutely and eternally want to forget about,’ Robert had told Peg. He talked to her about cutting his losses, abandoning old bad habits, old deceptions and self-deceptions, mistaken notions about life, and about himself. He said that he had been an emotional spendthrift, and had thrown himself into hopeless and painful entanglements as a way of avoiding anything that had normal possibilities. That was all experiment and posturing, rejection of the ordinary, decent contracts of life. So he said to her. Errors of avoidance, when he had thought he was running risks and getting intense experiences.”

Tiring of these passionate but difficult entanglements, the man marries a practical woman who shares his desire for a home and family. Unfortunately, his wife lacks imagination, as well as the ability to share her deepest feelings with others. This failing becomes glaringly clear after the wife discovers the bodies of the murdered couple. The wife informs the police but neglects to tell a single member of her own family of her horrific discovery, nor does she confide to them any sense of her reaction to this shattering event.

The way people talk and interact with one another is one of Munro’s chief concerns, the bridges and barriers created by the slightest of gestures. She sets up the differences between husband and wife like this: “His friendliness and obligingness were often emphatic, so that people might get the feeling of being buffeted from all sides. This is a manner that serves him well in Gilmore, where assurances are supposed to be repeated, and in fact much of the conversation is repetition, a sort of dance of good intentions, without surprises.” In contrast to the husband’s garrulousness is his wife’s reserve. “Peg smiled as she would smile in the store when she gave you your change–a quick transactional smile, nothing personal … Robert once told her he had never met anyone so self-contained as she was. (His women have usually been talkative, stylishly effective, though careless about some of the details, tense, lively, ‘interesting.’) Peg said she didn’t know what he meant.”

The husband contrasts his wife’s non-reaction to the crime to the over-reaction of the town’s people who can’t stop talking about the murdered couple and the possible motives for why it happened. The husband is aware of his own over-active imagination. It’s a flaw, but at least it is one he’s able to share, along with his struggle to manage it in appropriate ways. After a long winter walk, he decides to return to his wife, though he remains troubled by her cool demeaner.

The story ends with new information, information unknown to the husband. This information suggests the wife was indeed affected by the scene she witnessed. She was so affected that she lied about certain details in order to cover-up what she went through. The husband doubts his wife, but his understanding of her is incomplete and imperfect. This is where the story ends, with doubts, lies, and an imperfect understanding of the other. It is not the murder that is strange in this story; it is the way the murder leads to a maze of unexpected connections and misconnections, misgivings and unresolved needs, among the seemingly unimportant characters.

Alice Munro as a young woman.

Alice Munro as a young woman.

I’m tempted to link Munro to the movement of Magical Realism often associated with Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Salmon Rushdie, and other writers who mix fantastic elements into otherwise closely observed and detailed stories. While Munro’s prose is not as saturated and flowery as these more ‘tropical’ writers—she has that Northern coolness of temperament—two key features of Magical Realism abound in her work: the multi-layered stories-within-a-story and the presence of ghosts. By ghosts I mean the sudden (often inconvenient) eruption of the past into the present and the feeling of characters being haunted by a force not known or knowable by others.

In the stories I’ve cited, the evicted woman in “The Shining Houses” serves as a kind of ghost and she affects the narrator in ways that her other neighbors will never understand. The evicted woman is the only character with a back-story, which tells of a ghost-like husband who abandoned her. Munro has her narrator uncover this fact: “She did not talk to many old people any more. Most of the people she knew had lives like her own, in which things were not sorted out yet, and it is not certain if this thing, or that, should be taken seriously. Mrs. Fullerton had no questions of this kind. How was it possible, for instance, not to take seriously the broad back of Mr. Fullerton, disappearing down the road on a summer day, not to return? ‘I didn’t know that,’ said Mary. ‘I always thought Mr. Fullerton was dead.” “He’s no more dead than I am,’ said Mrs. Fullerton, sitting up straight … ‘he’s just gone off on his travels, that’s what he is.'” The old woman refuses to move from her rundown house because otherwise how will the ghostly husband ever find her? The eviction, which she does not know is in the works, will cause a metaphysical rupture from which it is unlikely she will recover. This is the purpose of the ghost.

“Fits” draws its title from a theory advanced by the character Robert: people behave like landscapes that are prone to periodic earthquakes, eruptions, and other fits, the causes of which are largely hidden and invisible. The ghost in this story is also a husband who has deserted his wife and disappeared in search of a place that is equal to his imagination. The ghostly husband represents the need for imaginative or psychic connection with another person. Without this, one encounters the ghost state of metaphysical rupture. Robert has taken the ghostly husband’s place and sees a similar dilemma opening up before him. “A man doesn’t just drive farther and farther away in his trucks until he disappears from his wife’s view. Not even if he has always dreamed of the Arctic. Things happen before he goes. Marriage knots aren’t going to slip apart painlessly, with the pull of distance. There’s got to be some wrenching and slashing.” Fits of strangeness reveal the truth that any life contains its fair share of secrets and scars that can never be entirely erased, as well as images and emotions that cannot be communicated adequately from one person to another.

I’d like to thank my sister Janet Pope for suggesting the topic of this post and for lending me copies of the two stories by Alice Munro. Along with the books, Janet wrote me the following note to add to this blog:

“Like an archaeologist assigned an unpromising site, Alice Munro takes ordinary people and starts digging through layers, accumulations, detritus of the past till she uncovers evidence of a richly imagined life. This patient exploration in story after story changes the reader. She enlarges the assumptions we had about others which are usually narrow and static. She makes us see that people are endlessly complex, ‘moving out of their prisons, showing powers we never dream they have.’ Through the Munro process, we, as ‘ordinary people,’ learn to recognize and respect our subterranean depths.”

The Flying Change

Kathleen read me this poem last night from one of May Sarton’s journals (After the Stroke):

I see that age will make my hands a sieve/ But for a moment the shifting world suspends/ its flight and leans toward the sun once more/ as if to interrupt its mindless plunge/ through works and days that will not come again./ I hold myself immobile in bright air/ sustained in time astride the flying change. — Henry Taylor

It made me think of forces I cannot control. Getting into a mind space where I am less of a control freak, where I just allow things to happen, accept the things that do happen, while also contributing to making things happen. To participate in the forces of change enjoying both “the moment the shifting world suspends” and  the “mindless plunge” alike.

 

Words and Pictures: Joanne Light

Joanne Light. Mariposa Rosa and Her Cat, 1976

Joanne Light. Mariposa Rosa and Her Cat, 1976

A long overdue post about Nova Scotian artist and poet Joanne Light  whose exhibition of images and texts was recently held in Halifax at the Unitarian Church Hall. The series of brightly-coloured paintings emerged from the memory of a childhood struggle with the concepts of good and evil. These concepts were introduced in terrifying hell-fire sermons that both mesmerized and bewildered Joanne as a child. In her exhibition, Joanne draws in the style of her younger self as she tries to exorcise demons from the past. The exercise is filled with humour, as allusions to pop culture and invented characters spring up along the way. Accompanying each image are texts in poetry and prose. For the opening of the exhibition, the artist skillfully blended words and images in a performance accompanied by slide projections.

Joanne Light has worked as a teacher and writer in various parts of Canada, including several years in Northern communities. Her interest in landscape and geography is apparent in both her poetry and her visual imagery.

Joanne Light. Clone Goods Do a Bad Disguise as Mother Nature

Joanne Light. Clone Goods Do a Bad Disguise as Mother Nature

 

Treacherous Waters: The Talented Mr. Ripley

The Talented Mr. Ripley. Cover of the 1st edition, published by Coward-McCann in 1955

Tom Ripley is a counterfeiter, con artist and murderous anti-hero, yet his journey of self-discovery is strangely compelling in Patricia Highsmith’s gripping crime novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, first published in 1955. There are many ways to regard this novel: as a portrait of human pathology, as an adventure story, as a travelogue, as a critique of American values of the 1950s. Today I approach this novel as part of a series of blogs on water imagery and symbolism in art & literature.

The cover of the first edition gives some hint to the meaning of water in the novel. It serves as a barrier separating characters, preventing their understanding of one another. Water also runs a meandering, unpredictable course–like the twisting plot that features false identities, murder, pursuit and cover-up.

Early in the novel, Highsmith upsets expectations of water signifying anything romantic. “The atmosphere of the city became stranger as the days went on … As if when his boat left the pier on Saturday, the whole city of New York would collapse with a poof like a lot of cardboard on a stage. Or maybe he was afraid. He hated water. He had never been anywhere before on water, except to New Orleans from New York and back to New York again, but then he had been working on a banana boat mostly below deck, and he had hardly realized he was on water. The few times he had been on deck the sight of the water had at first frightened him, then made him feel sick, and he had always run below deck again, where, contrary to what people said, he had felt better. His parents had drowned in Boston harbour, and Tom had always thought that had something to do with it, because as long as he could remember he had always been afraid of water, and he had never learned how to swim.” (p. 25)

The Queen Mary steaming down the Hudson River in 1946. Tom would have boarded a similar ship on his passage to Europe.  Photo by Andreas Feininger

The author connects water in Tom’s mind with childhood trauma. But the ocean voyage also has a liberating effect on Tom. “He began to play a role on the ship, that of a serious young man with a serious job ahead of him … He was starting a new life. Goodbye to all the second-rate people he had hung around and had let hang around him in the past three years in New York. He felt as he imagined immigrants felt when they left everything behind them in some foreign country, left their friends and their relations and their past mistakes, and sailed for America. A clean slate!” (p. 34-35)

Patricia Highsmith at work

The story reflects aspects of Highsmith’s own life. Her self-exile from the USA, restless travels, learning languages, making new friends and growth as a writer. The excitement of fresh encounters is tempered by memories of an unhappy childhood and the persecution she felt living as an openly gay woman in McCarthy-era America. She spent time in Mexico, Italy, and France before settling in Switzerland and finding a receptive ear at the Swiss publishing house Diogenes Verlag.

 

In Highsmith’s novel, the first function of water is to separate the characters into two realms: the worldly but rootless Europeanized Americans and the vulgar money-making stay-at-home Americans. The next function of water is to set Tom on his way to discovering what kind of person he is, identifying and developing his own unique talents. This is the classic hero’s journey, something the reader might well identify with. Perversely Tom’s talents involve lying, deception and murder–all socially unacceptable traits. Tom tries to fit in with the people he encounters, and is stung by their rejection of him. The rejection is largely based on class prejudice. Tom is not rich and independent like the others. He does not own a yacht. He lacks their education and knowledge of art and foreign languages. However he is a quick study and is able to mimic their ways quite easily. At first this mimicry amuses the superficial young aristocrats, who nonetheless feel themselves to be innately superior to Tom. This smug superiority arouses a murderous resentment.

The novel changes moods abruptly. These changes often occur around water.  The first murder takes place on water. Tom Ripley kills a man, but has trouble disposing of the body. In the process Tom is accidently knocked overboard. “He was in the water. He gasped, contracting his body in an upward leap, grabbing at the boat. He missed. The boat had gone into a spin. Tom leapt again, then sank lower, so low the water closed over his head again with a deadly fatal slowness, yet too fast for him to get a breath, and he inhaled a noseful of water just as his eyes sank below the surface. The boat was farther away. He had seen such spins before: they never stopped until somebody climbed in and stopped the motor, and now in the deadly emptiness of the water he suffered in advance the sensations of dying, sank threshing below the surface again, and the crazy motor faded as the water thugged into his ears, blotting out all sound except the frantic sounds that he made inside himself, breathing, struggling, the desperate pounding of his blood.” (106-107)

This terrible scene is followed by a couple of pages detailing Tom’s escape from death and his recuperation in a nearby town. He boards a train and feels himself begin to change. “The white, taut sheets of his berth on the train seemed the most wonderful luxury he had ever known. He caressed them with his hands before he turned the light out. And the clean, blue-grey blankets, the spanking efficiency of the little black net over his head–Tom had an ecstatic moment when he thought of all the pleasure that lay before him now … other beds, tables, seas, ships, suitcases, shirts, years of freedom, years of pleasure. Then he turned the light out and put his head down and almost at once fell asleep, happy, content, and utterly, utterly confident, as he had never been before in his life.” (p. 111-112)

Actor Alain Delon plays Tom Ripley in the French film, Plein Soleil, 1960 (directed by René Clément), the first of many adaptations of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Water suggests a reversal of fortunes. From grovelling subservience to wealthy independence. A powerless working-class youth, unrecognized by the world, becomes a resourceful self-confident criminal. But Tom’s confidence periodically gives way to paranoia. Just as water covers up evidence of Tom’s crime, the fear arises that either the body or the stolen boat will wash ashore or resurface in some incriminating way. It is part of Highsmith’s perverse genius that she encourages the viewer to root for the villain, to cheer when he eludes capture, keeping this addictive story going.

The novel ends as it begins on a passenger ship. The sea as barrier and divider of people, as deadly, deceptive, ever-changing in its moods, is an appropriate symbol for this reckless adventurer who counts on luck and his own devious improvisational skills to make his way in the world.

 

Paperback Art

Romance, surrender, rescue. The girl in the boy’s arms. The girl in the robot’s arms or the monster’s fist. Screaming, swooning, terror, ecstasy. The very stuff of movies, harlequin novels, trashy drama. Guilty pleasures.

Book cover, 1950 and Movie Poster, 1956

Book cover, 1950 and Movie Poster, 1956

Why is the Asimov cover image (seen above) uninspiring, whereas The Forbidden Planet poster is fun, saucy and weird? The tilted perspective, the grinning face, the bathing beauty–is she an astronaut or an extra from a Tarzan movie who walked onto the wrong set? No pretence at realism here. Enter loveable Robbie the Robot, stick in a Chinese pagoda, fainting women, Grand Canyon rock forms, and it is, as advertised, amazing. The movie sadly does not live up–how could it?

Cover art: E. Gorinstein

Compare this delightful cover illustration by E. Gorinstein from the 2002 J’ai Lu edition of Les robots (I added the English title pun). Here we see robot not as alien monster but rather robot as funky car. Its eyes serve as headlights, antenna as steering wheel/ gear shift, chin plate as pedal. The astronaut looks bored for a space cowboy, which adds to the humour. This is not an astonishing adventure but something he does every day. Like operating a backhoe. The purple Ziggy Stardust spacesuit adds a note of style. The illustration depicts one of the early stories in Asimov’s vision of human-robotic symbiosis and delightfully conveys Isaac Asimov’s humour of robot psychology.

Expedition_to_earth.BallantineEdition 1953, Cover Art Richard Powers

 

Illustrator Richard Powers

The most versatile and experimental of science fiction illustrators. A complete illustrated list of his book covers can be found on the invaluable site, Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Early work owes a debt to surrealism. Later work makes use of paint splatter and collage. This 1953 cover illustrates Clarke’s story The Sentinal, the starting point for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. A monolith, depicted as an irregular undulating pyramid, is shown on the surface of the moon with the Earth in the distance beyond. The monolith raises the question: is it a natural form or a manufactured object? An ant-sized human figure throwing a giant shadow appears on the horizon under a hovering blimp-like eye.

 

Case of Conscience, 1958. Cover Art by Richard Powers

Starship Troopers, 1959. Cover art Paul Lehr

Here is another cover by Richard Powers. In the story, missionaries and scientists establish a colony on a remote planet with few natural resources valuable to humans, except for a substance used in the making of nuclear bombs. The colonists debate whether they should reveal the truth to other humans or suppress it.

Abstract expressionism, atomic structures in a novel obsessed with Cold War posturing. Both an anthropological approach to SF, and a religious fable, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience is cited by Orson Scott Card as a strong influence for his novel Speaker for the Dead. 

 

 

Cover art Paul Lehr

The insect-like space craft with its dark cavernous shadow, monumental in scale next to the uneven line of waiting figures, produces a bizarre effect, as in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. We ask what is it, in this confrontation with the unknown. The green sky with blue clouds suggests an alien atmosphere. The yellow fire on the horizon is all that distinguishes sky from ground. The luminance of the wash, the hard sheen of metal, the contrast of scale, all give this design a graphic punch that matches the drive and gusto of Heinlein’s writing.

Cover Art by Bob Pepper

 

 

 

Illustrator Bob Pepper

Just how do you illustrate a Philip K. Dick novel anyway? Using a Pop Art approach, as in this illustration by Bob Pepper, is not a bad idea. Pop Art is linked to the mass consumption of a consumer society. Pop Art is often produced using similar methods of mass reproduction like Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints. Other artists mix Pop icons with Op Art, using bright colours, bold semi-abstract patterns suggesting psychedelic material or attitudes of mind, as well as an ecclectic sensibility that is as open to comic books as it is to Eastern mysticism. In this illustration, Pepper shows the mask-like features of a face barely covering a skeleton and robotic gears, from which seem to pour a parade of clone-like sheep. It immediately makes one think: does a robot have a mind and if so how human is that mind? What exactly are we looking at here? Man or machine? This is the very ambiguity that underlines Dick’s novel.

Album Cover Art by Bob Pepper

Remember a time when people got pleasure just looking at an album cover? More on artist Bob Pepper can be found here.

Popular movies, books and art share ideas and strategies for conveying other worlds. Experiments with visual styles, such as surrealism and Pop Art, unite books of the future with the period in which they were created. The references to Fine Art push a once-marginal genre to new levels of respectability. Pulp art is fun, pushing proprieties of tastefulness. Modern art is innovative, pushing boundaries of aesthetic experience. Science fiction cover art draws on both, adopting visually daring designs to match the unconventional ideas found inside the covers.

Cover art: Richard Powers

Women Reinvent Science Fiction

A woman gave birth to Frankenstein and his monster, opening the door for a new imaginative literature. Strangely, this literature, dealing with the future, with alternate worlds, with technology and its societal effects, became an exclusive all-men’s club. All this began to change with the emergence of a group of brilliant novelists in the late 1960s and early 70s: Ursula K. LeGuin, Doris Lessing, Kate Wilhelm, Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood, to name only a few. This blog contrasts Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, 1977, with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985 and discusses their contribution to the genre of SF.

Woman on the Edge

Marge Piercy. Woman on the Edge of Time, 1976. Summary: Consuelo (Connie) Ramos is placed in a mental hospital after trying to intervene in a violent family dispute. No one believes her side of the story because she is a poor Chicano woman. While in hospital, Connie begins communicating with a person from the future, Luciente, who asks her for her help. Connie answers that she is a person without power, mislabeled as insane, with no resources and no prospects. Why was she chosen? Connie is told that she has a receptive mind and that she is the only one the future people were able to make contact with. Connie is given a tour of a Utopian future world, but it is a fragile world, only attained if it is fought for by the people of the present.

Marge Piercy

 

In a perceptive review, Michelle Erica Green notes: “Woman on the Edge of Time is an angry text. The utopian yearning cannot disguise its rage … Yet the prose, in both the science fiction segments and the fatalistic present, has the compelling flow of poetry, and the bluntness of Connie’s self-expression keeps her grounded even when she questions her own sanity. Like her main character, Piercy labels the effort to transform the world a war. Known for her radical political activism in the 1960s — particularly for her involvement with groups which advocated armed struggle — Piercy favors violent insurgence in many of her poems and novels. Yet she chooses writing, not violence, as her means of insurrection. Connie’s violence may not be able to safeguard the future, but Piercy’s unshrinking commitment to finding radical solutions to age-old problems itself offers hope for the strength of the human spirit.”

A few things that impressed me about this novel:

Piercy contrasts a brutal, gritty depiction of poverty and prejudice in present-time America with the communal-minded future utopia. Class, gender and race merge together as issues crucial to SF and any imagined future community. What makes the story so effective is the likeable but unheroic character of Connie. She has no superpowers apart from her channeling ability and struggles throughout the story to try to understand how one without power can–and must–resist those who oppress her. She is told: “There’s always a thing you can deny an oppressor, if only your allegiance. Your belief. Your co-opting. Often even with vastly unequal power, you can find or force an opening to fight back. In your time many without power found ways to fight. Till that became a power.” (p. 317) The reader reacts to this awakening conscience with a considerable degree of ambiguity: is the heroine suffering from madness or does she have a kind of visionary revelation? This ambiguity breathes new life into the theme of medical experiments and forceful confinement, making for considerable suspense while deepening the sense of a problem that must be answered.

The Handmaid's Tale, 1985

Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale, 1985. Summary: A diary-like account by an enslaved surrogate mother detailing the regime of a newly-installed totalitarian state, a theocracy in which women have no freedom and no voice. The handmaids wear awkward burqa-like uniforms that hide their figures and restrict their vision. It is a familiar story of a fundamentalist religious society that banishes love, told from a woman’s point-of-view. Most characters are so demoralized that they submissively accept their fates. The heroine, Offred, named as the possession of the Commander who she sexually serves, is plagued by memories of a former time spent with her husband, daughter and lively friends, none of whom she can now locate or account for.  The commander takes advantage of his privileged position to indulge person whims and attempts to turn his slave into his mistress, with unsatisfactory results. Out of a desperate need for some genuine human contact, Offred has a clandestine love affair with another servant. She does not know if she can trust this lover and lives in fear that she will be betrayed at any moment.

Margaret Atwood

Atwood shows how quickly a society can form which removes basic rights and privileges from women. It starts when women are not allowed to hold jobs or to own property or to access bank accounts. In this way, women become economically dependent on men. Loss of economic power, loss of autonomy.

The women who are breeders are treated like cattle, prisoners–this does not sound terribly original. What is original is that their prison guards, their disciplinarians, are other women–the oppressive and hateful aunts. On a day-to-day basis, it is women who most diligently enforce inequality and loss of self-respect, loss of personhood. Women who buy into and safeguard the system of oppression against women are one of the most serious problems posed by the novel. As for the men in the novel, they get their own special treatment as rapists, power-mongers, zealots and religious hypocrites. The oppression of women is all performed in the name of religion. This hardly seems like SF, more of a commentary on Christian fundamentalism and Islamic extremism.

The heroine does not believe in the system she is forced to live under, but she doesn’t know how to act against it. A turning point for her comes when she meets a once-fierce rebellious friend who seems to have given up. “‘Moira,’ I say. ‘You don’t mean that.’ She is frightening me now, because what I hear in her voice is indifference, a lack of volition. Have they really done it to her then, taken away something–what?–that used to be so central to her? But how can I expect her to go on, with my idea of her courage, live it through, act it out, when I myself do not? I don’t want her to be like me. Give in, go along, save her skin. That is what it comes down to. I want gallantry from her, swashbuckling, heroism, single-handed combat. Something I lack.” (p. 261) Denied this vicarious resistance, Atwood’s heroine finally attains the courage–or despair–the feeling of nothing to lose–to throw caution to the wind, setting in course a chain of events that transforms her life.

Both Atwood and Piercy are outspoken poets who write novels in many genres, including science-fiction. The works discussed above could be described as feminist or political SF novels. In her depiction of the future, Piercy addresses the problem of over-population, harmful attitudes toward environment and technology. Atwood is concerned with the breakdown of democracy, the erosion of basic human rights and the exploitation of women.

Both novels are concerned with the non-chalance with which we judge and mistreat others different from ourselves.  In Piercy’s novel, Connie meets a person of the future who boasts of going mad twice. Jackrabbit describes his madness: “I’m jealous of everybody’s gifts. I want to be everybody and feel everything and do everything. Wherever I am, where I’m not plagues me. As long as I don’t have to get up too early in the morning to do it all…” Connie answers, speaking out about her own experience with mental illness: “Do you tell everyone you meet that you’ve been mad twice?” She resented his casual, almost boastful air. She lugged that radioactive fact around New York like a hidden sore. To find out she had been in an institution scared people–how it scared them. Not a good risk for a job. They feared madness might prove contagious.” (p. 117)

A fear of difference, with no true sense of collective. Reading these novels, one feels a growing sense of protest and a need to revisit social positions. This is not science fiction as escapism or science fiction as technological wonder or technological horror. It is science fiction grounded in political realities, calling for the decent treatment of others through an awakened political conscience. I’d like to end on a vision of a committed life in this poem by Marge Piercy from the collection, “The Moon is Always Female”, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1980.

The Low Road

Alone, you can fight, you can refuse, you can take what revenge you can but they roll over you. But two people fighting back to back can cut through a mob, a snake-dancing file can break a cordon, an army can meet an army. Two people can keep each other sane, can give support, conviction, love, massage, hope, sex. Three people are a delegation, a committee, a wedge. With four you can play bridge and start an organization. With six you can rent a whole house, eat pie for dinner with no seconds, and hold a fund raising party. A dozen makes a demonstration. A hundred fill a hall. A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter; ten thousand, power and your own paper; a hundred thousand, your own media; ten million, your own country. It goes on one at a time. It starts when you care to act, it starts when you do it again after they said no, it starts when you say We and know who you mean, and each day you mean one more.

Selling the Future: Science Fiction & Advertising

Brainstorming for a Coke campaign, NY, 1963. Photo by Frank Horvat

Two dream worlds collide, advertising and science fiction. Both create alternate universes, selling a future transformed by time-saving gadgets and by the flash and wonder of new technology. Ads conjure up optimistic utopias; SF is drawn to problematic dystopias. Ads try to manipulate and shape public thought and behavior, a major theme of SF. Advertising imagery pervades SF, from George Orwell’s sinister posters of Big Brother to the mock commercials which colour the hallucinatory world of Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick's masterpiece, Ubik, 1969. Cover of the Doubleday first edition by Peter Rauch.

In Dick’s stories, inane objects serve as the outward face of hidden, disturbing conspiracies. In the 1964 novel, The Simulacra, a character speculates that even in outer space, explorers will have to fight their way through a glut of consumer products. “We’re being robbed, he decided. The next layer down will be comic books, contraceptives, empty Coke bottles. But they–the authorities– won’t tell us. Who wants to find out that the entire solar system has been exposed to Coca-Cola over a period of two million years?” (The Simulacra, p. 40) In the novel Ubik, ads serve as chapter epigraphs. Ubik is an ever-present, ever-changing product. At times it’s a car, then a brand of beer, then a type of instant coffee. Ubik finally appears in the story itself as an aerosol spray can which allows its users to escape disappearing into a death-like state of unreality. Literary critic Carl Freedman comments: “In the end, this strange but paradigmatic commodity is identified with theological mystery: ‘I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am … I am. I shall always be.” (“Towards a Theory of Paranoia: The Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick, SF Studies, March 1984, p. 21) In the discussion that follows, I focus on two novels: The Space Merchants, 1953 by American novelists Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, and Pattern Recognition, 2003 by Canadian novelist William Gibson.

The Space Merchants, first published in 1953. This 1974 Penguin edition cover by David Pelham captures its proto-Pop spirit.

The Space Merchants is set one hundred years in the future, but feels strangely like a period novel of the consumer-driven 1950s. In the novel, rival advertising firms declare war on one another in their ruthless quest to control the Venus account. Venus invites unlimited exploitation but involves selling an unsellable product–the colonization of a distant planet with its unbreathable waterless environment, hurricane winds and terrible heat. This does not deter ambitious copywriter, Mitchell Courtenay, of Fowler Schocken Associates, from taking charge of the project. However, Schocken’s control of the coveted account stirs up a hornet’s nest of corporate crime, as double agents, kidnappings, identity theft and murder run riot in this satirical and fast-paced novel. Adding to Mitchell’s woes is the activities of an underground conservation movement, the Consies, whose take on reality is jarringly at odds with that of Madison Avenue. The novel is full of fantastic plot twists and adopts an irreverent attitude to everything from the things we eat to the power of the president. Its wry take on the role of media in shaping popular culture makes it a dazzling proto-Pop novel.

A Maidenform bra ad from the mid-1950s uses provocative sexual innuendo to sell women on the idea of appealing to men.

A key feature of Pop art is its appropriation of popular culture and methods of mass reproduction into the realm of high art. Pop Art focuses on crass and mundane subjects which appear as threatening intrusions when inserted into fine art settings. As one example of this Pop sensibility, the anti-hero of The Space Merchants meets a group of conspirators in a unlikely place–the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Inside the hallowed museum, the ad man notes the current show, a retrospective exhibition of the Maidenform bra campaign of the 1950s. The idea that bra ads would hang on gallery walls as art may have played as satire at the time, but today, as the field of art history merges with the wider interests of visual cultural, it seems eerily prescient. In a recent interview Pohl stated: “The science fiction method is dissection and reconstruction. You look at the world around you, and you take it apart into all its components. Then you take some of those components, throw them away, and plug in different ones, start it up and see what happens.” (Interview with Frederik Pohl, Locus Magazine, October 2000) In his later Hugo Award winning-novel, Gateway, 1977, Pohl takes this Pop approach one step further by supplementing a conventional narrative with a series of fictitious ads, memos and news bulletins that appear concurrent to the story, adding texture and widening the reader’s perspective.

Frederick Pohl first expressed his SF interests by contributing to fanzines and joining the Futurians club while still a teenager in New York city. He currently writes an informative “The Way the Future Blogs” with many reminiscences of old collaborators such as Kornbluth. Both he and Kornbluth were veterns of World War II, a war in which rocket technology was no longer a distant fantasy.

Young von Braun with Test rockets.

During World War II, the German aerial attack of London used V-2 rockets, creating the fear that no target was out of reach. After the war, the Americans invited Germany’s preeminent rocket scientist Wernher von Braun to come to the USA to turn this technology toward scientific purposes.

Collier's Magazine run a cover story on space travel in 1952.

Popular magazines such as Collier’s helped spread the idea of technology transforming the post-war world. However, it was the Soviet launch of the satelite Sputnik that accelerated serious American investment in space ventures. Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach recalls how “Americans reacted to the {Russian] satellite, which could be seen in the night sky, with a mixture of fascination and dread.” During the Space Race that ensued, von Braun was instrumental in creating the Saturn V booster rocket which enabled the first astronauts to land on the moon in 1969. But the lasting legacy of these rockets, was not in outer space, but in the technology that satellites have allowed to flourish here on earth such as cell phones and other forms of instant wireless communication.

The 3-D glasses craze was an attempt by movie theatres in the 1950s to offset the competition of television.

The Space Merchants consistently links technology with communications, introducing inventions such as multi-sense films. I’m reminded of how cinemascope and 3D films were introduced in the 1950s in Hollywood’s bid to compete with the rapid spread of TV. Pohl and Kornbluth introduce fantastic inventions–bio-engineered foods and ads appearing on the windows of public vehicles–which have almost come to pass in today’s world of industrial farming and omniscient digital screens. In the novel, the product coffiest “contains three milligrams of a simple alkaloid. Nothing harmful. But definitely habit-forming. After ten weeks, the customer is booked for life.” (The Space Merchants, p. 10) The story’s ad agencies introduce their products to children, imprinting lifestyle patterns at the most impressionable age. The authors foresee these products promoted by multi-national corporations, operating across the globe as powerful forces more influential than governments. At the same time the authors cannot resist inserting nationalist rhetoric, as Americans justify their need to wield exclusive control of space colonies in order to protect American interests.

On his blog, Writing Scraps, Sean J. Jordan reviews the novel. Joradn ehthuses: “What makes this book so awesome is the world that Pohl and Kornbluth conceived. It’s frighteningly close to the world we live in today. Advertising is used not just as a means of persuading people to buy products, but to shape public opinion about real issues, like the scarcity of water and fuel, and to make people feel like their lives are better than they really are. Every piece of communication is persuasive; every idea has an agenda. Even the simplest slogan has been massaged by expert ad men. The world is a dark and frightening place, and yet society is kept under control by these resassuring messages that they should be happy because of the products they consume. One of the most memorable and horrifying scenes in the book comes when Courtenay finds his way into the facility where “Chicken Little,” a processed chicken product, is packaged. What he finds is a giant, living mound of chicken tissue, where butchers come and cut pieces of flesh off to prepare for processing and packaging. The campaign around the product leads you to believe you’re eating normal chicken, but this genetically engineered, unthinking living blob of meat is all it is. The idea is that as long as people don’t know what they’re really eating, society will hold together.” (review 19 July 2009)

On his blog, The Zone, Patrick Hudson comments: “The 1950s was a great era for these acid observations on the capitalist system. Authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Sheckley, Bob Shaw, Harry Harrison, Jack Vance, and Pohl and Kornbluth filled the gap between the gee-whiz optimism of the pulp era and the more radical politics of later eras with great style and wit, as exemplified in The Space Merchants.”

The novel’s irony revolves around the hero’s stubborn inability to see how upside down his values are and as a result he consistently harms the things he should value most, including the woman he loves and the environment. He believes he can win the woman’s love by succeeding in his career. However the ruthless steps he takes to achieve this success horrify the woman, who serves as a conscience figure throughout the story. The ad men regard the environment as a disposable resource. Fowler Shocken outlines the history of advertising, “from the simple hand-maiden task of selling already manufactured goods to its present role of creating industries and redesigning a world’s folkways to meet the needs of commerce.” (p. 12) “The world is our oyster,” Shocken boats. “We’ve made it come true. But we’ve eaten that oyster.” Now they look for new worlds to conquer, to repeat their pattern of exploitation and disposal.

This car ad from 1953 makes an association between a car and a rocket-ship.

The novel introduces a new kind of hero into American literature–the cynical ad man, who uses “statistics, evasions and exaggerations” as a sure-fired path to power. Ads invite conformity to a pushy sales pitch, but the ad men see themselves not as conformists but as resourceful adventurers. On her blog Mediaknowall, media historian Karina Wilson writes: “By the 1950s, advertising was considered a profession in its own right, not just the remit of failed newspapermen or poets. It attracted both men and women who wanted the thrill of using their creativity to make some serious cash. Hard-working (early heart attacks were common), hard drinking (those legendary three martini lunches), unconventional and often amoral, the flannel-suited Ad Man became a recognisable archetype, the epitome of a new kind of cool.”

The Space Merchants recognizes that both corporations and conservationists use various forms of public messages to rally people to their causes. Propaganda can be used for constructive as well as harmful purposes. After a sudden reversal of fortune, the cynical ad man in the story joins forces with the conversation movement. To rise within their organization, to make himself indispensable to the environmentalist cause, Courtenay rewrites their communiqués and launches campaigns questioning the corporate control of basic services.  The ad man doesn’t for a minute believe in what he is doing, but his methods are effective. He has no money to promote this counter narrative, so he resorts to spreading rumours and using viral messages. The use of viral messages is a major theme of the second novel I’d like to discuss, Pattern Recognition.

Pattern Recognition, 2003

In this story, an underground filmmaker has invented a brilliant new synthesis of computer animation and live-action film, samples of which are released in fragments on the Internet, with no supporting texts or documents. The identity of the filmmaker is a mystery, as is the shape, content and intention of “The Footage.” An Internet discussion group, FFF—Footage Fetish Forum–a reference to www, the Worldwide Web, has sprung up to share information about this inspiring but obscure material. Wealthy advertising executive, Hubertus Bigend, is obsessed with exploiting new trends and finances a search for the artist behind the Footage. He hires as a

The anxious mood in the aftermath following attacks on the twin trade towers in New York, 2001, underlies the novel Pattern Recognition.

detective the young design consultant Cayce Pollard. Pollard identifies closely with the figure behind the Footage. Her mission, which takes her to cities around the world and introduces her to a rogue’s nest of traders, collectors, spies and computer fanatics, becomes increasingly personal. Cayce uses the Footage to exorcize a series of traumatic ghosts, such as her grief for her absent father, missing since the attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. As Cayce moves closer to her goal of meeting the maker of the Footage, she realizes how she is fatally compromising something beautiful and worth protecting.

One of Gibson’s contributions to the SF genre is achieved by setting his disorienting stories in the present or near-future. He explained this at the book fair Expo America in 2010, reprinted in his latest collection of essays, Distrust that Particular Flavour, 2012: “I found the material of the actual 21th century richer, stranger, more multiplex than any imaginary 21th century could ever have been. And it could be unpacked with the toolkit of science fiction. I don’t really see how it can be unpacked otherwise, as so much of it is utterly akin to science fiction, complete with a workaday level of cognitive dissonance we now take utterly for granted.” As Lisa Zeidner in her NY Times review of Pattern Recognition put it: “Predicting the future, Gibson has always maintained, is mostly a matter of managing not to blink as you witness the present.” (NY Times, 19 Jan, 2003)

This MTV ad, 2002, suggests that broadcasting signals enter directly into the head of consumers in a techno-human fusion.

The Space Merchants and Pattern Recognition differ in their attitudes toward originality. The ad men in the 1950s novel are suspicious of unorthodox thinkers; the ad men and women in the 2003 novel embrace radical new ideas as the most marketable commodities there are. Cayce, like Courtenay in Space Merchants, is both insider and outsider. However Cayce’s loyalties are more complex and shaded. Whereas the ad men of the 1950s assert top-down pronouncements on the latest styles and trends, one style being good for everyone, the 21st century cool hunter is a more nuanced observer of a diffuse, constantly shifting scene. As a cool hunter, Cayce has an exceptional talent for spotting trends, for predicting which designs, which loogos, which products will ignite public interest. As a result, she is given considerable freedom to explore the random pathways of pop culture by the innovative ad firm, Blue Ant. Cayce pays a price for her talent. She is afflicted with a nausea-inducing nervous reaction whenever she comes in contact with too much branding.

Reviewer Lisa Zeidner shrewdly notes that “Gibson himself has always been something of a coolhunter, and Pattern Recognition gives Cayce his own sharp, wry eye. Her effortless hyperintelligence ought to put to rest any complaints that science fiction’s computer cowboys are members of an all-boys’ club. With such a tour guide, you don’t skip the descriptions.” (review, NY Times, 19 Jan. 2003)

The savvy imaging of pop culture. "Pink is still the new black according to Canadian pop princess Avril Lavigne, whose stage was candy coated like a giant Pepto-Bismol ad. On tour in support of her most recent album The Best Damn Thing, we discovered a different, brighter more poppy skater girl." (Review of Montreal concert from CornerShop Studios, April 8, 2008)

Young British Artists were promoted by ad man/ art magus Charles Saatchi. Shown here is an autobiographical work by Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1999.

Artists play a prominent role in Gibson’s novels. In Pattern Recognition, avant-garde art crosses paths with advertising and speculative capitalism, causing moral boundaries to blur. The fictitious Blue Ant agency has parallels to the real-life figure of Charles Saatchi. A British ad man who helped bring Margaret Thatcher to power with his scathing “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign in 1979, Charles Saatchi is also a keen art collector who opened the Saatchi Gallery in London in 1985 and immediately altered the landscape of contemporary art. His sponsorship of the school of Young British Artists assured such artists as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin wide public exposure and fabulous wealth. The novel Pattern Recognition compares ad man Hubertus Bigend to Saatchi (Pattern Recognition, p. 83). Hubertus explains his working methods to Cayce Pollard, his reluctant protégé. “‘The client and I engage in a dialogue. A path emerges. It isn’t about the imposition of creative will.’ He’s looking at her [Cayce] very seriously now, and to her embarrassment she feels herself shiver. She hopes he doesn’t notice. If Bigend can convince himself that he doesn’t impose his will on others, he must be capable of convincing himself of anything. ‘It’s about contingency. I help the client go where things are already going.” (Pattern Recognition, p. 64) Hubertus calls this pattern recognition, which in his mind means making money by recognizing and exploiting a trend before it explodes in the popular consciousness. As Hubertus puts it: “I want to make the public aware of something they don’t quite yet know that they know–or have them feel that way.” (p. 65)

The Footage represents a new trend, but what exactly is that trend? As an art form, The Footage remixes film clips downloaded or appropriated from other sources, then blends these stolen clips seamlessly together through computer animation and ingenious editing to create a new work. In the digital age, anyone can do this. Art is no longer the preserve of an elite few. Young people especially feel a need to participate in the things they see, to put their own stamp on it and to share it with their friends, encouraging others to do likewise. Hubertus describes the new thinking about art like this: “Musicians, today, if they’re clever, put new compositions out on the web like pies set to cool on a window ledge and wait for other people to anonymously rework them. Ten will be all wrong, but the eleventh may be genius. And free. It’s as though the creative process is no longer contained within an individual skull, if indeed it ever was. Everything, today, is to some extent the reflection of something else.” (p. 70)

The remix society, supported by an around-the-world-in-30-seconds, poverty jet-set, sparks new dislocations. Reviewer Lisa Zeidner comments: “Distant cities seem both strange and familiar, especially under the influence of jet lag, here also called ‘soul-delay.’ Culture itself, Gibson suggests, is a kind of jet lag, or, as Cayce’s therapist puts it, ‘liminal’ — a ‘word for certain states: thresholds, zones of transition’ … Cayce’s globe-trotting gives Pattern Recognition its exultant, James Bond-ish edge. Yet the book also manages to be, in the fullest traditional sense, a novel of consciousness — less science fiction than Henry James. After all, Oedipa Maas, the truth seeker of Lot 49, is sort of a pot-smoking Isabel Archer, inheritance and all. Cayce is Isabel, with a search engine.” (review, NY TImes, 19 Jan. 2003)

Blogger Thomas M. Wagner praises “Gibson’s uncanny knack for having his finger on the pulse of technology (the first clue to tracing the footage comes in the form of digital watermarking) and überhip pop culture. Hell, Gibson references both Beat Takeshi and Ryuichi Sakamoto in an off-the-cuff manner that indicates he expects you to know who they are. That scores coolness points in my book with a big red pen. Plus, all the characters use Macs!” (SF Reviews. net, 2003)

Product placement is spoofed on The Turman Show, 1998. Shown here is actress Laura Linney.

Pattern Recognition introduces another idea, steganography, as Cayce tries to find the creator of The Footage. “Steganography is about concealing information by spreading it through other information.” (p. 78) An example would be product placement in a Hollywood film. The opposite of this is apophenia, a paranoid condition in which one sees messages hidden in places of random or meaningless data, places where no messages were ever intended. An example would be hearing your father’s voice in the whir of a refrigerator or hearing Satanic messages in a Beatles record played backwards. In the novel Pattern Recognition, Hubertus hires attractive young women to go to bars frequented by fashionable people and to strike up flirtatious conversations. In the course of these conversations, the young women mention a new product or service promoted by the Blue Ant agency as the hottest new trend. The subtext is: ‘If you’re in the know about this product, you’ll impress others, so pass it on.’

The problem with this widespread use of viral advertising–a use that spills out of conventional media into everyday life–is that it begins to colour and tarnish messages of every kind. As Cayce puts it in the novel: “I’m starting to mistrust the most casual exchanges.” (p. 86)  Reviewer Toby Litt comments: “In the end, William Gibson’s novels are all about sadness – a very distinctive and particular sadness: the melancholy of technology.” (The Guardian, 26 April 2003) On the other hand, the viral element in the novel, The Footage, spawns an alternate virtual community. Cayce refers to this community as: “a way now, approximately, of being at home. The forum has become one of the most consistent places in her life, like a familiar café that exists somehow out of geography and beyond time zones.” (p. 5) The Footage helps her escape the pain of her own reality into the promise of another reality. “She wonders really if she uses it any other way. It is the gift of ‘OT,’ Off Topic. Anything other than the Footage is Off Topic. The world, really. News. Off Topic.” (p. 48) Cayce later muses how “the mystery of the footage itself often feels closer to the core of her life than Bigend, Blue Ant, Dorotea, even her career. She doesn’t understand that, but knows it … It is something about the footage. The feel of it. The mystery. You can’t explain it to someone who isn’t there. They’ll just look at you. But it matters, matters in some unique way.” (p. 78) The footage has become a religion for Cayce. This returns me to Carl Freedman’s words on Philip K. Dick’s use of advertising, how it hovers between paranoid conspiracy and a “paradigmatic commodity identified with theological mystery.” Abuse, manipulation, delusion, imagination, creativity, hope.

Advertising in these two futuristic novels, The Space Merchants and Pattern Recognition, alternates as an oppressive controlling of others and as part of a quasi-religious quest for spiritual healing, the founding of a new community of like-minded believers. Ads, propaganda and branding are essential elements of modern communications. New technology needs to be promoted. It also enhances, speeds up and revolutionizes communication. The ad man of the 1950s is brash, confident, ultra-competitive. As an insider in the ad business, he feels he not only has an edge over others, but also that he has the power to shape his own destiny, using the tools of his trade. The ad woman of the first decade of the 20th century is a cool hunter who is deeply insecure, ambivalent about the morality of her job, uncertain of her exact role or the consequences of her actions. In addition to this, she senses that information of any kind is deeply uncontrollable, especially as it spawns virtual worlds. But these virtual worlds may be the most necessary of all, as they offer alternatives to present problems and bring together communities where people use technology in creative ways to suit their unique needs and define the avenues they want to explore.

 

Computers in Films & Fiction of the 1960s

Computers come into their own as characters in films and novels in the 1960s: the controlling, proselytizing Alpha 60 (Alphaville, 1965), the insecure, ingratiating and murderous HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968), the gender-bending, joke-loving Mike/ Michelle (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, 1966). In these stories from the mid-60s, the computer is linked to the central nervous system of a city, a space craft and a colony on the moon. The computer relays messages, regulates oxygen levels, plays chess, debates with reporters, and even delivers lectures in a university. A powerful figure who can operate in diverse situations, the computer is a compelling virtual character–not quite real as a personality, but real in its effect on others.

Berkley Medallion edition, 1968 with cover art by Paul Lehr.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is Robert Heinlein’s entertaining novel of a penal colony on the moon whose rebellion from Earth is abetted by a rogue computer. The polymorphous computer in the story is known as Mike for one user and as Michelle for another, changing identities and genders to suit all needs. A similar trend of sexual ambiguity appears in the fashion world at this time, with androgynous model Twiggy and rock chameleon David Bowie leading the way. The computer in Heinlein’s novel is also known as Adam Selene and Simon Jester. Selene is the Greek goddess of the moon, a fitting name for a character who controls space operations on Luna. Adam Selene is a pseudonym adopted by the computer to allow members of the colony to believe in a heroic, but unseen, leader of the revolution.

The gender-bending computer in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress reflects the androgynous fashions of the 1960s. Left: portrait of fashion model Twiggy by Christian Borau Pousa. Right: Pop artist Allen Jones challenges assumptions about sexuality in his hermaphrodite series in 1963.

The revolution gains momentum through small acts of social disruption and sabotage. When these symbolic acts occur, the computer credits them to Simon Jester to irritate and confuse authorities. Soon other rebels perpetrate their own acts of resistance in the name of Simon Jester. The tag goes viral and becomes symbolic of the resistance movement. The novel predicts the role of computers in spreading dissent and counter cultural ideas–an extraordinary anticipation of the power and possibilities of computer aided-communications in transforming society.

Themes of rebellion from authority and the expansion of consciousness are common to these works of the 1960s. What intrigues me is the way that computers are portrayed with human traits, neurosis, thoughts and needs, yet are also separated from humanity by their machine-like state. In an earlier post, I described how Isaac Asimov humanized computers by giving them flaws and conflicted motives. The computer stories of the 1960s go further by suggesting that the flaws of the computers  are also flaws in a social order dependent on technology.

Alphaville

Alphaville: Cinematographer Raoul Coutard combines the feel of film noir with a cinéma vérité mobility, shooting Paris at night through glass, neon, reflected lights, and disorienting signs.

Alphaville, like other films of the French New Wave, daringly disregards the niceties of conventional narrative. It is violent and funny, bold and inventive. There are no futuristic sets or props. The night shooting features flashing lights and disorienting reflections. Hand-held cameras track actors through labyrinthine corridors in a treatment that is so stark and unrelenting that it conveys the idea of a strange and alien world.

Alphaville. Lenny Caution tests his wits against the computer in a sound recording booth.

The computer Alpha 60 is shown in a variety of ways stressing Godard’s Pop Art sensibility: as an ordinary stove top element, burning hot, or as a slowly rotating wall fan silhouetted against the light. Electricity and a cooling system are its essence. While the computer is rarely seen, its voice is frequent and omniscient, carrying through every hotel room, lobby, classroom and city street.  Alpha-60 is instantly recognizable by it distinctive voice–spoken by a man with an artificial voice box–as it makes statements such as: “Nor is there in the so-called Capitalist world or Communist world , any malicious intent to suppress men through the power of ideology or materialism, but only the natural aim of all organizations to increase their rational structure.”

The computer-controlled city is serviced by trench-coat clad seductresses and hidden assassins. Here a paid seductress interacts with corrupted agent Henry Dickson.
Alphaville
Natasha (actress Anna Karina) discovers poetry as an alternative to the state-sponsored Bibles (dictionaries).

Alpha-60 is connected to all telecommunications systems in the city and also conducts seminars at the university. One interpretation of the film (David Anshen, 2007) is that the computer’s control of Alphaville is an allegory for Hollywood’s control of world cinema. Hollywood replaces thoughtful or idiosyncratic stories with formulaic doses of sex and violence. Anshen’s interpretation rests on the notion of a Culture Industry introduced by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in 1944. Culture is prone to mass production like any other commodity. Mass culture is seductive, providing easy satisfactions which deceive people into thinking it is an accurate reflection of themselves, their needs and interests. Mass culture prevents any other kind of culture, any independent voice from being heard. In Alphaville, the computer (representing the Hollywood monolithic model) is defeated by a man who recites French poetry (the New Wave artists) and who baffles the computer by speaking in riddles, paradoxes and metaphors. Flashing light is a repeating motif throughout the film. Godard cleverly uses this light motif to signify both the artificial nighttime world of Alphaville and its control by an artificial intelligence and to signify the awakening of love through the influence of poetry.

HAL: computer as a glowing light encased in a glass ball

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL wants to fit in with the crew on the spaceship. The astronauts treat HAL more like a servant than an equal, though the computer’s intelligence far surpasses their own. The viewer sympathizes with HAL because of this disregard. However HAL’s hurt feelings quickly turn to paranoia. He over-reacts and begins harming the very crew he was designed to serve and protect. One of the great murder scenes in cinema involves the disconnection of HAL by the methodically determined astronaut David Bowman. The computer pleads for his life as his circuits are unplugged.

The murder of HAL. Inside the computer, the astronaut’s helmut looks like the face of a shark, its teeth created by light projected from a computer panel.

HAL regresses to his first memories, singing the children’s song “Daisy Bell”–an incident based on the first talking computer (the IBM 7094) programmed to sing a song in 1961. HAL’s childish regression is the inverse of the astronaut’s journey, which involves a rebirth into a higher form of consciousness.

Childhood's End
Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, 1953. This 1976 Pan edition uses cover art by Dean Ellis.

As a story of future evolution, 2001: A Space Odyssey parallels Arthur C. Clarke’s earlier novel, Childhood End, 1953. In this novel, aliens come to Earth and impose a set of benevolent rules, which forbid warfare and the exploitation of others. The human race prospers under the guidance of the alien Overlords. However, a small community of people object to this paternalistic benevolence and rebel from it to start their own colony. The aliens have been waiting for this moment because it is only be rebelling, by taking ownership of their own actions, that people are able to evolve to the next step in the expansion of consciousness. In Space Odyssey, all needs are met by the computer so the astronauts do not have to think for themselves. It is only when they rebel from the computer that they begin on a path toward a more advanced and independent form of thinking.

The human relationship to the computer in Space Odyssey is symbolic of a dangerous loss of control of technology. HAL is portrayed as both a gentle male voice and as a round glass bulb with a glowing red light inside. There is some similarity between this glass light and the rounded astronaut’s helmut, the glass visor with its multiple reflections as dots of coloured light superimposed over the human face buried inside. But whereas the computer’s image is visually static, the human face through glass suggests vulnerability and courage in an encounter with the unknown.

Light on glass motif in 2001: Actor Keir Dullea plays astronaut David Bowman

After disengaging the computer, the astronaut travels through space, witnessing a cosmic light-show (with special effects by Douglas Trumbull). This awe-inspiring Stargate sequence suggests an hallucinogenic drug trip and serves as a tonic from the claustrophobic spaceship environment and the controlling, limited viewpoint of HAL.

MGM's revised ad campaign for 2001 featured the tag line, "The ultimate trip" to alter viewer's expectations of the film.

Mike Kaplan, marketing executive with MGM, explains how the film confounded expectations of viewers at the time: “It was being presented as “an epic drama of adventure and exploration, and many were expecting a modern Flash Gordon. Instead, Kubrick had created a metaphysical drama encompassing evolution, reincarnation, the beauty of space, the terror of science, the mystery of mankind.” (The Guardian, November 2, 2007)
The revised marketing campaign related the film with psychedelic altered states, heralding a new approach to science fiction. The hallucinatory aspect of the film also signalled a new direction for later computer stories. In works such as Neuromancer (1984), Idoru (1996), Strange Days (1995), The Matrix (1999), computers are depicted not as super-logical machines, but as gateways to mind-bending environments and experiences. In the cyber-punk milieu, computers are depicted less as personalities and more as plug-ins enabling an interface with the human psyche, often presenting illusory projections. In these stories the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial breaks down. The distinction between hero and villain, oppressed and oppressive, also begins to blur. Cyberspace is inherently lawless. Unlike in Alphaville, where the computer represents order and reason, in later stories the computer is a site of uncontrollable energies where hallucinations, viruses, firewalls, hackers, and virtual characters intermingle and where reality and self-identity come into question.

 

Robots in Therapy

Signet cover art by Robert Schulz, Isaac Asimov photo by Michael Stroud

Signet cover art by Robert Schulz, Isaac Asimov photo by Michael Stroud

American polymath Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was an author and educator who wrote nearly 500 books on topics ranging from physics and chemistry to Shakespeare and the Bible, though he is best known for his contributions to science fiction. In 1950, he combined nine previously published short stories into the groundbreaking collection I, Robot. Asimov moves away from the Frankenstein model that had characterized earlier robot stories by introducing self-aware machines governed by the Three Laws of Robotics. The three laws, hard-wired into every robot’s Positronic brain, are designed to protect humans from unexpected harm. However, there are special cases where the laws, which resemble Biblical injunctions for artificial life, cannot be followed without encountering paradoxes and ethical dilemmas. As the robots become conflicted in their motives and actions, they become more complex, more vulnerable, more human-like. The robots become so confused and troubled, at times, that they require a psychologist to understand them.

Maxine Audley

Actress Maxine Audley played Dr. Susan Calvin in a 1962 TV version of the Asimov story "Little Lost Robot".

The robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin is the central character framing each story. Calvin describes how at each stage of robot evolution there are puzzling kinks to be overcome. The robots develop symptoms of amnesia and hysteria, as well as being cunning, fraudulent, arrogant, escapist and given to practical jokes. A theme of loneliness and emotional insecurity runs throughout the collection. As an old woman looking back over her life, Calvin addresses a young man: “Then you don’t remember a world without robots. There was a time when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend. Now he has creatures to help him; stronger creatures than himself, more faithful, more useful, and absolutely devoted to him. Mankind is no longer alone. Have you ever thought of it that way?” (p. xiv) This belief that machines can fill emotional voids in people’s lives is not altogether reassuring, but Asimov’s projected history of robots does make a convincing case that human dependency on machines will increase in a great variety of ways.

1939 NY World's Fair

Workers set up the Futurama exhibit at the New York World's Fair in 1939, the same year Asimov sells his first SF short story . The hopeful future was a favourite Depression-era topic.

The first story, Robbie, concerns a girl whose nursemaid is a robot who she obsessively regards as her only friend, an obsession that alienates her from other possible playmates or sources of human connection. The situation parallels the way today’s children turn to computers and electronic games in a similarly absorbed fashion. In the story Liar, a mind-reading robot is so empathetic with people, so sensitive not to hurt fragile feelings and inflated egos, that the robot fabricates untrue but agreeable answers which lead to disastrous results. Asimov understands what people want may not be truth, but rather flattery, approval, and distraction from unpleasant problems. Robots can and will answer to these needs. But the robots in Asimov’s universe are also prone to seek approval and to find their own escapes from conflicted urges. In the story, Escape! the robot called The Brain, which is really a computer, finds a way out from an impossible situation by developing an extraordinary sense of humour. Sending two astronauts into a temporary death-like state, the Brain manipulates their thoughts with a bizarre sense of play. “Something broke loose and whirled in a blaze of flickering light and pain. It fell–
–and whirled
–and fell headlong
–into silence!
It was death!
It was a world of no motion and no sensation. A world of dim, unsensing consciousness; a consciousness of darkness and of silence and of formless struggle.
Most of all a consciousness of eternity.
He was a tiny white thread of ego–cold and afraid.
Then the words came, unctuous and sonorous, thundering over him in a foam of sound:
Does your coffin fit differently lately? Why not try Morbid M. Cadaver’s extensible caskets? They are scientifically designed to fit the natural curves of the body, and are enriched with Vitamin B. Use Cadaver’s caskets for comfort. Remember–you’re–going–to–be–dead–for–a–long–long–time!” (p. 197-198, Bantam, 2004 edition)

Electro and Sparky

Robots sell products as well as books and films. The robot Electro and his dog Sparky, developed by Westinghouse, were such crowd favourites at the New York World's Fair in 1939 that they featured in ads as well.

Asimov invents a new genre for SF– the mystery comedy. In his book A Treasury of Humour, 1971, Asimov states his belief that humour derives from a sudden shift in perspective, moving unexpectedly from the sublime to the ridiculous. The stories in I, Robot alternate between cosmic practical jokes and face-saving acts of grace. The practical jokes serve to moderate the exaggerated self-esteem of a too-proud character–a necessary come-uppance. The acts of grace serve a reverse principle, as a broadening of understanding regarding the flaws of others. Flaws in character–whether human or robotic–could be described as the inadequate response to conflict–an unheroic path that encourages empathy rather than emulation on the part of the reader. Along with understanding conflicted feelings that cause mental turmoil, Asimov comically shifts the point of view so that this turmoil resolves or so that it does not seem so pressing, so anxiously all-important. In his other SF stories and novels, Asimov moves from the pathology of robots to what he calls psycho-history. History is marked by conflicts, by inadequate responses, mistakes, abuses and regret. Yet miraculously people move on. We do so because we learn to see the world in a different way. The paradigms shift and what was all-important and a cornerstone of belief for one generation becomes a mirage-like misconception for the next generation. Asimov is a futurologist, predicting patterns of change in technology and belief.

Robby, Forbidden Planet, 1956

Publicity shot for the film Forbidden Planet, 1956

Written at a time when machines such as cars, television, washing machines and countless other devices were transforming all aspects of North American life, I, Robot explores a culture that depends on technology for its most basic services and communications. The collection appears between two important exhibitions, The New York World’s Fair, 1939, whose theme was “Dawn of a New Day–Tomorrow’s World,” and the “This Is Tomorrow” art exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, England, sponsored by the art collective, The Independent Group, in 1956. The former was a commercial tourist-oriented affair dreamed up in the midst of the Depression to boost morale and stimulate spending. The latter was a meeting ground of fine art and popular culture in an optimistic postwar atmosphere in which plentiful goods and increased leisure were hopeful signs of a breakdown of class barriers. Both exhibitions featured robots in key exhibits. In New York, Westinghouse unveiled the 7- foot-tall Electro and his robotic dog, Sparky, a promotion suggesting their own electric home appliances, like robots, would free households from unwanted drudgery. The London exhibit, staged 17 years later, featured Robby the robot from the Hollywood film Forbidden Planet, 1956. Robby was designed by Japanese-American engineer Robert Kinoshita and built by the MGM prop department, at a cost of $125,000. In the fine art world at this time, the robot was a symbol of trashy movies and unsophisticated tastes. This was also a prejudice that Asimov and his editor John W. Campbell would strive to overcome, as they defined a new brand of science fiction aimed at adults , featuring stories in which technology is presented not as a gimmick-like prop but as an integral and inevitable aspect of any future environment.

This is Tomorrow

This is Tomorrow exhibition, Whitechapel Gallery, 1956 marked the beginnings of British Pop Art, a movement which American artists emulated in a more cynical and ironic manner.

Asimov’s collection of robot stories ends with a robot who enters politics and wins one election after another. Machines begin running the world simply because they can make better decisions than people can. The final story, The Evitable Conflict, (that is, the end of conflict), argues the machine take-over will not be the fanciful, violent revolution of R.U.R., nor will it be malevolent and self-serving, as in The Matrix. Rather, the machine/ computer revolution will be silent, invisible, and without overt struggle. This change will come about because it is advantageous to people dependent on machines for their survival as they live in ever-denser populations in ever-more complex interactions with one another. As computers replace not only workers, but managers and strategists as well, they promote the comforting belief that people are in control of their own fate. This belief is fostered by periodic break-downs in the system and by a constant set of adjustments and counter-measures. Machines, Asimov argues, even if they could plan and operate perfectly, would chose not to do so. Instead, machines would introduce flaws to give room for human hopes, as an final act of face-saving grace to fragile human egos. Asimov leaves his psychologist Susan Calvin with the insight that it does not matter if a belief is true or not, as long as it is useful.

I end this post on Asimov with a quick reference to Asimo, the humanoid robot built by the car manufacturer Honda in the year 2000. Standing 4 feet 3 inches tall, Asimo can walk, run and navigate stairs. He is the star of several TV commercials and when I watch one, such as the commercial below, the last thing I think is that Asimo needs a therapist.