Monday, February 23, 2009

Week 7: Woman on the Edge of Time

Woman on the Edge of Time is a blunt and brutal attempt to reflect and foreshadow humankind’s—particularly America’s—ailing social condition. Utopian science fiction often does this sort of thing, but (and I say this with my very limited experience reading science fiction) few so blatantly evoke a sentiment of such fierce anger towards a degenerating society. The culprits blamed are many: sexism, racism, environmental ignorance, capitalism, even the family unit. Separating this book from similar utopian science fiction novels, however, Piercy argues for violent insurgence to invoke a shift in societal change. Her protagonist, Connie Ramos, is a complicated and sometimes awkward—though effectively intriguing—central figure to the novel that many (myself included) would have a hard time cheering for. The perplexing nature of her psyche and the ambiguousness of her mental stability make the reader even question if this is a science fiction novel at all, or simply a psychological thriller grounded in social insurrection.

This novel demonstrates a clear beef that Piercy has for social subjugation, a fury for oppression that not-so-subtly pervades every shadow of American culture. Through Connie, and the representatively gay figure Luciente, Piercy unashamedly argues that a white-dominated, sexually focused, patriarchal capitalism has spun us into a tailspin that will inevitably produce nothing but social ruin and that currently engenders a loss of humanism and respect for the human being. Social class systems where race divides the poor from the rich, the healthy from the sick, the educated from the ignorant are unacceptable. Oppression is observed under patriarchy where women and gays are marginalized and under capitalism where the socially weak acquiesce to those in greater position. One of the most persistent attacks Piercy makes on society’s course is that of familial relationships. A dichotomy is introduced that polarizes the family into two extremes: on the one hand, families run by men in patriarchal units lead to broken homes, abuse, female submissiveness, heartache, and bitter mental turmoil. On the other, families raised in non-traditional, sexually-equal parenting situations offers what appears to be superficial love but structured and nonetheless happy. Piercy seems to suggest here that the oppression that marginalized communities experience is in part routed in the idea that the family unit—the nuclear family structure—is unnatural an ineffective. Or, even if it is natural, isn’t justified.

While her arguments are interesting and Women on the Edge of Time is a compelling and engaging fiction, it still is very much a fiction. Admittedly coming from a conservative, religious, and “practical” perspective, I confess that I find her arguments less persuasive than a mere rant. And I have had this issue with all the stories we have read so far. Piercy has an incredible ability to show the oppressive nature of the human being through Connie’s struggle with Geraldo, Dolly, Angelina, the various mental institutions, and her relationship with Luciente. The arguments here are powerful, engaging, and real. But I am left to wonder about the overtly socialist, feminist, environmentalist, and “anti”-racists perspectives of her alternate futures. Like much of the problems I find myself having with science fiction, I ask myself again here: why make it a fiction? At least, why make it unrealistic? If the issues are as she says they are and there is, in fact, something we can do about it, why not keep us on the ground, talking about the issues, rather than floating around in time and space? This is where she loses me and where I begin to lose faith in her tirade.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Week 6: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed is in so many ways a fascinating novel of the complexities of human interests, desires, passions, and relationships. While many science fiction novels are able to pinpoint and effectively critique mechanisms of modern societies, this is the first we have read this semester, I believe, that effectively portrays the myriad dichotomous relationships that define who we have become (and are becoming). While there is so much that could be said of this book—including discussions about religion, anarchy, capitalism (once again), feminism, and so forth—the separation of societies is something I would like to touch on. The Dispossessed shows the awkward separation of two societies that have for so long chosen not to associate much with each other. Within these two societies, though, exist other dialectical associations—relationships between men and women, between countries (A-Io and Thu), and between children and parents. Such relationships often show a disconnect between the way we choose to interact. Motivation is an interesting concept here as we see anything from animalistic sex drive to politics to consumerism as a source of desire that drives the human will. What is it, though, that forces us to make separations from each other? Why, since the beginning of man, must there always be a power struggle—an opposite to which organizations must compare themselves?

I see this phenomenon happening in nearly every aspect of our lives. Where there is a sports team, there is almost always a heated rival between another team. In the military, we see ideological schisms between the Army and Navy. Countries typically have a number one foe on their hit list. Religions find their counterparts and pursue heated and even violent debates. The Dispossessed shows the estrangement between two very different societies—Annares and Urras—where the latter exiled the former to a desolate land. I couldn’t help but make the association between the early American settlers and the American Indians. Mankind has a unique trait that searches for a reason to dominate, to control. Such is also represented with the men over the women in Urras. This book effectively shows these relationships and their complex and recurring-ness in daily human life. One very important reason for this, as LeGuin shows early on in the book, is a difference in language.

As one who studies communication, the separation of ideologies because of language is interesting. Shevek and his planet (moon) struggle with the notion of ownership in great part because their language doesn’t allow for it. Instead of saying “you can borrow my shirt,” Anarresti are forced to say “you can use the shirt I wear,” effectively removing ownership from the sentence. This very subtle difference in language mechanics can shift an entire ideology. Thus, is it fair to say that language shapes us rather than the way around? Certainly. The way we think and react is contingent upon the way our language works. And there are so many things we can’t say simply because out language doesn’t allow for it. In the world how much of our struggles and our polarized relationships develop as a direct or indirect cause of our language?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Week 5: The Sheep Look Up

The Sheep Look Up addresses, like any good political novel, the daily idiosyncrasies that humanity—by virtue of ignorance, greed, and selfishness—apparently naturally succumb to. Idiosyncrasies, of course, that are leading us into an inevitable apocalypse. Sheep, different from the previous novels we have read, pays particular attention to environmental neglect, a prescient topic that rings surprisingly loud today, particularly as we engage in the discussion about global climate change.

But what is this discussion really about? Is it about mankind’s natural lack of concern for the environment? Doubtful, since many less technologically savvy cultures have been reliant on, and thus show much care for, the environment. It isn’t necessarily that we don’t care. Perhaps the discussion is of laziness. Is it humanity’s tendency to build what makes life easier—the wheel, the printing press, the computer—in order to be more efficient that simultaneously drives us to use a car to go even a block down the street or that makes us panic when we lose the television remote? The ambitious nature to produce effort-saving devices perhaps also makes us lose sight of their consequences. Or, is this discussion once again reverted to capitalism? Does the desire to produce for the Almighty Dollar make us selectively incoherent of damage that we cause?

Interestingly, the United States and the world seem to be fairly polarized on the issue of environmentalism. While on the one hand many countries are making their political voices heard about saving the planet, on the other, these same countries are boasting of industrial growth that seems to counter environmental progress. Perhaps perpetuating the problem, we see first world countries exploiting third world nations to acquire further profit in places where environmental laws fall low on the list of priorities.

It seems, though, that this has become a problem of ignorance as a result of avarice. In determination to build the biggest company, the strongest conglomeration, and even the most powerful country, over the last two centuries we have seen an almost entirely one-sided focus on strength through money. This has left humanity to forget about the source of the material from which they receive their profit. And when an issue is one that is felt not day to day or year to but generation to generation, it is easy to neglect the longterm consequences. But we are arriving at a tipping point—at least that is what Brunner and Al Gore and Rachel Carson would argue. But as they mention, humanity’s even more powerful to survive, its “obligation to endure” makes this question crucial to our current ideological discussion. Apocalypse may be a strong, pessimistic term, one that Brunner seems to ideologically thrive on. But then again, maybe it is the most appropriate. And seeing that environmentalist pursuits won’t likely be able to catch up with the global capitalism, only time will tell…

Monday, February 2, 2009

Week 4: Dr. Bloodmoney

Week 4: Dr. Bloodmoney

I just came across an article that reminded me of the MAD (mutual assured desctruction) declaration of the United States to its nuclear counterparts—you bomb us, we bomb the world and everybody dies. Whether or not this is in fact real I have yet to determine. But it has always raised in my mind many of the issues that Dick addresses in this book. What if? What then? How would we go on? What would we value? Dick mentions in his afterworld that Dr. Bloodmoney shows a prediction of an inverted society. Value becomes less about money and more about skill—yet commodities are certainly a driving factor in society. We are a bargaining species—we have an innate “what’s in it for me?” attitude. We want prescription medicine in exchange for eyeglasses. At least, without money, that is how we function, right? That is how we define ourselves. Well, that is how the book portrays it. As Enns notes that Freeman and Durham say: “If we are economically constituted as capitalists and wonder who must buy and sell human labor that is commodified in to labor-power, then we are physically constituted as paranoid subjects show must seek to interpret the signification of the objects—commodities—which, in a quasi-living manner, mystify the way that they and we are defined.”

But while I was very impressed with Dick’s ability to show human emotion, human thought and character, I had to wonder about this commodity exchange. My recent fascination with the attacks in literature on capitalism has made be question this sort of thing. What would we do? I think Hurricane Katrina taught us a great deal as we watched Americans—simultaneously labeled as survivors and looters—struggle to survive a catastrophe. Sure, many helped others. But the fight to survive was ultimate. And perhaps along with that, there was a desire to preserve the past. Many, even after being ordered to leave their homes would not. They could not give up their past.

When placed at the brink of extinction, where does instinct put the human race? As survivors? As salesmen? Powermongers? Is capitalism instinctual? Or is it more natural to acquiesce to dominant personalities, to succumb (or rise up to) monarchy and totalitarianism?

I think what Dick does particularly well in this book is show us that the character of the human soul is complex, intelligent, and mystical. It is uninterpretable, dialectical, and anti-instinctual. It is individualistic in nature but simultaneously reliant on social construction. And it is through this social construction that culture is developed and diverged, reliant on personalities and knowledge bases that exchange rationalities and justifications for their systems. As Jameson notes: “this [complexity of characters] is at one with our fragmented existence under capitalism; it dramatizes our simultaneous presence in the separate compartments of private and public worlds, our twin condemnation to both history and psychology in scandalous concurrence” (351).

What seems to be missing from Dr. Bloodmoney book, though, is something I’ve noticed missing in the other two science fiction stories—the concept of sorrow. There seems to be a “brushing over” of the idea of sadness. Yes, there were those in Brave New World who became sad, but they could get rid of it instantly with a quick shot of happy juice. And in Dr. Bloodmoney, Mrs. Dangerfield commits suicide. But these are moments that are only mentioned, never elaborated. Rather, a mood is set that humans learn to cope with loss and get over it. One man (his name now escapes me) has a daughter who is about to die—but you never really feel like he is sad. Why is it that these authors feel it possible to brush over such a vital part of being human? Grief, remorse, depression, sorrow, fear—without these at least prevalent, is it not hard to recognize their opposites? While Dick by far is much more apt at creating a realistic human emotion—much more so than the women of Herland and the Alphas, Betas, and Gammas of the World State—he is still voiding the human of an essential quality.