Don’t forget to read the Anthology editors’ introductions to these (and all) short stories. Many test/exam questions come from the introductions, but, more importantly, they provide the context for the stories and even help with identifying interpretations.
Interpreting Science Fiction
As I’ve mentioned before, we’re not looking at the surface features of these texts (our short stories and novels). Meaning comes to readers from various perspectives: the reader’s worldview, the author’s worldview, and the cultural condition in which the author wrote and the reader read. Notice that readers reading in different time periods may interpret differently. Although you could argue there are limitless interpretations, doing so would get us to absurd situations like disproving Aliens exist.
Consider the burden of proof. For whom does the burden of proof lie when proving there is extraterrestrial life? How about the burden of proof for proving aliens have visited Earth? Allowing for ANY possibility is a moving target that could lead us to absurd conclusions.
Much like you have to have boundaries when making formal arguments (e.g., courts of law), we need to have boundaries for interpretation. Otherwise, we have no focus and we lose sight of an interpretation that requires in-depth analysis. What I’m asking you to do is to understand the cultural context(s) in which the text exists. We will start by defining the context and then use that context to drive our interpretation. We may need to consider more than one context, but, regardless of the number of contexts, we have boundaries, and that will help us focus our interpretation.
I’m not just advocating critical thinking; I’m trying to model more sophisticated thinking. Knowing the context (the rules, boundaries, theories, etc.) of an interpretation isn’t about knowing the facts–the words on a page. Instead, it helps you identify how an interpretation is made. We often just want the “what” does it mean, so we can memorize it and regurgitate it later. That’s not sophisticated enough for college-level thinkers. Knowing how someone arrived at the interpretation–which means recognizing the biases, worldviews, theoretical penchants, etc. of the interpreter/reader–is higher-level thinking.
Like Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” Tenn’s short story is about what happens after the end of the world or what happens after major catastrophes. This is a common theme of science fiction, and it’s usually brought about by the (mis)use of technology. Almost every author who uses the post-apocalyptic theme is commenting on a fear or apprehension about a contemporary technology. In Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” and Leiber’s “Coming Attraction,” nuclear weapons are the technologies that usher in destruction. Tenn’s story can easily be interpreted as an allusion to nuclear weapons. Additionally, the stories were written during the beginning of the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union were gaining influence around the world and positioning themselves to be the ones with the biggest weapons and, therefore, the most power. Today the big fear is terrorism, but back then it was fear of the United States and the Soviet Union engaging in global thermonuclear war–a war that would extinguish us all.
William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” (1953)
Satire and Allusion. “The Liberation of Earth” is a satire on imperialism and alludes (makes allusions) to superpower conflicts using less powerful nations and peoples. It’s not just referring to US-Soviet Cold War issues (although it foreshadows the proxy wars that the two nations fought for decades), it also alludes to the imperialistic practices of European nations that sought to conquer the world and have bases (colonies) far from the homeland to supply resources. There’s also a satire on the United Nations and the Security Council make up of hegemonic powers. By the way, William Tenn is the pseudonym for Philip Klass.
The Big Picture. Aliens use Earth as a battleground to try to defeat or, more accurately, push out each other from controlling an area. Each new ruler is seen as a liberation, but the Earth and humans suffer greatly. There’s an obvious comment here with each new liberation that there need to be intermediaries between the governing body and those governed–a group must be assimilated into the hegemon’s (the dominant power’s) worldview.
Of course, don’t miss the Anthology’s bio blurb that claims, “‘The Liberation of Earth’ seems to channel Tenn’s father’s anger at the misuse of human lives to serve imperialist aims” (p. 266). The editors also provide this warning: “whoever wins these fights, the human cost is dear” (p. 267).
Reading between the Lines. Of course, this story isn’t about aliens taking over–that’s just the surface. It’s really about using other groups as pawns–minor, not-so-powerful players–in a game/war between two powerful groups. Also, it’s about being powerless to do anything about it: You’re going to be ruled over no matter what.
- “a human scientist, investigating the shimmering machines, touched a projecting edge and promptly shrank into a disappearing pinpoint” (p. 270)
- “a benevolent ostracism” (p. 270)
- Humans considered not advanced enough to be an important species.
- UN Security Council permanent members
- “A temporary stalemate had been reached a short while ago, and–reeling and breathless–both sides were using the lull to strengthen weak spots in their perimeter” (p. 271).
- Temporary cease fire allows for improvements and plans for future attacks.
- The Dendi eventually “liberate” the Earth from rule of “the awful Troxxt” (p. 272).
- The Troxxt eventually return to “liberate” humanity, and the date becomes “the Holy Day of the second Liberation” (p. 227).
- “the ego of [the Earthling’s] was greatly damaged by the discovery, in the course of a routine journalistic interview, that the aliens totaled no more powerful a group than a squad” (p. 274).
- “One cannot, after all, turn one’s back on progress!” (p. 275).
- Is it progress if the world’s destroyed?
- “This police force was ostensibly a congress of all thinking life forms throughout the galaxy; actually, it was an efficient means of keeping them under rigid control” (p. 277).
- “…executions of U.N. officials, heads of states, and pre-Bengali interpreters [for being] ‘Traitors to Protoplasm'” (p. 278).
- Possible allusion to Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts.
- The narrator expose the naive view that the Troxxt, “our Second Liberators…actually preferred to have us help them with the intensive, accelerating labor of planetary defense” (p. 279)
- Unfortunately, this work meant “men sickened and died, in scrabbling hordes” working in mines.
- There are also subtle allusions to “fueling the war effort” by making sacrifices at home; for instance, rationing resources that are important for fighting: “Don’t salinate–sugarfy!” (p. 279).
- The Earth’s changing shape throughout the short story alludes to the way imperialists carved up areas on Earth for colonies, which then led to national borders (often after new alliances and, yes, war).
As you read Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction,” notice the connection to Tenn’s short story that demonstrates that players have to agree to the rules of the game (get ready for the weird “double” date of three people?) and, therefore, are complicit in the game’s execution. Likewise, those who govern do so by the consent of the governed…
Meet with Ms. Rogers in Fretwell 402 for Friday (9/20). We’ll be discussing Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction” (1950) [Anthology pp. 221-233].