Plan for the Day
- Finish Heinlein’s “All You Zombies—”
- Extreme individualism
- Asimov’s “Reason”
- QT’s constructed (out of this) worldview
- Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (4:30pm)
- Samuel R. Delany (by 4:45pm!!!)
- Essay #1 on American Culture due 9/20 on Canvas…
The Alien Other and Worlds Beyond
Both stories for today deal with the alien other: a being or beings that aren’t of our world. We’ve already met aliens in our readings, but these two stories–although different–share a common theme related to the alien other. Although this could be argued about any sci fi alien encounter, today’s stories ask readers to consider what it means to be human in contrast to alien behavior. Weinbaum’s story has the main character, Jarvis, explaining Tweel’s extraterrestrial logic in contrast to human tendencies for generalizations. Delany’s story is the more satirical one and uses the scifi genre to play with gender roles. While not alien, readers in 1967 would be familiar with the Spacers as “other.”
When confronting the alien other, humanity is relative.
Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934)
This story is one of the many that editor John W. Campbell helped coach the author on. Asimov’s early career in science fiction would have gotten nowhere (well, most likely not as early a start) without the support of Campbell. He was important for Asimov’s thinking on the Three Laws of Robotics.
Let’s consider some surface features of the story before going under the surface and interpreting between the lines (yes, this parallels the narrative where Jarvis and Tweel walk on the Martian surface then go underground and find the cure-all egg). We’ll move from this to an analysis based on Weinbaum’s life and then on to a cultural-historical interpretation.
The Excitement of a Desolate Martian Surface
Mars doesn’t seem all that exciting, does it? It’s practically a barren wasteland with dangerous and goofy creatures, an environment with severe temperature fluctuations much like deserts on Earth. But, just like the Mojave Desert, you can find an oasis. Jarvis and Tweel don’t find Las Vegas,* but they do find creatures that defy explanation and survive on different chemical composition needs. What could we say about the brick-laying silica creature building pyramids forever (pp. 149-150)?
*Speaking of Las Vegas, at the Treasure Island, there used to be a show called Sirens of TI, and, on the surface of Mars, there are these siren-like creatures that lure unsuspecting hikers to them and then eat them. Jarvis called them dream beasts and he was shown a vision of Fancy Long–a New York dancer (c.f. Jean Harlow “The Sex Siren”). Even in the future, there are female go-go dancers entertaining men. What can we say about the role of women here in conjunction with last class’s discussion on fetishizing aliens?
Common images from Science Fiction Magazines
- Avon Fantasy Reader
- Fantastic Adventures
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact (went through name changes over the years)
- Space Science Fiction
- Notice the issue cover Wikipedia uses…
- Weird Tales
Humans have always been fascinated by the tales of exploration. Long before our mass media technologies that beam “instant” news to us and even long before the printing press, humans told stories about explorers going to distant lands–some were based on actual exploration like Marco Polo’s travels to Asia, and some were based on mythology like Homer’s Odyssey about Odysseus’s (Ulysses in Roman mythology) journey back from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca (in upstate New York–just kidding). Weinbaum’s story contains all the components for an exciting adventure story:
- A sidekick he saves and who travels with him
- Bizarre creatures unknown to the adventurer
- New civilizations and battle–need to fight to get home safely
- Treasure or products of value
Because it’s a short story, we’re able to get through it much quicker than Lord of the Rings and The Odyssey. The characters make reference to the public’s assumed excitement about their journey when Harrison laments “I wish you’d saved the films, though. They’d have paid the cost of this junket; remember how the public mobbed the first moon pictures?” (p. 138). The American public consumed video and audio of the actual moon landing, but they had been consuming tales of adventure throughout its history: Lewis & Clarke’s Expedition, Cook & Peary’s North Pole excursion, and Admundsen’s trip to the South Pole.
The Desire to Transcend One’s Time
Even though we can’t assume the author’s point of view is the only factor for interpretation, we shouldn’t ignore connections to the author’s life. Weinbaum, like many sci fi or creative writers generally, might have been writing to indulge in other worlds and situations because he had a longing for something incomplete in his life. AGAIN, THIS ISN’T THE INTERPRETATION OF ALL HIS WORKS, but it is a plausible one. Weinbaum also wrote romance stories and a collection of stories about a scientist looking for a lover, who is ultimately lost. The theme of searching is apparent in his work and possibly drove his imagination and, therefore, his writing. A series of stories he wrote dealt with Dixon Wells, who was a student and later assistant to the great Haskel Van Manderpootz (they have a Sherlock Holmes and Watson-type relationship): “The Worlds of If” (1935), “The Ideal” (1935), and “The Point of View” (1936-posthumusly published). In the beginning of “The Point of View” Dixon Wells laments the trials and tribulations of finding the woman of his dreams:
There was the affair of the subjunctivisor, for instance, and also that of the idealizator; in the first of these episodes I had suffered the indignity of falling in love with a girl two weeks after she was apparently dead, and in the second, the equal or greater indignity of falling in love with a girl who didn’t exist, never had existed, and never would exist–in other words, with an ideal. Perhaps I’m a little susceptible to feminine charms, or rather, perhaps I used to be, for since the disaster of the idealizator, I have grimly relegated such follies to the past, much to the disgust of various vision entertainers, singers, dancers, and the like. (para. 6)
We learn at the end of “The Point of View” that Dixon Wells eventually falls in love with another man’s wife, an unattainable love. Interestingly, Jarvis calls Fancy Long “a vision entertainer” in “A Martian Odyssey” (p. 151). The implication is that she, too, is unattainable and acts as a fantasy for the character (and men in general).
Also, Weinbaum died of throat (or lung) cancer shortly after this story was published. He was born and died in Louisville, KY…home of the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Champions. Again, I caution you against reading authors’ works as a lead up to their final moments (even authors who committed suicide didn’t write incessantly about their eventual suicides), but the fact that the characters mention the possibility to cure cancer with the egg (p. 159) is important. That’s not just Weinbaum’s concern in 1934-1935; even today, groups raise money and awareness on cancer in hopes that one day a cure will be found.
Here’s a rundown of the characters on this 21st-Century Martian expedition:
- Jarvis–possibly the American, reminiscent of a frontiersman
- Harrison–American or British Captain, incredulous to Jarvis’s tale
- Putz–definitely German, the engineer
- Leroy–definitely French, the biologist
- Tweel (Tweerl)–Jarvis’s alien sidekick he saves
- p. 144: Jarvis on Tweel–“Our minds simply looked at the world from different viewpoints, and perhaps his viewpoint is as true as ours.”
- In Weinbaum’s story “Valley of Dreams”–the sequel to this one–readers learn that Tweel’s race is the Thoth, who visited the ancient Egyptians and brought the gift of writing.
- Cover of The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum (1974)
This crew of Europeans and, presumably, Americans reflects the colonial aspirations Western nations had in the first half of the 20th Century. Of course, other nations had (and still have) these aspirations. Additionally, connecting the adventure aspects of the story to European conquistadors, we can read how for quite some time Western culture assumed that riches could be found in far away lands. Whether it’s Aztec/Inca gold or the fabled Fountain of Youth, the culturally held assumption (or fascination) is that discoveries in other lands could be of value. It’s no surprise that we call scientific and technological breakthroughs “discoveries” even though they aren’t found. Jarvis stealing the cure-all Martian “egg” alludes to colonial patterns of exploitation.
More Questions to consider:
- Which is the most mythical character? Consider the title of the short story…and I mean the word “Odyssey” in the title.
- Which character is the most traditionally science fiction? Fantasy character?
- What does the return home suggest?
Specific passages to discuss:
- p. 137: “The Ares expedition, first human beings to set foot on the…planet Mars.”
- p. 137: Mad scientists and Atomic Power (history of nuclear power)
- “the mad American Doheny perfected the atomic blast at the cost of his life”
- “only a decade after the equally mad Cardoza rode on it to the moon”
- p. 139: “[Jarvis]…took a cartridge belt and revolver…”
- Theoretically, you can shoot a gun on Mars, and it will travel farther than on Earth.
- There’s too little oxygen, however, to build a fire.
- p. 143: Language barriers
- Tweel used a version of addition to compare like and unlike and similar things
- pp. 143-144: Jarvis says, “Well, there we were. We could exchange ideas up to a certain point, and then–blooey! Something in us was different, unrelated; I don’t doubt that Tweel thought me just as screwy as I thought him.”
- p. 153: Tweel’s weapon “did hold as many shots as a cowboy’s gun in a Western movie.”
- p. 157: Those pushcart creatures really live (and die) for their work…
Gender Studies from Judith Butler
Judith Butler is a major gender theorist. She points out that gender is instituted (as opposed to innately felt) through acts that make us believe gender is natural. I’m selectively pulling out some quotations from her most famous essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” (1988):
- p. 154: “gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time–an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.”
- “if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform.”
- p. 155: “what is called gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo.”
- Refering to Simone de Beauvoir: “gender is an historical situation rather than a natural fact.”
Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah…” (1967)
Here’s the synopsis: This peculiar short story takes place in the future, an imagined (possibly) 21st-Century future of the mid-to-late 1960s. The narrative revolves around four Spacers, space workers who’ve been neutered–not just sterilized–before puberty, so they can work in dangerous areas of space where radiation would harm their reproductive capacity. Delany’s story also shows that this early neutering leaves the individual with an androgynous result–it’s difficult for others to determine the neuter’s sex as an adult. But just like the Axe Body Wash and Deodorant commercials, these Spacers (astronauts) are lusted after by the ‘frelks’. As the Anthology editors mention, the frelks are into the Spacers even though the Spacers don’t have sex drives–it’s a fetish because it’s impossible to arouse them (p. 405). When the Spacers visit Earth between work (going up and down), they sometimes prostitute themselves to the frelk groupies.
What are base assumptions about sexuality? What does “biology is destiny” mean?
Delany himself points out that this was written before the Stonewall riots, which is considered the first “event” of the modern Gay Rights movement. Many homosexuals were in the closet during this period, and there were almost no obvious popular culture references to homosexuality in American culture. The 1960s, however, was a time of social upheaval. In addition to the many anti-war and student (counter culture) riots/movements, there was a sexual revolution that sought to throw away the prescribed puritanical morality of patriarchal culture.
Yes, in a way, this is a romance story, but it’s probably ironic–there’s an incongruity between what’s expected in a love story and the outcome of this one where the narrator prostitutes himself in order to feel connected to someone. This is an interesting take on the traditional prostitution narrative of the older john looking for a connection with a prostitute he pays for, but she (usually a woman) is doing it just for the money. The spacers might be doing it because they can’t feel a full connection to others and exist in a gender borderland–not quite male and not quite female; not quite homosexual and not quite heterosexual.
There’s another component to this “romance” story: perversion. Delany himself comments on the possibility that the encounter between the narrator and the Turkish college student is a look into perversion. But what exactly is perversion? It’s sexual gratification/desire that’s not part of the mainstream–phallocentric, heteronormative sex. If we read this story ironically, we recognize that a perversion of sex is the inability to have a mutually pleasurable experience. Spacers just do it for money and the need to fill a void in their lives; the frelks do it because it’s some kind of game.
The title obviously refers to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old Testament. The two cities were destroyed as punishment for engaging in all kinds of “perversions.” Delany, who identifies as gay, certainly doesn’t think homosexuality is wrong, so why this story? Could he possibly be passing judgment on this projected world?
Well, passing judgment is too simplistic for an artist of Delany’s caliber, so we can safely rule that out. Perhaps a possible answer is in the affirmation “Aye”–meaning “yes” (only opens on campus with access to The OED Online). Also, there’s a further definition that is “indicating assent” before stating “a more forcible” idea. Then again, couldn’t “Aye” be a play on “I”? This is what’s great (and frustrating) about language and studying literature–ambiguity. Words can have multiple definitions, so they can change the meaning of a sentence (or title in this case), making readers think about the multiple meanings possible. Maybe this is a lamentation of the narrator and the other spacers.
Samuel R. Delany identifies as gay, and was married to a women (who identifies as lesbian) when he wrote this short story. I know we’ve discussed that an author’s life isn’t THE place where meaning is held for a work, but Delany’s situation might help readers understand the ending where the narrator and the Greek student don’t “hook up” because there’s an impossibility of being fulfilled. Delany was married to his ex-wife, Marilyn Hacker, when he wrote this story. The two met in high school and married shortly after graduation. They actually had to go to Detroit, MI because it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry in New York…a rather surprising situation considering New York’s contemporary reputation for being progressive. Then again, New York is much bigger than New York City. Perhaps Delany’s subconscious was carried out through the narrator: As a person “in the closet,” he couldn’t quite feel fulfilled in his relationship, and, to be fair, his wife probably didn’t feel that way either.
- Narrator–a spacer
- Greek student–a frelk interested in the narrator
- Other Spacers–Kelly, Lou, Bo, and Muse
- French: “une frelk” (p. 406)
- Spanish: “una frelka” (p. 407)
“Racism and Science Fiction” by Samuel R. Delany
Delany’s essay on racism in the sci fi world is probably not new to many of you, but I think it’s helpful to reiterate the idea of systemic racism. Specifically, I want to explain that racism is an American value. It’s not a good value, but racism mediates American history, affecting all institutions and American ideology in general (remember hegemony). However, just as we can point to evidence that racism is an American value, we can also point to equality being an American value…American culture is full of these contradictions.
Here are some quotes that might help.
- p. 1: “Racism for me has always appeared to be first and foremost a system, largely supported by material and economic conditions at work in a field of social traditions.”
- p. 2: On lynching and “Billy the Kid claimed to have taken active part in a more than half a dozen such murders…”
- p. 3: “[John W. Campbell] didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.”
- Note the sarcasm…”No, perish the thought! Surely there was not a prejudiced bone in his body!”
- p. 5: Isaac Asimov’s comment
- p. 6: “…replacing them with signs saying “black literature”—the small ‘b’ on ‘black’ is a very significant letter, an attempt to ironize and de-transcendentalize the whole concept of race, to render it provisional and contingent, a significance that many young people today, white and black, who lackadaisically capitalize it, have lost track of.”
- Politics of capitalizing
- p. 7: “But what racism as a system does is isolate and segregate the people of one race, or group, or ethnos from another. As a system it can be fueled by chance as much as by hostility or by the best of intentions.”
- p. 7: “Racism is a system….fueled as much by chance as by hostile intentions and equally the best intentions as well.”
- p. 8: “Racism is as much about accustoming people to becoming used to certain racial configurations so that they are specifically not used to others….what we are combatting is called prejudice: prejudice is pre-judgment…”
One assertion Delany makes that really stands out is his point that discussions of “race” and “racism” are completely entwined:
In a society such as ours, the discourse of race is so involved and embraided with the discourse of racism that I would defy anyone ultimately and authoritatively to distinguish them in any absolute manner once and for all.p. 8
Don’t forget to respond to this week’s prompt before 11:00pm on Friday, 9/8. In the future, these will be due on Thursdays. Keep up with the syllabus. We have William Gibson’s short stories next week.