David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: science fiction (page 1 of 5)

Robert Sheckley’s “Warm” and P. F. Strawson’s Objective Attitude

Sci-fi great Robert Sheckley‘s “Warm” is one of his more flat-out horror stories, comparatively free of the sardonic cynicism that usually marks his fiction. It’s even got a bit in common with the Lovecraft formula of the man exposed to unfortunate knowledge that drives him mad. The gnosis here, though, isn’t any sort of secret otherness that controls our world, just the standard scientific, materialist worldview–the “scientific image of man” in Wilfrid Sellars’ terminology.

Driven by an especially unhelpful voice in his head, protagonist Anders starts seeing other people not as people but as aggregates of “thoughts, expressions, movements” and raw material stuff. This happens just as he is trying to confess his love to the lovely Judy, who rather likes him as well. Judy is wholly generic, but given the story, that more or less fits. Here’s Anders talking to Judy, the voice chiming in:

“Yes … I wondered what you were doing at noon,” the reactive machine opposite him on the couch said, expanding its shapely chest slightly.

“Good,” the voice said, commending him for his perception.

“Dreaming of you, of course,” he said to the flesh-clad skeleton behind the total gestalt Judy. The flesh machine rearranged its limbs, widened its mouth to denote pleasure. The mechanism searched through a complex of fears, hopes, worries, through half-remembrances of analogous situations, analogous solutions.

Love quickly fades from Anders’ mind, since it’s very hard for him to feel love for a flesh machine or a reaction machine. (Vladimir Sorokin would use this sort of dehumanizing language to great effect in The Ice Trilogy; see my essay Meat and Clones)

“Can I get you a drink?” the reaction machine asked.

At that moment Anders was as thoroughly out of love as a man could be. Viewing one’s intended as a depersonalized, sexless piece of machinery is not especially conducive to love. But it is quite stimulating, intellectually.

Sheckley uses the terminology of gestalt psychology, though it was only one contemporary explanation of the psychological struggle between scientific and humanistic worldviews. The story endures because Sheckley transcends the particular argot of gestalt psychology by portraying the schizophrenic-like collapse in prosaic terms.

They were one with the lights, which lent their tiny vision. They were joined to the sounds they made, a few feeble tones out of the great possibility of sound. They blended into the walls.

The kaleidoscopic view came so fast that Anders had trouble sorting his new impressions. He knew now that these people existed only as patterns, on the same basis as the sounds they made and the things they thought they saw. Gestalts, sifted out of the vast, unbearable real world.

“Where’s Judy?” a discontinuous lump of flesh asked him. This particular lump possessed enough nervous mannerisms to convince the other lumps of his reality. He wore a loud tie as further evidence.

“She’s sick,” Anders said. The flesh quivered into an instant sympathy. Lines of formal mirth shifted to formal woe.

“Hope it isn’t anything serious,” the vocal flesh remarked.

This sort of psychic dissolution is a major theme in 20th century fiction. It’s there in Beckett, obviously, but also across the board in new wave science fiction, like J. G. Ballard’s “Manhole 69.” I see it as the successor theme to the mechanistic clockwork universe theme that you read about in everything from Dangerous Liaisons to Nietzsche. There determinism was just the problem, but now the social conventions of the self are collapsing due to the popularization of the ideas of Darwin, Freud, Watson and Crick, and pick-your-favorite-scientist.

And that brings up P. F. Strawson’s famous essay on determinism, “Freedom and Resentment.” Strawson draws a contrast between the “participant attitude,” which is the everyday attitude with which we treat people as autonomous agents with moral responsibility and freedom of choice; and the “objective attitude,” which is the scientific attitude that sees people as “reaction machines.” Though Sheckley uses the vocabulary of gestalt psychology, the story works just as well in showing a man moving entirely into the domain of the “objective attitude” and being driven insane by the ensuing alienation. Here is how Strawson describes the objective attitude:

To adopt the objective attitude to another human being is to see him, perhaps, as an object of social policy; as a subject for what, in a wide range of sense, might be called treatment; as something certainly to be taken account, perhaps precautionary account, of; to be managed or handled or cured or trained; perhaps simply to be avoided, though this gerundive is not peculiar to cases of objectivity of attitude… If your attitude towards someone is wholly objective, then though you may light him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him. You can at most pretend to quarrel, or to reason, with him.

Strawson points out that there are groups of people whom society habitually sees only through the eye of the objective attitude, but that these people are inevitably treated as not fully human: children, schizophrenics, hopeless irrationals, etc. That is, as creatures that are either not human yet or are abnormal and perhaps in need of correction. To be human, it seems, requires that one fall under the gaze of the participant attitude. Being human requires that one be seen as beyond the domain of the mechanically/biologically natural and brought out as some kind of special agent.

Strawson ultimately appeals to “natural human reactions” as defining the participant attitude, with some degree of optimism, believing that we have a tendency to treat each other as such. But those natural human reactions are taking an awful beating. One of the reasons why Sheckley’s story evokes very real horror is that the gnosis to which it appeals is, on some level, knowledge that many of us come to gain as we grow up and are educated and learn more about people, social sciences, and statistics and probability. Lovecraft is a lot scarier if there’s a possibility that the secret knowledge might actually be true, and not so secret after all.

Continuity as Commodity and Fetish

Q: How do you keep an idiot in suspense?

A: I’ll tell you part of the answer for sixty minutes each week for the next six years.

FRY: Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared.

Futurama, “When Aliens Attack”

The First Final Problem

Sherlock Holmes is the defining case of the problem of continuity. Conan Doyle killed off Holmes because he was sick of the character, then was faced with the problem of bringing him back. It wasn’t such a terrible problem, even if the solution was a little tacky. Because the stories were written by a fallible first-person observer in the form of Watson, he simply had the smarter character sneeringly assert the unreliability of the narrative:

In your picturesque account of the matter, which I read with great interest some months later, you assert that the wall was sheer. That was not literally true. A few small footholds presented themselves, and there was some indication of a ledge…A mistake would have been fatal. More than once, as tufts of grass came out in my hand or my foot slipped in the wet notches of the rock, I thought that I was gone. But I struggled upward, and at last I reached a ledge several feet deep and covered with soft green moss, where I could lie unseen, in the most perfect comfort. There I was stretched, when you, my dear Watson, and all your following were investigating in the most sympathetic and inefficient manner the circumstances of my death.

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Empty House”

Hence the problem of continuity: the need for a post hoc coherence to a storyline that was never planned out in the first place.

Because of the nature of mystery fans, Conan Doyle scholarship embraces the eccentric tendency of trying to justify all discontinuities that Conan Doyle never did bother to explain:

The most curious facet of this undeniably sumptuous package lies in Klinger’s decision to play the parlour game of Sherlockian scholarship. Initiated in 1911 by a Catholic priest who intended it as a spoof of scriptural exegesis, the game assumes that Sherlock Holmes actually existed, that the stories really were written by John Watson MD, and that Doyle acted only as the doctor’s agent. The supposed fun lies in ensuring that the canon’s numerous mistakes, implausibilities and inconsistencies are coherently explained away, no matter how tortured the logic required. Klinger fills page after page with the kind of wilfully pedantic literary mischief-making which John Sutherland has turned into an art form. How many wives had Doctor Watson? Did Holmes love the only woman ever to have outwitted him? What colour was the Baker Street dressing gown? And what really happened at the Reichenbach Falls? The whimsy of this conceit swiftly becomes grating and, in relegating the author to the role of mere go-between and front man, also seems faintly insulting to Doyle himself.

Jon Barnes, “Too Spirited for the Spooks,” TLS 07 January 2005

I’m fascinated by the seemingly futile efforts of fans to render coherent what was never intended to be such. In effect, they are rationalizing God’s ways to man.

When John Sutherland does it in books like Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in Nineteenth-century Fiction or Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?, he does so with a wink and a nod, but the method is essentially the same, postulating clues in order to obtain solutions that aren’t there. Seeing Sutherland ply his craft is instructive because he applies it to works that don’t normally entertain it. He does so in the same spirit as well, coming out of an obsessive love for the world creation of Victorian novelists. Compared to Joyce or Proust, Victorian worlds never felt particularly real to me and so I have little desire to make them more real.

I am, however, easier on the fans than Barnes is. The rationale this “supposed fun” is that it in fact fun of a deep and meaningful variety, and rather than an insult to the author, it is a gesture of fanatical love for characters now elevated to the level of myth. This form of myth, unlike traditional myth, tolerates inconsistencies only inasmuch as they can be explained after the fact, giving  it a strangely paradoxical character.

The results, like the results of theodicy, are almost inevitably disappointing, since the absence of a grand plan makes it impossible that such a plan will be discovered. The attribution of too great a level of reality puts both the fans and the creators in a tight spot. The near-inevitable failure of grand unifying moments occurs because the arbitrary restrictions make impossible any satisfactory unification of ex post facto continuity.


Stan Lee’s Shared Rhizomes

Stan Lee was probably not the first to consciously commoditize continuity, but I believe he was the first to achieve massive success through it. The Marvel comics that were written by Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby have far more value for their visual artistry than their plot, but the plot sold the art at least as much as the other way around.

In the 1960s, Lee’s titles fostered fan involvement by printing fan addresses in the letters columns, so that the more involved fans could contact one another. (I thought that Lee invented this gambit, but it turns out to have been originated by DC’s Julius Schwartz. See this excellent Wikipedia article.) But more significantly for our purposes here, Lee loaded up stories with cross-references to previous issues and other titles, putting asterisks in dialogue balloons that pointed to footnotes reading “As seen in Fantastic Four #42! -Ed.” (Lee did not invent this device either, but he put it to far more work.)

Lee, far more than anyone before him, created a tight network of “hyperlinked” content that, naturally, encouraged fans to make sure they bought every single issue of every title, so as not to miss out on part of the continuity. This has come to be known as a “shared universe,” but this term is something of an insult to genuinely fleshed-out universes. It is a network of gaps and contradictions claiming the illusion of coherence. At least call it a “shared rhizome” or something like that.

Yet the embrace of continuity worked, and fans bought into a concept that inherently guaranteed disappointment. The claim of writers like Lee to possess the hidden gnosis of the entire “universe,” to be revealed in dribs and drabs, went mostly unquestioned even when patently false, even when acknowledged to be false.

So one can only attribute fan dissatisfaction to real cognitive dissonance, as here:

One such tool is retconning, short for “retroactive continuity”, where later adjustments result in the invalidation of previously-written material. The most severe form of retcon involves a wholesale rewrite of the groundwork for the entire setting. These reboots, most closely associated with DC Comics, are not always effective at resolving underlying problems and may meet with a negative reaction from fans.

Shared Universe

This in turn fosters an attitude of contempt from many writers, who see themselves as absurdly boxed in and know that there is no way to please the fans. In effect, the reaction is: “How can you hold our titles to their false promises of coherence when those promises were so blatantly ridiculous?” You can see the dynamic on display as Lost scribe Damien Lindelof squirms under interrogation from Josh Horowitz, half-embarrassed and half-condescending. Hence Fry’s quote at the beginning of this essay. (Lindelof had acted in especially bad faith by earlier claiming that the show had been planned out from the start.)


Doctoring the Doctor

When fans become part of the creative apparatus, this contempt becomes internalized, and the simultaneous effort to worship continuity while knowing it is a lie can come to resemble the internal workings of religious bureaucracies.

The posts at the Tardis Eruditorum hypothesize a particularly nasty form of this self-immolation occurring in the 1980s with Doctor Who, which became both nastier and more incoherent as it incorporated fandom and fan feedback into its creative process, under the diabolical show-runner John Nathan-Turner.

There, in the context of discussing the killing off of a character no one liked anyway, Philip Sandifer writes, “The problem is that so much of fandom seems unaware of the ‘guilty’ part of guilty pleasures.” I think it’s more epistemological than that, at least for the more fanatical of fans. It’s a matter of cognitive dissonance. The pleasure of buying into a world of continuity, and the suspense of having it revealed slowly, requires an ongoing suspension of disbelief that is impossible to sustain in the face of growing evidence that nothing is in fact being revealed.

Doctor Who, sheerly by dint of being on continuously for longer than any other such continuity-based program short of a soap opera (where large-scale continuity isn’t an issue since characters can simply be abandoned), probably faced this problem first, a point which I’m grateful to Sandifer for pointing out. That the results were frankly disastrous bears repeating. Sandifer puts the logic succinctly in talking about the 1983 twentieth (!) anniversary special The Five Doctors, in which the five actors to have played the part to that point (one a ringer for a dead actor, another appearing only through leftover old footage) had to be worked into a single story:

On the one hand, Nathan-Turner is obsessed with strip-mining the program’s history. On the other, Nathan-Turner remains obsessed with distinguishing himself and glorifying his tenure as producer. And so the program is increasingly obsessed with referencing its past for the sole purpose of trying to show how much better it is than the very past that it sees itself as primarily existing to reference.

Terence Dicks has said that his strategy in writing The Five Doctors was to just put everything in and trust that nobody was going to look too hard at the glue. This is, again, essentially correct. The story proceeds not according to narrative logic but according to a paratextual logic. It is driven by a need to shove in every signifier of Doctor Who it can find, and more to the point, its audience knows it. It works not according to plot logic but according to the logic of nostalgia.

The Dalek is the point where this is most blatantly signposted. It appears, gets one scene, and is abandoned, having served its purpose. The audience, upon seeing this, knows exactly what sort of story this is.

The Five Doctors

Not all of the audience. For a substantial number of fans, frequently the most vocal ones, the story remains one more set of jigsaw pieces to assemble into a puzzle that does not in fact fit together. And so continuity purposes and creative purposes become an ever-more-quickly-spinning ourobouros.

This intolerable self-loathing seems to have resulted in what Sandifer terms the nadir of the series, “The Twin Dilemma,” a rewriting of the Doctor mythos so horrendous as to be indefensible. I will let Sandifer, whose sense of betrayal is palpable, tell it, since his passion conveys more of the sheer hatred at the heart of the story than a rote plot summary would:

Colin Baker’s Doctor isn’t just unlikable here. He’s intolerable. He’s an overtly bad person who any reasonable audience should actively dislike and want to see get his comeuppance. Whereas the series still visibly thinks he’s the hero. It’s not just that Baker’s Doctor is prickly and hard to like, it’s that he’s a bad guy.

…The Doctor attempts to choke his heavily sexualized female companion. He physically and violently assaults her in a manner that is chillingly familiar as a real-world phenomenon that happens to women at the hands of their male partners. Then he drags her against her will to what he says could be an entire life in which “it shall be your humble privilege to minister unto my needs.” She readily forgives him and grins stupidly at his charms. It’s not Nicola Bryant’s fault – she plays the material as well as it can be played. Nor is it Baker’s fault. They try to make the scenes watchable, but nobody could possibly make this work. Peri is violently assaulted by a man who overtly sees her only purpose as being to serve him, and chooses happily to stay with him. The show treats this man as its hero and expects the audience to tune in nine months later to watch his continuing adventures.

Of course they declined to. Baker’s Doctor is completely poisoned here. There’s nothing whatsoever that can be done to make this character watchable to anyone who has seen this. And I speak from experience here. This is the story that killed my parents’ interest in Doctor Who. To this day my mother refuses to accept the possibility that Baker might be good on the audios simply because of how much this story made her hate him. That’s how bad this played to people. That’s how you kill Doctor Who in under a hundred minutes. You make it about a battered woman idolizing her abuser.

Yeah, OK. I take it back. This is the worst fucking story ever.

The Twin Dilemma


Tommy Westphal’s Head

These days the embrace of continuity is done with simultaneous irony and fanaticism, sort of a post-Nietzschean “God is dead but can we pretend he’s alive?” approach. It’s prima facie absurd to try to figure out all the television characters who were only in Tommy Westphal’s mind on St. Elsewhere by tracing crossovers, but then again, someone did it. There doesn’t even need to be the stated intent of continuity to practice this game.

This is ultimately because the problem of continuity is unavoidable. As long as you are recycling the same characters or other pieces of a creative franchise, there has to be some addressing, even unintentionally, of the relation of this particular version to other versions. There is only one actual explanation, which is that the decisions are made pragmatically and haphazardly on a case by case basis with more or less respect for the past.  The best writers simply pick and choose the bits that work best for them, weaving a particular version into the fabric.

But the shared, commoditized myth of continuity mandates that the appeal of such work be in its continuity linkages, and so there is a tension between the big picture fandom appeal and any desire to make art. This is analogous to the more general trend of genre-conformity vs. individual artistic achievement, played out in the more restricted context of actual characters and plot rather than in the context of mere archetypes. Instead of “revenge tragedies” or “knight-errant novels,” we get “Dragonlance novels” or “Star Trek movies.” Such franchises become their own sub-genres.

Assorted sleights-of-hand have been established: the dreaded reboot is the one in common parlance, while alternate universes remain a semantically more acceptable method of changing established rules arbitrarily. Ignoring or finessing continuity will only result in fans trying to solve the problems themselves, as with Sherlock Holmes. Foisting this work off onto fans is probably the best approach anyway, so as to free the writers from plotting and character constraints that make crap art almost inevitable, but creators can’t be seen to say this explicitly, so instead it is sublimated into contempt for their audience. The altar of continuity is a shrine to a false god.

RIP Joanna Russ

One of the lesser-known greats of the New Wave of science fiction has passed on. Matthew Cheney has an excellent obit and overview. I reviewed my favorite work of hers, We Who Are About To…, some years back. As a supplementary epitaph, I’d like to quote part of Thomas M. Disch’s encomium to her, from The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of:

Little wonder that Heinlein, in Friday‘s alphabetized dedication and tribute to twenty-nine members of the fair sex, pays his devoirs to a Jeanne, a Joan, and a Judy-Lynn, but omits the name of Joanna. Now that, truly, is a compliment.

…C.J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold have taken their cue from Russ, writing gung-ho Realpolitik space operas that make the author of Gor look like the wimp he was.

And also quote Ray Davis quoting a great bit from the end of Russ’s classic The Female Man, spoken by the character “Joanna”:

“I am the gateway to another world,” (said I, looking in the mirror) “I am the earth-mother; I am the eternal siren; I am purity,” (Jeez, new pimples)

Triptych of Ideologies

John Clute on Cory Doctorow. The Heinlein comparison is significant and important in tracing the mainline of science-fiction.

One good way to detect the secret handshake hidden in plain view in tales by Heinlein or Doctorow is to follow the italics. Both writers—and I suspect a lot of hard SF writers as well—use italics as a kind of decoder ring, as a mechanism designed to shake the truth of a phrase free of the accidents of language. So if Heinlein says “What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts?” (Time Enough for Love, (1973), we know that he is asking us a question heavy with agenda. What he is asking us to understand, clearly enough, is not only that truth can be comprehended and problems solved through what remains when a sensible disciple of Alfred Korzybski has cleared the semantic air, but that facts are the only truth of the matter: and that once the facts are known a Competent Man can clear the road ahead of kipple. And when Doctorow says “Most times, they were too shocked to do anything“—I select almost at random from hundreds of sentences festooned with decoder ring emphases in For the Win—he too is saying that though the truth is still obscure, it remains obtainable, and the truth will make you free.

You can feel story pounding through the arteries of For the Win. What you mainly miss is a villain, perhaps because the book is all too polished a render, all too transparently engineered for victory. There can be no genuine villain here (the manga-derived Chinese boss is simply silly, and Doctorow makes it clear we know he knows he’s silly), because a genuine villain would track bits of realworld all over the speedlines pointing to victory. An author who has a character realize that “Inheritances were handier than he’d suspected” is one) not Charles Dickens, and two) not about to waste any time moongazing at the haecceity of the whatsit.

Penny Rimbaud of Crass on the intraband lawsuit. Much less nasty than the Dead Kennedys, though.

To my mind, the dispute has its root in ideological differences that existed between the individual members of the band. In my understanding, Pete [Wright] was fundamentally a socialist, and socialists like wagging their fingers at anyone except themselves.

He claims to be an anarchist. Well, I claim to be an anarchist, but I’m fundamentally a libertarian and a fierce individualist. I think that does fit into an arena of anarchistic thought. I certainly draw a line at all this stupid anarchistic organization of industry and that sort of stuff, because I’m just not interested. If people want to do that, then I’m not going to criticize them. But frankly, it’s not my thing. My thing is rising with the angels and flying in the sky.

Matt Yglesias on supporting the Iraq War:

When Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Biden, John Edwards, etc. told me they thought invading Iraq was a good idea I took them very seriously. I knew that Carl Levin & Nancy Pelosi were on the other side, but the bulk of the leading Democratic voices on national security and foreign policy issues were in favor of the war. So was Tony Blair. These were credible people whose views I took seriously.

I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite. My observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people. The point is that this wasn’t really a series of erroneous judgments about Iraq, it was a series of erroneous judgments about how to think about the world and who deserves to be taken seriously and under which circumstances.

[Commenter Susan says: In other words you were a kid who had no business being given any position of any intellectual import since you didn’t know your ass from a hole in the ground and you were conned by a bunch of conmen and conwomen.]

Gene Wolfe Challenge Won!

I’ve been tardy in mentioning it, but a reader going by the sobriquet “Dave Tallman” has posted a very convincing explanation of Gene Wolfe’s cryptic Seven American Nights, and in doing so has answered the challenge I made nearly a year ago. Bravo, Dave Tallman! In doing so, not only has he made the story far more enjoyable for me without my needing to expend more effort than I wanted, but he has also given the lie to those who say, as one commenter did, that “There are no true clues or false clues; the mystery is the point of the exercise.” For your work, I am proud to award you the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary:

On the Wolfe wiki, there is his detailed explanation of the ending, as well as a timeline. Some of the minor points are disputable, but for the crucial questions, I can’t imagine a better explanation.

The crucial points of the explanation: there is no hallucinogen and Nadan certainly doesn’t take one, Nadan is dead by the end of the story or shortly thereafter, and the last few entries of the journal are forged by some US governmental agency trying to cover up their killing of Nadan.

The explanation does indeed give shape to the story where I could not find any before. It sounds like Mr. Tallman was led to these conclusions by looking at the Biblical Jesus parallel, which in retrospect makes great sense, but which I wouldn’t have considered, not having that background myself. The whole “play” business clearly matches up with the passion play, but oh well, my mind just didn’t work that way. I should have figured out the “Sunday we will be great again” business in connection with Easter, however, so there I’ll chide myself. I’ll chide Wolfe, however, for inserting the red herring of the supposed presence of the hallucinogen, which serves thematic purposes but, to use a timely analogy, makes the story NP-hard: you can verify a solution very quickly, but finding one is damn near impossible because of the multiplication of possibilities involved. And one key clue, that the quality of the journal’s prose decreases once the forgery machine is writing, is amusing to me because I don’t find Nadan’s prose particularly high-quality.

Still, the ultimate plot details are yet again interesting in revealing Wolfe’s seemingly strong anti-colonial attitudes once again. America looks even worse than it does on initial reading now that their evil plot is revealed, and Islam comes off as positively tolerant. At least in recent years, Wolfe has been something of a Catholic populist right-winger, and so I find it hard to believe he would write this story today. I would say the same of Fifth Head of Cerberus, but here he goes even further and seems to hold up today’s third world as a better model for humanity than Ugly America. Post-Vietnam syndrome?

There were others who claimed knowledge of the story’s plot (and therefore meaning) without giving it. Since all the explanations I found online and elsewhere (including several academic texts, which do their best to fudge the fact that their authors do not have an explanation for the story) fell far short of the satisfaction of Mr. Tallman’s, I’m inclined to be skeptical.

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