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Tuesday, November 18, 2003

All work and no play make Jesse mildly homicidal. I really hate this time of year.

More Thoughts on Barbie Murders

Jason -- after reading your blog, you've got me about 90% convinced that my initial thoughts on what the author was doing re sexuality and identity was amiss. I have to admit, your explaination that the rogue Barbies (I don't know about any of you, but for some reason the term "rogue Barbies" brings up some delightfully surreal mental images) were simply revelling in what was taken away from them in conforming to the Book of Standards. The only thing that keeps me from being 100% convinced is that they didn't take on names during these sexual encounters. If it was about what they'd lost, wouldn't they have given one another names? Even pseudo-names that only last for the duration of the encounter, like "this time you be Frank, and I'll be Sue."

Still, like I said, your argument is, I think, more convincing than mine was. So, enough about deranged plastic people (tm). On to this week's stuff.

Octavia Butler - Dawn

I think this is among the top five creepiest stories I've ever read. It's not a blunt, in-your-face splatterpunk creepy like most of Stephen King's dime-a-dozen novels, nor is it an atmospheric, subdued creepiness along the lines of Dracula (the book, not the movie). It isn't even really the inner-beast psychological creepiness that H. P. Lovecraft's better work plays with. Dawn presents a subtle creepiness in which it continually presents false hope only to take it away again.

The novel is rife with cold war imagery, but then a lot of the pop culture of 1984 was obsessed with the inevitability of nuclear armageddon. As a kid at the time, I remember watching cartoons at the time on Saturday mornings, and one day seeing one short cartoon film morbidly designed to prepare children (like myself) for Nuclear holocaust. Not the "duck and cover" infomercials of the 70's, but far more realistic; the final message was "In the event of a nuclear war you must be prepared to die." Anyway, if an 8-year-old like myself could, in 1984, be acutely aware of the threat of nuclear armageddon, if the message was that prolific, then it shouldn't surprise anyone that a sci-fi novel written at the time was based on such ideas. I can only imagine a lot of sci-fi novels of the time dealt with those sorts of issues (not reading a whole lot of sci-fi, I can but guess).

However, I like what Butler does with her own Armageddon, and with the extinction of humanity; a fiery, violent death wouldn't have surprised any readers of the time. Butler's vision of humanity's end is not at all fiery and violent -- the bombs were just the precursor. The true extinction comes in a loving, even pleasurable, but persistent embrace... And it comes with just enough of an illusion of hope to keep the protagonist guessing and striving.

But make no mistake -- the hope *is* nothing more than an illusion. Unless, of course, the other books of the trilogy (it's a trilogy?!) go a 180 and make the humans' plight actually manageable.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with gender and sexuality, so I guess I should get back on topic.

When I'd originally heard about the premise of Dawn at the beginning of the course (that is, it involves a race of tri-gendered creatures), I was initially fascinated with this idea. Frankly, I had a lot of trouble wrapping my brain around a three-gendered system of reproduction. I speculated what form it might take in the book, but whatever system I could think of either struck me as extremely inefficient or far too tainted by my own binary mental hardwiring. When I finally discovered the system used... Well, I really enjoyed the book, but I found the system to be disappointing, to say the least.

It doesn't surprise me in the least that the ooloi would be the dominant gender among the Oankali. Although the females seem to be the largest physically, the novel quite firmly establishes that the Oankali don't have a whole lot of use for physical strength in the general order of things. What they do have, however, is a need to genetically tamper -- it's what gives them their biology-based technology, and it appears to be the only way they guide their own racial evolution. And only the ooloi possess true expertise when it comes to genetic tweaking. In fact, I noticed as I read through the novel that the vast majority of Oankali that actually spend much time "on-stage" (even as extras) are ooloi; even the first Oankali introduced -- Kaaltediinjdahya lel Kaguyaht aj Dinso -- is quickly worked out of the story to be replaced by Nikanj and thereafter very rarely mentioned.

(As an aside, did anyone find the names of the Oankali somewhat... well, laughable? When I first read Jdahya's name, I laughed out loud -- it looked to me like Butler just mashed her palms against the keyboard a couple of times. But maybe that was just me.)

The ooloi also appeared, at least to me, to be sexual tyrants. They never allow their partners to be intimate unless using them as intermediaries. I can only imagine all the things Dr. Ruth would have to say about the hang-ups the Ooloi have...

Jason brought up the scene in which Joseph is basically taken sexually against his will by Nikanj (it particularly bothered me that Lilith just stood by and let it happen, even took part in this, despite how much she seemed to love him). And how did Nikanj defend his actions? To paraphrase, "Your lips say no, but your eyes say yes." [sarcasm] Haven't heard that one anywhere before... [/sarcasm] Of course, this was before the "No means No" campaign really got going, but still; to me, reading that particular scene from the perspective of a human being living in modern North America, Joseph was raped by a tentacled alien with the help of his human lover. Why she couldn't see this in at least a similar, if not identical, light as the attempted rape of Allison merely five chapters later, I'm not sure. (Of course, it occurs to me that Butler put those two events so close together specifically so a comparison could be drawn between them... at least, I'd like to think so.)

Still, it wasn't the novel's views on sexuality, or even the gender relations; it was the insiduously creepy tension that stuck with me over every page as I kept wondering whether there would be any sort of glimmer of hope, any means to stave of the extinction of the human race. The novel leads one to sympathize with Lilith in her desire to cooperate with the Oankali, and yet it's the Oankali who are (selfishly?) leading the human race into a loving extinction. Peter and Curt are shown to be reactionary, savage thugs who simply lash out blindly at the Oankali and distrust anything that's might not be human... And yet, at least they're *doing* something, going down with a fight, no matter how stupid it was. When Curt actually managed to wound Nikanj, I was torn -- part of me wanted to cheer him on, and yet part of me was aghast that Nikanj might die. I think that was a huge part of the book's creepiness to me -- that Butler made me sympathize so profoundly with both sides. Sometimes, before I caught myself, I found myself cheering on the most brutal, ignorant aspects of the human race -- other times, I found myself supporting the ones trying to wipe out all of humankind.

Quite perplexing.

That's it for now. See you all in class. I'll try to get less homicidal by then.

Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 7:25 PM


Tuesday, November 11, 2003

I'm quite glad that we're back to short stories. I think the short story would have to be my favourite form of literature; it takes a special kind of skill to write them (at least, to write them well). If there were a course dedicated entirely to short stories, I'd take it in a second.

So, we're onto the general theme of "gender as costume" with this week's readings, it seems...

Sonya Dorman Hess - When I Was Miss Dow

In this case, the gender seems to quite literally take on the role of costume. An interesting story, though I didn't care for it too much overall. Nevertheless, I appreciated the subtlety that was at work (in my experience, subtlety is a difficult thing to achieve in short stories); I didn't actually realize that "Miss Dow" was actually being pimped by the Uncle and the Warden (it also took me a couple pages to understand that, yes, the Uncle was an entirely separate being from the Warden).

The writing style seemed somehow organic and malleable -- many times, the words the narrator used could be interpreted several ways. As the narrator became further and further lost in "her" role as Miss Dow, the narration became more tightly structured and more specific in its semantics. No doubt, this was done deliberately to help present the mental state of the narrator as it progressed from being a member of a single-sexed race to a female human.

The love that the narrator feels seems strongly tied to its human form, which struck me -- is Sonya saying that love is by its nature a human trait?

Another thing that struck me was how the narrator's sense of individuality seemed likewise related to its female human form, and the longer it remained in that form the stronger this sense of individuality became (along with the defiance and pride-shame that went with it): "If I'm damaged or dead, you'll put me into the cell banks, and you'll be amazed, astonished, terrified, to discover that I come out complete, all Martha. I can't be changed" (192). Similar (though not entirely identical) themes seem to come up in Varley's stories, which I'll get to below.

One quote that I found fairly witty, and feel the need to point out for emphasis: "Terran history is full of clowns and tubs; at first it seems that's all there is, but you learn to see beneath the comic costumes" (192-3).

John Varley - Picnic on Nearside

The first of two John Varley short stories... I didn't particularly care for this one.

Admittedly, a lot of my displeasure for the story is related to three things. The first isn't such a big deal, so I won't mention it, save that I think Varley has a bone to pick with organized religion (at least mainstream Western religion). Still, someone making fun of my faith isn't a big enough deal to ruin a story for me (I do it enough myself, depending on my mood), but I had trouble getting past the other two points: specifically, the idea of seven-to-twelve year-olds having sex, and the story's take on incest. I found both these things quite disturbing.

Perhaps I'm just being oversensitive, but I think there are some things you shouldn't try to rationalize or excuse. Just because a human being could undergo the hormonal therapy (or however it was they did it) that allowed him or her to achieve a sexual maturity so that they *could* have sex like an adult, that still doesn't mean they would have the mental or emotional maturity to handle something like that, *especially* when it comes to sex with an actual adult; there's a reason why the law treats statutory rape as a form of rape. It can be rationalized all one wants -- in fact, it's just this tactic of rationalization, of looking at children as adult, sexual beings, that lets many pedophiles mentally justify the horrible things they do.

So, maybe those things made me judge the story more harshly than I had to. I dunno, was I the only one who was somewhat bothered by this? (You know, were someone to have put this story up on the internet with an anonymous author, it would probably be considered by many to be child porn -- put a well-known sci-fi author's name on the story, though, and suddenly it's legitimate literature).

Anyway, enough bitching.

The central gender concepts were quite interesting, at the very least -- the way the Lunar inhabitants switched about their body parts and altered their appearance very drastically the same way someone might change their clothes brought to mind children's toys (at least, the toys that were around when I was still a young'un). Varley seems to be asking just how strongly a person's identity is tied with their gender -- Fox has a lot of trouble thinking of Halo as Halo after he becomes a she. Even Halo has some problems with it -- once a woman, she has to take on well-known feminine stereotypes in order to find a way to relate to her new body.

Varley plays with the obvious ramifications of a society of beings that can switch their gender at will. Of course, there's complete equality, since a woman may very well be a man tomorrow. People would no longer act in masculine or feminine ways (save when they were trying to prove something) -- they'd concern themselves much more with simply acting "human." However, a more interesting aspect (at least to me) is the way Varley seems to say that in such a society the two-parent ideal would no longer be necessary. Since a single parent could fulfill the roles of both mother and father at once (or, at the very least, interchangably), that would be all a child would need.

John Varley - The Barbie Murders

I was afraid that, after the distaste I was left with from Picnic on Nearside would colour my reading of this story. Luckily, my fears were unfounded, and I was able to enjoy it.

The story seems to try to be a detective story, but it falls short from the ideal since it lacks a list of suspects (at least, a list of suspects transparent to the reader). As a result, rather than a whodunnit, the story is more of a howtheydunnit, which is something of a bastard red-headed stepchild of the whodunnit. Not as honest a sub-genre as the true whodunnit, really.

In this story, we're presented with a group of beings who give up their gender in the quest for conformity. The mental image of an entire community of barbie dolls is hilarious, and that alone probably could have made the movie for me. The image of a psychopathic barbie doll toting a knife around makes it even funnier. I could just imagine the Book of Standards being in the hands of a quality assurance official, keenly inspecting the carefully-shaped lumps of plastic as they travel a conveyer belt.

The author seems to connect sexuality with the sense of individuality. A member of the colony gives up his or her gender in an effort to become part of an overall unit. The only individuality they take part in is exhibited through sexual acts. In my mind, this is a mistake -- is a eunuch any less of an individual for his lack of genitals? Some might argue that the missing parts actually set him apart from most men, thereby making him even more of an individual. Perhaps I'm just making a connection that the author didn't intend me to make, though -- I've been known to do that in the past.

John Varley is right about one thing, though: we do live in "a world which [preaches] conformity, passivity, and tolerance of [our] billions of neighbours, yet [rewards] only those who [are] individualist and aggressive enough to stand apart from the herd" (58).

Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 12:13 AM


Monday, November 03, 2003

Alas, but I've fallen behind on my readings, and have had to leave Venus Plus X behind for now... but I'll try to get my thoughts on it soon, if only to make my blog seem a bit more complete.

Ursula K. Le Guin - The Left Hand of Darkness

Of course, I'm going to be doing my presentation on this Wednesday, and I've already done a web page, so I'll keep my comments here relatively brief.

The first time I read this book I was about 14. I was living in Fredericton at the time, and I'd regularly scour the sparse and rather embarrassingly incomplete fantasy and science fiction of the Fredericton Library. The ominous title, combined with the image on the cover (a strange ice sculpture shaped into a man's face on one side, and a woman's face on the other), intrigued me. So, I borrowed it, read it, and it wasn't anything like I was expecting. But that was okay; I seem to recall enjoying it at the time, though it was long ago so I can't be certain.

Of course, now that I've read it again as an adult, I'm able to appreciate the book on entirely different levels; not that I didn't understand the book when I was 14 (in fact I understood it perfectly well), but I now have a better understanding of what Le Guin was doing with the language, the symbolism she was working with, and the cultural context in which the book was written. In other words, I was able to dig much deeper into the book, and understand why it was so important to the science fiction genre.

On the superficial level, it's a story of powderkeg-level political intrigue -- a very delicately balanced (yet balanced nevertheless) political situation which is inadvertantly disrupted by the arrival of an outsider. The politics that occur as a result of cultural influences such as shifgrethor are certainly somewhat strange and complicated -- they possess a number of nuances which are, at first, hard to pick up on -- but they are politics not too alien to the politics of the real world regardless.

Of course, the greater focus, and the entire reason Le Guin chose to write the book, is on themes of gender. The way she brings up the questions she does is interesting -- she works both overtly (hard to get much more overt than writing in a mad, pregnant king) and subtly at the same time (such as presenting her narrative through a number of binaries -- past vs. present, Genly Ai vs. Therem Estraven, etc.)

I'm a fan of Oriental philosophy. Not that I know much about it, mind you... Most of my knowledge of Taoism comes from The Tao of Pooh and the Te of Piglet, and the vast majority of my understanding of Zen comes from reading collections of Zen stories (this one is among my favourites). Still, I'm a fan, and I find the general outlooks of such philosophies refreshingly optimistic. Therefore, it was with great pleasure that I discovered Le Guin had written the book with many Taoist themes in mind; it gave me a new lens through which to look at the story. The ideas of balance and harmony are found all through the book, particularly during the most important section (that being the journey across the tundra): "It's queer that daylight's not enough. We need shadows, in order to walk" (267). Just one example of many.

Anyway, I don't want to run out of material for the presentation, so I think I'll end it here. Gotta get back to assignments and catching up on readings...

Jesse R enlightened the masses @ 8:55 PM


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