TV Skies and Mushroom Clouds

William Gibson’s Neuromancer deals with some common science fiction themes such as the blurring line between nature and technology. I enjoyed discovering how seemingly casual descriptions and metaphors served to highlight this theme. Take the opening line of the book for example: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” (p. 3). It’s a brilliant line which I think could be read one of many ways. When I first saw it, it just struck me as a really clever description that effectively conveyed both an image and a mood. I immediately pictured the flecks of black and grey buzzing with static on an old cathode ray tube TV and the somber calm it projects. I thought, what an ingenious way to describe an overcast sky.

However, when I came back to the line again after reading the other chapters, it took on another meaning. From prosthetics to cyberspace, Neuromancer is full of examples of technology melding with nature. With this in mind, I looked at the line from a different perspective. I think Gibson deliberately aligns the sky (nature) with something man-made to emphasize the theme of bio-mechanical convergence. He does this again on page 5, where he describes the job of cyber hacking as “opening windows into rich fields of data,” this time describing the digital with something we normally associate with the natural (rich fields).

"Get just wasted enough...and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data" (p. 17)

Also, it occurred to me this time around that the condition of the “television sky” was something of a permanent state. Throughout the first few chapters, I got some obvious (and not so obvious) hints that something cataclysmic had happened.  The first clue (which I missed at first) should have been the “unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone’s whores” (emphasis mine, p. 3). It’s such an easy adjective to skim over but I think it speaks volumes. To me it suggests either (a) working girls don’t get much sun because they work at night or (b) nobody gets much sun because it’s always blocked out. The latter option seems more likely after knowing what I know now. Chiba and the Sprawl are covered by massive arcologies and  Tokyo Bay is a “black expanse” (p. 7)  blighted with “drifting shoals of waste” (p. 39). The narrator adds that Ninsei sits “under the poisoned silver sky” (p. 7).

All of these seem to indicate that catastrophic environmental (esp. atmospheric) degradation has taken place on a global scale. I can only guess what happened. Perhaps Gibson’s taken our current rate of ecocide to its natural conclusion. But, if the arcade game Linda Lee was playing is any indication, the “poisoned” sky might very well be referring to nuclear winter. Maybe the “ten-megaton hit on Tank War Europa” (p. 17) was a case of game imitating life.

Gibson manages to fill in the details without any crude exposition, leaving instead small hints in unexpected places. Everytime I read it, I find another piece of the puzzle. So far, the picture is neon, bleak, and foreboding.

Elevators, Escalators, and Asymmetries of Power

Having power is fraught with difficulties of its own.

It’s not easy being the Dark Lord.

“I wouldn’t sleep with you if you were the last man on…wait, where is everyone?”

This post was written partially in response to jaycrede’s post and more generally in defense of authors who take certain liberties when writing science fiction.

I agree with jaycrede. That a comet’s deadly gases (do they even emit deadly gases?) could permeate through the atmosphere in such a concentrated way as to devastate a single city seems highly improbable. (Then again, it is an island.) Neighboring New Jersey should have been hit too, but it probably wouldn’t have had much of an impact; the good citizens of the Garden State are all too used to smelly gases (as anyone who has had the misfortune of driving through the northern end of the turnpike can attest). But I digress.

What I find even more incredible is that, in a city of several million inhabitants, only two managed to survive. If being in a darkroom was all it took to avoid the effects of the gas, I’m sure hundreds if not thousands of people cocooned in the nooks and crannies throughout the Big Apple would have also been protected.

We can go on and on about how unscientific “The Comet” is. But if we’re really looking for inaccuracies, improbabilities, and logical insanity, we need to look no further than Frankenstein and Who Goes There? You have to suspend your disbelief pret-ty high to buy that a scientist could stitch up body parts and bring it to life or that scientists will uncover a shape-shifting alien with psychic powers in the South Pole. I’d like to see Campbell scientifically explain that one.

But that isn’t really the point of SF is it?

As far as I can tell, SF is really good at artificially creating a situation where the character(s) (and the reader) can see the world in a totally different way. I think a character’s response to his milieu  is what’s important, not how his world came to be in the first place. In the case of “The Comet,” the unlikely death of what appears to be the entire world allows the two protagonists to see each other—past all the webs of meaning humans have spun for themselves—as simply individuals. As jaycrede notes:

When their worlds collide, they see each other as human beings first before remembering their differences.  Despite their diversities, the two strangers band together under the belief that they might be the last two humans alive.  Escaping to the roof of the Metropolitan Tower, they seemingly rise above the color of skin and expectations of class.

I think we’re in total agreement until he writes:

Even with the story’s heavy-handed afterschool-special tone, I liked the social commentary and contrast between the two characters.  That is until the “Honk! Honk!” of a car horn changed the characters’ loneliness and my attitude.  Instead of a romantic “we’ll survive and build a new society” ending, it turns out that everyone outside of New York is still alive!  What a load of crap!

In my opinion, Du Bois’s decision to have Julia’s father and fiancé come up the elevator was important to the story–scientific plausibility be damned. The connection Jim and Julia shared was real. But the bond, however genuine, was impermanent. In the end it was not enough to overcome racism. Through an impossible phenomenon, Du Bois showed readers at the time a momentary glimpse into a world that could be–heavenly, divine–before cutting it short like so much babel.

It was only a dream.

What’s important is that Du Bois brought us back to earth so that we could make it a reality.

Contradictions abound in Frankenstein

“That is also my victim!…in his murder my crimes are consummated; the miserable series of my being is wound to its close! Oh, Frankenstein! Generous and self-devoted being! What does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me?” (emphasis mine, p. 240)

I think this line encapsulates much of the contradictory emotions propelling the novel. First, it acknowledges the competing motives driving Frankenstein’s actions. And second, it shows that Frankenstein’s demon is also conflicted by feelings that are at odds with each other. He is grief stricken at the sight of his dead creator, after all but ensuring it in the most painful way. I’ll briefly expand on these two observations.

Generous and self-devoted? Will the real Frankenstein please stand up?

Yes, it appears that Frankenstein was capable of both generosity and self-devotion. Leading up to the moment of creation, Frankenstein had been consumed by obsession and devoted all his energy into achieving his goal at the expense of all that was dear to him–his beloved family, best friend, appreciation of nature, and health. Clearly he was self-devoted, but he was generous, too. Even the monster thought so. I assume that Frankenstein’s creation felt that his creator was generous by virtue of the fact that he bestowed him with life. However, he shows generosity in other ways, especially through his concern for humanity. Soon after he begins work on Adam’s Eve he abandons the project, even if it meant incurring the demon’s wrath:

“I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price perhaps of the existence of the whole human race” (p. 190).

He showed this concern earlier in the novel as well, when he withheld the secret to life from Walton: “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (p. 81).

Yet on his deathbed he gives a rousing speech to Walton’s exasperated crew, extolling the virtues of their “glorious expedition”: “You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species; your name adored, as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind” (p. 236). These were doubtless some of the things he had in mind when he decided to give life what he now admits was a grave mistake.

How do we reconcile these contradictory statements?

I’m not sure, but Victor’s not the only one who can’t seem to make up his mind. The monster, too, is divided by loyalties to competing emotions. He swore bloody revenge on his creator yet, after successfully doing so, asks for repentance. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, except to say that Shelley went to great lengths to complicate the characters and that their internal drama makes a simple reading of this story very difficult.

Why is Frankenstein SF?

In class, Professor Sample suggested that science fiction (SF) is often about voyages, both literal and metaphorical. It’s easy to see why this might be the case: if humans possess a primal urge to venture into the unknown, science—and its handmaiden, technology—has been, and is still, essential to fueling that drive. However, the voyage narrative is not exclusive to SF. So if it isn’t just the voyage in Frankenstein that makes it SF, what does? It can’t really be Mary Shelley’s rigorous application of scientific principles to advance her story because she doesn’t. As the editors point out, James Rieger once remarked that “[T]he technological plausibility that is essential to science fiction is not even pretended here” (p. 17). I was especially surprised at how little time Shelley spent on the process of creating the monster. So why do scholars point to this novel as one of the earliest examples of a SF novel?

I think it has to do with one of the central themes in the book, namely, the dangers of unbridled ambition. I haven’t read the whole book yet, but I wonder if Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of scientific progress—a theme that has resurfaced in many SF classics since (esp. dystopian ones). I wish I had more to substantiate that thought, but as I’m only half way through the book, I can’t be sure. What do you think? Why is this novel considered SF?