“The last beachheads of uniqueness have been polluted if not turned into amusement parks–language tool use, social behaviour, mental events, nothing really convincingly settles the separation of human and animal. And many people no longer feel the need for such a separation; indeed, many branches of feminist culture affirm the pleasure of connection of human and other living creatures. Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are a clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture. Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social science. Within this framework, teaching modern Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse.
The second leaky distinction is between animal-human (organism) and machine. Pre-cybernetic machines could be haunted; there was always the spectre of the ghost in the machine. This dualism structured the dialogue between materialism and idealism that was settled by a dialectical progeny, called spirit or history, according to taste. But basically machines were not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous. They could not achieve man’s dream, only mock it. They were not man, an author to himself, but only a caricature of that masculinist reproductive dream. To think they were otherwise was paranoid. Now we are not so sure. Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and art)ficial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.
Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.
The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture. We have all been colonized by those origin myths, with their longing for fulfilment in apocalypse. The phallogocentrie origin stories most crucial for feminist cyborgs are built into the literal technologies – teehnologies that write the world, biotechnology and microelectronics – that have recently textualized our bodies as code problems on the grid of C3I. Feminist cyborg stories have the task of recoding communication and intelligence to subvert command and control.
Cyborg imagery can help express two crucial arguments in this essay: first, the production of universal, totalizing theory is a major mistake that misses most of reality, probably always, but certainly now; and second, taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology means refusing an anti-science metaphysics, a demonology of technology, and so means embracing the skilful task of reconstructing the boundaries of daily life, in partial connection with others, in communication with all of our parts. It is not just that science and technology are possible means of great human satisfaction, as well as a matrix of complex dominations. Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right. It means both building and destroying machines, identities, categories, relationships, space stories. Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”
“Dystopian fiction is animated by fear, but postapocalyptic stories almost always harbor a kernel of desire. Dystopia is a form of criticism: It sounds a klaxon, urging society to course-correct before it’s too late. But the postapocalyptic narrative is fatalistic and romantic. Civilization’s coup de grace might come, as 20th-century science-fiction novelists anticipated, in the form of nuclear war, or—today’s preference—as a pandemic or devastating climate change. The carnage will certainly be epic. But afterward comes the possibility of a return to what really matters and a clean slate on which to draw society anew. Even at their most seemingly nihilistic, postapocalyptic scenarios invoke the persistent, cherished American myth of the frontier, that place where a man can prove himself through hard work and violence, free from the rules, hassles, and compromises imposed by civilization.
Despite their varying ages, races, and genders, this is the basic temperament of all the characters in Station Eleven: a propensity toward melancholic, vaguely paralyzed reveries that invokes the type of personality you’d expect to find in someone who writes literary fiction. These people are, when you get right down to it, all pretty much the same person. So much for the promise that literary writers will bring something more than stock figures to their science-fiction scenarios; Mandel’s rueful musers are just a different kind of stock figure.
Science fiction writers and readers have long resented incursions like these into their territory, especially when they come, as such novels often do, with a disavowal of the genre itself. (Mandel insisted that she didn’t consider Station Eleven to be science fiction.) And besides, science fiction has its own bravura stylists, writers such as William Gibson, and psychologically acute humanists, such as Karen Joy Fowler. Gibson’s Neuromancer is the most evident influence on Void Star, the new novel by Zachary Mason, author of The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a well-received 2007 riff on Homer’s epic. Mason is a computer scientist (the novel’s title is a reference to the C++ programming language), and Void Star attempts the difficult feat of rendering the abstract ecstasies of mathematics in artfully oblique sentences: “The glyphs are intricate, radiant with significance that she can’t quite articulate. Like rain, she thinks, on a clear day, seen over miles of ocean. Like ideograms distended in a black hole’s gravity.”
Void Star comes the closest of all these recent examples to the classic definition of hard science fiction: idea- rather than character-driven and devoted to extrapolating from the technology we now employ to whatever tech will define our future. The novel has many small, astute predictions; Irina observes that with the advent of self-driving cars, people are even more inclined to treat their vehicles like bedrooms, places to get dressed and apply makeup, “anonymity substituting for privacy.” But Mason’s characters, too, are uncompelling compared to his plot, the waferlike concoctions of technothriller convenience, their superpowers perfunctorily deepened with a side serving of regret.
Science fiction has always promised its readers fictional wonders they can’t get in other genres, stories in which the stakes are high and the ideas are heady. What’s surprising is not that literary novelists are increasingly taking up science fiction’s tools, but that more of them didn’t try it sooner. Now, as the present crumbles away into a future that evolves more quickly than most of us can track, it seems impossible to write about contemporary life without writing science fiction. But the secret to doing it well doesn’t lie in suspenseful chase scenes, weighty messages or mind-blowing existential puzzles. That stuff can be fun, but it can also feel pretty thin without something that’s supposed to be a specialty of literary novelists: the fullest appreciation of humanity in its infinite variety and intricacy. Do justice to that, and the wonders will take care of themselves.”
The short book, Negotiating with the Dead, is a collection of six lectures Margaret Atwood gave on writing. This is not a typical writing handbook, dispensing now-cliched advice like “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell.” Rather, Atwood tackles the question of what does it mean to “be a writer?” What is the writer, anyway, and why are writers compelled to write? She ends up posing more questions than she answers.
The six lectures each address a different aspect of the Writer. Using examples from literature, poetry, and mythology, Atwood positions the writer as six archetypes. Indeed, each of her lectures could describe types of story as well as facets of the storyteller (more on that in a later post). Atwood’s insights are unusual but will ring true to anyone who has felt the urge to write, or indeed, to any creator, I suspect.
The following are my notes…
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[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]