Heather O’Neill’s Lorenzo Reading

This week UNBSJ hosted its last Lorenzo reading of the Fall semester with Heather O’Neill reading from her short story collection Daydreams of Angels. A novelist by trade, Heather O’Neill’s short stories are beautiful examples of the wonders of literary fiction, and filled with delightful elements of magical realism.

Unlike with the other readings, I was able to read Heather’s book in advance and I loved it so much. Short stories are my bread and butter, and I adored every single one in the collection. As the recipient of the Susan and Douglas Leyden Prize for Creative Writing, I was asked to introduce the author that evening with a short speech about her writing and a little but about Heather herself. It was an honor to be able to introduce her, and I loved her book so much.

Heather read one story from Daydreams of Angels called “Where Babies Come From”, which happens to be my favorite in the collection. I was thrilled she chose that one, since I think its both wonderful and a great showcase of her own talent and what the collection is ultimately about. She then took questions from the audience, some of which were very general, and others were specifically informed about her work as a novelist and an essayist. Each one was answered thoroughly. It was wonderful to get some insight into her writing process. After the questions, Heather read a small portion from her new novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel which is coming out next February. It seems like a very intriguing book along the same magical realist vein as her stories.

I had the opportunity to have dinner with Heather and members of the Lorenzo team afterwards, and to hear all about Heather’s background in writing and in Montreal. It was a lovely evening, followed the next day by Heather coming to UNBSJ to speak to a small group of students in a writing workshop organized by Vox. It was, again, a privilege to hear her speak and answer questions about her books and her writing–we students benefited a lot.

daydreams

Stories I Wish Were Novels: “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” by Phillip K. Dick

This we we are reading some stories that fall under the “plugged in” umbrella. We get to see societies that have developed the technology to insert and remove memories, create forms of pure information, and project bodies. One of the stories I found most interesting and most entertaining this week was Phillip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale”.

Like last week’s short stories (with the trope of the rogue android) the plot line of someone with removed/artificial memories that they discover exist, along with an entirely secret past that someone or something wanted to keep hidden. But again, I don’t think its something I get tired of reading about–conspiracy is always fun, especially in science fiction. With Phillip K. Dick’s story, I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. We are lulled into a false sense of security, starting with this boring guy who “awoke–and wanted Mars (386). We are then led through his life, which seems rather sad and pathetic, and we’re led to believe that this whole concept of going to “see about a Rekal course” (388) is a kind of seedy activity. Like hiring a prostitute, or going to a dirty bar to gamble. Its also presented as being kind of pathetic–he can’t afford the real thing, or he can’t achieve it (the same as the prostitute analogy).

However, Phillip Dick turns it all around when we find out that the quiet Douglas Quail has actually been to Mars as a secret agent, and has had his memory wiped, leaving  behind the fact that “going to Mars meant something special to him, and so did being a secret agent. They couldn’t erase that; it’s not a memory but a desire” (392). When we find this out about Douglas, coupled with his forceful character, it changes the way we see him and the way he sees himself for the rest of the story.

Artificial and erasable memories are a scary thing, and I think the reason SF is so concerned with them is because in this day and age, the only private thing we have. We can’t go to jail for our thoughts, no one can read our minds, and we should be able to safely assume that our minds are our own. When that ceases to be true, and when the gap is bridged between others and our minds, we then can’t have any idea what is real. There are three different versions of Douglas Quail: the original version, the altered, sad version, and the version where the two are melded. Someone has gone in and mentally changed him so that he is completely different than he once was. Which, while entertaining, is a very scary thought. Since your environment and memories make you who you are (coupled with your unchangeable desires and fears), someone effectively would have the ability to unmake you if they wanted.

As to the question for this week: would you get a plug in your brain if you were offered one? At this point, knowing its not possible, I would say no. Its the same as owning a computer–when you’re connected to a network you can download things and someone can download something from you. I’m not really a privacy nut–but I’d like to have my own thoughts. And we do have people who resist–like in “Pretty Boy Crossover”, so I definitely hold with them.    

And as to the title of this blog post, I would 100% read this as a novel–I think it would be amazing to see this stretched into a more fully realized piece.

Dick, Phillip K. “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, edited by Arthur B. Evans, Joah Gordon, et al., Wesleyan University Press, 2010, 385-404.

“Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester

This week we are taking a look at some post-human/android stories. While I enjoy this genre and often read novels on my own time that feature some similar themes, I was particularly struck by Alfred Bester’s story “Fondly Fahrenheit”.

The trope of a rogue android is nothing new–in fact, its rather old (HBO’s Westworld is revamping it as we speak). However, it is a trope that we like, particularly because the idea of a robot army makes for some seriously good fiction. But here, Bester ties to reconsider the idea of what one murderous android might mean, and the place of androids in society.

In Bester’s world, androids seem to exist to make money for people, who hire them out. Vandaleur says “Christ! If I could only get rid of you. If I didn’t have to live off you. God! If only I’d inherited some guts instead of you” (288). We know that Vandaleur is poor, and is unable to make money in any way other than by hiring out the android. He is “good for nothing” (289) and can’t “compete with specialist androids and robots” (289). We get the impression here that robots have taken over a lot of the jobs usually available to humans, who now sit around and make money while their androids work instead. This is Vandaleur’s predicament with his android, who is murdering people left and right.

Bester creates a society where people depend on androids, including Vandaleur, who has a crazy one. Because of this, he must go on the run and try and protect his android, lest he be disabled. I think this idea is interesting. Like anything, androids are a commodity and they are not simply placed/given to people, but they need to be bought. Usually, androids remain as interchangeable and microwaves in fiction (until they rise up, that is). By going on the run with his android, getting into a car chase, and basically risking his own life to save his android, Vandaleur creates a very human bond between himself and the android, however twisted it might be.

Finally, the best part of this story is the second half’s slow descent into madness. The idea that Vandaleur and the android are so close they become melded together, and one’s desires are projected onto the other is very interesting.We don’t get this idea of projection until later in the story when Nan Web says that

“projection is a throwing forward. It is the process of throwing out upon another the ideas or impulses that belong to oneself. The paranoid, for example, projects upon others his conflicts and disturbances in order to externalize them. he accuses, directly or by implication, other men of having the very sickness with which he is struggling  himself” (298).

We can see this is the relationship between Vandaleur and the android. Though the android is a machine, we can see the way the two meld together. The personality of Vandaleur melds with the impulses of the android to create a horrifying individual. Nan Web says that the danger of projection lies in “believing what is implied. If you live with a psychotic who projects his sickness upon you, there is a danger of falling into his psychotic patter and becoming virtually psychotic yourself” (298-99). This is exactly what happens to Vandaleur, who shoots Nan Web no less that 20 lines later, and she is not his only victim.

Bester shows how two personalities, even is one is artificial, can meld together. The android drives Vandaleur mad. Even the narration draws us into this weird double view where we have no idea who is actually talking. Is it a third party? Vandaleur? The android? At times it seems to be all of these or none of them. The story opens with “he doesn’t know which of us I am these days” (284). They are completely melded by the time we enter the story.

However, which appalls us more? The murders committed by the android, or the ones committed by Vandaleur? Certainly the android’s are more brutal and a little terrifying–the beating death of a child and the dousing of hot gold that the jewelry store women receives. Though this story does an excellent job of taking the mechanical nature of the android out of the story for us, we must weigh what happens against the fact that it is a fault in its coding that causes it to react violently in extreme heat. We don’t get angry at a wood chipper who sucks someone in after they catch their sleeve, right? Or is it different? With Vandaleur, he is a human killing other humans. He is losing his mind, becoming one with the android. Certainly his murders are rather shocking and ugly, but much more emotionless than the androids. (I would argue that it is much more personal to beat someone than to strangle them). If the melding with the android makes Vandaleur more mechanical, does it make the android more human in response? We can’t really tell if it goes both ways, and I don’t really have an answer as to who’s crimes are worse–only that Vandaleur has the strike of being human against him. But this story does an incredible job of casting that show upon both of them.

Works Cited:

Bester, Alfred. “Fondly Fahrenheit.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, edited by Arthur B. Evans, Joah Gordon, et al., Wesleyan University Press, 2010, 283-302.

Kevin Donovan’s Lorenzo Reading

This week the Lorenzo Society had their second to last reading of the fall semester with Kevin Donovan coming to read from his book Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation. Donovan has been a journalist for thirty years, and writes for the Toronto Star. He was one of the journalists who originally investigated Ghomeshi and broke the story.

His book is less about Ghomeshi’s trial, and more about providing a voice to many of Ghomeshi’s victims and discussing issues of rape culture, credibility, and Canada’s legal system along with it. Though Donovan read only a portion of his book, what he did read was heart wrenching and thought provoking. The books seems emotional and well researched in order to give everyone a voice.

The reading went a little differently tonight, as the event was in conjunction with the ICS faculty as well. Kevin Donovan read a short portion of his book after he was introduced, and then Dr. Dan Downes from the ICS department sat down with the author and had a lovely Q&A session consisting of his own prepared questions as well as submitted audience questions. All were very pointed and well thought out, having to do specifically with the book, as well as journalistic integrity as a whole and what the writing process was like for him. It was lovely to have such a guided evening where we were able to see behind the scenes into the process of writing such a controversial book.

The floor was then opened up to audience members to ask questions–the reading was well attended, with about 80-100 people–and people had many interesting things to ask about the trial (which Kevin Donovan attended) and about what the author thought could have been done differently. On the flip side, Donovan had many insightful answers and was very informative.

Overall, the reading was a fantastic evening. Though journalistic novels aren’t really my style (I would much rather watch true crime than read about it) this book seemed to have much more of an emotional ring to it. I think because this issue is so current, and one that I was a conscious human (and woman) for, it resonated with me more significantly than the book about the referendum in the 90’s that was part of the last reading. It seems like Donovan’s book will be a very interesting read. loranxo

Sad & Confused: Hugo Award Drama

This week we looked at some controversy surrounding the Hugo Awards this year. It reminds me a lot of the issues the Academy Awards face–a bunch of old white dudes deciding what’s popular and important in modern culture.

Like the Academy Awards, the same people seem to get nominated over and over again, this Rabid Puppy group seems to think, and in order to combat that, they’ve started overwhelming the voting process with other authors (including themselves??) to change up the ballots with new writers. Though I do think that there should be diversity in any awards, and there are hundreds of valid and talented authors out there that deserve recognition, the way they’re going about it is a little weird?

Its hard to get a handle on things having read only a few articles on the subject, but the only thing I’m feeling is that this group has some how devalued the Hugo Awards? I mean, nominating someone who writes gay raptor porn for no reason other than the fact that no one takes it seriously kind of undercuts your whole agenda, doesn’t it? Authors should be nominated on merit, not based on the fact that they write strange erotica on the internet. And I’m all for satirizing and making statements about issues while entertaining at the same time, but I can’t see that this is the way to do it. Even Tingle feels like he’s being used as a tool, rather than someone with merit, it seems like.

And also, organizing this boycott so that you, the organizer, have your book included? That seems weird and a little sad to me. The whole thing seems like a circus, and makes me not really care about the awards. They seem to have lost their merit partly because of this “same people over and over again” process, as well as the misfired boycott.

I’m truly just confused by the whole thing, which makes me hesitant to talk about it. I think, partly, there needs to be a more diverse system for the Hugo Awards, rather than tossing authors in just to devalue and make a joke of the awards. But I also think that part of the reason that many authors end up on the ballots each year is because they’re genuinely good? Why can’t we leave those people, but also include other deserving authors. I guess I feel like nominating Tingle isn’t really the right way to go about changing things, because it makes a joke out of things in the process.

The Diary of Anne Frank (SJTC Production)

Last week I saw the Saint John Theater Company’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank. The performance was indisputably the best I’ve ever seen at the BMO Theater. I think it was the first time I’d ever seen a tragedy preformed, and certainly the first time I’ve seen a play that carries so much truth and weight behind it. Everything was simultaneously stunningly wonderful and heart wrenching. There was certainly a feeling of dread as well as hopefulness through the play, even though we all inevitably know how it ends.

The set was such a well put together structure, and seemed to work very well for the play. The sections were marked out for certain characters but there was always a sense that you could never get away from anyone else. I think that the way the set was built contributed to a lot of that. It’s also interesting that the set was so expansive—it reminded me a bit of the set for The Caretaker in the Old Vic Theater in London—very full and well used and almost another character in itself. Of course, this is different than many of the sets on a Shakespearean stage, which tend of be very spare. I’ve no idea if large sets are a trait of Post-Modern theater, but it was interesting to see the contrast.

I think what was most interesting is that I referred to this play as a tragedy, but I’m not really sure it is—in the Shakespearean sense of the word. Not only is the structure different—that’s to be expected—but we have Anne. To me, Anne doesn’t “miss the mark”. None of the characters do. What happens to them isn’t, in any sense of the word, as a result of anything they did. So I think the definition of a tragedy falls a little short. Perhaps it is harder to categorize it since we are, in part, dealing with history. But I also think that ugliness like the Holocaust defies categorization—that it’s simply beyond human description.

Nevertheless—before I get too deep into Modernism/Post-Modernism ideas—The Diary of Anne Frank was amazing. Poignant and powerful, it was a tremendous performance I was lucky to attend.

Leslie F. Stone’s “The Conquest of Gola”

This week we are dealing with complex stories surrounding sexuality and gender. Some of these stories deal with women’s issues, gender fluidity, sexual orientation, and other concepts that, to some, may have seemed like science fiction all on their own at one time. These stories are important, as are any stories in a genre that deal with gender and sexuality, because they ask questions, start a conversation, and attempt to flip things to encourage a different way of looking at them. These stories also set every day issues in fantastic worlds that are both similar and dissimilar to our own, entertaining us while perpetrating themes and values that want to reorganize societies general views.

In Leslie F. Stone’s short story, “The Conquest of Gola”, I think she is writing two different narrative’s throughout the piece. This story operates on both the manifest level and the latent level. In other words, there is the manifest content, what readers can easily see, and the latent content, what the story is proposing under the surface. Though the manifest content is entertaining, and latent content is the most important.

The women in this story are indisputably female, but they don’t look like women (in our traditional “Adam and Eve” sense of the word). The men are described as looking slightly similar to human men, but hairless with green skin. The women of Gola are “able to call forth any organ at will, and dispense with it when its usefulness is over!” (100), and have “beautiful golden coats, […] movable eyes, […] power to scent, hear and touch with any part of the body, [and] absorb food and drink through any part of the body most convenient to us at the time” (101). The women seem to be these nebulous, superior, unlimited beings that can speak to one another telepathically and read the minds of the men. Stone is posing that already, just in their shapes, the women are dominant over the men, who are described with disdain as being almost apelike. Though these shapes don’t look like any traditional male and female we would picture, they are expressly gendered, and they rely on that gendering to self-identify.

Its also interesting that in the Gola’s description of the men, she is quite derogatory and mocking. She parcels them up into their faces, chests, hands, and feet, describing them not as a whole but in sections. This could be Stone’s way of flipping this objectification of women on its head. The men are being judged, the men are being held up to a standard and found lacking. This also comes through when the men are being chosen as specimens to study, as Glebe, “choos[es] what she judge[s] to be the finest specimens” (106). Again, the men are held against some unknown, purposely unexplained standard. Stone is echoing the way this is done to women every day.

In this story, it is clear that both groups assume themselves superior to one another. The men come from a world in which a patriarchy is dominant, and the women are bound up in a matriarchy. The men actually think its hilarious that these women think they could possibly have functional society without men to guide them. One of the liaisons says that “Women are all right in their place, but it takes the man to see the profit of a thing like this” (104). And, of course, we’re given every indication that Gola’s people are superior in form, intellect, and manners. At the end, it is clear that the women are the superior race. What a find interesting about this element, is the fact that Stone has separated men and women into two different races. Traditionally the pronoun “human” umbrellas all genders, while here it does not. Stone paints this war between the two races as a kind of battle where the two species cannot understand each other. Perhaps Stone feels that this sort of misunderstanding is acted out on Earth consistently? Regardless, she does want to present the women as being invaded, or even something as simply as being bothered by the men, who want to take and take from the women until the matriarchy is dismantled.

Finally, a small note on sexuality in the story. Here, women seem to be fully realized sexual beings, with multiple male consorts (although I’m not clear on if these are the same type of creature or what), whom they use for both pleasure and reproduction (specifically to have daughters). There is no marriage mentioned in the story, only the sense that you “come of age and [are] allowed two consorts of [your] own” (107). The men they take from the ship are ago integrated into this consort role, and there is a clear class system between men and women even without invading forces. Again, this is sort of like a mirror image of what is going on in society. Women are being used in real life in the way men are being used in the story. However, there is no real indication of profound mistreatment (i.e. rape, abuse, malnourishment) in regards to the consorts, so I wouldn’t exactly refer to them as sex slaves, but they certainly are a lower class (and they are referred to as slaves in the story). It seems that Stone is trying to say that though these women need men for sex, they don’t abuse them because they are much too civilized for that, as opposed to the “Barbarians” (99) that invade the planet. Although strangely, the men seemed to be robbed of their sexuality in the story, in the same way, perhaps, that women in the 1930’s are robbed of sexual agency. Stone does not speak to men’s pleasure, or his wants, the same way men avoid that subject altogether in regards to women in real life.

This blog post has become outrageously long, although there is more I could speak to. The only other thing I want to mention is this moment when Jon, the main characters slave, holds her in his arms:

“I found the ugly form of Jon bending over me. Surprised, for it was not his habit to arouse men, I started us only to find his arms about me, embracing me. And how strong he was! For a moment a new emotion swept me, for the first time I knew the pleasure to be had in the arms of a strong men, but that emotion was short lived, for I saw in the blue eyes of my slave that he had recognized the look in my eyes for what it was, and for the moment he was tender” (107).

Its this kind of weird, romantic moment between Random Slave Man Jon and the main character. I think it is the only personal, sexual, equal moment in the text. Through out the story, we have this kind of taking from people, or rather a withholding. There is nothing given or no wanting to give here between the invading men, the women, and the consorts. But during this small, tender, passionate moment, there is a change. Love, or if you want to be a little more general in this context, sex, is a giving over of some part of yourself. Jon, who has been taken into slavery, wraps his arms around this women to tie her up, but just before that, enjoys a moment of contact with her. On the reverse, she is unused to the feeling of a man, or a feeling of tenderness, and also enjoys it for a split second. This moment is followed by more violence and hate, but its also kind of beautiful. This is the only redeeming moment Stone allows. There is a possibility for harmony, but its small, and she poses the question of whether or not that can outweigh all the ugliness surrounding a patriarchy.

I guess I see this story as being both good and a little questionable. In the sense that I don’t know if having the inequality switch to being men on the bottom is a positive solution to what needs to change. Rather, I personally think equality is the answer.

Works Cited:

Stone, Leslie F. “The Conquest of Gola.” The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, edited by Arthur B. Evans, Joah Gordon, et al., Wesleyan University Press, 2010, 96-109.