Monday, April 13, 2009 the way that trees are new when their leaves are new...

Having used my Get Out Of Blogging Free pass last week, I missed writing about the first half of Red Mars.  So please pardon my going back to go forward.

I was particularly drawn to section 5 of the book, because, I think, Robinson was so conspicuously playing with the hard-boiled detective genre.  John is by no means a Marlowe or a Sam Spade, even though he frequently self-identifies as "the first detective" on Mars (242).  He is too hot to be cool.  He lands the ships he pilots with an ostentatious zoom-and-break, hoping someone in the trailer he's visiting has seen him do it.  A detective—a beat-up, streetwise mug like Bogart—would be in the trailer before anyone knew he was in the trailer.  

But that's not really being fair to John: he imagines himself in a Sherlock Holmes tale, even though his has much more to do with the corruption and betrayal of a Chinatown.  This inability to see himself as others see him is one of the most persistent devices in the book.  Using it, Robinson twists and turns a narrative which otherwise would stagnate.

To digress somewhat: although I enjoyed the book's deep descriptions, its themes, its sprawling plot, I found little to admire in these twists of narration.  When each new character took center stage, Robinson would make it very clear if the character should be loved or despised.  They became less complex rather than more interesting (although the opposite holds true for Maya).  Often I was left with the feeling that those watching the reality show of Mars on Earth would be treated to a more diverse point-of-view of the First 100.

Back to the mystery.

At one point John looks up from the bottom of a mohole, a mine, deep in the crust of Mars:
The sheer size of the shaft was hard to grasp; the muted light and vertical lines reminded him of a cathedral, but all the cathedrals ever built would have sat like doll-houses at the bottom of this great hole.  The surreal scale made him blink, and he decided he had tilted his head back too long. (237)
Of course it has to remind him of a cathedral.  Few other structures have the luxury of devoting so much of their square footage to empty space between floor and ceiling.  That is the very purpose of the cathedral effect: to draw the believer's eyes (and spirits) up to a marvelous fresco, to a golden dome, to God.  However, the shaft that John gazes up is an incomplete reminder.  There is no dome.  The interiority opens to an exteriority.  It is as if he gazes up a decapitated skyscraper.

And this is not the first reference to a cathedral on Mars.  Later, when a band of scientists-turned-actors descend to perform a rendition of Hamlet, the mohole becomes not just a cathedral, but a cathedral as stage:
Hamlet caught sight of Claudius kneeling to pray, and the camera tilted up to show the mohole as cathedral walls, rising about Claudius to an infinitely distant shaft of sunlight, like the forgiveness he would never receive. (267)
If a cathedral is meant to channel the attention, like a flume, towards the grace of God in heaven, then these moholes run a different course.  The depth, the concentric circles, the stratified levels of megaregolith and regolith, the light above, so distant and so empty, the forgiveness never received—this is no cathedral; this is an Inferno.  

Inferno and Paradiso: are these not the great topian ur-texts?

Strange that we have managed to avoid them for so long: all this talk of paradiso and inferno, utopia and dystopia, and so little said about the spiritual resonance of the wor(l)ds.  We came close with Quakerism in A Door Into Ocean, but so much of eschatology has been Left Behind (ahem).  The Book of Daniel.  The Talmud.  Tantra.  It's interesting to gaze up and wonder, even if the neck does become sore after a while.

There is a third use of the word "cathedral" in the book.  The third and final (yet first in the book).  It comes from Sax Russel, the proponent of terraforming the planet:
We can transform Mars and build it like you would build a cathedral, as a monument to humanity and the universe both.  (178)
The cathedral no longer directs eyes to God, but to human beings themselves, "to humanity and the universe both."  The gaze has been turned upward and inward.  This Faustian energy must crumble under its own excess.  The promise of the First 100, as with any Utopia, fragments.  (As John remarks, you would have to poll at least 80 of them to find a representative sample.)  The dream descends into the dystopia of exploitation and consumption.  We fall into the mohole.

Or perhaps not.  There is Hiroko's garden: an Eden apart from Eden.  And it is there too in Dante.  He offers the idea of a third space, a place between utopia and dystopia. This is, after all, a trilogy.  Purgatorio is its middle, the place of exile, where dreams of utopia are fragmented and split, put on hold in a time outside of time.

Like the remnant of the 100, the topian critic and artist must dwell in this third space.  Huddled together, a fragmented few in Hiroko's garden, we assess our time outside of time, taking account of utopia and dystopia, raising our eyes in the cathedrals, craning our necks in the moholes, until we return to the garden, put soil in our mouths, and muster the courage to speak.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones...

...but names, they will always define me.  What a delightful idea: in Joan Slonczewski's A Door Into Ocean, the Sharers of Shora are named for their greatest weakness.  Nisi the Deceiver.  Lystra the Intemperate.  Merwen the Impatient.  Anthony the...

No, I'm not worthy of self-naming yet.  If the egalitarian Sharers have a single division in their society it is this: being mature enough to name yourself publicly.  I would need a leave of absence, an ocean to stare deeply into, the time to listen for an answer, to confront the other within me whom I constantly seek to deny.  It is this other that we must make a part of our everyday.  Vomit them up, in all their ugliness, behold that which corrupts us from within, swear in front of friend and neighbor that we will spend our days defeating these Other Us's by becoming them.  Only then, drawn to the surface, may these Other Us's be un-othered, occupy a place in which we can finally deal with them.

In "Building Dwelling Thinking," Martin Heidegger opens with the premise that underlies much of his work: "It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided we respect language's own nature."

If we approach language, if we are receptive to logos, and let it speak us as much as we speak it, then it will reveal the nature of things.  For the Sharers, the thing they are is that which they name themselves, but the name will not come until they learn to inhabit the language that dwells within the world.  In Shora birth names are literally in the world, whispered by the waves (Mer-wen, U-sha, goes the tide).  The more difficult language to hear is that within the being.  Profound silence is needed to hear the utterance of truth's concealment (Deceiver), of temperance's lack (The Intemperate), of forgiveness' disappearance (Unforgiver).

Maybe I could ask my wife:  Who is the Other Me which I must become to overcome?

This is often what lovers can do best for each other, but can never do.  I was once at a party in Chicago in a neighborhood I usually did not frequent, among people I did not know, among a kind of wealth that I seldom deal in.  A divorce lawyer, a very successful one, fell into conversation with me.  He was fascinating to listen to, full of the most operatic tales of love found, lost, bought, cheated, sullied, and destroyed.

Heidegger again: " be sure, there rages round the earth an unbridled yet clever talking, writing, and broadcasting of spoken words. Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man."

"It's all taught me one thing," said the divorce lawyer, after we had talked through two or three drinks.  "It's the secret to staying together—I see it time, after time, after time.  You get 3 big trusts.  Everybody breaks little trusts all the time, but these are big.  Things you know about her and she knows about you that you can never say.  Not even to each other.  Not even aloud.  You let one go, you break something that can never be put back together.  Most people can't even work through one of those.  Some people get through two.  No body survives three."

His example, which was simple but perfect, was a spouse who tells her husband after a fight that she doesn't like his nose.  That's it: "You've got a big nose."  Something breaks.  It never comes back.

As interesting the lawyer's stories were, he was bitter.  He had seen too much not work, too  much unfulfilled between people.  Still, the conclusion stuck with me.  It seemed like the sediment of all those hundreds of divorce cases.  Its truth, undeniable.

"Perhaps it is before all else man's subversion of this relation of dominance that drives his nature into alienation." 

Reading A Door reminded me of the lawyer's 3 trusts.  Here too naming takes on a permanence with powerful effects.  The Sharers are compelled to say that which we cannot hear from our lovers.  They must break the sacred trust with themselves.  Yes, in a sense, admit to themselves, "I have a big nose." Admit it to the world, and in so doing become empowered by it.

These are not creatures further deluded than we.  This is no mastering of language.  Rather, naming forges a covenant with language, allowing it to speak them.  It is not a resistance to language; it is a resistance to all those who would use it to subject them.  They can never be alienated from themselves.  This naming becomes a source of their strength.  They name the chink in their armor, making it impossible for their enemies to expose it.   That is the power they have uncovered, the secret of their resistence: their own exposure, naked, named, truthful, free.  White-trance is its exaggerated state—barren, white, unstrikable.  To seek to master that which has been so utterly exposed can only mean confrontation with one's own lack of exposure.  One's own alienation rises up.  And is this not just another face of one's own death?  The door which has never been given a name?


Monday, March 23, 2009

Magic Me Up

Oh, Shadowrun for the Sega Genesis, how I remember your cover art, but not your game.  Something with an overhead map, I think.  My brother and I played you twice and wanted to like you more.  A book turned into a roleplaying game turned into a video game—you had to be a hit.  

For those not familiar with the Shadowrun world: it is an unhesitant cribber of Neuromancer.  Dungeons and Dragons owes to Lord of the Rings what Shadowrun owes to Neuromancer (imagine that analogy on the GREs).  Except Neuromancer was not jazzy enough for the roleplaying market in 1989, at least not in the opinions of the publishers at FASA (the company that owned the title for over a decade). Yes, there were street samurai, rippers who were heavily modified by cybernetics, and even hackers jacked into a matrix to do battle against corporate IC (even black ice).  But there were also elves.  And trolls.  And dragons. Magic had been injected, a giant glitzy Derm slapped atop the world of cyberpunk.

Gibson was not happy.  In a post on his blog in May of 2003, he wrote:


No relationship.  No permission.  Nothing.  Nary a word exchanged, ever.

Except that the admixture of cyberspace and, spare me, *elves*, has always been more than I could bear to think about.

I've just been ignoring it for years, and hope to continue to.

Obviously he is somewhat upset about royalties.  At least, not receiving credit.  But he also seems to have an honest distaste for fantasy.  He was much less impassive about the subject in 1998 when giving an interview to The Peak:

...the only negative thing I feel about it is that initial extreme revulsion at seeing my literary DNA mixed with elves.  Somewhere somebody's sitting and saying "I've got it! We're going to do William Gibson and Tolkien!"  Over my dead body!

Unfortunately for Gibson, they have been doing and continue to do it over his living body. The anger is understandable—I've never made anything someone could build a brand out of and not give me credit for, but I imagine that it must be infuriating.  

Still, "mancer," magician, is in the title, waiting for a little Tolkien to come by and sprinkle pixie dust into Molly's sleek, cybernetic eyes.  In fact, Cynthia Davidson uses William Covino to distinguish two types of magic at work throughout Neuromancer: arresting and generative.  Arresting magic binds and directs, a kind of summoning.  Generative magic multiplies and confuses, a kind of illusion.  Case is her summoner.  Riviera, her illusionist. 

It is an interesting schematic despite the fact that the two could be easily reversed.  Riviera, with his unwavering addiction and sadism, is often more single-minded, even more bound than Case.

In either Case, drugs, cybernetics, and the matrix have a great deal to do with the "mancing" in the book.  They are constant sources of hallucination, subverters of expectations, from Riviera's scorpions to Case's simstim switch.  One could say they are the elves, trolls, and dwarves in Gibson.  

Let us grant the elf-haters that elves are cliche.  Let us grant them that it is often easier to write "poof" than to research and explain the possible mechanics behind teleportation.  Let us grant them that the politics of swords and sorcery often lean right—into unspoken assumptions about a noble aristocracy and a noble peasantry, into the glory of warfare, into a celebration of big throbbing biceps.  

I grant the elf-haters all these things.  But what continues to make me snicker is the idea that science fiction is somehow less metaphorical than fantasy.  That elves don't belong in cyberspace.  That a street samurai is more real than a knight.  Here is the doubleness—a genre that celebrates its flights of imagination and yet defines itself against those who are too wild in their imagining.  An alchemist at war with a mystic. 

The mine that science fiction seems to be so intent on protecting and stripping is its prophecy.  It is one of the two main reasons for Neuromancer's fame: the first is its appropriation of vernacular rhythms of the 80s (which are really more the rhythms of Chandler in the 40s); the second is its soothsaying of widespread devotions to cyberspace.  Both are claims to realism.

(I'm not trying to cripple the book; I simply would praise it for other reasons.)  

So where have we lost our notion of metaphor?  Why so much reluctance to cast further off from the dock?  After all, elves are as confused as cyborgs.  Each are containers capable of generating a host of multiplicities.  To arrest them, to even divide them, is to mistake a fundamental mistake.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sex, Death, and the Sexes

I'm not sure why, of all the short stories, I first read James Tiptree's "Love Is the Plan, the Plan is Death."  Maybe I thought it would set up my blog trilogy on love.  Maybe that was the Plan.  Whatever the case, it was a wonderful place to start.  The prose was beautifully alien (reminding me of Robert Olen Butler's Severance, which collects the thoughts of legendary decapitated heads).  I also enjoyed speaking the names aloud, like Moggadeet, Lilliloo, Sesso (Italian sex, isn't that great?).  And, yes, the ending made me shiver.  Not that Moggadeet's fate came as much of a shock.  Throughout the story, in the back of my mind, was the black widow who had crawled across our hallway carpet a few months ago.  She had brought fear—a terrible bite, a mother who gorges on a father, a splash of red on the abdomen, a warning.  The horror...oh, the horror.  

If I had read the other stories first, with all those deaths and separations, Moggadeet's fate would have been, by that point, bland.  Just another lover separated by the jaws of an impossible communion (told you I was looking to write a trilogy).  Another Alan, another Anne.  Another Bud, another Dave, another Lorimer.  Another Ruth, another another Don.  At least Moggadeet and Lilliloo were allowed to enjoy a climax.

Lewis Call has written about people (perhaps like I'm starting to seem) who see a "battle of the sexes" in Tiptree's stories.  The battle-of-the-sexes approach points to two unavoidably negative themes: 1) humans are slaves to their biology 2) women are doomed to inequality (61).  Through Foucault, Call is able to find some hope, arguing that Tiptree's gender conflicts should be understood through the lens of power, especially as it concerns patriarchy.  In Foucault, every exchange of power carries with it the possibility of resistance, and with resistance the possibility of freedom.  Thus, Call is able help Tiptree transcend the battle, claiming instead that her texts propose a "consensual erotic power," one liberated from heteronormative conventions, one aware of the pain in its pleasure, which can subvert the warped sexuality of patriarchy (83).

(aside) For Call, this patriarchal, unethical sexual power is embodied in the ready-rapist figure like Bud, or in the guy-who-can't-let-women-go like Don; but Tiptree offers another permutation of this warped power: religion.  Whether it is Dave the subjugating messiah in "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" or the Vatican itself in "The Screwfly Solution," religion emerges as a side-effect of dystopic sexuality.  Alan says it best when interpreting Barney's note: "This murderous crackpot religion of McWhosis was a symptom, not a cause" (17).

As helpful as Call's proposal is, particularly in sifting from Triptree a form of liberation sexuality, there exists a gap.  It does not matter how many pseudonyms or pronouns one attributes to the author: her characters, at least those in the stories I have named, never break free of the warped sexual powers that be—at least, never as a couple.  Ruth and Althea, mother and daughter, escape like fugitives to an alien land only by leaving the men behind (the fruit of a one-night Mayan stand the only male baggage allowed onboard).  The women of "Houston" rescue the men only to kill them.  Even Alan and Anne, who have found a powerful alternative to patriarchal sex, cannot enjoy it for long.  We are told that "A miraculous inner portal of sensuality had slowly opened to them, a liberation into their own secret unsuspected heaven of fully physical bliss" (24).  Then, in the same passage, even in the very description of this liberation sexuality, comes a death, a separation, the stroke of Alan's knife.  From that moment on, after that brief manifestation of a healthy un-nomrmative sexual ethics, hope and love and union are rendered to pieces.  

There certainly is in Tiptree a creative merger of sex and death that is nothing less than a subversive reframing of power.  I agree with Call.  But simultaneously there is the subversion of the subversion.  Radical love is likewise destroyed.  It either falls in on itself ("Love is the Plan") or is destroyed by external forces ("Screwfly"—which, I have to say, is a brilliant reworking of the zombie genre).

Does this spell doom?  An eternal battle of the sexes?  Not necessarily.  However, to ignore this secondary subversion would be to ignore that which Tiptree seems intent on making us see.  Resistance is often misguided.  Ethical sex often implodes.  Beds are never shared for long.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Drop to Make Them Sleep

Conveniently, I have a sequel on my hands.  Last week, some might say in large in part to my wife's being-out-of-townness, I wrote about the centrality of love in The Dispossessed.  I argued in blog and in class that it was the rapture of monogamy (don't see that phrase too often, do you?) which construed a hidden possession under all the dispossession, the tension that activates the novel's key transformations, particularly Shevek's awakening, his realization that he has not questioned the dominant practices, the basic social assumptions which govern life on Anarres.

My wife is not out of town again.  Not to worry.  Besides, the abortion, rape, and brutal assaults conjured in the opening pages of Woman on the Edge of Time, clearly signal that Marge Piercy will not be as receptive to my little heuristic Cupid arrows.  No, this sequel comes by way of inversion.  Piercy, like Foster in "The Machine Stops," is undermining the very notion of epiphanic love.  She rejects an intimacy that transcends cultural norms; she denies her characters access to revolutionary union.  Connie, like Kuno, discovers new ways of seeing through the frustration of love.  It is the suppression of the intimacy drive, its destructive turn inward, that transfigures her into prophet and pioneer.

Near the end of the novel, Tina asks Connie if she had a bad dream.  Connie reassures her that it had been a good one:

"I dreamed of my daughter, safe, happy, in another place...If only they had left me something!" she whispered.  Still trembling, she thought, If only they had left me Martin, or Claud, or Angelina, if they had even left me Dolly and Nita, I would have minded my own business.  I'd have bowed my head and kept down.  I was not born and raised to fight battles, but to be modest and gentle and still.  Only one person to love.  Just one little corner of loving of my own.  
Reflecting on those she loved, and those she might have loved more, Connie laments their loss. And it is their loss from her life which is the focus.  She is not mourning their fates; she is mourning her fate.  She has been led astray from her destiny, from her purpose, from stillness. 

Stillness as a destination is an understandable desire, especially for a woman who no longer hears a steady beat of time, who no longer orientates herself in one place at one time (despite how many "orientations" doctors impose on her).  As universes and threads of time have multiplied, the one alternative she has not known is singularity.  She desires the corner, the spot where two alternatives meet, and rest.  There she would take a loved one—and by loved one I mean, as she does, anyone, a child, a friend, a mate, whom she could care for.  The reciprocation does not seem as important, nor does the love itself: it is the care it would require, the attention it would demand, the devotion she could give to this single, stable, person.  She could disappear inside that which she would give.  She could become one.  She would be at peace.

Instead she has become politicized.  The passage continues:

For that love I'd have borne it all and I'd never have fought back.  I would have agreed that I'm sick, that I'm sick to be poor and sick to be sick and sick to be hungry and sick to be lonely and sick to be robbed and used.  But you were so greedy, so cruel!  One of them, just one you could have left me!  But I have nothing. Why shouldn't I strike back? (367)
She craves the illusion.  As much as she resists the treatments at the hospital, she wants to slip under the illusion, she wants to join the social fabric, she want to live unquestioningly.  She wants her Soma.  If "they," the perennial they who are often in control, if they would have only given her what she asked for, she would have agreed with them.  As much as Connie is defined by her recalcitrance throughout the story, as much as she frustrates the institution's prescriptions and protocols, she is ready to accept them.  She will agree with what they say she is.  She will accept the rules.  If only they would give her someone to love.

The parallels with Kuno in "The Machine Stops" are strong.  The suggestion in that story is that Kuno would never have crawled out of the machine, accelerating its destruction, had the machine only granted him a wife.  Instead, because of what was denied him, he was left only with a unavoidable lack.  A desire.  And in the space of this desire a new world was discovered.  The illusion of the machine died, or perhaps was displaced,  with the promise of this new world.  It is a kind of triangulation among a desired life, the current state, and the utopian promise.  It is the start of a revolution.

Woman of the Edge of Time closes with Connie's greatest insurrection.  She destroys her "they." Or at least part of "them." It becomes a "you," a subject that can be attacked.  You can strike at a you.  It is the revolt which writes the rest of her life.  She will not leave the hospitals again.  The fate she once wished for herself is forever closed.  The triangulation fractures, the implication being, as in "Machine," that the utopian promise remains.  Only with Woman the appendix serves as a grim reminder that the institution, the machine, grinds on.  They remain.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Kiss to Wake Them

If this remarkable book , The Dispossessed, has a center—which is highly unlikely—it is the love story.  Shevek's dedication to Takver (both its discovery and constant re-enactment) drives most of the significant character developments in the novel.  It gives us, finally, a utopic wakes up.

In Huxley's Brave New World, Lenina, like Takver and Shevak, runs counter to the romantic drives of her culture.  She has a itch for monogamy.  In Le Guin, who offers her characters much more compassion and complexity than Huxley, the itch becomes almost an integral compulsion, a sense of inner truth that must be avowed and protected.  Shevek and Takver will remain possessed of one another: it is nothing less than rebellion.  They have promoted their needs above those of the larger community.  They will suffer inconvenience, they will suffer exclusion, so they can have one another.

The decision, of course, snowballs, opening up a space in which both Takver and Shevek may more critically engage their own culture and politics.  Because of the shuffling of linear time in the book, the space seems to be created and maintained by Shevak's travel.  His awakening is literally juxtaposed with his travels.  We are tempted to interpret him as the glorified study abroad student who reassesses from afar, wondering, for the first time, why those refrigerators back home are so little, or why there's not better plumbing.  But it is Takver with Shevek, not Annares vs. Urras, that structure this tension.  Their love allows them a way through.

By a way through, again, I mean a questioning of the ground, the first principles, on which a society (one's own) is built.  After the first decision to break with a core tenet (un-exclusive romance), the second break becomes much easier.  Le Guin is careful to construct a scene in which both Takver and Shevek are present for this re-assessment of grounding:

"We always think it, and say it, but we don't do it.  We keep our initiative tucked away safe in our mind, like a room where we can come and say, "I don't have to do anything, I make my own choices, I'm free.'  And then we leave the little room in our mind, and go where PDC posts us and stay till we're reposted." (329)

This is the sentiment (sediment) for Shevek's radical departure, his decision to leave Annares.  And it doesn't come from simple, mutual agreement (Takver in the scene mentioned above begins more as a counterpoint to Shevek's ideas); rather it is through their contact, through the dynamic of an insurgent love affair, the seditiousness of commitment's kiss, that sets Shevek free.

This reminded me of my first reading of Le Guin in an annual of fantasy and horror writing.  Her contribution was "The Poacher," a short story about a rugged peasant boy who cuts through a thicket and finds himself in none other than sleeping beauty's somnolent castle. The boy falls under an enchantment as well; but it is beauty, not sleep, that entices him:

I knew, I knew as soon as I entered her room, that first time, that one time, as soon as I saw her I knew that she, she alone in all the castle, might wake at any moment....I knew that if I spoke in that tower room she would hear me: maybe not waken, but hear me in her sleep, and her dreams would change.
This kiss never comes.  The boy grows old in that castle lawn, knowing that it is not his place to place that kiss.  He knows one day a prince will come, stride through the thicket that the boy spends the better part of the story clawing himself through, stoop down to the lovely girl and kiss her tenderly.

With this, Le Guin demonstrates that she is deserving of the praise Jameson reserves for her and few other fantasy writers.  He comments that she is savy in the complication of magic, widening it beyond the "ethical binary of good and evil" (58).  Moreover she proves that she can evade Tolkein's nostalgia for a righteous aristocracy and a frolicking peasantry (60).  Le Guin's peasant is beaten and unrewarded; her aristocrat privileged and undeserving.

Love is complicated too.  Like her novel, the story still turns on a seditious commitment.  Yes, there is not kiss, but there is the hope that the poacher's years of haunting the princess's charmed rest, his vigil at her court, will inscribe him in her memory.  When she opens her eyes and finds her prince, perhaps "she will think, 'Is that the face I dreamed of seeing?'"

The Dispossessed would not work without a similar desire.  Shevek must wonder if the apparition of his face still haunts his family.  The return would not compel him—there would be no consuming drive—if there was not an absence.  Only if he leaves the tranquility of bed, the warmth of Takver, the draw of sleep, might he then imagine himself reconfigured there, changed, transformed by his journey, but all the more hers.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Natural, Organic, Green Pogrom

The degree will differ, but most of us will agree: We are poisoning and being poisoned by our environment.  Carbon Monoxide.  BPA.  Pesticides.  CFCs.  PVCs.  Phthalates.  One needs only look at the back of a package for an energy efficient light bulb to discover we are daily putting into landfills that which will lead to our own decomposition (in this case, mercury).  How do we respond?

For Rachel Carson, it becomes a responsibility to scrutinize and redefine our practices: "We are subjecting whole populations to exposure to chemicals which animal experiments have proved to be extremely poisonous and in many cases cumulative in their effect.  These exposures now begin at or before birth and—unless we change our methods—will continue through the lifetime of those now living" ("Introduction," xx).

For John Brunner in The Sheep Look Up, the answer is found somewhere between a realization and a "rational proposal."  First comes the realization that "at long last the revolution had arrived!  Well—maybe not quite THE REVOLUTION, in capitals, but certainly the chance to make a revolution work.  There had never before been so many people so angry with the system, and striking back against it" (357).  Then comes the rational proposal: "we can restore the balance of the ecology...if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species" (363).  Such a revolution is destined for vengeance and fire.  America must burn.

Carson's language is dominated by the "we."  It is we who must reexamine our methods.  Some industries and institutions may have played larger roles in aggravating the plague she describes, and so their introspection perhaps must be more exhaustive than others; but that does not mean they alone are accountable.  There is no top and bottom that revolves in opposition to each other.  With Carson, the entire human landscape must revolve, or, better yet, invert itself, turn its practices inside out, if we are to evolve out of the current "stillness."

For Brunner that stillness is a complacency, a stupor which must be shaken from us.  We must awaken to see what They are doing to Us.  Corporate entities and governments align to form the perfect Marxist foil:  a hegemon that must be usurped.  Yes, indeed, this is REVOLUTION with capital letters, with "starving refugees besieging frontiers" (355).  Granted, this is problematized by Train's death at the hands of his own ideology, but it still seems like a welcome purging.  Fires will be started.  Bombs will be detonated.  A New World Order will reign free and green.

Eco-critics have not missed the violence implicit in this message.  Some have embraced it. Others, particularly Patricia Greiner, have labeled Brunner's book "false ecofiction...a literature of division, one that stresses opposition rather than commonality, and thus is inherently at odds with the integrative nature of ecology" (qtd. in Murphy 27).  Although Greiner's labels of "true" and "false" are lamentable for their strict, either/or logic, the point is helpful in explaining the ease with which political opponents of environmental reform can undermine the more confrontational elements of "green" activism.  They merely step back and reveal its perpetual compulsion to collapse in on itself.

A different kind of action is needed, one that is as creative as it is resistant.  Michel de Certeau would suggest walking instead of charging.  In de Certeau, walkers become bricoleurs, subversive spin artists of the dominant, "proper," powers.  Brunner, however, denies his characters this possibility, first, by physically making walking impossible, then by pitting against them oppressors so corrupt that their scapegoating is unavoidable.  Facing such a vile foe, one must draw blood.  Only through a purging violence can creation begin again.  

On the other hand, de Certeau and Carson locate both problem and solution within the individual.  The call becomes to rearrange one's own perspective, to "cut out" and "turn over" what exists within one's own relationship with the environment (62).  The cutting here opens no wound.  The turning over sets into motion no besieging army.  A space is renewed when, as de Certeau puts it, the extroverted and the introverted combine —a looking out as well as a turning within.  In this tactical turn totalities  are shattered and new relationships become possible.  A breech comes without blood.  A refreshment without the cleansing.