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.