House of the Scorpion: Nothing New

The House of the Scorpion — while certainly a different sort of reading experience due to it’s intended young adult target audience — presents and grapples with a number of the same key issues that have cropped up in texts and films throughout the semester.

The most obviously familiar theme is that of identity; of what it means to be/what counts as human. Matteo Alacrán is, obviously, a clone. This is a challenging concept. In this day and age, we think of cloning as something being done to animals and such; that a human being could be a direct clone of another is a somewhat terrifying thought. This leads to all sorts of questions. Is the clone actually human? Is each subsequent clone less and less natural, and therefore less and less human?

I see this theme as also being at play in Blindsight and Blade Runner. Both in this novel and in Blindsight, the tampering with humanity serves a utilitarian purpose. In Blindsight, humans weren’t cloned; but they were significantly altered so that they could serve aboard space vessels for the greater good of humankind on Earth. In The House of the Scorpion, these clones are made so that their organs may be harvested to perpetuate and preserve other human life. The challenging moral questions come back into view here. Just as Deckard, in Blade Runner, questions the moral rightness of his job and even starts to see the replicants as human, the reader is forced to question the morality of El Patrón’s cloning operation; and, at least I sympathize with Matt, feel sorry for him, and view him as human.

I also had flashbacks to Lilith’s Brood. Despite the reluctance of the humans to co-exist with the Oankali; despite their revulsion to the fact that they must create a cross-bred, part-human, part-alien race of children (if they are to have any posterity), they find themselves inexorably drawn to their alien children. Even the resisters — who are the most, as their name suggests, resistant to human-Oankali co-habitation — make a point of kidnapping children. They feel a connection to and a need for children who are not completely human. The connection that Eduardo, in The House of the Scorpion, feels with the freshly-created Matteo Alacrán echoes this. “But that one embryo grew until it was clearly a being with arms and legs and a sweet, dreaming face. Eduardo watched it through the scanners. ‘You hold my life in your hands,’ he told the infant. As though it could hear, the infant flexed its tiny body in the womb until it was turned toward the man. And Eduardo felt an unreasoning stir of affection.” (Pg. 4) In both cases, unnatural, perhaps in-human children are created and then accepted with affection by fully human parent-figures.

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Re-writing “Blindsight”

Siri’s…my other half’s…my story began with Robert Paglino. I sure wish those few TwenCen relics (God bless them) who still held to the notion that humankind was not to be tampered with had intervened for me when my parents decided to barbarically separate me from my body. Sure, they decided to at least leave half of me and not replace me entirely with machinery; but, there’s no getting around the fact — my parents (can they still be called that now that I’m no longer a part of my body?) discarded me, replaced me like so much useless trash. So what if I was responsible for occasional episodes of epilepsy; what they did was beyond unacceptable. I mean, the mere fact that I can re-count this event is proof that I am still a part of Siri…still a part of myself. I can still sense and perceive what is happening to Siri’s (my own) body. I am still myself. I was just discarded.

There was Robby being bullied and menaced by a group of boys for the simple (vulgar) reason that he is completely human; here is Siri (am I) observing and not helping. My other half notes how skillful he is at observing. Why is he (am I) just observing? Why don’t I intervene? Why don’t I re-act like an empathic human? Am I not still human? Is my robotic replacement the dominant half of my new self? I mean, I know how he feels. At least, I did. When I was completely human, when I was still apart of myself I would face taunts and mockery because I was baseline. Small price to pay for being (a part of) yourself, though. Small price to pay for being whole and human. What sick world do we live in that intervening in the proper, natural course of nature is seen as normal, while sticking baseline (true) humanity leads to being terrorized and kicked in the ribs?

Siri…I mean, I…I guess I mean, I, eventually intervened. Robby, then said what is perhaps the most important thing my other half has ever been told. He said how, with my replacement, Siri (I) had died; my parents had murdered me; the half (me) that they discarded was an essential part of Siri. Where does that leave my body? Is he (Siri, I) still human? Is anybody still human?


So, I decided to re-write (a portion) of the prologue to Blindsight from the perspective of the half of Siri’s brain that was cut out and replaced. Since we don’t ever get anything in the way of a voice from this discarded half (indeed, it can’t really even be considered a character), I had to invent a little. I acknowledged some key events described in the prologue and then spent a good portion of the post writing a sort of stream-of-conciousness of this replaced half of Siri’s brain. I depicted it (him?) as (understandably) angry, even horrified, at the fact that he was separated from his body. He also questions the state (“humanness”) of humanity with all their modifications.




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Necessary Transformations

“‘If you don’t retrain you’re obsolete inside a month, and then you’re not much good for anything except Heaven or dictation.'” (Pg. 254)

This sentence illustrates the dilemma with which humanity is faced in Peter Watts’ bleak picture of the future. It also speaks to a theme which has been quite prevalent in (nearly) all texts (or films) throughout the semester — the theme of what counts as human.

The character that says this line, Robert Cunningham, had his body and senses completely transformed and de-naturalized in order to perform his job. He clearly has some lingering miseries and regrets at this “roboticizing” of his mental and physical essence; however, he grudgingly realizes that it was necessary.

For Cunningham, it was either: become partially mechanical, and, in the process, lose much of his humanity, or: resign one’s existence to a virtual world. This Heaven is a digital haven or asylum away from the natural, physical world much like cyberspace, a la Neuromancer.

The cost, of course, of taking up residence in Heaven is that one’s life on earth — life in the real world, in an actual human, physical body — ceases to exist. The cares of humanity and reality vanish. One becomes a digital afterthought.

Robert Cunningham is faced with the dilemma of “prostheticizing” his body (and his humanity) but still living on earth (where he at least knows he was once human), or living in an invented, virtual reality as a digital consciousness. He is certainly not happy with his mechanized self, but he believes he chose the lesser of two evils (or at least the more human choice of the two).

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Resister Journal Entry

Yesterday we ventured to the trade village in hopes of kidnapping the most human-looking infant construct we could find. It is still unimaginable to me that humans should choose to live amongst and intimately with those goddamn aliens. It fucking disgusts me. These men and women choose to co-exist with aliens and create a cross-bred race of monsters. It’s a blight upon the whole human race.

When we made it to the outskirts of the village, we providentially stumbled upon a man holding a young construct child. We wrestled the child from his arms, delivered a blow to the back of the man’s head, and made off with the child, leaving the man for dead.

Upon first examination, the child looks every bit as human as a natural, normal child. However, we soon discovered things — physical characteristics and abilities that, given the age of the child, are completely alien and, frankly, revolting. This kid has the ugliest, unnatural, grey tongue I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t until the day after we abducted him that we discovered he could talk. He’s 17 months old and he can talk, communicate, and reason decades beyond someone of his age.

We drank heavily last night and this morning, one of our group — who suffers from stomach ulcers — began violently throwing up blood. It was at this time that the construct child said the most interesting, strangely thought-provoking, and disturbing thing. He informed us that an ooloi could stop his bleeding and pain and save his life. He told us there was no reason for our man to die. He told us his only chance of survival hinges on us taking him to the trader camp and letting one of their aliens save his life.

A few hours later, our man died. This was a devastating turn of events, but even more devastating was the thought that perhaps the human race is more dependent on the Oankali than we, than I, would like to admit. Perhaps the survival of our species actually does requires our co-habitation with an alien race.



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More Human than Human?

I found one of the most alien aspects of Lilith’s Brood to be how “un-alien” the aliens are. The Oankali are portrayed as exceedingly intelligent, sympathetic, and kind (for the most part) towards all human-kind. Now, they certainly have their own agenda (i.e. evolving, preserving their species, colonizing earth), however, the amount of work they put into rescuing, healing, comforting, and learning to relate respectfully to the humans is radically different from other portrayals of extra-terrestrial/human contact narratives. The Oankali are not violent aliens who colonize the earth through invasion and violence; rather, they use diplomacy and relational tactics to work with the humans for the preservation of both their races.

Throughout the first bit of the novel, the Oankali are revealed, bit by bit, to be more relatable (and almost “human”) than aliens are usually portrayed in science fiction novels and films (think Ridley Scott’s Alien and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds). “‘It’s wrong to assume that I must be a sex you’re familiar with,’ it said, ‘but as it hapens, I’m male'” (Pg. 13). The aliens have a familiar, relatable sex. They also exhibit an expectation of conversational etiquette very common in human relationships: “‘No!’ he said sharply. ‘I’ll only talk to you, Lilith, if you look at me.'” (Pg. 15).

The Oankali are highly-intelligent and very competent healers and saviors of the remaining humans. They literally save the remainder of human life and nurse them back to health. “‘You had a growth,’ he said. “A cancer. We got rid of it. Otherwise, it would have killed you.'” (Pg. 21). “‘No, Lilith. I’m not interested in killing your people. I’ve been trained all my life to keep them alive.'” (Pg. 28) “You’ve been given health. The ooloi have seen to it that you’ll have a chance to live on your Earth – not just to die on it.'” (Pg. 33).

Lilith begins to see the Oankali as quite human. “The fingers had bones in them, at least; they weren’t tentacles. And there were only two hands, two feet. He could have been so much uglier than he was, so much less…human.” (Pg. 23). “She sighed. ‘You seem too human sometimes. If I weren’t looking at you, I’d assume you were a man.'” (Pg. 24). The Oankali are revealed to be ultra-intelligent, and their ability to observe, learn, and incorporate cross-special cultures and customs into their own make them seem almost more human than human. “‘How can you teach us to survive on our own world? How can you know enough about it or about us?’ ‘How can we not? We’ve helped your world restore itself. We’ve studied your bodies, your thinking, your literature, your historical records, your many cultures…We know more of what you’re capable of than you do.'” (Pg. 32). The Oankali cross-breeding plan will also help them evolve over time to be, literally and physically, more human than they currently are; and subsequent generations of human-kind will gradually become less human. “‘Your people will change. Your young will be more like us and ours more like you. Your hierarchical tendencies will be modified and if we learn to regenerate limbs and reshape our bodies, we’ll share those abilities with you.'” (Pg. 42).

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U. R. Bandit

I found page 93 (of the deluxe edtion of We3) to be quite thematically relevant; specifically the bottom left frame. In this frame, we see Dr. Roseanne Berry, in tears, identifying the dog, “1”, by his actual name. Berry worked closely with the weapon-animals and saw “Project AWE” it for the in-humane experiment it was.

This frame is so important because it pits the sympathetic (Berry) against the cruel (government). This dog was presumably a loving, domesticated house-pet, loved and cared for by a family. As a matter of fact, at the beginning of the novel, we are told that Bandit is “friendly and approachable.” Blind to any feelings/emotions this dog may have; and, indeed, any emotional connection this dog’s owners have to it, the government stole him, encased him in machinery, and set him to do their violent biddings. In an effort to further de-naturalize him, the government obliterated his name and gave him a cold, impersonal, numerical designation. The loved, loving animal becomes a mechanical weapon designed to be perfectly obedient and perfectly willing to put himself in harm’s way; even if it means certain death.

This novel explores the binaries of natural vs. machine or emotional vs. mechanical. It is a surprisingly thought-provoking book because it is more subtle of an exploration than, say, human vs. machine (i.e. Blade Runner). It challenges the reader to recognize animals as having many characteristics in common with humans. They are capable of experiencing a vast array of emotions.

In this bottom left frame of page 93, Roseanne Berry is realizing just this. She instantly feels horror and remorse for the actions of the government, and for her own involvement in Project AWE. She re-asserts the dog’s naturalness (despising his forced mechanical state and the government who put him in it) and former identity when she says: “The name on your collar was ‘Bandit.’ U. R. Bandit.”

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Estrangement, Indeed

I’m quite glad, actually, that there was a prompt issued for this week’s blogging as I know of nothing I would rather blog about.  Cracking William Gibson proved something of a frustrating, almost embarrassingly revealing reading experience.  I discovered this: I have no idea how to read science fiction.

The only book that has ever actually given me a headache is Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly; and if I were to compare Neuromancer and my reading experience therin, I would have to compare it to to Philip K.  I can liken my experience to reading the first 20 pages or so to being thrown, against my will and unceremoniously, into a high-power washer/dryer spinning furiously and out-of-control.  It was a dizzying, electrifying experience; and, as much as I would like to, I don’t think I can blame my confusion/frustration on the fact that I’d been reading off and on all day for other classes; no, I was beaten by William Gibson; his wordy words defeated me.

Neuromancer presumes an awful lot.  It presumes that the reader is living in the same universe at the same time and speaks the same language with the same jargon.  As a matter of fact, it made me want to echo the sentiments of Brian Doyle-Murray from one classic, beloved christmas film (scroll to the 0:39 mark).  He throws a barrage of words and phrases at us that, out of context, are all but meaningless.  He uses Sprawl (capitalized) as an adjective (Pg. 3).  His characters drink drafts of Kirin (I mean, that’s my drink of choice too; but how many people actually write about it in their novels?) (Pg. 3).  Apparently the “Chinese bloody invented nerve-splicing” (sure, I’ve played BioShock, but isn’t that gene splicing? What the hell is nerve-splicing? Does William expect us to know? Yes.) (Pg. 5).  There is a region/country/city/town/province/who-knows-what called Chiba? (Pg. 5).  Cyberspace (Pg. 5) is clearly quite relevant to this story; I just wish I knew what it actually was.  We find out on page 6 that he had been a “cowboy, a rustler”. I’m assuming Gibson doesn’t mean cowboy in the traditional sense of the word.  Characters sleep in coffins and there are such things as arcologies (Pg. 8).  He uses some obscurely-worded phrases that I feel like I should be understanding, but I just can’t quite get my head around: “…her face bathed in restless laser light, features reduced to a code…” (Pg. 10).  His descriptions of the regional/modern-day garb are also terribly elusive; and I found them impossible to visualize in my mind: “smudged black paintsick” (Pg. 10), “clingwrap capes” (Pg. 11).  Oh, and there are pachinko parlors (Pg. 11)

I found that a few of the phrases we used in the first day of class to define science fiction (alienating, estrangement etc…) quite appropriately described my experience with the first bit of William Gibson’s Neuromancer.  The text is so rife with these phrases and words anomalous in nature, that the reading is just jarring and disorienting.  I would like to conclude with the posing of a question.  Do we “learn the language” as we go? And if so – as a result – does the reading get easier?

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Transfer of Power

To me, one of the main themes of Frankenstein is the gradual shift of power from the life-giver Frankenstein to his creation. This transfer of power comes to a head in the third and final volume of the novel. We see Frankenstein shrink, disown, fear, and flee from the creature he endowed with being. We even see his health disintegrate. In volume III, Frankenstein is reduced to a prisoner and puppet at the behest of a powerful monster. The lines between creator and creature are blurred and even flipped.
Frankenstein is confronted by his creation who, through means of manipulation and sheer power-of-will, gets his once-master’s consent to create a companion for him. Frankenstein, so fearing at every turn the strength and potential wrath of his creation, unwillingly labors to fulfill his wish, never daring to waver. The creature becomes the master of the creator. Frankenstein becomes the “slave of my creature” (Pg. 127). The once-proud endower-of-life now mortally fears his creature. “Every moment I feared to meet my persecutor” (Pg. 137). Frankenstein, in his last foolish act of defiance, eventually refuses to continue his work for his creature. The monster confronts Frankenstein and delivers a fearsome, commanding threat illustrating the complete and total power he has over his once-powerful creator: “Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension. Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master; – obey!” (Pg. 140).
We also see the monster shift from his previously-demonstrated human characteristics and he take takes on a sort of super-human, almost god-like strength, power, and cunning. “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful. I will watch with the wiliness of a snake, that I may sting with its venom. Man, you shall repent of the injuries you inflict.” (Pg. 140). “…nor can you wonder, that, omnipotent as the fiend had yet been in his deeds of blood, I should almost regard him as invincible; and that when he had pronounced the words, ‘I shall be with you on your wedding-night,’ I should regard the threatened fate as unavoidable.” (Pg. 161). Words such as “invincible”, “omnipotent”, and “unavoidable” illustrate this absolute finality of the power the creature has over his creator.
His power extends so far that Frankenstein, miserable to the point of wishing for death, vows that he will live until he extinguishes the life of his creation no matter the cost. The monster begins to toy with Frankenstein and migrates northward to a land of ice knowing Frankenstein will follow and suffer for it. “I seek the everlasting ices of the north where you will feel the misery of cold and frost, to which I am impassive.” (Pg. 174) Perhaps the most pivotal, poignant line in volume III is found on pages 177-178. “…swear that he shall not triumph over my accumulated woes, and live to make another such a wretch as I am.” This is Frankenstein speaking of his monster. The creature becomes the creator. The monster is now seen as the creator of wretches instead of the created wretch. In the end, the monster exercises his ultimate power by extinguishing the life of his life-giver.

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Scientific Pursuits (and the ills that spring therefrom)

I’ve read Frankenstein once before, years ago. Returning to it, I was instantly struck by the role that science plays. Victor Frankenstein is a fiercely committed student of philosophy and other sciences. He has a sort of obsession with the furthering of knowledge and experience through ceaseless study. This study and experimentation, of course, ultimately leads to his complete unhinging. I couldn’t help but read the first section as a sort of disparagement of the pursuit of knowledge. Frankenstein’s experience in studying philosophy and science leads to his ideas that he can be a sort of god, and he releases into the world a monster at the cost of his own health and sanity.
The text makes it clear that Victor was the most committed kind of student and he threw himself head-first into this frenzied pursuit of knowledge. “Two years passed in this manner, during which I paid no visit to Geneva, but was engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of some discoveries, which I hoped to make. None but those who have experienced them can conceive the enticements of science.” (Pgs. 32-33) (note: I am reading the Oxford World’s Classics version, thus all page numbers will pertain to that version.) In telling his tale to Walton, he frequently recapitulates the depths of his obsession with the sciences. “Unless I had been animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm, my application to this study would have been irksome and almost intolerable.” (Pg. 33) As his ideas began to mature he became fascinated by the idea of using his scientific knowledge to give life and play god. “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” (Pg. 36) He begins working night and day, toiling to find the secret of life. In the process his health and mental stability slowly crumble and dissolve. “But my enthusiasm was checked by my anxiety, and I appeared rather like one doomed by slavery and toil in the mines, or any other unwholesome trade, than an artist occupied by his favourite employment.” (Pg. 38) Upon completing his creation, Frankenstein feels sick, tired, afraid, and utterly enslaved by his mad pursuits and feels he must, somehow, escape his foolishness and his freshly-spawned monster. “You have guessed right; I have lately been so deeply engaged in one occupation, that I have not allowed myself sufficient rest, as you see: but I hope, I sincerely hope that all these employments are now at an end, and that I am at length free.” (Pg. 42) Something curious is said in a letter to Frankenstein that I find interesting and important. His cousin, Clerval, not knowing the cause of Frankenstein’s illness, writes that “A farmer’s is a very healthy happy life; and the least hurtful, or rather the most beneficial profession of any.” (Pg. 45) Is Shelley, perhaps, suggesting that science or education at large is harmful?

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