Cosmos Girl

Welcome to my planet.

Earthling on Aka March 6, 2010

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Earlier in the quarter, our class studied Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of social “othering.” “Others” in society can be any person who does not fit in with the dominant population. Beauvoir’s description of “othering” referred mainly to women,  but can be extended to include members of various racial/ethnic/cultural/religious backgrounds. In the context of Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction novel “The Telling,” the protagonist Sutty is considered an outsider on planet Aka because she comes from a faraway planet known as Earth or Terra. Because of this, she is ignored and distrusted.

In Dovza, the Akan city where Sutty dwells at the beginning of the novel, most people know that she is of another planet and they avoid her all together. She looks physically different from the natives of Dovza as well, which identifies her as an “other” even to people who don’t know her background. Once she sets off on a journey to the far-off wilderness to explore the old Akan traditions, however, she is finally liberated from her alienation. People on the river boat come from all parts of Aka, and since nobody knows her, friendly travelers converse with her readily. Sutty welcomes the change of surroundings and the chats. Just when she believes she is free of Dovzan influence though, she meets a Moniter sent from her city to watch over her, making sure she does not cause any trouble for the central government while she digs into Akan history. For Sutty, it is very distressing to feel like someone is watching her every move, just waiting for her to mess up.

Once Sutty arrives in Okzat-Okzat, the Moniter continues to lurk around, popping up to keep tabs on her at random moments. Here in the wilderness, Sutty is accepted by the old folks living by the traditional Akan religion known as “The Telling,” but the Moniter is always nearby to remind her that she is an alien who doesn’t belong to this society. As a result of this constant surveillance, Sutty can never fully naturalize into Okzat-Okzat.

In spite of the adversity Sutty faces as an alien from another planet, she overcomes her “otherness” and succeeds in her goal of learning about Akan tradition. Le Guin utilizes “othering” to classify her female protagonist as an underdog, so that when she ultimately overcomes adversity and achieves her goal, it is more satisfying for the reader.

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What is Human? Well, It Depends. February 27, 2010

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On her web page, Jeanette Winterson poses the following question in regards to her science fiction novel Stone Gods: “What is a human being, how do we define what is human, and how do we define what is love and what is possible when love is present?” Spike, the ultra-intelligent robotic female introduced in the first section of Stone Gods definitely blurs the line between what is human and what is not. Biologically speaking, Spike is a machine. She was created with metal and wires and screws. However, none of the hardware she is composed of is visible through her deeply tanned skin (yes, skin) and her beautiful, striking, human appearance. She was initially created to travel to space and collect data about a new planet being prepared for human colonization. While on the mission, she (being the only female) was also responsible for making sure all the men on the mission were satisfied sexually. She even tells Billie, our human protagonist, that she went through three silicon vaginas during the mission. Interspecies erotica is strictly prohibited on Orbus, but what happens in space stays in space according to Spike.

In the other stories we have read this quarter where the human/technology or human/animal line was blurred, there was a tone of fear and paranoia present within them. In Stepford Wives, the audience watches, horrified, as regular women are betrayed by their husbands and replaced by robotic clones of themselves (only with double-D breasts and 22″ waistlines). In Rachel In Love, our protagonist is a human mind trapped in a chimp’s body, and she is held captive until she escapes, vulnerable and terrified. In Stone Gods, however, Spike is a presented as a very likable and approachable character, even though she is 50x more intelligent than the humans and at least that much more attractive. So what is the difference? The way I see it, it is the other characters’ genetic alterations that make Spike seem so normal.

Stone Gods is a futuristic story that takes place (initially) in a world where genetic engineering has allowed men and women to manipulate the aging process through age freezing and reversal. Pink, a 58 year old woman, has the body of her 24 year old self complete with breast and butt augmentations and vaginal tightening. Her husband, as a result of Pink’s age-freezing, has turned into a pedophile who can only get turned on by underage girls who haven’t had to result to genetic engineering (yet). In a society where anyone can look any way they want, the line of what is natural and what isn’t is diminished to the point of disappearance. So, my point is that a robot that looks and acts just like a human is not  unnatural in a context where the surrounding humans have been tampering with their own DNA to the point of stopping the physical aging process all together. Conversely, in Stepford Wives, all the husbands in Stepford (along with all the children and the wives who haven’t yet been converted) are normal individuals that make the fembot-wives alien by contrast.

 

“Dawn” and the Dawning of a New Species February 20, 2010

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Miscegenation- (n.) Interbreeding between members of different races (or different species in the case of scifi). It’s a common theme among many works of science fiction because of the frequency of non-human characters in these narratives. It was introduced to our class in the very first story we read this quarter, “The Fate of the Poisedonia” by Claire Winger Harris, and it is resurfacing with a thirsty vengeance in Octavia Butler’s “Dawn.” Although the fear of miscegenation is a prominent theme that Butler presents in this novel,  xenophobia is a more appropriate explanation for Lilith’s initial aversion to the Oankali people.
After living in isolation and alien captivity for years on end, Lilith, our female protagonist awakes to the sight of a very unnusual, somewhat frightening alien life form by the name of Jdahya. She is instantly repulsed by his appearance, which is described in great detail. His face and hair are comprised of a multitude of small round sensory organs that resemble fat nightcrawlers or even small snakes. Liluth describes his appearance as very Medusa-esque. He has no eyes, ears, or mouth, but he can see with any part of his body and can hear and taste as well. The sheer sight of him was so unsettling that at first Liluth can barely force herself to take a bowl of stew (her only chance at a meal for the day) from his radially organized hands. As time passes and the pair gets to know one another through forced companionship, Lilith begins to open up to Jdahya. Eventually she becomes curious enough  about this foreign being and comfortable enough with him to want to touch his “skin,” if it can be called that. It is only after she touches him that he reveals he could sting and kill her instantly if provoked. After she learns this, she regresses temporarily out of panic. Shortly after, though, she learns that his main goal is to keep her alive, so that she may be used for interbreeding of the human and Oankali species.

In Butler’s narrative, two levels of racism (for lack of a better term) are at work: xenophobia and fear of miscegenation.  Initially, when Jdahya appears before her, Lilith experiences what she describes as “true xenophobia.” It is not xenophobia in an Earthly sense, that is, being afraid of people who are of a different ethnic/cultural background, but rather in an interplanetary sense, that is, being afraid of beings which are not even remotely human. Can you imagine how you would feel if faced with the same situation? Wouldn’t you be terrified if an alien life form just appeared when you were in a room by yourself, instantly demanding your trust and acceptance?
The second level of racism presented in this text is the aforementioned fear of miscegentation. After talking with Jdahya about the true intentions of the Oankalians for humans and the Earth, she learns that humans will soon take part in experimental cross breeding, and this terrifies her. For Lilith, a woman in her late 20’s who has already birthed a son and mourned his death, the thought of having human-alien hybrid children is too much for her to bear. She is both fearful of and disgusted by the proposition. In “The Fate if the Poisedonia,” miscegenation was a theme, but it was sort of like the elephant in the room that nobody talked about. In this story, however, it is a very concrete probability, and it scares the hell out of our protagonist. I can’t really say that I blame her, either.

 

I Don’t Think We’re In Mattapoisett Anymore… February 13, 2010

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The fictional society of Whileaway in Joanna Russ’s novel The Female Man (1975) resembles the futuristic society of Mattapoisett from Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time in the sense that both worlds liberate women from the oppressive forces of their authors’ respective time periods. Aside from that, these two societies differ immensely in their structure and practices. In Whileaway, men do not even exist, having been wiped out by some apocalyptic event in the past. The female species, being clearly superior in Russ’s portrayal of this society, not only survived the catastrophe but thrived in its wake. Men play an integral role in Mattapoisett, however, because they are needed for procreation and co-mothering, in addition to whichever job they are assigned based on their talents/strengths. That is not to say that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of love in Mattapoisett, though. Persons in this society are free to make love with anyone they are attracted to.

Aside from the gender differences, Whileawayans differ from Mattaposisettians (?) in the ways they deal with anger. Recall if you can the scene in Piercy’s novel where Luciente and Bolivar have a conflict resolution session with Parra as their mediator. The source of conflict is their mutual attraction to Jackrabbit. Instead of becoming violent and duking it out over their man, they have a very calm, mature, and respectful conversation about their differences in opinion. It would make my fourth grade guidance counselor so proud. Conversely, Whileawayans resort to violence quickly when provoked. For instance, when Janet is offended by a man reffered to as “Ginger Moustache” at a party, a bystander “saw him rush her, and saw her flip him…. then he got up again and this time he swung and something very complicated happened- he let out  yell and she was behind him, doing something cool and technical, frowning in concentration” (Russ 47).  The thing about Whileaways, though, is they don’t rely on weapons to defend themselves. They are like female Chuck Norris-Jackie Chan hybrids that you definitely don’t want to mess with.

Another difference between the societies of Mattapoisett and Whileaway is the type of radical feminism represented by each of their birthing rituals. In Mattapoisett, babies are brought to term outside the body in incubators, thus utilizing reproductive technology to free the mother of her biological obligation to child-bearing. Mattapoisett supports radical libertarian feminism. However, in Whileaway, eggs from two individuals are required to form a zygote. One of which is the “body-mother” who will carry the child, and the one is called the “other-mother.” In this society, since females play the role of both parents, femininity is both reinvented and embraced. Whileaway, unlike Mattapoisett,  represents radical cultural feminism.

 

In My Day… February 5, 2010

Throughout the quarter, a common trend among many of the stories we have read has been their futuristic nature. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is set partially in the present, but two-thirds of the book takes place in two separate futuristic societies. Balinese Dancer by Gweneth Jones is slightly futuristic as well, with its laptop computers and headband TVs (pretty technological stuff for 1997). Some of the narratives we read very early in the quarter are slightly ambiguous as to their actual time periods, but The Conquest of Gola by Leslie F. Stone, The Fate of the Poseidonia by Claire Winger Harris, and I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side by James Tiptree Jr. all three contain alien life forms, which gives them a very futuristic vibe. All of these earlier pieces were written in the past and set in the future, but the last short story in Daughters of the Earth edited by Justine Larbaleister was the exact opposite. What I Didn’t See by Karen Joy Fowler was actually written in 2002, but set back in 1928. Upon noticing this, I began to ask myself why the reverse in trend?
The story itself raises a lot of questions that are unanswered by the end, so ideas from here on are merely speculation. When the story begins, the female protagonist shares with the audience that she is the last living member of a group of seven which embarked on an African jungle excursion in the late 20’s to hunt for gorillas. In the first couple of paragraphs, the present day setting is pretty clear. However, as our speaker begins to muse about that voyage, the time frame shifts from the present to the past. While in the jungle, Beverly, the only other female on the excursion disappears and it sends the whole group into a sort of panicked frenzy. After helping look for her friend, our protagonist heads back home while the men stay behind, killing any apes they come across as a form of retaliation. By the end of their violent rampage, 40 were dead.

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Too

One possible explanation for why Fowler set this narrative in the 1920’s was because it was a period of greater female oppression in society than the present, and therefore a more appropriate setting for a feminist text. For instance, on page 341 of Daughters of the Earth, our protagonist states, “I would have suspected I was along to do the dishes… and for nursing the sick, which we did end up at a bit” (Larbaleister 341). In a modern day jungle excursion, no woman would be brought along strictly for the purpose of cleaning up and taking car of the men. Additionally, once the group had left the safety of the base camp, a prominent male character referred to as “The Belgian” attempted to leave the two women behind because he thought it was an unsafe environment for them. Our protagonist stands up for herself by retorting “I haven’t walked all this way to miss out on the gorillas” (Larbaleister 346). The two women continue on with the group.
Another possible reason for the 1928 setting is that by that year, according to the narration, “No white woman in all the world had seen wild gorillas yet- we were to be the first” (Larbaleister 346). Perhaps Fowler wished to make her protagonist stand out as a really badass female out to prove to the world that women can do anything men can. If the story were written in a contemporary setting, considering the accomplishments of females between then and now, this message wouldn’t have been quite as powerful.

 

Rachel & Lynn & The Ways They’re Alike January 30, 2010

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Octavia Butler’s short science fiction story “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” really took me by surprise. The only other work of hers I had read was the sci fi novel Kindred, which is science fiction-y in the sense that it involves time travel. This story was a lot different, however, because it’s protagonist is a college-age young woman suffering from Duryea-Gode disease. In this fictional condition, victims  feel a sense of entrapment within themselves and it causes them to self-mutilate while attempting to dig their way out. It was actually quite a disturbing read, but having completed it, I noticed some striking similarities between this story and Rachel In Love by Pat Murphy.
Within the first couple pages of Butler’s narrative, the protagonist Lynn reveals that she suffers from DGD because it was inherited through both of her parents. She also tells the audience that when she was a teenager, she came home one day to a whole mess of police and emergency vehicles surrounding her house. The reason? Her father had skinned and killed her mother, and he had done the same to himself. Sound familiar? In the opening scene of Rachel in Love, Rachel attempts to wake her father Aaron from a deep sleep and discovers he has passed away in the night. If you recall, Rachel’s mother (and the human form of herself) had been killed in an automobile accident prior to the beginning of the story as well. In both of these narratives, a young female is left behind to fend for herself  in spite of adversity. I am beginning to notice a feminist trend here.
Another similarity between Rachel and DGD patients in general is the aforementioned sense of being trapped in one’s own body. In Rachel’s case, the feeling of entrapment stems from an identity crisis. She was once a thriving young human girl, but now her mind is stuck in the body of a chimp. The “crisis” part applies because she relates to both human and chimpanzee thoughts,  behaviors, and experiences. She doesn’t really know who or what she is, just like in our class debate. On the other hand, victims of DGD are compelled to physically scratch, dig, and pick at their skin to break free of some sort of binding force that they feel. It kind of reminds me of an extreme case of that annoying zit that you just keep picking at, knowing all along that it will only make it worse. Or of being a little kid with a nasty scab on your knee and feeling an urge to scratch it off,  knowing full well that it will hurt and bleed if you do. The little voice that says “Stop!” is always squashed by the self-destructive instinct in people living with DGD.

In both of these short stories, the female protagonists have to muster up the strength and confidence to essentially save themselves. Rachel is captured and taken to a primate research facility where she makes friends with the night janitor and escapes on his watch. Her ultimate goal is to return to Aaron’s home and avoid life in captivity. Lynn’s situation is a little different. She must find a way to combat the impulse to self-mutilate and try to live a normal life for as long as possible. In the story, she discovers the power she wields as a female with the disease passed on from both parents, and she eventually accepts her calling to become an employee of Dilg, the leading treatment facility for people with DGD.

 

The Value of a Human Life January 26, 2010

Marge Piercy’s science fiction novel Woman On the Edge of Time is feminist, yes, environmentalist, sure, but on a deeper level I find this novel to be a social commentary on the dehumanization of people in our society (specifically mentally ill people who have been institutionalized). Piercy juxtaposes the protagonist Connie’s experiences in the mental hospital with her time spent with Luciente in the future to illustrate just how badly the patients at the hospital are treated. At the end of chapter one, when Connie is initially admitted into the institution, the  narrator tells us ominously “She was human garbage carried to the dump,” which sets the stage for how all the patients will be treated while in the asylum (Piercy 32).
Similarly, near the beginning of chapter three the audience gets another glimpse of the misery of Connie’s situation with the following description: “LOCKED into seclusion, Connie sat on the floor,  near the leaky radiator with her knees drawn up to her chest, slowly coming out of a huge dose of drugs… Already her lips were split, her skin chapped from the tranquilizers, her bowels were stone, her hands shook” (Piercy 59). In the Rockover State Hospital, patients are regularly administered Thorazine, a heavy tranquilizer, seemingly for the sole purpose that they do not have the energy to bother the staff or the other patients. The Thorazine doses, however, are far from the most inhumane treatment Rockover has to offer. Shock therapy is administered on a daily basis. Connie, along with her friends Sybil, Alice, and Chip, are all chosen for an experimental procedure that involves slicing the head open to surgically implant electrodes that can be manipulated via remote control to instantly change a patient’s behavior against their will. The dangerous, invasive surgery is performed on patients with a history of violence, and at no point in the novel do any of the patients agree to participate in the study. Instead they are forced.

Shock "Therapy" doesn't look very theraputic, does it?

Conversely, in Luciente’s place and time (Mouth-of-Mattapoisett, year 2137) individuals are not only treated with fairness, respect, and dignity, but they are identified by their strengths rather than their gender, socio-economic status, or ailments. In this communal society, rearing the children of the community is the responsibility of all of it’s members because they all realize that their future lies within the young ones. There is little to no private property in this society, and it is self-sustained through recycling, composting, and farming. On page 214, Connie has a revelation that if she could only stay in this future settlement permanently, she could become a valuable and respected human being (the polar opposite of how she is percieved at Rockover). “She herself could be such a person here. Yes, she would study how to fix the looted landscape, heal rivers choked with filth…Then she would be useful… People would respect her. “There’s Consuelo,” they would say, “doctor of soil, protector of rivers” (Piercy 214). She awakes from her time in Mattapoisett crying, still confined to her isolated cell as if she was a prisoner. She can hear laughter at the nurse’s station as they play cards on the clock. Since Connie has the capacity to time travel she is teased with fantasies of what her life could be like, but she each time she snaps back to the present, the bleakness of her stay at Rockover engulfs her and harsh reality sets in.