I just re-read this book in order to teach it in my literature course and I still believe it deserves five stars. The situation (a dystopian theocrati...moreI just re-read this book in order to teach it in my literature course and I still believe it deserves five stars. The situation (a dystopian theocratic future society in which women are basically slaves and breeders) is interesting and--still!--politically relevant. The prose is lovely and effective. Atwood has a knack for providing telling images and making the reader work with her to construct this world by carefully parcelling out descriptive details. She never resorts to mere infodumps to set the scene, instead, like the poet she is, making sure each detail furthers the development of the book.(less)
I really do love this book. I love the value it places on intelligence, on books, on human connection, and on the natural world. I love its critique o...moreI really do love this book. I love the value it places on intelligence, on books, on human connection, and on the natural world. I love its critique of war, of the media-saturated world in which we live (even more so now than when Bradbury wrote the novel), and of anti-intellectualism. Fahrenheit 451, in its creation of this dystopian world where books are outlawed and thinking is unheard of, shows us what we are in danger of becoming and points the way to an escape from this fate.
The only way to change the course of history, to prevent us from becoming the mindless, violent people Bradbury portrays in the novel, is to instead, through really learning to see the world and through making it part of our selves (as Montag says, "while none of [the world:] will be me when it goes in, after a while it'll all gather together inside and it'll be me" [162:]), learn to change that world by acting upon it:
"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime" (156-7).
We have to remember the past, the people who have been here, and our place in the world. One character says,
"My grandfather showed me some V-2 rocket films once, fifty years ago. Have you ever seen the atom-bomb mushroom from two hundred miles up? It's a pinprick, it's nothing. With the wilderness all around it.
"My grandfather ran off the V-2 rocket film a dozen times and then hoped that someday our cities would open up more and let the green and the land and the wilderness in more, to remind people that we're allotted a little space on earth and that we survive in that wilderness that can take back what it has given, as easily as blowing its breath on us or sending the sea to tell us we are not so big. When we forget how close the wilderness is in the night, my grandpa said, someday it will come in and get us, for we will have forgotten how terrible and real it can be" (157).
Bradbury's novel is a stirring reminder of those wildernesses of the soul that, "terrible and real," can destroy all that we as humans have built and that can separate us from each other and from ourselves.(less)
This book is fun but flawed. It's far from a consistent work and feels somewhat fragmentary and exploratory at times, but any novel that includes muti...moreThis book is fun but flawed. It's far from a consistent work and feels somewhat fragmentary and exploratory at times, but any novel that includes mutiny, shipwreck, cannibalism, strange and threatening natives (especially ones with black teeth), fascinating creatures (from identifiable animals like sharks, polar bears, and penguins to unidentifiable ones like the white creature with red teeth that they come across late in the book), and a healthy dose of adventure, horror, and mystery is worth reading.
This is in some ways a shorter, more interesting Moby Dick; both texts include lightly disguised philosophical ideas and quite a few details and digressions apparently unrelated to the narrative, both take place at sea, and both end with images of whiteness (the white whale itself at the end of Moby Dick and, at the end of Pym "a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men" ). Each novel also leaves us with at least one survivor of the carnage (someone has to tell the story, after all).(less)
This is a book that it seems like I should like. It deals with issues of religion, including a strong critique of religion as we know it, presents soc...moreThis is a book that it seems like I should like. It deals with issues of religion, including a strong critique of religion as we know it, presents socially progressive ideas about sex and relationships, and relies upon a fundamentally humanist, individualist philosophy.
In the end, however, I can't get past a few things to really like this book.
1. The word "grok." I understand the meaning and significance of the word within the book and I understand why Heinlein chose to create a new word to carry this meaning, but "grok"? It's an ugly word and it gets used about 150 times too many in the book.
2. The use of mystic religious concepts and practices. Heinlein critiques traditional, human religions, but he is unable or unwilling, finally, to leave behind the trappings of religion, relying upon them to bolster his argument. This bothers me because it feels like manipulation, like a man trying to have it both ways by using the religiosity and losing the religion. Michael admits that his philosophy, his truth, "couldn't be taught in schools" and says, "I was forced to smuggle it in as a religion--which it is not--and con the marks into tasting it by appealing to their curiosity" (419). He admits that he is manipulating his audience (just as Heinlein manipulates his) as well as admitting that the people he is trying to save are no more than marks, dupes to be conned. This is entirely too cynical for my taste and does not accord with the whole "Thou art God and I am God and all that groks is God" philosophy.
3. The sexism of the text, which is inseparable from its heteronormativity and even homophobia. Despite Heinlein's progressive (especially for the time) ideas about sexuality and desire, he reinforces the gender dichotomy repeatedly, putting women and homosexuals in their place as he does so. Sometimes this is obviously negative and hard to miss, especially for a modern reader: "Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it's partly her fault" (304). At other times this is done with apparently positive statements: "Male-femaleness is the greatest gift we have--romantic physical love may be unique to this planet" (419). A statement like this one is troubling not because of its emphasis on romantic physical love but because of its insistence on the male-female gender dichotomy as a necessary component of that love.
A more substantial example arises when Jill discovers that she likes to be looked at it, that it makes her feel desirable. She says, "Okay, if a healthy woman liked to be looked at, then it follows as the night the day that healthy men should like to look, else there was just no darn sense to it! At which point, she finally understood, intellectually, Duke and his pictures" (302-3). The realization that she likes to be looked at is fine as far as it goes, although the immediate leap from there to pornography is definitely a problem (pornography of course having huge and unavoidable issues of power wrapped up in it that this analysis neatly sidesteps). Following Jill's realization of her own desire to be looked at, Mike comes to see that "Naughty pictures are a great goodness" and they go together to strip clubs to enjoy the live version. However, "Jill found that she 'grokked naughty pictures' only through a man's eyes. If Mike watched, she shared his mood, from sensuous pleasure to full rut--but if Mike's attention wandered, the model, dancer, or peeler was just another woman. She decided that this was fortunate; to have discovered in herself Lesbian tendencies would have been too much" (307). Here, Heinlein brings together his progressive, free love ideas about sex itself with his more traditional ideas about gender roles and his leaning toward homophobia. The conclusion Jill arrives at here is that a) sex and desire are good, b) women are the spectacle, never the spectator, and c) lesbianism is completely taboo, even for someone who is otherwise interested in opening herself up to sexual love in its many forms. This one scene simply brings together these ideas that recur throughout the second half of the book. Repeatedly, it is made clear that homosexual behavior is a danger for Mike to avoid and that women's role in sexual behavior is essentially passive.
4. The emphasis on self, whether in self-love, self-pleasure, self-control. There are two basic ideas here. One is stated by Patricia Paiwonski, Mike's first convert, who says, "God wants us to be Happy and He told us how: 'Love one another!' Love a snake if the poor thing needs love. Love thy neighbor . . . . And by 'love' He didn't mean namby-pamby old-maid love that's scared to look up from a hymn book for fear of seeing a temptation of the flesh. If God hated flesh, why did He make so much of it? . . . Love little babies that always need changing and love strong, smelly men so that there will be more babies to love--and in between go on loving because it's so good to love!" (288). Love is wonderful, love is a good goal, but this is a love I am suspicious of, for it is a love based on feeling good, based on happiness. There's nothing wrong with feeling good and being happy, of course, but if feeling good and being happy are the primary goals of life, then that opens the door for abuses of others in the name of love or happiness and seems a rather meaningless goal in and of itself. Hedonism alone is not enough for me.
The second basic idea is Mike's final message to the people: "The Truth is simple but the Way of Man is hard. First you must learn to control your self. The rest follows. Blessed is he who knows himself and commands himself, for the world is his and love and happiness and peace walk with him wherever he goes" (429). Again, this is not a bad goal--for once, finally, Mike brings a message of personal responsibility to add to the free love and grokking that has constituted most of the rest of the book. However, to expect the rest to follow from that kind of responsibility and self-control is just silly. This is The Secret, this is "name-it-and-claim-it" theology, this is bullshit. Like the idea that God wants us to be happy so if we all try to live for our own happiness, it will all work out, this is a philosophy that believes that YOU are the center of the universe, that everything will work out for the best.
This is the complete opposite of the philosophy provided in Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan. Vonnegut also emphasizes love and finding a kind of happiness, but in his universe, those things are refuges in the midst of chaos, small things we can each do to make the world we live in a little better, a little more livable, not means to become masters of the universe. For Heinlein, God moves from out there to in here, validating each individual person's individual desire and decision; for Vonnegut, there is no God, not out there and not in here. For me, that is much more appealing.(less)
**spoiler alert** Spin won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel and deservedly so. It is science fiction in all the stereotypical ways--it includes spac...more**spoiler alert** Spin won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Novel and deservedly so. It is science fiction in all the stereotypical ways--it includes space/time travel, advanced technology, planetary exploration, even an alien--but it goes well beyond this, interweaving explanation of the technology with character development, a fully realized social reality, and explorations of what it means to be human and to face the reality of death, both of the individual and of the species.
When Tyler DuPree, the novel's protagonist, is 12 years old, the stars in Earth's sky disappear. He and his friends Jason and Diane watch as they blink out. The world has been placed within a membrane that slows time for the earth while the rest of the universe ages. This phenomenon comes to be known as the Spin. For every one second that passes on earth, 3.17 years pass outside the membrane; for every year on earth, 100 million outside the Spin. The Hypotheticals (as the creators of this membrane come to be called) are mysterious, unknown. Are they benevolent or malevolent? There is no way for humanity to know. The only thing they do know is that they are fast running out of time. The sun will die eventually and then so will they. As it is, the only thing that is keeping them from dying is the membrane itself. If it disappears, all of humanity dies--pretty much immediately. If it does not disappear, all of humanity dies anyway--just a little further into the future.
Tyler, Jason, & Diane belong to a generation without hope, that expects the world to end before they have a chance to grow old and die naturally. This generational and worldwide millenarianism and apocalypticism is borne of science, though, not religious fervor. And because humanity's fate is provable and real, the world is changed, and not for the better:
"The global economy had begun to oscillate, consumers and nations accumulating debt loads they expected never to have to repay, while creditors hoarded funds and interest rates spiked. Extreme religiosity and brutal criminality had increased in tandem, at home and abroad. The effects were especially devastating in third world nations, where collapsing currencies and recurrent famine helped revive slumbering Marxist and militant Islamic movements. . . . The suicidally disgruntled were legion, and their enemies included any and all Americans, Brits, Canadians, Danes, et cetera; or, conversely, all Moslems, dark-skinned people, non-English-speakers, immigrants; all Catholics, fundamentalists, atheists; all liberals, all conservatives . . . For such people the consummate act of moral clarity was a lynching or a suicide bombing, a fatwa or a pogrom. And they were ascendant now, rising like dark stars over a terminal landscape." (190-1)
The novel explores the reactions of people to the knowledge of their certain death for uncertain reasons. Do they turn to religion? Science? Sex? Drugs? Do they veil themselves in ignorance and pretend not to see the end coming? Do they try to change the future? Or do they try to live with the full knowledge of what is coming, no anesthetic, no avoidance, nor any savior complex or false hope?
What does it mean to live in a world without a future?
For most people, growing up in this world means reaching out for faith, for something to anchor them in an increasing chaotic world. Sometimes that's religion. For Diane, this is the case. Sometimes, however, that something is much smaller.
For instance, when the world seems to be finally truly ending, as Tyler struggles to save Diane's life, this exchange between Tyler and Simon, Diane's husband and a religious fanatic, is revealing. Tyler says,
"I refuse to let her die as long as I have a choice." "I envy you that," Simon said quietly. "What? What could you possibly envy?" "Your faith," he said. (386)
Faith is not the sole province of the religious. Tyler has faith in something, too. He has faith that there is something to work for, that there is still hope, no matter how small it is. He is essentially agnostic and he has more faith in the end than the sincerely religious man does. What he has found to hold onto is nothing big, nothing that provides a real hope for the future. What he has found to hold onto is instead the present, the moment, his specific abilities and his determination to continue doing what he can do for as long as possible.
But Tyler's faith is a small faith, not a big one. He may believe in his ability to do what he can, but he no longer believes in "Big Salvation." As the Spin lasts longer and longer, he realizes that his faith in such salvation is gone.
"All the brands and flavors of Big Salvation. At the last minute we would devise a technological fix and save ourselves. Or: the Hypotheticals were benevolent beings who would turn the planet into a peaceable kingdom. Or: God would rescue us all, or at least the true believers among us. Or. Or. Or. Big Salvation. It was a honeyed lie. A paper lifeboat, even if we were killing ourselves trying to cling to it. It wasn't the Spin that had mutilated my generation. It was the lure and price of Big Salvation." (340)
He already intuits what Jason says to him later, that we are all as "ephemeral as raindrops." The danger, this reveals, is not a lack of faith but too much faith. Too much faith is blinding, misleading, and eventually harmful.
As Martian Wun Ngo Wen says, "the question is how to look at the sun without being blinded" (323). The question here is how to have faith without ceding the ability to ask questions, how to believe in the future without ignoring the truth of our tiny place in the universe and denying the inevitability of death.
Jason writes in his final letter to Tyler,
"Our generation has struggled for thirty years to recover what the Spin stole from us that October night. But we can't. There's nothing in this evolving universe to hold on to, and nothing to be gained by trying. If I learned anything from my 'Fourthness,' that's it. We're as ephemeral as raindrops. We all fall, and we all land somewhere." (428)
Diane provides even more illumination of this idea, though from a very different perspective. She says to Tyler:
"There's a phrase Pastor Bob Kobel liked to use back at Jordan Tabernacle. 'His heart cried out to God.' If it describes anyone, it describes Simon. But you have to parse the sentence. 'His heart cried out'--I think that's all of us, it's universal. You, Simon, me, Jason. Even Carol. Even E.D. When people come to understand how big the universe is and how short a human life is, their hearts cry out. Sometimes it's a shout of joy: I think that's what it was for Jason; I think that's what I didn't understand about him. He had the gift of awe. But for most of us it's a cry of terror. The terror of extinction, the terror of meaninglessness. Our hearts cry out. Maybe to God, or maybe just to break the silence." (440)
Diane and Jason both confirm the fact that we have no savior to turn to, no God, no hope to grasp a foothold in this universe. Even the Hypotheticals are not aliens with godlike powers; they are actually an evolving form of technology that is part of a larger network. They are neither benevolent nor malevolent. The Spin may be protecting humanity, but even still, Jason points out, "The Spin membrane isn't God--it can't see the sparrow fall. It can, however, prevent the sparrow from being cooked with lethal ultraviolet light" (411). The Spin membrane is a protection, but it isn't a savior. Ultimately, what happens to humanity is left in the hands of humanity. For some unknown, mysterious, and perhaps self-serving reason, humanity has been given a second chance. And a third. And perhaps even more.
But the evolution of those chances is neither predetermined nor protected. As Tyler, Diane, and the other refugees cross over the Arch to the new world, Ina says, "It's as if one history has ended and another has begun," while En (a child with his whole future ahead of him) disagrees, saying, "History doesn't start until we land" (452). Neither of these statements is quite right, though. Human history has not ended. A new chapter may be opening, but these humans carry with them to these new worlds the baggage of terrestrial history. That cannot be erased. There is still a burden to carry. Can humans learn to live responsibly, ethically, sustainably with a fresh start? Or will this planet be devoured in the same way the earth was? If the same people and the same cultural values are being transported to a new planet, what will keep humanity from repeating this process?
Wilson provides the reader with a vision of what might be necessary in order to avoid re-creating this history. The "Fourthness" described by Tyler and Diane is not just a physical state. It's not just that their bodies have changed, gained years of life. The Fourth age also includes a deeper sense of empathy, a sense that pain occurring to others is occurring to the observer. It is this empathy that might give a new world a chance. This extended sense of self provides possibilities for change, possibilities for living more ethically in a new world, possibilities for a more sustainable environmental policy and more peaceful political relations.
The question remaining at the end of the novel is whether or not this is enough. Perhaps this is just a reprieve after all. As Tyler notes,
"we had never conquered death, only engineered reprieves (the pill, the powder, the angioplasty, the Fourth Age)--enacted our conviction that more life, even a little more life, might yet yield the pleasure or wisdom we wanted or had missed in it. No one goes home from a triple bypass or a longevity treatment expecting to live forever. Even Lazarus left the grave knowing he'd die a second time. But he came forth. He came forth gratefully." (234)
Spin is a novel of fear and warning, but also of very cautious hope.(less)
Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan begins by tearing apart the structures of American (and Western) culture and then replaces the values of hedonism, pri...moreKurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan begins by tearing apart the structures of American (and Western) culture and then replaces the values of hedonism, pride, and religiosity with those of kindness and love.
The primary method he uses to tear down the old value systems is a cynical, satiric black humor. For instance, on Titan, Salo, a Tralfamadorian, has built statues modelled on the human behavior he has seen. Here is one: "There, at first glance, was a young man without vanity, without lust--and one accepted at its face value the title Salo had engraved on the statue, Discovery of Atomic Power. And then one perceived that the young truth-seeker had a shocking erection" (288-89). And another: "a Neanderthal man, his mate, and their baby. It was a deeply moving piece. The squat, shaggy, hopeful creatures were so ugly they were beautiful. . . . The title he gave to the Neanderthal family derived from the fact that the baby was being shown a human foot roasting on a crude spit. The title was This Little Piggy" (289). In these statues, human behavior and values are ruthlessly satirized.
Religion is just as thoroughly derided. After a failed Martian attack on Earth, Winston Niles Rumfoord, who, by virtue of being able to see the future, controls much of what happens in the book, creates a new religion, "The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent" (180). This religion takes as its central tenet that God does not care and preaches that "puny man can do nothing at all to help or please God Almighty, and Luck is not the hand of God" (180). An excerpt from a sermon is provided as an example of the way the religion works: "O Lord Most High, what a glorious weapon is Thy Apathy, for we have unsheathed it, have thrust and slashed mightily with it, and the claptrap that has so often enslaved us or driven us into the madhouse lies slain!" (215). With this, Vonnegut masterfully uses religion's own rhetoric and stylistic flourishes against it, showing how ridiculous it all is, while simultaneously presenting an approach to the world that is fundamentally based on the rationalist belief that freedom from the "big eye in the sky" and its demands is as true a freedom as there can be.
Most of the book is in this satiric mode and is most certainly not a happy, touchy-feely treatise on how to love one another, but, in the end, the only value that Vonnegut espouses (apparently) uncritically is that of love, as illustrated by Boaz's relationship with the harmoniums of Mercury and by Constant and Beatrice's eventual falling in love. Boaz, given the choice to leave Mercury with Constant, opts instead to stay with the harmoniums because he can make them happy. He tells Constant, "I ain't never been nothing good to people, and people never been nothing good to me. So what I want to be free in crowds of people for? . . . I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I'm doing good, and them I'm doing good for know I'm doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home. And when I die down here some day, . . . I'm going to be able to say to myself, 'Boaz--you made millions of lives worth living. Ain't nobody ever spread more joy. You ain't got an enemy in the Universe'" (213-4). There's perhaps an element of madness in his decision to live out the rest of his life alone in a cave in Mercury, but his logic can't be faulted: he is happy and he is making others happy. What else is there? Vonnegut reinforces this idea later in the book as well, when Constant tells Salo that "a purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved" (313). (less)
This is by no means a well-written or significant book--except in its historical significance. It is generally recognized as the first American scienc...moreThis is by no means a well-written or significant book--except in its historical significance. It is generally recognized as the first American science fiction dime novel and this fact is the only reason anyone ever reads it any more, I do believe.
It is an "Edisonade," a story of an inventor and his inventions, in this case Johnny Brainerd, a teenage dwarf who invents a steam man (basically a steam engine on legs instead of a railroad track or a river) and takes it out to the Western prairies with three men who are looking for gold. They find their gold and battle Indians before finally making it back home safe, sound, and wealthier than before. This is an adventure story before anything else, though. More attention is paid to the men's battles with the Indians (described in extremely racist terms, of course, given the time and place of the book's writing) than to the creation of the steam man and the technology involved therein.
Edward Bellamy's socialist utopian novel Looking Backward tells the story of a Boston man who is placed in a mesmeric trance in 1887 and awakens in th...moreEdward Bellamy's socialist utopian novel Looking Backward tells the story of a Boston man who is placed in a mesmeric trance in 1887 and awakens in the year 2000. While he was entranced, the United States and much of the world has undergone major transformations, chiefly in economic and social organization. Most of the book is exposition, as the protagonist, Julian West, learns about the new, improved Boston from his rescuer, Dr. Leete. The Boston of the future is a utopia of organization, equality, and freedom. A very small portion of the novel is dedicated to putting this exposition in the context of an actual plot, in which Julian West falls in love (it's not very compelling).
The ideas Bellamy puts forth in this novel are interesting, both for his contemporaries and for myself. Looking Backward was a bestseller in its time, following only Uncle Tom's Cabin and Ben-Hur in popularity. People organized societies to discuss and try to put his ideas into practice, utopian communities were founded based on his principles, and several major thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th century were influenced by the ideas of Bellamy's novel.
For myself, I am drawn to the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the book and its concern with social equality. He builds his argument on the idea of the brotherhood of man, saying, through the voice of Dr. Leete, "Every man, however solitary may seem his occupation, is a member of a vast industrial partnership, as large as the nation, as large as humanity. The necessity of mutual dependence should imply the duty and guarantee of mutual support" (105). Furthermore, he continues, "the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity" (106).
Given this, the Boston of the 19th century must be seen in terms of horror and death. During one venture into 1887 Boston, West says,
"Presently, too, as I observed the wretched beings about me more closely, I perceived that they were all quite dead. Their bodies were so many living sepulchres. On each brutal brow was plainly written the hic jacet of a soul dead within. As I looked, horror struck, from one death's head to another, I was affected by a singular hallucination. Like a wavering translucent spirit face superimposed upon each of these brutish masks I saw the ideal, the possible face that would have been the actual if mind and soul had lived. . . . Therefore now I found upon my garments the blood of this great multitude of strangled souls of my brothers. The voice of their blood cried out against me from the ground. Every stone of the reeking pavements, every brick of the pestilential rookeries, found a tongue and called after me as I fled: What has thou done with thy brother Abel?" (266).
Bellamy's description of the inequalities of the 19th century are the most interesting and vivid part of the book; his descriptions of the utopia of 2000 are not only less interesting and vivid (utopias are generally hard to bring to life anyway) but in some crucial ways unappealing. Although the idea of the brotherhood of man and the equality that concretizing this brotherhood brings really appeals to me, the particulars of this society are troubling in their insistent uniformity, apparent authoritarianism, and nationalism. All neighborhoods look the same, the government has absorbed all private interests, and the "national party" aims to "justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die" (207). Apparently, I am more of an anarchist than I thought (speaking of which, Bellamy dismisses anarchism as a mere tool of capitalism, a way to keep real reform from occurring).
Another element of Bellamy's utopian future that is both promising and troubling is the place of women in society. On the one hand, he makes an argument for freer personal relationships and the inclusion of women in the workplace, which is a really positive move for an author of the 1880s; on the other hand, however, he manages to remain firmly entrenched in traditional ideas about gender, including separate spheres for men and women and the concepts of women as simultaneously weaker and better than men. Dr. Leete explains that of course women work, just as men do; in fact, he says, they "have a women general-in-chief and are under exclusively feminine regime" and "the hours of women's work are considerably shorter than those of men's, more frequent vacations are granted, and the most careful provision is made for rest when needed. The men of this day so well appreciate that they owe to the beauty and grace of women the chief zest of their lives and their main incentive to effort, that they permit them to work at all only because it is fully understood that a certain regular requirement of labor, of a sort adapted to their powers, is well for body and mind, during the period of maximum physical vigor" (210). He continues in this vein, saying, "We have given them a world of their own, with its emulations, ambitions, and careers, and I assure you they are very happy with it" (211).
Despite the weakness and separateness this reveals, and despite the condescension that appears to still come from men, women in this utopia "have risen to the full height of their responsibility as the wardens of the world to come, to whose keeping the keys of the future are confided. Their feeling of duty in this respect amounts to a sense of religious consecration. It is a cult in which they educate their daughters from childhood" (220). Together with Bellamy's statements that "women who have been both wives and mothers . . . alone fully represent their sex" (213) and that "it is in giving full play to the differences of sex rather than in seeking to obliterate them, as was apparently the effort of some reformers in your day, that the enjoyment of each by itself and the piquancy which each has for the other, are alike enhanced" (211), this statement about women's responsibility and religious consecration looks ahead to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's glorification of motherhood and women's society in Herland, another major American utopian text that links socialism and a form of feminism. (less)
A near-future dystopia, Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908) tells of the transition from capitalism to oligarchy (the Iron Heel) from the perspective o...moreA near-future dystopia, Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908) tells of the transition from capitalism to oligarchy (the Iron Heel) from the perspective of both a contemporary socialist revolutionary and a scholar from several hundred years in the future. This is accomplished by creating a frame narrative in which a future scholar has unearthed this manuscript that describes the struggle of the revolutionaries and then presents this manuscript as a historical document complete with introduction and footnotes, some of which clarify early 20th century language usage and social customs, some of which provide further historical information that the author of the manuscript could not know, and some of which provide the reader with information about the distant future world in which this scholar lives.
The Iron Heel is a political novel and is frequently preachy or uncomfortably overt, but, despite this, it is always interesting. It includes some quite vivid descriptions of the suffering caused by class inequalities and many compelling arguments for the socialist cause and against capitalism and the society in which it is intertwined. (less)
The World of Null-A is a mixed bag. All too frequently I found myself having to stop and re-read sections to figure out basic plot points (and this wa...moreThe World of Null-A is a mixed bag. All too frequently I found myself having to stop and re-read sections to figure out basic plot points (and this was generally because of a basic lack of clarity in key scenes, not because of a particularly advanced concept) and found it difficult to integrate the two major drives of the book, one toward political thriller regarding interplanetary and galactic war and one toward speculation about human and social evolution.
These two drives are definitely related through the basic plot, but they do not feel related; it is a major shift to go from one element of the novel to the other as one is focused on the protagonist, Gosseyn, and his attempts to discover who he is and to survive the warfare and politicking going on around him, and the other deals with the larger picture of null-A society (based on non-Aristotelian, non-Newtonian, and non-Euclidian logic), Venus and its null-A inhabitants, and the politics of the galactic community.
This is really a shame, too, because the novel does contain some interesting speculation about the future evolution of the human species as well as human society (not to mention some fast-paced adventure sequences which make it great fun to read at times). Van Vogt lays out the potential future of mankind in Gosseyn's description of the overall situation:
"We...have witnessed a greedy interstellar empire trying to take over another planetary system, in spite of the disapproval of a purely Aristotelian league. It's all very childish and murderous, an extreme example of how neurotic a civilization can become when i fails to develop a method for integrating the human part of man's mind with the animal part. All their thousands of years of additional scientific development have been wasted in the effort to achieve size and power when all they needed was to learn to cooperate" (169).
What's more, van Vogt provides a model for how this cooperation would work in the Venusian null-A society, which is described as an "ultimate democracy":
"There is no president of Venus, no council, no ruling group. Everything is voluntary; every man lives to himself alone, and yet conjoins with others to see that the necessary work is done. But people can choose their own work. You might say, suppose everybody decided to enter the same profession. That doesn't happen. The population is composed of responsible citizens who make a careful study of the entire work-to-be-done situation before they choose their jobs" (67).
This description provides an interesting counter to Edward Bellamy's description of a utopian society in Looking Backward, which is designed and maintained from the top down, through government regulation (authoritarian), rather than from the bottom up, through the decision-making processes of a group of responsible individuals (anarchist). It's too bad that van Vogt does not develop this society and its implications further. Null-A society is clearly meant to be seen as utopian and as achievable, but the novel is more political thriller (a la The Bourne Identity) than utopian novel or political novel (with a coherent argument to be made). (less)
Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles is a lovely, lyrical collection of short pieces about the human colonization of Mars and its consequences, beginning...moreRay Bradbury's Martian Chronicles is a lovely, lyrical collection of short pieces about the human colonization of Mars and its consequences, beginning just before first contact and ending after the death and destruction of most of the population of both Mars and Earth.
Since this is a collection of stories and vignettes instead of a novel, the central, guiding element of the book is not a character or set of characters; instead it is the setting and the emotion evoked by Bradbury's prose. His main concern is Mars itself, as a place separate from human intentions. As one character, a member of an early expedition to Mars, says, "Ask me, then, if I believe in the spirit of the things as they were used, and I'll say yes. They're all here. All the things which had uses. All the mountains which had names. And we'll never be able to use them without feeling uncomfortable. And somehow the mountains will never sound right to us; we'll give them new names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time, and the mountains were shaped and seen under those names. The names we'll give to the canals and mountains and cities will fall like so much water on the back of a mallard. No matter how we touch Mars, we'll never touch it. And then we'll get mad at it, and you know what we'll do? We'll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves" (53-4).
"There Will Come Soft Rains" takes this emphasis on place over people to its furthest conclusion, perhaps, telling the story of a house that continues running even after its human inhabitants have abandoned it: "The house was an altar with ten thousand attendants, big, small, servicing, attending, in choirs. But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly" (167). The house itself takes on life, described as trying to "save itself" when it catches fire (170): "The house shuddered, oak bone on bone, its bared skeleton cringing from the heat, its wire, its nerves revealed as if a surgeon had torn the skin off to let the red veins and capillaries quiver in the scalded air" (171). Bradbury drives this point home with a poem by Sara Teasdale that states, "Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree, / If mankind perished utterly; / And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn / Would scarcely know that we were gone" (169).
The book is absolutely suffused with what is best described as a sense of nostalgia for the future. Bradbury romanticizes the Mars of future decades (1999-2026; the book was published in 1950) and distances the reader from Earth itself. Mars is a place of wonders, a place of great civilizations and developed individuals; it is a place to protect. And in The Martian Chronicles, what Mars needs protecting from is us. We bring with us violence, war, advanced technologies that we have yet to master, mining, and ideas about ownership and colonization that, if allowed to spread, would destroy Martian civilization as surely as they destroyed Native American societies, African cultures, and countless other ways of life on Earth. This is a future that has yet to happen, a place we have yet to see, but we, as readers, are meant to sympathize with Martians, with Mars, and root against humans. We are meant to see in conquering humanity the same problems we face here on Earth and in Mars a haven for freethinkers, former slaves, and survivors (c.f., "Usher II," "Way in the Middle of the Air," and "Million-Year Picnic"). This makes The Martian Chronicles both conservative in the way that the nostalgic mode is typically conservative and progressive in its subversive critique of the Earth way of life, specifically the American way of life.
In "The Million-Year Picnic," Bradbury's nostalgia for the future turns against human science and scientific progress as the father of a family who has left Earth after the wars to live, practically alone, on Mars, says to his family, "Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in a mechanical wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines instead of how to run the machines. Wars got bigger and better and finally killed Earth. That's what the silent radio means. That's what we ran away from" (179-80). In this anti-technology statement, Bradbury provides little hope for the future of humanity and of Earth and little faith or interest in science. However, elsewhere in The Martian Chronicles, he does afford a small glimmer of hope in a different kind of future, a different attitude toward science, religion, and art. He gives us this in the Martian civilization:
"The Martians discovered the secret of life among animals. The animal does not question life. It lives. Its very reason for living is life; it enjoys and relishes life. . . . And the men of Mars realized that in order to survive they would have to forgo asking that one question any longer: Why live? Life was its own answer. Life was the propagation of more life and the living of as good a life as possible. . . . They quit trying too hard to destroy everything, to humble everything. They blended religion and art and science because, at base, science is no more than an investigation of a miracle we can never explain, and art is an interpretation of that miracle. They never let science crush the aesthetic and the beautiful" (66-7).
Following this model of science, one that does not separate science and technology from art and religion and humanity, there is hope for a future for humankind. The question Bradbury leaves us with, then, is whether or not we will be able to heed this warning.(less)