Uncanny Valley Digest: Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler

Our Octavia Butler discussion gleamed like a beetle’s carapace! Potent imagery and penetrating themes abound in this thought-provoking, and creepy, short story.

A human child living in a human preserve on an alien planet is about to come of age. The humans fled Earth to escape persecution and ended up here. On this planet, the insect-like dominant species, the T’lic, rely on humans to be the host bodies in which the parasitic T’lic incubate their young. Newborn T’lic are surgically removed before they devour their human hosts. T’lic can reproduce by infesting any living tissue, of course, but humans make the best hosts, and tend to produce stronger and larger T’lic. For this reason, humans are kept on a preserve, their reproduction orchestrated, and their host bodies traded to political leaders and wealthy elites.

Meg: I have a great unit in my Science Fiction class on sex with aliens, and this is in there.
Meg: Butler gave Gan a choice, but did she? Butler takes issue in her commentary with people who simplify this as a slavery story. She calls it reductive. She even calls it a love story.
Chris: She’s pulling your chain. Slavery is everywhere in her works. It’s not reductive. These people were chattel. Owned creatures, bred selectively, and used based on their reproductive quality.
Meg: On a trip to South America Butler learned about a species of parasite to take special precautions against. If it infests your body, it has to work out its life cycle in your body. It reaches a stage of development along the way where, if you remove it too early, it does even more damage to the your body than leaving it there. This seems like the actual science behind the T’lic race.
David: From a Freudian read, we can interpret this story as a cathartic release of the fear and disgust the parasite invoked in the author.
Nikita: The other issue is: Do the parasites love the humans? T’Gatoi seems to love Gan’s father (who was the host T’Gatoi was incubated in).
Chris: There is an attachment the T’lic call “love” when they exploit the host beings’ language. We have no way of knowing if they have any way of comprehending the emotional state humans call love. It’s the ultimate gaslighting, using the host being’s terminology to bind the host being into their dependency.
Meg: Butler is really good at this technique. She casts the central deep conflict of the story on a biological level. It’s not just war, or politics. It’s parasitism and biological need.
Chris: It’s all about sentient animal husbandry and preserving their race. If there’s any relationship at all, it’s the relationship of a completely dominated slave animal to its owner. Like the way we have “pets.”
David: But our biological imperatives do lead us into animal husbandry.
Chris: These are human pets. Sure, we love our pets, but we utterly dominate them. And that’s why this subset of humans fled Earth in the first place, by the way, to escape domination. And they end up here. Utter helplessness is made viable, but not survivable.
David: Think of the ovipositor!
[David mischievously proceeds to find and share images of ovipositor sex toys. Look them up yourself.]
Chris: Let’s find another twist! What would Ayn Rand say?
David: There’s definitely a Marxist reading in here…
David: Philip K. Dick wrote a story called “The Pre-Persons.” He wrote it in response to Roe V. Wade. In his story, fetuses are allowed to be aborted up until their soul enters their body…which is when they learn Algebra.
Meg: “Bloodchild” appeared in Asimov’s as the cover story in June 1984.
David: Do we know how this was received when it was published?
Meg: The Stockholm syndrome. Being bred into that life.
Suhail: He can escape his fate, but then it will happen to his sister.
Meg: And the T’lic would rather not use female Terrans as hosts, so they can get pregnant and create more humans.
Chris: So he has no choice.
Suhail: Gan is like his dad, totally institutionalized, a house slave. Taken in claw and caressed by T’Gatoi as soon as he was born.
David: This is a perfect distillation of where science fiction is right now. She predated it by 36 years.
Chris: Her themes are even more appreciated now. Butler is in ascendence, resonating.

by ~polyps on deviantArt

David: This story makes the literal into the figurative in a potent way.
Suhail: It depressed me the way Martian Time Slip depressed me. But it was so much better integrated than Martian Time Slip. I took more substance away from it. It gave me the notion that this would convey, just maybe a tiny sliver, but it could make a male feel how terrible, just a sliver of how it feels to be raped, and domestically abused. It is deeper than just a slavery allegory. There are all kinds of coercive control dyads and this one between Gan and T’Gatoi encapsulates all of them. It’s not just about slavery, it’s about subjugation. Slave/master, domestic abuse, child abuse. It touched on stuff for me that I, frankly, reserve for my therapist.
All: Hehehe
David: I can’t believe they published this in 1984. Which is more a commentary of how restrictive publishing has become. Man, look at that cover art. That’s heavy.
Chris: Reading suggestion. Check out Lucius Shepard, a short story called “Human History” in a collection called Beast Of The Heartland.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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Uncanny Valley Digest: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

marthawellsallsystemsredOur All Systems Red discussion was an after dinner mint! Martha Wells kicked off her Murderbot Diaries with this well received adventure novella. Weighing in at just under 100 pages, it is reputed to be a potent and accessible gateway drug into her subsequent novels.

David: We’re here to talk about murderbots!
Meg: I chose it for something fun and short to end on. It swept the big awards for best novella: Hugo (judged by fans), Nebula (judged by pro writers), and Locus. So there’s a kind-of consensus across the industry for this one.
Suhail: Going in as a novella is a good way to not compete against the novels.
Meg: It’s an interesting publication model. It was published as a series of four novellas, now available as a box set. And now a new full-length Murderbot novel. It’s a good story, plot driven. It works with conventions and does not stretch them. It owes a lot to Dick with a murderbot that has agency. An android forced to deal with humans and to act human.
Suhail: The murderbot as a narrator is tiring. It never describes visual settings. It doesn’t characterize the humans. (Which makes sense from the character perspective, because it is a murderbot and is uncomfortable around humans.)
Nikita: It reads quickly, with a consistent voice, in low-register language. It didn’t deliver on an ideas level that I like, or on a language complexity level – but it was readable. Granted, I’m a stuffy academic.

Click to read about the (totally unrelated) TV show.

Chris: It’s meant to be relatable.
Suhail: It can be relatable and written better. A character model (the way PKD uses schizophrenia as a character template for Rosen). The character model here that makes the murderbot make sense to me is: “teenager.” The murderbot is a teenager here, an awkward person very uncomfortable with itself, and just wants to be left alone and watch movies.
Meg: There are gamification elements. Murderbots visual setting becomes the HUD geography of icons.
Suhail: The groundwork for character complexity is laid.
Meg: The pain the murderbot feels comes from its human parts. It struggles with that.
David: It’s like a Sliders episode. An alternative universe where Golden Age schlock never happened and people are still writing in the spirit of Asimov and Bradbury, and it’s winning all the awards, and she’s a woman.

Click image to visit Rusch’s website.

Chris: She’s being kind to the adolescent reader. A network communications procedural, like a VR Law and Order episode. Emotions and empathy in the book are all expressed toward the murderbot. Reminds me of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, author of “Retrieval Artist.” She’s a very particular proceduralist, which is sometimes a strength, and sometimes tedious. She’s very prolific.
David: Was there a light hearted moment in this story?
Chris: I liked the way it shirked its job while trying to watch TV.
Nowell: I was totally entertained. I’d read more. It’s fun. It kept me interested, like an action movie. I like that it was short. It was like an original series.
Meg: I’ve read 3 of them, and root for the character more in each one. It has increasingly complex moral problems and dealing with its past.
David: Question: Why robots? Why are so many sci fi stories doing robot?
Chris: It lets us explore caste systems and slavery regimes.
Meg: Robots explore themes of slavery, ownership, colonialism, and othering; even gender and race exclusivity. But the robot here also internalizes those hated characteristics and feels self-loathing.
David: I think robots in sci fi are about psychology. A metaphor for our own programmatic behaviors and attitudes. Why do they do what they do? How do they deal with pain? Do they make moral decisions?
Chris: Constructing its own subjectivity out of the media it is watching.
Nikita: A lot of body anxiety. Denial of death, anxiety about being in a body. A kind of neoplatonic alienation of the body, just a with to become a disembodied eye.
Suhail: Like a teenager’s body anxiety.
Meg: Its emotions are the only thing that cause it pain, and it wishes it didn’t have them. But it struggles because the feelings are there no matter what.
Nikita: Dick gave a new dimension of paranoia to the robot, and it’s so refreshing. That paranoia is here.

Click image for IMDb.

We took a tangent into the Portland protests and newscasters describing the unidentified federal agents’ activities as something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. David shared a Seth Meyers clip referencing PKD.
Suhail: If Dick was alive for this, he’d be insufferable right now.
Chris: A Jungian psychologist Robert Moore who identified 4 archetypes: king, warrior, magician, lover.
David: I have an idea for a course called Man Made Man. It’ll rest on Frankenstein and Genesis, etc.
Meg: Check out the LeGuin documentary. It’s been trimmed for American Masters. It highlights her contribution of making sciences like psychology and social science as the science bases of sci fi instead of technology.
Suhail: I love sci fi that uses psychology and social science as its science bases instead of just technology.
Recommendations that followed in that vien:
Alfred Bester’s short story, “Fondly Fahrenheit”
Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Vaster Than Empires, But More Slowly”
Theodore Sturgeon’s “More Than Human”

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

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Uncanny Valley Digest: PKD’s We Can Build You

wecanbuildyouPKDOur We Can Build You discussion took on a life of it’s own, and yielded a variety of opinions. A mood organ salesman gets the bright idea to take Civil War re-enactment simulacra to market. If he can keep himself from falling in love with the designer, that is. Philip K. Dick’s We Can Build You, written in 1962, was not published until 1972. This loosely-wired book stands as a conceptual prequel to Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.

David: A lesser known PKD novel that doesn’t make it onto top-ten lists. Significant for a few reasons. It is Dick really trying to do his literary vision of himself, to use science fiction to satisfy his literary aspirations. It’s also an early treatment of robots for PKD. He ties robots to the Civil War and it has some insights worth exploring. “Anytime you make an animatronic Abraham Lincoln, you’re in for trouble.”

David: I’ve read this book before. It’s the first book that showed me I could love a book. I could say a lot, but would rather not start. What did you think of this book?
Chris: Peter Greenaway was the 1st filmmaker I ever hated. He had an attitude toward his audience. He wanted to torture them. Now that he has the viewer’s attention, he’s keen to make them as uncomfortable as he can.
Meg: I’ll second that, heh.
Chris: It’s a quality here that makes me ask, Who is the author? and What are they doing? He has no conception or regard for the audience. It’s rude. The whole book changes on a dime too often. Every chapter, sometimes every paragraph.
Suhail: I described it as “not exactly boring.”
David, Meg, Nowell: HAHAHA!
Chris: He abandoned the simulacrum many chapters before the end of the book.
Meg: A really lugubrious read. Every chapter goes in a completely different direction. In sci-fi terms, it was lacking the science and technology backdrop, which is one of the main things that I come to science fiction for.
Nikita: I loved it! I thought the language was super fresh. On a formal level, I  (think it’s split at the end like that for a reason. It seems to be a controlled exercise by him at reflecting the schizoid split in the main characters on a formal level in the novel. The theme of the novel is schizophrenic splitting. The novel itself takes that split form. Like in Lem, the dichotomy of the Woman (Anima) vs. The Father Figure (Safety). I feel like he’s doing this on a formal level.

Image credit: Mike Cherim via Getty Images

Nowell: I was more in the Nikita camp. I thought it was really fun. It made me laugh a lot. As soon as he fell in love with the 18 year old girl that was bad for him, I could see the dysfunction playing itself out. “I love her so much that I’ll threaten to shoot her date.” That’s a recognizable mental illness. Crazy classifications of mental illness, with the proliferation of mental institutions. It was funny how she showed Louis how to get out of the mental hospital, then stayed behind herself, not leaving.
Meg: It was very clever. I liked how mental illness was baked into the Lincoln character. The androids have more feelings than the humans do, or at least it blurs the continuum significantly.
David: It was written in 1962, after High Castle and Martian Time Slip. This was the first book he wrote after winning the Hugo Award. And his ego was bigger than ever. Simultaneously, he’s living with his 3rd wife in Pt. Reyes and she’s driving him crazy
Suhail: Maybe they’re driving each other crazy…
David: …and the marriage is coming apart.

Here David showed us images of a recent trip he took to Pt. Reyes where he checked on the home that Anne and Phil used to live in. It’s up for sale. In a previous visit to Pt. Reyes, David had the opportunity to take some photos of the interior of the home. And guess what? Anne Dick made a tile mural in their bathroom – the same mural described as Pris’s handiwork in the novel.

Click to read the issue.  Go to page 102 for Dick.

David: And Dick is sure he’s got it figured out! He’s married science fiction and mainstream. He goes to Disneyland and sees the animatronic Lincoln in the hall of presidents. There’s a missing ending to this book written, by magazine editor Tom White, to serialize it in the January 1970 issue of Amazing Stories. (White’s ending starts on page 102, and runs a few pages long.) Part of my fascination with this book is it’s like a demo tape, like a bonus track without the mixdown. It gives insight into the artist and his work. It’s first person, and he almost never writes in 1st person.

David: Rollo Reece May was an American existential psychologist and author of the influential book Love and Will. He is often associated with humanistic psychology and existentialist philosophy, and alongside Viktor Frankl, was a major proponent of existential psychotherapy. A quote by philosopher Rollo May that encapsulates something Dick is going for in this book: “The capacity of man to view himself as subject as well as object.” Rosen is this strange mixture of subject and object.
Chris: This strikes me as a hermeneutical exercise where you have predetermined that this author is brilliant and you’re running as fast as you can to draw the argument together. The greatness in this novel, is in you.
Nikita: I disagree. In starting this novel, I groaned, Oh-great-another-PKD-novel. But I fell in the rabbit hole. He’s a fucking genius. His references, like this Vygotsky test. I’ve been reading about them for years. In Russia, a huge dilemma in the 1920s to establish a new Marxist psychology to talk about the mental and physical aspects of human behavior. A monistic health attempt. He’s using Cartesian mind/body splits. I was interested in the use of this monad as the central computing device in the simulacra.

Click image to be more confused.

The monad: each of its parts contains the whole. A different conception of organization trying to depart from the Cartesian split. The Civil War is another split, a splitting of the U.S.A. on a deep conceptual line. He’s struggling with big ideas, trying to combine them, and he can not do it.
All: Hahaha
Nikita: Most of his references to clinics are real. Dick’s dipped into tons of psychology and philosophy.
David: Dick is predicting the synthesizer: An organ where you can pull the stops to mimic the sound of any instrument.
Chris: Examining the emperor’s shits to make sure the humors are in balance.
David: I didn’t love a book before Phil Dick. PKD is really good at this, but even he can’t pull it off.
Chris: It’s low brow. The characters have jobs and worries and flaws and they drink at bars. I like that about it.
Meg: We see Pris through Louis’s obsession. But at the end Pris is the heroine of the book. She achieves her objectives.
David: Where can we find more of this pulp, shlocky, sci fi, working class, sales-men-getting-drunk-at-bars talking about Plato, and sending robots to the moon?
Suhail: Let me read this Britannica definition of hebephrenic schizophrenia: “The hebephrenic or disorganized subtype of schizophrenia is typified by shallow and inappropriate emotional responses, foolish or bizarre behaviour, false beliefs (delusions), and false perceptions (hallucinations).” Reading this definition shed a ton of light on Louis Rosen’s annoying actions. He’s just using these psychiatric conditions as templates for the characters.
Chris: It’s a series of character sketches based on a checklist of symptoms.
Nowell: The robots were the old school perfect humans, beings more able, clear-headed, motivated, and together than the human characters. The organic characters go to the simulacra for leadership and guidance.
Meg: And they plan to turn the sims of the Civil War fighters into nannies. The robots take care of the sick and helpless organic humans.

Click to watch the clip of “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

David: Was Dick influenced by It’s A Wonderful Life? One line in particular jumps out: “Every time someone dies, a light winks on in Kansas City.”
Chris: All this stuff is in the compost of our minds and it kicks these things up when we’re searching for an image. Not “influenced,” perhaps, but an image. Influence requires a schema, a philosophy.
Chris: So, what is PKD’s best novel?
David: I say it’s a three-way tie between Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, and Valis.
Chris: I like Dr. Bloodmoney.
David: OK, what was the first PKD novel you read? Mine was A Scanner Darkly.
Nowell: This one.
Suhail: Clans Of The Alphane Moon
Chris: Our Friends From Frolix-8
Meg: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
Nikita: Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

The Notes!

4: Penfield, Jacobson, and Old, depth electrode hypothalamus information that the new Mood Organs are taking advantage of. Musical instruments that affect the hypothalamus.
5: The mood organ from DADOES?
5: hebephrenia (from Britannica.com: The hebephrenic or disorganized subtype of schizophrenia is typified by shallow and inappropriate emotional responses, foolish or bizarre behaviour, false beliefs (delusions), and false perceptions (hallucinations).
14: Rosen’s brother is a post-nuclear mutant birth
16: Dad’s instantly bombastic speech about…nothing?
18: A Civil War reenactment business using all androids. (Re-enact it every 10 years?)
20: Pris, another DADOES? prefigure
22: creepfest
23: creepfest and egocentric male chauvinist. exactly the sort of guy who’d fit right in on Mad Men.
25: the rights to land speculation on other planets. Like Space Merchants.
28: typical of PKDs view of women. Either useless and stupid or powerful and vindictive. He’s the interference, but thinks she oughta bow.
31-2: for them, Pris is a simulacrum, a near human as convincing as Edwin M. Stanton.
36-7: Pris “wielding” psychoanalysis on Louis
37: she gives him the diminutive treatment usually reserved for girls.
50: the psychoanalytic portal of reflection
51: a drug you can hum
52: Louis says he’s a simulacra, in a sudden lie to the doctor (knowing now that Louis ends up in the mental institution for hebephrenia, this erratic, shallow behavior makes sense.)
56: Artemus Ward (Charles Farrar Browne) and I have the same birthday, April 26. :o)
66: tenuous hypothesized continuity between your life and your AI.
73: Lincoln awakes
74: spoken like a man who doesn’t really like life
76: Tied to the stars by commerce? or by moral, spiritual, physical factors? any diff?
77: the rich captain of real estate industry is their portal to legitimacy, to reality
77: is an AI of someone a reincarnation? For the purposes of your interaction with it…
79: The Big Questions: Truth, Santa Claus.
81: parataxis, appropriating a grammatical term for some kind of emotional mental jumble.
82: Pris turns on a dime, from goading him to intense, unconvincing vulnerability. (consistent with the hebephrenia theme)
84: a “reasonable, urgent voice”? nope.
85: the Lincoln is a great moment, but ominous and sad, too
86: lying, for Louis, is fun, easy “power”
87: Pris has no maternal impulse. Well, she’s barely 18. give it a minute.
88: Louis and Pris speaking together gives me a sinking, creepy feeling that this is how PKD may have interacted with women. “I took her arm.” “Be sensible, you’re not that attractive.” “I patted her shoulder.” “I try to be nice, but you…” Etc. Blarg.
90: the manly warning/threat
97: wealth adoration (also, 165, 170)
100: he really does hate Pris.
107: easy lying for power (also consistent with the hebephrenia)
108: is that how Lincoln saw it, regarding Blackness?
109-14: the simulacra-are-life argument and the quick push to monetize.
115: “Appearance built over the fake…” The secret to becoming a millionaire.
116: using the simulacra in space. DADOES? prefiguring.
124: PKD’s sex, freezer of blood. pf.
145: she’s barely old enough for a bra, but “I don’t blame him; it’s her fault.” And the guy talking is her father.
153: ideas losing value on the way to development
155: Pris the “thing”
158: for the powerful, Law is a convenience
162: Maury (her dad) and Louis both alternate wrenchingly between detesting Pris and idolizing her.
165: wealth adoration
172: always lies to the psychiatrist
174: adulthood and professionalism mean hiding your feelings.
176: Louis (and Dick’s?) propensity for a hard right turn into “shitshow” (consistent with the hebephrenia template)
181: Pris is mine. I don’t care what she thinks.
210: “I have seen into the other…when I saw Pris.”
218: sudden appearance of Pris – delusion? You, betcha. The psychotic break.
220: the delusion passes
231: getting Freudy
176, 238: “catatonic urgency”
239: the thematic explanation for Louis Rosen’s covetous, misogynistic madness regarding Pris
243: “‘Do you love me?’ ‘Christ no!’ And yet I felt that she did.”
240 – end: Pris fugues. hallucinogenic-induced episodes of fantasies with Pris. Like a creepy interrogation, via 1984, yet genial.
251: “controlled regressions” to give cathartic release to “libido cravings.”
251: nope, another hallucination.
252: No! Pris IS there, but under her dad’s last name.
[the oscillation in madness]
253-4: the “real” Pris tells him how to get released from the mental health clinic.
255: in the next fugue, he hits imaginary Pris.
256: suddenly the Doctor is unsure if Louis was EVER sick, but just faking.
257: the sick “real” Pris fooled Louis. He’s released, but she’s not getting out for a long time.

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