Uncanny Valley Digest: Ted Chiang

“Story of Your Life,” by Ted Chiang

This skillfully and scientifically executed short story (published 1998) was recently released as the film, Arrival, which I enjoyed very much. If you’ve seen it, good, because this is an instance where the screenwriting effectively enhances the story. As a short story, it is cerebral, nostalgic, thought provoking, and in some ways underwhelming. As a movie, many of the storytelling elements, like tension and conflict, are filled out much better.

Gill says the thing that caused the salty discharge from his eyes was the parent’s choice to have the child, no matter what the future. The notion that Chiang toys with is that even if you know the future, you can’t change it. In fact, knowing the future obliges you to fulfill it.
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The heptapods bring a new temporal awareness to humanity, conveyed through their written language. Non-causal, telelogical reality. Knowing the end as you begin and going through all of the performance of communication anyway to get there. Similar ends, different means.

Nope.

Set in opposition, narratively speaking, to the human’s causal linear historical style of thinking. Word order is entirely irrelevant to heptapods, as is the practical difference between the present and the future. One tempting anecdotal illustration of the concept in humans: the child insisting on the story being read to her, not because she wants to know the end, but because she wants to hear it read aloud; the performance, like listing to the music of life, like listening to a good album. You know exactly how it ends before you begin, then immerse yourself in the cycle of songs. A good album can be listened to hundreds of times without losing relevance. That is what the heptapod time perception resembles, based on the clues in their languages. And since linguistic context builds a person’s world (the controversial [is language a technology or a biology?] Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a cultural comparison through language. Which engenders the old sink hole of “aliens” basically just being some other terrestrial ethnicity. How outside the box is it possible to get?) Again, same ends, different means, but in heptapod, ends and means are essentially interchangeable and each integral.

More like this.

Of course Arrival was a pleasing enhancement of “Story of Your Life.” The short story uses scant suspense or tension, all of the surprises aren’t; because well, that’s the nature of heptapod’s temporal awareness – no surprises. The bits that the movie did which were very satisfying, like the Chinese prime minister stuff (the secret he gives her in the future), the keyed up military intrigue, and the explanation that the heptapods came to us now because they already knew they would be helped by us in the far future (which echos the Chinese prime minister stuff) – none of that is in the short story. Kudos, Arrival. Way to use a good screenplay.

Telelogical vs. Causal
When you know the future, if you can see the future, you can’t choose to live otherwise; having the child or not, though already knowing the future of the child.

Gill: “Philosophically, it’s bullshit. A good existentialist would say that’s not some choice you can make.”

Heptapod, by Anna Deef

by Anna Deef

Knowing the future doesn’t empower you to change it, even if you have the illusion that you can change it. Living out the present becomes a performance of well-known music, rather than a causal chain of events.

A good pairing/contrast with Reiko’s Universe Box. Where “Story of Your Life” is about almost too much science, in “Reiko’s” the science only functions metaphorically (except for the elementary astronomy Reiko begins reading).

Gill: “This contrast of the two stories, these two uses of science, gave me some insight into the kind of science fiction writer I am.”

Tune in next time for more on science fiction that does not ask you to learn science, and trip out with us over “Reiko’s Universe Box.”

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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Uncanny Valley Digest: James Tiptree, Jr.

Hello science fiction lovers! Welcome back to the Uncanny Valley. Last week, we let Cordwainer Smith take us on a insightful, dangerous, but somehow whimsical ride through the human mind. This week, leave behind the whimsy, ’cause we’re going to Big Junction, where the only people laughing are the aliens!

“And I Woke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side” (1972), by James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Bradley Hastings Sheldon)

DerStandard.atThe Bio: Tiptree was a raised by intellectual parents, a lawyer father and writer mother, and before joining intellectual life, worked for the military, then the intelligence community. In 1942, she joined the war effort as a cryptographer and rose to the rank of Major. After WWII, she worked briefly as a CIA spook (‘52-’55), then returned to academic and artistic pursuits;  very conversant in military culture, and that made her gender deception more believable. Another interesting biographical tidbit, thought by David to be a rumor, that just before she died, Tiptree killed her husband. Meg verified this bare fact with elaboration. Tiptree and her husband had a sort of death pact. Rather than decay into dotage, they chose to go before the very end. She shot him and then herself.

The story: A news reporter visiting a human built, alien-populated space station interviews  a human sex slave drug addict who is bitterly  enthralled with the aliens and tells a cautionary tale or two.

David: A weird gender dysphoria, or misidentifcation or dysfunction.

Meg has taught this story by giving it blind to students,  hiding the author biography. Then asking them if they felt any differently about the story after learning that it was written by a women. (The fact that Tiptree had expertise in psychological warfare may have had something to do with it, too.)

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The colonialism theme. That line about balance of trade and the fall of the Polynesians. It’s not just about desire and sex and power, it is also about empire and servitude and conquering. The aliens get off on being admired, and tantalize and torture the humans, who wish for nothing more than to conquer this unconquerable population.

Nikita: There’s a whole element of addiction to it. That’s why the guy explaining it to the newsman is so bitter. A desire that leads nowhere, like sitting on a plastic egg. Like an impotent sexual addiction. There is a comparison to skag addiction earlier in the story.

P.614 “Sex? No, it’s deeper…Some cargo cult of the soul.”

Although, despite it being deeper than sex, the humans are attracted to the aliens for very physical reasons. The “smiling” animated body markings, etc., the strange bodies. Next thing you know they’re mopping up alien vomit “like it’s holy water.”

Detail of "The Thrall," By Dustin LeonMeg: During the space race, when this was published, there was a strong and public We’re-going-out-there, mentality. To the stars to the great unknown. And the aliens laugh, because they don’t have that. And they exploit that fascination in humans to make them gimpy freak slaves.

Suhail: And the way Tiptree describes it transcends technology. This kind of abusive addictive power play conquest has been played far back into time, with some humans doing it to others. An unpleasant thing to be made so vividly aware of, yet fascinating. Hmm.

David: A profound sense of sexual identity being alien, a far-out, fake, assembled, inhabited identity. None of this makes any sense biologically. Or in other words, that your sexuality is not inherent in your gender.

“Now we’ve met aliens we can’t screw, and we’re about to die trying.”

Cycle of abuse power dynamic being replayed over the Procyas by the Humans. Procyas are the little aliens who take abuse from humans, out of fascination.

p. 613 “Can’t you see, man? That’s us. That’s the way we look to them, to the real ones.”

Like the way it feels to be totally in love with someone who has contempt for you. That power posture, exploited to addiction and self destruction.

Tiptree was outed as a woman in ‘76 or ‘77.

David: I wonder what Phil Dick thought of that? It must have been a real blow to his world view. It would be interesting to see if there was a letter about it.

Meg: Remember, we are in unreliable narrator territory. This is a drugged up addict, with an inside knowledge of the addiction, speaking to a news reporter. But what is that person missing? And can we see anything through the story that he is not giving us? It’s one monologue to the newswriter.

Suhail: An idea that the Aliens represent Patriarchy doing to humans what men do to women. No, it’s a more subtle, diffuse power play even than that. Adoration and the urge to conquest thwarted, desire unfulfillable, and hence irresistible.

Suhail: and the end, it reminds me of The Story Of O (Pauline Reage, 1954).

David: Even if you know what happens, when you hear the muse’s call, you can’t help yourself.

Meg: Tiptree pulls the title from a line out of a John Keats’ poem, called “La Belle Dame sans Merci”  about a knight at arms spirited away by a fairy lover who seduces him and disappears, leaving him with nothing, haunted, on a cold hill side. But he is also relieved of his illusions.

Meg & David got into a thread about how they might teach this to undergrads: A commentary on Hook-up culture. “Collect them all,” attitude about lovers. How many different kinds of fascinating weirdos can you sleep with and how will they hurt you? The humans are attracted to the aliens for very visceral, physical, sensory reasons. Look at the markings and colors on that body.

Nikita: A critique of consumerism. Those useless baubles, (Meg: “Trade beads!”) that humans collect to try to win the fickle favor of the aliens.

Meg: This is a great Tiptree story, but my least favorite.

Meg recommends “Houston, Houston, do you read?” “The Women Men Don’t See” and  “Love Is The Plan. The Plan Is Death.”

David: Interesting pair of stories. Both have the erotic other and the consequence of unattainable, visceral desires. This would go well with the Frederick Pohl story, “Day One Million.”

Suhail: Coincidentally, Frederick Pohl is the one who encouraged Cordwainer Smith to publish his first story.

Meg’s off to Taos Toolbox in New Mexico to write! Sooper cool!

Be Advised: our next meeting is 6/22. Read “Story Of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (Yes, the story that became Arrival[Download PDF] & “Reiko’s Universe Box” by Kajio Shinji [In the book].

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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Uncanny Valley Digest: Cordwainer Smith

Hello, readers. Welcome back! Last night’s discussion took a turn for the kink in us all. Reading more short stories this summer, instead of a book-a-week, has been very favorably received by the rest of the group. Great turnout last night, with two California call-ins and three live crew in the sci-fi lab. Each reading session covers two short stories by hand-picked authors. I’m going to dedicate one post to each short story, and publish them spaced apart. Now, to digest some Cordwainer Smith:

“The Game of Rat & Dragon” (1955), Cordwainer Smith (Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger)

Interesting pairing. Both of these authors (Cordwainer and Tiptree) worked for the military and U.S. intelligence. Cordwainer was an Army Colonel and an expert in psychological warfare.  As Paul M. A. Linebarger, he literally wrote the book on the subject, called Psychological Warfare (which, by the way, he dedicated to his wife). [!]

Both authors used pseudonyms to publish their science fiction. Though Tiptree said she was doing it to preserve her academic reputation, Cordwainer more likely did it to hide his ties to the intelligence community. (You’ll forgive me for referring to him by his first name, but “Cordwainer” is too quirky and rare a word. I want to take every opportunity I can to use it in this post, because there are scant other places I’ll get to use it.) For a more detailed biography of Linebarger, visit his entry at the Arlington National Cemetery Website, this link. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/linebarg.htm

Meg: Both of these stories are anthologized a lot.

Nikita: I’ve never seen them before they’re a real treat.

Cordwainer was a New Wave precursor, who inspired those reality shifters in the 60s. How many did he influence? LeGuin, it clearly seems.

Gill: Early LeGuin-style interspecies mind melding stuff. I thought it would be gimmicky, all about the pinlighting and the terminology.

Nikita: I thought it was going to be more of a dragons in space fantasy. But it turned into a cool conceptualization of traveling at light speed.

Pinlighting? it’s the use of light to dispel the dark malevolent consciousness-eaters that dwell in the interstellar dark.

Gill: Very Freudian dark abyss void staring back at us.

It’s treat that the Partners (cats) help prevent against that kind of psychosis.

Planoforming- using telepaths to navigate faster than light travel.

Gill: It’s a really coherent imagining of a really far-out, different system, tangentially connected to our reality..

Nowell: Yet it doesn’t feel stilted either. Doesn’t feel wooden. Totally sat with me. The language is somehow lean and commonplace, but the things described are complex and subtle.

Suhail: Lots here for the cat lover.  Cat relations and emotional intelligence and psychology.

Meg: He’s messing with human vs. alien archetype. Gets into that hubris about astronauts. The fact that as a species the cat is equivalent and necessary to our survival.

Illustration from the magazine edition, from Gutenberg.netNikita: A little flavor of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game. These pinlighters are retiring at age 26 after 10 years service. These pinlighter telepaths start as children (much like Linebarger did). For example, the little girl new recruit, West, being leered at by the cat, Captain Wow. It has visceral undertones, not explicitly carnal, but deeper. And no one is concerned about it. That’s just the way it is.

David wonders how this went over back when it was published in ‘55. Must have seemed quite subversive. Hmm.

Being telepathic and melding with the cats has somehow made Underwood a pariah in polite female society. Pinlighters are creepy and bad with the ladies. And by the end, Underhill can not imagine a bond greater than that he feels with his cat Partner. How could a woman ever compare? Can’t.

Meg: The sexualization of pinlighter/cat pairings. If you’re a male pinlighter do you have to be paired with a female cat for it to work best? The girl West was paired with Captain Wow, but Underhill gets the Lady May.

The author did that, yes, but he also includes a description of how Partner pairings are done by a roll of dice. So maybe just a slip in style there.

P.297  Telepathy as a platform for very good and nuanced descriptions of interacting and changing states of mind.

p.297 Lady May experiences things before Underhill.

Illustration from the magazine edition, from Gutenberg.netP.296 “Human eyes and cat eyes looked across an immensity which no words could meet, but which affection spanned in a single glance.”

Lady May’s survival is unclear. And she saved Underhill. He’s struggling with language and humans at the end. “Words were all that could reach ordinary people, like this doctor.” It’s a step down to have to deal with other humans after being in this mind meld with a cat.

The little kitty football space capsules with thermonuclear magnesium light cannons. That’s awesome. Imagine how well trained they are (anyone who’s ever tried to strap a cat into a pet carrier understands).

A lot of this story deals with desire and sex, and makes cats partially analogous to human females in a way because of course neither can ever be understood by patriarchal oafs. Ha.

Underhill is damaged at the end, some kind of damage from coming in direct contact with a Dragon (or Rat, depending on your perspective). He may be out of work, in that special part of the hospital where dragon survivors go?

"Hes hot for the cat now!"David: Look at this ending! He’s hot for the cat now!

p. 299 Underhill is having girl problems. For some reason, girls think that guys who fly with Partners are creeps. Maybe it’s the telepathy. In the end, he loves his cat more than women.

Gill: It is really engaging and fun. The structure lures you into thinking you’ll be deciphering the tech vocab, but it twists far away from that and brings in some dynamic psychological and narrative elements.

Join us next time for more twist than you may have bargained for, when we discuss “And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side,” by James Tiptree, Jr.

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

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