Uncanny Valley Digest: Liu Cixin’s The Poetry Cloud

Last night’s Poetry Cloud discussion was the bubbles rising! Inventive, playful, manga-like. Three folklorish characters play out a science fiction stage drama: a poet (farmed for consumption), a dinosaur (which eats poets), and a god walk into a parsec wafer with a wicked big chandelier…

Tidy three act structure: Intro/The Gift

P.1079 Dinosaur Big-tooth and poet-in-a-pocket YiYi dialogue:

“I’ve noticed you think yourself noble and pure, and others to be beneath your notice. Very interesting feelings for a little fowl from a feedlot.”
“Thus is the way with all poets.” Yiyi straightened himself in the pocket, proudly holding his head high, though he knew that Big-tooth could not see this.

The conflict of the drama is: Can technologically enabled omniscience ever plumb the depths of the human inner world, the mysterious journey of being? Even one so lowly as a poet bred in a feedlot, for being human, brings something to the universe that even the god can not surpass. It’s a dare, on the poet’s part.

P.1082 “Why is the Devourer Empire still struggling in the atomic age after 80 million years of existence?”

P. 1082 A question posed to the god from the poet YiYi, “Does art exist everywhere in the universe?”

P. 1083, the crux of the whole story:

YiYi: “This has nothing to do with technology! This is the essence of the inner world of the human soul, and is unsurpassable!”
The god: “You say this because you are ignorant of the power that technology could eventually bring.”

The inner world of the human soul is not a gradated or quantified place. When you’re there you are there. There is no increment, no surpassing. The process and substance of that inner place can never be comprehended in it’s totality. It is nothing that can be encompassed, codified, stored. The poet presses on, challenging the god, ever so subtle, harmless:

“Human art to you is merely a flower carved in stone, and you cannot overcome this obstacle with technology.”

And the god takes our trickster’s bait. Goaded by YiYi, the god wishes to “surpass” the greatness of the poet Li Bai. He transmutes into a poet’s body, a clone of the great Li Bai, that part’s easy. See how easy it is to be human? Then he whips up all of the materials he needs to write, from quill and ink to paper and desk, only to have writer’s block, overcome with thought at creating. He has a drink to loosen up. And like fire water it takes over his life.

Tidy three act structure: The Alternative Route

P. 1085 The poet is winning. He says to the god, “I still believe what you face is a transcendent art form.” And such a thing , he implies, is like kryptonite to a god.

P.1084 “…the god had moved all his own memories into the clone. ‘Cold, this is cold?!'”

The god-clone-Li-Bai gets into the natural life, the “true folk culinary art that had been lost long before the Earth was annihilated.”

Suhail: As an aside, Zelazney does this a bunch, transmigrating back and forth between organic matter, mechanical matter, and transcendant space. For example, his short story “For A Breath I Tarry.” and in both books Lord Of Light and Creatures Of Light And Darkness.

David: The former god, now party poet with writer’s block, says Bah, I’m all powerful. I’ll build a machine to write and store every poem that will ever be written! The poem greater than Li Bai’s work will be in there, guaranteed. So HA!

That's doable...The god gives a computer’s answer: “I will write every posssible pentasyllabic and heptasyllabic poem.”

Chris: The million monkeys at typewriters issue.

P. 1084 The “output portal” an E=MC2 door that draws energy from the universe at large to build, well, anything.

Suhail: Like the autofac in Dick & Zelazney’s Deus Irae.

An interesting moment here about aesthetics and the quality of art: The Devourer is freaked out that the god is going to generate and save all possible poems. So many of them will be gibberish! he exclaims. He has a point. The first poem will be, “Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah / Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah /Ah Ah Ah Ah Ah /Ah Ah Ah Ah Alas” Then the trickster poet YiYi gives a loquacious, profound interpretation of the ridiculous poem. Proving that, to be wonderful, a poem need only be interpreted eloquently, while drunk.

Do you look drunk to you?

Now that’s poetry!

Tidy three act structure: The Ultimate Poetry Composition

We learn that the god is an individual, that it is not part of a monist collective mind. It is merely an idiosyncratic individual from a species so far in advance of the dinosaur and human species that it’s transcended matter and is basically a god for that reason. And it’s a kind of art historian, which is why it’s so interested in this poetry thing.

Do they build it? Of course! It’s not curious enough the the story opens on a hollow earth. You want to know how it got that way. You have to come back at the last act to find out how it all shakes out.  And the dinosaur people… Well, if you want to know about the dinosaur people, it’ll be more fun (funner, as none say) if you read for yourself.

David: The characters were flat.
Chris: Maybe they were folkloric.
Suhail: Hmm, I can see that. I like the way the story is crafted, the small details built in to the plot for example the way the tables turn between the human and the dinosaur. Though it has no bearing on the trajectory of the story, it is a cool play.
David: Still, the characters are there to deliver something, they’re symbols.
Chris: It’s no Canticle For Leibowitz, but let’s look for other layers of the story. What are some other ways to understand it, coming from a culture where the individual is not as prized, not as much as we’re used to. So, who’s the big technological god who starts picking and choosing the fates of others? Does it always know best?
Suhail: I like what you said earlier about the Loory comparison, because he does seem to have just thrown these characters together, then they acted, and he followed the consequences of those actions. There’s a weird dreamy continuity that way.
David: Yeah, there is color in them that way. He’s not preaching something, the story is crafted to be good. Basic three act structure.
Chris: And the trickster lands on his feet. The poet gets the girl by the river.

Tidy three act structure: Epilogue/The Poetry Cloud

Cool, funky, technical “spaceship earth” stuff. “Land doors” and manual satellite launches on the Lagrangian Points, drifting weightless from north pole to south in a direct line through the center. But mind the white hole lamp acting as a sun. Neutron matter reinforcement rings of longitude and latitude.

The final conundrum, basically setting them back where they started: Now that we have all possible poems, how do we recognize and find the great ones? The god of course says he’s now working on software to parse out the quality poems. The poems do not exist until the poets discover them in the fullness of time, by writing. Basically the same problem poets have always had.

Hands down our favorite story of the summer. A meditation on infinity and everythingness. Quirky characters that somehow fit together just right. It had colorful, inane, meticulous fun with solar system terraforming concepts. Reorganizing matter on an enormous engineered scale, turning planets and suns into quantum computers the size of planetary orbits. The technical stuff was thought out, no matter how fantastic. That was fun for the detail geek in me.

Ben Loory, courtesy of the L.A. Times

David: It’s like a Ben Loory story on science acid.
All: HA!
David: The god can only outdo humans by becoming human itself.
Chris: The folklore quality of the plucky poet, ordinary guy that he is, turns around the fate of the whole human race.
David: In the Asimov tradition in some ways. It was fun. I laughed out loud, loved the flowing imagery. The levity, the absurdity was great. Letham has that…I think a lot of writers got it from Dick. Phil Dick, even in his most dreary scenarios, maintains that absurdity bordering on humor.
Suhail: It was nice to read a longer story. Too many of these were too short.
Nowell: Just a splash. There was no space to go anywhere with them.
David: Yeah, let’s do books again next summer.
Chris: Definitely.
David: Maybe four books, two weeks apart.

Suggestions so far: Lem, Moorcock, Butler, Zindell (Neverness), McCaffery, Rajaniemi (Quantum Theif)

Join us next time, when we round out the summer with our screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, followed by a discussion to compare versions, and revisit any favorite moments from this summer. Thank you for reading. Reading rules!


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Uncanny Valley Digest: Geoffrey Maloney’s Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System

Our Geoffrey Maloney discussion was the sweep second hand on a millennial calendar! Tiny details are the greatest reveals of the society that used to exist before the one in which we find our protagonist. Alien colonizers have long left this place of human habitation, and with them they’ve taken the most valuable parts of our infrastructure. In the abandoned landscape that remains, a man is breaking up with his girlfriend, and he is full of self pity, and intensely jealous of an imaginary romance between his ex-girlfriend and a straggling alien who may or may not have remained among the humans.

The self-pitying ex-boyfriend rummages through his ex-girlfriends things to find evidence of her infidelity, but all he finds is an earnest correspondence between the alien and his ex-girlfriend. This moment is a vivid illustration of the syndrome of worrying about things that never happen anyway.

A quaint esoteric characterization of the way the aliens might speak, since they do not form questions per se, they give a mound of relevant facts that imply the question they are asking. So, the alien asks the ex-girlfriend “Why do they kill children?”

In reply, the ex-girlfriend dies on a bathroom floor like a troubled drug addict (Maloney is very brief and cryptic about her death, by the way, just wanting to get his ex-girlfriend out of the way.) with a note in her hand that replies, “There is no answer.”

In the end, he answers the alien’s question himself by replying: “I didn’t kill any children.”

It’s an abandoned world. The narrator is super self-absorbed, but he only notices it ironically, only notices it to be polite to the reader, but does not actually believe in his selfishness. It’s a break-up self-pity party, with literary ambitions subverted through sci-fi; pulling from literature. The narrator is annoying because he’s passive-aggressively clinging to this woman who doesn’t want him along anyway, and rightfully so.

The biggest problem was that this story may have been too short (barely 4 pages), so aside from clever devices, or some kind of stunning revelation about life or love (which it doesn’t provide), the story doesn’t have anything to rest on. David liked this story, particularly for it’s atmosphere. Suhail was not impressed, but not disappointed. To be fair, this story is a mere scrap from a cohesive 300-page collection of Maloney stories under one thematic rubric: Tales From The Crypto-System (Prime Books, 2003).

Reading this story made us miss reading full length novels. Short stories have their parameters. After a couple summers of one off short stories, we agreed that next summer we’ll return to books again, with longer read times and more enriched discussions.

Tune in next time for Cixin Liu’s “The Poetry Cloud.”

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

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Uncanny Valley Digest: Burning Sky by Rachel Pollack

Monday night’s Burning Sky discussion left no question answered! This is my favorite story of the summer so far. It grapples with potent, ambiguous questions about the inevitability of violence and grievance as a justification for force. It’s also a superhero/sexual awakening story. Find your kink, for goodness sake; there’s all sorts. In fact, there are two parallel story lines in this short story: 1) a recent divorcee with a nubile narcissistic lover, and 2) a journalist who stumbles upon a vigilante hideout and is taken to task for her intrusion.

In many respects the story is style over content, and there’s a literary, modernist echo to this prose. Dave didn’t like it because it needed so much deciphering. For some reason it wasn’t okay for the author to just tell us what was going on. Lots of detective work on the reader’s part, and frankly there is no tidy finish. Dave predicted that the mood of ambiguity and uncertainty were going to largely remain unresolved, and he was right. It creates a mood and leaves it there. Personally, not Dave’s style preference.

But Pollack is also a poet, comic book writer, and industry-recognized tarot specialist, so in context her approach packs ample content into the style, and deciphering the substance from the images is part of the process.

By some standards, it isn’t even science fiction. No fictional technology at all, just sheer, sensuous Free Skin body suits. It’s value lies deeper than that, more literary I think, and the superhero vigilante element lets it posture into the sci-fi frame.

The story’s real power to me, is the questions it raises about boundaries, force, and the abuse of power across the sexes. Lots of weird things about Louise’s need to get Maggie off, to preserve an undefeated record, and a genuine wish to get Maggie in touch with her self, the pleasure center, the deep orgasmic grounding. At the same time Julia is contending with being abducted and subjugated by the Free Skins after violating their privacy and photographing their hideout. The idea that it is an initiation is almost secondary.

David: Super idiosyncratic, transgressive new wave. Not just a simple story. I didn’t have the patience to suss it out. It reads like an insecure reaction to the criticism that sci-fi wasn’t literary.

Suhail: Wolfe did a better job at being literary.

P. 965 “In the ritual hall Julia spends days hanging from copper, then brass, then silver manacles…”
The abusive/bondage/power play/rape initiation into the Free Skin, but as a form of consequence for her stalking them, for getting too close.

P. 966 The “rapist prick” scene, when Louise takes Maggie out on a rowboat and says “I’m not taking this boat back to shore until you come and I can feel it all over my fingers.”

Suhail: Yeah, to hell with that. On one hand Louise only wants you to get off, to activate your potential. On the other hand, Louise only wants it for narcissistic reasons. “Louise” must make you come, so it becomes rape.

Then the discovery in the Maggie/Louise timeline that Maggie is turned on by latex and skin suits, when she sees the skin diver in the lake and gets flush. Her kink finally discovered, she is delighted to get off at last. Good I’m glad she gets to come.

Interesting thematic note that the central image of the Julia/Free Skin story line is the skin suits, and that is the central image in Maggie’s story line, the image that gets her off, frees her to her self, activates her potential.

Sunset dances, from Christiana Gaudet

Good sex at last!

After the journalist Julia is initiated into the Free Skins against her will she is released to be a vigilante like them, a superhero slave gimp.
P.967 “With no one to command her she forgets to eat and one day passes out while photographing a police parade in the South Bronx.”
She’s a trauma survivor, but also a Free Skin? In remembering the initiation, “She wonders how she could have submitted to such strange and wretched slavery.”
Julia is summoned to don her Free Skin uniform and take out a corrupt judge. She panics, refuses, and hides the suit. The suit disappears and is replaced with a suicide knife. Julia stews in the guilt of denying the Free Skins.

In Maggie’s quest away from “the City of Civilized Sex,” she discusses a lot of the people in the kink community and what brought them there. Again the themes return of the porous nature of the boundaries between people’s psyches, and the way in which a stronger more aggressive psyche can alter the contours of a less powerful or aggressive psyche. And she dissects what brought people to these communities.

P. 967 “After a while they all began to strike me as rather odd, not just for their missionary zeal, but for their hunger for community.” In taking this deeper, in her next paragraph, the character Maggie narrates: “…or if each new arrival, thrilled at finding a town where she’d expected only a swamp, confused gratitude with eroticism…”

There’s the rub. They want community more than orgasms.

“confused gratitude for eroticism.”
Dave: It takes a psychological problem and makes it a sexual one.

Julia and Maggie sort of switch places. Maggie is freed for discovering the skin suit gets her off. Julia loses her Free Skin and the old hideout becomes a button factory.

We talked about the modernist style ambiguities and stylistic obfuscations in the language. The fact the the story does force you to do some figuring and inferring. Almost like a murder mystery, but not invested in wrapping it up. The Free Skin is also “wretched slavery,” so what is the question?

Dave: But it’s pretty bleak though. It thrives on your uncertainty. At least with a murder mystery you know there’s an answer. In this you can tell right away there will be no answer. But in this genre it I suppose communicates things that you can’t get at in a simple murder mystery.

And there’s the rub: a hunger for community, confusing gratitude for eroticism. This moment in the story backs up Dave’s Freudian observation that these characters are sexualizing a psychological problem. Maggie’s frozen clitoris is her need for fulfillment, actualization. Sometimes sex is part of the process of addressing a psychological problem.

Dave: It avoids the simplicity of men-are-bad, women-are-good social solutions. Power itself is the problem, not who’s wielding it.

David: It’s the the Id and Superego at cross purposes. “You wanna be free?” “Then you gotta be a slave.”

A slave to what? Well, at the end of the story, Julia gets her Free Skin back, but only after she attempts suicide. It gets very Abrahamic. She actually has to heft the dagger and commence the self-sacrifice before the salvation is delievered in the guise of the Free Skin suit grrls taking her back into their fold. They “dress her in the Free Skin she abandoned for an illusion of freedom.” Implying that choosing to avoid your duty is not freedom.

From The Raziel Tarot by Robert M. Place and Rachel PollackP.968 “Sex exists to lay traps for fantasies.”
Suhail: This is the thesis of the entire story, what the story is all about. It’s a good story. It is my favorite this summer so far.

David: But that also speaks to the quality of our list as a whole. Chris dropped out because the list didn’t have any oomph, this story no more than the previous. It style was too complex, intentionally ornamental in a way. It’s like the guy who buys a Harley after someone makes fun of the size of his dick.

Suhail: Like the shock value first sentence about her clitoris being a magnet, or a compass.

David: But that doesn’t follow through. It’s a clever, shocking first sentence more than anything else. It doesn’t end up being a metaphor or actually being the case. No development.

Suhail: It would be nice to read novels again. This short format (5,000 words and under) has it’s limits. We don’t get to see what the author can really do.

David: It’s not really even sci-fi. It’s the literary answer to sci-fi. What is it, 1989, right? This prose is very motivated by the indictment that sci-fi was just pulp writing and not substantial literature. This style heavy heady modernist approach.

Suhail: Yeah, modernist. It’s cultural criticism fiction. Slap a superhero/kink patrol body suit into it and viola, sci-fi! HA! It’s funny how we’re really managed to zero in on the grad school fiction this summer. HA! But this story is still my favorite so far. I feel it brings up things that Tiptree, Jr. addressed, murky questions about exploitation, boundaries, psychological manipulation, power. These are complex, fluid, and uncomfortable notions. Frankly, men seem to write less about conflicted states of empowerment and sex identity, and they’re potent subjects.

We waxed poetic about fun, engaging, stories, like Reiko’s Universe Box, it’s accessibility and airiness, and solid delivery. Tune in next time for our update of “Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffry Maloney.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!


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