May the Force Be With You, O

“[The president] wished he were at his home in Abuja with a glass of cool Guinness, watching Star Wars on his high-definition wide-screen television. He loved Star Wars, especially the more recent installments. There was such honor in Star Wars. In another life, he’d have made a great Jedi knight.” – 84

The neat things about this paragraph is that it shows science fiction is an acknowledged and important part of Okorafor’s universe. That might seem like stating the obvious, but in my experience it’s pretty rare to have 21st century characters directly cite the flood other media available to us in their thinking. In much the same way the protagonist in a zombie movie might have never seen or heard of these “dead-walking things” before the Outbreak, Okorafor could have glossed over other frames of reference for aliens. Showing these shout-outs and references not only makes the characters more sympathetic, but reflects how culture influences our thinking. These frames of reference stack on top of one another as time goes on, until Star Wars and District 9 form a sort of mosaic that gives Lagoon more complexity and nuance by having a conversation with the works that inspired it.

The Eternal Return

Case is a cyberpunk with an existential crisis. He survives a breakneck globetrotting adventure of corporate intrigue and danger that (sort of) pulls him back from the depths of his despair, only to return to his ordinary life in the Sprawl. Life goes on.

Navigating the sci-fi tropes and events in “Neuromancer” creates a deliberate sensory overload. Even after Wintermute and Neuromancer fuse, and the endless conspirators come to rest at their final places in the plot, I think the odd feeling Gibson leaves the reader with is the sense that Case spent most of the book running, and hacking, and otherwise struggling, only to return to the life he was already living in the Sprawl. Obviously the finer details of the book this summary leaves out are worth experiencing, but still. It’s sort of related to Le Guin’s Taoist (I think) idea of everything happening at once. Gibson’s cyberspace and the matrix are in constant flux. Yet the action in “Neuromancer” keeps moving, faster and faster, only for the plot to fold in on itself. I know it’s a platitude, but what comes to mind is “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’m not sure if there’s a wider point to all these observations, but then again, neither is Case or Neuromancer.

Gender Contested

“…Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make. Therefore nobody here is quite so free as a free male anywhere else. // Consider: A child has no psychosexual relationship to his mother and father. There is no myth of Oedipus on Winter. // Consider: There is no unconsenting sex, no rape. As with most mammals other than man, coitus can be performed only by mutual invitation and consent; otherwise it is not possible. Seduction certainly is possible, but it must have to be awfully well-timed. // Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.” – Le Guin, 94

By asking the reader to consider these perspective-shifts about life on Winter, I believe Le Guin’s novel draws its strongest reserve of good storytelling through questioning gender norms. What would happen if human civilization stopped “oppressing” the “other” half in a futile sense of competition? Yet, Le Guin’s insistence in Is Gender Necessary? that her novel is “NOT about gender, but betrayal and fidelity,” seems like it neglects this element of exploration in favor of more familiar themes in Gethenian government and society. Le Guin herself says she regrets the criticism leveled at her for using the male “he” pronouns for the Gethenians, and viewed writing the novel as a sort of “self-discovery” about her opinions on gender. This leaves me undecided on whether she gives too much or too little credit to the power of passages like the ones cited above. Knocking such imaginative holes in establishment thinking –only to say later that they were a means to exploring loyalty rather than a focus of their own– seems like it puts too little emphasis on the perspectives Gethenians could share. We have Shiftgrethor as a face-saving alternative to war, but no lengthy passages on raising children, domesticity, etc. Le Guin says, “I eliminated gender, to find out what was left.”  Then why dangle the thread of true(?) gender egalitarianism in front of the reader only to trivialize that thread later?

Fate Versus Chance in History

“Psychohistory-… Gaal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli… / …Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment. The necessary size of such a conglomerate may be determined by Seldon’s First Theorem which…A further necessary assumption is that the human conglomerate itself be unaware of psycho-historic analysis in order that its reactions be truly random… / The basis of all valid psychohistory lies in the development of the Seldon functions which exhibit properties congruent to those of such social and economic forces as…” (ENCYCLOPEDIA GALACTICA, 19.)

Hidden in the quasi-academic jargon of this passage is what I think Asimov wants the central dilemma of “Foundation” to be: Fate versus Chance in history. The concept of psycho-history relies on the future of the Foundation, the Empire, and the galaxy being traceable to a set series of circumstances. Once innovation and cooperation stop being a priority, stagnation leads to an eventual Fall and collapse into barbarism. This is an outcome too far-along to stop, but the effects can be improved as long as all parties wind up in the right place at the right time. You can argue that the importance of any personal ambition falls away over thousands of years. In a kind of meta-awareness on page 89, Hardin says, “…we’ve been stumbling about, getting misty glimpses of the truth, and no more. And that is what Hari Seldon wanted.” Hari Seldon and the psychohistorians needed to keep the most-likely disasters of history secret, or else ambitious people in positions of power would eventually use these spoilers in their destructive self-interest. History, in this sense, is a series of actions driven by mob-mentality and actors that technically have the power to choose their society’s fate, if not the full awareness of how they’re doing it. There is always a chance of humanity failing to keep civilization going, but psychohistory banks on minimizing the likelihood that this happens. I think Asimov’s narrative is set up to convince us that nothing is ‘Fated’, but events can occasionally be up to 99.9/100 percent (un)likely. The continuing spirit of cooperation and innovation is the best bet to improve history regardless – at least for as long as the whole messy shebang lasts.

Blowing D-503’s Mind With Math

“Her brows make a sharp mocking triangle: “My dear, you are a mathematician. You’re even more, you’re a philosopher of mathematics. So do this for me: Tell me the final number.” / “The what? I…I don’t understand. What final number?” / “You know–the last one, the top, the absolute biggest.” / “But, I-330, that’s stupid. Since the number of numbers is infinite, how can there be a final one?” / “And how can there be a final revolution? There is no final one. The number of revolutions is infinite. The last one– that’s for children. Infinity frightens children, and it’s essential that children get a good night’s sleep….” (p. 168, Record 30)

I think this is one of the most clever passages in Zamyatin’s entire novel. After 29 Records filled with inner turmoil over developing a “soul” that doesn’t gel within the rules of OneState, D-503’s entire world is flipped by using the same language he’s hid behind. This conversation comes after D-503 has been exposed to ideas beyond OneState’s accepted worldview, but is still frustratingly on the fence about betraying his ‘perfect’ government. I-330’s tone here is like a parent telling her child Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy isn’t real. This is why her citing infinity is so effective. By this point in the book, we’ve established that OneState is a society where humans are Numbers, romantic sonnets are written about the union of 2+2, and people like D-503 see mathematical logic as more dependable than God or free thinking. Since no previous emotional appeal has fully converted D-503 out of the static universe he lives in, it takes the novel’s own obsession with numbers to give him an epiphany. I-330 comparing her revolution to infinity is a callback to D-503’s frustration with irrational numbers as a child. He’s forced to use his imagination to interpret an unanswerable question, thus his world is flipped upside down the minute he has to think as “Me” instead of “We” in terms he can grasp. After that, only removing his imagination could ever put D-503 –the ‘child’ told that OneState’s founding was the final revolution– back to sleep.

Conveying Mood Between Editions

The National Observer’s edition of H.G Well’s “The Time Machine” has the same feeling of society’s insignificance that is evoked in the later, more fleshed-out versions in The New Review and Wells’s full novel. Yet, the Observer’s article format dampened the effect. The Observer was definitely a commercial framework given the advertisements and fractured presentation of the story across multiple issues. Using tons of little narrative details in the Observer was too impractical over so many months. Lots of continuity and depth can be lost from any story if it gets sandwiched between unrelated pieces about topics like “The Nitrate Industry”, or more sensational headlines about 19th-century events. The reader’s mind could’ve wandered away from the implications of a far-future without humanity between issues. Once Wells organized and presented the story in larger chunks, many more successful narrative and dramatic details were possible for the New Review edition, as Wells now had the opportunity to tell a story more coherent to a casual reader. The story was still divided at this stage in the print cycle, but it was clearly solidifying into a full-text in the New Review. By the novel, Wells fully fleshed out his thoughts. For example, as previously mentioned by PL, I think the date changes from 12,203 in “The Time-Traveller Returns” to 802,701 A.D. in editions after The National Observer were for dramatic effect, and the plot within both dates conveyed how much humanity’s importance shrank over time. ‘We have always been accustomed to consider the future as in some peculiar way ours,’ said the red-haired man. ‘Your story seems to rob us of our birthright.’ (National Observer, 145.) This theme of civilization’s ultimate insignificance in the face of time is common across all three versions, but it’s clear now that the concepts and events in the plot are best when they stand on their own, without disruption by other articles or features. The novel also has the line, “Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition.” (The Time Machine, p. 56, Dover Thrift Edition) This was a small, fun line to me because this type of narrative aside works best in the literary novel of The Time Machine, and not the shorter articles of National Observer version. The subject matter is vast and potentially dread-inspiring, but inducing these feelings in the reader is much easier through a novel than a serialized print, and Wells took full advantage of that by the time he got to the book.