Media, Magic, and the Multilevel Network

“A woman who’d been walking down the middle of the busy dirt road that passed through the market wanted to throw her mobile phone away. She’d never liked mobile phones. She knew it sounded crazy, but she had always been sure that they could do more than anyone let on. She had a feeling that they could watch you. That they could speak to you at night when you were asleep and brainwash you.”

Okorafor, Nnedi. Lagoon (p. 277). Saga Press. Kindle Edition.

Okorafor’s novel pushes the limits of the network narrative beyond her readers’ typical capacity, pairing a magical and folklorish use of widespread animal communication (the spider’s web and the enlightened bat’s sonar) with hyper-advanced media technology that helps to align the novel with the scifi genre. This overlapping is most apparent as Okorafor chooses to call Ch. 54, which portrays the President’s speech taking over every single screen in Nigeria, “Spider’s Threads.” I think this is what makes Okorafor particularly unique: throughout this semester we have seen stories portraying the asocial results of hyper-connectivity, as well as the way in which it leads to environmental decay. However, in Lagoon, the President’s sudden and powerful control over mass media, thanks to Ayodele, not only connects Nigeria politically but also, yet again, magically to their physical environment. The president temporarily acts as the spider whose web connects Nigeria as Ayodele simultaneously becomes a fog that everyone inhales–it is connectivity on multiple ecological and social levels. What is more, as the selected quote shows, Okorafor refuses to separate the power of advanced media technology from the mysticism that defines her portrayal of Lagos. Everything–music, magic, media, and Ayodele’s atoms–is contained in the soil of Lagos.

Interpreting and/or Being the Other

“The pendant attached to it was smooth, glassy, black rock. Obsidian. His name might be Rock or Peter or Black, but she decided to think of him as Obsidian. 

[…]

“Now she wore it, thinking it was as close as she was likely to come to Rye. People like Obsidian who had not known her before probably thought of her as Wheat. Not that it mattered. She would never hear her name spoken again.” (Butler 97). 

This encounter between Rye and Obsidian represents the inability to convey individuality in a world lacking speech and communication, as the act of providing one’s name is traditionally a way for humans to assert their individuality. However, names, thoughts, and interiority in general must be conveyed through symbols, which creates the need for a narrator who bears the duty of interpretation. In this case of naming we see that Rye is provided with a very liberal amount of space to interpret others, using her own creativity and predispositions to project identities and ideas upon others. This effect emphasizes the fact that the reader is completely reliant upon a first-person, familiar, and creative narrator as we cling to Rye’s perspective in order to understand this world. The imperative to interpret is similar to Deckard’s role in discerning humanity within androids, but it is different insofar as Deckard’s own sense of humanity, his interiority, and his own unique tools of interpretation are totally dispensable in DADoES, considering the replacement of communication with incredibly invasive technology. (What is more, we know that these things are dispensable because any sense of Deckard’s interiority is excluded from Blade Runner.) Even though both DADoES and “Speech Sounds” place a heavy importance on representing and interpreting the interior through exterior symbols, the different narrative situations make the reader depend on Rye’s interiority and familiarity to ourselves–as opposed to our suspicion that Deckard may even be an android.

Photographs versus Visual Art

In order to articulate the problem of differentiating humans from androids, Blade Runner employs photographs to stand in for the memories that are implanted into the latest model of replicas. Photographs work well as a filmic device to represent memory, as they are meant to accurately portray an interior identity in an exterior and collective manner. However, considering that this film is filled with doctored photos, they are also an attempt to show the trouble of representing interior states and, in turn, the difficulty of retaining one’s interiority as a subject–whether human or android. For instance, Deckard is able to access Raechel’s interiority because her memories are actually just implanted ones from Tyrell’s human niece. He recites her own incredibly private memories, which reminds us that not only is Rachael denied a private self, but so was Tyrell’s niece, as her interiority is corporate property, liable to being implanted into androids (32:37). Thus, by using a motif as alterable and inconsistent as doctored photographs to stand in for memory, the film represents a very flimsy and easily compromised view of interiority and selfhood for both humans and androids.

Aside from forwarding a particular argument in the film itself, this device emphasizes a theme in Dick’s novel that I did not previously think too much about: visual art. Munch’s paintings, like Rachael’s doctored photographs, are another version of the attempt to represent interior states externally. (In fact, one could go ahead and define all art in this way.) Indeed, the comparison between photographs as memory and Luba Luft’s inexplicable attraction to Munch’s painting “Puberty,” one could conclude that Luba is drawn to the painting because it represents a memory that she was not granted, but one that she desires and identifies with nonetheless. Thus, the similar treatment of art and photographs begs the question of whether there is much to differentiate between the collective, shared experience of art and the highly individualized, singular experience of looking at family photographs when determining what makes someone “human” or what gives them an identity.

Paranoid Empathy

The feelings of distrust and paranoia central to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is built into Rick Deckard’s profession as a bounty-hunter. His job requires that he intuit whether apparent humans are actually androids, which, even though he claims that “A Mercerite sensed evil [in andys] without understanding it,” must be carefully discerned through the use of technology like Voigt-Kampff scale (32). This feature has the interesting and extrapolating effect of casting empathy as something mechanical and legible through technology, as displayed when Rick uses the scale to test Rachael Rosen. Rick describes the test: “This… measures capillary dilation in the facial area. We know this to be a primary autonomic response, the so-called ‘shame’ or ‘blushing’ reaction to a morally shocking stimulus. It can’t be controlled voluntarily, as can skin conductivity, respiration, and cardiac rate” (46). While this description is meant to show the utility of such a machine in detecting “The Killers” or the androids, the mechanisms of the Voigt-Kampff scale reveal a perverse vision of “empathy” in the novel as something invasive and frightening, driven by the paranoia pervading this decaying society left behind on earth. A reader may become unsettled by this redefinition of empathy as a locating a set of standard biological and involuntary reactions that each and every person is meant to have, lest they be shunned or “retired” for being an android.

Agency and Insecurity in the Change World

“There’s your basis for the Place and the wild way it goes about its work, and also for most other Recuperation Stations or Entertainment Spots. The name Entertainer can be misleading, but I like it. She’s got to be a lot more than a good party girl–or boy–though she’s got to be that too. She’s got to be a nurse and a psychologist and an actress and a mother and a practical ethnologist and a lot of things with longer names–and a reliable friend” (“The Big Time,” 35).

The initial source of comedy in this passage and in the rest of “The Big Time” is the parallel between the Entertainers in the unfamiliar Change World and the role of women who professionally entertain in reality. This passage echoes a common sentiment used to describe escorts, especially in middle class American culture, as women who perhaps perform sex work yet fulfill a dual role by providing emotional support for alienated men. The humor arises when this familiar sentiment is placed into the extremely high-stakes environment of the Change World, in which history is being altered to the extent that the consciousness and identity of the narrator and each character is constantly at risk. Another source of comedy is the position of the narrator, whose existentialist ruminations on her position in the Change World are endearing and stand in stark contrast to the serious “lectures” of her boy friends. The reader gets the sense not only of the Entertainer’s insecurity as a dead person whose reality is constantly being threatened by the shifting winds of Change, but also as a woman who performs a subordinate duty by supporting the actors of history and must remind herself of her pivotal role in this change.

The Time Traveller’s Privilege

Both Wertenbaker’s “The Man from the Atom” and Wells’s The Time Machine solidify their relationship to the science fiction genre by testing the theoretical limits of established scientific ideas. In Wells, the reader is guided through a thorough speculation on the logistics of time travel when the Time Traveller posits the idea of moving through the fourth dimension–a proposition that merely requires the expansion of already existing scientific facts (Wells 4). The result is an oscillation between established reality and plausible alternatives to reality, rather than an escape through fantasy. Similarly, Wertenbaker pays close attention to already established astrological knowledge in order to speculate on the unknown structures of the universe, allowing him to posit theories of the nebulae and multiple universes (“The Man from the Atom” 66). Moreover, both of these features require characters who not only posit theories but also test them out and refute them. This occurs multiple times for the Time Traveller, such as when he works through the “altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks–a something inhuman and malign” (Wells 48). However, while both stories allow for the ability to call these theories into question, it is in this ability to refute them that distinguishes the two different situations of address. When the Time Traveller finds himself reevaluating his earlier theories, it is in the context of someone who is superior to the times upon which he is speculating. Even though the environment is alien to him, he is already equipped with the languages and frameworks of the past with which to evaluate the future, such as “aristocracy,” and the more menacing the Morlocks appear the less “human” they become. Additionally, the framing structure requires that our conveyor of these ideas will return unscathed in order to tell the tale, reasserting the privilege of the Time Traveller’s present. The narrator in “The Man from the Atom” earns no such privilege; his only ability to test Professor Martyn’s theories (as well as his own) happens through his physical displacement and his becoming lost in space and time. By testing out these scientific theories, the Man from the Atom must become vulnerable and completely helpless–with no source of empathy or assertions of humanity or civilization to cling to.

Serial Media and Wells’ Place in Contemporary Discourse

The presence of dialogue in the National Observer’s publication of The Time Machine: “The Refinement of Humanity” distinguishes it from the novel, which strictly follows the framing structure, and has several implications about this particular serial publication. While describing the increasing ease with which humans interacted with nature, and the consequential weakening and softening of human physical features and decreasing intellect, the Time Traveller is interrupted twice by an obstinate medical man. Moreover, both times that the Time Traveller retorts, he is referred to as the “Philosophical Investigator” (H.G. Wells, “The Refinement of Humanity.” The National Observer. 21 Apr. 1984, pp. 581, 582). This label is interesting in itself, suggesting that the act of time traveling, or traveling through the fourth dimension, is possible through a change in mental location by performing thought-experiments, in which people imagine the consequences and possibilities of an alternative reality. In turn, the idea of philosophy as traveling through time suggests that philosophy itself is driven by the ability to imagine ourselves in alternative realities and temporarily accept their plausibility—hence why Wells is interested in the future rather than the documented past. However, the label of Philosophical Investigator is also interesting because of the places in which it is used, that is, only during argumentation and in response to the medical man. This feature suggests that the identity of the time traveller changes as his relationship to the reader changes: when he participates in argumentation and discourse, he is a philosophical investigator; when he tells fantastical stores, he is a time traveller. The story’s publication in the National Observer, a magazine that publishes essays on politics, economics, and art criticism, as well as its freedom from the constraints of a framing structure, emphasizes the story’s position in a serious contemporary discourse on political economy and Darwinian theory—an impression that is lost when the novel is contained in the limited physical space of a bound novel.