The Spider and the Web

Then he [Femi] embedded the footage he’d posted on his YouTube page. When he posted the story on the website, he’d make the YouTube footage live… He reread his story, editing, adding where he saw fit…The world as he knew it had changed…He clicked send. Then he sat back and waited for his world to turn yet again. His thread of story would join the vibrating of the great narrator’s rhythm.

(Okorafor, 288)

I found this passage interesting, for it alludes to a relationship between the “great narrator,” the spider, and those who utilize media to communicate the events that transpire in Lagos throughout Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon. Though I am unsure of the exact function of the spider, it seems as though it exists as a force that interprets information in a way that grants the information new meaning; it “spins” information. For example, at the end of the novel, the spider claims, “The boy with no name had no destiny until I wrote that part of the story” (291). Only when the spider interprets the boy’s existence, is the boy granted destiny. By uploading his interpretation of the events that have transpired in Lagos to the internet, a global medium, Femi grants the events and perhaps even Lagos new meaning to a large audience. The multiple perspectives given throughout the novel produce the same effect. Perhaps Okorafor writing the novel is an example of this as well.

Self-Interest, Circumstance, and Effect

Rye glanced at the murderer. To her shame, she thought she could understand some of the passions that must have driven him, whomever he was. Anger, frustration, hopelessness, insane jealousy… how many more of the were there-people willing to destroy what they could not have?

(Butler, 107)

Though both Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” and Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  do utilize the post-disaster world, they figure self-interest within this world differently, thus producing different effects. The way in which self-interest is figured in “Speech Sounds” is best exemplified in the passage above. Though the man murders the woman, he does so in a fit of passion, “Anger, frustration, hopelessness, insane jealousy;” he wishes to perform basic cognitive functions as well (107). As such, self-interest is not a fundamental human characteristic in the text, it is merely circumstantial. This is furthered by Rye’s ability to empathize with the man, “she [being in such a situation when she learns that Obsidian can write] thought she could understand some of the passions that must have driven him” (107). Figuring self-interest like this produces an optimistic effect; humans mean well and as such, have the ability to thrive once more. Conversely, Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? figures self-interest as a fundamental human characteristic; this is best exemplified by Rick Deckard. Regardless of the circumstance, Deckard acts self-interestedly; he hunts down the androids for economic gain; he purchases an animal for social prestige; he coerces Rachel into relations etc. This figuring of self-interest produces a bleak effect; fundamental human self-interest has and will continue to destroy all that it comes into contact with.

Animal Welfare, Empathy, and Doubt

‘This cat,’ Sloat said finally, ‘isn’t false. I knew sometime this would happen. And it’s dead…. The chickenhead,’ Sloat said, ‘brought it in.’

‘If it was still alive,’ Milt said, ‘we could take it to a real animal vet. I wonder what it’s worth. Anybody got a copy of Sidney’s?’

‘D-Doesn’t y-y-your insurance c-c-cover this?’ Isidore asked Mr. Sloat….

‘Yes,’ Sloat said finally, half snarling. ‘But it’s the waste that gets me. The loss of one more living creature. Couldn’t you tell Isidore? Didn’t you notice the difference?’

(Dick, 77)

While this moment in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? does describe a sense of doubt that recurs throughout the novel, the difficulty of differentiating between artificial and organic lifeforms, it implies much more regarding such doubt, furthering it. Throughout the novel, characters posit empathy as the deciding factor between humans and androids; humans possess empathy, androids do not. The empathy that humans possess not only extends to other humans, but more importantly, animals. Animals are to be treated with the utmost respect, cared for by their human owners. Though characters in the novel figure empathy as such, their actions are completely contrarian, this moment a prime example. Sloat berates Isidore, calling him a “chickenhead” (77). Not only does he lack empathy for his fellow human by berating him, but also animals, chickens; Isidore acts reprehensibly, warranting the nickname “chickenhead,” implying that chickens are too reprehensible. This lack of empathy regarding animals is further implied by him, referring to the dead cat as “waste,” a mere object, and also Milt, questioning the cost of the dead animal (77). If these characters, believed to be human beings, lack such empathy, are they actually human beings? Or is the method by which characters determine androids flawed? Such contradictions further this sense of doubt throughout the novel.

Comedy as Understanding

Here’s yet another example. To beat Russia, the Spiders kept England and America out of World War II, thereby ensuring a German Invasion of the New World and creating a Nazi empire stretching from the salt mines of Siberia to the plantations of Iowa, from Niznhi Novgorod to Kansas City!

(Lieber, 20)

While this passage is not directly linked to comedy in the novel, I feel as though it serves the same function. Both historical references and moments of comedy are familiar to the reader, allowing him or her to utilize them to grasp a better understanding of the bizarre elements of the story. For instance, if the reader has a difficult time understanding how the Spiders and Snakes engage in warfare, he or she can identify the historical references in the passage and how they are manipulated by both sides, understanding that both sides manipulate history to afflict one another. He or she can identify the moments of comedy to understand who is most likely speaking; Greta is the comical character in the novel, therefore she most likely speaks in comedic moments. In a novel with so many characters, this is particularly useful.

History as a Set of Equations

We must-because the future isn’t nebulous. It’s been calculated out by Seldon and charted. Each successive crisis in our history is mapped and each depends in a measure on the successful conclusion of the ones previous. This is only the second crisis and Space knows what effect even a trifling deviation would have in the end.

(Asimov, 119)

As explained by Hardin in the passage above, history is a set of equations calculated by Hari Seldon in Issac Asimov’s Foundation. Seldon uses his psychological understanding of groups of people, in this case scientists, to place them in situations that will produce favorable results. For example, he understands that his fellow scientists are intelligent and non-violent, causing him to place them on Terminus; the scientists will react to the stimuli provided by that region of the galaxy in a way that will allow them to serve as the foundation of a new galactic empire. Each reaction is an equation that influences the following; the equations progress as the Foundation progresses towards its goal. Deviation from this chain will alter the history of the galaxy, which is why information regarding the future and those able to produce it (psychologists) are minimized on Terminus.

It seems as though the form of the novel corresponds to this definition of history as well, for it places the reader, creating a narrative that will have the highest effect on him or her. It places the reader through it’s use of numerics (chapter 1…), contextual encyclopedia excerpts, and chronology. If the reader deviates from Asimov’s calculated history, by reading the novel out of order etc., the history, the effect of the novel, will alter.

Parallel Narrators and Form

While reading “The Man from the Atom,” I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the narrator and D-503, the narrator of Zamyatin’s We. Though such parallels are drawn throughout the “The Man from the Atom,” they are especially so within the first two pages. For example, the narrator explains, “I, however, though I had not the slightest claim to scientific knowledge, was romantic to a high degree, and always willing to carry out his strange experiments for the sake of the adventure and the strangeness of it all” (62). On the next page, however, he states, “I am willing to take any risks… why, don’t you realize, Professor, that this will revolutionize science” (63). These statements are contradictory; the narrator tries to save face in front of the professor, acting as a scientific martyr to cover up his real motivation, self-interest. Such self-interest is also exemplified in the narrator’s statement, “But I must tell a tale-though there is no man left to understand it” (62). Not even he understands his tale, the telling of it regardless of audience, his means to understanding and/or catharsis. This is also the case for D-503 in Zamyatin’s We. Rather than record the grandeur of the OneState, which is what he claims that he is doing, he uses writing to understand what he cannot (his internal state) and express himself. Like the narrator in “The Man from the Atom,” he also realizes that those alien lifeforms that he is writing to on behalf of the OneState may not even be able to understand him, as stressed, “Maybe you unknown people who’ll get my notes when the INTEGRAL brings them-maybe you’ve read the great book of civilization only up to the page our ancestors wrote 900 years ago. Maybe you don’t even know the basics…,” magnifying such self-interest (11).

In terms of form, both works are broken up into sections. It seems as though We is sectioned because it is composed of records written by D-503. Whereas “The Man from the Atom” may be sectioned for the sake of the reader’s clarity in a large magazine (one event per section).

The Wavering Narrator

Strange-today I’ve been writing about the loftiest summits of human history, the whole time I’ve been breathing the purest mountain air of thought…but inside there is something cloudy, something spidery, something cross-shaped like that four-pawed X. Or is it my own paws bothering me, the fact that they’ve been in front of my eyes so long, these shaggy paws? I don’t like talking about them. I don’t like them. They’re a holdover from a savage era. Can it really be true that I contain…

(Record 5, Page 23)

This passage from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We struck me as worthy of comment, for it is one of the first instances of the narrator’s wavering sense of self and thus, allegiance to OneState. Up until this point, the narrator identifies himself as a cog in the machine that is OneState; his work on the INTEGRAL and his written account all done on it’s behalf. In this passage, rather than account for the OneState, addressing those it wishes to educate/dominate upon the completion of the INTEGRAL, the narrator accounts/addresses himself. As if this act wasn’t treasonous enough, putting his own interests before the state’s, the subject matter of it is as well. In a confused, apprehensive tone, he describes “something spidery, something cross-shaped like that four-pawed X,” like his paws, a remnant of the savage era (23). Unlike his paws, though, he refuses to utter what this “X” is, for perhaps possessing it is the ultimate treason. Therefore, by not uttering it, the extent of his treason is reduced; he is wavering. Later in the text, the reader learns that possessing a soul is considered an illness, possibly shedding light on what “X” is. The language that the narrator uses in the passage also showcases such wavering, for he utilizes a combination of familiar and unfamiliar words when referring to his body. In the pages preceding this passage, it seems as though the narrator only uses man-made inventions, the familiar, to describe the human body, as he does in the passage by using “X.” Yet in the passage, he also utilizes the unfamiliar, words referring to the natural world, that which lies beyond the “Green Wall,” such as “moutain air,” “cloudy,” and “spider” (23). Such wavering is induced and fostered by I-330 throughout the novel.

Medium and “The Gospel of Despair”

In reading H.G. Wells’s “The Time-Traveller Returns,” in The National Observer, one, having read the novel version (The Time Machine) previously, automatically notices the difference in endings between the two. In The Time Machine, the Time-Traveller travels to the year 802,701 A.D. and beyond, witnessing the absence of man and what is essentially the end of the world. He returns to his own time, shares his experience, and then vanishes. While the Time-Traveller in “The Time-Traveller Returns,” does travel to the year 12,203 A.D. (the equivalent of 802,701 A.D.), one of the characters calling his experience “a Gospel of Despair,” he only travels far enough to experience the absence of man, not the end of the world (145). After sharing his experience, he tends to his infant son, telling him “it’s all right” (146). Although both endings are somewhat despairing, the latter is certainly less so, the medium in which it resides determining this. The first half issue of The National Observer in which the story resides is riddled with despairing news content, such as “The Church in Danger” and “The Gulf Betwixt Jew and Gentile.” Like a comic strip, located in the back of a newspaper, “The Time-Traveller Returns,” uses fiction to ease the reader of the stress induced by the harsh realities reported throughout the publication. Like the Time-Traveller tending to his child left in the dark, Wells tends to the reader; though it may feel like the end of the world for the reader, it is not, which is why Wells leaves out such images. The articles surrounding it also function in such a way, though to a lesser extent, like “Gentlemen V. Players at Golf” (146). Free of such contextual restrictions, Wells creates a much more despairing narrative in The Time Machine; the world is going to end and the only key to perhaps altering such a fate, the Time Traveller and his time machine, have vanished.