Monday, May 21, 2007

"Perhaps, unlike the Institute's gamma lasers, the glove did change who you were. He certainly did not feel like the same person he'd been... three minutes ago? Years and monsters and ages and cultures and kilometers and feelings ago? 'I read Sand and The Sands and Lyrikz...' and when he'd recited a dosen titles, she stopped him with a laugh." (Delany, 44)

In this part of the novel, Rat Korga is educated through the technology of the glove, which allows him to read whole books in a few seconds. I personally found this section of the novel to be one of the most touching and engaging parts of the whole novel. It seems to me that this few pages are Delany's way of expressing his love for literature, and his feelings about his own education. Rat Korga's eyes are opened by the literature. In a few minutes he learns history and philosophy and a love for his own planet, things he was never able to think about before. Not only does the glove seem to make up for the RAT process, it actually compensates for Rat's mental weaknesses, which was what made him unhappy in the first place.

The glove changes Rat, and when it is taken away, he is left dissatisfied, an emotion he is not supposed to feel. Later in the novel it says that Rat begins wearing one work glove, as if in his diminished state he is trying to reach again for the knowledge. It is the knowledge that makes Rat human, and able to function and understand the world around him. I think that this part of the novel is also Delany's commentary on the importance of knowledge, especially to black americans. It seems that Delany is playing off of WEB Dubois' argument that blacks need to seek out a higher education, so that they will be able to challenge whites on every issue.This part of the novel also reminds me of the traditional slave narrative, in which a slave is somehow taught to read and write, and how that only awakes feelings of dissatisfaction and a need to challenge authority. It seems that by keeping the RATs uneducated and in essence stupid (although we are led to believe that Rat Korga is one of the stupidest) they are also being kept under control.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sci-Fi Slave Narratives

Derrick Bell’s short story “The Space Traders” and the film “The Brother from Another Planet” are both science fiction versions of traditional slave narratives, but they are very dissimilar in tone.

In Bell’s story, an alien race has come to America and promises solutions to all of the country’s economic and ecological problems in exchange for all of the black US citizens. In the story, America’s other races eagerly sell their black neighbors. The whites justify the trade by saying that the few must sacrifice for the many, and they ease their guilt by claiming that the other world may not be so bad. As The Secretary of the Interior claims; “Perhaps they have selected them to inhabit some interplanetary version of the biblical land of milk and honey.” The other minorities, the Hispanics, Asians, and Jews, are all unwilling to sell the blacks, but for the wrong reasons. “In the absence of blacks, Jews could become the scapegoats for a system so reliant on an identifiable group on whose heads less-well-off whites can discharge their hate and frustrations.” Each of those groups fears that with the blacks gone they will become the new scapegoat, the new target for racial oppression. In the end, the blacks are taken away in chains, and it becomes clear that the alien race are in fact slave traders, and that America has made no progress in the past 200 years.

The film “The Brother from Another Planet” seems to take a much more cheerful outlook on America’s race relations. The basic plot is that the brother is a runaway slave from another world, who is being pursued by two “men in black” types, who are presumably his slavers. The brother crash lands in Harlem, and makes a new life for himself there, eventually avoiding his slavers with a little help from a sort of intergalactic underground railroad. This narrative of the underground railroad is spelled out even more clearly through images of the New York City subway. The brother is mute, but despite this he is able to make friends easily, and finds many people who help him along his way including the white woman who takes him in as a border and the Hispanic man from work. In contrast to Bell’s story, this film shows America as a welcoming place, where there is some ethnic tension and discrimination, but where people are on the whole friendly and at least willing to help someone in need. True, there are some examples of white oppression in the film, for example the wealthy white drug lord the brother tracks down at the end of the film, but overall the outlook of this movie is much more hopeful that “Space Traders.” After all, none of the brother’s friends are willing to give him to his pursuers.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

"Renovating the Massa's House"

Nisi Shawl's "Deep End" is a tale of colonization. In the story Wayna and the others are being sent to colonize a new planet- Amends. In some ways, this is a traditional European story- not unlike that of the pilgrims. They are setting out to settle their own "New World". Nissi Shawl messes with this european story by making all of the future colonizers convicts, who are settling this new world as a part of their "rehabilitation". By doing this, the story becomes less like that of the early american pilgrims and it begins to have more in common with the traditional story of Australia's beginnings. Amends will be a colony inhabited by ex-cons- who have chosen this in hope of starting a new life (many chose to stay in the computer program instead.)

But Shawl goes even further- she makes her characters people of color, who have been forced into new white bodies, so that they are a group of people with black identities, but who will bear white children and create a new white world. Dr. Ops, the AI which supervises them, represents an overseer or a slave trader. This story of colonization is converted into a story of abduction and slavery. Even Wayna's physical reaction to the change is tied to the idea of slavery. "Then the pain hit. White! Heat! There then gone- the lash of a whip."

Eventually, in a way that mimics the traditional slave narrative, Wayna comes to accept her new place- she learns a trade and gives up her old friends. She starts to accept Dr. Ops instructions. She becomes accustomed to her new white body and white way of life.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

In his essay "Souls of Black Folk," DuBois tells the story of his first realization that his race made him different from the white children at school, and realized that he was "shut out from their world by a vast veil." Later in the essay he says that the real dilemma of the black american is a feeling of double-consciousness, the need to be both American and black, and the "longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self" without losing either of his cultural backgrounds. He feels that people have to stay in touch with their roots because each race has its own story- its own part in history that cannot be articulated by another race.
In his short story "The Comet," DuBois creates a situation- perhaps what he believes to be the only situation- in which the black character, Jim, is released from the veil that society has put on him. In the story, Jim and a young white woman find themselves as equals, simply because everyone else is dead. DuBois story assumes that the only way a relationship between a black man and a white women would work is if they were literally the last two people on earth. In "The Comet," Jim is also released from his obligation to teach the world about his culture, his blackness, because his status as the last living man surpasses his role as a black man.
At the end of the short story, when it is discovered that there are still other living people, Jim immediately resumes his former role as a black man, a person at the bottom of society. This shows that whatever he and the woman learned in their time together was not lasting. It would take more than this to make a change.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Last Angel of History

Akomfrah’s documentary, Last Angel of History, opens with the story of Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the blues. Akomfrah uses this story to set up music and black culture as a “black technology.” This makes music the center of a relm of science fiction which embraces and celebrates black technology and history. The film then goes on to discuss the three major black sci-fi musicians, Sun Ra in jazz, Lee Scratch Perry in Reggae, and George Clinton in funk. The film uses George Clinton’s Mothership Connection as an important part of the Data Theif story line, saying that the phrase “Mothership Connection” is a key to a code that will reveal the future, and that the rest of the code is scattered throughout black history and music.

Kodwo Eshun also talks about these musicians in his essay Further Considerations on Afrofuturism. He says that “Afrofuturism studies the appeals that black artists, musicians, critics, and writers have made to the future, in moments where any future was made difficult for them to imagine.” It is these moments that the Data Thief is trying to find and use to unlock the secrets of the future.

In Last Angel of History, Eshun is interviewed and he claims that alien abduction has already taken place, in the form of slavery. This certainly sets up the argument that Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn is a neo-slave narrative, with the Oankali taking the place of white slave traders. In fact, in Dawn the biological exchange is referred to as trade, and the Oankali consider themselves traders. The character of Lilith is a science fiction look at a very traditional character- she is a black woman who starts out free but ends as a resentful black mistress, and the mother of mulatto children.

The Data thief is a gatherer of information. His job in assembling the code is to make a composite of all black history. The film Scratch presented DJs in a similar way-
Scratch music is a composite of all music history, shaped and presented through the artistic interpretations of the DJ. In Last Angel of History Greg Tate says that “sampling allows musicians to concentrate all eras of black music onto a chip.” There is also a discussion of “jungle” music, which uses technology to mimic the sounds of traditional drums and rhythms. The film points out that by using technology these musicians not on compile the past, they also embrace a cyborg identity- which becomes an allegory for blacks who need to prove their own humanity because of their color.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Has anyone else read Manjula Padmanabhan's play Harvest? It is about an impoverished Indian family being used by British colonialists as living organ donors. Anyway, it talks a lot about colonialism, and is definitely science fiction, so I thought it had some connections to this class. I liked it, although I missed the performance that they did at the ECT last year...

Monday, April 9, 2007

A New Race

The constructs in Lilith’s Brood really are both Human and Oankali. The constructs are raised in an Oankali family structure and in an Oankali town, in this case Lo, which is itself a living entity; yet their humanity is important to them. They are missing the human drive for violence and some of the human need for independence, yet they understand these needs in a way the Oankali never could. Although the Oankali set out to create a new race, part human and part themselves, they seem almost surprised by the human needs that surface in their construct children. The human parents, on the other hand, seem to be pleasantly surprised by their children’s human qualities, as if they did not expect them.

In Adulthood Rites Akin spends part of his youth living in the Human town of Phoenix, and so he grasps a deeper understanding of the human need for independence than any other Oankali or construct. He becomes an advocate for and later a founder of an all human colony on Mars. He believes that the human conflict, hierarchy and intelligence, will eventually cause these humans to destroy themselves again. He also realizes that part of being human is a need for a second chance, the humans need the hope that maybe this time they can find their own way out of the conflict. “All he could do for them, if he could do anything, was to let them be bound in their own ways. Perhaps next time their intelligence would be in balance with their hierarchical behavior, and they would not destroy themselves.” Akin is the first construct to realize that humans need to be given a choice, because even Lilith resents the way she is forced into loving her Oankali family. As we see in the third novel, the humans Akin meets are right, eventually they are able to reproduce on Earth, somehow the Oankali make a mistake and fertile humans survive, but so do some genetic disorders. Akin’s plan for Mars provides a safer alternative. The humans who go to Mars sacrifice their home planet in exchange for reproductive health and freedom.

In Imago, Jodahs is the first human-born ooloi construct, yet despite its alien sex; its narrative gives us the first glimpse at the ultimate blending of human and Oankali. In many ways it is the most human construct we have encountered in these books. It is easily accepted by humans because its body strives to please them, physically and chemically. It shape shifts to fit the fantasy of its human. “Oankali ooloi frightened humans because they looked so different. Aaor and I were much less frightening. Perhaps that allowed humans to respond more freely to our scent. Or Perhaps, being part human ourselves, we had a more appealing scent.” It is seductive, yet the humans’ feelings for it go beyond a physical or chemical attraction. As Nikanj says at the end of the novel, pheromones only help Jodahs at first, but eventually the humans just love him. The humans Jodahs “converts” do not harbor the same resentments as Lilith. They do not feel forced into mating with him. It finds a colony of humans who have somehow managed to reproduce, but who have been passing on genetic disorders and have crippled themselves with inbreeding. His seductive, lovable nature makes it easy for him to convince these humans that they should join him and have construct children, even though they know that they are capable of having their own human children.