Can’t Stop the Signal

I was puzzled by some of the posts I read talking about the graphic novel form as comical or simplistic – I never carried those expectations, so to me what “Shooting War” felt most like was pulp fiction or even young adult fiction. While the content was adult and somewhat explicit, the style of writing was hackneyed and the characterization and narrative were rushed and incomplete. I heard that the authors were asked to expand this novel from the first two chapters, and if so, that accounts for what I felt as a confused narrative arc with an ending that I can only call… pasted on. (Also, wow, I hope those blog posts were meant to be whiny and annoying …because they were.) Not only was Jimmy’s redemption unbelievable in terms of his previous actions (With so much previous introspection there was surprisingly little immediate insight into what made him upload those clips.), it was unbelievable in terms of the world he lived in. With such a media splash with those Youtube clips, there’s no way he would be allowed to be freelance and not get snapped up again! Maybe I just wasn’t reading closely, but does anyone know what happened to his people at Global? And what was up with the sanctification of Yoda Rather? Is he some kind of hero to the Left that I don’t know about? I felt in general like I was watching a made-for-TV movie with cut and paste bildungsroman characters.

The art style, however, was arresting and very effective at conveying the aesthetic message, I thought. I particularly enjoyed the skull and cross that formed the maskfaces of the soldiers. Talk about anti-religion! Overall, while the story gave a good framework for the art’s scope, I didn’t feel like each carried the other to its full potential or to a true marriage.

I did fully enjoy the alternate universe aspects of the novel, however, as science fiction works best when it is scarily plausible. McCain and the eminent domain struck a chord in me, as some have pointed out in their posts, but I still don’t see what the solution to fight back against the Evil Oppresors is. I suppose we should all become vloggers and keep information flowing constantly?

“In the Shadow of No Towers,” on the other hand, was very charming and effective. I was a bit taken aback by the extreme leftist views of the text. No matter if I share those views, it’s disorienting and strange when literature and propaganda/advertising explicitly overlap. Of course I was charmed by his references to his own work when the mouse appeared. I liked the image of his family running away from the disaster paralleling his own running away temporally to the old comics. It’s strange how influential these comics were but how we don’t typically read them either as part of the canon or as popular ad-packaged entertainment. The traces of their influence on pop culture and literature is all that’s left, so that’s one reason that I was excited to see some of the original works (especially Little Nemo and Upside-Downs).

Postmodern Magical Realism

The essay by Flores was really shocking to me in its own unquestioned assumption of authority, scathing critique, and, well, stereotyping. Is this just a ’50’s thing?? It was hard to get past for me. The history of magical realism and its evolution as a reaction to realism is useful, however, in putting magical realism into a larger context among genres, and in putting The People of Paper in a larger context of magical realist works. When Flores states that “The practitioners of magical realism cling to reality as if to prevent ‘literature’ from getting in their way, as if to prevent their myth from flying off, as in fairy tales, to supernatural realms” (191), it seems as if it is only a matter of prose style that separates magical realism from both literary dreck and other genres such as urban fantasy. (Although in the case of urban fantasy, the markers of elves and fairies would probably force it to be categorized as such, even if it were written in the most bleak and spare realist style.)

Recently, my friend got into an impromptu conversation with another girl about what qualifies a work as magical realism. My friend was frustrated that she could not explain to the girl that no, Harry Potter did not qualify as magical realism. I suggested to her that if the characters defined something as magic, then the text wasn’t magical realism, which seemed to work as a guideline for me. However, reading Flores and his more stylistic definition, I wonder how he would differentiate between magical realism and fantasy – or science fiction, which is often written in a more realist style but can still contain unexplained prophesying like Baby Nostradamus’. Apart from the typical content markers of science fiction and fantasy (space ships, wizards, etc.), one of the things that sets them apart from magical realism is their attempt at explanation of the impossible (through magic and science). Flores highlights how Kafka and Camus and other magical realist writers never explain the impossible premise of their tales, but simply move on with the realistic implications of that premise.

Apart from these signs of magical realism, The People of Paper’s postmodernist markers of multivocality, heteroglossia, intrusion of the author, foregrounding the narrative construction, and playful spirit are all present in the style. I found this multivocality much easier to read than House of Leaves’, and especially the ending, with Little Merced and Frederico de la Fe walking off the page (with Baby Nostradamus’ assurances that he knew all the characters’ lives outside the bounds of the novel) made me feel more invested in their characterization. It was odd but when the author revealed himself halfway through I began to feel frustrated, as if the fate of the characters somehow didn’t matter anymore because their construction was *foregrounded*. (Of course all fiction is constructed, but I guess I like to pretend?) However the end seemed to revert to Plascencia as an unreliable narrator with an incomplete view, paradoxically declaring victory only to be distracted by thoughts of his lost love and giving characters the power to walk off his page. As an aside, Saturn and Frederico’s view of men spurred to great achievements only because they suffered the pain of a lost love reminded me of what Russ said about the Whileawayans’ lifelong achievements motivated by the childhood pain of being separated from their mothers.

Characters and Satirical Experiment

Like a couple people mentioned before, the J-characters in this novel seem to represent different aspects of the female psyche: Jeanine seems to play the role of want-to-be submissive housewife, Janet portrays a rational and scientific mind, Jael represents a violent rebel and would-be conqueror, and Joanna seems to be the contemplative observer.  As the writer and a character in the novel, I think that Joanna’s sensibilities present her as the most fully human character in the novel; that is, she seems the most realistic, and while she does not always appear as an agent of action she seems aware of and has more access to other perspectives and possibilities (perhaps I’m attributing too much of Joanna, the writer and creator of the world and everything in it, to Joanna the character).  All of the major characters, including Joanna, seem to be extremes: overly submissive, overly rational, overly aggressive, overly meditative.  Their extremes make them more into archetypes than characters, inorganic representations rather than organic people.

These archetypes of female possibility, the fragmented structure of the novel, the intense interest in feminine and masculine identity, and the meta-fictional aspects of the novel draw attention to the work as an artificial construction.  Science fiction does not always draw attention to itself as artificial; most times in sci-fi, we give ourselves over to willing suspension of disbelief and simply accept that the mechanics of the world are different.  This novel draws does not disguise the fact that Russ is using the sci-fi genre as a platform for experimenting and investigating gender identity.  I think that Anastasia and Alyssa are correct in reading the novel as a satire or parody since these forms of writing usually depend on generalizations.  How can Russ not be poking fun at gender constructions when she lists in quick succession the names of women whose identities are imbedded right in the name? (“…Clarissa, who will commit suicide…” I think is a reference to the title character of the novel Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, a modern writer and feminist (34).)

Anastasia and Alyssa’s comments remind me of the Toni Morrsion book Playing in the Dark, which I read an excerpt from recently in my theory class.  One of the things that Morrison insists upon is that she recognizes that African American voices are marginalized in literary scholarship, but she does not want to trade a white Euro-centric perspective for a strictly African or African American perspective.  Both white and black need to be acknowledged to understand one another, just as female and male are needed to understand one another (Janet Evanson might disagree with me, but in our world of two sexes, two genders, both must be incorporated in the whole of humanity).  I think that Russ comes to a similar conclusion at the end of Female Man when Jael’s crusade to overthrow male domination comes across as extreme and just trading misogyny for misandry.  While much of post-modern literature is inconclusive (I don’t think that Joanna formally allies herself with Jael and her war plans) I think we are right to question the anti-male domination view at the end.

A Misandristic Proposal

What is the opposite of misogynyMisanthropy?  No, that’s the dislike of humankind in general, rather than the specific dislike of males.  Try again.  Misandry is the word.  As I type it into Microsoft Word and hit the spacebar, it becomes underlined in red.  Misspelled?  Quite possibly.  No, a quick trip to the Oxford English dictionary confirms spelling and definition.  So misandry simply isn’t recognized by Microsoft technology.  It’s unfamiliar.  It’s defamiliar.  Perhaps, this just represents one of many omitted words and names, or maybe it signifies something greater and more telling about (wo)men and technology.  Regardless, it offers point of entry into discussing Joanna Russ’ The Female Man.

Though Russ’ The Female Man can fit into many classifications of literature (e.g. postmodern fiction, science fiction, a feminist work, etc.), I am interested in how it functions as a satire.  At the end of the text, Jael proposes the women (Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna) “do business with [Jael’s] Womanland” (211) and to incorporate women soldiers from each of their individual realities to wage war on the men.  Jeannine and Joanna quickly acquiesce.  Jeannie states, “‘Oh sure, I don’t mind.  You can bring in all the soldiers you want.  You can take the whole place over; I wish you would’” (Russ 211).  The response is pert and off-the-cuff.  Oh sure.  Why not? Well, why not?

Janet, the woman from the all-female Whileaway, alone, resists.  Moreover, she refuses Jael’s retelling of the plague as an act of female aggression.  It is unclear whether this resistance comes from inexperience with males, stupidity, or a more simplistic view of conflict resolution (or perhaps, like Microsoft, Janet does not have a word for this construct).  Still, we don’t know why she would resist or why anyone should resist?  At first glance, it seems perfectly logical.

What’s wrong with a rebalancing of power?  In Jeannine and Joann’s worlds, when woman are not being infantilized by the men in the text, they are being raped or arranging their lives so that they won’t be vulnerable to rape.  Clearly, a master-slave relationship is at work, dominating the women at every opportunity, denying them “adult independence—namely money” (118).  It is only through technology that Whileaway and Womanland the women regain their power.  Why not take this to the next level?

Given the endless possibilities of technology, an inter-dimensional war with men may throw the balance of power in favor of the women.  Most of the characters find that idea fairly attractive.  In fact, Jael’s logic reflects that of an oppressed people made free.  Rather than preach the ills of subjection, the free must, in turn, oppress to maintain their freedom.  Freedom cannot exist without oppression; oppression cannot exist without freedom.  On second glance, it simply replaces one societal ill with another: misandry with misogyny.  So what’s the point of this exercise?  By promoting misandry, The Female Man would undercut all its previous points about the master-slave power in male-female relations.  But it doesn’t just do that.  Misandry defamiliarizes misogyny.  It gives us a new word, a new point of reference, a new context to highlight an old referential.

Transitioning from Danielewski to Russ

So, I’m relaxing over spring break, recovering from the marathon that was Danielewski’s House of Leaves (thoroughly enjoyed nonetheless), and I start in on Joanna Russ’ The Female Man.  After having finished the novel (shall we call it a novel?) a week later, I reflect.  At times I thought the book was brilliant; the subversion of the science fiction, manipulating the genre to fit what she was trying to address on the feminist ‘front’, was outstanding.  The Faulknerian use of stream of consciousness and first-person narration is also commendable.  But then there were parts of the novel that became burdensome for me; in other words, at a certain point, I felt like the book’s entire discussion (the question of a woman’s role/freedom/right [I hesitate to provide a label for fear of a Jael-like counterattack] in the world) became repetitive; and I would guess if you go searching for criticism against The Female Man you might find a similar complaint somewhere…

…but really you don’t have to look any further than the book itself:

Shrill . . . vituperative . . . no concern for the future of society . . . maunderings of antiquated feminism . . . selfish femlib . . . need a good lay . . . this shapeless book . . . of course a calm and objective discussion is beyond . . . twisted, neurotic . . . some truth buried in a largely hysterical . . . [and so on and so forth]. (140-41)

Within the book, Joanna Russ has provided the reader with criticism for the book: The Female Man is its own worst critic.  What does this tell us about Joanna Russ and her intentions?  Is she mocking these critical voices; drawing attention to the very biases that they reinforce?  Is this critical inclusion a form of self-deprecation of her novel?  Is it a little bit of both?

Whatever answers we might conclude to these questions, this section of the book got me thinking about Danielewski.  Of course, after three weeks of House of Leaves, we are all familiar with Danielewski’s tactics, his self-proclaimed preemptive strike against any form of literary criticism, or any attempt to disassemble the book.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that Joanna Russ was trying to actively prevent criticism like Danielewski is, but she is certainly anticipating responses towards the book.

With House of Leaves already in the discussion, I also thought of another interesting comparison between the two authors.  With the construction of numerous levels of ‘authorship’ (i.e. Zampano and Johnny Truant), Danielewski effectively ‘distances’ himself from the text.  Conversely, Joanna Russ eliminates any separation between her and The Female Man by identifying herself in the book as both character and author, crossing the conventional line between author and text.  I wonder what this accomplishes for the book.  As the ‘1970s feminist trying to succeed in a man’s world’, what can we say about The Female Man Joanna and the author Joanna?  I’m thinking it’s important to remember that  she is only one of the four female ‘representations’ in the book.

…As you can tell, this book has left me with more questions than it has provided answers.

Side-note:

With all the references to the moon,  it will be hard not to think of The Female Man whenever I listen to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’.  Now, I keep thinking of ‘Us and Them’ in terms of Jael’s version of Earth with warring male and female societies.  Try it; it just about fits…

Harvey on Genre vs. Characterization in Postmodernism

In “The Condition of Postmodernity,” David Harvey attempts to define postmodernism in relation to modernism, and in myriad cultural contexts, including literature, architecture, psychology, and art. In his definition, Harvey discusses the blurring of genres, and specifically mentions the postmodern tendency to dissolve the “boundary between fiction and science fiction” (41). This is definitely true of The Lathe of Heaven, a novel that cannot fit into either/or category of science fiction/postmodern literature. LeGuin’s novel is most striking in its ability to use science fiction to cause disorder and confusion in reality as we know it. However, as opposed to the reality featured in Crying of Lot 49, which defies any sense of reason and is completely fragmented, the reality in The Lathe of Heaven is more believable, and also more ordered. Though George’s prophetic dreams do influence reality, this pattern is more noticeable, and therefore, expected in the novel.

Jennifer asks in the first post on this topic whether all science fiction novels can be considered postmodern. While it is definitely a valid and interesting question, Harvey posits in his article on “Postmodernity” that while “modernist literary critics do tend to look at works as examples of a ‘genre’ and do judge them by a ‘master code’ that prevails within the boundary of the genre, [the] ‘postmodern’ style is simply to view a work as a ‘text’ with its own particular ‘rhetoric’ and ‘idolect,’ but which can in principle be compared with any other text of no matter what sort” (44). If I understand this correctly, I think Harvey is specifically drawing attention to postmodernists’ attempts to eschew “genre” as we know it; therefore, we cannot really classify any postmodernist work as “science fiction” or any other genre. Though this seems easy enough to digest in theory, it becomes problematic in practice to shy away from categorizing literary works for the purposes of comparison and analysis. On one hand, postmodernism is fragmentation and chaos, as Harvey defines it; and on the other hand, in order to legitimize its impact, we need to understand postmodernism logically, and in terms that we can easily decipher and comprehend.

Leaving the genre debate aside, it becomes easier to think of postmodernism as a way to propagate equal representation: “The idea that all groups have a right to speak for themselves, in their own voice, and have that voice accepted as authentic and legitimate is essential to the pluralistic stance of postmodernism” (Harvey 48). Hence, when discussing postmodern literary works, such as The Lathe of Heaven, it becomes apparent that issues of racial construction, for example, are called to be eradicated. Dr. Haber states that we should have “no more color problems. No question of race […] Nobody in the entire history of the human race has suffered for the color of his skin” (LeGin 129). Additionally, “characters no longer contemplate how they can unravel or unmask a central mystery, but are forced to ask, ‘Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of the mysteries is to do it? Instead” (Harvey 48). This shift in focus from genre to characterization, and their influence on/perception of reality is a defining feature of postmodernism. The effect of this shift in focus is striking: “to break (deconstruct) the power of the author to impose meanings or offer a continuous narrative” (Harvey 51). Therefore, instead of the focus being on how LeGuin weaves the plot to create a work of science fiction, the focus shifts to how the characters—George Orr, Dr. Haber, and Heather—develop throughout the novel, and whether or not their respective dreams/ realities materialize and coincide.

The Signifier and Signified in The Lathe of Heaven

Let me start off by saying that I genuinely enjoyed The Lathe of Heaven.  I was trying to verbalize to a friend just what it was that attracted me about this particular book, and I found myself describing my fascination with Le Guin’s complex layering of new worlds, especially since these worlds are both purposefully and accidentally created.  This calls to mind the following excerpt in Harvey’s article:  “Whereas modernists had presupposed that there was a tight and identifiable relation between what was being said (the signified or ‘message’) and how it was being said (the signifier or ‘medium’), poststructuralist thinking sees these as ‘continually breaking apart and re-attaching in new combinations” (49).  Just as Haber attempts to control George Orr’s dreams and manipulate the present, he constantly fails (despite his confidence that he has succeeded) in creating a better world.  In “reality” (which sounds so out of place when a describing a book like this), Haber is attempting to exert power through his own message (or “signified”) which he mediates through Orr’s dreams (which act as the “signifier”), and yet, the outcome is never what Haber intends.  Postmodernism focuses on the continual “breaking apart” of what is intended and what is understood, and so does Le Guin’s story.  Haber believes he can make the world a better place, but it is his medium, Orr’s dreams, which no one can control. 

Orr himself realizes his own role in this complex re-working of past, present, and future.  After killing off billions of people in an attempt to rid the world of “overpopulation” (60) and stopping the war on Earth only to start another between humans and aliens, Orr says, “Out of the frying pan into the fire… Don’t you see, Dr. Haber, that’s all you’ll get from me?  Look, it’s not that I want to block you, to frustrate your plans… Your own ideas are sane and rational, but this is my unconscious you’re trying to use, not my rational mind.  Maybe rationally I could conceive of the human species not trying to kill each other off by nations, in fact rationally it’s easier to conceive of than the motives of war.  But you’re handling something outside of reason.  You’re trying to reach progressive, humanitarian goals with a tool that isn’t suited to the job” (86). 

The disconnect between the signified and the signifier is not the only important factor in this story; the fact is that the “new combinations” of what is meant to change about the world (the “problem”) and what actually changes (the “cure”) just creates another problem in its place.  Orr understands that his dreams serve as the medium for Haber’s ideas, and he is able to see that the repercussions are far too vast to continue on this downward slope.  In the end, Orr is able to settle happily into a much-adjusted world.  Heather Lalache says, “I thought you could change the world.  Is this the best that you could do—this mess?” (175), and though she is fairly unaware of how much worse it had been and how much worse it could get, the reader should sense that this is the best he could do.  Neither he nor Haber really could control the medium, as it is an irrational unconscious which has created these multiple worlds, and so this end to the nonsense, the aftermath of all the horror Haber has done, is actually a gift.  When postmodernism began to recognize a creator’s inability to control the received message, they also invited a whole slew of science fiction that toys with the more metaphorical meaning of a creator, its creation, and its reception in the world.  This is especially true in The Lathe of Heaven.

As a sidenote, I wanted to point out that after reading Harvey’s section on technology, in particular the “the proliferation of television use”(61) after having also read about postmodern art, I could not stop thinking about a piece I saw last year at the Smithsonian American Art Museum which combines television and art in a way I have never seen otherwise.  Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” depicts each of the fifty state proportionally with various sized televisions which continuously roll representative footage of each state.  For example, “The Wizard of Oz” plays on the televisions that constitute Kansas and “Oklahoma” plays, obviously, on the Oklahoma screens.  This piece really forced me to question how television can serve as an art medium in a more abstract and meaningful way than just as the way we watch “Lost” or “American Idol.”  Check it out, either with this link or in person if you get the chance!

For a more interactive site & information on the exhibit itself, look here: http://americanart.si.edu/collections/interact/zoom/paik.cfm

For digital images, look herehttp://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM4438

 

 

Either dream of world peace OR turtles from outer space

I also thought that Le Guin was nudging the concept of either/or with George’s personality and obviously his name. The first thing I thought of with the logical concept of either/ or is the Elliott Smith record (note a very postmodern pop culture reference), the other is Kierkegaard’s philosophical doctrine; the latter I think has a little more weight in this discussion so I’ll think I’ll pursue it. I don’t know too much about Kierkegaard but I know he typically wrote about concepts like fear and dread and doubt of religion. I searched Wikipedia for Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and found that the “Either” side of his argument is a worldview that adopts a purely aesthetic lifestyle such as drinking, casual sex, vanity, and any other indulgencies that satisfy the self. The “Or” side of the argument, which is given by a judge, purposes that in the later stages of life one adopts an ethical lifestyle, one that acts responsibly and morally. The doctrine attempts to answer Aristotle’s question “How should we live?” which I thought to be the question Le Guin purposes to the characters of The Lathe of Heaven.

Dr. Haber is an aggressive man but not evil; it is repeated several times, even by George, that he is benevolent: one page 83 “Haber wanted to make the world better for humanity.” However, Haber’s idea of “How should we live?” is presumptuous. He thinks that his idea of a world will be good for the people, but George knows that no one can possibly be responsible enough to make a decision that will affect everyone. George disproves Haber’s snake bit analogy by arguing that no man can make a decision for all of mankind: on page 156 George says, “Just believing you’re right and your motives are good isn’t enough. You have to be…in touch. Haber isn’t in touch…means are all we’ve got…he can’t let be.” And on page 140 George says to Haber, “We’re in the world, not against it. It doesn’t work to try to stand outside things and run them that way…the world is, no matter how we think it ought to be. You have to be with it. You have to let it be (one of several Beatles references).” In reference to Kierkegaard’s book, George Orr represents the ethical side in his decision to try and stop dreaming and stop Haber’s dream suggestions, hence the name – Orr.

I don’t think George is merely average and timid. I think that his discourse with Haber in chapters 6 and especially chapters 9 and 10 shows that George is really contemplating this power and showing the flaws in Haber’s dream suggestions. He is living in a world that is pulling him one way or the other, either with Haber’s ideology or Heather’s assertiveness. His passivity is certainly there, but it is marked by intelligence (most likely an average person with this ability would make his life not average).

I also had trouble seeing this text as postmodern when it had prevailing science fiction themes. But I think that the altercation of reality by George’s dreams is consistent with Postmodernism’s critique of reality. Portland is constantly morphing yet no one seems to question this bizarre reality, except George. The question of what is reality is brought into question which Postmodern text attempts to ask. Also, Harvey brings up the connection between postmodernism and science fiction in his essay, “The boundary between fiction and science fiction has dissolved, while postmodernist characters often seem confused as to which they are in, and how they should act with respect to it.” If anyone is confused in what world they live in it is George Orr.

Notes on Heather’s Character- Orr’s Name

Karin brings up an interesting idea when she mentions that Heather may be seen as Orr’s antithesis.  While I was reading I thought Heather’s character was unexplainably inconsistent, but then I thought this whole book is based on inconsistencies.  While the spider metaphor that first introduces her accentuates strength in her and shows her as aggressive and fierce as she’s described as predator and Orr as her prey, the portrayal of her character as Orr’s grey-skinned wife is more domesticated and she appears more vulnerable.   The role reversal is certainly apparent when she becomes the needy one who seeks reassurance from Orr.  As Orr explains it in his thoughts about his wife, her “brown” color was what made her who she was.  Her history as one of mixed race and her struggle with issues of belonging seemed to have created that complexity in her character that had fed her strength.  In the final version we get of Heather towards the end of the book, she’s even fiercer than Orr remembers her to be and is “vivid” and “difficult.” In a continuum where they never married but only knew each other briefly in a far past she grows more into the aggressive person she was when Orr first met her at her office.  This may be an indication that her relationship with Orr seemed to have had an effect on her assertiveness as her color did or does. In the cabin scene we sense her weakness for the first time as she begins to have warm feelings towards Orr.  This shows how her relationship had an effect on her character as it toned her down a bit and penetrated the façade of fierceness that she had maintained before she met him.  I think this point really exemplifies Le Guin’s thoroughness in her depiction of character without dwelling on the minor details as a modernist writer would.

As to Orr’s name and its signification that’s been brought up by Sara Flood and Karin, I agree that his name suggests that his mundane character is the polar opposite of the typical science fiction hero.  Further, I think it cleverly represents the nature of his super power: the ability to alter reality and create multiple options and realities.  In his brief meditation of the Alien in front of him Orr explains, “It was not standing there… not in the same way that he would stand, or sit, or lie, or be.  It was standing there in the way that he, in a dream, might be standing.  It was there in a sense that in a dream one is somewhere” (178).  While the repeated “or” is what made me realize the mentioned connection, this line, I believe, is crucial in examining Orr’s understanding of the realities that he creates.  He’s beginning to realize that it is not actual reality that he alters but a reality that is existent only in dreams, and now he’s in another person’s dream and hence in a different reality.   There is no actual reality but only coexisting, colliding and interpenetrating realities, which is a prominent characteristic of postmodern fiction, as Harvey explains.

Mr. Either Orr

George Orr is the most forgettable character I know.  I was expecting invisibility, super-strength, flying, lightning fast changes into spandex and capes, but not banality.  My expectations for a main character in a sci-fi / postmodern novel have been upended, and in their place is left normalcy.  Our first physical description of him is ordinary, even boring: “haircut conservative shoulder-length, beard short.  Light hair and eyes, a short, slight, fair man, slightly undernourished, good health, twenty-eight to thirty-two.  Unaggressive, placid, milquetoast, repressed conventional” (7).  Le Guin has decidedly chosen the most mild-natured man in Portland, or even the world to be suddenly thrust into the spotlight.  I can’t help but wonder: why Orr?

Not only is he average–but the Le Guin goes out of her way to say just how average he his.  Habor even justifies Orr’s averageness by confirming it with psychological test results:  “Creative/destructive, on the Ramirez scale–same thing.  Both, neither.  Either, or.  Where there’s an opposed pair, a polarity, you’re in the middle; where there’s a scale, you’re at the balance point” (137).  Why would a man so average and mundane be caught in the middle of these dream experiments?  Maybe his name has more to do with him being caught in one reality or another. One dream or another.  One experiment or another. 

At one point, Orr wonders,”What kind of man am I?[…]I haven’t any strength, I haven’t any character, I’m a born tool” ( 74).  He seems to want to take a stand against Habor, but can’t dream the right dream, convince the right attorney, or be in the right reality.  However, there are a few moments of assertiveness in Orr’s overwhelmingly banal personality.  For example, after the curious incident with aliens, Orr insists that Habor call the HEW Minister and explain the miscommunication.  It is at this moment that Habor wonders, “Why had this gift been given to a fool, a passive nothing of a man?  Why was Orr so sure and so right, while the strong, active, positive man was powerless, forced to try to use, even to obey, the weak tool?” (124). Additionally, when Heather goes to the cabin to learn why Orr missed their lunch date, she acknowledges that “He is the strongest person she had ever known, because he would not be moved away from the center” (96).  Since Heather is described as Orr’s antithesis, one can’t help but mark this unusual role reversal.  

Even though Orr may be forgettable and mundane, I can’t help but think that this was Le Guin’s point.  Haven’t all of the superhuman strengths been chronicled and the stereotypes of science fiction been established?  So where does the postmodern novel turn to create a main character?  The yawning averageness. 

Lastly, I am not sure what to make of this, but there were all of these unusual references to Orr being similar to different types of animals:  a monkey, an insect, a goose, a dead elephant, etc.  What is a reader to make of these?

Science Fiction/Postmodernism and Harvey

 After reading The Lathe of Heaven, I felt more confused about what postmodernism is because I would have easily classified this as science-fiction. Let me point out a few things first: I understand that a lot of different texts from a variety of genres can be postmodern (fiction, nonfiction, etc.) just like you can draw upon different schools of analysis (like postmodernism) in relation to one text. And I also understand, since we’ve been talking about it nearly every class, how technology is a huge part of postmodernism—it interfering with or transforming our lives, it being seen as an extension of our bodies, etc.  So, I’m not saying that I don’t understand how this book can be called postmodern.

 

What I’m confused by is this: A great deal of science-fiction deals with technology in some way, some in very similar ways to The Lathe of Heaven, so where does science fiction stop and postmodernism begin? Like, take The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. This book is very similar to The Lathe of Heaven. In The Lathe of Heaven, a man’s mind can change reality, and with the aid of a machine (the Augmenter), this reality can be changed more often. In The Time Machine, a man invents a machine to change reality and subsequently does just that in the world he eventually finds himself in. So, is The Time Machine postmodern? Surely, one can argue that The Time Machine contains the same technological interference and perhaps even technological extensions of the body as does The Lathe of Heaven, not to mention a similar notion of rethinking/retelling history. But this book is widely considered classic science fiction. I mean, science fiction really is, by definition, a genre that has to do with envisioned futures and envisioned sciences and envisioned technology. So, wouldn’t most science fiction be postmodern?

 

David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity cleared up some of my confusion. He writes: “The postmodern novel… [is] a shift from the kind of perspectivism that allowed the modernist to get a better bearing on the meaning of a complex but nevertheless singular reality, to the foregrounding of questions as to how radically different realities may coexist, collide, and interpenetrate. The boundary between fiction and science fiction has, as a consequence, effectively dissolved, while postmodernist characters often seem confused as to which world they are in, and how they should act with respect to it.”

 

So, it’s been a while since I read The Time Machine, but if I’m remembering it correctly, the main character doesn’t grapple with the same questions and complexity that George Orr struggles with. I don’t remember enough of the exposition in The Time Machine to really comment on the main character’s mindset, but I do remember it being a straight travel through time to a future that he eventually saved. This is, of course, not the same in The Lathe of Heaven, where all of these potential realities, to use Harvey’s words, coexisted, collided, and interpenetrated. Later, Harvey reinforces this thought by saying that postmodernists can’t “aspire to any unified representation of the world” but rather, that the world is, for a postmodernist, full of “perpetually shifting fragments.” This, combined with his earlier notes on science fiction, seems to line up well when distinguishing between modernism and postmodernism and thus The Time Machine and The Lathe of Heaven.

 

Harvey also cleared up the genre aspect, insofar as modernists seeing works “as examples of genre” and postmodernists seeing “a work as a text.” In other words, then, echoing my thoughts in the first paragraph, lots of texts, despite affiliated “genre,” can be postmodern. Oh! And that list on the schematic differences between modernism and postmodernism was awesome. I think that was exactly what I needed—something visual or straight-up about the differences between the two. By contrasting the differences, I’m able to understand both what postmodernism is and is not much better than I had understood it previously.