Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Blog 3: Aldiss and Science Fiction

      It is a difficult task to define such a broad genre as Science Fiction in a single sentence. Within this genre, we have works ranging from "Frankenstein" to "1984" to "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" that cover a range of topics during various times and various places However, I think Brian Aldiss has given a very comprehensive definition of the genre in a small space but that the work does not have to be "cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode."
       Using what we've read from Philip K. Dick's novel, we can see several instances where the characters ponder their "status in the universe." In the very first pages of the novel, we're introduced to Rick and Iran Deckard. Rick of course is very involved in the story, but we are immediately presented with a woman who doesn't seem to be as numb to her reality as the other characters or, at least, she doesn't want to be. Rather than using technology to make the reality of a wasteland world bearable, she actually uses it to enhance a feeling of despair. "I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life... and not reacting... that used to be a sign of mental illness; they called it 'absence of appropriate affect'"[5]. Iran is obviously not in accordance with the world around her like the other people we meet in the novel. She is, instead, snappy and depressed. The odd thing is, this is exactly how I would expect someone to act on a planet covered in radioactive dust and almost devoid of life but she is the one who is out of place.
       Next, we meet JR Isidore, a proven "special." Mentally handicapped people have it hard enough outside of a Sci-Fi novel, so it is no surprise that the stammering Isidore is also trying to find his place. When JR is feeling the weight of being alone and different, he uses another piece of technology called an "Empathy Box" to connect with other people in the predominant religion of Mercerism. "I'm not very special, only moderately, not like some you see. But that's what Mercer doesn't care about" [66]. Every time we encounter JR, he is looking for something or someone to belong to. He knows all there is to know about Mercerism because he believes it is one of the few things that will accept him. Later in the novel, he even sides with illegal androids because they seem to accept him more than humans.
       Rick is arguably the main character of the novel. At first, he seems to have an acceptance, although perhaps forced by his mood adjuster, of the world around him. He wants to move up in his career, make more money, and own a real animal just as we believe a "normal" person would on this Earth. However, as the novel progresses, Rick begins questioning things and his view of right and wrong skew. In the beginning of the novel, Rick's wife calls him "a murderer hired by the cops" to which he replies "I've never killed a human being in my life" referring of course to merely "retiring" rogue androids [4]. However, after the incident with Luba Luft and Phil Resch, Rick seems to be having a moral conundrum. Although he did mistake a human for an android, what really seems to be getting to him is what he feels when Luba is killed. "I've had enough. She was a wonderful singer. The planet could have used her. This is insane." He is quickly reminded that to escape the Mars colony, the androids killed humans, but it seems the confusion has already set in and Rick is questioning right and wrong which, as early as that very morning, he had never done.
       So we have three characters with three different outlooks questioning where they belong and what is right and wrong. Interestingly enough, we have no good way of telling if any of these characters are actually human, but it doesn't matter. We don't need to have a strict definition of mankind. In fact, if I'm reading Aldiss correctly, a science fiction novel should make us question our preconceived "definition of mankind" and having a strict definition would actually ruin the novel because we would simply write some of the complex topics off. Who is more human? Iran or the people who blind themselves to the harsh reality? The androids who accept Isidore or the people who reject him as a "chickenhead?" Luba Luft or Phil Resch with no appreciation for sentimental gestures or the arts? With a strict definition of what it is to be human, these questions cannot cause us to ponder and without that, the novel is sure to be very thin. "Science Fiction is the search for a definition of mankind" with a strict definition then science fiction is ruined and why read it?
       As far as the last little part of the definition goes, I'm not sure that it matters what style the book is written in and this is one place I slightly disagree with Aldiss. No one would argue that Philip Dick's novel is science fiction, to do so would be insane but it doesn't seem to fit the "Gothic or Post-Gothic mode." Gothic literature is a sort of combination of Romance and Horror. Frankenstein, for example, is written in the Gothic style. DADES, is definitely not written in this style. One could argue Horror for the nature of rogue androids, but Romance is not present. Although I was not able to find anything specific about "Post-Gothic mode" I do know that Dick was a Postmodernist and that is seemingly not related to Gothic in any way. 

      Besides casting science fiction into a certain style of writing, I think Aldiss has given us a pretty good and concise definition if we just chop off that last part.


Adam said...

This is a generally strong response to the prompt, especially given that the prompt itself was open-ended. You show a good understanding of several characters, and you compactly explain both what makes them human (in one sense) while rendering irrelevant their biological/technical humanity in another sense. One awkward bit here is that you clearly understand and even halfway argue that these *characters* are trying to understand or define their humanity, but don't quite render that explicit - that would be one fruitful area of revision if you revisit this essay.

I'm not happy, really, with your discussion of the gothic/post-gothic, mostly because you didn't actually look up what the gothic is. However, I'm not really happy with how I worded the prompt, either (the prompt isn't asking quite what I thought it was asking). So what I'm asking for isn't terribly clear here, I'll admit, but in any case, actually clearly defining the gothic could have helped you a lot. You go by instinct instead of by research in that section.

Adam Lewis said...

Dr. Johns,

I honestly did try to find a, hurried, definition of post-gothic and I couldn't find anything explicit. Do you have a good definition of post gothic? I realized that my discussion of it was pretty much worthless but I couldn't just not mention it since it is in the definition that Aldiss gives us. My understanding of gothic fiction is novels written with both a romance and horror, supernatural aspect usually taking place in some grand setting, like pseudo medieval. Anyway, to get to a point here, do you have a good definition of gothic and post gothic I can use to better my understanding of the writing styles?

Adam said...

I'd not worry about the post-gothic; it's like post-punk, for instance, in that it's what comes chronologically after and is influenced by the original, without being identity to it.

What all of the easily found online definitions incorporate is a strong emphasis on setting and (supernatural) terror. See these for instance:

What these definitions are missing is what supernatural terror combined with an exotic and antiquated setting *means*.

Why the gothic, in other words? Why is it so compelling?

Here's a quote from the *Cambridge Companion to the Gothic* which I use:

"Though not always as obviously as in The Castle of Otranto or Dracula, a Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space - be it a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey, a vast prison, a subterranean crypt, a graveyard, a primeval frontier or island, a large old house or theatre, an aging city or urban underworld, a decaying storehouse, factory, laboratory, public building, or some new recreation of an older venue, such as an office with old filing cabinets, an overworked spaceship, or a computer memory. Within this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story."

Jerrold E. Hogle. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Kindle Locations 236-240). Kindle Edition.

In other words, what happens in the Gothic is that we have a haunting (invasion) of the present by the past (or, in science fiction, usually the future).

Obviously this is all a little much for one two page essay, nor did I prepare for it well in the prompt, which is why none of this stuff is effecting anyone's grade - it's a little too far beyond our primary goals for the course.

But here's my point of view: the gothic is about the modern world being haunted by the specters of the past or future, and all of the anxiety which then ensues. And unless we look strictly for castles, rather than metaphoric castles (desolate ruins!), and strictly for ghostly hauntings, rather than their futorological equivalent (Mercer! Buster Friendly! The memories of World War Terminus!) it's hard to imagine a more thoroughly gothic novel than DADES.

In short: you were defining the gothic a little literalistic ally. Give it some flex.