disturbing plot elements

March 16, 2020

the main attraction of Cordwainer Smith is…the extravagant and often disturbing plot elements that make his stories stand out from the pack. When Smith submitted his first sci-fi story “Scanners Live in Vain” to John Campbell, Jr., the mastermind behind the influential Astounding magazine, the seasoned editor turned it down because it was, in his words, “too extreme.”

Campbell was no stranger to controversy. Around this same time he battled with FBI agents who wanted to pull an issue of Astounding magazine off the newsstands because it described how to make an atomic bomb. And a few years later he helped pave the way for the Church of Scientology by publishing L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in the May, 1950 issues of Astounding (but feeling compelled to add the editorial note: “This article is not a hoax, joke….” etc. etc.). Even so, Smith’s creepy story of a quasi-priesthood of astronauts who need to become deaf in order to withstand the horrors of space was pushing the envelope too far for this intrepid periodical. The scanners tale is almost a surrealistic nightmare, with little in common with the kind of whiz-bang high-tech adventure that sci-fi readers craved in those days.

In his later stories, Smith continued to reach for bizarre and extreme effects. In his novel Norstrilia, a man gets surgically turned into a cat, and has a romance with a feline who has become genetically altered into a “girly girl.” In this same work, people achieve great wealth through the cultivation of diseased sheep. In the short story “A Planet Named Shayol,” a criminal is condemned to a prison planet where inhabitants undergo excruciating pain while miniscule creatures called dromozoans take over their bodily processes—sucking waste from intestines, putting nutrients into the bloodstream—and also add extra eyes, stomachs, arms, and other organs to their bodies that can be harvested for medical purposes. In Smith’s surreal novella “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” a dog-girl is assisted by a dead woman in achieving a martyrdom reminiscent of the burning of Joan of Arc at the stake. Even by the loose standards of sci-fi stories, these tales are strange and disturbing. The reader’s reaction is inevitably along the lines of “where did these crazy ideas come from?” or perhaps merely a vaguely disquieting sense that the author has intentionally tried to gross out his audience.

In short, people who don’t like science fiction will really hate these stories. In a genre that rarely shows restraint, Cordwainer Smith may have been the loosest cannon of them all. Think of his mental universe as a kind of Twilight Zone where even Rod Serling gets freaked out.

Ted Gioia
Remembering Cordwainer Smith: Full-Time Sci-Fi Author, Part-Time Earthling
The Atlantic 26th March 2013

Vampire fiction aside, there are in this world people who actually do drink blood — from humans and animals alike — or drain from others what they call psychic energy. It’s a ritual performed not out of pleasure, but need, and it’s normally done with the utmost care for their donor’s safety and comfort. This need, according to them, arises from the lack of natural energies their bodies produce. Fittingly enough, they’ve adopted the word “vampire” to self-describe their unusual predilection, one which they claim begins to surface just after puberty.

I know this because I’ve interviewed a number of real vampires face to face, during the course of my research as a graduate student, much like Christian Slater’s character in Interview with the Vampire. It’s not at all as glamorous as it sounds though, nor as easy. Real vampires aren’t particularly looking to be found, and if the comments section of articles on the topic is any measure, can we really blame them?

It all started for me about nine years ago, shortly before I transferred from a doctoral program in English in Southern Louisiana to one in American Studies in Western New York. It was at the height of what some of us vampire scholars were calling at the time the “vampire renaissance,” and on October 26, 2009 I inscribed in my field journal a passage that resonates with me still today, both for its foretaste as well as, or perhaps especially because of, its naiveté:

“Baton Rouge.—When attended Wicked New Orleans [on Decatur St. in New Orleans] on the 17th [of October], things went extraordinarily well. Shop owner was happy to oblige me in every respect and went out of his way to volunteer information. In the initial five minutes of my speaking with him, he gestured towards the other end of the store to a lady in her 40s-50s inspecting some clothing. ‘I think she’s a vampire,’ he said, ‘and I believe that’s her son with her.’ At this point I was mildly embarrassed, as I knew he expected me to go and confront her right then and there. I had not prepared for my ‘first time’ to happen this way. Nevertheless, I walked over to the woman and intruded with a polite but simple, ‘Pardon me.’ With a look of complete surprise, irritation, and curiosity, she turned to me, looked me in the eyes, and said nothing. So, I continued by introducing myself and my reason for being in the store. Then finally I said to her, which I must admit was incredibly awkward, ‘Do you know any [vampires]?’ I grinned, embarrassingly, to which she returned a grin to reveal that two of her most prominent teeth had been filed down to a pair of incisors. Her response, ‘Yes, I might know a few.’ I quickly began asking her a few questions, to make friendly conversation, but about what, to this day, I haven’t the faintest recollection. I then proceeded to give her my contact info, and politely asked if I might continue to speak with her at another time. While I did not ask for her own contact info—as I felt this would be too intrusive — I did ask for her name. To my complete surprise, she stated, simply, ‘Jennifer.’

“I never saw or heard from ‘Jennifer’ again.”

John Edgar Browning
What I Learned Studying Real Vampires
Discover, May 17, 2018

I know it is a sign of ingratitude on the part of the author, if he raises both hands against a certain popularity that has befallen something which is called his spiritual brainchild; for that matter, he is aware that by doing so he can no longer change a thing. The author was silent a goodly time and kept his own counsel, while the notion that robots have limbs of metal and innards of wire and cogwheels (or the like) has become current; he has learned, without any great pleasure, that genuine steel robots have started to appear, robots that move in various directions, tell the time, and even fly aeroplanes; but when he recently read that, in Moscow, they have shot a major film, in which the world is trampled underfoot by mechanical robots, driven by electromagnetic waves, he developed a strong urge to protest, at least in the name of his own robots. For his robots were not mechanisms. They were not made of sheet-metal and cogwheels. They were not a celebration of mechanical engineering. If the author was thinking of any of the marvels of the human spirit during their creation, it was not of technology, but of science. With outright horror, he refuses any responsibility for the thought that machines could take the place of people, or that anything like life, love, or rebellion could ever awaken in their cogwheels. He would regard this sombre vision as an unforgivable overvaluation of mechanics or as a severe insult to life.

The author of the robots appeals to the fact that he must know the most about it: and therefore he pronounces that his robots were created quite differently—that is, by a chemical path. The author was thinking about modern chemistry, which in various emulsions (or whatever they are called) has located substances and forms that in some ways behave like living matter. He was thinking about biological chemistry [sic], which is constantly discovering new chemical agents that have a direct regulatory influence on living matter; about chemistry, which is finding—and to some extent already building—those various enzymes, hormones, and vitamins that give living matter its ability to grow and multiply and arrange all the other necessities of life. Perhaps, as a scientific layman, he might develop an urge to attribute this patient ingenious scholarly tinkering, with the ability to one day produce, by artificial means, a living cell in the test tube; but for many reasons, amongst which also belonged a respect for life, he could not resolve to deal so frivolously with this mystery. That is why he created a new kind of matter by chemical synthesis, one which simply behaves a lot like the living; it is an organic substance, different to that from which living cells are made; it is something like another alternative to life, a material substrate, in which life could have evolved, if it had not, from the beginning, taken a different path. We do not have to suppose that all the different possibilities of creation have been exhausted on our planet. The author of the robots would regard it as an act of scientific bad taste if he had brought something to life with brass cogwheels or created life in the test tube; the way he imagined it, he created only a new foundation for life, which began to behave like living matter, and which could therefore have become a vehicle of life — but a life which remains an unimaginable and incomprehensible mystery. This life will reach its fulfilment only when (with the aid of considerable inaccuracy and mysticism) the robots acquire souls. From which it is evident that the author did not invent his robots with the technological hubris of a mechanical engineer, but with the metaphysical humility of a spiritualist.

Well then, the author cannot be blamed for what might be called the worldwide humbug over the robots. The author did not intend to furnish the world with plate-metal dummies stuffed with cogwheels, photovoltaic cells, and other mechanical gizmos. It appears, however, that the modern world is not interested in his scientific robots and has replaced them with technological ones; and these are, as is apparent, the true flesh-of-our-flesh of our age. The world needed mechanical robots, for it believes in machines more than it believes in life; it is fascinated more by the marvels of technology than by the miracle of life. For which reason, the author who wanted—through his insurgent robots, striving for a soul—to protest against the mechanical superstition of our times, must in the end claim something, which nobody can deny him: the honour that he was defeated.

Karel Čapek
Karel Čapek: the Man Who Gave us Robots
Lido’vé noviny, 43, 9 June 1935
Trans. Cyril Simsa

It’s a matter of whether you’re content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you’ll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist. Now as soon as you open yourself to that possibility, you are going to find yourself talking about things like intelligent robots and monsters with Gorgon heads, because it’s becoming increasingly obvious that such things could indeed exist. But what fascinates me is that the ancient Greeks already realized these possibilities some 500 years before Christ, when they didn’t have the insights into the biological and physical sciences we have today, when there was no such thing as, say, cybernetics. Yet when you read the story of Jason and the Argonauts, you discover that the island of Crete was guarded by a robot. Somehow the Greeks were alert to these possibilities despite the very primitive technology they had — and they put these ideas into their stories. Today it’s the SF writers who are exploring these things in our stories.

Gene Wolfe
Interview with Larry McCaffery, November 1988

Interest in hybrids

March 1, 2020

I think many cultures are interested in post-apocalyptic landscapes and human-robot hybrids — we’re always projecting ourselves into the future, aren’t we? The post-apocalyptic world of “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” arose in the writing. My interest in hybrids may go back to the centaurs in Greek mythology and, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the mermaids. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in hybrids. I recently found some mind-boggling photo-hybrids online by Khoa Tran — a cat-penguin, a horse-duck, and a dog-gull, among others. And I’ve just remembered how enchanted I was by Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies.

Matthea Harvey
Interviewed by Jeannine Hall Gailey March 5th, 2008

Lack of AA batteries didn’t stop our inventive and horny great-grandparents from patenting no less than 23 fully mechanical dildos in the 19th century. Most of these were steam-powered and some required a full boiler to get the fake phallus to hum. Others required a rigorous cranking of internal dynamos to get the desired effect. All were patented as medical devices designed to relieve “female hysteria.” It is less clear, however, what the medical reasons were for Dr. Sumpter’s Harnessed Extension (though some have argued it was for soldiers who had their genitals damaged in the Civil War). But there are reports of women using strap-on dildos on women and men for explicitly erotic encounters in various pornographic memoirs pre-dating the U.S. Civil War.

Professor Calamity and Margaret Killjoy
Four Kinks Your Great-Grandparents Didn’t Want You to Know About

true artificial intelligence

February 27, 2020

Current artificial intelligence projects include robotic doctors, stockbrokers, and, of course, weapons.

These, however, are not the “holy grail” of artificial intelligence – these examples are better described as “expert systems” that simulate human capabilities, like your fridge ordering some more milk because it has realised there’s none left.

A more disturbing recent development is the ability of algorithms and expert systems aided by humans to influence public opinion, and voter intentions. When machines can play poker better than humans, it demands we consider how else they might out-think us.

What people tend to think of as true artificial intelligence, and the type that appears most often in science fiction, and in the fears of people like the late Stephen Hawking, is the achievement of “general intelligence” – human level abilities. With the addition of consciousness, this is known as “strong AI”.

Strong AI is the stuff of science fiction nightmares – such as HAL in 2001, Ava in Ex Machina, and apparently more benevolent, but no less disturbing by implication, Her, the self-actualising virtual companion.

Christopher Benjamin Menadue
Stephen Hawking: Blending science with science fiction

like livewire voodoo

February 27, 2020

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he cut in Night City, and he’d still see the matrix in his dreams, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colourless void… The Sprawl was a long, strange way home now over the Pacific, and he was no Console Man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, hands clawed into the bedslab, temper foam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.

William Gibson

Ever since the word “robot” first appeared in the English language in the early 1920s (although it was invented by a Czech writer), science fiction writers have warned about the blurring of the distinction between human and machine.

Robots are becoming more and more like humans, such that it may one day become difficult to tell the two apart. But were they ever really so different? Philip K. Dick suggests possibly not, and his vision of replicants in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) – which was to become a classic movie, Blade Runner – certainly poses a lot of important questions.

It’s not just robots we have to worry about these days. AI is now perhaps an even bigger threat than its robot cousins. From the ominous HAL 9000 in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to the “benevolent” AI character Mike in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), we’ve been warned that the power of AI to infiltrate every aspect of our daily lives might one day prove our undoing – and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Mike Ryder
Visions of the future: five dark warnings from the world of classic science fiction

In some senses, science fiction has caught up with us. The idea that we might be able to have android servants, or a personal bond with our computers has been crystallised by Apple’s personal assistant Siri. Research into self-healing implants has brought the prospect of enhancing our bodies to make us more than human ever closer.

The future isn’t as far-fetched as it used to be and it often feels like the futures we see on screen should already be here, or are already here even when they aren’t. We are perhaps shifting from what the futurist Alvin Toffler termed “future shock” to a sort of “past shock”…

As the line between real-world science and science fiction becomes increasingly fluid, the future is closer that it has ever felt before.

Amy C. Chambers
Why science fiction set in the near future is so terrifying