Samac88's Blog

As technology advances every day in our modern society, the distinction between humans and machines blurs.  Science fiction authors have the perfect genre to toy with this fuzzy boundary.  In The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson uses her genre perfectly to bring to the forefront of her story the issue of what we define as a human by bringing us Orbus, a future society in which everything is technologically perfect, including people, a society shared with Robo sapiens-or robot people.  Spike is a female Robo sapiens, and she is a nearly perfect nonhuman human.  So this begs the question, what defines a human?

A few weeks ago in class we discussed how we defined what is human.  One of the main points that is brought up is a human is born from another human.  However, on page 64, Winterson argues this point; in her future, technologically advanced society, babies are born outside the womb (it seems that many authors this quarter would argue against this definition as human, as there are a couple examples where babies are born outside of the mother).  The class also mentioned that the ability to reproduce with another human is a definition of a human.  Spike is able to have sex (as seen by the ban on having sex with Robo sapiens). There may come a day when not only can humans have sex with these robots, but may even be able to reproduce with them.  Does this make them human?

There are several instances in the novel where Winterson’s characters are arguing with one another about what makes a human and what does not, and they bring up points that were not made in class.  On pages 63 and 64, Pink and Billie are arguing, and Pink points out that what makes a human is “obvious: cut [her] and [she] bleeds”.  This does not seem to be a full definition of a human, though: cut an animal and it, too, bleeds.

It seems that Winterson has not really answered the question of what defines a human, as it is obviously not a clear-cut answer.  However, it does seem to me that she feels that an ability to show emotion is what defines human as opposed to another being or machine.  Spike has the inability to show true emotions.  On page 69, Billie describes Spike as having “learned how to cry”.  We see crying and tears as an outward display of emotion, something Spike had to learn.  I think one of the most important sentences of this entire novel when it comes to this question of what is human is found during a conversation between Billie and Spike when it is said that “love…is the chance to be human” (pg 90).  Love, arguably the most intense of all human emotions, is what characterizes a human.  Spike cannot feel emotions.  She therefore cannot love Billie, and if love is what makes someone human, then we can classify Spike as non-human.

Dawn by Octavia Butler portrays alien figures that are more alien to us than ever before.  They are non-violent, helpful, caring.  In fact, they seem nearly perfect specimens.  Yet, as a reader, we have a natural tendency to hate these aliens, and upon first reading, it is hard to say exactly why.  However, upon deeper thought, it is clear to me that their perfection is exactly why the Oankali aliens are disliked.  They have a slight “anything you can do, we can do better” mentality, and this idea gets under the skin of anyone who experiences it.  They are so un-human in their powers that we, as humans, dislike them.

Lilith, the human main character who has “Awakened” in the alien universe of the Oankali, finds herself disturbed by these others as soon as she encounters them. She states that she “had not known what held her back before.  Now she was certain it was his alienness, his difference, his literal unearthliness” (pg 13).  Aside from them being “ugly” by our standards, they are almighty.  They can eat anything humans can, plus many things humans cannot.  They cured Lilith of her cancer, something human doctors probably could not have done.  Nikanj, an ooloi child, even states that his kind “can make anything [Lilith’s] people could” (pg 62).  They are able to induce a 250 year hibernation period.  They are genetic engineers.  They are basically everything a human is and more. I found myself getting annoyed as I read that every time Lilith asked a question or performed some action; the Oankali could do it better. Humans are used to assuming that they are the almighty species of our Earth and our land.  Even in the world of science fiction, humans tend to have the ability to defeat the alien being, so it is hard for us to accept that the human race actually is not the strongest.  In most stories, we defeat the enemy because the story is about us.  This story is about the Oankali.  They are being presented to us to prove a point, and the story is not about humans, but the reaction of humans with the Oankali.

Not only are the Oankali creatures somewhat almighty and superior, it scares and bothers us as readers that they want to use the humans.  The Oankali are genetic engineers (by English language standards) and have abilities in this aspect that we humans have not been able to achieve.  They are basically out to restore balance to Earth by becoming genetic “traders” and mixing human genes with Oankali genes, changing both for the future, and then replacing the humans on Earth with ones that are able to rescue it. This is another way that the Oankali scare us; they are using their power to change us to become more like them.  Even if their goal is to help us, their means of doing so gets under our skin.  They act as a superior species and by their mixing to the human species is the only way to make Earth livable.  For example, on page 76, Lilith herself says “what’s frightening is the idea of being tampered with”.  Our bodies are seen as being sacred.  The integrity and maintenance of it is something we value.  We value our health and beauty, so tampering with it scares us.

Butler’s exact reasons for portraying the Oankali this way are not quite as clear.  Is she trying to make a point that we humans really are not almighty and superior as we act?  Is she saying that there is some superior power that actually rules humans and our acceptance is the only way to save the Earth? She is clearly making some point about the necessity to save the planet from our own destruction, but who these Oankali are supposed to represent is not so straightforward.

In Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy created a futuristic society, called Mattapoisett, that she used to show her feelings about modern society.  In The Female Man, Joanna Russ used a similar technique.  She created a society ten centuries in the future called Whileaway that is the homeland to one of the novel’s main characters, Janet.  Both authors created worlds in which they abolished what they felt was negative and kept what they felt was positive, and while they agree on some aspects of their societies, they differ in others.

One of the biggest differences comes from the role women have.  In Mattapoisett, there are still men and women, but they are basically genderless.  Men and women have equal roles in society, and the job one takes and how much they earn is independent of sex.  All the characters are displayed as relatively androgynous (Connie is actually unable to tell whether Luciente is male or female at first).  This varies drastically from Whileaway.  Here, Russ has created a society that is women only; all men were killed eight centuries earlier by a sex-specific plague. Though Russ arguably took a more drastic route, both authors have done away with the negative gender roles that they feel are present in current society.  However, while Piercy has worked to equalize the genders, Russ has destroyed man and retained women, potentially arguing that the only way women will ever gain a huge role in society is if there are no men at all.

While both authors have done away with the difference between sexes, a huge difference lies in the way they handled the issue of motherhood.  In Mattapoisett, motherhood is shared by both men and women, and it is more a duty than a relationship.  Babies are grown in test tubes and given to a few “co-mothers” to raise the child and then the mothers set him or her free.  In Whileaway, people are somewhat more family oriented, though the underlying reasons are not completely clear.  Janet has a wife and one daughter, of which she is the biological mother and then technology comes into play to create the baby (2).  Mothers form a strong relationship with their child; several times Russ says that when a child and mother are separated, it is emotional.  The child cries because of the separation, and the mother cries because she has to go back to work (49).  Janet, despite this though, seems to love her wife and child.  She mentions how smart and beautiful they are.  Mother and daughter in Whileaway have a bond that is not completely present in Mattapoisett.  However, while this part of motherhood is different, the authors agree on one thing-both societies separate themselves from their children.  In Mattapoisett, they raise and train a child until it can live on its own.  In Whileaway, the child leaves at puberty (50). Therefore, both Russ and Piercy believe that in some way the strong bond between a mother and child at some point needs to be broken.  In both cases, the child goes off and explores the world on their own.  It appears the authors feel that the bond between mother and child is one that is inhibitory; they are insisting that it actually is holding a child back from reaching his or her (or just her, in the case of Whileaway) full potential.

While these two points are arguably the most important, there are several other differences.  In Mattapoisett, there is no monogamy.  In Whileaway, nobody “marries monogamously but some restrict their sexual relations” (53).  People of Mattapoisett cherish their elderly, and funerals celebrate their life.  In Whileaway, the young “don’t really approve” of the old (53). Whileaway has an ideal of beauty (Russ several times tells that women of Whileaway like “big asses”) while Mattapoisett does not really have this standard of what they view as beautiful.  Therefore, while Russ and Piercy agree on some things about their society, such as that gender differences must somehow be abolished, they differ on other things.  For these authors, they have rid the society of what they feel holds women back.  Everything they have abolished in their societies, gender roles in particular, hold women back from reaching their full potential and being strong and independent.  In these societies, women are the stronger, tougher, more “valued” sex.

In the short story “What I Didn’t See,” Karen Joy Fowler brings up and uses racism and stereotypes to create a rather successful and intriguing story.  The story is set in 1928 in Africa where a group of seven primatologists is there to study the behavior of gorillas, which at that point are seen as vicious and dangerous.  The narrator is a middle-aged woman who goes on the trip to support her husband and the rest of the males in the group to do the cooking and cleaning (prime example of male-dominance).  However, this patriarchal society is not what struck me most about this story.  It was the fact that they were studying gorillas in Africa; this seems to be a rather obvious attempt on Fowler’s part to display racism.

Fowler blatantly addresses a rather well known racist linkage-the one between Africans and primates.  The story contains instances of racism that are both blatantly obvious (those that are against the Africans) and those that more suggest racism (those against the gorillas).  On a somewhat superficial level, this is a case of anthropocentrism.  The humans view themselves as superior and the gorillas as lesser.  However, the negative feelings towards the gorillas are more a metaphor for the negative feelings towards other people that are seen as inferior.  The narrator admits (although now she regrets it) that she did not care for the people that helped her. She said she never did “acknowledge any beauty or kindness in the people [she] met” (342).  Here, she is recognizing her racist thoughts against the African people.  The people that helped the primatologists on their trip were both helpful and kind, as both Beverly and Eddie were able to form sorts of relationships with them.  Although Beverly and Eddie apparently treated them well, their whole relationship is one that is run by racism and the logic of domination.  These white primatologists see themselves on a moral high ground in relation to the Africans they employ; this is why they are able to treat them as near-slaves.

In a less obvious manner though, Fowler uses the primatologist’s view of gorillas as an undercover means of displaying racism.  When the narrator is talking about her relationship (or lack thereof) with the natives, she nearly fails to even view them as human (342).  However, when she runs off into the jungle and finds a group of gorillas, she is unable to shoot at him because she finds him more human than she had expected.  She saw in him “something so human it made [her] feel like an old woman with no clothes on” (351).  This is a bit of racism that is not obvious at first-the two pieces of the story need to be put together.  The narrator can view an animal as more human than a human.  In previous statements, she was unable to see the beauty of the African people; she viewed them basically as nothing more than servants, not the lovely human beings that they were.  However, she viewed a gorilla (a non-human being) as something so human.  Its almost as if she placed the gorillas on a higher platform when it comes to the rank of her positive feelings than she did other humans, simply because they were black.

In “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” by Octavia Butler, Lynn Mortimer suffers from Duryea-Gode disease, a violent and self-destructive disorder that is passed to all future generations of people who took a “magic bullet” cancer-curing drug called Hedeonco. I found this story interesting and well written because Butler was able to create an incredibly strong female character with a fatal disorder, two things that would generally be disadvantageous.

In spite of suffering from this fatal disease, the female characters of the story are incredibly powerful.  Lynn and Beatrice, the woman in charge of Dilg, a DGD retreat, are both female children of two DGD parents, and therefore possess a pheromone that allows them to ease and control other DGDs.  Beatrice’s pheromone is the basis of why she is able to run Dilg, filled with violent DGDs, in a peaceful manner, and she hopes Lynn will someday help her.  Before Beatrice even explains to her about her power, Lynn uses it unknowingly. After moving into a house with five other DGDs, she becomes the sort of “housemother.” When she asks people to do their chores, “nobody complained.  Nobody even seemed annoyed” (Butler 268).

By Butler giving this special pheromone only to females, she has made females a stronger sex in this world.  Lynn and Beatrice normally would be seen doubly as “lesser”; not only are they disabled, they are women.  However, in this case, both of these things are precisely what make these characters strong.  Only women hold this special pheromone, and this makes them stronger and more powerful than men because they are able to work for the greater good in this disease-ravaged world.  In addition, only those who are disabled are able to prevent the self-destruction DGD sufferers go through and are even able to bring out the patients’ creative, positive, peaceful sides.  In this case, having the disease makes Lynn and Beatrice strong as opposed to debilitated. Lynn’s power is also seen in her relationship with Alan.  In most relationships, especially as portrayed in our novels (Geraldo and Dolly in Woman on the Edge of Time, for example), the male is more in control.  In a strange twist of things in this story, Lynn is actually the one in control in the relationship.  Even if it is due to her scent, he succumbs to her.  No longer do we as an audience read a story of a woman who is in a helpless relationship with a controlling man (a la Susie in “Wives”?).

Even in aspects completely unrelated to her scent, Lynn is portrayed as a stronger character than is Alan, her male counterpart.  He apparently has succumbed to society’s expectations for DGD sufferers, undergoing sterilization so that he cannot have children who will inevitably also suffer from this disease.  Lynn, however, fights society’s expectations for her, stating that while she does not want kids, she also does not want somebody else telling her she cannot have them (Butler 269). Her ability to dismiss the negative expectations of others again makes her appear like a stronger person.

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy is a novel based on a thirty seven year-old Latina woman named Connie Ramos.  Confined to a mental institution  although she swears she is not crazy, Connie is able to “escape” to the year 2137, where she finds comfort in a woman named Luciente and shelter in her environment. Piercy uses the sharp contrasts between the modern day and future societies to bring to light what she feels are the problems with the present.

The future society is vastly different from the modern one, but in an unexpected way. As opposed to the future being highly advanced like one we normally imagine it to be, it more closely resembles the past.  While they live in a society that is relatively technologically advanced, their daily lives are very simplistic.  They live in self-sufficient villages where everyone has a specific job of something that they are naturally good at.  They also live a peaceful life; people of Mattapoisett have abolished almost all forms of discrimination.  They embrace those that are old and respect those that are young.  In Connie’s society, she mentions an experiment performed where young boys who are slightly “dim-witted” are given hepatitis.  However, in the future society, young children are embraced, demonstrated by Dawn’s character.  While Sybil’s eccentricity is seen as negative in her time, she would have been embraced in the future. Creativity by people is seen as a positive thing, as opposed to something that holds one back.  Difference in general is embraced in the future society, whereas it is negative in Connie’s (she says that her family rejected her husband Claud because he was black and blind).

While all these points are important, the biggest contrast Piercy has made apparent between Connie’s society and Luciente’s is the near abolishment of gender.  While people in the future are biologically sexually differentiated, they have lost almost all forms of socially accepted gender. Piercy does an immaculate job of blurring the visuals between male and female; while reading, I found myself characterizing Luciente as a person rather than a woman, while maintaining a clear vision of Connie and Dolly.  She does not ever represent the future characters in a gender stereotypical manner. Gender has been abolished not only physically; both men and women are considered “mothers” and “birthing isn’t woman’s business anymore, it’s everybody’s” (Piercy 245).  However, in Connie’s society, “women are punished for being unlady-like” (Piercy 139).  Piercy works to make a stark contrast between these two time periods.

Piercy’s use of blatant contradictions between Connie’s society and Luciente’s can be interpreted as her means of portraying the evils versus the necessities (or the necessary evils, such as war) of our lives.  She abolished everything that she felt was negative about the modern day, such as homophobia and the treatment of women as inferior. Gender is unnecessary and oppressive-she therefore rids the future society of it as much as possible.  By presenting a society that Piercy does think is utopic, she is able to present her feelings about our current society.

“The Universal Wife” by Lisa Tuttle is a science fiction short story that eerily mimics the world of the 1970s.  Written in 1979, the story centers around Susie, an alien creature who has entered into a relationship with a human man while he is fighting a war on her planet.  She becomes his “wife”, a role she has to work hard to fulfill.  The entire story has a clear message that Tuttle wishes to portray; the role of wife is a “constructed one rather than a natural feminine function”. The fact that the “wives” in this story are aliens, and not humans, further pushes this point.  This shows that being a wife is not natural human behavior; any being, including an alien, can act as a woman and wife.  Tuttle makes a subtle argument that the idea of a wife is “universal,” that everywhere there are some sort of “raw materials” that man can conform to make a wife for his own comfort (Hawkins 203).

The aliens succumb to the wishes of the men to make them act and appear more how the men would prefer.  The description of the clothing the aliens wear is a perfect description that women must take time and effort to be a wife, for the sole purpose of pleasing her husband.  Doris is described as wearing a “skintight” and over this a “low-cut dress, her three breasts carefully bound and positioned to achieve the proper, double-breasted effect…she tottered on heels three centimeters high” (Tuttle 191).  The female aliens wear this clearly painful clothing solely to please her man, to become the wife he wants her to be.

The women are also sexually repressed and forced to succumb to the sexual needs of her husband.  They are forced to endure the “painful and brief” sex with their husbands, while repressing and hiding their desires to reproduce.  The women are described as having a “magical scent” when a woman was in heat, “longing for someone to mate with” (Tuttle 191).  The women aliens, however, are forced to fight their needs to please their husbands.

All of these examples demonstrate Tuttle’s feelings towards the social construct of becoming a wife.  She appears to feel that being a wife and succumbing to the needs of man is not a natural human role.  The role of a wife is one that is induced by the power imbalance as a result of heteropatriarchy.  In a society where someone has power, someone therefore has to become powerless.  The role of wife is actually so unnatural a role, in fact, that it can be filled by anyone-it does not even need to be a human.  The alien “women” are forced by the men to act how they want; they dress in the way the men prefer, they repress all of their instinctual sexual desires, and do whatever they can to please their men, nearly living in fear of them and what they want.