What is a Robot?

A robotic humanity.

Attention: Some robotic spoilers ahead.

As soon as I saw the post from Quirk Classics about reviewing Android Karenina, and getting a free advanced copy, I was all in. Immediately I emailed my information and anxiously waited for two weeks to receive my copy of the new (unreleased) Quirk Classic. I’ve read (devoured would be a more appropriate term) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and loved them both. I’m a huge Austen fan, so naturally I was amused by the interweaving of zombies and sea monsters into her classic Regency romances. However, I had never read Tolstoy before diving into Android Karenina, so I was a little weary of this 538-page monster that was about to hit me. Nonetheless, I was overly ecstatic when I received my copy, and as soon as I finished my readings for classes (as a graduating senior from college, I had to stay on top of schoolwork first), I began the adventure with Anna, Vronsky, and the rest of our Russian friends.

From the opening line, “Functioning robots are all alike; every malfunctioning robot malfunctions in its own way,” I was hooked. I laughed even without having read Anna Karenina, but I was aware of the famous opening line in that novel as well. This promising beginning was reminiscent of the Pride and Prejudice adaptation with zombies, which states, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” The hilarious rewordings to the classic opening lines of these novels really solidify these Quirk novels as literature that is able to appreciate the classics, but also make them fun and more intriguing for those less inclined to pick up a novel about early nineteenth century England or late nineteenth century Russia (not to mention that Anna Karenina is over 700 pages long). But this makes us ask, would Tolstoy have included robots if the technology had been available to him? Would he have vacationed on the moon? It never hurts to ask.

Ben H. Winters answers this question—in full robotic force! The robots present in the novel are integrated so seamlessly that when one day I decide to pick up Anna Karenina for a light, summer read, I will be asking myself, but where are the robots? Where are the beloved Class IIIs? How can the characters function without them? The robots are a part of everyday life in this version, and with the discovery of groznium, it has been this way for generations. Life is impossible without mechanical assistance from the Class I dice at the gambling halls to the Class II governesses, and especially without the companionship of the Class III robots like Socrates, Android Karenina, and the quirky little Small Stiva. At first I was thrown off by all of the classifications and the different levels of machinery, but soon I was loving every moment of it. The brief note on Russian names at the beginning helped, and how the robotic names were similar to the human names helped as well, and created an interesting connection between the two species.

The characters create a complexity which I can only imagine Tolstoy in his original work did as well, but the addition of the robots, especially the severe dependence on them, creates even more layers to their characters as well. The separate android Class IIIs are like the mind and soul of the humans, where they store their memories and rely on their robots for guidance and feelings. The humans seek comfort in their Class III machines, and to many of them, especially to Anna, they are more than just mere scraps of metal and hardwiring. So when Anna’s estranged husband, Alexei Karenin, and his “Face” (a robot which has begun to take over his mind and body) start gathering up all of the Class IIIs (and eventually the Class I and II robots as well), you wonder, “But aren’t these Class III machines people too?”

Ah, but how can machines—metal, groznium, and wires—be people? For that you must define what is a person, which is a complicated definition to give. Can something that thinks for itself, feels emotion, and can carry on affairs independently of its master be considered a person—even if it is a machine? I think this is one of the great overarching questions of the novel, which makes the reader think about what it truly means to be a person, to be human, and to be functioning member of society. Were not the Class IIIs treated like humans, as loyal friends? Most of them were, which makes it even more outrageous when we learn that Karenin has collected all of them with his Toy Soldiers (machine-men themselves) and melted them all. But throughout the novel, robots are changing and evolving, developing more and more human characteristics. Eventually Anna is approached by her beloved Android Karenina, but alas, it is not her Class III that she knows, it is a Class IX robot from the future, more advanced than Anna could even realize. Horrified, Anna also learns that she too, is not truly human, and is actually a Class XII version of Android Karenina, which terrifies her and eventually helps lead to her suicide by the strange “train” mechanism introduced by her mostly-machine husband.

So are these androids people? Can they be functioning—and even independently functioning—members of society? Anna couldn’t deal with the knowledge (that and the fact that it was her destiny to murder her husband), and she threw herself in front of a train. Would you throw yourself in front of a train if you realized you weren’t fully human?

Quirk Classics always graciously adds a “Reader’s Discussion Guide” at the end of each novel, and I will leave you with my favorite of these questions:

“9. Are you really a human being, or are you a super-intelligent cybernetic organism created by scientists in a laboratory, and programmed to believe that you are, in fact, human?

10. Are you sure?”

My review was too late to have you enter the prize giveaway…so sorry! 😦

Visit Quirk Classics online or find them on Facebook!


The Problems of Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism has been happening for centuries, and in Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling, she moves the imperialism from the earthly sphere (Terra) that we are used to, to the extraterrestrial world of Aka. Le Guin uses this planet to illustrate the negative implications of cultural imperialism, but through Sutty’s “telling” of her history we can also see the extreme cultural imperialism on Terra (Earth) with the Unists and their religious and moral domination.

On Aka, the city of Dovza creates the dominant society (the Corporation), forces it on everyone, and punishes those who deviate. The Dovza culture dominates in every aspect including language, education, exercise, and sexual practices. When Sutty is sent to observe the society that lives on the outskirts of the dominant Akan society, she discovers a group of people who are silently resisting this cultural imperialism. This silent resistance is first shown when Sutty visits the man in the perfume shop and begins to read what is written on the walls, when he slaps one hand over his mouth and one on the table and says, “Not aloud, yoz” (59). This scene shows the secretive nature that the people of this rural society, the people of the telling, must adhere to in order to practice the telling. When he says, “Not aloud,” it could also be perceived that what she says is not allowed by the Corporation, because it is against their law. The Corporation is fully against the telling, and anyone who is found practicing it is seen as an enemy to the state.

The strict regulations that the Corporation places on all the citizens of Aka create a strong connection between that situation and cultural imperialism. The Corporation is literally forcing its culture on these people, and if they do not adhere then they are duly punished. There punishment consists of being sent to “rehabilitation camps” and many of them die in them. They must conform or they face the repercussions.

Sutty also hints at the cultural imperialism that the Unists forced on the Terrans (from earth) when she speaks with Tong Ov. He asks her incredulously, “So during that period when the Unists refused ansible contact with the Stabiles on Hain, they were…converting Akans?” (16). The Unists were trying to spread their cultural imperialism past the sphere of Terra and create interplanetary imperialism by spreading to Aka.

These examples from the book show a great parallel between the globalization of today’s society, especially concerning America and the western world. Many Americans believe that people should assimilate to American culture and bombard other countries with American companies, television, and other forms of influence. One thing that can be clearly seen is the American desire to spread its ideal of democracy to other countries, especially in the Middle East.

Perhaps if people were able to live peacefully in the way that they wanted, if they weren’t harming anyone, then there wouldn’t be contempt for the dominant society, or maybe there wouldn’t even need to be a dominant society at all.

*Le Guin, Ursula K. The Telling. New York: Harcourt, 2000.

Not a Robot, Not Yet a Woman

Disconnected, yet connected.

“They are only machines,” says Billie of Robots and Robo sapiens when she first sees Spike, a Robo sapiens who has travelled to the new Planet Blue and helped to gather information there. In The Stone Gods (2007), Jeanette Winterson creates a futuristic/alternate universe where technology is far beyond our world today. Spike–a super sexy woman–dark hair, olive skin, intelligent—but not only is she attractive, she’s telepathic and a galactic traveller as well. However, the one thing that she is not is human. Even Billie is constantly acknowledging that fact, though she can’t help but feel a little something more for Spike than a typical human-robot connection. Spike is caught in the in between of being a robot, being seen as a machine to be used by humans, and being a human, or intelligent, evolutionary-capable being that will one day “fix” humanity.

Billie describes Robo sapiens as such: “The first artificial creature that looks and acts human, and that can evolve like a human–within limits, of course” (14). Though Billie has an internal conflict with the identity that she places with Spike, the beautiful Robo sapiens. She constantly comments on Spike’s beauty, and questions herself for being embarrassed by changing in front of Spike. Yet she continues to reiterate the fact that she is not human. She is a robot…yet not. Even when Spike tells Billie, “In time…the differences between us decrease” (29), Billie chooses to ignore that statement. She is so set to focus on the differences between the Robo sapiens than realize the similarities.

However, Billie soon discovers that she has feelings for Spike, and how Spike wants to learn how to feel also. On their way to Planet Blue, Spike and Billie become lovers, and Billie realizes that “love is an intervention” (68), which has caused her to see the human qualities that Robo sapiens are capable of, and it has also helped Spike to feel emotion–“She has learned how to cry” (69).

A theme of the book is that history is repeating; things that have happened will happen again [“Everything is imprinted for ever with it once was” (207)], and we see this with the tale of Billie and Spike who were once on Orbus, but are now on Planet Blue. A different time in history (65 million years later), but they are still able to make the connection they did before…love is an intervention. Once again, Spike (this time as just a Robo sapiens head) has learned to feel when Billie must leave to face her death. Spike expresses that she will miss Billie and that she can’t help it, and Billie replies, “That’s limbic” (205). Spike is able to evolve and learn human emotion as humans feel it, though she is not a human.

The lines between “human” and “robot” blur in The Stone Gods, but you can’t deny that Spike seems more human than some actual human people are.

Looks like a Robo sapiens...but incapable of evolution.

Ooo Ooo Ooloi

Nikanj and Lilith?

The sexless ooloi in Octavia Buter’s Dawn (1987) are just plain creepy. Of all the Oankali, they seem the most alien, and we see that portrayal of them through Lilith’s observation. She gets accustomed to Jdahya when she is first awakened and begins her assimilation into Oankali society, but she can at least view him as a man and takes comfort in that fact. The ooloi are a completely different story. They seem so strange from the first introduction of them (one translation of ooloi is also “treasured strangers”) and Lilith’s imagination runs wild when Jdahya explains that oolois are able to understand human anatomy by study: she imagines humans in cages, dissections of live people and corpses, and letting disease persist for the sake of study. Immediately, we get a strange and very alien (not just extraterrestrial) feeling about the ooloi. Why are they so gifted this way? Why do they carry these seemingly special powers of learning?

It is also strange to think about a sexless creature in terms of feminism. However, when Kahguyaht and Nikinj are introduced, I immediately identified them as male, instead of sexless. It was very hard for me to imagine them as “ungendered,” but it was very difficult, and ultimately I wasn’t able to separate these “people” from an assigned sex. I found myself wondering why this was, and I think that it has been imbedded in my mind that male is the “default.” Due to my culture and my social constructions, male seems to always be the default, but now that I have consciously realized that I think I will try to resist it more now. Why should man be the default?

However, when Lilith meets Paul Titus, the first man that she has interactions with, he seems to assume a sex to the ooloi. Paul refers to Nikanj as a “he” and Lilith corrects him that Nikanj is an ooloi, an it. Paul responds, “Yeah, I know. But doesn’t yours seem male to you?” and then later says, “When they woke me up, I thought the ooloi acted like men and women while the males and females acted like eunuchs. I never really lost the habit of thinking of ooloi as male or female” (89). Paul does have a point though, because it seems as though Jdyaha and his female partner Tediin never seem to be sexually attracted to each other (up to that point), however, she sees the sexless ooloi as the most sexually stimulated. Especially with those extra arms that cover their starfish-like sexual organs, and Lilith’s part in Nikanj’s perceived ability to mate.

I guess I, like Paul, continued to assign the ooloi a sex rather than think of them as plainly sexless like Lilith. Either way, they’re still just creepy.

Man is Standard, Woman is a Bitch

The Female Man?

“Man” is the term used to encompass all humans, including women, with phrases such as “all of mankind” and  “the history of man,” leaving he idea that since man is what is used for the combination of the two sexes, then man is superior to woman. It is strange to think about how unnatural it sounds to say “all of womankind” or “the history of woman” because then that assumes that you are leaving out men. But when we say mankind, women are included in that. Like we have discussed in class before with Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), language can be used as both an oppressor and liberator. Joanna Russ calls attention to this in her novel, The Female Man (1975) with the terms that are used for women, or like my aforementioned use of the word “man” to include woman within that label. Russ shows this generally accepted terminology, questions it, and smashes it by having her character female Joanna call herself a man and take on that persona.

The idea of a “female man” sounds strange impossible–but Russ shows that it is not such a preposterous idea. She shows Joanna’s transformation into this “female man,” and at the end of the section where Joanna describes herself as a woman, she claims, “I am a woman with the wraps off, bald, as an adder, God help me and you” (137). She shows herself defeated, and calls on God (a man) for help, because as a woman she needs the help of a man. Then when she turns into a man, she ends that section by taking on the consciousness of a man when she says, “Listen to the female man. If you don’t, by God and all the Saints, I’ll break your neck” (140). Russ shows the two extremes, between the submissive and helpless woman and the deamnding and violent man. This remninded me a lot of sorenik’s first picture with the man demanding that by God he’s a feminist if he says so. It seems as though Russ is mocking men by having Joanna speak in this way, or perhaps she is showing the empowerment that Joanna feels now that she has become the female man. It would seem though that feminism would not call for a female to take on those seemingly negative qualities of a man, but Joanna does embrace that identity fully, including the negative parts of it. So a “female man” is able to become this masculine figure, but it seems as though Joanna’s change into a man only awakens the demeaning aspects of the male sex. But I guess that’s the point, right? The only thing that women supposedly lack are those qualities that make men seem cutthroat and praised, while if a woman possessed them she would be called a bitch. As shown at the party when Janet asserts herself, and many other times throughout the novel, she is seen as crazy bitch.

Peace, Love, and…Gorillas?

“Science is observation and Africa produces no scientists” (Fowler, 343) says the Belgian to the group of white folks on a gorilla expedition in 1928 in Karen Joy Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” (2002), and that pretty much reflects the attitude  belonging to most of the white hunters. There is a general feeling of superiority in the group of white Americans and Europeans toward the black Africans whom they come into contact, as well as toward the gorillas that they are hunting. From the onset, the narrator describes the natives as barely more than cannibalistic. She says, “My attitudes toward the natives, in particular, were not what they might have been. The men who helped us interested me little and impressed me not at all” (342). She feels no compassion or appreciation for them, and separates herself as a superior being. She sees this dissonance when she hears Beverly (the other woman on the expedition) refer to a native porter as “Burunga,” his proper name. The narrator hadn’t cared to recognize the native Africans as humans (aside from the cook and the main guide) and takes them for granted. She seems to equate them with the gorillas: simply beings there to aid them in their quest. I often felt angry with this narrator for her nonchalant attitude toward these people and her indifference toward the slaughter of the gorillas for sport and human gain. She gets upset with the men for using her, but she doesn’t realize that she holds the same attitude toward the Africans and the gorillas as the men hold of her: they are just objects to be used to further their progress.

Only when she happens upon a trio of gorillas does she have a revelation. She enters the jungle prepared to shoot and kill a gorilla, to prove to the men that she is not just a silly woman. However, when she encounters the gorillas, she has a change of heart. Positioned to kill, she observes the male: “In the leather of his face I saw surprise, curiosity, caution. Something else, too. Something so human it made me feel like an old woman with no clothes on” (351). She recognizes these gorillas as almost human, something that she hadn’t done before; she had never considered the close genetic connection between these primates and herself. She even refers to the two female gorillas as “women” instead of labeling them as animals.

Eventually the narrator is able to move past her “other” views of the gorillas, and see the life in the jungle with them as a utopia that she hopes Beverly (who went missing while the narrator was hunting the gorillas) is experiencing. Fowler ends the story with the narrator pondering Beverly’s life now, years later: “I can pretend that she’s still there in the jungle…waiting for me. I can pretend that I’ll be joining her whenever I wish and just as soon as I please” (355). However, this could also been seen as the narrator thinking about death, and how she might soon join Beverly in death–in a heaven, much like the jungle that they experienced together.

Cancer Treatment with a Cost

I was instantly intrigued by Octavia Butler’s “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987), from the narrator’s discussion of her attempt at suicide to her account of how her father killed her mother, and then turned on himself. It’s all very morbid, but the introduction of an unfamiliar disease that causes people to go insane and mutilate themselves (most eventually killing themselves) hooks the reader. This is all caused from a cancer treatment drug called Hedeonco that causes the children of parents who take it to develop the masochistic disorder diagnosed as Duryea-Gode disease. One question then seems to be: At what cost could we develop a cure for cancer? These people with DGD have special dietary needs, must wear a pendant at all times showing that they have the disease, and they also do not live as long as “normal” people.

I couldn’t help but thinking about two recent movies while reading this story: I Am Legend and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. In I Am Legend (originally a 1954 novel by Richard Matheson), a cancer treatment is developed that causes a virus that affects an overwhelming mjority of humanity and turns them into vampiric zombie creatures. In The Happening, there is a mysterious neurotoxin that causes any person coming into contact with it to commit suicide. A combination of these two plots, Butler’s story develops a strong narrator who submits to her association with DGD and tries to make the most of what she will have in life.

Most of those with DGD are able to recognize themselves beginning to “drift” and are soon admitted into hospital wards or retreats to attempt to tame uncontrolled DGD sufferers or give them somewhere to kill themselves. The most exclusive of these retreat centers is Dilg, which is run by controlled DGDs and has “a wait list a mile long” (266). Lynn, the narrator, eventually travels there with her boyfriend from college, Alan, who discovers that his DGD mother is surprisingly still alive and is residing at Dilg.

Lynn and Alan are shocked when they learn that none of the patients at Dilg are restrained; instead they are given tasks such as art to focus on to avert their focus from self-mutilation.

This idea seems to ask a significant question: Can those deemed insane or mentally adrift be essentially “cured” in a controlled, purpose-driven environment? It seems that Butler may be suggesting that people should not just be written off when categorized as insane, but for others to try to understand them and help to develop ways in order for them to cope with what is considered not normal. This also brings to mind the video of the autistic woman with her own language and how others may view her as crazy, but things just need to be adjusted in order for her to live in her world. Many of these patients with DGD suffer a similar dilemma.

The story ends with hope that Lynn can help other DGDs since she was born of two DGD parents, she has a scent that helps ease those who have begun to drift with DGD. She realizes that she must make it her duty to help the others, even though she may not be happy, she must help those of her kind because she has a stronger feeling for duty to others with DGD over her individual happiness.

Poor Crazy Connie

One of the things that really stood out in this novel was the way that Connie was viewed and treated by others in her society where she physically existed and the difference in treatment that she experiences in Luciente’s future world. To look at it through a feminist lens, Connie seems to be controlled by the men in her world, from her brother Luis to Dolly’s pimp Geraldo to the doctors at the psych ward where she is forced to stay. Connie is thrown into this psychiatric ward for a second time, and this time it is because she was trying to protect her niece from being given a black-market abortion by a butcher. After she smashes Geraldo’s face with a wine jug flowerpot, she is knocked unconscious and taken into custody of the psych ward, and she is forced to stay there because her brother will not let them release her. Due to these men, Connie is forced to stay in this place where she is viewed as unstable and terribly crazy, while she is actually an intelligent woman who has a rough life. This control of her by the men show the unequal and unfair power that men hold over her, but it also reflects the power that men seem to hold over women in general society. She is seen as a psychotic freak because these men deem her so. Like the Simone de Beauvoir argument that men are the “default” and women are viewed as the “other,” Piercy illustrates this by the depiction of Connie trapped in a man’s world; as an extreme “other” because she is also viewed as lacking sanity. The male doctors also work to control her by conducting studies and tests on her, as well as the state for keeping her in this institution, and the government is most often seen as a male force. She loses her freedom completely while in this psych ward; she can’t even go to the bathroom and shut the door.

This contrasts the society of Mattapoisett that she visits with Luciente, because there is such an ambiguity with gender and sex that there is no dominant sex and no chance for a heteropatriarchy. Connie thinks that Luciente is a man until she is pressed against her when they time travel and she can feel Luciente’s breasts. Even the language that they use is ambiguous with the loss of pronouns like “he” and “she” and the substituting of them with “per” and “person.” There is an equal partnership in childrearing between three “comothers,” and there is no real form of government, especially not one that is as oppressive as Connie’s society.

I would like to think that Mattapoisett is real and that it is not merely a figment of Connie’s insane mind, because I want to believe that society can evolve to a place where a more utopian world can exist without it simply being the fantasy of some lunatic.

Housewife Focus!

After reading over my last two posts, I’ve realized that I have strong aversion to the traditional notion of a housewife. Just thought I’d acknowledge that since it seems to be such a central focus of my posts so far! 🙂

“Woman, Make Me a Sandwich!”

Exhibiting the gross androcentric attitude: why does this still exist?

It’s been said before many times by many men, and this phrase represents the androcentric view that the majority of people holds, especially men. In Lisa Tuttle’s story “Wives” (1979), this idea that a female’s place in society is solely to please her husband screams out at the reader. However, this situation is a little different than the society that we know on earth, but not much. Men have conquered an unnamed planet inhabited by (seemingly) female aliens, which the men have essentially forced to become earth women through the use of “skintights” and makeup. The reader is unaware what the alien women fully look like in their normal state, aside from the extra breast and sharp teeth. A parallel can be drawn between the way that these alien “women” dress up for the men and the way that real women dress up for earth society. Women are viewed as incomplete if they do not make themselves up and dress like a woman “should” and are criticized as being unfeminine or possibly even labeled lesbians if they do not fall into this prim and proper category. When Susie goes to visit her friend Doris (who is in heat) she thinks that Doris “was as dolled up as some eager-to-please newlywed and looked, Susie thought, more like a real woman than any woman had ever looked” (Larbaliester 191). This shows the extent that these alien females go to in order to please the earth men and it reflects the way in which women from earthly societies dress themselves up to look good for men. Women are only a part of society in order to please men, for that is their only purpose and not only do the men hold this view, most of the women do as well. Tuttle’s story is oozing with feminism and creates a grossly androcentric world. By using the character of Susie, however, Tuttle is able to show the exceptions to those women who view themselves as stuck in this male-dominated world and who try to fight back. Though in the end she ends up dying for her belief because the other women feel threatened by her rebelliousness. Even after the initiation of the women’s liberation movement, this aspect of the story still shows the helplessness women have against the heteropatriarchy without the support of other females. They will continue to be caught in this vicious cycle if they cannot work together to achieve liberation from the male domination. Even after Susie is killed, another “extra wife” takes her place in her husband’s house and he doesn’t even know the difference, which shows what is really most important to men: “Three tits and the best coffee in the universe” (Larbaliester 198). It doesn’t matter what’s on the inside of a woman, as long as she’s subservient and her outside looks good, then she satisfies her man and perpetuates androcentric society.

You tell him, sister!

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