Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Aquatic Uncle

This past week we read a story in class titled The Aquatic Uncle. It took some scientific principles and dealt with them in an entertaining way. Essentially, it is the tale of evolution from the perspective of the creatures that left the ocean to seek out the land. In this tale, the main character belongs to a family that has abandoned the sea for land - all of them except for one stubborn old uncle. The uncle has remained a fish and scoffs at the family as they walk about on land trying to survive. The uncle is mostly kept secret as he could potentially be an embarrassment for the family - he certainly is for our main character - but he's also a respected member of the family. Each year the family gathers at the edge of the water to spend time with the uncle. Each tries to convince the other to leave their home for the other with neither side agreeing.

The main character, Qfwfq (don't ask me how it's pronounced), falls in love with a female that has become very well adapted to life on land. She is lithe and graceful, embodying everything the land creatures wish to be. They become romantically involved and eventually engaged to be married. As the uncle is an important member of the family, our young love-stricken proto-creature knows that he will eventually have to introduce his betrothed to his uncle. Just as he mentions it, who should pop his scaly head out of the water but the aforementioned uncle. Qfwfq is mortified, thinking that his beloved will think less of him for having an aquatic uncle but she doesn't say anything. Eventually, his fiance begins to ask more questions about the uncle. At first, Qfwfq is dubious, thinking she's making fun of him.

As time goes on and the couple spends more time with the uncle, it becomes obvious that the uncle and the girlfriend have a thing for each other. In the end, the girlfriend leaves Qfwfq and runs away - or rather, swims away - with the uncle.

The story is entertaining but I'm not sure there's a moral to the story. Maybe the author lost a girl to a creepy uncle and is finding a cathartic way to deal with his loss. At any rate, the story is amusing in that it takes something fairly scientific and turns it into something relatable.

Aye, and Gomorrah

This one was a bit odd to me. It was written by Samuel Delaney in 1967 when everyone was experimenting with sex and psychedelic drugs. Essentially mankind has developed the technology for extended trips or colonies in space. I'm not sure whether it's interstellar travel or not since the author chooses to focus not on the interesting aspects of life in space, but on the sexuality of the spacers in question. More to the point, the asexuality, since apparently in this odd adaptation, the spacers are required to be have all sexual reproductive organs removed - essentially rendering them sexless. And how do these sexless space traveler's choose to spend their free time on Earth? Why, whoring themselves out to "frelks", people whose fetish it is to be with people they can't really connect to. The word he chose to make up seems awfully close to "freaks" being that it's only one letter off. I don't know why he bothered to change it at all if that was the case and ends up making me think he was simply lazy.

It just seems to me that this novel was written more as an exploration of sexual fetishes than any real interest in science fiction. Yes, the story takes place in the future and yes, there is space travel involved but the author chooses to ignore his setting and instead focuses on his characters trying to hook up in different parts of the world. He also never explains why these people needed to have their sexual organs removed or what purpose it serves - other than as a vehicle to drive his exploration of sexual amorphous characters.

 Overall, I found the writing incredibly lazy and the story not at all interesting. I was more interested in what mission these people might be tasked with or the particulars in how they "went up." None of that was explained, or even lightly mentioned, which gives me the overall opinion that the author was likely in a drug-induced orgy exploring his own sexual exploration with this story being his recording of whatever hallucinations accompanied the experience.

Johnny Mnemonic

I was actually trying to read Fragments of a Hologram Rose but the links were tied in such a way that made it inaccessible so I ended up reading Johnny Mnemonic instead. I had already seen the movie when it came out in 1995 and was only mildly interested in it. I liked the idea of being able to upload data into your brain but the story was done in such a way that it wasn't all that interesting. One of the problems I've always had with science fiction written in the early days of technology is that many writers lacked the imagination to truly envision the future. So when Johnny is bursting at the seams - so to speak - because of the multitude of megabytes in his head, I tend to scoff as I look at my 64 GB thumb-drive that is actually smaller than my thumb.

Speaking of which, why would anyone need to upload their secrets into someone else's head when they could just as easily encrypt the same data onto a secure thumb-drive? It seems a bit pointless and less than secure. After all, the data did "leak" into Johnny's brain which is what necessitated his visit to the super smart dolphin - which, in itself, is ridiculous.

I'm not sure if the entire point of this story was to delve into the super ridiculous or not. It doesn't seem like parody as it tends to take itself seriously at times. In my opinion, it just ends up a sloppy mess that doesn't make a lot of sense, presenting more questions than answers.


This week we were focusing on diversity in science fiction authors. I read Dawn by Octavia Butler and found it incredibly entertaining. It kept my attention and interest, making me care about the characters and relate to their struggles. It also deals with concepts that have always peaked my imagination.

In this story, we are introduced to Lilith - one of the few surviving humans of a terrible nuclear holocaust. She is awakened 250 years after the events that destroyed life on planet Earth by a race of aliens claiming their desire to repopulate the Earth with humans. Because of their extremely different appearance, Lilith is both repelled and distrustful of her benefactors. I found this reaction to be what I typically expect most humans to do upon meeting an extraterrestrial species. Keeping in mind that the author is black and has likely experienced prejudice based on nothing more than her appearance, I found this interaction particularly honest in its approach.

One of the things that was so fascinating about this book was Lilith's slow build to trust the Oankali - the aliens that saved her. The more she gets to know the Oankali, the more she starts to realize that they are inherently more honest than humans are capable of. There are, of course, setbacks in the building of trust. Especially when she learns that there is a price to be paid for returning to Earth. She learns that their species are "traders" in genetic biodiversity. They assimilate desired genetic traits from other species into their own in order to increase their chances of survivability throughout the galaxy. The trade-off comes with a price though and essentially forces humans to take on the traits of the Oankali - resulting in a race that is neither fully human or fully Oankali. Lilith is horrified and makes plans to rebel against the Oankali once they reach Earth.

She is adopted by an Oankali "family" and given some enhancements to make her task of leading a group of human survivors to settle on Earth slightly more successful. She awakens other humans with the mission of making them ready to return to Earth. As is normal with humans, her group is distrustful of her and accuse her of being their jailor. Once they see her enhanced strength and ability to manipulate the ship, their conviction grows and further distances her from the group. Eventually, the other humans rebel against her, choosing to go their own way on Earth. As it happens, the Oankali manipulated their genetic chemistry to not only make them infertile without them but also repellant to the opposite sex. Essentially, they either willingly return to the Oankali or the human race dies out.

I'm summarizing the story of course but I highly encourage anyone to read this story. It's an interesting look at not only our own diversity but how we might react to diversity on a galactic scale.

Monday, November 9, 2015


This is a story we read in class today written by Octavia Butler. It's a strange little science fiction tale where we find humans living in a parasitic relationship with an alien species. Rather than being presented with a humanoid alien of the sort that we're used to seeing in science fiction, it is a bug-like creature that sounds like a cross between a cockroach and a centipede. A really large bug at that, one who lays its eggs inside its chosen human. The downside for the humans is that if the larvae aren't removed in time, they will devour their host.

Three questions were presented to us upon having read the story.

1) Are there any prominent symbols in the story? If so, what are they and how are they used?

2) What connections did you make with the story? Discuss the elements with which you were able to connect.

3) What changes would you make to adapt this story into another medium? What medium would you use? What changes would you make?

I think it's safe to say that the question wouldn't have been asked if the answer was no. Certainly in light of the fact that there are follow up questions. As to the first question, I think the most obvious symbol is that of the egg. As we are introduced to the characters of the story, they are all sitting around their benefactor eating a sterile egg. The effects of the egg induce a euphoric state that is probably akin to being high. The only one not partaking in the egg is the mother of the human children; at least not initially and not of her own will. Then there is the laying of eggs in the hapless human, Lomas, who is in danger of being eaten alive by the young inside of him and Gan's witness of the "birth." At the end, eggs are implanted into Gan.

I didn't really make any personal connections with the story. If anything, I would say that I could probably connect with Gan's desire to protect his sister from having T'Gatoi lay an egg inside of her. I can also relate to his relationship with his older brother, even though I'm the eldest child. There is still a realistic interpretation on the artist's part in showing us their relationship that calls to mind interactions between my own brothers. Gan also takes responsibility onto himself that protects his mother and the rest of his family.

If I were to change this story into another medium I would choose computer animation, since that would allow me to create the creatures as I see them without any limitations or restrictions. I would change the story so that it was just between T'Gatoi, Gan, and his mother. I think the other siblings get in the way of the story and they don't really add anything that couldn't be substituted by the mother. T'Gatoi could have said she was going to lay her eggs inside his mother which could have elicited the same response in Gan. Also, having the older brother be witness to a birthing gone wrong isn't necessary since Gan sees a birthing gone wrong for himself. It would simplify the story without losing any of its interest. Of course, one could argue that the siblings give some humanity to the main character but I don't know that the same effect couldn't be achieved with the mother.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

First Contact Novelette

As a self-proclaimed sci-fi nerd, I dream of the day that mankind meets another traveler upon the ocean of stars. Having grown up with Star Trek, Star Wars, and various other optimistic films that showcase the everyday interactions (usually peaceful) between different species, I like to think that our first contact with an alien species will go relatively smooth. And then I think about mankind and my sense of optimism dwindles. We are largely a species defined by hate, violence, and fear; as much as we'd like to deny it.

It is with this in mind that Murray Leinster wrote First Contact in 1945 at the end of WWII. He imagines a situation where mankind has created the technology that enables him to reach the furthest reaches of space and, while cruising around the Crab Nebula, encounters a race whose technology matches its own. Rather than rush out to meet these new creatures, the captain and crew - on both ships - view this encounter with fear and mistrust. For all the hope and enlightenment that a discovery of this magnitude should represent, both crews worry over the intentions of the other. Their fear makes them consider destroying each other to protect their home worlds. Eventually they do come to an amicable agreement that allows both ships to leave in peace, but it is only through guile that this arrangement is reached.

It's telling that this story resonates so well with me in that I expect mankind to act this way. Our history is full of examples that show that we fear what we don't understand. Our species is often irrational and naive, choosing to see the world the way we want it to be rather than the way it is. Facts and objectivity are replaced with superstition and bias. Mankind is not ready yet for the responsibilities of meeting another species of people, especially if those people behave like us.

The Stone and the Flute and Magical Realism

This week I revisited one of the novels that shaped my early introduction to works of fantasy. It might have even been the first fantasy novel I ever read. It is certainly the first I can recall. It's message left a lasting impression on the young boy I was and I never forgot the story. After reading it again, I find that it's like the words of a song you barely remember, or haven't heard in ages, coming back to you when you hear it again.

One of the things that made this novel stand out to me as a youth was the sense that the world the character, Listener, lived in - was real. There are certainly fantastic elements throughout the book but Hans Bemmann writes it in a way that makes it believable and almost mundane; as though things like this happen all the time. It's a great way to escape the reality of this world and substitute it for another. 

As the main character and protagonist, Listener is flawed. He makes poor choices that, at the time, seem like they are being made for the right reasons. At times, he makes selfish decisions which of course turn out poorly for him. His journey is often about trying to atone for the mistakes he's made as he does usually learn his lesson. The book is full of adventure and at each turn of the page you can't wait to see what happens next. The story covers his entire life and even his eventual death. To me, it encapsulates what magical realism is about by not sugar coating or glossing over the realities of life and by showing us that life is a journey; one that sees us change by running its course - hopefully for the better.