Reading Group Report for Herland

Image used to accompany a 2016 BBC Radio 4 broadcast on Herland.

On the 1st July, the LSFRC reading group convened to discuss Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short novel Herland (1915).

The book follows a sociology student,  Vandyck (Van) Jennings, and his two friends, Terry Nicholson and Jeff Margrave, on an expedition to investigate rumours of a country solely populated by women in uncharted south american territory. After reaching this nation (called Herland), they are taken into compassionate captivity and receive education from their hosts, in the process coming to understand (to varying extents) the shortcomings of their own society and patriarchy-imposed gender roles.

Despite the absence of several regulars, attendance was good and enjoyable and productive conversation ensued. With Tom Dillon and Katie Stone unable to attend, Francis Gene-Rowe put together the following report, divided into loosely themed sections:

Context

  • The text engages with and is informed by contemporary theories of evolution and species development, as well as Eugenicist thinking. While largely Darwinist in its outlook, Herland also draws upon early 20th century mutationism in order to explain how Herlanders are more varied in their characteristics than might be expected, given their parthenogenetic heritage.
  • While the Eugenicist aspects of the text feed into several of its problems (see below), it is worth being aware that eugenics was a framework widely adopted and thought through across the political spectrum, by both progressives on the left and individuals on the far right. While Gilman herself was in many respects highly progressive for her time, her views were more racist than those of some of her eugenics-embracing contemporaries.
  • In terms of the text itself, in addition to the underlying premise behind Herland as a society, species development-related content arises in how the Herlanders have selectively bred their cats to be quiet and to leave birds unmolested, as well as in the frequent analogies drawn between Herlander society and species such as ants and bees.
  • The text also appears to draw upon contemporary anthropological theorising of matriarchy, whereby the pre-historic default social model was matriarchal, such that the society of Herland presents a return to something natural. The concept of originary matriarchy (associated with earth mother worship) later superseded by heliocentric patriarchy continued to have currency well into the post-war era and still has its proponents today.
  • Child raising and pedagogy is a key theme in the text and was an area receiving great attention in the early twentieth century. In addition to Gilman’s references to Montessori education, members of the reading group referenced The Dalton Plan and Anna Freud’s work as either contemporary or near-contemporary instances of this attention to raising and educating children.
  • When considering Herland’s influences on subsequent writing, it is worth noting that it was not published in book form until 1979, and was little known after Gilman’s death until its rediscovery. With that said, it was preceded by other feminist utopian texts from the late 19th century and early 20th century, including Mizora (1890) and New Amazonia (1889), some of which will have been known to and influential upon later writers.

Problems

  • As can often be the case with older texts, when read by a 21st century reader Herland proves to be problematic in several ways. Perhaps the most immediately evident of these is the racism of the text, which characterises indigenous peoples as “savages” and emphases the fact that the Herlanders are aryan (white), despite the fact that they live in the tropics. Whilst these perceptions are related via the perspective of the text’s unenlightened male characters, Gilman expressed deeply problematic views of race in other writings, mostly notably “A Suggestion on the Negro Problem” (1908).
  • Later on in the text, abortion and infanticide are conflated with each other, with the implication being that abortion is infanticide. Herlander society privileges motherhood over any other practice, value or virtue, and whilst it is made clear that motherhood is collective and not exclusively related in biological maternity, the biological framework of reproduction remains prominent. Gilman’s concept of Herlander culture doesn’t allow for either individuals not wanting to have children (the suggestion being that Herlanders have to deliberately resist their natural desire for procreation so as to maintain a stable population) or those who may struggle to have them. Herland is certainly not a trans-inclusive nation, although the Jungle 2 Jungle project (a currently active community seeking to create a Herland-like society) is trans-inclusive.
  • There also seems to be an attitude of being able to approach children as blank slates for education (as in some of Robert Heinlein’s work some decades later), although it appears that Gilman was aware of this as a potential problem arising in Montessori and similar approaches, criticising such views in a later essay.

Satire and Humour

  • While Herland is clearly written with a political-ethical agenda, there was some uncertainty as to what extent it is intended to be satirically comedic, as opposed to more earnestly didactic. The characterisation of the male characters (Terry in particular) in the earlier chapters came across as downright parodic to some reading group members, although it was observed that Gilman may have intended for them to serve as focal points for an instructive satire that would not necessarily be amusing to a contemporary reader.
  • A useful comparison was drawn to Gulliver’s Travels, in the sense that we are given a viewpoint character that is ignorant to the point of naivety. Given the utopianist agenda of the text, Van and his fellows’ often silly opinions and actions can operate as heuristics for the reader. Van in particular comes across as a character that is intended to be a lens through which both education and critique can ensue; he is continually positioned in a middle ground between Jeff and Terry, the overlap in their Venn diagram. At the same time, there is also a sense that Van is intellectually superior to Jeff and Terry, as he puts more stock in reason than they do. This intersects with the valorisation of reason in the text (see below).
  • Amongst the jokes and gags shared in the session were the trenchant observation that Herland is literally a nanny state, as well as the image of Terry becoming a men’s rights activist upon his return to patriarchal civilisation.

Economy and Work

  • The reading group discussed the ways in which Herland does and doesn’t portray different forms of work, as well as its vagueness on the specifics of how Herland’s economy operates. At several points in the text Van flags up the fact that he isn’t going to explain Herland’s economy (for a variety of reasons), which indicates a deliberate decision on Gilman’s part. Aside from Herland and The Yellow Wallpaper, perhaps Gilman’s most famous piece of writing is Women and Economics – A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (1898), in which she outlines forms of work and labour that tend to be disregarded in traditional (typically male-authored) economic studies. Van’s restraint in describing the economics of Herland may in part be a function of his own ignorance, but it also serves to de-emphasise normative expectations of what is or isn’t work. Something similar can be seen in how the men try and fail to provide a logical explanation of wifely housework to their prospective Herlander wives.
  • With this said, Gilman’s approach does create a slight vacuum in the worldbuilding of Herland. Ellador, Alima and Celis are foresters (and the men ultimately learn to work as their assistants) whose work takes them across the land, and we also encounter teachers and priestess/therapist figures. However, builders and farmers are conspicuous by their absence, despite the highly built and cultivated nature of Herland as a nation. This may well be a function of what Van and his friends take an interest in/are exposed to, but it also suggests that Gilman is less interested in exploring manual labour than in showing us a world that feels detached from patriarchal economic models.
  • One framing suggested was that Herland operates on an economy of ethics, following a slightly modified version of the old communist adage: “from each according to their ability and desire to work in a particular way, to each according to their needs as they see them.”

Knowledge and Herland Society

  • Herlander theatre is supposedly dull due to a lack of violence, culture and fear. This perception on the part of the men may well indicate a lack of imagination on their part (as, for instance, Beckettian drama would be perfectly viable in Herland). Ultimately, Herland is not a text much concerned with aesthetics, although the contrast drawn between Herlander and the men’s names does emphasise the superiority of Herlander names.
  • To follow up on this, there was some discussion as to what extent Herland is a boring place. Sexuality appears to be altogether absent and the underlying tone of Herlander society appears to be relentlessly polite and calm. One participant questioned to what extent a monoculture was in operation, which raised the consideration of how a woman outsider would be received in Herland, and what her experience might be like. With this said, gameplaying is referenced several times in the text, giving the impression that Herlanders draw upon ideas of play throughout their lives. Humour also seems to be present in Herland, and Ellador, Alina and Celis are entirely capable of finding the men risible when they encounter them.
  • Knowledge is a prominent theme in Herland, as Gilman sets a lot of stock by scientific reason. Herlanders are shown to be consistently rational and even minded, whilst it’s the men who come across as personal, irrational and so on (characteristics that they consider typical of women in their own homeland). At the same time, the Herlanders possess much more emotional intelligence than Van and company. The men’s ignorance and lack of self-awareness is epitomised by the fact that the Herlanders construct highly accurate spider diagrams of unspoken facts about the outside world, based on points of hesitation and omission in their conversations with the men.
  • Whilst Herland can be considered a separatist feminist text, the nation of Herland is not presented as separatist so much as a natural development following the natural and human events which led to its isolation and to all its men dying. In that sense, it resembles Joanna Russ’s Whileaway more than Ursula Le Guin’s Anarres. The comparisons to animal species further reinforce the sense that Herland, and the methodical rationality of its inhabitants, is a product of natural law more than any historical or human contingency.

Comparisons and References

  • The BBC Four series “Victorian Sensations” (currently available on iPlayer) was recommended as companion viewing, particularly the second episode, which is entitled “Decadence and Degeneration.”
  • Parallels between Herland and wellbeing economics/economics of happiness were drawn, with a specific reference to Richard Layard’s Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (2005).
  • Herland’s convenient Californian climate and other Californian characteristics suggests parallels with Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975).
  • John Wyndham’s novella “Consider her Ways” (1956) was mentioned as a more instrumentalist envisioning of a Herland-type society, with stronger parallels between its society and ant species behaviour.

July Reading Group Event: Herland

Monday 1st of July from 7 till 8.30pm

Room 106, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD

In July’s session of our reading group we will be discussing Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We will attempt to link the book to this year’s theme of economics in science fiction. There should be a lot of interesting material to discuss; such as the economics of the all woman utopia (production, division of labour etc); their models of reproduction and maintenance; as well as the racist and essentialist overtones of the society depicted.

After, we will move to the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street for further discussion. All are welcome.  Please get in touch if you have any questions about the event (our email is lsfrcmail@gmail.com). If you want to let us know you’re coming, you can visit our Facebook page, or our gath.io page for the event.

Reading Group Report for Brightness Falls From The Air

Cover art by Les Edwards for the UK Sphere edition of Brightness Falls from the Air

On Monday 3rd of June, the LSFRC reading group met at Birkbeck to discuss James Tiptree Jr.’s novel Brightness Falls from the Air (1985).

The novel follows a large cast of characters on a single night, who have travelled to the far reaches of the galaxy in order to witness the passing of a stellar phenomena, only visible from the planet Damiem. Many characters hold secret motives or undisclosed pasts, and their presence is complicated by the existence on the planet of the indigenous population, the Dameii, who have been brutally treated by previous human colonisers. As the night plays out the motives and dark pasts are revealed with explosive consequences.

I was not in fact present for the discussion (though I very much enjoyed reading the book). However I have been able to piece together the mysterious events of the reading group through the discovery of fragments from Katie Stone’s and Francis Gene-Rowe’s diaries:

Gender

The group began with a discussion of Tiptree’s pronouns. James Tiptree Jr. was the writing pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, and for many years readers assumed Tiptree was a man, and Tiptree did not correct them. It was suggested that the name Tiptree was both taken on as a professional name to distinguish from Sheldon’s other work (she worked for a time at the CIA, though before she took on the Tiptree writing name), as well as an exploration of her/their/his complex gender identity; i.e. the Tiptree name may have been an exploration of what would now be called transmasculinity.

Capitalism

It was suggested that the exploded star might be the spreading of capitalism. After the star has passed, the indigenous population (the Dameii) ask to be allowed to access to markets in order to sell their product, ‘Stars Tears’. Stars Tears is a liquor distilled from the naturally occurring nectar produced by the body of the Dameii, whose taste is particularly intense for humans, and whose potency can be increased via extraction of the liquid while the Dameii are in distress. Stars Tears was described by the group as the perfect commodity and there was discussion of the implications of the violent extraction process. Beauty itself becomes a commodity in the novel. Prince-Prince Pao ‘buys’ one of the characters, Stareem Fada (known as Star), to be part of his hareem.

Labour

There are many different forms of Labour in the novel. The Gridworld actors (Snake Smith, Eleganza (Bridey McBannion), Hannibal Ek, and Star) produce pornography; Ser Xe Vovoka is apparently a light-sculptor; Dr. Ochter, Dr. Hiner, and Mordecai Yule, are on the surface all academics, but actually criminals. Tiptree sympathetically portrays sex workers, though is critical of the Gridworld economic system which produces the pornography as it does not treat its workers well. The Federation (the interstellar alliance of planets in the galaxy), does not officially approve of Gridworld (Snake and Ek are not allowed to join the military because of their profession), but Gridworld is none the less an integral part of the wider economy of the Federation. There are a number of Doctors, or dabblers in medicine. Although Bram is the Doctor of the outpost of Damiem, the previous supervisor of the planet, Pace, becomes a doctor, and Zannez (the leader of the Gridworld troupe) performs doctorhood. It was suggested that medicine was not treated as a fetishised profession like in many novels but labour like any other work.

Colonialism

The Federation is sketched quite hazily. However, it does become apparent that the Federation, like with the Federation in the Star Trek franchise, considers itself to be a force for good. They even appear to have a similar concept to Star Trek’s Prime Directive, (i.e. a rule for non-interference in the affairs of indigenous populations). Illegal activities take place on the fringe of the Federation, such as the crimes against the Dameii people and the Gridworld exploitation. However, the treatment of the Dameii by the Federation either aims for their assimilation or to hold them in a reservation as ‘noble savages’, both of which are colonial behaviours.

Childhood

Tiptree represents the image of the child in a complex manner. Cory commits a war crime as a child, while Prince (12 years old) seems almost entirely adult and is involved in procuring/buying a concubine for himself. It was suggested that Tiptree takes seriously the idea of childhood autonomy and resists the image of children as innocents, in need of saving from an Other. The Dameii are in a sense an image of the childish/innocent noble savage – a prelapsarian race, in need of protection. However, as with the child characters, Tiptree gives the Dameii autonomy over their existence (albeit by their choosing to enter into capitalist relations).

Kinship

There are many kinship and relationship models in the novel; the romantic/parental relationship between Linnix and Bram; the working relationship between Kip and Cory which is also a sexual relationship; the friendship/work/love relationship between the Gridworlders; Prince-Prince Pao’s socialisation amongst adults; the intimacy of the Lady Pardalianches and her sister; the social organisation of the Dameii. Someone pointed out the kinky power-dynamics in many of these roles, power dynamics which cross age, social status, and dis/ability.

Form

The novel takes the form of a detective novel. A series of characters from across class/gender/race, are brought together to be witness to, and take part in a crime. The form allows an examination of power dynamics from a cross-section of society. However, the whole novel is strangely paced, with a long set-up of conversations, an hundred page cinematic action sequence, and a large amount of resolution at the end. The time eddies which are produced by the passing star, threatens to create alternative narrative lines, which nevertheless do not fully materialise.

June Reading Group Event: Brightness Falls from the Air

Cover art by Les Edwards for the UK Sphere edition of Brightness Falls from the Air

Monday 3rd of June from 7:00 pm till 8:30 pm.

Room 106, 43 Gordon Square, LONDON, WC1H 0PD

In June’s reading group event we will be discussing James Tiptree Jr.’s novel Brightness Falls from the Air (1985), hopefully linking it to our overall theme of the year of economics in science fiction. Afterwards we will be heading over to the Fitzroy Tavern for a couple of drinks and chat.

All are welcome and please get in touch if you have any questions about the event (our email is lsfrcmail@gmail.com). If you want to let us know you’re coming, you can visit our Facebook page, or our gath.io page for the event.

Reading Group Report for The Parable of the Talents

In our latest reading group meeting, held on the 29th April at Gordon Square, Birkbeck, we discussed The Parable of the Talents (1998) by Octavia Butler. 

The novel continues the story of Lauren Oya Olamina’s struggle, begun in The Parable of the Sower (1993), to survive the slide of the U.S. into racism and instability, through the propagation of her space oriented religion called Earthseed. The novel takes the form of curated excerpts from Lauren’s diaries presented and glossed by her estranged daughter Larkin, covering Lauren’s experience of setting up the commune of Acorn and the subsequent trials and tribulations which follow. 

The discussion was wide ranging and highly engaging. We even managed to spend a good deal of time discussing our theme of the year of economics and labour in science fiction.  

Below is a run-down of some of the topics that were discussed: 

The Family 

There was quite a disagreement about whether Lauren’s daughter Larkin was right to be so angry at her mother considering Lauren’s traumatic experiences. Larkin seems to feel that Lauren’s religion is another form of child who is preferred over Larkin. The Acorn community is one based on a wider kinship structure than the nuclear family. It appears at time that Lauren’s friends such as Zahra and Harry are closer to her than her own husband Bankole or her daughter. At the same time, though there are queer kinship structures, the basic unit for the community is one of a small family working within a larger community.  Also, despite the positive inclusion of queer characters within the Acorn community, it was felt that many of the queer characters had negative representation; the torture of Allie and her partner by the Christian Americans seemed gratuitous; Marcus is presented as an asexual and self-hating queer man; while sex-work is always connected with slavery and male homosexuality is often connected with paedophilia.

Religion 

Earthseed is both similar and an inverse of Christian America, the organization based on evangelical Christianity which gains power in Butler’s future U.S. Both demand full commitment, dignity and purpose through labour, and stable family structures. However Earthseed’s scripture is almost the opposite of Christianity. It is short, aphoristic, non-narrative, which appears at times (someone in the group pointed out) to be like the text of greeting card, as compared with the classic Christian mode of the sermon, often strongly narrative based and emotive. This is reflected in the structure of the groups. Christian America, and indeed many major religions use big narrative structures of redemption, heaven and eternal life in order to maintain small micro level structures such as the family and gender relations (for example). Earthseed in contrast uses everyday useful sayings that might aid on the micro level, to build into an alternative non-hierarchical community.  

Colonialism 

Earthseed is in many ways comparable to the colonial project. Unity through turning towards an ‘empty’ outside (Earthseed preaches that the final aim of the religion is to colonise space). However, this seems to be at odds with the generally anti-colonial message of the novel. It was pointed out that this tension is explored through the naming of the first Earthseed ship into space the Christopher Columbus—Lauren is not happy with the name because of its colonial connotations and yet agrees to it so that the ship will be allowed to take-off.  

Economics 

It was also pointed out that the spread of religion and of colonialism came under the guise of trade. Colonialism, Capitalism, and the dominance of Christianity develop hand in hand. Earthseed in many ways does not do much to transform the economic system but instead seems to work with in it. Later in the novel, as it comes to a close, Earthseed becomes quite wealthy and it is not clear where the money is coming from. Lauren does talks and gains donations from the wealthy. It appears to use neoliberal structures to spread the gospel rather than questioning the system, which has led to such destitution and misery in the first place. The imperfect system is used in order to reach goal of getting in to space. This is at odds with the ethos of the Acorn commune in which alternative forms of social organization is put before the goal of space colonization. We discussed the politics of finance for space projects: where does the money come from? Is it public or private money? Lauren is vague on these points. This may be deliberate or it may be that there was not enough space in the novel to fill in these gaps. I was reminded of Rachel Hill’s research into the politics of contemporary privatsed space initiatives, which use Utopian imagery to justify privatisation of the space industry.  

Labour 

Both Earthseed and Christian America valorise labour. At Acorn all members work hard and are expected to work hard, and when Christian America turn Acorn into a reeducation camp they also stress labour as a virtue. Both preach labour as a means of salvation—for Christian America for the heavenly salvation, and Earthseed for getting into space. However, Christian America are shown to be hypocrites, using religious doctrine to oversee and legitimise slavery just as the religious rhetoric of work in the past was used to legitimise slavery. For Earthseed, the labour is always put to good use for the good of the community. I suggested that there was a connection with the title of the novel, The Parable of the Talents, in that for Earthseed and for Lauren, value is created through work—investing and spreading the word of religion. However, it was suggested that in fact the burying of the talent is a form of labour as well, and that the Talents story is as much a move away from Old Testament emphasis on The Law and material goods/works towards love. A comparison was made between the labour in the novel and Octavia Butler’s own struggle to complete the novel, caused by a medically induced writer’s block. 

Disability/Empathy 

We had a long and fruitful discussion about the exploration of empathy in the novel. Lauren is a Sharer; a person who has the ability to feel the pain and pleasure of others, caused by the parent of the individual using/abusing a particular drug. This was described as a classic Butler move by one of the participants of the reading group. She takes a relatively simple attribute and exaggerates it. The attribute becomes both a super-power and a disability. It was pointed out that in Butler’s work these ability/disability paradigms are usually genetically inherited; for instance the inheritable disease in her short story ‘The Evening, The Morning and The Night’ (1987) and Cancer in the Xenogenesis Trilogy (1987-89). It is fitting that the disease of the Sharer should be caused by the parent attempting to work harder via drugs (the drug which causes the genetic condition is a concentration drug). 

Trauma 

Empathy in the novel exaggerates the trauma of the text, which in turn is a trauma of African American experience in the past and present projected by Butler into the near future—i.e. the ongoing legacy of slavery. The scarcity of the description of violence was praised as successfully addressing both the impossibility of representing trauma as well as reflecting Lauren’s own need to avoid such descriptions so that she would not relive the experiences (an exploration in many ways of PTSD). A comparison was made between the narrative technique in trauma fiction (such as Primo Levi and Toni Morrison) and Science Fiction. What is not described suggests a reality, which is beyond description. The absence is then filled in by the reader causing an empathetic relation to the text.  

Simulation 

The virtual reality technology of the Dreammask, which attempts to indoctrinate users into empathising with the suffering of Christ, was contrasted to the true empathy of Lauren and Sharers who actually do suffer like those that they see suffering. Someone suggested that it was similar in that respect to the religion of Mercerism in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), in that followers must use the empathy box in order to actually feel the death and sacrifice of Mercer. Empathy in that sense becomes a power relation. The way in which Butler sees the bigoted and corrupt decline of President Jarett, was contrasted with Baudrillard’s reading of the Watergate scandal. Baudrilliard argues that contrary to media representation, Watergate only reinforced government power and corruption, as it suggested that it was an aberration rather than the proper functioning of a system, which is corrupt in itself. 

Utopia/Dystopia 

We ended with a discussion of the particular entanglement of optimism and pessimism, in Butler’s work. Butler never allows either a fully utopian or dystopian mode to dominate the other, rather staying with the trouble to produce a militant call to work through suffering and trauma towards a better world. There was then a shout out for the work of adrienne moree brown who edited Octavia’s Brood (2015)—an anthology of original fiction by activists inspired by Butler and also her podcast with autumn brown ‘How to survive the end of the world.’ 

May Reading Group Event: Parable of the Talents

Monday 29th of April from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm

Room 106, 43 Gordon Square, LONDON, WC1H 0PD

This month we’ll be discussing Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents. This is the second in Butler’s Parable series but it can be read as a stand alone novel if you don’t feel you have the time for Parable of the Sower (but you should make time because it is phenomenal).

We’ll discuss the economics of community building, organised religion and scientific revolution before heading over the the Fitzroy Tavern for a couple of drinks/a chance to plot revolutions of our own.

Please note that the event will be taking place on the last Monday of April (29th April) and not the first Monday of May as would be our usual date.

All are welcome and please get in touch if you have any questions about the event (our email is lsfrcmail@gmail.com). If you want to let us know you’re coming, you can visit our Facebook page, or our gath.io page for the event.

CN: This book contains scenes of torture and sexual violence.

Reading Group Report on Children of Men

On the evening of the 1st of April, we met at 43 Gordon Square, Birkbeck, to watch and discuss the film Children of Men (2006). We began in the cinema for two hours, and then made our way to a seminar room on the first floor for a discussion.

The film follows the travails of Theo Faron, in a future dystopian UK, in which the sudden ceasing of human fertility has led to a repressive, racist, and decaying state. Theo finds himself embroiled in a plot to overthrow the government and is tasked with looking after a young woman, who holds particular political currency.

I was not able to join the discussion afterwards due to work. All I can say, and I have also corroborated with others who attended the screening, that it was certainly a highly affecting experience. This was the third time I have watched the film and I don’t remember being quite so moved, or the film hitting so many nerves.

As I was not present for the discussion, I have reconstructed the themes that were explored, from the notes of fellow LSFRC organiser Katie Stone.

Themes:

Context

When the film first came out, the immediate context for the militaristic and repressive state represented in the film, was the Iraq war and New Labour. However, it was pointed out that within our own context, the film is becoming more, not less, familiar. Firstly, the shabby and decaying infrastructure is more recognizable now than during the still economically buoyant landscape of 2006. Mark Fisher presciently used the film at the opening of Capitalist Realism (2009) in order to explore the continuation of capitalism without the ability to imagine an alternative. Secondly, the ongoing persecution and vilification of migrants in our political moment (for example the ‘migrant crisis’, the Windrush scandal, Theresa May’s ‘migrant’s go home vans’, the large increase in immigration enforcement over the decade), attended by both state and street violence, makes the harrowing internment of migrants within the film much closer to our lived experience. It was noted also, that the UK has a long history of internment camps and that currently many people are being held at detention centres around the UK (for example Yarl’s Wood).

Character

Theo’s character was seen to be very much a blank page or cypher for other people’s impressions and ideas. He also becomes a Christ like figure or a white saviour at the end of the film, when he sacrifices himself.  Kee, the young pregnant woman, was felt to have a lack of agency and also that her naked body was exploited to produce the Madonna image in the cow shed. Finally, there was debate over whether the hippy aesthetic of Theo’s friend Jasper was reactionary or revolutionary.  It is hinted that Jasper was once a political cartoonist, who critiqued the government. However, now Jasper is the very image of the 1960s drop out, and sells weed to detainment camp guards.

Adaptation

The film emphasizes the militaristic and totalitarian state, whereas the society depicted in the book by P.D. James The Children of Men (1992) shows society in a general decline in a similar manner to Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard (1964). The book is analysed in Lee Edleman’s No Future (2005) as an example of queer erasure in favour of the potential child (more on this in a second).  Several people felt that the theme of the corruption of power was a highlighted in the book, and downplayed in the film adaptation. There was some reflection on the ethical implication in the film of having the freedom fighters be as corrupt and violent as the government.

Animals

There is quite a lot of animal imagery in the film. Firstly there is the background burning of animals, evoking mad cow disease or foot and mouth, and has similarities to Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003). Secondly, all animals seem to love Theo, and are treated as pseudo child replacements. Finally the labour of cows is directly linked to Kee’s pregnancy in the Madonna scene.

The Image of the Child

This point has perhaps been covered in other themes, but the image of the child is a very important symbol for the film (as indeed it is for the book as well). Kee’s child becomes the symbol of hope and of the future, for which adults must sacrifice themselves. There is one fantastic scene where the fighting between the military forces and the rebels is stopped by the appearance of the baby. The part shot in the derelict school is both a representation of a world haunted by a lack of children and a glimpse of a hopeful post-human future.

Art/Institutions

The scene set in Battersea Power Station brought up questions around the preservation and presentation of art in institutions. Theo asks his relative what the point is in collecting art now that there are no future generations to see it.  The idea that there is some future audience that might see it merely defers the question about the reason and function of collecting art. This was then connected with the idea of Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’, when Theo mentions that his mother had a plastic ‘David’ that was also a lamp. The lamp might very well be more whole than the original, that has now lost a leg. There are also two shots in which we see Picasso’s Guernica, which was thought to be significant (ironic relation of art to reality? The violence and pain of the society depicted?)

Labour

There are not many jobs left in the Britain depicted in the film, and they are mostly connected with security (both police and military). Other jobs that seemed viable were advertising (there is a lot of advertising used to great effect in the film) and gambling (Theo goes to the dog races). Of course there is also the labour of child-birth, so that paradoxically, in a film highlighting the absence of children, reproductive labour is raised up to an almost religious experience, perhaps mystifying its reality.

April Reading Group Event: Children of Men

Monday 1 April 2019 from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm

Birkbeck Cinema, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD

For the next installment of our reading group, we will be screening Children of Men (2006) at the Birkbeck Cinema. After the conclusion of the screening, we’ll head upstairs to Room 106 for roughly 45 minutes of informal discussion. And then after that we’ll go to the Fitzroy Tavern for some even more casual chats. All welcome! If you want to let us know you’re coming, you can visit our Facebook page, or our gath.io page for the event.

Reading Group Report on Four Short Stories

On the evening of the fourth of March we met in the Keynes Library at Birkbeck to discuss four short stories, each of which in some way related to our year’s theme of labour, production, and reproduction. 

The four short stories were:

‘That Only a Mother’ by Judith Merril (1948) in which an anxious mother gives birth to a child in an age of paranoia around genetically mutated children.

‘The Ship Who Sang’ (1961) by Anne McCaffrey, in which a disabled child becomes integrated into a spaceship’s operating system.

‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ (1967) by Pamela Zoline, follows the thoughts of a housewife through the drudgery and boredom of domestic and reproductive labour.

‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ (1973) by Vonda McIntyre narrates an episode in the life of the confusingly named Snake, a travelling healer/doctor who uses the different properties of her snakes to perform medical procedures. 

It is perhaps a little bit challenging to summarise the themes of the discussion as we analysed each story one at a time (though there was much linking between them at the same time). I also was only present for a small slice of the overall time and so most of the discussion points I was present for focused on ‘That Only a Mother’. However, here are some of the things that were covered:

Labour

Each story explores specific but interrelated forms of gendered labour. Housework is the focus of ‘Heat Death’, reproduction the focus of ‘That Only’, while ‘The Ship’ looks at the exploitation of the labour of disabled bodies. Finally ‘Of Mist’ looks at professionalism and carework. It was noted that many of these stories, especially ‘Heat Death’ and ‘Of Mist’ were written in the context of second wave feminist activism and texts (such as Wages Against Housework Sylvia Federici (1974)). The labour of the writer was also mentioned: how much scientific knowledge is needed in order to write an sf story, and how much work is put into experimentation especially in regards to ‘Heat Death’. Finally the work necessary for women to overcome the sf male bias in order to be published. Apparently Judith Merrill wrote her story ‘That Only’ in response to John W. Campbell’s degree as editor of Astounding magazine, that women were not sufficiently knowledgeable/talented to be published in his publication.

Suburban Paranoia

Both ‘Heat Death’ and ‘That Only’ convey the psychological states of women who perform traditional domestic roles, specifically of childcare and housework. ‘Heat Death’ repeats the idealised image of the happy housewife, which it pierces with its obsessive and analytical detailing of the bored and tired reality. The protagonist’s name, Sarah Boyle, evokes the sense of building up energy, the possibility of boiling over, and also Boyle’s Law. A link was made with the subject formation of the individual under neo-liberalism, always expected to be happy doing menial and depressing work. In ‘That Only’ the narratives vacillates between portraying the mind of a paranoid and delusional mother, and portraying the protagonist as seeing the truth of the situation (more on this in a second). The term ‘suburban neurosis’ was critiqued as a sexist/bogus ‘diagnosis’: i.e. male doctors medicalising the gendered division of labour and its attendant miseries.

Motherhood

In ‘That Only’ the main character is continually referencing a host of professional men who she reads or give her advice about motherhood/pregnancy. It was pointed out that this is a standard trope of 1940s/50s America, in which the figure of woman is infantalised and belittled in terms of skill and knowledge around childbirth and childrearing. It was suggested that the mother character in ‘That Only’ is defined by her job of motherhood, just as the professional men are defined by theirs, but with asymmetrical power distribution.

Fatherhood/Patriarchy

The father of Sarah Boyle’s children is absent in ‘Heat Death’ while the father in ‘That Only’ is only physically present at the end, though to some extent he makes an appearance in telegrams. He is also the vector of mutation for the child and it is noted in the story that it is often fathers who kill mutated children. It was suggested that fatherhood takes on a normative function, becoming an agent of patriarchy by destroying anything which does not fit within patriarchal regimes of power. 

The Image of the Child

The figure of the child in ‘That Only a Mother’ can be usefully linked with a number of other texts from the period in which super intelligent or mutated children threaten/change society, such as Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke, 1953) , More than Human (Theodore Sturgeon, 1953) , and the novels of Wilmar Shiras. It was suggested that the mutant child image could be contextualized with post-war social change as well as the anxiety around nuclear war, and the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. A link was made between Japanese sf, specifically Akira, and the image of mutated/super-intelligent children. Mention was made also of Wilhemina Baird’s protagonist in Crashcourse (1993). 

Disability

In both ‘The Ship’ and ‘That Only’ the child character is disabled. In ‘That Only’ the representation of the disabled child teeters on the edge of horror and evolutionary transcendence, depending on the gendered narrative split between patriarchal arbiter of normality, and maternal recognition of intelligence and difference. In ‘The Ship’ the main character Helva is able to thrive but only under indenture of service to a galactic organisation, the other option being euthanasia at birth.

Short Story Form 

The different stories have quite particular forms. ‘That Only’ was described by one attendee as ‘telescoped’ so that the story was constructed around its twist ending. This meant that the ending was shadowed by a number of hints throughout. ‘Heat Death’ does not work towards a twist ending but is patterned. ie it is constructed from a series of associations between different discourses such as advertising, art, housework, music etc. The scale of the stories, it was noted, were wildly different. For instance ‘Heat Death’ is set in a very limited domestic setting and yet uses the very largest of spatial/temporal metaphors in the form the notion of entropic decline (ie the heat death at the end of the universe). A story like ‘The Ship’ in contrast uses a space opera background to explore domestic issues such as gendered relations in the home (here a space-ship).

Report on discussion of New York 2140

On the 4th of February we met at the Keynes Library, Birkbeck, to discuss New York 2140 (2017) by Kim Stanley Robinson. The novel follows a series of characters living in the Met building in New York city, after ecological catastrophe has flooded coastal cities and severely damaged the wider environment. The various intersecting narrative threads explore the difficulty and excitement of a city transformed by ecological disaster and the ongoing inequalities of capitalism.

The notes below cover a number of different themes that were discussed during the evening. Unfortunately I was there for only half an hour and so, although I was impressed by the breadth and depth of the topics discussed, I was unable to do complete justice to the myriad insights of the participants.

Themes Discussed:

Architecture

Movement within New York is undertaken via sky-bridges– a new form of pedestrian walkways linking together skyscrapers. The isolated design of skyscrapers, often seen as separating people and privatising space, is joined together as common and useful space. The lack of ground floor/street level and the changing water levels forces people to find new ways of negotiating the city, potentially more creative and less hierarchical. Boats though seem to be mostly private travel. Where there are buses, they are slow and rarely used by characters.

The Commons

Much of the organisation of the lower part of Manhattan is done via cooperatives– the residents of each particular building own the building in common and make decisions collectively via representatives. This seems to be an alternative mode of organisation that has come about because of the lower value of property in the intertidal zone. We follow the Met building in particular; most of the characters are in some way connected with it. Their relationships are partially determined by the working of the cooperative and it functions also to bring them together. Robinson puts forward the cooperative as an alternative model to rentier capitalism, under threat from gentrification and financialisation. 

Radical v Reformist Politics

The novel suggests that to overcome capitalism, it must be done via existing institutions– ie Congress. This is a theme of Robinson’s in Pacific Edge (1990) and Blue Mars (1996) as well. Problems are worked through legislature. There is less focus on alternative modes of activism– there is a noticeable lack of counter-culture and where there is, it is only briefly explored. The novel tends to follow those who are in a position to effect change as individuals– Amelia Black as influencer, Charlotte as Head of Householders Union, Gen as a well respected police officer, Franklin as insider in finance. 

History and Representation

The novel mentions the concept of ease of representation, which to an extent is used to preempt criticism of its focus on individual movers and shakers in a particular location as actors at the heart of historical change. Possibly the novel tries to have its cake and eat is as regards whether history is made/changed by individuals or collectives. Elsewhere, the temporality of finance (numbers changing on the screen) is compared to history, only quantified (and thus ripe for gambling). The novel doesn’t necessarily present a concrete theory of history, but it’s clearly a concern at the heart of the later chapters.

Character

There was discussion of the references to the social novel/Victorian novel. The novel follows a set of interlocking characters as an exploration of the social. I didn’t quite follow this as the discussion started before I arrived. Amelia Black functions more like a film star (Marilyn Monroe) than a new idea/job of the ‘cloud-star’. 

Form

The form of the novel mimics works by John dos Passos (Manhattan Transfer (1925), USA Trilogy (1938)) and John Brunner, (Stand on Zanzibar (1968), and The Sheep Look Up (1978)). It follows the form of a kaleidoscope of different characters interspersed with quotations, in which an entire society’s cultural and economic history is delineated: a socialist novel. However, where Passos’s quotations and non-fiction sections are radical (biographies of union leaders, histories of strikes etc), Robinson’s are quite conservative (Herman Melville, Ambrose Bierce, anecdotes about artists meeting each other on park benches). Also, the outcome of the form is highly optimisitic– society is actively working towards change, whereas Passos and Brunner are less certain (pessimistic). 

Genre

It was pointed out that the novel contains a number of different genre narratives/tropes. For instance there is a treasure hunt, a police/detective drama, an adventure narrative, as well as having the trappings of sf. It was also suggested that the novel is both a society novel of New York (perhaps a bit like Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)) and a frontier novel.

Finance and Ecology

The financialisation of ecological disaster that is implicit in our financial system now, is made explicit in the world of the novel. Seemingly no event however violent can disrupt capitalism (there have been two almost apocalyptic water surges that have caused major destruction): in fact, it may very well function on instability. The novel’s movement towards overthrow of the system plays a bit like a re-run of 2008 financial disaster, but in this case the banks are not bailed-out, leading to change. 

Motif and Metaphor

Throughout the novel, similarities are drawn between finance and aquatic landscapes/flow, the latter serving as a metaphor for the former. Equally, Franklin reflects on how his work as financier involves the selection of correct metaphors. Both of these dynamics seem reflective of science fiction itself: firstly, the interplay between landscape and culture, then secondly, the fact that finance behaves like sf in its work of selecting/finding the right metaphors to encapsulate a given moment or situation. In a sense, finance is just as science fictional as the novel’s flooded landscape, if not more.

Labour

There are new types of jobs and labour– cloud-stars, muscle-farming etc, but many of the jobs are either expanded because of ecological change (ie sand dredging, scuba diving repair/building jobs, etc) or from before (police, finance etc). How is class constituted in New York or USA? We only see quite middle-class people or people who fall out of the class system (‘water-rats’). 

Reproduction

Though the novel follows a range of different characters or different ages, genders, race, etc, there is a noticable lack of parents. How are children brought up in this future? We have a model based on the ad hoc adoption of the ‘water-rats’ Stefan and Roberto by the characters living in the Met building suggesting an alternative model of communal care.