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.