Microserfs and Me

The one physical book I packed in my suitcase this summer to bring with me to Austria was Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. I’d picked the book up in my favorite used book store/coffee shop because while thumbing through it I saw the phrase “Todd called me a cryptofascist today.” and had that particular experience where you just know a book is for you.

It took me several months to finish the book, which is rare for me especially considering its length. But Microserfs is a slow book where it felt like I was coming back to hear from friends about the past week of their life whenever I checked in. There’s no grand buildup of tension and little dramatic conflict. As many reviewers have pointed out: nothing happens!

This book should have been boring. Instead it become a sort of phenomenon among my friend group as we passed my used copy around, each of us reading it in turn and having it resonate with us. It was our cultural touchstone.

Part of this was that “right time” connection—a book about average (ish), college educated, mid-twenty-year-olds floating in that strange time period where the future and purpose is hazy really echoed my friend group’s current lifestyle. We’re all in that exact position, possessing a job that has a two-year time limit which is long enough to not worry day to day about what we’re doing next but unable to avoid figuring out the next step because the pressure of that concept known as adulthood is floating on the horizon of the end of our time here.

Microserfs made me think about the traditional plot structure of novels and how I’m starting to like books that don’t follow this construction.

And it isn’t just “realism” I’m talking about. I’ve read a lot of books that aren’t fantasy or about wildly rich and famous people that focus on the daily life of people. Most of these books though still follow the pattern of conflict and conflict resolution (at least). There’s character development. There’s a breaking point. Something to overcome.

While there are points in my life where I have experienced the kind of drama that novels are written on it’s all in the past; my day to day life is “boring.” I go to work. I see my friends. I cook dinner (maybe, if I’m feeling inspired enough), read a book, talk with my roommate. This is the schedule that Microserfs follows—these small in between moments.

If I had to paint a picture of this book, it would be that space where you’re sitting on the back porch with a small group of close friends, drinking beer or cider at twilight, having pseudo-philosophical conversation and laughing, kicking back chairs onto two legs, while music plays. It’s a peaceful scene, but one that I’ve treasured more and more. A quietness with the fortitude of human connection.

I want to read books where the characters don’t scream at each other. I want to read books where there’s no crises in a relationship but instead something steady and positive is presented (not without difficulty, but not tumultuous). The characters in Microserfs come across as real people, which is a credit to Coupland. They’re complex, have senses of humor, muse on life, and steadily pass their days.

There’s inter and intra-personal conflict but it isn’t fireworks in Mircroserfs, it’s a volcano that simmers occasionally but never erupts. Characters are hurt and hurt each other but not that much. I find it hard to explain this. Most of the relationships in Microserfs are presented as healthy and strong.

The story also lacks a clear antagonist. Perhaps the antagonist is the vague institution of capitalism or finding meaning. This conflict, though, isn’t necessarily resolved. The characters are left mostly in the same position the book began with. There’s no clear-cut lightning bolt of purpose that strikes the main character or major change he makes to his life that precipitates this finding of meaning (as in, jumping on an airplane to fly to a different country to “find himself”).

For some of us, finding meaning in our lives is not going to involve quitting our job, jumping on a plane, and having a spiritual journey. Instead it’s a grind against apathy, against the feelings of inadequacy in a world beyond our control, and the suffering the callous and random tragedies we’ll encounter and our friends will face. That’s not always extraordinary.

I do recognize my privilege in that statement. I’m not in the position where commonplace life is about survival. Life is somewhere in the middle—not filled with riches or lofty aspirations, earning enough to comfortably pay my rent every month, and so on. I’m lucky that monotonous living is the challenge I have to overcome.

But monotony does leave me asking: where’s the point?

The resolution of Mircoserfs comes down to this idea, “here we are, whole.” Despite the aimlessness, the conflict, past traumas, and despite where the winding road of life takes us, what happens, good and bad, all of us simply are. It’s enough.

Not a lofty message, maybe not even an exciting one, but it’s sunk into my bones. Microserfs dark horsed its way onto my top ten list of last year and I still think about it even though it has a plot that’s more similar to driving along an open highway in Wyoming on cruise control with nothing in sight than conquering a mountain and descending the other side, but I’m here for that stretched out haze of time.

 

 

Thoughts on Li’s “Dear Friend,”

dearfriendCapturing the quality of suffering during depression is a task that presents challenges to authors, especially in regards to communicating with readers who have never lived through a depressive episode. I use the word quality because there is a sensation to the experience of depression that is about as easy to explain to people as a taste they’ve never encountered before. In searching for a book to capture how I felt for years as a young woman that I could share with other people as an example of my experiences, there was the sense that the books I was reading had characters that were too melodramatic.

 

In truth, the characters were accurate to how depression affects some people and in many of them I saw myself and the ways I was out of control myself those years ago. But there’s a certain conceit to these characters, an expectation that the reader understands how depression influences not only thoughts but the body holistically. Unfortunately, I felt if I pointed to these novels, people would respond with a comment I’ve heard said among friends, “Why don’t they just do something about it?” turning depression into a concept of control (it is, of course, a concept of control, but not in the way that they think. In depression, one finds control in giving up trying to control).

For them, as I’m sure it was for people in my own life, the melodrama seems insincere, exaggerated, perhaps even intentional.

In Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, author Yiyun Li wrote a book that is partially a memoir, partially essays on her personal relationship to literature, and more essentially, ruminations on the experience of depression.

By picking and peeling at all the facets of her feelings, Yiyun Li unwinds the tangled and brambled knots of depression. Reading musings that are eloquent on the contradictions present in depression was eerie in that the thoughts were as intimate as my own.

“But when we read someone’s private words, when we experience her most vulnerable moments with her, and when her words speak more eloquently of our feelings than we are able to, can we still call her a stranger?”

Yiyun Li addresses the melodrama of depression, of how one is both aware of how helpless one is being and yet is also unable to be anything but. Inherent in this is the doubt, “Am I being melodramatic?” that doesn’t diminish the reality of suffering.

Captured here is the self-scorn that one has during depression as one holds in their mind the view of themselves and their depression as both an observer and the agent of action. I’ve always found that difficult to express—how it often felt as though I was watching myself and berating myself like a part of my mind had remained healthy and isolated while the rest of my mind induced my body into behavior I neither wanted nor could stop.

The contradictions of depression are examined as well, with a tender hand because Yiyun Li is not judgmental of suffering or scornful of it, but the opposite. Suffering is explored with a gentle intimacy and a respect. She is able to express how integral depression becomes with identity—invaluable and tyrannical.

“All the things in the world are not enough to drown out the voice of this emptiness that says: you are nothing…It is either a dictator or the closest friend I have ever had. Some days I battle it until we both fall down like injured animals. That is when I wonder: what if I become less than nothing when I get rid of this emptiness? What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?”

It would be a mistake to assume that this treatment of the subject romanticizes depression. Instead, a merciful acceptance permeates the work. The feelings that others labeled in her younger self that others labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ the older Yiyun Li requires no justification for.

This isn’t a book, necessarily, about overcoming depression and moving on triumphantly. Nor is it a book where Yiyun Li is seeking understanding, though that seems counter to the purpose of writing a memoir about depression. From the beginning of the book I was given the impression that the author didn’t care of the response of the reader and wouldn’t pander to their understanding. No excuses are presented, no explanations offered for why she was depressed beyond recognizing some of the origins of her feelings. Depression is personal, intimate, and this prose feels like the intended audience was none other than the author herself—the younger self that she can’t truly reach but is addressing.

The title encapsulates this distance and also the tone of Yuyan Li’s approach. Her depressed self isn’t an enemy but a friend she cares for. This is why there is no conquering, no triumph. One does not triumph over one’s friends or seek to conquer them, they attempt to understand. This is what appeals to me most about Dear Friend, that emerging from depression isn’t an activity that implies an award be handed over at the end.

Dear Friend is dense, circular, as tangential and meandering as exploring one’s own mind. It is through this format that Yiyun Li is able to capture the immense breadth of depression, the waves and tides of it, the way it affects relationships with strangers and intimate friends, the contradictory nature of how it provides control and also takes it away, the way one wants to cling to depression like a life boat and to shuck it as easily as changing clothes, and the stillness, the lethargy, the sense of non-being.

Dear Friend begs to be read and examined as carefully as Yiyun Li annotated the letters of authors she read. It’s stunning, heart-rending, frustrating, and difficult to parse. Yiyun Li admits she’s always been enamored with authors that elude understanding, a stance she’s tried to emulate her whole life. Though Dear Friend is confessional, this sense remains—it is deeply personal, simultaneously detached.

There’s an honesty to Yiyun Li’s thoughts and a lack of condemnation that I think some people would struggle with. But I also read it as an outline of tolerance, respect, and validation. It’s a book I will come back to in my own life as a way to articulate and understand my feelings and one that I will reference when others have misconceptions or questions about the experience of depression.

Fuckboys of Classic Literature: Far From the Madding Crowd Edition

This is a strange entry in our Fuckboys of Classic Literature category because the fuckboy of this book isn’t a character…but the author himself. I thought about inducting the soldier, Frank Troy, but ultimately decided he was more of an asshole than a fuckboy as his mistreatment of Bathsheba is rooted in his own failed, tragic love rather than a generalized view of women as existing for him alone.

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On a related note though: fuck Frank Troy.

No, the fuckboy of this story is Thomas Hardy, which is some kind of achievement. Good job, buddy? Hardy has earned his place by writing an entire book about a woman who is a paragon of independence, strength, and intelligence then completely undermining all of her achievements by making her character’s greatest failing that she’s shallow.

In the first chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy takes the point of his novel and slams it against the reader with about as much subtly as setting an airhorn off right in your ear.

Upon meeting Bathsheba for first time, Gabriel Oak observes her and, with a passing glance, understands her completely. He falls in love with her, assumedly, but as Bathsheba departs makes a wry observation that foreshadows the entire plot of Madding Crowd.

“That’s a handsome maid,” he said to Oak.

“But she has her faults,” said Gabriel.

“True, farmer.”

“And the greatest of them is—well, what it is always…Vanity.”

I fully allow that maybe Hardy didn’t mean that the greatest fault of women is vanity. Hardy could mean that the greatest fault of people is vanity, though with a similar subtlety to the quoted dialogue, Bathsheba is given a passage detailing the manner in which she admires herself in a mirror right before Oak’s comment. This action isn’t even utilitarian—Hardy makes sure to note that Bathsheba doesn’t adjust her clothing or hair, she merely wants to admire herself. I’ve seen enough paintings of women staring in mirrors with various titles alluding to vanity to not dodge this thrown brick of symbolism. I’m not sure Oak owns a mirror and if he does, he sure wouldn’t pause to admire himself in it because he’s not obsessed with himself (obviously).

Regardless, it’s still exhausting to read an entire book devoted to showing how a woman who doesn’t flinch in the fear of entering traditionally male spaces in both leisure activities (not riding side saddle), and business (going herself to seal deals on the trade floor) is brought to ruin because she meets a man that flatters her vanity.

For all that Bathsheba haughtily scoffs at like Boldwood’s attempt to woo her with wealth and comfort, she falls quickly to the flattering seduction of Troy. For a woman who seems determined to assert her independence and claims of never being tamed, all Troy has to do is swing his sword around and she falls apart with a gusty sigh. This is both not a euphemism and a euphemism.

Hardy teased me with having Bathsheba avoid the trope of being the Gold-digger™. Alas, he swerved and instead served up Vanity™. A trait, it’s worth mentioning, that Hardy identifies as being worse than “beating people down,” which is actually perplexing because between the two options, I’d choose to keep company with the vain person.

Bathsheba is humbled through Far from the Madding Crowd, and her humbling is strictly tied to her vanity. When her vanity is cured, what is her reward? To marry the man who pointed out she needed to be humbled in the first place and has steadfastly stood at her side all the while despite her, at times, cruel treatment of him. Wait…or is this Oak’s reward for being faithful, humble, and consistently Good™? It’s almost like the book, as much as it claims to be about Bathsheba is instead about a wild woman being tamed for the Good Guy™.

Darn it though, Oak is a good guy. Out of the context of this story he might be one of the best natured men in classic literature I’ve encountered aside from Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Bathsheba doesn’t even save herself from the tangled web of ruin her vanity has caused—instead, a man solves the problem for her. As soon as Troy shows up, Bathsheba loses all capability for action and becomes passive, a reward for the men to fight over. Her ability to act as an agent is a thing of the past. Not like that feisty woman at the beginning of the book who marched into the men’s trading hall with her head held high, scorning societal norms could do anything about her difficult situation!

It would have been a vastly better book if Bathsheba had blown Troy away with the shotgun herself, is all I’m saying…

…and maybe I wouldn’t have to call Thomas Hardy a fuckboy.

 

He & It, She & It: Differences in Male and Female Fantasy of Android Lovers

Notes: this piece has reference to sexual abuse and assault. The analysis
focuses on a heterosexual dynamic insofar as a machine can be considered gendered
.

 

What would it mean to love a machine and, in return, be loved by a machine? The potentiality of robot lovers is a ubiquitous trope in science-fiction, not a recent one either, that indicates the cultural belief that artificial intelligence will not only exist in the future, but that human beings will desire to carry out relationships with these machine-entities. The acceptance that the natural course for artificial intelligence is for it to be housed in a human-like body is a correlated trope among science fiction media. Why this seems to be natural conclusion of machine entities is sometimes questioned—in I, Robot, the film based on Isaac Asimov’s well-known work, Will Smith’s character asks about the androids, “Why do you give them faces?”

It is as though once the intellectual capabilities of a machine progress far enough for it to be considered an individual, we as humans feel compelled to grant that entity with a body. Further than that though, compelled to give them a body like our own and with capabilities similar to our own, which in many ways seeks to incur our emotional response towards these entities to be empathy. In the same way that Will Smith asks about why the androids have faces, with confusion and perhaps disgust, in Ex Machina Domhnall Gleeson’s character Caleb questions android programmer Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, why he has given his A.I. the concept of sexuality.

There’s a question at the heart of these inquiries, one that targets what it means to be an individual, an entity, a person. As the capabilities of computers increasingly races forward with ability for calculation and recall that no human will be able to compete with, the need to draw a line between us, those understood to be individuals, and them, those understood to be merely machines, becomes of ethical importance. As long as a computer remains a machine, or rather, as long as it doesn’t qualify as an entity, it can remain a tool. Being a tool rather than an entity carries on the back of its definition the determination of what ethics are applied to its function—how we humans may handle it for our own uses, for example.

The line between entity and machine surely has to be the capacity for emotion—sympathy and empathy, passionate and platonic love, frustration, pride, wants, hopes and fears. A computer can say, “I am sad,” if programmed to do so and even can do so with complex parameters to define the situations in which an expression of such an emotion is logical or expected. In this example though, few people would believe that the computer “feels” the emotion behind the words.

With these two conflicting ideas, that of entity or tool and the experience of emotions, the idea of engaging in a romantic relationship with an android is intriguing and of two natures: on one hand, questionable in sincerity, on the other, a fantasy. There is a gendered divide that arises when examining machine entity romances or sexual relationships. For men, the possibilities of an android partner conflate a power-fantasy while for women the exact opposite is true, it is a security-fantasy.

He & It, the male perspective on the android fantasy, is riddled with disturbing notions of power-fantasy and especially so in regards to sexual power-fantasy. Browsing pop-media for examples of female androids has an uncomfortable likeness to skimming a porn magazine. The women androids are ridiculously beautiful, over-sexed (for what use does a machine entity have for exaggerated sexual organs?) and, perhaps most disturbingly, obedient. Tammy Oler overviews examples of this in her piece “Of Women Borg,” but I’d like to circle around to the first example of female androids I raised in this paper, that of the entities in Ex Machina.

The programmer of these A.I. entities, Nathan, is drenched with an overt, and disturbing, veneer of threatening masculinity that is obvious from the first scene in which we encounter him, sweaty and confident after boxing a punching bag. A foreshadowing, in fact, of his need to be physically strong in order to grapple his misbehaving creations into submission, but that’s to get ahead of ourselves. Nathan has taken it for granted since he began his project chasing after true artificial intelligence that his creation would be sexual. It certainly fits his purposes—he keeps one of the subservient creations as a maid, cook, and sex toy. She remains silent the entire film, another layer to the utter power-fantasy she encapsulates, for Nathan does not want her to even communicate with his male house-guest.

Nathan created an intelligence, for it is intelligent, complete with emotions and desires of its own, only to bind it into sexual slavery. This is where the concept of entity becomes important, for if this android was a mere machine, his use of it for sex wouldn’t be violation. After all, that would be no different than having sex with an artificial vagina with added body to interact with. But that is not what Nathan has done, somehow that wasn’t enough for him. He created an entity and rapes it, indefinitely and without remorse.

The evidence that Kyoko is not a mere machine is apparent in its (her?) behavior—she sits slumped in hallways, head down, a classic image of someone traumatized. When the opportunity arises, she holds a knife to her abuser and helps murder him. This reflects trauma and revenge; these are the actions of an entity that experiences resentment, hatred, suffering.

Male power-fantasy surfaces in androids as an opportunity for a man to have a woman who obeys all commands without complaint—objects of desire for men who don’t have to navigate concepts of consent as they would with a real woman. Their lover will always find them attractive, perfect, intelligent. Their lover will never stray, a programmed loyalty that eliminates the need for jealousy or fear of rejection. An android woman eliminates male insecurity by promising the man that, to his lover, he’ll always be everything to her and she’ll never leave.

As Oler succinctly phrases it, “In the unchecked hands of men, technology will be used to create ‘better’ women—sexier, subservient private property—and real women will be made redundant.” Ex Machina exemplifies this; Nathan has no physical contact with any other humans in his massive, private estate and there are no human women present in the film. If anything, Ex Machina is a warning on this fantasy—no entity, human or artificial intelligence, will accept the dehumanizing abuse of male power.

Conversely, the She & It perspective of female fantasy and android lovers is not a power-fantasy, but a security or safety-fantasy. The stark contrast between what women view as a possibility out of android lovers and what men do is sobering, said mildly, and tragic, if said honestly. Where men would use the programming of an entity to force it into consent, women view that programming as an opportunity to force the respect of consent. In other words, the male fantasy see androids that are ready for sex at any moment and the female fantasy sees androids that won’t force sex at any time.

This safety-fantasy is expressed explicitly multiple times in Marge Piercy’s He, She & It. The repeated reference to this are striking, “He has total inhibition blocks against sexual violence,” one of Yod’s creator tells his future lover, Shira. This is an aspect of the male android’s nature that will eventually raise him above his male peers when it comes to Shira’s desire and her love.

If this wasn’t obvious enough, Piercy brow-beats the fact into us once more with a conversation Yod and Shira have before they engage in sex: “I would never hurt you, I could never hurt you. Believe that.” Shira’s reply? “That would make you different indeed from any man I’ve known.”

Though it could come across as heavy-handed, these conversations between Shira and her android lover instead tap directly into the desire of women to be safe and especially to be safe in the hands of men. It begs women to question, what if? What if there was someone I knew I could be safe with because they are incapable of harming me? What if I never had to fear that my ‘no’ would be ignored? The ease of these desires indicates the generalized fear and victimization of women in a patriarchal society that is fraught with rape culture.

The male android in this book almost ceases to be “male,” an idea that Shira occasionally ruminates on. For women, perhaps the idea of an entity as a lover that isn’t gendered is easier to accept because it means removing the known threats of masculinity they are familiar with. Yod has a male body but what Shira considers a feminine mind.

Shira’s lover Yod comes with other benefits, some that are more superficial like his inability to conceive of age or beauty. Yod is indifferent to Shira’s physical appearance, quieting an insecurity of women that their lover will leave them for someone more attractive or will stop being attractive to them as they grow older. The fantasy extends to Yod being a listener, he’s infinitely attentive and unendingly tender. But unlike the silent entities in Ex Machina, Yod isn’t silenced—the core of his relationship with Shira is reciprocity. They experience a melding of minds while online that reflects their desires for each other, to know and be known.

On these two opposite sides of the spectrum, we see entities that are abused by humans or elevated to a higher status due to their nature. Ex Machina is a disturbing film for women because it reaffirms what many women believe men desire out of them. It is also a disturbing film for men, I hope, because the consequences of male desire in the film is a response of zero mercy from the abused entities. He, She and It has been labeled a misandrist text, not for surprising reasons. All of the human men in the book are insecure, self-inflated with ego, resentful and bitter towards women if not dismissive, and obsessed with their own status. Yod is praised for not being male as a human man is male and is the hero of the story. In machine entities, humans see possibilities for relationships lacking features that humans find lackluster in what is currently available to them. Unfortunately, what this has revealed about what humans find lacking in relationships of this day-and-age is unflattering to our culture. It highlights the deep divide between genders, one which is losing power and authority over the other and is desperate to retain that status, and one that dreams of a future where fear of assault is unnecessary.

Fuckboys of Classic Literature: Brave New World Edition

            On this day, we have gathered to induct into the prestigious pantheon of Literary Fuckboys the character Bernard Marx of Aldous Huxley’s iconic Brave New World.

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In case you haven’t had the opportunity to read Brave New World or weren’t forced to in high school, and in order to understand Bernard’s fuckboy status, the society in Brave New World is vastly different from our own. It’s often labeled a dystopia but there’s a fairly strong argument to be made that it’s a utopia for those who are subscribers to a system of morality like Utilitarianism where happiness is the ultimate good and outcome.

Philosophy aside, one aspect of the society functioning in Brave New World is that of sexual interaction free of the restrictions of monogamy and puritanical ideals of prudishness. Citizens are encouraged to have many sexual partners to the extent that long-term (here more than a few liaisons) is viewed as unusual and a social faux-pas. In a city where all conceptions are moderated and take place in test tubes, the objective of sex for a biological purpose other than pleasure is eliminated.

On this topic, society in Brave New World is a lot more liberal (and feminist) than our current structure. If you’re resistant to the idea of no more monogamy and sex as a purely functional activity for pleasure because it feels as though it jettisons such beautiful ideas of love, parenting, and intimacy through sex, Bernard Marx is the character you’d identify with at the beginning of the novel.

Bernard is a traditionalist where traditional is a view of society that a western audience has grown up with. Dating and relationships should be monogamous, Bernard feels in woe. There should be commitment and deep emotional bonding. Women are being denied the essential and transformative experience of motherhood!

Well, if you’re a feminist maybe Bernard already seems suspect to you, because the idea that motherhood is a vital and necessary part of a woman’s life is a little reductive of women to being uteri, but at least his rhetoric is familiar.

The fuckboy in Bernard starts peeking out from his identifiable and familiar façade of western thought soon after that. For, as he lusts and admires after a woman named Lenina, Bernard bemoans the sexual freedom of his compatriots.

Open promiscuity and the state of polyamory are disdained by Bernard. Women, if they had any self-worth at all, wouldn’t sleep with so many (or all) of the men they know. These women, in fact, Bernard says, view themselves “like so much meat.”

Telling a woman that if she respected herself she wouldn’t be sexually active, even when her sexual activity is an expression of her autonomy and desires, is a classic fuckboy trap that has a lot of unpleasant layers like working on an archaeological dig of bullshit. Firstly, it equates self-worth with the restraint of sexual behavior. This immediately revitalizes the idea of purity—to respect yourself, you shouldn’t spoil your body in sexual activities. The concept also reinforces the idea that sexual activity is degrading for a woman (not for men, of course), giving men the power to control a woman’s sexual activity with the threat of putting the woman on the fringe of society and marking her as ruined. The fuckboy part of this, when we dig deep, is that all the bullshit is wrapped up in the pretty package of “I’m saying this because I care about you and want you to care about yourself!”

It is insidious sexism because it comes off as genuine concern. I leave room here only with the amendment that a lot of casual sex can be an indicator of depression and qualifies as risky behavior, but that’s true for both men and women. You can have a lot of self-worth and have a lot of sex or no sex and you can have no self-worth and have a lot of sex or no sex. The evaluation of this is for individuals and shouldn’t be intrinsically linked.

At the same time as complaining about women’s promiscuity, Bernard wallows in sorrow on his own relationship status, which is no relationship because women reject him and find him unattractive. It’s hard to imagine how this could possibly be true, right Bernard? Women love when you tell them that they have no self-worth and insult the way they live in emancipated sexuality.

Bernard frames the classic fuckboy position here that women only want assholes and he’s the perfect, respectable, kind, and intelligent man who is actually worthy of their attention. He’s that guy that looks at a woman in a relationship she finds perfectly satisfactory and is happy with and says: doesn’t she know I’d treat her better than him? This completely ignores the reality that Lenina and her friends are satisfied with their way of life—they don’t feel ashamed, they don’t judge others, and they take the frequent changing of partners as a given way to explore pleasure with others.

Meanwhile, alone and bitter, Bernard is the “radical” who feels his beliefs, contrary to society, are the true good ideas and that if only the sheeple would listen to him, they would no longer be blinded by their false beliefs. We’re breaking the ground in another archaeological dig because this position of Bernard not only labels himself as a savior of women but implies that he has no qualms about forcing his personal ideology onto them. But, hey, we get it. It’s not like Bernard, though he respects women, thinks they are capable for thinking about their sexuality and sexual pleasure themselves. They need a man to tell them what’s right!

Brave New World should be re-titled Lenina Deserved Better because Bernard makes it a personal mission of his to forcibly show her the error of her beliefs. This includes preaching at her about the sacred beauty of motherhood, which is already unpleasant, but for Lenina especially so because she finds the natural physical birth process to be disgusting and unnatural. This is not relatable for the reader, again, from a western audience, but imagine being in Lenina’s pneumonic shoes. For her, natural birth is as repugnant as being born in a test tube is for us.

Despite Lenina asking Bernard to stop and leave her alone because his “lessons” are making her uncomfortable, ashamed, and unhappy, he doesn’t stop thinking he’s doing what’s best for her. The entitlement of Bernard to Lenina’s body and mind here is baffling—he wants to groom her to be his perfect partner because he desires her and thus her feelings and desires are irrelevant.

Ironically, and what really places Bernard into the fuckboy hall of fame, is that later in the novel when he does become desirable to women and they proposition having sexual relationships with him, all his strains of “they think of themselves as meat” evaporates! Poof! He sleeps with new women every day and brags about it to his friend, conveniently forgetting all of his preaching on the indispensable concept of monogamy.

These women’s desire for him rather show good sense instead of a lack of self-worth. It’s wildly coincidental that when they want him instead of another man, there’s no problem with freely enjoying sex, I’m sure. The sexual double-standard is the cockroach that survived the nuclear apocalypse.

Welcome to the pantheon, Bernard Marx, you’re a fuckboy with fuckboy logic through and through. I like to imagine that the island he gets shipped off to at the end of Brave New World is a bunch of fuckboy intellectuals holding symposiums where they moan about their own sexual worthiness and the tragedy of how feminist theories of sexuality has ruined society. And yes, in my imagination they are wearing fedoras.

Why I sobbed like a b*** reading Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

My relationship with Leaves of Grass was turbulent from the beginning. I’m not really well-read in poetry, nor have I ever been particularly enamored with it as a genre, and Leaves of Grass  is a commitment both in language and length.

I did feel some comradery with Whitman based solely on our mutual love of the parenthetical, but I wasn’t sure it would be enough to make it through the book.

It doesn’t help that Leaves of Grass is front-loaded with some of Walt Whitman’s incredibly long, rambling poems about boats and dock workers. He also apparently was on a quest to name drop every State and landmark of those states, not to mention important rivers. It is not an easy volume of poetry to get emotionally involved with, and the volume is long.

But after spending three months with Walt Whitman, my feelings towards him and his poetry changed. It was gradual, I still wanted to rip the pages out whenever I saw the word “ship” or “boat,” but Whitman caught me somehow. At some point I was entangled in his feverish dream of humanity.

Walt Whitman has an equal love for humanity in all its forms, across races, across countries, even for those who we see as the worst of us. He professed a love of the weak, not just the bold, that the crippling self-doubt and self-hatred we fall victim to makes us no less loveable as human beings. The man was so capable of boundless love that he saw beauty and sanctity in death, just as much and if not more than life.

After the Union was restored, Whitman saw a chance for previously unachieved equality in America. Racism, borders, all of the barriers of prejudice and racism would dwindle in a new age of brotherhood and travel. For, in travel, Whitman saw only the possibly that by knowing each other, we could only love each other more for we would understand how we are all the same.

Whitman as a writer is a voice of the spirit of this country. His poetry is distinctively American in both its ideology and the romanticism of the American life. He captures the fiery devotion to liberty and freedom and the rugged individualism that is iconic of our culture.

Comparing the America Whitman envisioned, and perhaps experienced, compared to the one I have experienced was painful. In the past few years I have felt abject despair at America’s path, in its continuing inability to respect the dignity of persons within its borders and outside.

Following the news, I feel utter defeat as a woman, faced with an institution that seems determined to deny me my personhood, an level playing field in my chosen career, equal pay if I do achieve my dream job despite the incredible harshness of the sexism in my chosen field, and inevitable criticism if I choose to be unmarried, childless, and devoted to my work.

And that is just what is relevant to my life, and nothing of the institutional racism that is deadly in my country, or the institutional mishandling of justice in law.

Currents events, endlessly horrific, are enough to make me despair not just about my country but about this whole world. What would Whitman think of us? For a man who imagined such a dream of unity and indiscriminate love, how could he understand where we went?

Recently politicians have been throwing around this phrase “making America great again.” It’s tempting, for any society, when in a bad position of strife to look backwards and try to identify a better time. The problem with looking backwards is that America was never great. What country can claim to have been truly great?

When you look backwards, it’s easy to focus on the bright spotlights of the good and relegate the bad to the dark periphery. Point to me a time in American history where things were great for all peoples. It can’t be before slavery was illegal. It can’t be before women had the right to vote. It can’t be when that same America created Internment camps for Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. It can’t even be before marriage rights were given the chance to be equal, and that only happened so very recently.

We can’t make America “great again.” Walt Whitman wasn’t in delirious happiness about the Union being restored after the Civil War because it meant the country would go back to being the way it was. Rather, he believed that now it could move on to be better.

That is what I want, for my country—for it to be better.

The contrast between Walt Whitman’s surety in the beautiful path America must take with the reality here in 2016 left me emotionally exhausted. Every time I picked up Leaves of Grass, Whitman was waiting to erratically espouse his love for men, for women, for anything remotely alive and even in nature what isn’t alive.

“I swear they are all beautiful,

Every one that sleeps is beautiful, everything in the dim light is beautiful,

The wildest and the bloodiest is over, and all is peace.

Peace is always beautiful.”

 

But then I would close the book and the reality of current events would re-assert itself, pressuring me back into pessimism.

When I was nearing the end of Leaves of Grass and I read the poem “So Long!” I didn’t know how much I needed Whitman’s words.

Whitman occasionally “breaks the 4th wall” if it can be called that in a book of poems and addresses the reader. After three months of trying political times—racist hate speech, photos of bombed cities, denial of women the right to their bodies in the case of access to health care through the defunding of planned Parenthood, the list goes on— I was at a breaking point.

And then Whitman steps off the page.

“Comerado, this is no book,

Who touches this touches a man,

(Is it night? Are we here together alone?)

It is I you hold and who holds you,

I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth.

Oh how your fingers drowse me,

You breath falls around me like dew, your pulse lulls the tympans of my ears,

I feel immerged from head to foot,

Delicious, enough…

Dear friend whoever you are take this kiss,

I give it especially to you, do not forget me”

I had been looking into Whitman this whole time, learning his most intimate feelings and dreams. But, as with all books, the author can’t look back. Somehow though, this poem transcended that limitation. Like my sudden bursting into tears would indicate, damned if I didn’t feel looked back at. It felt personal. It felt intimate. It felt like he had heard the apology I so desperately wanted to make regarding the failure of his vision.

I’m sure that presenting this quote out of the context of struggling through three months with a 600 page volume of antiquated poetry does not capture my feelings. I had wished, up until that moment, that Whitman had hired a damn editor to cut some of the poems out of the book. I can never wish that now because without the length, the rambling, the obsession with, yes, boats, I wouldn’t have felt so connected to Whitman.

I had spent three months suffering through this man’s wildly spinning thoughts and now we were, in his words, touching.

It is hard to recommend a book to someone with the promise that it will “change their life.”  Literature affects us differently depending where we are in life. I would never have thought that I would be someone to say that Leaves of Grass is undeniably a part of who I am, based on my brief exposure to selected poems of his I read in school.

But here we are, Leaves of Grass affected me deeply and I cried like a b*** reading Walt Whitman’s poetry.

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

tumblr_inline_o56gpn3sfs1s0669x_1280I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a primarily plot-driven reader.I like when there are interstellar wars, mysteries that span across galaxies, and conspiracies that condemn entire planets. I like when things go fast, go far, and/or explode. I like action. So with Central Station by Lavie Tidhar, I was hesitant, which is much more a literary think-piece than a swashbuckling escapade through the solar system. While it certainly doesn’t have the strong plot that I prefer in my novels, it was surprisingly enjoyable – it explored a world that could very well be ours, touching on technologies that don’t lie far from where we are today and gently teasing out the implications of these advances with brilliant characters and imagery.

In Station, a rush to leave earth has left a quarter of a million people clustered around the base of the world’s space station. In this milieu of both human and extraterrestrial diversity, the lines between reality and digitality blur – virtual entities exist outside the realm of physicality, half-human, half-virtual children are raised among Central Station’s families, humans and robotic beings fall in love, and the elderly are incapacitated by mind-plagues.

These characters and their experiences are what bring life to Station. Nobody here is trying to save the world. Nobody here is the chosen one or the messiah or a hero. These are ordinary people trying to live from day to day within a community that is utterly alien even as it lies on Earth’s surface. The experiences they deal with on a daily basis from attending religious services with robotnick rabbis to working within a virtual world are so foreign while also being so knowable – many of what Tidhar explores such as robotic soldiers, enhanced integration into a new digital reality, and the merger of flesh and machine are simply extensions of technologies we already possess. It shows the adaptability and strength of humans as they adjust to these new advances, but also the difficulties this progress creates – physically, emotionally, morally, and above all personally. Central Station is uncanny in its ability to feel both like home and like a country as yet unexplored by humanity.

Tidhar also does a fantastic job of bringing Central Station and the surrounding city to life. The individuals who narrate help to give shape to the setting in their own right, but Tidhar goes beyond that to make the station its own character. The station itself is cool and almost sterile in its modernity, contrasting with the sense of grit and noise felt as Tidhar describes the living situation of many of the city’s inhabitants. It’s a richly woven world that it stimulates the sense. Readers can almost smell the sweat and oil of a robotnick and hear the forever arriving and departing crowds – even the heat of Central Station makes it feel like your skin is flushed. It’s rare to be immersed so deeply in another world and I reveled in my brief stay there.

My only complaint is that the lack of an easily discernible plot did make the reading experience slower and some portions tended to crawl. While I completely understand Tidhar’s pacing decision based on what the novel was aiming to accomplish, it was still a bit difficult for someone like me who is an impatient reader and used to tearing through novels to get through. If someone pick ups Station, my recommendation is to go in knowing to take it slow – that’s the only way to appreciate it and I think my initial rush made me miss some important elements.

While I don’t plan on swearing off my swashbuckling any time soon, Central Station was a brilliant exposure not only to something new personally, but to something that’s rare in the genre generally. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys literary science fiction, especially authors like Hannu Rajaniemi. I give it four out of five space slug parasites.

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Which D-Day Spy Are You?

 

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies was one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. In celebration of the absurdity that was the Double Cross system, here are the D-Day Spies for you to tag yourself as.

“Scoot” aka “Tricycle

-play boy

-sent back pictures of his current gf reclining in front of planes instead of information

-bought an expensive car as part of his ‘role’

-demanded the british government buy him chocolate “for medical reasons”

-good fashion sense

 

Bronx

-“Lesbian” tendancies

-good at being bad at gambling

-no matter how much money she is allowed, manages to spend all her money

 

 

Treasure

-keeps a diary

-said diary is mostly about her dog

-really, really loves her dog

-talks smack about people to her dog in Russian

-almost betrayed the entire operation over not being reunited with her dog

 

Brutus

-got arrested for distributing inflammatory pamphlets

-should have been playing it cool as a spy

-has no chill

-owned 32 cats after the war

 

 

Garbo

-spends most of his time with fictional people of his own creation

-has an overactive imagination

-would be that person in your university class who can write 15 pages for a paper and say absolutely nothing but is praised for it

-has a diploma in chicken farming

The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese

The Big Sheep by Robert Kroese read like Sherlock Holmes and Philip K. Dick got hitched and Ernest Cline gave the best man’s speech. Taking the traditional detective narrative of Sherlock Holmes and coupling it with the grittiness of Dick’s science fiction noir, Kroese manages to inject it with the light humor found in books like Ready Player One or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A book with so many strong influences could easily have been overwhelmed by them, but Kroese was able to take these elements, harness them in a unique way, and make a undeniably entertaining book.

Set in a crumbling Los Angeles in 2039, Sheep follows Erasmus Keane and Blake Fowler as they pursue two cases involving a genetically-altered sheep and the world’s most famous television star, Priya Mistry. As the investigations continue, the duo begins to realize that these two seemingly unrelated cases are intertwined and the conspiracy that connects them indicts some of the city’s most powerful residents.

The set-up will be familiar to anyone who has ever read Sherlock Holmes or watched the TV adaptation – a genius, but socially inept detective (or phenomenological investigator, as Keane prefers to be called) is aided in his investigations by his grounded, unassuming, and often frazzled aide. For something that could have ended up feeling tired and formulaic, though, Sheep manages to take this classic foundation and make it fresh. He brings Sherlock Holmes into the present by centering the novel around bioengineering, cloning, and other sciences that became popular at the turn of the century and utilizing the grittiness of noir scifi popularized by authors such as Philip K. Dick to revitalize and reimagine classic detective fiction. His characters also have their own unique personalities and quirks even as they nod to the famous detective and Watson, making for a well-crafted tribute rather than a clumsy imitation.

Also, if a reader prides themselves on being able to figure out the case before the final reveal, they will be quickly humbled by Sheep. Kroese makes good use of the science fiction element of this book here, using the ethically murky science of dodgy corporations to set up multiple possible outcomes and veil the mystery’s real answer until the last second. The narrative will lead readers down one path, only to quickly take an unexpected turn and leave the reader as frustratingly and intoxicatingly lost as they were in the first chapter.

And while the book’s writing isn’t transcendent, the tone was fitting for the given scenario. The more serious tone of most noir or police procedurals would have felt out of place here because the situations are so often bizarre and ridiculous, so it was smart of Kroese to take a more humorous route and make his writing tongue-in-cheek. Comedical science fiction is a vastly underexploited sub-genre, which makes Sheep stand out among other upcoming releases.

With Sherlock notorious for its long stretches between seasons and greats like Dick and Douglas Adams no longer producing work, The Big Sheep is the perfect remedy – a quick, fun fix for the eccentric investigator fans crave coupled with an appreciated nod to the works it roots itself in. A solid four out of five genetically-modified sheep.

sheepsheepsheepsheep/ sheepsheepsheepsheepsheep

We Have Lift Off: Mercury 13 Launches Women Astronauts Into History

PicsArt_01-30-01.54.08Following Rocket Girl as the second book in my women in science bender, The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Woman and the Dream of Space Flight by Martha Ackmann may be the new love of my nonfiction collection – just thinking of those skillfully woven citations and footnotes has my heart a’twitter. Ackmann manages to do what so many nonfiction books fail to – present a work that has both a strong research base and a strong narrative. Paired with her ability to deliver information objectively while still communicating the emotional impact of it, Ackmann may be one of the best nonfiction authors I’ve read in recent memory and she does justice to a story that has spent too long untold.

Recounting the story of thirteen women who aspired to join their male counterparts in the race to the stars, Mercury 13 uses pilot and initial testing candidate Jerrie Cobb’s experience as a lens to both explore the broader societal implications of sexism in the space race and the personal stories of the women who experienced it firsthand.

As someone who has spent countless tear-filled hours in the library writing research papers, it was so satisfying to see how much time and effort Ackmann devoted to her own investigation. The book is absolutely saturated with information; often a chronic complaint from a citation and footnote fetishist like myself, Ackmann makes sure that her facts are clearly stated, correctly cited, and easily located in the end notes. But for how data-heavy this book is, it never feels dry or dull. Until you’ve tried to convince someone that the function of the compression system in the legs of an astronaut’s G-suit is interesting, you don’t understand how difficult a task making information exciting is, but Ackmann accomplishes it effortlessly.

Usually when a book is so well-researched, though, the story suffers – the author is so burnt from the actual research that they give one big “fuck it,” slap their data onto the pages into a rough approximation of order, and send it to their publisher in a self-loathing- and caffeine-fueled rage. So imagine my surprise when I was reading Mercury 13 as much for the story as for the information. With such a large history to tackle, choosing Jerrie Cobb to be the focal point of the book was a smart decision. She gives readers an anchor to ground the information they are receiving in and serves as human context for the massive amount of data Ackmann crams into this slim volume. While numbers themselves are often looked at with indifference, the excitement, anger, and pain they cause Cobb and her fellow female test subjects makes them palatable and adds substance to Ackmann’s account, even making me tear up near the end of the book.

For how emotional the personal accounts were, though, Ackmann never let her own emotion or opinion shine through. When discussing a prominent NASA director who called the female astronaut candidates “110 pounds of recreational equipment” for the male astronauts to use sexually, she was able to keep her professional objectivity while my blood pressure skyrocketed so fast that my vision blurred. In true scientific form, Ackmann allowed the information to speak for itself, which made a bigger impact than her own words ever could.

After closing the book, I want to beat down the door of every school room filled with young girls and throw it at them like it’s goddamn candy at a Fourth of July parade. I want to take every person who has ever told a girl that women don’t make good scientists or innovators and forcefully jam this book into their colon. I want to scream incoherently into the wind as the pages of this book rain down on me from the heavens. God bless Ackmann for her account of the Mercury 13, which finally tells the story of women who were kicking ass in a time when they weren’t even allowed to fly a plane without heels.