Wednesday, 02 August 2006

Rape in Science Fiction Reading zuzu's complaint about the attention a rape inevitably focuses on everyone but the perpetrator reminded me of something I'd drafted a few months back but didn't post. At the time, I'd just written about rape in comic books literature and didn't want to seem fixated on the subject. I also didn't want to put Adam Roberts—author of the novel I'll be discussing—on the spot. But with Adam vacationing in the southern France and the other post nestled in the archives, I feel more comfortable starting this discussion. Adam's novel Salt describes the colonization of a distant planet by religious fundamentalists. Getting to that planet takes 37 years, during which time tensions between the different religious factions build. After landing, the factions settle on opposite ends of the Great Desert. Despite this distance, the Senaarians—a hierarchical, imperialistic culture—and the Alsists—a radically libertarian culture which, oddly, embraces a recognizably New Left strain of communistic thought—eventually come into conflict. For the first 226 pages, the novel switches from the self-hagiography of the Senaarian dictator, Barlei, and the man who would become a leader in the Alsist resistance, Petja.1 Initially, Barlei's voice dominates, and so the reader's sympathies fall largely with the Senaarians, who seem to lodge just complaints against the free-loading Alsists. Barlei will wax poetic for pages about how the Senaarians labored to find a way to move in open air despite the chlorine gas which hugs the planet's surface; whereas Petja will say "Our solution to the chlorine problem was a mini-mask. It was a clever thing" (43). Knowing Adam's love of Robert Browning, I can't help but consider these dualing dialogues—presumably drawn from the memoirs of both men—as self-serving in the extreme. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I doubt it. Barlei seems more trustworthy at first, but as his manipulations of even inconsequential truths begin to pile up, his revisionist ethos becomes increasingly troubling. Chapter-by-chapter, the reader's sympathies drift to Petja and his open, non-hierarchical, sexually-liberated society. And when I say "sexually-liberated," I mean it. Alsists frequently walk up to each other, ask if they desire sexual pleasure, and give and/or receive it. As one might guess, this utopian version of the free-love movement is reviled and condemned by the strict law-and-orderists of Senaar. But it works in Als. Everyone seems happy with the hedonistic gender equity they've created. As the details of Alsist life are revealed, Barlei's voice and the strictures it demands become increasingly strident. Here, then, is where the reader's sympathies turn to the Alsist position. (They're the Palestinians in this allegory.) But there's a catch. A Senaarian ambassador is stranded in Als when the war begins. Petja, about to leave Als to wander the Great Desert, agrees to ferry her into Senaarian territory. At this point in the novel, all reader sympathy is with Petja and the Alsists. The Senaarians inch closer to employing a flimsy pretext to invade and slaughter the Alsists, so as Petja leaves, reader sympathy lies almost exclusively...
Easy Erudition, Anyone? [X-posted to the Valve] So I'm reading Jonathan Arac's Critical Genealogies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studies this afternoon and am flat dumbstruck by the erudition displayed therein. After dashing through the complete works of Harold Bloom—which is akin to dashing through the Western canon once-removed, no mean feat in itself—he surveys the response to what he calls the "theory boom" in American literary studies. He possesses an intimate familiarity with everything, passing judgments on Bloom's wavering allegiances here, the adoption of M.H. Abram's notion of "heterocosm" there, Geoffrey Hartman's Nietzschian rhetoric yonder ... and so on ad infinitum. I don't dip my quill in Latin ink just to be pretentious, either. The man seems to have had the requisite infinity needed to read what he's read. I don't have that kind of time. I suppose I have to accept the fact that I'll never title a chapter "The History of Romanticism in Contemporary Criticism." I could cry. Or write a PSA: Parents, start your children reading contemporary criticism young. If they haven't read the complete Keats and W.J. Bate's John Keats by five, their first tenure review may well be their last. The best I can do is read Arac's chapter about the history of Romanticism in contemporary criticism and hope I remember enough to pass for someone reasonably well-read. Only throwing it in the memory well isn't enough. It has to float. Or I have to find some way to fake it. The intellectual equivalent of what us Southerners call "floaties." Because honestly, how does one fake dizzying erudition? Slap a quote from here, there and one from there, here? Rewrite the books no one remembers reading or even having written anymore? Wait a minute, that baby's buoyant. You know, if Arac's book weren't written so damn well, I'd probably be rewriting right now. Sentence-by-sentence. Learning what he means by revising how he says it. By the time I finished, I'd know what he knew but has long forgotten and have myself a manuscript with what credit card companies call a "pre-approved stamp of approval." Plagiarism is the only option, people. There's no way we can read that much. Come to think of it, there's no way he could've read that much. I'm tempted to say that everything ever written isn't a footnote to Plato but a plagiarism of him. The continuity of the Western tradition must be the result of a massive fraud. No other explanation fits. Maybe now I can sleep without the nagging feeling I ought to be dousing the midnight oil with pages from Frye's Anatomy of Criticism ...

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