The two fiction pieces in the March issue of Clarkesworld share some similarities. Both stories have female protagonists who are also narrators. The protagonists have bodies that set them apart from the human species. The story-worlds in both are radically different from ours. Neither tale thinks much of the human species. Finally, both stories are concerned with the themes of rejection, marginalization, rebellion and self-discovery. Still, despite these structural similarities, we get to enjoy two very different tales.
Nnedi Okorafor’s “The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from The Great Book)” begins with two-year old Phoenix introducing herself as “an abomination.” Phoenix is a resident of the thirteenth floor in Tower 7, a research facility with thirty-nine floors. What sorts of things are researched in this place?
“In Tower 7, there was “transformative” genetic engineering, the in-vitro fertilization of organic robots, “rejuvenation” surgery on the ancient near-dead, the creation of weaponized weeds, the insertion and attaching of both mechanical and cybernetic parts to human bodies.”
Tower 7 is reminiscent of the Umbrella Corporation building in Resident Evil and the Taligent Tower in Dexter Palmer’s “Dreams of Perpetual Motion.” Perhaps with the corporatization of science, multi-storied buildings are replacing islands as the loci of the mysterious and the forbidden. In modern SF, the Island of Dr. Moreau is more likely to be the Building of Dr. Moreau or what the website TV Tropes calls the Evil Tower of Ominousness.
Nnedi’s story spends its first half introducing us to the various abominations that inhabit Tower 7. There’s a woman with lion’s claws and lion’s teeth, a woman who’s neck has an owl’s flexibility, a Dumbledore clone, a pair of giggly conjoined twins, and many other strange creatures. It’s not clear just what these creatures do with their time or what exactly is being studied by the researchers, but it’s quite clear that the researchers are up to no good.
We soon learn what Phoenix does with her time. She reads. Though chronologically only two years old, she’s physically and mentally a forty year-old woman. Her body tends to overheat, and she disrupts electronic equipment. Saeed, her best friend and a creature able to only eat inorganic materials like “glass, metal shavings, crumbles of rust, sand, dirt,” first stirs feelings of rebellion in her. His death becomes the catalyst for her eventual transformation. She’s helped by Mmuo, a man who’s able to walk through walls (but not through the outside walls of Tower 7).
As her mythic name suggests, the protagonist embodies Nietzsche’s dictum in “Ecce Homo” that “one pays dearly for being immortal: one has to die several times while alive.” Asking what would happen were such a monster let loose in a building that embodies humanity’s lust for forbidden knowledge is perhaps akin to asking what would happen were a fire started in a library. It’s an interesting question, and overall, I found the story quite congenial to my inner mad scientist (there’s probably one lurking in every SF fan).
That said, the story’s potential does feel wasted. Phoenix’s powers border on the magical, as do those of her friends, Saeed and Mmuo. This saps tension from the story’s many crises. Or more precisely, these near-magical creatures make the scientific elements an unnecessary add-on, and the gestures towards science casts doubt on the magical elements.
The story’s use of metaphors leads to cross-talk about two very different myths. As indicated, the story makes use of the myth of Phoenix. But the story also explicitly invokes the Garden of Eden and the Fall, right down to the detail of having Phoenix offer Saeed an apple. The myth of Phoenix and that of the Fall are not entirely unrelated, so it may be the difficulties are due to the awkward manner in which these myths were literalized in the story.
Perhaps the most serious charge is that Phoenix is made to learn what is going on in Tower 7 not for her sake but to satisfy our curiosity. What happens to her at the end is not only inevitable but also independent of what she has learned about Tower 7. Indeed, the ending raises the troublesome question of how she could possibly remember all that she narrates.
Gwendolyn Clare’s “Perfect Lies” is a relatively straightforward problem story. The narrator, Nora, is a translator/representative for Losin, the “Director-General of the UN Interworld Relations Organization.” Losin is not only personally unpleasant but also thinks up unpleasant plots. In this case, his plot involves stealing advanced weapons technology from a group of aliens, the Mask People. The story posits a world in which humanity has made contact with a variety of alien species.
The Mask People have an extraordinary capacity for inferring intent from facial expressions. The aliens find this ability as indiscreet and inconvenient as we probably would were Facebook in charge of our facial expressions. Thus they wear masks, removing them only on those occasions that require a demonstration of trust. Losin of course is untrustworthy, but worse, his unpleasant expressions announce him to be untrustworthy. Naturally, such a man is at some disadvantage in a trade negotiation with the Mask people. Enter Nora, a woman who has the ability to control her expressions.
Nora’s is naturally expressionless, but depending on the emotional situation, she’s able to invoke, at will, various precise expressions. All this makes Nora a very good liar. Unfortunately, unlike her unpleasant boss, she happens to have a conscience. She knows very well that should she succeed in her deception, the Mask People will be betrayed and dangerous technology would fall into the hands of humans. But should she fail, she’d be out of a job. Nora fashions therefore a series of perfect lies.
Nora is a freak, and is aware she is a freak. However, we can’t believe that claim since she’s the one narrating the story. We thus know her inner life, and though she may be expressionless, it’s obvious she’s hardly unfeeling. Perhaps this story needed to be told by someone other than Nora, or alternatively, perhaps it needed to be told in a flatter tone (Temple Grandin’s books come to mind).
The Mask People are also mildly unconvincing. As Bill Maher remarked about the overly-humanized Star Trek aliens, “they’re just humans with a skin condition.” The aliens are necessary to the story as aliens, but they don’t need to be space aliens. For the story to work, they could just as well have been some remote tribe with exclusive rights over a scarce mineral resource. In other words, the science-fictional aspect is not entirely essential.
What is essential to the story is a certain conception of humanity. Perhaps the best way to illustrate it is to ask what would happen if the humans in the story were replaced with, say, sly and cunning Native Americans, and the Mask People were replaced with, say, a group of trusting white settlers. Now further suppose Nora were an emotionally distanced Native American trying to make sure the white settlers weren’t exploited. Would we interpret Nora as a decent do-gooder or would we see her as naïve and a traitor to her people?
The dissonance arises because the altered context runs counter to what we know, or what we think we know, of North America’s history. But structurally, it mirrors the setup in “Perfect Lies.” The humans are less technologically advanced than the aliens, and Nora is a human aiding the aliens. Yet I didn’t leave the story feeling Nora was a traitor to the human species. The aliens, for all their superior tech and emotional sophistication, are the underdogs here.
Interestingly, the empowerment of underdogs is a theme that runs through the two non-fiction pieces, namely, Mark Cole’s “Cinema 2.0: The Future of Movie Making?” and Jeremy L. C. Jones’ interview of Cory Doctorow. Both are very readable, thought-provoking essays.
Cole’s essay looks at the recent efforts of film producer Matt Hanson (the gent who coined the term “Cinema 2.0”), Timo Vuorensola (the Finnish producer of the online success, “Star Wreck”) and others, to crowd-source the making of movies. Crowd-sourcing has repeatedly been used to create extraordinarily successful software with millions of lines of code. So it seems reasonable that the work model should be extensible to other creative efforts. The founders of the Cinema 2.0 movement certainly seem to think so.
Yet none of the movies at the sites listed in the article struck me as particularly impressive. I suspect the shortage is not of good scripts, actors or technical talent, but of funds to bring these elements together. In crowd-sourced software, volunteer effort pays off in street cred, and the volunteers usually have paying full-time jobs in the software industry. Unfortunately, the essay doesn’t discuss the financing of crowd-sourced movie-making. Cole himself has doubts about the viability of Cinema 2.0:
“And yet one feels a little like Sancho Panza, watching uneasily as his master levels his lance at the windmill’s vanes. It seems too ambitious, too programmed, too much like one of those get rich quick books sold on late night TV. It might work. It might. Really.
It merely seems unlikely.”
However, this is one of those enterprises where it’d be a delight to be proven wrong.
Jones’ interview of Cory Doctorow (incidentally, he’s one of the people behind the Cinema 2.0 movement) is classic Doctorow unplugged: a firehose of ideas that may vary in being crazy, brilliant, provocative, and prophetic, but is invariably interesting. This is an interview that brings up Marx, Neil Postman, Alasdair Gray, Michael J. Fox, Keynes, Fredric Wertham, Tom Standish, Thoreau, Douglas Adams, and of course, Teen-Repellent mosquitoes. Any attempt at a summary would certainly insult the article and probably injure the reviewer.