Everyday Semiotics

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Commie Nazis

One of the many wonderful things about a certain someone I’m romantically involved with is that she’s presently taking a science fiction course. As best I can, I’ve been reading along with her.

The syllabus includes two by Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Lathe of Heaven” and “The Dispossessed,” a trilogy by Octavia Butler, Wells’s “The Time Machine,” and the film “Galaxy Quest,” among others.

I usually like to devote these posts to a single topic within a single book. Given my proclivity for rambling on, that’s a useful constraint. But I was rather taken by the similarities between “The Dispossessed” (U.S., 1974) and a book I’d never heard of until the semester’s start, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (Russia, 1921). So, in the tradition of middle school, I think I’ll do a bit of the ol’ compare-and-contrast. I promise to stray beyond the five-paragraph format, however.

Both novels are fascinated with walls, and both involve rocket ships escaping (or is it expanding?) those walls.

The One State of “We” is contained within the Green Wall. Beyond is yucky nature. Everyone stays inside and lives in a panoptic society where everything is made of glass. (Ciphers are well advised not to throw stones.) Yet the story is told by the chief designer of a rocket intended to spread the wisdom of the One State into the cosmos. Yucky nature is held back, but eternity is penetrated.

The Port of Abbeny in “The Dispossessed” is surrounded by a wall, one that keeps the inside in or the outside out, depending on how you look at it. Offworlders are not permitted beyond the wall. Anarresti (onworlders) are permitted within the wall, but not off the planet.

Naturally, both of these membranes are permeable and permeated. That is the action and tension of both books. There is permitted travel outside the walls and there is prohibited travel outside the walls. The heroes of both books travel in both modes.

Zemyatin, without authorial comment or internal explanation, has characters without names but alphanumeric designations. The alienness of this system, and the lack of guiding commentary, makes this very unpalatable to the reader. It is easy to recognize the citizens (“ciphers,” zeroes) of the One State are drones without individuality. In fact it’s somewhat difficult to distinguish O-90 and I-330 despite their distinct characterizations.

LeGuin’s novel has a very similar naming system. The people of Anarres get names generated by computers, five or six letters long, usually following a consonant-vowel- consonant-vowel-consonant pattern. Yet it is made entirely palatable, even appealing, thanks to her protagonist’s description of the system: “But what is more personal than a name no other living person bears?” he tells someone who reacts to it as “so mechanical, so impersonal” (198).

I take this digression to underscore the dramatic recasting of the collective societies presented in the two novels. Zemyatin, writing at the time and place he did was naturally mortified by fascism. LeGuin, writing at the time and place she did was drawn to anarchism. Ideologically opposite, the societies of each book takes a remarkably similar shape. (LeGuin’s I think is a much more nuanced depiction, and benefits from a juxtaposition with a capitalist society on the planet Urras, but I digress again.)

Why Shevek wants to travel to Urras is plain and it is complicated: it is patriotic and altruistic and selfish and whimsical. The reason the One State wishes to proselytize across the solar system is murky, and seems uncomplex. I want to relate this somehow to the naming of individuals within each society, the complexity suggested by the impersonal computer generated-ness of both systems and the simultaneous uniqueness both entails. I’m not there yet.

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Better late than never, a list of New Year's Resolutions (some already fulfilled!)

Part I -- General
1. go to New Hampshire more often
2. be a better reporter
3. be a better bass player
4. increase wardrobe selection
5. iron shirts regularly
6. break diet less frequently than in 2006 and 2007
7. maybe get a new laptop, one with an "n" key and working CD reader/writer and that doesn't sound like a 747 getting ready to take off.
8. become a morning person
9. clean the cat box every day
10. get more and bigger plants
11. blog daily
12. floss daily
13. start Gravity's Rainbow reading group after Ulysses group wraps up
14. new belt that actually holds my pants up
15. rediscover vinyl collection
16. you have insurance so use it (part one): checkup
17. you have insurance so use it (part two): dentist
18. new glasses (check)
19. buy less beer
20. get back in the Sunday Times groove
21. daily pushups (in graduating quantity)
22. daily situps (ditto)
23. ride bike for all trips in town
24. maybe kinda sorta write some fiction again
25. read more than last year -- 13 is hella weak

Part II -- Books to read that are already on my self
25. God, The Bible
26. Barthes, The Semiotic Challenge
27. Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future
28. Goethe, Faust
29. Derrida, Limited Ink
30. Milton, Paradise Regained
31. Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz
32. Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
33. Twain, Huckleberry Finn (never actually finished it in high school)
34. LeGuin, The Disposessed (check)
35. Ellmann, James Joyce (halfway through)
36. bin Laden, Messages to the World
37. Tolsoy, Anna Karennina
38. Deleuze/Guatarri, Anti-Oedipus
39. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (again)
40. one of the Bruce Sterlings
41. Pullman, The Golden Compass
42. Delany, Dhalgren (again)
43. Dostoyevski, Devils (again)
44. Gaiman, Neverwhere
45. Schooler, The Blue Bear
46. Asimov, Foundation series
48. e.e. cummings
49. Hemingway, the first 49 stories
50. Robinson, Mars trilogy (again)

Part III -- books not on my shelf
51. New translation of War and Peace
52. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (check)
53. Dick, Ubik
54. LeGuinn, The Lathe of Heaven (check)
55. Hosseni, The Kite Runner
56. Lem, Solaris
57. Gaiman, Sandman
58. Conrad, Nostromo
59. Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
60. Diepeveen, Difficulties of Modernism
61. Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees
62. Kazantzakis, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (seen at the Strand)
63. Motter, Mister X
64. any Matt Howarth
65. Essential X-Men vols. 4-8
66. Joanna Russ, The Female Man
67. Garcia Marquez, 1,000 Years of Solitude
68. Zemyatin, We (check)
69. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (check)
70. Jack Gilbert
71. Bocaccio, The Decameron
72. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy (check)
73. Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
74. Pynchon, Against the Day
75. Versaci, This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics and Literature

Part IV -- movies
76. Solaris (the original, Russian one)
77. The Last King of Scotland
78. Inland Empire
79. 300
80. Clueless
81. Casino Royale
82. The Fountain
83. Fay Grimm
84. Bonnie & Clyde
85. Borat
86. Snakes on a Plane
87. I am Legend
88. V for Vendetta
89. The Goonies (check)
90. Sixteen Candles (check)
91. Underworld
92. Lost Boys (check)
93. Harold & Maude
94. Harold & Kumar
95. No Country for Old Men (check)
96. Galaxy Quest (check)
97. The Producers (w/ Gene Wilder)
98. Bad Boys II
99. Point Break

Part V -- music
101. symphony -- boston or maybe springfield?
102. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Is Is
103. MMW, Notes from the Underground (replace)
104. Neutral Milk Hotel
105. Hot Chip, Warning + there's a new one?
106. Who Killed Amanda Palmer?
107. the new Liars
108. some Kate Bush
109. Broken Social Scene
110. Les Savy Fav, Let's Stay Friends
111. the new Streets?
112. some Clash

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