Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dystopia and Depression

“The Girl Who Was Plugged In” left me, in a word, terrified; I was shocked at the violent reaction that I experienced in the aftermath of its reading. Science fiction dystopias are, of course, often horrifying and depressing. However, they often offer optimism, positing the universes they live in as warnings, rather than predictions, and utilizing their genre as a tool of revelation and subversion. The corporate wasteland described in Tiptree’s story is particularly depressing because it seems impossible to escape. Paul Isham III, a son of one of the media titans that controls the world’s information, describes it as such: “You can’t break in or out of it, you can’t get hold of it anywhere.”(88) Paul possesses a talent for producing media images that challenge the dominant paradigm put forward by the world’s corporations; the narrator describes his work as “bizarre techniques and unsettling distortions pregnant with social protest.”(65) However, his very own statements label his efforts as a futile endeavor; the strength of the corporate mega-state lies in its ability to assimilate its resisters and their messages into larger brand-images. In the end, Paul finds himself unable to tell the difference between a real human being and a robot ad-delivery device; he fails to evoke any real change in the structures of his society, but becomes the heir to his father’s empire. P. Burke and Delphi each die and are quickly forgotten, as the future rapidly buries the past.

So far, we’ve read science fiction as a source of insight. We’ve described sci-fi authors as anthropologists, philosophers and scientists. In “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, Tiptree functions as all of these things; hovering over all of these roles, however, is the specter of the narrator as Cassandra. A repetition of the word “FUTURE” in all caps implies this dystopia’s inescapable horror. An implicit undermining of Paul’s subversive media techniques implies that the medium of the story itself is useless as a means of evoking change. If our fate is really this grim and unchanging, is it useful to wonder about it? Or is this portrayal of an unavoidably awful future a way of provoking readers to think more clearly about the role of science fiction and the trajectory of our society?

The other readings for this week offer some context for my initial reading; the introduction to the anthology notes that Tiptree/Sheldon suffered from chronic depression, a serious illness that almost certainly colored her ability to place hope in a better future. It’s possible that the pessimism that is a major theme of her short stories was the result of her personal psychological strife, does that mean that the themes of her works should be discarded with? The word that Sheldon paints seems too real in its horror to be the product of a serotonin imbalance. Perhaps that is a testimony to the power of depression, perhaps to the power of her writing. Literary analysts often discourage readers from explaining works in terms of biography; but the alternative, in this situation, means seriously engaging with the potential of an exquisitely crafted nightmare. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” defies attempts to explain its philosophies; it stands as implacable oracle, offering a terrifying vision but few clues as to its probability or means of avoiding it.


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