Wednesday, February 9, 2011

See You at the Party, Richter

ENG 396 Week 2: Mars

On moral hazard, microhistory, censorship, magic, and humor.

Whether it is Richter playing shoot-em-up on Mars, Gallinger nourishing his linguistic genius, Welles delivering the daily news, or Cantril contributing to the propaganda effort, literary moral hazard begs a subtle question: how does one define morality in a literary work? This is not exactly Professor Mitchell’s question in ENG 415, of what “role that moral education should play in literary study.” (1) Rather, Richter mercilessly embraces collateral damage, Quaid instinctively shields himself with a civilian, and Benny responds to the carnage with only a sardonic “welcome to Mars,” each of them possibly implying an anomic moral condition in the social background. Freedman describes the attitude of the modern audience with Walter Benjamin’s telling term, “self-alienation” (p. 545). Is such self-alienation replicated in works like Total Recall? Perhaps the film allows an interpretation as social introspection (as Mars often is), because I found the film magically incapable of suspending my disbelief, a feature shared by its literary progenitor. The problem of detailed moral hazard is also very prominent in the film, whose (meta-)narrative seems to actively encourage Quaid’s systematic employ of violence among innocent people who are effectively duffel meat bags. (Or, nobody is innocent…)

In his microhistorical account of Welles’ broadcast, Orr highlights two real moral hazards: Welles’ failure to predict mass hysteria, and social researchers’ conflicting interests between quantitative analysis and propagandistic application. Surprisingly, the second instance features academic censorship in the names of Princeton and Rockefeller (p. 60)—a delicate topic for Orr’s academic work—but the first instance, about the “contagions of suggestion” (p. 45), suggests a juxtaposition between War of the Worlds’ literary hysteria and real hysteria. Hiding behind this interesting connection is a tangle between the magical beliefs of the highly moved listeners (Orr p. 64–65), the “ ‘magic’ power of symbols and words” (Orr p. 69), and the plausible realism of War of the Worlds.

Cthulhu, Pastafarian Rendition
Figure 1: A tangle of ideas from War of the Worlds.

I hope I’m not the only one who sees a little humor in the panicked reaction to a piece of radio fiction, although there is nothing humorous per se in War. The obvious contrast is with Total Recall, in which Ahnold’s timely one-liners spruce up an otherwise violent and ethically unsophisticated film. “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” works differently by implanting humor into the narrative. Gallinger’s smugness is matched most ironically by M’Cwyie’s patronizing in response to his quick progress (p. 63). As Rhiannon discerned, the role of “otherness” is at once ameliorative and divisive (2), yet Gallinger and M’Cwyie’s common, humorous intent divides at the personal level while bridging the culture gap. Gallinger commits moral hazard through his prophetic status by impregnating Braxa without appreciating the Martian teleology of doom. The sex with Braxa is also a fulcrum for Gallinger’s attitude; up until the act, he emitted smartass and condescension (p. 78–79), while immediately afterward, he uncharacteristically describes his sense of “shame” (p. 83). One may further ask how humor depends on morality.

As reflective narratives, the Martian stories take on censorship in contrasting ways; consider authoritarianism in Total Recall and blasphemy in “A Rose for Ecclesiastes.” There is no moral ambiguity about Cohaagen’s self-serving censorship of the rebel cause, whereas Gallinger the “Sacred Scoffer” advanced blasphemy without denying the moral righteousness of dogma (p. 99). It is another instance of moral hazard, where Gallinger, foreign to the Martian religion and mocking his own species’ Biblical passage (p. 98), betrays the theologically determined morality for his personal belief system.

I do not feign to know how to properly answer, “What is morality in a literary work?” But the above examples of Martian science fiction suggests that literary morality at once reflects and criticizes real moral standards, while also experimenting with morality, even that which leads characters to commit unbelievable moral hazards. Morality, like psychology, is another surface for science fiction to work on.

References: Roger Zelany “A Rose for Eclesiastes,” Philip K. Dick “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” Carl Freedman “Polemical Afterword,” Jackie Orr “The Martian in the Machine,” Total Recall (1990), and War of the Worlds (1938).


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