Science Fiction Studies
#105 = Volume 35, Part 2 = July 2008
Science Fiction’s Renegade Becomings
Homo sapiens—the thinking, speaking, political, history-enmeshed animal; to Ernst Bloch, the only “creature that changes” (234)—is typically defined in distinction from all other earthborn species. Jacques Derrida suggested in a late essay that speculation about animal consciousness is for this reason precisely “what philosophy has ... had to deprive itself of.” “Thinking about the animal” draws, says Derrida, not on philosophy but on “poetry” (377). Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari likewise suggest, in an essay that will frame much of the discussion to follow, that “becoming-animal” is among the most important “segments of becoming in which we [human beings] find ourselves” (272). The sf genre, situated in the deep space between philosophy (the exploration of ideas) and poetry (the fabrication of word-worlds), has varied in its renditions of “becoming-animal.” Yet sf writers both “hard” and “soft” have revisited the traditional chain of being whereby Adam and Eve’s children sit in dominion, arbiters of everything else on the planet and, by extension, the universe.
Deleuze and Guattari wrote “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal” in the 1980s, but long before then, popular sf was dissenting from old hierarchies and dyadic thinking. “Becoming-woman” was a frequent preoccupation of Robert A. Heinlein, for instance, in controversial later novels but also in “All You Zombies—” (F&SF, March 1959). C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” (Astounding, Dec. 1944) imagines its protagonist, the cyborg Deirdre, as a melding of a human brain with a greatly enhanced mechanical body. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953), contraries converge when the Overmind, the most evolved and powerful cosmic entity, seeks out the children and only the children—the less verbal and socialized the better—of Earth. In Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) the title character, newly returned from a visit to a far planet, may still be human but may also now be alien, divine, demonic, or a posthuman mixture. In Theodore Sturgeon’s “Bulkhead” (published as “Who?” in Galaxy [Mar. 1955]), an adult and a child contend and then converge.
Stories that reconsider the relations between human and animal are, in short, only one among many sf scenarios of “becoming,” one more way that writers project a “novum” and hypothesize change.1 Yet speculation about the animals creates special problems, most centrally that of conveying a self-aware identity outside human language. Science-fictional machines and aliens, however greatly they may differ in motivation from human characters, are seldom portrayed as significantly other in their modes of communication. Although there are exceptions, such as Stanislaw Lem’s elusive ocean in Solaris (1961), most of science fiction’s aliens, robots, and cyborgs demonstrate sentience by “speaking,” reasoning, writing, and even telling jokes; examples of that last include Heinlein’s punning computer in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Murray Leinster’s laughing extraterrestrials in “First Contact” (1945). It is difficult for a writer, even for a writer of science fiction, to imagine a consciousness apart from language and the consensus history, accurate or not, that written records transmit. To write as part of an effort to question the traditional hierarchy of species is, then, not so much to risk as to court paradox.2 For sf authors tasked with pleasing a popular audience, plot-problems arise as well. As Ernst Bloch observes, “a history of hedgehogs, even of cows in fifteen volumes, would ... not be very interesting” (234).
Derrida suggests that the apparent absence of languages analogous to those of human beings is the chief difficulty facing those seeking to change human thinking about the other animals. In his view any such reevaluation becomes possible only if the task is approached “not ... [as] a matter of ‘giving speech back’ to animals but ... of acceding to a thinking, however fabulous and chimerical ... that thinks the absence of the name and of the word ... as something other than a privation” (416; my emphasis). Reconsidering the human in relation to other species is perplexing, says Derrida, because it requires defining value apart from the hierarchies and histories that language encodes and transmits, a matter in which he echoes Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of the slippery relationship between language and word-built systems:
The discussion that follows considers how human languages and their offspring, human ideas and human histories, figure in science-fiction plots of animal—and other—becomings. Deleuze and Guattari italicize their statement that “Becoming is an antimemory” (294). Sf tales of becoming are also “anti-histories,” challenging what we think we know about species dominion. Notwithstanding the “abyssal” difference between language-based consciousness and that of the other species (Derrida 399), sf often imagines shifts or cracks in paradigms.
I consider sf published between 1934 and 2002 by Russell Hoban, Cordwainer Smith, Robert A. Heinlein, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Theodore Sturgeon, and Molly Gloss. All introduce animals as important plot-elements, and all consider the “animal”—i.e., instinctive or intuitive—component in human consciousness, suggesting, to use Giorgio Agamben’s formulation, that “if the caesura between the human and the animal passes first of all within man, then ... the very question of man ... must be posed in a new way” (16).
Beginning with the wild dogs of Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), I turn to companion-animals as judges of human values, considering the horse of Pontoppidan in Cordwainer Smith’s “On the Gem Planet” (1963), cat or cat-derived characters in two other stories by Smith, “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (1954) and “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962), and the role of Pete, the hero’s cat, in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer (1956). “Alien”/animal instincts as they contradict earthbound taxonomies are then analyzed in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934), a tale of the first humans to tour the “looney” xenoscape of Mars (10). Theodore Sturgeon’s “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff” (1955) in some ways reverses Weinbaum’s story, as visiting extraterrestrials observe the incomprehensible behavior of human “specimens” (324). I conclude with Molly Gloss’s “Lambing Season” (2002) and Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” (1964). Both stories center on dog-like creatures, and both consider the shared mortality of human and animal beings. Though written in different eras by writers otherwise very different, all are sf tales of “becoming.”
Riddley Walker is narrated in a vivid dialect-of-the-future. Its language is its strength, yet the novel’s post-holocaust setting casts several functions of language, especially the formulation of ideas and the dissemination of technologies, as problematic. The much reduced human population in this novel has little information and is too hard-pressed in its daily struggle to pursue knowledge systematically. The latest known pre-holocaust date is carved into the cornerstone of a surviving building: 1997 AD (“All Done,” as Riddley’s people have translated the acronym). After a period of no counting following nuclear catastrophe, a new dating system has gotten as far as 2347 O.C. (“Our Count”). Riddley is astonished and affronted when he learns about this time-line: “Dyou mean to tel me them befor us by the time they done 1997 years they had boats in the air and all them things and here we are weve done 2347 years and mor and stil slogging in the mud?” (125). Yet Riddley’s people are still people: some of them still dream of “progress.”
The first-person story emphasizes the limits of what the protagonist can learn in the absence of historical records, mass communication, or systems of transport. These are privations: this is no pastoral landscape of simplified desire but an existential “riddle”—why do we suffer?—that has no single solution. After his father’s death, twelve-year-old Riddley becomes his group’s “connexion man,” telling the possible meaning of deaths, births, encounters with strangers and beasts, and other local events. Riddley and a few others are determined to fill in gaps in knowledge about the long-ago holocaust, but only a few poorly understood documents remain. There are traditional stories, but they are subtly reshaped by leaders. The people gather to watch government-mandated puppet shows that dramatize imperfectly allegorized, and therefore hermeneutically open, accounts of why the devastation occurred and what people should be doing now. The chief narrative, the Eusa story, does not provide an easy road to verifiable fact.3 As Riddley’s friend Lorna, a “tel woman,” says, “there aint never ben no straight story I ever heard” (20). Riddley’s people, then, are still using language and writing in an attempt to access the past and make a plan for the future. Yet in the absence of a received body of knowledge and given the equivocal tendencies of language itself—“blipful writing it aint straight” (126)—the past is all but unknowable. With no consensus history (different groups have different information about the past),4 the novel’s human protagonists live in a “now” that has great urgency and intensity. Riddley’s world, thousands of years after nuclear disaster, has in this sense moved closer to instinctive ways of “knowing” and “being.”
Like all creators of after-the-bomb scenarios, Hoban invites readers to consider the ambiguous status of what has been lost: toward the end of the novel, a recovered formula for gunpowder results in a deadly explosion. The novel’s focus on human beings’ blind groping for knowledge using language rooted in analogy and metaphor conveys a view consistent with Nietzsche’s critique of human thought. For Nietzsche as for Hoban, concepts are “tellings” rather than “knowings”:
Hoban’s world-in-decline is mirrored in the “flowing water” of Riddley’s language, which is rich in beauty, sorrow, and grim humor. Symbols and images play along its surface but reliable information, painfully sought, does not emerge (as in Nietzsche’s ideas of language itself) from the array of half-formed or decaying metaphors that constitute this culture’s belief-system and stock of shared ideas. What Riddley can write about is restricted to what he can experience and what others can teach him. Yet travel on foot is dangerous and slow. Readers themselves learn little about this world beyond the circle about thirty miles in diameter that Riddley walks, tracing a circuit within a far future Kent, in a southeastern quadrant of “Inland” (England).5
The truth may be more hidden from Hoban’s human characters than from the starving population of remaining beasts, who retain a way of knowing that people have lost. Riddley Walker contrasts human attempts to see a bigger picture with the “1st knowing” of packs of dogs, a thing apart from language. “There aint no use asking what it is,” says Lorna of “1st knowing,” “becawse its what there aint no words for” (21). Wordless “nature” precedes human naming and language; its scrutiny continues after nuclear catastrophe, a standing rebuke to the human beings who have ruined the planet, or so Riddley’s people interpret it. In Hoban’s novel, “1st knowing” is in Derrida’s phrase something “other than a privation” (416). The silence of watchful beasts stands apart from the eloquent wrongheadedness of homo sapiens.6
Derrida’s essay considers in analogous terms the unblinking stare of his “little cat”: “Is this cat a third person? Or an other in a face-to-face duel?” (379). He wonders to what degree he and humankind are “after [après]” and/or “alongside [auprès]” the animal (379; emphasis in original):
Riddley Walker likewise stresses the first-born status of beasts. Their knowing comes “1st” though Adam’s children, late- and last-born in the Bible’s creation story, use words to distance themselves from primal ways of knowing and being. In Hoban as in Derrida, people seek a connection—a key word in Hoban’s novel—to the wider nature from which all species come.
Yet people are “alongside” the animals as well as “after” them. The beasts of Riddley Walker are grouped with human victims of nuclear disaster in common contrast to “Mr Clevver,” the architect of ruin (played by the Devil in puppet-shows retelling the Eusa story) in a long-ago drama of mutual assured destruction (30). Nietzsche uses a science-fictional parable to open his assault on the ill-judged confidence of all the Mr Clevvers:
Riddley Walker likewise de-emphasizes any triumphant status for the human intellect, which cannot make people immortal or even wise. It cannot take people out of nature, defined by Hoban’s Lorna as that larger force and “1st knowing” that “thinks us but it dont think like us. It dont like the way we think” (7). Words, languages, and ideas relate to the aspirations of human beings, not to the operations of the cosmos. And although animals may well be in the dark in terms of “progress,” the pursuit of cleverness in Hoban’s post-holocaust setting has not exactly bathed the human landscape in light. In their intensely focused silence, Hoban’s dogs—like Derrida’s cat—convey nature’s distance, and difference, from the word-built world of human beings. For Hoban as for Derrida, this “abyssal” gap invites speculation (399). Most certainly it is not the beasts in Hoban’s novel who are “poor in World,” to use Heidegger’s description of animal consciousness (Derrida 406). It is human beings, and they have impoverished themselves through a headlong pursuit of imperfectly understood “idears.”
Cordwainer Smith’s “On the Gem Planet” tells the story of an ailing horse stranded on a rich frontier planet: “the people [of Pontoppidan, the Gem Planet] were too ... busy to have good food, open air, or much fun. All they had were diamonds, rubies, tourmalines, and emeralds” (451). This elderly horse is not one of Smith’s genetically-enhanced underpeople but “a plain, unmodified, Old Earth animal” (456) who cannot die of natural causes because he has been fed Norstrilian “stroon” and has become virtually immortal. The Gem Planet’s council meets to debate whether the horse, brought to the planet by a now-deceased Norstrilian expatriate, should be butchered and eaten, sold off-world for huge profit, or cared for humanely but indefinitely at great expense.
One council member expresses the majority view that seeks the creature’s sale or slaughter, arguing that the horse, having no legal name or status, has no “identity .... It is just a pile of meat left over from the estate of Perinö. We should kill the horse and eat the meat ourselves. Or ... we should sell it off-planet. There are plenty of people around here who would pay a pretty price for genuine Earth meat” (469). The planet’s regent makes an opposing case:
Deleuze and Guattari write that “becomings” always embody a “minoritarian” viewpoint, challenging existing power-arrangements: tales of becoming “always pass through a stage of becoming-woman” (291). In Smith’s story, becoming-woman/becoming-animal are conjoined, for it is adolescent Genevieve who coaxes her uncle into making this argument for civilization as kindness.
The back-story for Smith’s far-future is like Hoban’s in assuming a collapse of human cultures following nuclear catastrophe. In Smith, space flight and science have been recovered, but the long period of collapse continues to haunt those in power with a fear of certain kinds of ideas. Smith’s ruling body, the Instrumentality, for the most part permits the worlds to manage their own affairs, but its Lords and Ladies punish any dissemination of religious faith or, as Jean-Jacques Vomact discovers in Norstrilia (1975), any printing of the truth in newspapers (124).
Smith, in a recasting of a novel that haunted him, H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), gives an important role in his later stories to underpeople, surgically and genetically altered animals, many of whom who look just like people and have speech.7 They are denied fair treatment by “true men” until they organize a resistance movement. Contrary to their portrayal in Wells’s novel as freaks doomed to slip back into beastly darkness, in Smith the underpeople have an advantage, grasping better than human beings the common ground of an earth-born heritage and the essential mystery of “being” itself. The underpeople blur the distance, if not the “difference,” between beasts and humans, a blurring also facilitated by Smith’s emphasis on telepathy, a way of communicating that is direct, not “blipful” like human speech (Hoban 126).
In “On the Gem Planet,” a telepathic interview with the horse takes place in his hospital room. Yet even before this scene, the horse, in his struggle to escape from isolation following the death of Perinö, has been linked to the story’s human hero. The horse, whose heart is weak but who is desperate following the death of his human companion, has struggled up four kilometers of a sheer rock-face and then, terrified, leapt across a burning chasm, and all “to get back to people” (467). The human protagonist, Casher O’Neill, in his single-minded dedication to liberating his homeworld from a dictator, is equally locked in an almost hopeless quest. A dog-woman, an underperson who mediates the interview with the horse, tells O’Neill that “You’re a prisoner of yourself” yet predicts that, like the horse, “[s]omeday you [too] will escape to unimportance and happiness” (467).
When the dog-woman telepathically links to the horse, Casher and Genevieve listen in
In Smith, animal consciousness displays a strength of purpose that eludes the human heroes so often called by him, with more than a hint of irony, “true men.” In this story the horse comes first, serving as a model of heroic resolve for a human being also struggling against the odds.
To the horse of Pontoppidan, a happy existence requires finding a new companion. Paul M.A. Linebarger, the writer behind the “Cordwainer Smith” pseudonym, was a political scientist by academic training.8 His stories typically center on the social groups that people form: their high points and deadlocks, their cruelty and compassion, their suppression or encouragement of individual initiative. He emphasizes partnerships, in human communities and also in animal-human bonding. His portrayal of the latter is close in spirit to Donna Haraway’s description of J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (1956), a memoir of Ackerley’s life with his German shepherd:
Linebarger cultivated this same kind of attentive bonding with the shifting population of cats in his house.
In his sf, one of his early cat-heroes is Lady May, a cyborgized feline character—a Persian cat whose telepathic capacities are enhanced by a headset—in “The Game of Rat and Dragon” (1954). In this story, human “pinlighters” and their cat-Partners work together in deep space, hunting hostile entities—the humans think of them as “dragons,” the cats as “rats”—that destroy the minds of passengers as they cross between the stars. Intense bursts of light, called “light-bombs,” keep these malignant forces at bay in the Up-and-Out, Smith’s term for deep space. Cats’ reflexes are quicker than those of humans, and the Partners, as this story calls them, hunt the “rats” using small remote vessels, each in telepathic linkage with a human pinlighter who detonates the bombs. As the story opens, the crew in the Fight Room are drawing lots for their Partner on the journey to come: boyish Underhill hopes to draw his favorite, Lady May. Species “otherness” does not preclude close attachment between these two, whose camaraderie is tinged with a regretful acknowledgment of limits:
Their bodies will never make sexual contact, but their minds merge in a wordless harmony of spirit. Smith contrasts Underhill’s rapport with Lady May to his dissonant encounters with human women. He is taunted by a young passenger as the story opens: “‘Meow.’ That was all she had said. Yet it had cut him like a knife” (163). In the final scene, a nurse—he and Lady May have been injured—scolds him when he expresses concern for his Partner: “You pinlighters! You and your damn cats!” (175). The spoken word, Smith suggests, does not make interactions any easier between people. As the story ends, Underhill ponders his strange bond with Lady May: “‘She is a cat,’ he thought. ‘That is all she is—a cat!’ But that was not how his mind saw her—quick beyond all dreams of speed, sharp, clever, unbelievably graceful, beautiful, wordless, and undemanding. Where would he ever find a woman who could compare with her?” (175). The nurse is correct, in fact, in seeing Underhill as a species-traitor: he is strongly drawn to animal-Partners, who use no words and make no demands.
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962) is a later story with a cat-derived character who takes her name from Melanie, a favorite cat of Smith’s: the human partner and species-renegade in this case is Lord Jestocost. C’mell is an underperson, a cat-derived being who walks upright, speaks, and looks human. In the era of Smith’s far future explored in this story, the real protectors of human identity are not the Lords and Ladies of the Instrumentality, who are wrong to preserve humanity in a cocoon of privilege, but the underground of persecuted animal-derived beings, joined here by one of the most powerful Lords of the Instrumentality:
“The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” like so many of Smith’s stories, suggests that the good health of human and animal groups requires not face-to-face contention for dominance so much as a continual, often covert negotiation (not denial) of difference. As in “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” a human hero bonds with a cat-being; and as in the earlier story, an erotic overtone marks this friendly partnership. Jestocost and C’mell remain comrades rather than lovers, but the narrator emphasizes that across the worlds their story is still told as a “ballad” and a love story.
Among hard sf writers, one of those most interested in tales of “becoming” is Robert A. Heinlein. A link to human partnership with animals as well as to “becoming-woman” may be seen in The Door Into Summer, a short novel first published in installments in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Oct.-Dec. 1956). Heinlein’s narrator, Danny Davis, travels back and forth in time in an elaborate scheme to rescue his cat, Pete, as well as to save a child at risk.
The full name of Davis’s cat describes his role: “Petronius the Arbiter,” like the horse of Pontoppidan, “judges us” (Smith, “Gem” 570). Pete correctly assesses every character he meets, even when Davis tries to persuade him otherwise, showing a fine instinct that Davis, an engineering genius, badly needs to acquire. Pete rejects Belle Darkin, Davis’s seductive but criminal fiancee, and he inspires the novel’s title, teaching the hero that every door in the house must be tried to find a way out of Winter. Evidently Pete was based on Heinlein’s tomcat Pixie.9
Davis’s devotion to Pete is a shorthand way of suggesting a social potential beyond his otherwise intense self-sufficiency.10 His own full name—Daniel Boone Davis—is redolent of lonely frontiers, and at first any capacity for more is suggested only by his affection for his cat and for Frederica, stepdaughter of Miles Gentry, the business partner who, as the novel opens, has joined with Davis’s fiancee to betray him. They send Davis into thirty years of cryogenic suspension (“cold-sleep”), planning to use blueprints of his inventions to make a fortune. When Davis awakens in the year 2000, he likes the future yet feels compelled to return to 1970 to retrieve his cat and, if possible, Miles’s stepdaughter, who faces a difficult life with Belle Darkin as a stepmother. Pete as animal-“arbiter” is in this way linked with a “becoming-woman,” the eleven-year-old girl that Danny and Pete both love.11 This is the nuclear family that against all odds he must find a way to take with him into the future. A quickly sketched background gives his quest a sharper edge, for in the novel’s initial 1970s time-frame, the “Six Weeks War” has killed Davis’s mother and young sister (30) and has left large stretches of the US radioactive.
Pete judges well for Heinlein’s human hero, but Ricky Gentry also serves as an arbiter. She is still a child in 1970, but Danny hopes to rescue her as his wife-to-be. The decision stays in her hands, in contrast to a novel that might have influenced Heinlein, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). In a scene at a summer camp that parallels a scene in Nabokov also set at a girls’ camp, Ricky is instructed by Danny to leave camp later that day with her maternal grandmother. (Ricky’s mother, like Lolita’s at this point in Nabokov’s novel, is dead; Ricky’s stepfather Miles, like Humbert Humbert, is, though for a different reason, an unfit parent.) She is to stay with her grandmother and stay in school, refusing any further contact with her stepfather. At 21, ten years after they have vanished from her life (in a second, voluntary cold-sleep), she must decide whether to rejoin Davis and Pete in 2001 by herself taking the cold-sleep. It is left up to her, though Davis has read something while living in the year 2000 that leads him to believe that she will choose this option.12 Heinlein’s plot seemingly offers an optimistic hard-sf solution to the sexual dilemmas explored by Nabokov.13
Though very different writers in other ways, Heinlein and Smith both use a linear plot—Danny Davis’s quest to conquer time-travel, Casher O’Neill’s quest in “On the Gem Planet” to liberate his home-world—to frame an inner tale. This story-inside-the-story is a narrative of becoming (becoming-animal and also becoming-woman) that undercuts any pulp-derived emphasis on self-sufficiency and machismo, as Davis and O’Neill are redirected from solitary quests to consider the claims of an at-risk animal and defer to the judgment of a child-woman.
Deleuze and Guattari marvel at the sf genre’s modeling of transformation at every level: “Science fiction ... [ranges] from animal, vegetable, and mineral becomings to becomings of bacteria, viruses, molecules, and things imperceptible” (248). An early example of hard sf, Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934), discloses just such diverse “becomings” in its catalogue of Martian life-forms encountered by the first Earth landing party. Weinbaum resists any circular “Behold, a mammal” reasoning, offering instead a breezy assault on earth-bound taxonomies. The apparent plant-life of Mars—“that queer walking-grass” (20)—is mobile, mineral life is both mobile and constructive, and brighter-than-human, birdlike “Tweel” has an ever-shifting language that is viewed by the viewpoint-character Jarvis, if not by others in the crew, as conceptually superior to human language.
Biological categories and chemical composition have nothing to do with thinking abilities in Weinbaum’s story: technological aptitude is emphasized but not restricted to homo sapiens. “One-one-two” and “two-two-four” is an arithmetic lesson offered by Jarvis that Martian Tweel immediately understands. Tweel’s English vocabulary, quickly taught him by Jarvis, is limited, so this formula becomes their shorthand in discussing the cognitive status of creatures they encounter:
Jarvis explains that last puzzling gesture by hypothesizing that Tweel’s brain is in his mid-section.
As to language-use as a measure of brightness, some among the multiethnic crew of the spaceship Ares themselves have an uncertain grasp of standard English. Weinbaum’s crew includes two standard-issue pulp heroes—wisecracking Jarvis and the commander, Captain Harrison—but also a Yiddish or German speaker (the engineer, Karl Putz) and a French-speaking biologist (Leroy). Space has been reached in this story of 1934 not through organized national or corporate effort but through “crazy” experiments by eccentrics from all over. Space travel is said to have been begun by the discovery of the “atomic blast” by the “mad American Doheny” and the moon-flight of “equally mad Cardoza,” names that respectively imply Irish and Hispanic or Spanish origins (1). The human landscape here is nearly as diverse as the Martian. Tweel looks something like an ostrich yet is no bird-brain; and among the human crew, Putz and Leroy struggle to understand Jarvis’s slangy, colloquial English, yet are top scientists.
As often used words in the story, “crazy,” “queer,” “daffy,” “nuts,” “screwy,” “looney,” and “mad” constitute the other side of logical “one-one-two.” Even the name “Putz”—dirty penis in Yiddish—insists comically on the body, that impure yet indisputably generative source of all science, all engineering know-how. Desire drives human discovery: Weinbaum evokes the visionary capacity that, along with the scientific method, has brought human beings into space. Captain Harrison is inclined to dismiss the behavior of Martian fauna as “crazy,” but the story itself knows better. Anomalous behavior links the creatures of Mars to such valuable human beings as “mad Doheny.” The term “mad” is equally applicable to non-sentient behavior and to unknowable quantities such as the fluorescent Martian “egg” that might be a cure for cancer.
There are moments of anthropomorphism. Improbably, Martian Tweel packs a heater, a glass handgun; and the sacred egg is casually stolen by Jarvis, initiating Terran/Martian relations on a low note. Yet Weinbaum’s linear plot, whose link to ancient epic is emphasized in his title’s allusion to “odyssey,” serves mainly as a pretext for another of those sf stories-inside-the-adventure-story, a science-fictional tale of becomings in which the logical and the “daffy” become intertwined, as do the categories “human” and “animal.” Jarvis hails birdlike Tweel, who stands by him when they are attacked, with the curious praise “You’re a man!” But he catches himself at once: “A man! There are mighty few men who would do that” (26).
On their journey to Jarvis’s waiting ship the Ares (his small scouting vehicle has broken down), Tweel and Jarvis see pyramid-building creatures who extrude silicone bricks. They see “dream-beasts” that tempt Martian wayfarers with what they most desire. Jarvis rescues Tweel from one, and he is himself imperilled by an apparition of beckoning “vision star” Fancy Long (17)—really a hungry dream-beast, like the sirens of the Odyssey, calling unwary voyagers to their doom. These are not analogous to earth-animals; Tweel says of them: “No breet [breathe], no breet” (18). Jarvis and Tweel also encounter semi-sentient workers (barrels with tentacles, suggesting a mixed organic/inorganic makeup) who toil in the lair of the glowing egg.
Weinbaum’s interspecies landscape, with its intercrossed hints of mineral, plant, and animal characteristics (along with its mixed emphasis on practical logic, “vision” stars, and creative madness), is unusual, and not only for its pulp-era period. Most sf that has speculated about life on Mars has posited a single, dominant “Martian civilization”; often, given unfavorable conditions on the surface of the planet, a race long-deceased that has left splendid but enigmatic ruins. Weinbaum provides instead an array of creatures going about their business, displaying different levels of evident sentience (i.e., problem-solving capacities). Jarvis speculates that “canal builders” even brighter than Tweel might remain to be encountered. At the story’s end, many mysteries of Mars—a “queer little world” (20)—remain to be explored.
Weinbaum sees Martian life through the eyes of “the first men to feel other gravity than earth’s” (1). During the 1950s, Theodore Sturgeon imagined a soft-sf counterpart to hard sf’s planetary romances in “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff,” first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in Nov. and Dec. 1955. The story is set, with a determined anti-exoticism, in a boarding house in the US. In this case, the animal-like aliens under observation are homo sapiens. From the viewpoint of technologically advanced aliens, it remains to be seen whether the human animal has a role to play in the life of the universe:
Two alien scientists—they do not get along, as testy field-reports inserted into the narrative suggest—assume prosthetic human bodies to study a cross-section of North American society, the people who rent rooms in a boarding house. To the adult boarders, the aliens are an elderly couple, Sam and Bitty Bittleman. In their alien form they are visible only to three-year-old Robin (a character based on Sturgeon’s own young son), who calls them Boff and Googie and includes them among his kitchen playmates:
Robin, a preschooler, is naturally friendly to “becoming”—to the intuitive intertwining of categories that adults keep strictly apart.
This being a Theodore Sturgeon story, mathematical proficiency is not what the alien scientists are looking for. They seek evidence that humans are capable of making good instinctive choices under stress. The part of the brain needed for this complex interplay of intuition and resistance to social programming is called “Synapse Beta sub Sixteen” and is said to characterize all species who succeed in avoiding nuclear disaster. Species who lack the synapse either blow themselves up or are preemptively destroyed by the aliens themselves as a cautionary measure to safeguard cosmic order.
Will human beings choose species-life or species-death? In 1955, this was a question bearing all the weight of an intensifying arms race. Sturgeon suggests that it is a decision that each boarder first makes in terms of his or her own life. Phil Halvorsen, a job-placement counselor, judges himself to have an abnormally low sex drive and considers suicide. Anthony O’Bannion, an attorney from an impoverished but snobbish family, loves a nightclub hostess, the single mother of Robin; but he holds back though he is friendly with her child. Sue Martin, a war widow, is prepared to love “Tonio,” as Robin calls him, but she can see his struggle and is not optimistic; she is the only boarder whose “Synapse Beta sub Sixteen” is already in good working order. Reta Schmidt, a high-school librarian, is kindhearted but prudish. Adolescent Mary Haunt angrily pines for home while pursuing a career in radio, impelled by her late father’s dream of her as “Little Mary Hollywood” (341).
Can human beings break with the dead past, the thoughts of death that “haunt” them all? The aliens are skeptical: “[T]his species possesses the Synapse but to all intents and purposes does not use it” (271). One of the aliens—the other is horrified—rigs two devices, a “[widget]” and a “[wadget],” to force a crisis. In the passage below, all brackets are Sturgeon’s; they suggest untranslatable alien terms:
Following Sam’s and Bitty’s stimulation of the Synapse, which involves troubling the “specimens” with searching questions about their self-destructive habits of thought, the aliens set their devices to cause a fire, a crisis during which the various boarders will vanquish their demons or die.
They all survive, for they all change their minds. O’Bannion dashes into the fire to declare his love for Sue Martin, who has run into the burning building unaware that her son has already been snatched to safety by Miss Schmidt, who despite her exaggerated modesty has run naked through the fire to save the child. Suicidal Halvorsen lies in his bed watching the fire consuming his ceiling. Then it dawns on him that “the actual number falling on the line Average Man was negligible: there were countless millions more un-average people” (339). Halvorsen decides to save himself, because “with the purest of truth he could say I am not unmanned; I am not unfit; .... I am not alone” (540). Mary Haunt returns to her burning room to save her expensive clothing but has her moment of insight, realizing that this loss will allow her to go home. All Sturgeon’s characters find their way out, and it is the Synapse—not a conveyer of ideas but an instinctive “reflex of reflexes”—that points the way (340).
Halvorsen is driven almost to self-murder by thoughts that he cannot stop: “Logic burned in [him] ... as fury did in other men, and he had no tolerance for the irrational” (277). But like the other characters, he rediscovers the instinctive joy-in-life of three-year-old Robin, who cannot quite manage the English language but who can see the infinite possibility in every moment. In this story, the energy that topples rigid thought-barriers—“the strange flash of silver ... the timeless moment”—travels along Synapse Beta sub Sixteen (341). Yet the paradox of “becoming” simply by refusing (especially by refusing self-hatred and aggression) is seen also in “Thunder and Roses” (Astounding, Nov. 1947) and More than Human (1953).
In “Lambing Season,” first printed in Asimov’s in 2002, Molly Gloss critiques the questing hero of the pulps in a way very different from Sturgeon, although her story, too, is set in the here and now. Delia, the protagonist, is not—like Sturgeon’s Robin, Weinbaum’s Leroy, or Hoban’s Riddley—a speaker of non-standard English; but she is sparing with words, again suggesting the irrelevance of language-fluency to interspecies insight. Delia’s cultivation of an attentive silence facilitates her contact with an animal-like alien. Pushing language to one side, Gloss focuses on two traits—eager curiosity and painful mortality—that beasts and people share.
The story is set in a remote part of the mountainous West. Delia is an experienced sheepherder intent on reading nature’s cues:
Delia’s unsentimental supervision of the herding dogs assigned to her by her employer becomes important when a space vessel lands close by and she investigates. The doglike alien she encounters has arrived with no script, but the two exchange non-verbal signals. He—as one will with a dog, she immediately notes his sex (172)—sniffs the ground for information. In their first encounter, Delia adopts the body language that would inform a dog that “This woman is nobody at all to be scared of” (172; emphasis in original). When he makes eye contact, her “years of acquaintance with dogs” tell her to “look away, break off her stare”:
She sees the creature twice more that summer—he allows her observation of his sniffing and other doglike investigations—and during the early spring of the next year, she again sees the flash of light in the sky made by his vessel. This time, however, the “wing” that he flies in crashes, and, severely injured, he dies:
Delia thinks of her late husband as she comforts the dying creature: “at the very moment [her husband had] taken his last breath” (175), their dog had begun barking “as if he’d heard or seen something invisible to her. People said it was [her husband’s] spirit going out the door or his angel coming in” (175). She can’t know, and words won’t help her understand, exactly what happens when a living being dies. She builds a cairn over the grave she digs to protect the alien’s body from coyotes. These are a frequent sight in the mountains, and she wonders if other shepherds have built them over the remains of extraterrestrial visitors. As the story concludes, she scans the skies with a telescope that she has purchased with most of her summer’s wages.
Like so many sf heroes-of-becoming, Delia is something of a species-renegade. Her skills are all nonverbal: her acute eyesight, emphasized even in her sky-searching at the story’s end; her sensitivity to body-language; her sharp sense of hearing; her receptivity to changes in her environment. As a human being, she is admirably “animal.” Hardy herself, her job has for years been the care of an especially hardy breed of sheep—“buen’ carne,” says the Mexican who brings her supplies, remembering the churro flesh consumed during his childhood (168). Whatever their destiny in the web of agribusiness, the sheep are protected on Delia’s watch: she helps them give birth and sees to their welfare in a harsh environment.14 She views things from their standpoint: this makes her good at her job but downright exceptional at first contact with an alien being.
Changed by the alien’s death, she does not spend all winter standing drinks for her friends but watches the night sky in an effort to understand: “Astronomy, she discovered, was a work of patience, but the sheep had taught her patience, or it was already in her nature before she ever took up with them” (176). As in Smith’s “On the Gem Planet” and Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, the human protagonist follows the animal: the dog-alien comes first, investigating a world as strange to him as the stars and planets are to Delia. Gloss’s dog-alien flies in under the radar of human language and human history, but his death brings home the unsettled ontological status that homo sapiens shares with the other species. Delia not only never calls in the media, she never tells anyone what has happened. The all but wordless encounters recorded by the story are respected in her continued silence.
In Cordwainer Smith’s “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” first published in Galaxy in 1964, a dog-derived underperson, D’joan, is burned alive after a public inquisition. The plot, Smith says in his preface to Space Lords (1965), is drawn from earlier literary accounts of the life of fifteenth-century Joan of Arc (9-10), although Smith’s rendition is closest in spirit to George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923), a play probably inspired by Joan’s belated canonization as a Catholic saint in 1920. Socialist, pacifist, atheist, vegetarian Shaw considers faith as a political catalyst in his play: Joan’s leadership ended the Hundred Years’ War, liberating France from generations of English rule. Smith’s story is often read principally as a Christian fable, yet he echoes specific scenes in Shaw, whose interest in Joan’s story was not that of a believer.15 Smith, like Shaw, emphasizes oppressive social conditions that the powerless become resolved to change. Unlike Shaw’s heroine, however, Smith’s is no warrior. Figurehead of a conspiracy for peace, D’joan leads the first non-violent protest against human oppression of the animal-derived underpeople, a revolution that “lasted six minutes and covered one hundred and twelve meters” (268).
As with twentieth-century reconstructions of historically remote Joan of Arc, the perspective taken by the narrator of Smith’s story is necessarily long. He speaks of the centuries that have passed since the day that D’joan was burned on Fomalhaut III. The story is actually a prequel, set many hundreds of years before the events described in “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962) and creating the conditions whereby Jestocost and C’mell successfully conspire for changes in social policy.16 Lord Jestocost in “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” is the seventh of that name, arriving many long human generations after a remote ancestor, one of D’joan’s judges, in wild remorse genetically codes her unborn son, and all his descendants, to fight for the liberation of the underpeople.
The barbarity of the dog-girl’s execution is acknowledged by all in the far future of the narrator, himself born centuries after Jestocost and C’mell have lived and died. After hundreds of centuries, even the harshest of historical events will tend to acquire the patina of inevitability or romance; but Smith’s narrator dissociates his own retelling from the popular ballads, the thousand operas, and the uncounted historical paintings that have mythologized D’joan. He restages the events of that day in all their original arrogance and cruelty. This stinging critique of rigid social policies is often read as an allegory for the struggle for civil rights among African-Americans or the oppression of Chinese peasants throughout China’s history (Elms 172-81). Yet given Smith’s concern for the animal in so many stories, it is reasonable also to read his tales of the underpeople as being literally about animals. Smith, in this respect like Wells in The Island of Doctor Moreau, draws on any reader’s recognition that his tale is not that far-fetched in its portrayal of sadistic human cruelty, abetted by human indifference, against beasts. The underpeople bring to mind oppressed human groups as well, but I would suggest that they are significant in the first place as animals.
In his early thriller Atomsk (1949), “Carmichael” Smith’s protagonist says that “Liking people is the only way to win wars” (37). Smith’s D’joan offers a similar refusal of reflexive hatred, notwithstanding the pitiless force with which animal-derived beings have been subjugated. The narrator mentions the empty hospitals maintained by the Instrumentality in D’joan’s day. The Lords and Ladies provide everything for people, who are seldom ill, but offer no cure or care for underpeople:
The human race is devolving: curiosity and zest for life are suppressed by a guarantee, ensured by Norstrilian stroon, of 400 years of healthy and stress-free life for most humans. Animal-derived beings, in contrast, have sharpened faculties as well as a strong sense of community and fellowship. The Instrumentality, in persecuting the underpeople, has in effect given them an evolutionary edge, yet this is not a story about species-competition. Cooperative interaction between very different beings, who change each other, centers this story: conversational interactions, erotic interactions, molecular interactions through a series of consciousness-downloads, the meeting of minds of animals, people, and even robots. Portrayal of a vital counterculture combines with the portrayal of the emerging confidence and collective will among an enslaved minority to make the death of D’joan, for all its grotesque brutality, a tale of becoming.
Renegade humans again are co-conspirators. The story opens with the conception of Elaine at An-fang (German word for beginning), a place near Meeya Meefla, as Miami, Florida, is called in Smith’s far-future. Due to a malfunctioning computer and the distraction of a young human overseer, a human child is genetically coded to become a “witch-woman” or, as the computer puts it, “lay therapist, female, intuitive capacity for correction of human physiology with local resources” (223). Most “witch-women” are sent to frontier worlds, but it will be this child’s fate to grow up on Fomalhaut III, a planet that requires little in the way of intuitive healing, since its uniformly prosperous people are seldom anxious, let alone sick. The same child is in error assigned an “animal” name, Elaine: human beings in this period are said to be identified by numbers.17 In a plot-twist reminiscent of Sturgeon’s sf, half-mad Elaine, a “mistake” of a person, will play an important part in breaking down rigid hierarchies and oppressive ways of thinking.
The historical Joan was accused of being a witch, though this charge was dropped when her virginity was confirmed on a physical examination. Smith puts a separate witch-character—Elaine, not D’joan herself—into his retelling, for sainthood is multiple here: animal-human (the genetically engineered D’joan) and also human-animal (witchlike, intuitive, animal-named Elaine). Elaine’s sexuality is emphasized: she meets her lover, the Hunter, in the course of helping the underpeople, a plot detail that again splits the historical Joan, a virgin at trial who was raped in prison before her execution. Joan of Arc’s gender and sexuality figured prominently in her story. In Smith’s retelling, young D’joan’s experience of the sexual—she is only five when Elaine meets her, though she is aged to her mid-teens in a chemical process the night before her revolution—is acquired through telepathic contact with Elaine and others.18
Elaine’s co-heroism is at first not of her choosing: she merely walks through a disused door that leads down from the new city to a forgotten older section, straying into the plans of the Dead Lady of the title. This long-deceased member of the Instrumentality, the Lady Panc Ashash, had possessed a particularly pleasant personality that was downloaded to power a Traveler’s Aid computer in this dreary, abandoned neighborhood. “She” has bonded with the cause of the underpeople and worked out a plan, teaching it over the course of a century to the illegal (“unauthorized”) underpeople who huddle nearby. Their ancient “thought shelter,” built long ago during a time of war, protects them against detection by telepathic sweeps of the city by the police. Yet if they ever leave, they will be killed instantly or sent to slaughterhouses. It is this terrified group that D’joan inspires to walk up together into the new city and proclaim their love for their oppressors, meeting their various dooms—they are clubbed to death, their childrens’ skulls crushed by the heels of the solders’ boots—on numerous surveillance cameras. The ancient pictures and film are still studied in his own day, says the narrator, just as the transcripts of the historical Joan’s trial (one of the most fully documented events of the Middle Ages) were consulted by Shaw and in some of his scenes quoted verbatim. D’joan’s “revolution” occurs less than twenty-four hours after Elaine walks through that disused door and is steered by the Dead Lady into the brown-and-yellow corridor called “Clown Town.”19
Panc Ashash and Elaine are readier than most people for sympathetic contact with the underpeople, despite the conditioning by which human beings are indoctrinated to despise them. Elaine’s name ties her to animals, and once she becomes accustomed to them—at first she sees them as “dirt” (237)—her witch-instincts call on her to heal them, for she can tell at once that all are in poor health, though ineligible for medical treatment under current laws. For her part, the Dead Lady is sympathetic because she is dead—disembodied and in that sense posthuman. Says the snake-woman of Clown Town, exasperated by one of Elaine’s naive questions: “Do you think a living Lady of the Instrumentality would do anything but kill us all?”(260). The Instrumentality in Smith’s story, as exemplified by the group of Lords and Ladies who conduct D’joan’s trial, are portrayed much like the Catholic church in Shaw’s play. Its leaders seek stability, enforcing legal guidelines that need to be changed, not upheld.
The spectacle of the violent deaths dispensed to unresisting underpeople—adults, children, helpless infants—leads to a final horrified recognition by humans of their unthinking cruelty to animals; it even liberates the police robots sent to quell the uprising, who convert to an idea of their own “humanity”—i.e., their status as individual beings; Smith is no humanist in the sense of privileging the human species per se—after the Dead Lady alienates them from their programming. “Try. Try to attack,” the Lady Panc Ashash says to the robot-captain sent to destroy her robot-body (in a giddy touch of dark humor, this prosthetic body is said to be connected to the Traveler’s Aid kiosk in the old city by a long extension cord):
Saints work miracles after their death: by this measure, the Dead Lady is yet another saint of the story, along with martyred D’joan and species-traitors Elaine and the Hunter. For she empowers the robots to break free of Asimov’s/Campbell’s Three Laws of Robotics, that axiom of postwar hard sf that binds robot behavior to human commands.
In Smith’s story the revolutionary answer to systematic persecution is, as in Riddley Walker, “connexion.” The Dead Lady needs Elaine, a living human, to begin the transformation of animal/human power-politics. Elaine needs the Hunter that she meets in Clown Town: she has been isolated all her life. D’joan (last in a series of dog-girls prepared by the Dead Lady) is only a child when the story opens and needs more experience: she accesses the spectral consciousness of the Dead Lady and the life-memories of many other beings, telepathically transmitted to her by the Hunter.
The historical Joan heard saints’ and angels’ “voices.” D’joan’s access to wisdom beyond her own experience comes from her political allies, who fill her mind with the consciousness of many other beings, living and long-dead:
In “On the Storm Planet” (1965), the turtle-girl T’ruth has the same kind of enhanced and multiple consciousness created from the downloaded experiences of many beings.
Writing of Moby Dick’s relation to Ahab, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that “wherever there is multiplicity, you will also find an exceptional individual, and it is with that individual that an alliance must be made in order to become-animal ... every Animal has its Anomalous” (243). D’joan’s access to multiple personalities, human and otherwise, combines with her “memory” of remote historical periods through the beings with whom she shares consciousness to make her just such an anomaly and agent of change.
Yet with all this help from what Deleuze and Guattari would call “molecular” contact with the minds of many others, it is still as a young dog that D’joan suffers. One of the judges telepathically suppresses her access to speech: she screams and howls as she burns. (Joan’s burning occurs off-stage in Shaw, but Smith does not allow readers to look away: he shows it all.) Her temporary regression and surrender to pain—D’joan recovers speech again before she dies through intervention by the Hunter—in fact causes the storm of repentance that follows, as spectators finally are able to see their treatment of animal beings as a persecution:
The death of a dog under torture becomes elided with the life of a medieval patriot-saint in Smith’s science-fictional story of breakthrough or becoming. Yet the “voices” D’joan hears are of the collective human/animal.
Individuals in Smith, whatever their species heritage, break with their social programming, forming other alliances, uncanny partnerships. Smith’s heroes open their minds to all kinds of so-called “others.” His emphasis on an interpenetration of different minds and thoughts is analogous to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of “becoming a dog” as a “molecular” rather than “molar” phenomenon:
D’joan is diversified in just this way. Born an oxymoron, a dog-girl, with the help of her compatriots she develops an even richer and more equivocal collectivity. She cannot but stand as a rebel against the molar, the hieratic. In this story, the Instrumentality defends the molar, trying to kill at birth the complex polity that D’joan and her allies have negotiated.
In Smith’s sf, social change is so slow in arriving that it is readable almost as “natural.” Yet the beginning of every change lies in rhizomatic—i.e., grassroot—political activities. Change, as in the stories of Sturgeon, spreads across a network of ad-hoc liaisons, including, in Smith’s case, partnerships between serenely centered animal-derived beings such as D’joan and troubled, hesitant “true men” such as Elaine. In this story, Smith’s answer to social oppression is the adoption of creaturely connectivity, which D’joan calls “life-with.” “If you’re alive, you’re alive. If you’re alive-with, then you know the other life is there, too—both of you, any of you, all of you” (257). Paul M.A. Linebarger’s heroes—whether alive or dead, and whether animal, human, or robotic—resist any insistence on separate species, castes, or hierarchies of being.
Blocks of Becoming.
In the stories I have considered by Weinbaum, Heinlein, and Smith, a turning to the animal inwardly transforms what on a superficial plot summary might seem a conventional tale of heroic quest. In contrast, the texts by Hoban, Sturgeon, and Gloss withhold any such adventure framework: they portray ordinary people, not called to any singular or unusual destiny, who nonetheless connect with a broader nature, as well as with their own body-derived instincts.
Some of these stories consider the animal more directly, yet each in its own way shows an adjustment in the balance of power between human- and animal-beings—a new alignment of human nature with Nature. Deleuze and Guattari make a point that has been important to me in avoiding in this discussion any definitive ranking of these texts:
The dramatization of “becoming” per se—not the expression of didactic intent—provides the energy source in these stories: fiction’s transformations are inward. The authors, working on a symbolic level, all have suggested that human beings can “become” transformed through a closer attention to animal-being.
In Sturgeon’s tale, solitary boarders cross a border into “animal happiness” as Vicki Hearne defines it.21 They build up their constructive instincts. In Heinlein’s novel, a man, a child, and a cat likewise break through to a better place and time. In Weinbaum’s story, animalesque Martian life-forms are depicted almost like fellow-travelers on a subway car: bent on different tasks but for the moment within range of observation, each breathes (or doesn’t breathe) the same air as a human traveler, who admits cheerfully that what he sees does not add up as readily as “one-one-two.” In Cordwainer Smith’s stories of the underpeople, mad or otherwise marginal “true men” become agents of social breakthrough when they embrace a renegade bonding with oppressed animals.
Hoban, Heinlein, and Smith, like all writers who use a post-holocaust setting, emphasize the destructive potential of advanced technologies. These particular texts, however, introduce animals who “judge us”; beasts serve as wiser alternatives to self-destroying human impulses. Even Heinlein’s can-do hero is, as The Door Into Summer opens, well on his way to drinking himself to death. It is only through his efforts to reconnect with nature, in the form of a cat-“arbiter” and a little girl, that he gets his own life back.
Agamben wonders whether “the most luminous sphere of our relation with the divine depends, in some way, on that darker one which separates us from the animal” (16). Cordwainer Smith, though providing no answer, raises a similar question. As Saint D’joan points out to the underpeople, human beings are not gods: “People outnumber us, outgun us, outrun us, outfight us. But people did not create us. Whatever made people, made us too” (266). Russell Hoban’s Eusa fable in Riddley Walker likewise conjoins the animal with the spiritual. The Eusa myth derives from the medieval legend of St. Eustace, in which the martyr-to-be, while hunting, sees between the horns of the stag he is about to kill the tiny figure of the crucified Christ. 22 In Hoban’s novel, the slain redeemer suspended between the horns of Eusa’s prey is “Littl Shyning Man the Addom.” Though repeatedly warned by his own dogs, Eusa insists that “I woan be tol by amminals” (31). He kills the deer and in a rage splits the atom/Adam like a “chikken” (32). Eusa’s anger is provoked by a “shyning” symbol the animal bears; it is something he fears because he does not understand it. His ill-fated “conversion” brings together religion with physics, for Eusa’s angry unleashing of “the Addom” brings about a Judgment Day, the “Master Chanjis” (33) that ruin the world.
Riddley Walker’s homophones—“Addom”/Adam/atom;“wud”/wood/would; “Hart”/heart —are associative rather than logical, resisting linear exposition. Yet it is clear that the Hart of the Wud—the silent beast who, despite bearing the sign of a redeemer, awaits execution at the hands of human violence—stands at the “heart” of this novel’s “would,” its evocative future-conditional. The same dynamic, by which animals, in their watchful 1st knowing, elude or surpass human cognition, lies at the heart of the other stories, too. The sf genre’s readiness to project tales of “becoming” probably arises from its constant task of imagining the future, that ambiguous site of all becomings and undoings.
The names and idiosyncrasies of Linebarger’s cats frequently showed up in the characters of his stories. As many as ten cats would wander over the students Linebarger invited to his home for informal lectures. ‘I went to Linebarger’s house once, said [a former student], ‘and fled. Those cats smelled awful.’ Linebarger was also infamous for ... popping out his glass eye and throwing it on the floor to attract the attention of daydreaming students. (Gutner 12)
For readings of a larger group of Linebarger’s stories, see McGuirk. Alan Elms’s biographical articles on Smith are indispensable: his full-length biography is eagerly awaited.
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