#113 = Volume 38, Part 1 = March 2011
Slipstream Then, Slipstream Now: The Curious Connections between William Douglas O’Connor’s “The Brazen Android” and Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days
Talking Heads as Slipstream Artifacts and Metaphors. Early in his Wintermute-led tour of the Straylight cyberspace construct, Case, William Gibson’s protagonist in Neuromancer (1984), encounters “a jeweled thing” on a frosted glass pedestal that speaks to him “in a voice like music.” The “jeweled thing” is an “ornate bust, platinum and cloisonné, studded with lapis and pearl” (173). This “ceremonial terminal” is a head that talks, a talking head. Indeed, this object takes its place among a veritable pantheon of talking heads, both real and virtual, in Neuromancer—computer terminals, AI voices, cyber-constructs—all of whom advance its narrative through mainly gnomic utterances. That Gibson would include a construct of a mechanical talking head among his many avatars for virtual computers is not surprising, and his jeweled thing takes its place in a long line of talking heads in fantastic, science fiction, and slipstream literature. 1
One of the goals of this essay is to consider the ways in which this persistent metaphor or topos of the talking head helps link together two quite disparate-seeming works, William Douglas O’Connor’s story “The Brazen Android” and Michael Cunningham’s novel Specimen Days, identifying in both aspects of the not-quite-science-fiction literature increasingly identified as “slipstream.” O’Connor’s tale, written in 1862 but not published until 1891, combines and embellishes legends from the thirteenth century that attributed the creation of a wondrous mechanical talking head to Franciscan friar and (depending on the legend) powerful necromancer or pioneering scientist, Roger Bacon. O’Connor’s Bacon is first and foremost a Whitmanesque champion of freedom from royal tyranny, but he is also a scientist, struggling against the superstition and religious narrow-mindedness of his time, and “The Brazen Android” offers a celebration of scientific rationalism in the face of the seemingly supernatural. Cunningham’s Specimen Days, published in 2005, obviously invokes Walt Whitman in its re-use of the title of his 1882 collection of notes, essays, and autobiographical material, while its three-part structure is reminiscent of Cunningham’s approach in The Hours (1998). The Hours is itself a narrative built on and around Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), so it seems likely that Specimen Days takes more from Whitman than its title. But exactly what? The first of its three obliquely linked narratives is set in Whitman’s New York and portrays the sad lives of poor workers Whitman would have championed as they struggle in a deadly industrial setting, but the second narrative is set in a very different post-9/11 world of children giving their lives as suicide bombers, and the third narrative…! That narrative is set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic future in which the protagonists are a reptilian extraterrestrial and a sentient android. The three narratives are linked by characters whose names are variations on each other and by the odd fact that characters in each seem to be afflicted by a peculiar kind of literary Tourette’s in which they more or less randomly give voice to lines from the life and works of Walt Whitman.
Both O’Connor’s and Cunningham’s narratives are not exactly sf, although “The Brazen Android” anticipates some of the concerns we now see as early sf agendas, valorizing science and the scientific method, while Specimen Days addresses a number of what remain central sf concerns—such as the increasingly problematic distinction between human and machine and first-contact implications—but does so in a larger formal and thematic context that seems to pursue agendas quite different from those we associate with sf. In this sense, O’Connor’s story raises the question of whether a narrative is sf yet, while Cunningham’s novel raises the question of whether a narrative is sf still, two questions that focus our attention on the edges of the genre, the liminal space slipstream fills.
It is my contention that both O’Connor’s and Cunningham’s fictions represent slipstream in their use of a patently science-fictional metaphor—the talking head—to advance agendas themselves not limited to those of science fiction. Both fictions embody forms of science fiction thinking, but neither exists primarily to think science fiction, which seems to me to be a distinguishing characteristic of slipstream. Following Bruce Sterling’s description of slipstream as a “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange,” James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel have added that “slipstream is the literature of cognitive dissonance and of strangeness triumphant” (Kelly and Kessel xi; emphasis in original). Strangeness is an affect, not an argument; but there can be little doubt that slipstream is not just a literature that makes us feel strange but also, like most literature, an argument about something. Slip- stream’s“argument,” like that of sf itself, should more profitably be thought of as a range of loosely related agendas, and one of those agendas is almost certainly an implicit, self-reflexive exploration of the nature and purpose of sf—although slipstream is almost certainly not just an argument about the nature of science fiction and needs to be distinguished from the strong strain of self-reflexivity sf has always displayed.2 While literature we identify as slipstream is likely to advance some—if not many—of the same agendas as does sf, it does so with the added dimension of arguing not about the nature of sf so much as about the nature of “mainstream literature.” As opposed to the all-too-frequently embarrassing instances where mainstream writers have tried their hands at sf, borrowing from its icons and formulas without understanding its epistemological concerns, slipstream, whether written by writers associated with the mainstream or by writers associated with the genre, suggests that sf’s epistemological agendas have now become inextricably imbricated in traditional humanist agendas focused on identity, a final deconstruction of the divide in literature between public and private concerns. Tim Pratt, in a most perceptive Locus review of Specimen Days, speaks directly to this point when he notes his apprehension at picking up “a book with genre content by a well-known literary figure,” recognizing that “such books are brilliant re-imaginings with original insights, unhampered by the expectations and conventions that come from years of in-genre reading experience,” but more often finding that they seem to “reinvent the wheel, or to use the tropes of sf in a slapdash and disappointing way” (61). Cunningham, Pratt concludes, largely avoids that pitfall, taking a strangely familiar tack that reminded him of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (2002).
At the very least, slipstream works such as Specimen Days implicitly argue that the traditional conflicts and changes that have long driven “literary” fiction should also include the more specialized kinds of conflicts and changes long associated with sf. Accordingly, slipstream, like its close relative sf, cannot be limited to a publishing category or an inventory of formal traits, but instead represents an attitude toward the world and, implicitly, an attitude toward fiction. Slipstream necessarily intervenes in multiple arguments about the nature and function of fiction itself. To Sterling’s and Kelly and Kessel’s quite serviceable discussions of slipstream, I would suggest two small codas—first that “feeling very strange” be expanded to include the affect of literature that feels strangely familiar, whether due to its provenance or other extratextual matters. I think most sf readers recognize that Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary (1991) is more than just a historical novel set in the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s; indeed, that wonderfully strange novel also seems to invoke or mirror the protocols of first- contact sf. Likewise, even before its third section, which features ideas and themes that are overtly science fictional, Cunningham’s Specimen Days feels strangely familiar in its subtle invocation of the “talking head” metaphor to which this essay will soon return.
A second small coda would be that the affective “strangeness” of a slipstream text usually needs to be sensed by characters constructed in its narrative semblance as well as by its readers. Slipstream needs to be considered not just as a reader response to fictional semblances but also as a reaction by characters within those semblances to phenomena that challenge their expectations and understanding. It is not enough for readers just to feel very strange about what they read, since the range of textual phenomena that might occasion a perception of strangeness by readers is unlimited; the strangeness needs to be both outside and inside the text. By this I mean some kind of recognition seems necessary on the part of characters in the textual semblance that something odd is going on in their world and not just that a reader might find something strange about that textual world. Such a coda seems necessary to me if we are to make any distinction between slipstream and all experimental literature, the very point of most literary “experiments” being to create and celebrate its “strangeness.” More specifically, this is one feature that may distinguish slipstream from magic realism, where the point is that marvelous and inexplicable phenomena are simply accepted without notice or explanation.
Both O’Connor’s “The Brazen Android” and Cunningham’s Specimen Days reference seemingly inexplicable phenomena having to do with the topos of the talking head, but in quite different ways. O’Connor’s story attempts to make strange the idea of a mechanical talking head, while Cunningham’s novel attempts to make strange the phenomenon of being inhabited by another’s words. Both writers join William Gibson in finding something remarkable in a literary topos that long predates both science fiction and slipstream as literary forms. The history of brass or bronze talking heads in literature is the subject of an excellent essay by Kevin LaGrandeur. Quite apart from detailing the evolution of this icon through the medieval intermingling of classical automata with a tradition of oracular severed heads, LaGrandeur’s discussion of these traditions again and again characterizes them in ways that seem eerily prescient of the concerns of Frankenstein (1818). Indeed, in exploring the ways in which these talking heads serve as “symbols of mysterious knowledge,” as well as metaphors and metonyms for the knowledge of their controversial creators, LaGrandeur provides a striking description of the ur-scientist protagonist as constructed in science fiction. Noting that medieval legends of the “artificial, oracular head” seem to be a hybrid of Arabic tales featuring talking human heads and older stories about talking statues, LaGrandeaur adds that these hybrid stories “are chiefly associated with some of the more innovative European natural philosophers of the time,” men also associated with the construction of automata (410). These “brilliant men around whom these stories arose” shared a penchant for “unorthodox concepts” and an interest in “novel mechanical devices.” Moreover, “in contrast to the dominant scholastic tradition of the time, they all supported the notions of experiment and experience as a means of gaining knowledge about nature” (412). Some of the medieval thinkers most strongly associated with these stories, frequently with the same brass or bronze talking-head device credited to each, are Gerbert of Aurillac, Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon.
My focus here is on one particular line of talking head references detailed by LaGrandeur, starting in the thirteenth century and more or less associated with the Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, the legendary “Doctor Mirabilis.”3 My interest will lie in tracing nineteenth-century American literary references to brass or bronze talking heads back to legends attached to Bacon and then forward to the use of the embedded metaphor of a talking head by Michael Cunningham in Specimen Days. Along the way, I hope to make a few tentative connections between Walt Whitman and science fiction and to speculate on the place Roger Bacon does not hold in sf hagiography.
The line of Brass Head stories I want to follow starts with a sixteenth-century tradition of folktales casting Roger Bacon as a great magician. The historical Bacon is hard to recover, so contradictory are the accounts of his time and his work, and so undependable the translations of his writing. Indeed, it is ironic that one of the most generally dependable accounts of his life can be found in James Blish’s novel Doctor Mirabilis (1964). Blish casts Bacon as one of the first great Western scientists, whose dedication to experimental verification consistently put him at odds with church doctrine and caused him repeatedly to be muzzled by his superiors, resented by his peers, and eventually imprisoned for heresy. (It is a measure of the uncertainty surrounding Bacon’s life that it is not clear whether he was in fact ever imprisoned for his beliefs.) That Blish saw Bacon as a scientist and thinker so important he deserved a quasi-biographical volume in his After Such Knowledge trilogy (1958-68) argues strongly—if obliquely—for the place of Roger Bacon in sf, although Blish rigorously treats Bacon as a scientist, philosopher, and Christian, making no mention of the Brass Head legend.4 On the other hand, in a work preceding Blish’s novel by some eight years, John Cowper Powys gave a lurid twist to the legend and made it one of many sensational aspects in his quasi-novel, The Brazen Head (1956).
Popular legends about Bacon as a magician known not only for his Brass Head but also for marvelous optical devices and the ability to conjure visions and control spirits exist in variations, and stories of his exploits are found in many different editions. The earliest identified printed version is The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon. Containing the wunderfull things that he did in his Life: Also the manner of his Death; With the Liues and Deaths of the two Conjurers Bungye and Vandermast, Very Pleasant and delightfull to be read (1627). Several versions of this narrative can be found on the web, and the authoritative modern English version of the chapter on the Brass Head, “How Fryer Baconmade a Brasen head to speake, by the which hee would have walled England about with Brasse,” comes from Early English Prose Romances, edited by William J. Thoms.5
The Famous Historie of Friar Bacon seems to have been one of the primary sources for Robert Greene’s play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, written around 1589, which took many liberties with both Bacon’s history as a Franciscan friar and the legends of his prowess as a black magician.6 Daniel Seltzer notes that Greene eliminated any specific reference to Bacon as a churchman, moved to the end of his play political and religious references, ignored Bacon’s insistence that his marvels resulted from science rather than magic, and involved Bacon in influencing a love affair (Greene xii-xiii). Greene casts Bacon as a great master of black magic and his play satirizes academicians. Seltzer hesitates to offer a clear statement concerning the Renaissance attitude toward magic, but he does observe that Greene’s depiction of Bacon “was in keeping with the popular opinion of the historical Roger Bacon, who was considered a demonologist and a sorcerer—in spite of occasional protests by Elizabethan scientists” (Greene xiii).
Greene’s Bacon, like the Bacon in The Famous Historie, apparently plans to scale up his Brass Head, when given the power of speech, to “man” a defensive wall around England with similar animated talking heads. Rumor in the court of King Henry has it that Bacon is “making of a brazen head by art/Which shall unfold strange doubts and aphorisms/And read a lecture in philosophy,/And by the help of devils and ghastly fiends,/Thou mean’st, ere many years or days be past,/To compass England with a wall of brass” (Greene 12). But Greene’s Bacon depends exclusively on magic, not only to animate but also to fabricate his Brass Head. Bacon’s pride in his magical power is unmatched as he explains to Miles, his servant, that he has “dived into hell/And sought the darkest palaces of fiends” in his effort to construct “a monstrous head of brass,/That by th’ enchanting forces of the devil,/Shall tell out strange and uncouth aphorisms,/And girt fair England with a wall of brass” (73). But, in Greene’s play, as in The Famous Historie, Miles is the weak link in Bacon’s planning, since he fails to wake Bacon and Bungay to hear the words of the Brass Head when it comes to life, thereby leading to its self-destruction. To Miles’s report that he did not think the Brass Head’s gnomic utterances (“Time is,” “Time was,” “Time is past”) worth waking Bacon and Bungay to hear, Bacon furiously replies: “‘Tis past indeed. Ah, villain, time is past;/My life, my fame, my glory, all are past” (76).
Between The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon and Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, the story of the talking Brass Head was well-established in Europe by the sixteenth century and later in the United States, and other stories of talking-head automata added to the power of the metaphor. The Austrian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen was credited in the eighteenth century with constructing a talking-head automaton named “The Turk” that could play chess. Later exposed as a hoax, it was the subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Maelzel’s Chess-Player” (1836). Poe’s exposure of the fact that The Turk was not a “pure machine” but a cabinet in which was secreted a man was itself something of a hoax, since Poe was not the original author of this “discovery.” As W.K. Wimsatt extensively detailed in a 1939 article in American Literature, Poe’s essay, published in the April 1836 Southern Literary Messenger, was almost entirely cribbed from previously published sources.7 In his essay, Poe rehearsed accounts of a number of other noteworthy automatons and referred readers to the “Androides” entry in Sir David Brewster’s Edinburgh Encyclopedia (1832). Indeed, Poe had available to him a number of sources from which to “borrow.” Automatons, including an explanation of the hoax of the chess-player, were also covered by entries in Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic (1832) and Charles Hutton’s Philosophical and Mathematical Dictionary (1815), as well as in other publications in England and in the United States.8 While there was no shortage of exposés of Von Kempelen’s hoax that did not receive the attention given to Poe’s essay, it should be noted that Von Kempelen also constructed automata that were apparently not hoaxes, including a bellows-driven speaking machine that employed mechanical means to synthesize human speech, one relatively reliable observer claiming to have heard it clearly enunciate “Exploitation,” with a French accent (Hutton 194).
What is noteworthy is that von Kempelen’s chess-playing device, “The Turk,” initiated a nineteenth-century fascination with automata, nonfictional accounts of which were drawn upon by fiction writers of the day to inspire or inform their narratives. In detailing the prevalence of this imagery among major nineteenth-century American writers, H. Bruce Franklin suggests that fascination with automata is easily understood since “[o]ne metaphor for the automaton-maker is Frankenstein, the other is the modern Prometheus.” Franklin notes:
As the industrial Revolution gained momentum in nineteenth-century America, increasing numbers of fictional automata marched along with it. By 1874 mechanical men had become so commonplace that an “android” appears as a parody in Edward Page Mitchell’s dream spoof “The Tachypomp” [The Sun, 1874]. Some were vehicles of terror, such as the robot in H.D. Jenkins’s “Automaton of Dobello” (Lakeside, 1872). Others were potent agents of progress, as in William Douglas O’Connor’s “The Brazen Android” (Atlantic Monthly, 1891), where an “android” equipped with a talking machine almost brings democracy into thirteenth-century England. (131)
Franklin might also have mentioned Ambrose Bierce’s “Moxon’s Master” (1893) or the less-known “The Man-Ufactory” by Frederick B. Perkins, published in the author’s collection Devil-Puzzlers and Other Stories in 1877. This satire upped the ante for talking-head narratives by featuring an entire factory dedicated to turning out “patent ministers” who could be placed before congregations to give recorded sermons, thus avoiding much of the expense of living clergymen. And, as Perkins’s narrator discovers, the rows of gutta-percha talking heads awaiting insertion of their respective sermons is only the prelude to a second run of talking heads designed to serve as eminent public lecturers, with orders coming in for still more who may stand in for heads of state. While the tone of the story is clearly satirical, it includes a passably plausible “explanation” of the mechanism that makes these talking machines work (Perkins 43). When Perkins’s narrator speculates that this device is a hybrid of “the mechanism in Vaucanson’s flute-player, Maelzel’s trumpeter, and the various speaking automata,” as a prelude to assuming that the device is another Von Kempelen-type hoax with a human being hidden inside, he is assured that its ability to utter complicated and extended speeches is the result of a modification of Alden’s type-setting machine, giving it functions of both the typewriter and a player piano (48-49). As an almost perfunctory nod to the talking Bronze Head tradition, Perkins places in the “man-ufactory” a booming voice that announces the time—a nice play on the “Time is, Time Was, Time is Past” formula; and the voice is identified by the narrator’s tour guide as coming from “Friar Bacon’s brazen head,” supposedly “discovered at Oxford, and imported expressly for us at great expense” (78), although the guide later admits that this “big brazen head” had been made as an imitation of Friar Bacon’s (88).
These references strongly suggest that the idea of the Talking Head was both well-known and an object of speculation in nineteenth-century America. Whereas in the thirteenth century the Bronze Head had been an icon of magic, of necromancy, or at best of a brilliant but controversial understanding of natural principles, in nineteenth-century America it had become more closely associated with the mechanically precise perception of trickery and with a “rehabilitation” of Roger Bacon as a scientist and technician, an emblematic hero for the industrial revolution (as opposed to a magician). References to marvelous automata abound in publications of the time, mainly in the service of offering mechanical explanations for seemingly supernatural phenomena or in exposing the supposed marvels as ingenious hoaxes. Foremost among these works of nonfiction were J. Freind’s The History of Physick; From the Time of Galen, To the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century. Chiefly with Regard to Practice, In a Discourse Written to Doctor Mead, first published in 1750, and the Letters on Natural Magic, Addressed to Sir Walter Scott, published in England in 1832 (in America in 1856) and written by David Brewster, the prolific author of the Edinburgh Encyclopedia. And in the same Family Library collection of works (the Murray Family Library in England, apparently republished in the US as the Harper Family Library) was Sketches of Imposture, Deception, and Credulity (author unnamed, 1837).
Well-known in their time, encyclopedic references such as Freind’s and Brewster’s serve to remind us that some of the celebrated proto-science fiction works by noteworthy American authors such as Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville were tapping into ideas and iconography readily available to, if not well-known by, erudite readers of their time. Poe, of course, is the most obvious example of a nineteenth-century American author interested in automata, but it is clear that other notables, including Hawthorne, shared that interest, as we see in his “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844) and in “The Birth-Mark” (1843), where the doomed Georgiana passes time reading in her scientist husband’s library:
In many dark old tomes she met with chapters full of romance and poetry. They were the works of the philosophers of the middle ages, such as Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and the famous friar who created the prophetic Brazen Head. All these antique naturalists stood in advance of their centuries, yet were imbued with some of their credulity, and therefore were believed, and perhaps imagined themselves to have acquired from the investigation of Nature a power above Nature, and from physics a sway over the spiritual world. (32)
Franklin has authoritatively discussed the role played in the development of sf by Hawthorne and Poe when it was arguably nothing but slipstream. Much as we now loosely think of slipstream as being not-quite-sf, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, O’Connor, and other writers singled out by Franklin were exploring the implications of science and technology by writing fictions that were no-longer-quite-gothic, that invoked the frisson but not the world-view of the supernatural, more and more emphasizing, as did Poe so famously, the value of ratiocination. The proto-sf writing of authors featured in Franklin’s Future Perfect, as well as the public interest of their time in automata in general and talking heads in particular, form the backdrop to William Douglas O’Connor’s remarkable “The Brazen Android.”
“The Brazen Android.” William Douglas O’Connor had already shown promise as a fiction writer, having published stories in Harper’s and Putnam’s, when he wrote “The Brazen Android,” probably working on it between 1860 and 1862, when it was scheduled for publication in Atlantic Monthly.9 In a January 1861 letter to Sarah Helen Whitman, he reported some difficulty with the story:
For the last few days I have been vainly trying to psychologize [sic] myself into commencing my story for the Atlantic—“The Brazen Android”—which is the one I told you of. I have decided to make the Brass Head of Roger Bacon an automaton, as Friend [sic] in “History of Physic” [sic] suggests or says it was, and then I can insinuate that it was something else—something daemonic—and spread the dark wings of my imagination in my picture of the satanic Paduan. I am also going to lug in DeMontfort and the politics of the thirteenth century to help out the tale. (qtd. Loving 45)
O’Connor’s previous stories had been more or less ghost stories, much influenced by the fiction of both Hawthorne and Poe. And his curiosity about the supernatural was not just literary, as he had more than a passing interest in the spirit-rapping séances that were being held across the United States of his time. The Sarah Helen Whitman to whom he wrote the above letter was herself at least open to the claims of spiritualism. Whitman, O’Connor’s lifelong friend, was also a link to Poe—and his interest in spiritualism—insofar as she had been engaged to him in 1848, breaking the engagement when Poe broke his promise to her not to drink and possibly when she learned of his interest in other women. O’Connor’s comments to Sarah Helen Whitman are particularly noteworthy, since they preview the sustained tension in his story between the protocols of Gothic literature and what would eventually become some of the central protocols of science fiction.
“The Brazen Android” was accepted for publication by Atlantic Monthly, apparently to be published in two parts in 1862. The first part was being type-set when O’Connor returned the $100 he had been paid for it and requested that it be withdrawn and returned to him for further work. It was not until 1891 that “The Brazen Android” was published in the April and May issues of Atlantic Monthly—and also gathered by Houghton, Mifflin into the collection Three Tales (the other two being “The Ghost”  and “The Carpenter” ), featuring a Preface by Walt Whitman. By the time O’Connor wrote “The Brazen Android,” he was already under the sway of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), although their friendship had not yet formed and he did not write his remarkable “vindication” of Whitman, “The Good Gray Poet,” until some four years later. It would be fascinating to learn what, if any, changes O’Connor made in this story after he withdrew it, particularly in light of issues having to do with science and technology that were raised both in public discourse and in fiction between 1862 and O’Connor’s death in 1889, but the best available evidence is simply that he put the story aside and never returned to it.10 In some ways that makes its brief for science and rationalism all the more remarkable.
O’Connor prefaced “The Brazen Android” with two epigraphs, the first from Freind’s unsensational and factual-seeming praise of Bacon in his History of Physick, the second obviously derived from the very sensational Historie of Friar Bacon and vaguely credited to “Thome’s” [sic] Early English Romances, Godwin’s Necromancers, etc. O’Connor seems to offer his own summary of the Friar Bacon legend:
Friars Bacon and Bungy, wishing to know how to wall England against invasion, summoned a devil, who told them to make a Brazen Head, with the organism of the human head, which must be watched till it spoke, but would reward their vigils with the information. The friars made the Head, watched it till overpowered with fatigue, and retired to sleep, leaving it in charge of their man, Miles, with orders to waken them if it said anything. Presently, the Head said at successive intervals, “Time is,” “Time was,” and “Time is passed.” The clown judged the speeches too unimportant to waken the friars for, but with the last came a storm of thunder and lightning, the Head was shattered to pieces, and the experiment came to nothing. (“Brazen” 79)
These epigraphs suggest the two rhetorical poles between which O’Connor oscillates in “The Brazen Android,” one a Gothic tradition of magic and devils, the other an emerging tradition of insistence on logical explanation based in science, experiment, and ratiocination.
A fierce polemicist dedicated to ideals of freedom, whether the cause of abolition, women’s rights, or simply democracy itself, O’Connor structures “The Brazen Android” around two major subjects—one political, the other scientific—and develops his narrative through six distinct movements, scenes not typographically delineated but framed by play-like entrances and exits and sometimes ponderous soliloquies. A sign of O’Connor’s celebrated rhetorical prowess, each scene can also be thought of as having one character who serves as a kind of “talking head,” giving advice to another. The political narrative focuses on the conflict between English barons, led by Simon de Montfort, and King Henry III, a greedy tyrant threatening to undo the rights granted under the Magna Carta. The scientific narrative is more oblique, focusing on the character of Roger Bacon, who makes the case for scientific reasoning in an age much given to superstition and belief in magic. Writing on the eve of the Civil War, O’Connor was clearly more concerned with pressing issues of freedom in nineteenth-century America than in thirteenth-century England, although more in a general way than in the service of any specific conflict. If the political narrative and the scientific narrative come together, it is in a brief for reason and critical thinking against the grip of ignorance and received ideas. And this conflict plays out stylistically in the tension in the story between Gothic topoi and ratiocinative explanations. Ultimately, the Brazen Android of the story’s title becomes an emblem for faith in honesty and reason rather than for devious plots to influence superstitious thinking.
The story opens with O’Connor taking pains to invoke a very realistic scene of thirteenth-century London, a place of filthy streets, foul smells, and shabby dwellings. “Foul exhalations from the filthy streets hung around them an air of poison, or, rising from the cesspools, of which every house had one within, discharged themselves in deadly maladies” (82). In this unglamorous setting, a street brawl is playing out between courtiers who represent King Henry III’s tyranny and townspeople fed up with their loutish behavior and wanton destruction of private property. With this strife as background, the people’s champion, Simon de Montfort, has stealthily come to visit and ask advice from Roger Bacon, identified as a learned man, “and a learned man at that delightful period was regarded by the populace with reverential horror, as one who was unquestionably a master of black arts and a dealer with the devil” (98). De Montfort, it turns out, is seeking Bacon’s advice about how to respond to Henry’s tyranny. De Montfort and Bacon engage in professions of mutual admiration, with de Montfort marveling at Bacon’s selflessness and dedication to learning, asking him: “Why toil for science when it brings you nought but hate, slander, ill fame, oppression, poverty, hunger, imprisonment, perchance death?” (105). Bacon shrugs off this question with the humble explanation that “Science is for man’s advantage,” and that he toils “for the advantage of the world” (104-105). Bacon then advises de Montfort to expand his vision from an opposition limited to organizing only nobles against the King to include the common people in their efforts—putting in Bacon’s mouth O’Connor’s ardent democratic populism.
In O’Connor’s hands, the legendary idea of a Bronze Wall around England, studded with talking heads to confound any possible invaders, is figurative rather than literal, with the “wall” becoming a united realm in which de Montfort and the barons join with the common people in alliance with King Henry, a strategy summed up by Bacon as “Beware of division” (119). In this sentiment, O’Connor aligns Bacon with Whitman, who was passionately committed, as O’Connor would later put it, to “the great cause of human liberty and imperial conception of the indivisible Union” (“Good Gray”). As de Montfort leaves, however, Bacon suggests that part of the old Brass Head legend may still be operative: “your union with this paltry king shall fortress England from without and from within as with a wall! God grant the android a good success, and he and you shall work in concert!” (“Brazen” 120)
With this provocative utterance by Bacon, O’Connor moves to the scientific part of his narrative. Bacon’s friend and co-conspirator, a rotund, humorous, drink-loving Friar Bungy, apparently on leave from his service as Friar Tuck in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), shows up (122-23).11 Bungy has come to help with the final fabrication and testing of the “android”—i.e., the Brazen Head—and to learn the details of Bacon’s plan for using the android to take advantage of King Henry’s strong superstitions, particularly his belief in the power of dreams. The King is soon to spend the night next door, imposing on the hospitality of a wealthy silk merchant, and Bacon has discovered that a convenient secret passage exists between his laboratory and the bedroom in which the King will sleep. The plan is for the Brazen Head to be pushed forward from the secret passageway, appearing to speak to the King in an eerie dream, and instructing him in a thunderous voice to follow the counsel of Simon de Montfort.
Bacon describes to Bungy the provenance and nature of the Brazen Head in some detail, dating its origin to his earlier study in Italy under the tutelage of the brilliant and possibly deranged Doctor Malatesti. Bacon and Malatesti had discussed various legends of speaking heads, including a brass head constructed by Virgil that could both speak and foretell events. Insisting that this legend was true, Malatesti had claimed proof that such a head could be constructed, but had not convinced Bacon, who would not accept verbal “proof” in the absence of experimental demonstration. Nevertheless, Bacon carried away from these discussions with Malatesti important knowledge about the nature of sound, including that speech can be produced by mechanical means. Bacon relates his return to England, where along with more serious experiments he had as a diversion “made a small apparatus which could utter distinctly enough these words: ‘Art is the only magic’” (129).
Bacon’s achievement, however, in O’Connor’s account, aroused the envy of his “foes” at Oxford and led to his being imprisoned until he was released through the efforts of his champions Robert Grostete and Adam de Marisco, who gave him access to a laboratory in London and supported his plan to construct an android as part of a political plot to influence the King. When the mysterious and ominous Malatesti arrives from Padua and visits Bacon, he learns of his former student’s work with automata and commands him to “fashion an android of brass under certain planetary conjunctions and aspects, according to the rules of magic,which he said would in due time answer questions and prophesy, being inhabited by a spirit” (131).
O’Connor’s Bacon proceeds to lay out for Bungy his plan for using the voice of the Brazen Android to influence the superstitious King, playing on a dream Henry had reported in which a Brazen Head had appeared to him and given him important counsel he had forgotten upon awakening, counsel he wishes to hear again and follow. Bacon’s plan is to use his Brazen Android to fulfill the king’s dream; only now the full technological potential of the automaton will not be needed to make it speak, since a man positioned behind it could speak through it, employing the secret passage between Bacon’s laboratory and the room in which the King is scheduled to spend the night.
To the chrestomathy of Gothic topoi already present in this story (dramatic thunderstorm outside, dimly lit rooms and secret passages inside, a half-witted servant given to gnomic utterances), O’Connor adds the sudden reappearance of his former Italian mentor in the construction of automata, the mysterious Maletesti, described in increasingly dramatic terms as a kind of devil with claw-like feet and protuberances on his forehead that seem like horns (144). Unaware that Bacon has not followed his instructions for constructing a speech mechanism inside the Brazen Head, Malatesti explains that he intends the android to serve as a repository to give body to a disembodied spirit, a first step in peopling the earth with souls housed in brass bodies and thus freed from “the evil form of flesh” (153). Somewhat in the fashion of the legend recorded in The Famous Historie, Malatesti directs Bacon and Bungy to remain awake for three days until the spirit, Simari, will enter the brass head and the android will begin to speak.12 If Bacon and Bungy fail to hear the android’s first words, Malatesti warns that “the spirit will rend the metal and flee from it forever” (161). When Malatesti discovers that Bacon has disobeyed his instructions to place a speaking mechanism in the brass head, he flies into a rage and leaves, cursing both friars. Bacon and Bungy then proceed with a rehearsal of the hoax they intend to commit and O’Connor carefully describes the special effects that will make the Brazen Head seem otherworldly. The rehearsal is a success, described exactly as the talking head would appear to the king, but at its end the enraged Malatesti reappears and destroys the tongue he had constructed for his plan of the android by throwing it on the floor, where it dramatically explodes. Malatesti calls on the demon Simari and is answered by a “thin, silvery voice” that announces “I am here.” Malatesti commands the demon to enter the android and destroy it, then disappears in his mysterious fashion, his billowing black robe giving even Bacon “the horrid fancy ... that he had changed into some black-winged monstrous thing and melted into the air” (191). Shortly after Malatesti vanishes,
There was a stunning crash, the vault filled with fire, and the building rocked to its foundations. Bacon staggered back, lost his balance and fell, reeled up again to his feet, all in an instant, and stood rigid, with a face of death, his brain tottering, and a dreadful feeling within him as though his very soul were rent asunder, and were rushing from his frame. (192)
When Bacon recovers his wits he makes a devastating discovery: “There lay the android, shattered to fragments, on the floor!” (192). Malatesti’s seeming power to invoke a destructive spirit not only leads to the destruction of the Brazen Head, but also to the end of Bungy’s alliance with Bacon. Bungy’s faith in reason and natural explanation has been shattered along with the android, and he turns on Bacon, accusing him of being a “vile sorcerer” in league with Malatesti in the service of black arts. The veneer of scientific rationalism has been stripped from the now terrified Bungy, his faith in science has disappeared, and fear reduces him to being yet another of the superstitious masses who conflate learning with the work of the devil and see an unbridgeable divide between science and religion. He raves at Bacon, accusing him of deriving all of his knowledge not from nature but from devil’s arts learned from the fiend Malatesti. Bacon tries in vain to reason with Bungy, offering “natural” explanations for all of the seemingly “unnatural” or “supernatural” phenomena associated with the visit of Malatesti and the destruction of the Brazen Android. Bungy will honor his oath of silence concerning the plot to influence King Henry through the agency of the android, but his renunciation of Bacon is complete: “Ach, thou viper, thou wretch, thou sorcerer, thou devil’s commercer, thou abhorred, abominable, impious, unclean thing! Ach, fie upon thee! And aroint thee, aroint thee! I renounce thee forever!” (203).
Bungy storms out and Bacon swoons in disappointment and disbelief. When he comes to the next morning his friend and protector Adam Marisco is caring for him. Marisco has encountered the terrified Bungy who has told him “a graceless tale,” and now Bacon explains the events that had led to Bungy’s terror and the collapse of the plan to use the android to influence the king. Bacon is distraught and mourns the death of their good cause, but Marisco chides him that “the good cause never dies.” Bacon corrects himself to say that he meant the good cause was “defeated” rather than “dead,” but Marisco once again proclaims “Brother, the good cause never is defeated” (207).
Marisco’s steadying words lead Bacon to a final and possibly most important epiphany concerning a distinction between reason and unreason even within the knowledge and works of science:
“It comes to me now,” he said humbly and dreamfully. “I have sinned, and it is well the android lies shattered. To make a king believe in supernature were also to spread his belief throughout the realm, and not even to save the land from tyranny were it well to confirm it in superstition. That were to relieve it from a great evil to curse it with a greater. Better fail of good by truth than win it by falsehood.” (209)
Bacon’s final pronouncement is “Through Truth alone we truly conquer. Only Truth’s victories are true” (209). Marisco informs Bacon that for his own safety he must leave England and return to Paris, which Bacon quickly does, and in Paris we are told he will write his Opus Majus, his collected works, which will gain him “his undying claim to the gratitude of man” (209). O’Connor’s narrator also relates that in the near future de Montfort will succeed—without the aid of the Brazen Android, and though it will cost him his life—in securing the justice and freedom to which Bacon had dedicated his efforts: “For the good cause never dies, and it is never defeated. Its defeats are but the recoils of the battering-ram from the wall that is fated to crash in; its deaths are like those of Italian story, where each man cloven in twain by the sword of the slayer springs up two men, mailed and armed to slay” (210).
“The good cause” is a term O’Connor’s readers would have associated more with Walt Whitman than with Roger Bacon and Simon de Montfort. And for O’Connor the greatest “good cause” was almost certainly abolition, the issue that estranged him from Whitman for some 25 years because he could not forgive Whitman’s reluctance to cede suffrage to the slaves he did agree should be freed. My interest in devoting so much attention to this story, however, has to do with another “good cause,” of particular interest to scholars and historians of science fiction. This would be the didactic championing of science and scientific method that became one of the central agendas of early sf. Or, to put this another way, my somewhat whimsical argument is that we might consider O’Connor’s “The Brazen Android” not only slipstream avant la lettre, but sf avant la lettre as well.13
As O’Connor mentioned in his reference to “The Brazen Android” in his 1861 letter to Sarah Helen Whitman, his original intent was to use Freind’s relatively rigorous praise of Roger Bacon’s actual achievements as a starting point for “insinuating” that the Brass Head was “something else—something daemonic—and spread the dark wings of my imagination in my picture of the satanic Paduan.” As Loving notes, “Apparently O’Connor intended a tale that … would exploit the public belief in spiritualism in order to dramatize his theme of the need for political liberty” (45). In actually writing the story, O’Connor seems to have turned his original intent on its head, as the finished story seems to give prominence not to the “dark wings” of O’Connor’s imagination but to Bacon’s commitment to “natural” causes and explanations. Certainly O’Connor set about creating a Gothic mood for his piece. A wild storm alternately darkens and lightens London, signaling the appearance of “dark” and “light” characters, and prompting Bungy to fear the storm’s “grisly twilight,” as dark “as though yon clouds were the black wings of the devil spread over the land, and the devil—” (O’Connor, “Brazen” 142).14 To Bungy’s fear of the weather as evil portent, Bacon cheerfully offers the rejoinder of science: “‘Fear not, Thomas,’ said Bacon, starting from his musing and pacing up the room. ‘Storms purge the air as struggle doth the realm, and in the war of cloud and sun, by God’s grace the sun is ever assured victor’” (126). Indeed, it almost seems as if O’Connor’s descriptions of the weather, always on the edge of suggesting a supernatural agency, are in conflict with Bacon’s attempts to “naturalize” strange-seeming phenomena by offering rational explanations for them.
“Dark and stormy” weather is only one of the Gothic topoi O’Connor trots out again and again in his story, only to have Bacon offer a rational or scientific explanation. For instance, when it seems that one of Malatesti’s entrances had been facilitated by a door that magically opened and slammed shut on its own, we see a wonderful example of the tension O’Connor creates between rhetorical modes:
Bacon himself, with his disposition to refer occurrences to natural causes, could not but feel the nervous perturbation which will possess the coolest mind when such occurrences assume the aspect of the supernatural. The supposition, however, that the Paduan had deftly shut the door with his foot, upon entering, instantly succeeded the fantastic impression that it had been closed by its own agency; though this in turn was dissipated in a vague sense of dread as, following his thought, his eye rested upon the taloned feet of Malatesti, and received the morbid suggestion their strange shape conveyed. At the same moment, a long moan of wind sounded eerily through the grisly gloom, followed by a sullen roll of thunder dying away in sluggish reverberations, and the rushing of rain. (145)
And when Malatesti reveals what seems to be his inexplicable knowledge of Bacon’s and Bungy’s plan to influence the king, a
terrible agitation flowed in upon the mind of the friar, but he controlled himself to appear calm. His first thought was that Malatesti had divined the plot. Then came a doubt, born of the habit of a scientific intellect, instinctively skeptical and averse to rash conclusions. He might only have uttered, madman fashion, at random what someone in the neighborhood had told him, and it was not a necessary inference from his speech that he knew more. Yet this theory of it was half shattered in the mind of Bacon as the Paduan again laughed. (187)
Although his commitment to natural explanations ultimately fails to carry the day with Bungy, Bacon offers his rational take on almost every odd occurrence in the story, attributing the “speech” of the demon Simari to Malatesti’s ventriloquism and the dramatic destruction of the Brass Head to a lightning strike. Indeed, O’Connor’s Bacon offers what may be the most sustained defense of scientific explanation to be found in the fiction of his time, leading me to wonder whether O’Connor was himself swayed by the “historical” Bacon’s dedication to science and reason as depicted in the sources O’Connor seems to have consulted. Whatever the reason, O’Connor’s Bacon presented to readers—at the same time that dime novels were sensationalizing the exploits of Edison avatars such as Frank Reade, Jack Wright, and Tom Edison, Jr.—a sustained portrayal of a historical figure with much greater claim than Edison to the sobriquet of “wizard.” This figure seriously engaged the method and value of science as an attitude toward the world rather than as a producer of inventions. O’Connor’s “The Brazen Android” offers a slipstream moment between the proto-sf of Hawthorne and Poe, still largely under the sway of the Gothic, and the boy’s-adventure, gadget-driven proto-sf of the dime novels. And it crosses my mind to wonder how different contemporary sf would be had it celebrated in its “proto” stage something we might call the Baconade, rather than the Edisonade.
“Art is the Only Magic”: Roger Bacon, William Douglas O’Connor, Walt Whitman, and Michael Cunningham. The lines connecting Walt Whitman to science fiction are anything but direct. The only reference to any Whitman in Everett F. Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years is to one Stephen French Whitman, “associated with the Whitman Chocolate Company,” who in 1913 published in Century Magazine “The Woman from Yonder,” a story of a woman from the time of Hannibal whose frozen body is discovered in Switzerland, thawed, and brought to life by a man who promptly makes her his wife (816-17).15 Yet I.F. Clarke has singled out Walt Whitman’s verse, his vision of the future, as providing a “programme for the series of books that Jules Verne poured out between 1863 and his death in 1905” (65-66). Indeed, the life of Whitman, “the good gray poet,” is involved with sf—and with slipstream—insofar as Whitman’s best friend, William Douglas O’Connor, wrote “The Brazen Android” and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham put Whitman at the heart of the three narratives in Specimen Days.16 Both Cunningham and O’Connor place at the center of their fictions the topos or metaphor of the talking head, with reference to Whitman as the direct or indirect source of what various “talking heads” say, following Whitman’s self-proclaimed function as the mouth through which “many long dumb voices” might speak (Whitman 52). I should credit my colleague and noted Whitman scholar Ed Folsom for alerting me to the somewhat convoluted connections among Whitman, O’Connor, and Cunningham.17 We had both been greatly puzzled by Cunningham’s unexpected venture into science fiction in the third section of his Specimen Days,although all three of the sections in his novel reference Whitman’s views, including his views of science and technology. As my interest in “The Brazen Android” grew, Folsom became more interested in the ways in which both it and Cunningham’s novel put Whitman’s words into the mouths of fictional characters. And it is Whitman’s views of science that both narratives care most about, the talking-head metaphor serving as a means of speaking for Whitman more than an invocation and/or interrogation of an sf concept.
There are many links, both explicit and implicit, between O’Connor’s and Cunningham’s narratives, both of which fall between recorded fact and pure invention, and both being, as Cunningham calls Specimen Days, “semi-accurate” (ix). Most literally and most significantly, both put words from Leaves of Grass into the mouths of fictional characters, but in ways that suggest Whitman’s complexity and ambivalence rather than just his utopian optimism. Florence Freedman speculates that by the time he wrote “The Brazen Android,” O’Connor had so internalized Leaves of Grass that he “echoed two passages without using quotation marks” (123). More to the point of O’Connor’s purpose, Folsom notes that O’Connor puts Whitman’s words into the mouths of both Roger Bacon and Malatesti (referred to by Bacon’s half-wit servant as “the brass man”), suggesting that the author “seems to have separated out the inherent tensions in Whitman’s own voice and assigned the contradictory shades of that voice to Bacon and Malatesti in order to create the mad and good scientists.” “Malatesti,” Folsom explains, “takes all the darker expressions of Whitman, his doubts and awareness of evil, and seeks to give them voice in an android gone demonic.” Folsom adds that in another passage, where Malatesti seems to be denouncing the mask of human hypocrisy, he is also giving voice to Whitman’s view of a United States where its “‘underlying principles’ are not honestly believed in,” enabling O’Connor to express a critique of nineteenth-century America, “which he (and Whitman) both believed was a kind of sham, wearing a mask of democracy that covered what Whitman called a ‘cankered soul.’” While not dividing Whitman’s words between “good” and “evil” characters, Cunningham achieves much the same effect by putting the poet’s words in paratactic situations, where, as Folsom also notes, “they suddenly take on a dark meaning when stripped from their context,” to the effect that “what most readers would assume are benign or inspiring words become uncomfortably destructive or meaningless.” This is one explanation for the criticism of Specimen Days by some reviewers who sensed a disparity between what they saw as Cunningham’s “pessimism” and their monolithic view of Whitman’s “optimism.” Both O’Connor and Cunningham structure their “talking head” characters to suggest a much greater degree of complexity and ambivalence in Whitman’s words.
Other parallels or intersections between the two works of fiction are almost too numerous to mention. The larger action of the plots within both narratives advance or interrogate what are clearly beliefs and concerns for which Whitman is known, but there are also more fractal connections among the stories themselves and the Brass Head metaphor that all invoke. Just as O’Connor represents aspects of Whitman in both Simon de Montfort and Roger Bacon, Cunningham represents aspects of both Whitman and Roger Bacon in Emory Lowell, the scientist in Cunningham’s third section who “invented” the line of “simulos” of which only Simon remains, and who literally made Simon a talking head by giving him a poetry chip that compels him to quote Whitman. The three versions of the boy “Luke” in Specimen Days bear an uncanny physical resemblance to Cuthbert, Bacon’s servant in “The Brazen Android,” all being physically damaged, with unusually large heads and other slight deformities. Cuthbert is a talking head who gives voice to the “Time is, Time was, Time is past” message of the Brass Head in most variants of the Bacon legend, while Lucas in Cunningham’s first section cannot control his “speak[ing] as the book” (4), randomly quoting from Leaves of Grass, as is also the case with Luke in the second section, a child who has grown up in an apartment that seems almost metafictional, given that its floors, walls, and ceiling are covered with Whitman’s pages. While the Luke in Cunningham’s third section, “Like Beauty,” doesn’t quote Whitman (that talking-head task has been assigned to the android Simon), he seems to represent Whitman’s view of religion, and both “The Brazen Android” and “Like Beauty” offer Whitmanesque interrogations of the nature of the soul. Cunningham’s first section, the ghost story “In the Machine,” features a range of machines through which the dead seem to talk, machines cast as jealous lovers who whisper to their operators and strive to consume them. His second narrative offers a chilling depiction of the start of a “Children’s Crusade” in which this youthful army takes the poet’s words so horribly literally that they become willing suicide bombers in the hope of bringing about a Whitman-inspired utopia. Whitman’s voice is in their heads and Leaves of Grass is their savagely interpreted programming.
“Like Beauty,” the third narrative or novella, is set in a post-apocalyptic world apparently brought about in part by the children’s crusade, a world where control seems split between corporate entities and a severe fundamentalist Christian theocracy, with the plight of refugee aliens and sentient androids horribly similar to the historical conditions the abolitionist O’Connor had opposed so passionately in his time. Describing a future where the alien Nadians and the android simulos are defined and exploited by society in ways obviously parallel to similar injustices in American history, Cunningham imagines a world that is always already strangely familiar as it points us back to the historically “real” horrors of the 1860s and forward to the sf “future” of Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958) and the film District 9 (2009). In this post-apocalyptic world, the simulo Simon is literally programmed as a talking head who quotes Whitman, ultimately to good effect, while he and the alien Catareen are surveilled and pursued by flying drones clearly reminiscent of talking-head automata, except that these talking heads speak badly (“Arsh da o prada ho” for “Is there a problem here?” ) and go homicidally out of control, suggesting some of the dangers of the Brass Head as an icon of technology.
“The Brazen Android” tells the story of an ambitious political hoax that is ultimately never perpetrated, while Cunningham’s third novella in Specimen Days opens with the institutionalized hoax of New York turned into the theme-park “Old New York,” where Simon and other simulos act out harmlessly “threatening” fantasies for tourists under the rigidly scripted protocols of scenarios purchased from the corporation Dangerous Encounters. Thus both O’Connor’s and Cunningham’s narratives are intensely self-reflexive, employing the icon and metaphor of the talking head as a source and site of hoaxing while reminding readers of the vagaries involved in having one entity speak or spout the words of another—which, in turn, is a somewhat more oblique reminder that fiction itself is always already a hoax, being a construction of language and in a literal sense a lie. And that progression may be one of the explanations for the tenacity of the talking-head metaphor, as it ultimately “speaks” to the nature of fictionality itself—as does slipstream.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Cunningham develops in Specimen Days one of the more complicated sf metaphors, the idea of the talking head, a machine that can simulate the human and/or a machine that itself comes to life.18 More importantly, Cunningham explores the ambivalent implications of this icon, pursuing it much further and deeper and more self-reflexively than has usually been the case. In a very real sense, Cunningham’s novel is itself a kind of talking head, over and over finding ways to continue Whitman’s passionate offering of himself as the channel through which “many long dumb voices” can speak.
While Cunningham’s scientist Emory Lowell seems to share some embarrassing superficial characteristics that combine Walt Whitman with the warp-drive inventor played by James Cromwell in Star Trek: First Contact (1996), his characterization of the android Simon achieves Dickian complexity as a talking head analyzes its own ontology:
The voice I’m speaking in right now, what you know as my voice, and by extension my, shall we say personality, is programmed. Cadences, vocabulary, modulation, slang, all of it designed by Emory Lowell to make me seem more human. Plus, of course, these involuntary fits of poetry. What’s in my brain is different. I listen to myself speak—I’m listening to myself right now—and it’s strange to me. It doesn’t match what I hear inside my head. The impulses are my own, I make a decision to say this or say that, but the expression is beyond my control. I suspect that if you could somehow see inside my head, if you could see the circuitry going through the motions, you’d recoil. You’d understand that I’m mechanical. And heartless. (266)
This introspection is itself one of the signs that Simon, a piece of technology, is working his way toward a visceral understanding of the vision behind the words from Leaves of Grass that he has been speaking. The progression in the three parts of Specimen Days is clear as this talking head comes to embody the ideals of Whitman more than does his creator, who programmed him to recite the poet’s lines. As Emory Lowell, his Nadian wife and child, and a motley crew of geeks (in the tradition of the “nut jobs” pilgrims have always been) leave the unpromising earth on an ancient rocketship for a distant planet they have (of course) named Paumanok, Simon stays on earth and embarks on a Whitmanesque westward trek.19
Some readers have seen this as a quite ambivalent ending, with one strain of Whitmanesque utopianism pointing ominously toward yet another colonial enterprise in space, while another strain remains confined on a possibly hopelessly polluted and corrupted earth. Cunningham would disagree, pointing out that, like all his books, Specimen Days ends with “life going on,” “with something still ahead,” and with “somebody moving into some uncertain future that may be terrible or may be great or may be some combination of the two” (Weich). My own sense is that this ending offers one final tie to “The Brazen Android.” Ed Folsom reads the muted ending of “The Brazen Android,” where the “great cause” has not been defeated but certainly dealt a setback, as opting for Whitman’s “gradualist solution, that a nudging and time will eventually bring about social improvement instead of O’Connor’s more radical hope that a radical device will effect immediate transformation.” Against such a reading, Specimen Days also seems to me to opt for a more gradualist solution: an android on a horse heading West to whatever may be there, rather than leaving earth in a rocket for a planet that might be the dreamed-of New World but might also be uninhabitable. Simon’s last utterance as a talking head again voices—but with new understanding—Whitman’s words: “The earth, that is sufficient, I do not want the constellations any nearer, I know they are very well where they are, I know they suffice for those who belong to them” (305).
Slipstream and the “Strangely Familiar.” Slipstream literature is a transitional literature, whether moving from one historical narrative paradigm to another, as I’ve suggested is the case with “The Brazen Android,” or moving from one set of narrative protocols when they seem inadequate to the writer’s purpose, as appears to be the case with Cunningham’s Specimen Days. To the extent that slipstream is itself inherently a literature in motion, a literature undergoing change, it is, of course, incorporating sf’s valorization of change into its very form—yet another reason why slipstream literature may seem “strangely familiar” to readers of sf.
Early on in this essay I mentioned that Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary offered a good example of this “strangely familiar” phenomenon I find in so many slipstream works. Fowler could easily have written a first-contact novel obviously grounded in sf topoi, but she chose instead to ground her novel in the history of the American Northwest of the 1870s. While she has long acknowledged that she thinks of Sarah Canary as a kind of first-contact tale, her concern was not with a new take on a classic sf formula but with using some of the assumptions and questions of that formula to help her draw attention to characters in her narrative that mainstream texts almost always relegate to secondary or supporting roles. As I’ve suggested, slipstream does not necessarily arise from the ideational protocols of sf, although it may well invoke sf’s narrative protocols—nor does it necessarily imply a critique of or comment on either kind of protocols. Rather, slipstream arises from conditions and concerns with the referential world that “mainstream” narrative protocols prove inadequate to address. In this sense, slipstream is a literature that, more than leaving readers “feeling very strange,” strikes them—particularly those familiar with sf—as “strangely familiar,” invoking some of the protocols of sf but not necessarily using those protocols in the service of established sf agendas. The example of another celebrated novel somewhat in the mold of Sarah Canary, but that also obliquely reminds us of William Douglas O’Connor’s passionate abolitionist views and of the O’Connor/Whitman connections in Cunningham’s Specimen Days, may underscore this point.
When Octavia Butler wrote Kindred in the late 1970s, her concern was almost certainly not with turning a decade of burgeoning feminist sf in a new direction, nor with pursuing any of the longstanding agendas of the genre. It seems much more likely that her driving concerns had to do with reconsidering and reconstructing the American slave narrative and addressing two of its core limitations. The first limitation was simply the sad fact that history had ended the literal topicality of African-American slavery but had not curtailed the epistemological assumptions and psychological pathologies that had given rise to and supported American slavery. The second limitation was that the enslaved or recently freed authors of slave narratives were also limited to writing in the zeitgeist of their time even in their determination to expose and critique the inhuman protocols and conditions of America’s “peculiar institution.” Dana, Butler’s narrator in Kindred (1976), a young black woman of the 1970s inexplicably transported back in time and into the condition of slavery in 1819 Maryland, directly speaks to this latter problem when she expresses her frustration with everything she could read about slavery in her 1970s life, encountering narratives that rang more true to her 1800s experiences as a slave when reading one of her husband’s Holocaust survivor memoirs (116-17). The closest I can come to finding a textual key to Butler’s greatest concern in writing Kindred is Dana’s shocked and sickened comment to her husband Kevin after witnessing slave children playing a slave sale game: “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” (101). Hers is a realization largely, if not entirely, denied to Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and other writers of American slave narratives for whom the hegemonic acceptance of slavery was a given.
To overcome that historical/epistemological limitation, Butler needed to reappraise the conditions chronicled in slave narratives from a contemporary perspective informed by a modern consciousness. And the only way to accomplish that was with the aid of a literature that did not blink at the idea of time travel or at the idea of differing temporal durations—Dana’s “time” in the past stretching for much longer periods than the “time” she is absent from her life in 1976. In short, Butler needed a couple of sf’s familiar narrative tools or topoi, but she did not want to use those tools to “build” on any of sf’s familiar agendas. Butler needed the idea of time travel and of time relativity but wanted her novel to be the time machine for her protagonist and her readers without having to import any other particular baggage from sf. Finally, the genre provided Butler with a means of shaping her narrative so as to avoid what Walter Mosley has identified as an affective problem of his own slipstream narrative, 47 (2005). As Moseley explains, readers, particularly black readers, run the risk of “heartbreak” when they identify with characters in a historical slave narrative because there is so little chance that a slave protagonist, even one who finds freedom, can ever thrive (Bates).20 Dana returns to the 1970s horribly wounded by the history of slavery, but she returns to a life that is tremendously more promising than any she might have had in 1800s Maryland.
It is not surprising that Butler did not consider Kindred to be sf, explaining that there is “absolutely no science in it” (Beal 14), much less any device that might explain Dana’s time travel—her comment having been made before “slipstream” entered our critical vacabulary. While I agree with Robert Crossley, who states in his fine introduction to the 1988 Beacon Press edition of Kindred that “the exact generic label” we assign the novel may be “the least important thing about it” (xii), to call this a work of slipstream sensibility may help us understand slipstream better, even if it says little of value about Butler’s novel. As Crossley also rightly observes, Kindred may have more in common with Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) than with any work of sf, but the stark realism and matter-of-fact predication of Dana’s time travel is a far cry from the dreamy, surreal experience of Gregor Samsa. The time-travel aspect of Kindred surely feels like sf,and Dana regards its strangeness with the problem-solving approach of an sf protagonist, suggesting that slipstream works appear when the writer hopes to repurpose some established mode or genre of writing but, finding no tool in the mainstream narrative repertoire that fits her need, borrows one from the toolbox long associated with science fiction.
1. In 1964 Justice Potter Stewart famously declined to attempt a definition of pornography in his opinion in Jacobellis v Ohio, declaring instead: “I know it when I see it.” No case questioning whether a work of fiction is or is not “slipstream” has yet made it to the Supreme Court, but Stewart’s indisputable standard for identifying pornography would also seem about as good as we can do in identifying that amorphous and ever-changing form of literature called “slipstream.” Interestingly, while the general tendency in sf criticism has been to expand our understanding of sf beyond genre or publishing category to include epistemology or ideological perspective, the discussion of slipstream so far seems limited to considering it only as a literary type. Sf film criticism has long embraced films such as Twins (1988) or The Truman Show (1998) that are on the margins of the genre, clearly embodying sf ideas and themes, but no concept similar to slipstream has been advanced to categorize those films. Likewise, cultural studies-oriented critics have recognized that non-literary events, such as the 1939 New York World’s Fair, can profitably be analyzed as sf, but I am not aware of any discourse that suggests a comparable non-literary instantiation of slipstream. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel do claim that slipstream “raises fundamental epistemological and ontological questions about reality,” but then limit that claim to literature by adding “that most other kinds of fiction are ill prepared to address” these questions (xi). Accordingly, we are faced with the paradox of an idea that seems to expand the reach of sf as a literary type, while limiting it to literature as its medium and the relatively recent as its period. In suggesting connections between a work of fiction written in 1862 and one published in 2005, I am hoping to suggest that whatever slipstream is, it is not limited to a particular period. The question of whether or not it should be limited to a particular medium would be the subject of another essay.
2. Kelly and Kessel discuss slipstream not as a self-reflexive interrogation of the nature of science fiction but as a much broader intervention in the ongoing exploration of fictionality—of the uses to which literature can be put. They advance three broad propositions for accomplishing slipstream’s literary effect, none of them focused primarily on the genre of sf
1. Slipstream violates tenets of realism.
2. Although slipstream stories pay homage to various popular genres and their conventions, they are not science fiction stories, traditional fantasies, dreams, historical fantasies, or alternate histories.
3. Slipstream is playfully postmodern. The stories often acknowledge their existence as fictions, and play against the genres they evoke. They have a tendency to bend or break narrative rules. (xii-xiii).
Although these propositions are fraught with undefined and problematic terms (“realism,” “genre,” “historical fantasies,” “postmodern,” etc.), I will broadly invoke them in this essay, identifying slipstream works by their boundary-blurring attitude and/or affect rather than by any formal aspects or discursive content.
3. For a useful overview of Bacon’s life and works, see Clegg, who recommends James Blish’s Doctor Mirabilis (1964) as an “excellent attempt to get into the mind of Bacon” (215).
4. For detailed analyses of Blish’s trilogy, see Ketterer (192-215), Shackley, and Stableford (50-58).
5. The Famous Historie contains some seventeen brief stories about Bacon’s prowess, of which “How Fryer Bacon made a Brasen head to speake, by the which hee would have walled England about with Brasse” is the fifth; see Thoms (297-301).
6.Daniel Seltzer’s introduction in his edited edition of Greene’s play offers a good overview of the text’s relation to The Famous Historie and of the ways Greene’s sixteenth-century audiences would have perceived the thirteenth-century Roger Bacon.
7. Wimsatt does not himself claim to be original in detailing Poe’s cribbings, but specifies that his purpose “is to insist, more specifically than seems yet to have been done, that the essay on the automaton ‘has been vastly overrated,’ that it was ‘only partly correct,’ to add that it was based on no original thinking, and hence to suggest that so far as Poe emerges from it as anything at all, it is not as an ‘unerring abstract reasoner,’ but as an artist with a certain method” (139).
8. Wimsatt details the complicated trail that leads from Poe’s footnote to Hutton’s Philosophical and Mathematical Dictionary (146).
9. Jerome Loving published the first biography of O’Connor, Walt Whitman’s Champion, in 1978, and Florence Bernstein Freedman added a second in 1985. Freedman adds some fascinating information about O’Connor’s life, including that he was also an aspiring inventor who tried to interest Edison in one of his ideas (278), but she confuses O’Connor’s account of Bacon in “Brazen Android” with the version found in both The Famous Historie and Greene’s play (123), suggesting a certain lack of interest in the story.
10. I am extremely grateful to Jerome Loving for making available to me the research materials he used in writing Walt Whitman’s Champion: William Douglas O’Connor. The documents and correspondence he generously shared suggest a number of further lines that might be drawn between O’Connor and sf.
11. Ivanhoe, originally published in 1819 (with a US edition in the 1850s), seems an almost certain influence on O’Connor. His characterization of Bungy closely parallels Scott’s characterization of Friar Tuck; an otherwise unmotivated exchange in which Bacon chides Bungy for his anti-semitism resonates with one of Ivanhoe’s main themes; and when Cuthbert fearfully refers to the demon Zernebock, he is citing a creature not referenced in the Bacon legends, but mentioned some six times in Ivanhoe.
12. Simari is almost certainly a play on “O’Connor’s pen name when he published his poetry—Aramis,” the name likely taken from Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel The Three Musketeers (Loving 6).
13. O’Connor’s biographers seem to see its science-fictional aspects as explaining in part the “failure” of “The Brazen Android.” Loving suggests that “the piece fails as art because he tried to combine the elements of science fiction and history” (45). Freedman characterizes “The Brazen Android” as “an early example of science fiction,” as if that says it all (121).
14. O’Connor’s descriptions of the weather in this story are so striking and elaborate that Mark Twain poked fun at them in his novel The American Claimant (1892), where a prefatory note states that “[n]o weather will be found in this book” [n.p.] and refers readers who want descriptions of weather to seven passages in his Appendix “selected from the best authorities,” the first coming from O’Connor’s “The Brazen Android” (see Twain 275).
15. Bleiler details a number of late-nineteenth-century automata stories, many of which shade into robot stories, and a surprising number of which focus on domestic mechanisms. Representative tales include “The Automatic Housemaid” (52), “A Wonderful Clock” (168), “The Automatic Bridget” (244), “An Automatic Enigma” (353), “The Patent Wife” (648), and “Mr. Corndropper’s Hired Man” (700).
16. Reviewers and readers were not sure what to make of Specimen Days, with many reviewers dismissing it as a kind of genre “slumming.” From the mainstream, it apparently looked as if Cunningham had grafted sf concerns onto more “legitimate” formulas, such as the Jamesian ghost story. One of the most insightful reviews came from Tim Pratt, writing in Locus, who offered a much less elitist and more nuanced assessment when he explained: “This is not a rigorously extrapolated (or even remotely plausible) piece of SF, but it doesn’t really try to be—the aliens and space voyages and mutants work well on a metaphorical level, as long as you don’t think too hard about the logistics” (62). Impressed by the cohesion of the book’s three sections, he concluded: “More importantly, and more deeply, there are recurring images, motifs, and themes and it gradually becomes clear that this is a novel about many things: the calamitous changes technology can bring; the necessity of art in a difficult world; the changing nature of New York as an emblematic US city; and many other things besides” (62). The word “slipstream” does not appear in Pratt’s review, but his discussion points directly to ways in which a slipstream work may subsume sf agendas to other concerns. Among the “many other things” Pratt sensed this novel engaging were the pervasive interrogation of the tradition of the talking head, of the phenomenon of one voice speaking through another, with or without the intervention of automata. What both positive and negative reviews of Specimen Days missed was that its most intense engagement with sf was not its foregrounding of obvious sf icons such as the alien, android, and rocket ship, but its thoroughgoing commitment to exploring the inherent and central sf metaphor of the talking head.
17. It would be wrong to claim that Folsom sent a bronze talking head into my bedroom one night to advise me to look into O’Connor’s “The Brazen Android” and to consider what it might have in common with Cunningham’s Specimen Days. Wrong, but not that wrong, since this comunication came in the form of an email on 3 June 2009. This essay is largely the result of Folsom’s great knowledge of the life and works of Walt Whitman and of his generosity, possibly a bit devious, in pointing me again and again to oblique connections between Walt Whitman and science fiction. All quotations of Folsom below are from this email message. The Walt Whitman Archive (<http://www. whitmanarchive.org/>), edited by Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, is the authoritative and comprehensive online source for Whitman-related material.
18. See Dave Weich’s interview with Cunningham, where the author details his reading of and respect for sf, including his fondness for Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, and Dick, with more recent reading including work by Delany, Le Guin, Stephenson, and Gibson.
19. Paumanok, the Native-American name for Long Island, was Whitman’s birthplace; see his poem “Starting from Paumanok” in Leaves of Grass (15-28).
20. I would like to thank Wanda Raiford for alerting me to this interview with Mosley.
Bates, Karen Grigsby. “Walter Mosley: A Slave’s Flight to Freedom in 47.” NPR (8 June 2005). Online. 11 Dec. 2010.
Beal, Frances M. “Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre: Interview with Octavia Butler.” Black Scholar 17 (Mar.-Apr. 1986): 14-18.
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Kelly, James Patrick, and John Kessel, eds. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2006.
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O’Connor, William Douglas. “The Brazen Android.” Three Tales: The Ghost, The Brazen Android, The Carpenter. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1891. 79-210.
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Pratt, Tim. Review of Specimen Days. Locus 55.6 (Dec. 2005): 61-62.
Shackley, Paul. “James Blish’s After Such Knowledge Trilogy: Reactions after Reading David Ketterer.” The New York Review of Science Fiction 21.10 (June 2009): 13-17.
Stableford, Brian M. A Clash of Symbols: The Triumph of James Blish. San Bernardino, CA: Borgo, 1979.
Sterling, Bruce. “Slipstream.” SF Eye 5 (July 1989). Online. 13 Nov. 2010.
Thoms, William J., ed. Early English Prose Romances. London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d.
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