Science Fiction Studies

#69 = Volume 23, Part 2 = July 1996


David Ketterer

The Machine in the Garden -- Take Two

Sharona Ben-Tov. The Artificial Paradise: Science Fiction and American Reality. Studies in Literature and Science Series. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995. 202 pp. $29.95.

Leo Marx makes no mention of sf in his compelling 1964 study The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. His particular concern is the intrusion into the natural world of such technological marvels as the locomotive and the steamship in such classic nineteenth-century texts as Walden and Huckleberry Finn. The impact of the juxtaposition that Marx describes does, of course, provide an explanation for the fact that sf has become both a predominantly American genre and mode of experiencing the world. And Sharona Ben-Tov's book (derived, the 1994 MLA International Bibliography informs me, from her 1991 Stanford University dissertation "Science Fiction and the Earthly Paradise: American Construction of Nature") provides a real service in positioning American sf within Marx's matrix. Thus placed, the bulk of American sf, Ben-Tov asserts, is "a mass dream" "about nature and the control of nature" (2) by "science and technology" (6) whereby "the realism of Star Wars becomes the realizability of SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative]" (3).

Like Marx, Ben-Tov is a mythographer. Consequently, in her lengthiest endnote she takes Darko Suvin to task for his "blindness to science fiction's mythic structure" specifying "science fiction's powerful version of the myth of well as its connection to the pastoral via the myth of the Earthly Paradise" (185 nl5 to the Introduction). Ben-Tov's reference to the pastoral here is potentially confusing and not just because Suvin does, in fact, stress the links between the genre of pastoral and sf. To the extent that The Artificial Paradise revises The Machine in the Garden, Ben-Tov's allusion to pastoral invites comparison with the "pastoral ideal" of Marx's subtitle. Marx's pastoral ideal is a "middle landscape" that seeks to reconcile (as surely does some sf, American and otherwise) technology with raw nature. For the most part, Ben-Tov sees only oppositions. What might appear to be reconciliatory gestures are actually illusions. The pastoral ideal should be totally aligned with technology; it is one version of the "artificial paradise" of Ben-Tov's title, sf's attempt to recover an enchanted nature, the Earthly Paradise, by simulating it.

Ben-Tov writes the kind of engaged criticism that depends upon the layering of binaries, and it is by relating the binaries of gender theory to the nature/ technology dualism that she deconstructs as literally synthetic transcendent mystifications--rabbits out of magical hats--any suggestions that that dualism has been surmounted. In less sophisticated hands (I am tempted to say the hands of a less agile conjurer) this can tend towards painting-by-numbers criticism, but Ben-Tov plays the game with finesse and humor. Dipping into what she calls "our dualism box" (162), the binaries she works with align themselves as follows:

                 The Enchanted Garden     The Paradise Machine

                 Nature                              Technology

         Female                              Male

           Object                              Subject

         Body                                Mind

              Emotion                          Reason

                 Time/Life/Death                Transcendence/Eternity

She sums up the left-hand terms as being mythically concerned with "generative nature" and those on the right with alchemy and "inventing life" (131).

This kind of criticism can lead to very different interpretations depending (1) on how one gauges the slippages between these aligned binaries, and (2) the matter of hierarchical ordering, i.e., which binary sets, are assumed to be the governing ones. I, for example, would privilege the last binary above-- Time/Life/Death and Transcendence/Eternity--as being particularly relevant to the analysis of sf largely because sf is essentially a romance genre mixing reality and fantasy. The substantial slippage between the last binary above and the first one-- The Enchanted Garden and The Paradise Machine-- is obscured by those that intervene and especially by the elided dichotomy between The Enchanted Garden and fallen Nature. In fact a reversal has taken place; Transcendence/Eternity should be aligned with The Enchanted Garden and Time/Life/Death with The Paradise Machine. If one believes that Ben-Tov has privileged the wrong binary, one might conclude that her entire thesis is based upon a false assumption, and/or that the sleight-of-hand she attributes to the dream of American sf is, to a greater or lesser extent, her own.

To judge from the abstract in the 1992 Dissertation Abstracts International (52[91]: 3276A), the first four chapters of The Artificial Paradise approximate the four chapters that constitute the entirety of Ben-Tov's dissertation. Chapter 1, "Man-made wonder," traces the development of the Earthly Paradise myth in relation to our changing conceptions of nature. The Scientific Revolution replaced the romance notion of a divine, or semi-divine, Mother Nature (a numinous nature that provided our basis for transcendent experience) with the mechanistic idea of a purely material nature subject to human control, an idea reflected in the technological utopia (initiated by Francis Bacon's New Atlantis in 1627 and distinguished, like other utopias, from sf as game-like and apart from history) and in sf. The man-made technological utopia "appropriated the abundance and social harmony of the garden and replaced Mother Nature as their source" (20). Sf, which "inherits the structure and [rational] ideology of utopia" goes one stage further: it attempts "to appropriate the Earthly Paradise's magic, the numinous quality of feminine nature. To re-enchant the heterocosm [the alternative man-made world] without the enchantress. To manufacture wonder" (23). The mechanized world of Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano is shown to be such an attempt. If, and only if, a numinous nature provides our only basis for numinous experience, then sf, supposedly structurally committed to banishing a numinous feminine nature, "denies the possibility of otherness" (36; Ben-Tov's emphasis). Consequently, the only thing that can inspire wonder in sf, a generic requirement, "is the appropriated magic of the Earthly Paradise" (37).

The argumentation here is patently circular. To equate the numinous with what seems to be essentially the natural picturesque is to ignore the much more important source of numinous wonder in sf: the sublime. Although the sublime has been the subject of much deconstructive and materialist theorizing, the case can certainly be made that the experience remains recognizable and that many of its categories --particularly impressive forms of non-picturesque nature, the cosmological, and the technological-- account quite satisfactorily for sf's sense of wonder. One should allow also for the survival of a religious or spiritual sensibility--and some sf--that attests to an experience of the numinous that, by definition, has nothing to do with nature. Ben-Tov's argument, then, like so much stimulating theory and criticism, is not so much wrong as dramatically overstated.

Granted Ben-Tov's initial much too narrow assumption, the philosophical (and later psychological) ramifications of her argument make reasonable sense. Because, by and large, sf holds to the subject/object split at the heart of Descartes' philosophy, "One of the most frightening moments in any science fiction tale is when the boundary of the Cartesian subject becomes blurred when the human I and the inhuman It begin to merge" (40). Such anxieties are located in Asimov's "Misbegotten Missionary," in the movies Alien and Aliens, and in George R.R. Martin's "Sandkings." All these works display the ambivalence that, it is claimed, is structurally fundamental to sf: "Although Earthly Paradise nature is alienated and monstrous, it still exerts numinous authority, in contrast to humanity's merely technical transcendence" (46). It is argued that even a writer like Ursula K. Le Guin, concerned with expressing a sense of empathy with the Other in a story like "Vaster than Empires and More Slow," succumbs to the same ambivalence.

Chapter 2, "Wonder: Made in USA," explains that the Americanness of the sf genre is attributable to the fact that "America was supposed to be the Earthly Paradise" (53). American heterocosms, like Disneyland and shopping malls, are products of "the American paradise machine" (55) the belief that fallen nature merely requires a technological fix to be redeemed. The contest between this technological utopianism and the Earthly Paradise, which is expressed in sf generally, is analyzed in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. It is in relation to Slaughterhouse-Five that Ben-Tov first elaborates on the psychological dimension of her theory of sf, the differentiation syndrome described by Jessica Benjamin: "the son remains incompletely differentiated from the mother [and Mother Nature], relying on her as a projection of himself while repudiating and objectifying her" (67). Hence the ambivalent relationship between Vonnegut's protagonist, Billy Pilgrim (his American Adam) and maternal nature. (The fan in Robert Silverberg's "Hall of Fame" has a similar problem.)

In the case of A Connecticut Yankee, because Hank Morgan's technology is finally defeated by the witch-like (therefore feminine) Merlin's magic, synecdochic of nature's magic, that novel cannot finally be classified as sf: "the laws of the science fiction heterocosm preclude unrationalized phenomena" (80). Once more the problem is overstatement. While some sf (the only true sf Ben-Tov would be forced to respond) does preclude unrationalized phenomena, a good deal of it does encompass metaphysical matters which, by definition, are beyond rational analysis. Here as elsewhere, little or no time is spent engaging with what might be construed as counter-evidence. There is, for example, no mention of, let alone attention to, Clifford Simak, the most obvious representative of a pastoral American sf which apparently envisages a harmonious relationship between nature (whether in not invested with wonder) and technology (whether or not appropriating that wonder). And what, one might wonder, about the numinous influence of American transcendentalism and the Oversoul (rather than, or in addition to, the Earthly Paradise myth) on American sf?

Chapter 3, "Myths of the Final Frontier," discusses the category of sf that deals with the exploration of the final American frontier "space fiction." This chapter, the strongest in the book, is of particular interest because of its account of the relevance of myths of alchemy to sf in addition to the Earthly Paradise myth. In the context of its "quest for personal immortality, or exemption from natural time," alchemy "furnishes science fiction with two myths of maternal nature, the Rock and the Abyss." By transmuting the base metals derived from stone, the maternal Rock, into gold, "the alchemist is helping nature reach the final and perfect form to which she ultimately aspires" (93). As the most perfect metal, gold is figurative of a perfected nature which transcends time. But first the alchemist "must undergo the ritual dismemberment of his body, returning symbolically to the state of primordial matter in the maternal Abyss, or cosmic womb, out of which all material forms emerge" (94). The equivalent of the maternal Abyss in sf is uncharted space or hyperspace. Stories about the technological creation of life and the technological avoidance of death share the same alchemical goal the transcendence of natural process. The way in which alchemy has imprinted itself on sf is, of course, most apparent in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Although Victor Frankenstein supposedly abandons his early alchemical studies in favor of modern science, his ambitions, and the metaphoric import of his procedures, remain alchemical.

But Ben-Tov's primary examples are two works about desert planets: C.J. Cherryh's The Faded Sun trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune. Both are provocatively analyzed at length. The Faded Sun comes to focus on a science that, like alchemy, seeks "control over time and over the generative process" (101), on "an ideal human nature that can be forged" (111), and on making "the space program seem like an alternative to the Garden" (112). Dune is categorized as a retelling of an ancient religious myth: "the battle of the transcendent sky-god against the witches of nature." It is an "example of the worship of transcendence, in the guise of secular entertainment" (113). Indeed, I would argue that it is the displacement of religious concerns in sf generally, at least as much as a pathological technology, which negates nature. I would relate the transcendental aspirations of sf to what might be understood as the encoding of the author's death in a work of sf, given that the future, the routine temporal domain of the genre, is also the inevitable locale of the author's death. But Ben-Tov is not interested in alternative explanations. Dune's "sandworms are avatars of the maternal rock and produce its elixir of immortality" (117). The witches of Dune, the Bene Gesserit, are "alienated nature figures" (114) who are eventually superseded much as maternal nature is replaced by "a masculine mode of reproduction" (115) which is actually the power to destroy life: "War creates a god-king whose transcendental power, manifested as destruction, rivals nature's awesome power of creation" (120). Paul Atreides, the protagonist of Dune, is an American superhero, a frontiersman, a Captain Ahab who rapes the maternal Abyss of nature "in order to become a god" (126). This "golden genesis" is what the dazzling sands of Dune ultimately signify: "Deathless truth. Stability. Immortality" (128).

One might suppose that the alienated nature of traditional sf would not be found in feminist sf. But it is argued in Chapter 4, "Cyborgs and Daughters: Feminist Myth in the Man-made World," that "as long as science fiction's cardinal rule, Leave Nothing Unrationalized, is observed" (137), alienated nature is a constant. Joanna Russ is cited as the only author who breaks this rule. And, as one might expect, the currently fashionable theoretical cyborg utopia--a form of technological transcendence--espoused by Donna J. Haraway in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1986) derives from a strict adherence to the rule. Ben-Tov's attack here is necessary and overdue. Just how liberating is it for women (or men) to aspire to be cyborgs? Haraway fails to appreciate that there are significant areas of life which cannot be technicized: "You cannot have a technological heterocosm without solid barriers between the manmade world and nature, masculine and feminine, mind and body, subject and object, and the rest of the familiar lineup" (144).

Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen is analyzed in terms of the psychology of differentiation as it relates to the mother-daughter relationship. "Feminist science fiction portrays versions of women and of alienated nature that derive from women's ambivalent differentiation" (154). The Snow Queen is representative; the protagonist Moon owes her rise to power to a computer, the sybil machine, not to her biological mother. Likewise, "the images of technology" in Vonda N. McIntyre's Superluminal "maintain a classic dualistic division between the technological subject and animate, feminine nature, the nature of the origin myth" (160). But Russ's The Female Man points to an " embodied female imagination" (166), "a new philosophy" which might "free women from the false role of the Other, nature, the non-human" (165). New technologies based on old philosophies will not work.

According to the DAI abstract, Ben-Tov's dissertation ends at this point. But what about cyberpunk? And how exactly are American sf writers to get out of the nature/technology binary? Whoever asked these questions--perhaps Ben-Tov herself--the result is a final chapter entitled "Paradises Lost and Regained" and "Cyberpunk: An Afterword about an Afterlife." Since cyberpunk turns out not to be the solution, and these two sections thus reverse the logical order, I shall briefly describe the afterword on cyberpunk first. Cyberpunk is about transcendence; cyberspace is an Edenic technological afterlife opposed to the fallen "meat" life. Like space travel, cyberspace (and the romantically heightened desk-job world it disguises) promises immortality and masculine self-reproduction. William Gibson's Neuromancer is the inevitable representative text: "As in Dune, the climax of the novel is a showdown between nature's witches and technology's transcendent god. At generative power" (180). This power is the province of an alienated nature embodied in protagonist Case's horrific memory of a wasps' nest (a figure for the matriarchal Tessier-Ashpool clan) and in the Word, "the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market" (quoted 180; Ben-Tov's emphasis). The demystification of cyberpunk here is as pithily effective as Ben-Tov's earlier demolition job on the cyborg ideal.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the trite synthesis outlined in the brief Chapter 5 (much the same length as the afterword) represents a dramatic fall from the previous level of argument. The essential problem is restated as follows: "As long as we can only realize our selfhood in opposition to the nonhuman Other, whom we have to transcend and dominate, we will be tyrannized by our own fears of Otherness" (172). It is proposed that James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis (the Earth is a live harmonious system) and an empathic quantum mechanics offer hope. Has Mother Nature returned as Gaia and are we now, as ever, "living in the enchanted garden" (168)? The quasi-mystical ideas of quantum mechanics raise "doubts about the subject-object dualism" and about "the idea that matter is passive, inanimate stuff" (169).

But is the numinous wonder/enchantment associated with the Gaia hypothesis really the same as that associated with quantum mechanics? I would suggest that quantum mechanics exercises a sublime enchantment which is of a different order from the human-oriented enchantment of the picturesque garden. That is to say--to repeat my essential criticism of what is nevertheless an important, insightful, engagingly written, and provocative study--I believe that Ben-Tov is seriously mistaken in her key assumption that all of (or even most of) the wonder that American sf attempts to inspire is appropriated from the myth of a lost Earthly Paradise and linked to the socially and humanly desirable. Via the fairytale term "enchantment," Ben-Tov misunderstands the numinous as invariably tokenistic of benevolence and the improvement of life on Earth. Indeed her assumption that a numinous science and technology (the utopia of cyberspace excepted?) is the answer to what ails us is surely deconstructible as yet one more expression of a nostalgic longing for transcendence; rather more mundane historical grounds must be found for critiquing and reforming the present system.

We do indeed live in an imperfect world and some of the minor imperfections of The Artificial Paradise should also be noted. Chapter 1 endnotes 28 and 29 (187) are presumably to David Noble's America by Design and not, as the "Ibid"s would have it, to Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man. The running head here--"Notes to Pages 30-47" (187)-- is off; the notes 27 to 47 which figure on page 187 apply to page 25 through to the top half of page 37. Presumably at least some of the other running heads to the "Notes" are also off. There are problems with Chapter 1 notes 42 and 44 (187), Chapter 3 note 27 (191), and Chapter 4 notes 18 (193) and 28 (194). The "(emphasis added)" (123), following a quote from Susan Griffin, has not in fact been added. Sharona Ben-Tov clearly did not receive from The University of Michigan Press the kind of editorial attention that her book required and deserved.

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