Author Archives: Marjorie Pak PhD

Frankenstein (chapters 10-16)

by Mary Shelley

Frankenstein is often called the first sci-fi novel. For this class we don’t read the most sci-fi-heavy parts of the book: we skip over Victor’s education in scientific theories, his construction and animation of the creature, his warnings about the dangers of too much knowledge.

What we read instead is the innermost ‘core’ narrative of this famously layered novel: the chapters where the creature tells his own story to Victor. It’s a remarkably eloquent, absorbing, relatable monologue. Whatever your response—whether you pity the creature or abhor him, whether you think his resentment is justified or overly self-dramatizing, whether his struggles seem noble or cringe—you respond to him as you would to a human. You judge him by human standards; you don’t experience him as an inscrutable other, like the alien in ‘Mazes’ or the heptapods in ‘Story of Your Life.’

This has everything to do with language, of course. Chapters 10-16 of Frankenstein are all about language and how language makes us human. And like knowledge itself, language in Frankenstein is shown as an ambivalent force: it brings satisfaction to the creature but also dissatisfaction; it makes him acutely aware of his loneliness but then fails (spectacularly) to bring him into fellowship with others.

I’ll touch on a few points here. Please add your own thoughts. Also feel free to read my post from last fall, when I read the entire novel with a smaller group of students.

1. The creature is recognizably human even before he has language.

In Chapter 11 the creature tells Victor about his first moments of awareness: what it was like the first time he opened his eyes, walked, felt cold and heat and hunger and thirst. This kind of account could never exist in the real world: thanks to childhood amnesia, none of us can remember our first moments, or much of anything from our infant and toddler years. Presumably what makes this creature different is that he’s ‘born’ with an adult brain.

There’s an important question to ask about the reliability of this creature’s account. The creature’s thoughts at this early stage weren’t linguistic, but he’s now using language to describe them. How successful can language ever be at describing non-linguistic thoughts? How extensively does the act of communication reshape, filter and contaminate memories themselves? We’ll come back to this theme again in Chiang’s ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ and Borges’ ‘Funes the Memorious.’

From almost the very beginning, the creature’s behavior is unmistakably human. He approaches fire, for example, not as something to be feared but as the object of a scientific experiment: he examined, sat still watching, reflected, discovered the cause, contrived. This is how humans behave with fire, not other animals. And it’s kind of adorable, the way the creature puzzles out the fire: he seems so curious, so endearing, like a human child. It’s jarring to remember that the book is subtitled A Modern Prometheus – oh yeah, discovering fire is maybe not so great! This vignette is meant to remind us about the ambivalence of human curiosity: it may be cute, but it’s also our ruin.

2. How the creature acquires language (and literacy!)

After the creature moves into the hovel adjoining the DeLacey’s cottage (chapter 12), it takes some time for him to figure out language. He watches the family closely and seems to know instinctively how to read their facial expressions as sad, despondent, cheerful, pensive. But he doesn’t know what their vocalizations are for. Then he has a breakthrough:

I found that these people possessed a method of communicating their experiences and feelings to one another by articulate sounds. I perceived that the words they spoke sometimes produced pleasure or pain, smiles or sadness, in the minds and countenances of the hearers. This was indeed a godlike science, and I ardently desired to become acquainted with it.

This is another depiction of the magical power of language that we’ve been talking about all semester. Frankenstein’s creature puts a slightly different spin on it though: he’s interested in the power of language not to make other people do things, but to make other people feel things.

What’s the importance of calling language a godlike science? Calling it a science suggests that language is a puzzle to be systematically figured out and ‘unraveled’, through ‘clues’ and ‘great application’–like how he learned to control the fire. Calling language godlike means it’s extremely powerful, potentially dangerous, and not to be shared with other animals; i.e. it’s not quite natural.

The predominant view in modern linguistics is that language is a natural outgrowth of a human mind, not requiring any special intelligence or conscious training. On day 1 of intro linguistics we tell our students that any baby, assuming they’re living among humans engaged in ordinary social interactions, will automatically and naturally acquire the grammar and lexicon of the ambient language.

Frankenstein’s creature, of course, doesn’t get the experience of a typical human baby; he’s deprived of social interaction. He doesn’t make any real progress with the godlike science until Safie arrives in chapter 13; then he learns by eavesdropping on her language instruction by Felix. A baby wouldn’t have been able to learn French by watching an adult Turkish speaker’s L2 French lessons, but this creature (with his adult brain) is. And he immediately starts working on something else that babies don’t do: he learns ‘the science of letters’ and starts reading.

3. Effects of reading

As hyper-literate members of a 21st-century university, we may find it hard to believe that reading and writing are not ‘natural’ human activities. But writing is a technological invention, by no means universal to the species: only 60% of the languages that exist today even have a writing system, and many of those systems aren’t used in daily life. While language appears to be a spontaneous, organic, natural outgrowth of the human mind, writing must be consciously and laboriously invented, disseminated, taught and learned; it’s artificial.

In Frankenstein, both literacy and language itself are made strange, through the experience of the creature. The effect is to make us think about language itself as artificial, of humanity itself as unnatural.

The creature’s exposure to certain texts–first Volney’s Ruins of Empires (read aloud by Felix, chapter 13), then Plutarch’s Lives, Goethe’s Werther, and (most importantly) Milton’s Paradise Lost (chapter 15)–trigger a series of self-reflections that destroy the creature’s emotional equilibrium. His learning makes him ‘turn towards [him]self’:

[W]hat was I?…When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster, a blot upon the earth…? …Sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst and heat!

The emotions this creature feels are all unmistakably human. When he commits murder, we recognize the bitter envy and vengeful rage that Rye felt in ‘Speech Sounds,’ rather than whatever unfathomable urge drives the monsters in ‘The Easthound.’ Frankenstein’s creature doesn’t control his emotions the way an adult should, but that’s not surprising given that he doesn’t have an adult’s experience. He doesn’t have a parent, mentor or tutor, so he’s disproportionately influenced by Goethe’s Werther and Milton’s Satan.

I put a handout together for students who haven’t read Paradise Lost. It’s really striking to see how closely the creature models his own narrative after Milton’s.

4. The creature’s language as artistic performance

Over the entire novel, Frankenstein’s creature only engages in a handful of conversations. His first one is with old Mr. DeLacey at the end of chapter 15. It fails to produce the desired outcome–famously and disastrously–but it’s still a remarkable linguistic feat.

The creature passes as a native speaker of French. He has gained complete control over not only lexicon and syntax but also rules of discourse. He exhibits great dexterity in evading direct answers without technically lying–for example, DeLacey asks, ‘Where do these friends reside?’, not realizing that ‘these friends’ are himself and his own family, and the creature responds ‘Near this spot.’ (ha!)

And the creature does actually does manage to gain DeLacey’s trust. ‘[T]here is something in your words which persuades me that you are sincere,’ says DeLacey; ‘it will afford me true pleasure to be in any way serviceable to a human creature.’ (He called him a human creature!)

The creature’s encounter with Victor is only the third conversation of his life, and it’s another virtuoso performance. When Victor suddenly comes face-to-face with his creature in chapter 10, what’s remarkable—and comical—is that it’s Victor who comes across as an inarticulate monster. He’s reduced to sputtering epithets: ‘Vile insect!’ ‘Abhorred monster!’ ‘Wretched devil!’ and erupts in physical violence: ‘My rage was without bounds; I sprang on him, impelled by all the feelings which can arm one being against the other.’

The creature, who is much larger and stronger than Victor, is the one who uses his words instead of his fists. This reminds us of ‘Speech Sounds,’ of course: the positive, pro-social power of language to prevent violence. And it’s interesting to examine the various rhetorical strategies the creature uses to calm Victor down. First he shifts to thee/thou/thy pronouns, perhaps as a supplicatory device: ‘I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me.’ But this language seems to enrage Victor further, so the creature shifts back to you.

Then the creature starts appealing to fairness: ‘Am I not alone, miserably alone?…Shall I not then hate them who abor me?’ He cites the law: ‘The guilty are allowed, by human laws, bloody as they are, to speak in their own defence before they are condemned.’ Finally he appeal’s to Victor’s human curiosity and human frailty: ‘Hear my tale, it is long and strange, and the temperature of this place is not fitting to your fine sensations; come to the hut…’

By the end of the chapter Victor is calm. He follows the creature to the hut, listens to his long tale, and ultimately agrees to make him a companion.

I’ve described the creature’s conversations as if they were artistic performances. The creature himself talks about language this way: he says he wants to ‘acquire the art of language’ (chapter 12) so that he can ‘discover [people’s] motives and feelings… win their favour, and afterwards their love.’

Once again, we’re confronted with the ambivalence of language. Is it good magic or bad magic? Art(ifice) or natural? Does the creature’s language restore Victor to nonviolence and rationality, or does it seduce him (like Eve) into doing what he knows is wrong?

Final thoughts on why I love Frankenstein. This semester I’m sitting in on my colleague Jim Morey’s class Middle English Language & Literature. On the first day of class we read a lovely anonymous 13th-century lyric called ‘Foweles in the frith‘:

Foweles in þe frith,
þe fisses in þe flod,
And I mon waxe wod.
sulch sorw I walke with
for beste of bon and blod.

‘Birds in the wood / the fishes in the river / and I am going mad. / Such sorrow I walk with / for best~beast of bone and blood.’

The poet is lamenting the fact that other animals have their homes; they belong on this planet; but we humans are aliens. We’re out of place. We’re beasts of flesh and blood, but we’re also the best of flesh and blood–set apart from all others, not quite at home in nature.

Here’s Victor at the beginning of chapter 10, traveling the treacherous and desolate path up Montanvert on the back of a mule:

Alas! Why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute… If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows, and a chance word or scene that that word may convey to us.

Victor too is lamenting our difference from other animals. And he specifically implicates language: it’s our sensitivity to the ‘chance word’ that makes us humans vulnerable and unfree, rather than powerful and free.

Frankenstein shows us the ambivalence of language that’s at the core of the ambivalence of being human.

Speech Sounds

By Octavia Butler

‘Speech Sounds’ is all about language. It’s a wonderful story for this class because it allows us to peel back layer after layer of the extremely complex question: What is language? It frames this question by asking, What is lost when language is lost?

The story is narrated in the third person from the perspective of Rye, a former writer and history professor. It’s set in Los Angeles, but the institutions that once made L.A. a city have fallen apart. Humanity has been ravaged by an illness of unknown origin that is ‘stroke-swift in the way it cut people down and stroke-like in some of its effects… Language was always lost or severely impaired… Often there was also paralysis, intellectual impairment, death.’ (p. 8, emphasis added)

Rye has been largely spared by the illness but has lost pretty much everything else—her family, her work, all sense of connection and hope. The entire story takes place within a couple of hours, which (of course) turn out to be critical for her.

‘Speech Sounds’ makes us grapple with how much our sense of what makes us human is tied up with language, and how much ‘dehumanization’ is (and is not) entailed when we lose it. There’s a lot to discuss in this story, and I try to let students talk about what they want, but I make sure we at least touch on three linguistically relevant layers of analysis.

Layer 1. Right from the outset, Butler does something noteworthy: she distinguishes language from speech, just as Saussure distinguished langue from parole. The illness in ‘Speech Sounds’ attacks the brain, not the vocal tract; it’s a kind of aphasia.

Butler adds various details to make this clear:

  • Left-handed people ‘tend to be less impaired’ (p. 5), suggesting that the illness targets the left hemisphere (where language is lateralized for almost all right-handed people but far fewer left-handed people).
  • Sometimes the illness affects reading and writing (alexia) rather than spoken language; this is what happened to Rye. Others have the opposite syndrome, like the ex-cop Obsidian.
  • It’s abundantly clear that people can still vocalize: they’re described throughout the story as whimpering, screaming, squawking, hooting, roaring, grunting, shouting, and sometimes uttering repetitive CV syllables like ‘da, da, da.’ (Note that these are the sounds of chimpanzees and babies, not adult humans. Rye is questioning—or just flatly denying—the humanity of the people around her.)

So, what people have lost is not the motor function of the larynx, but the ‘higher-level’ ability to understand and produce language.

At the same time, though, Butler shows us that people have retained some ‘higher-level’ language-like abilities:

  • They point, nod, and shake their heads ‘no.’
  • The bus driver has ‘pasted old magazine pictures of items he would accept as fare’ on the sides of the bus. (p. 6)
  • People wear or carry ‘name symbols’ (p. 9), objects that stand for what their former name meant, and seem to have developed a ritual for exchanging these symbols in order to introduce themselves.
  • People use manual gestures that are more stylized and arbitrary than pantomime: e.g. one man points at Rye, then at Obsidian, then holds up two fingers, and this sequence is immediately understood to mean ‘Those two people are a team.’ (p. 7)
  • Obsidian retains the use of some non-iconic, conventionalized gestures, e.g. drawing a cross to mean ‘dead’ and using rock-the-baby gestures to mean ‘child.’
  • Obsidian still wears his LAPD uniform and badge! (Paraphrasing one student: wtf?)

All these communicative acts are voluntary, symbolic, and culturally learned (as opposed to more species-uniform communicative acts like frowning and sighing, or less symbolic gestures like pantomime). I would argue that the acts bulleted above are either language proper or language-like, and as such they’re very human.

Layer 2. In imagining this language-targeting neurological illness, Butler taps right into a core question in linguistic theory: Among all of our other cognitive abilities, how specialized is our linguistic knowledge? Sometimes this question is framed around whether language is ‘domain-general’ or ‘domain-specific.’ ‘Speech Sounds’ frames it by asking: What does it mean to distinguish linguistic impairment from intellectual impairment?

For example: The story starts with a skirmish on a bus, which quickly escalates to a brawl. Obsidian arrives on the scene and uses tear gas to clear everyone out of the bus. The bus driver is furious with Obsidian, rather than grateful:

‘[The bus route was] his livelihood… If his bus did not run, he did not eat. On the other hand, if the inside of his bus was torn apart by senseless fighting, he would not eat very well either. He was apparently unable to perceive this. All he could see was that it would be some time before he could use his bus again.’ (p. 6, emphasis added)

It’s unclear in the story if the bus driver’s limited reasoning is due to his linguistic impairment or to more general cognitive impairment. And it’s also unclear in real life, as our Linguistics senior seminar students learn when we read De Waal, Pinker and Tomasello. It’s very hard to tell if our human ability to think through hypotheticals and their consequences depends on language or just coexists with language.

Another example: We humans also like to believe that we’re better able than other species to suppress our emotional (‘animal’) impulses. But the people in ‘Speech Sounds’ are angry, hostile, prone to physical violence. Is this because they’ve lost the ability to ‘use their words’ instead of their fists? Or has the illness damaged the emotional-regulation part of the brain as well as the linguistic part(s) of the brain? Similar questions arise in the study of real-world Broca’s aphasia patients, who often show distress about their condition: are they reacting the way they would have previously reacted to a loss of this magnitude, or are they reacting more strongly because the brain lesion has also affected their emotional regulation?

Layer 3 is where we get into the really tough questions, similar to those raised by ‘The Easthound’ and ‘Story of Your Life’: How do we respond when we lose everything that’s most important to us, and what do our responses tell us about our humanity? What’s the connection between our proclivity for meaningful language and our search for a meaningful life?

Here are some of the questions we talked about on Friday, as well as one or two that I thought of afterwards:

  • How much does our identity depend on (i) language and (ii) being able to interact regularly with others?
  • How is Rye’s isolation in ‘Speech Sounds’ different from Serenity’s isolation in ‘Solitude’?
  • Why does Obsidian keep wearing his cop uniform? Do you find this character pathetic, ridiculous, heroic, quixotic/Quixote-like? (Note: This story was published in 1983, eight years before Rodney King’s brutal beating by four LAPD officers was caught on film and nine years before a jury failed to find any of those four cops guilty. Butler may not have written this character in quite the same way now as she did then.)
  • Rye’s physical appearance is never described; Obsidian is described only as having black hair and a black beard. Either character could be any race. Do you think this is a deliberate omission, given that Butler usually explicitly identifies each character’s race in her stories? What might such an omission mean in ‘Speech Sounds’?
  • Rye is at first going to leave three corpses unburied on the street, but then she decides to take two of them home and bury them. How does this reversal fit with her other emotional reversals at the end of the story? In what ways is burying the dead a language-like activity?

A final note: ‘Speech Sounds’ is the first story I read with students when I piloted my sci-fi course in summer 2020. It was tough to read then, and it’s tough to read now.

Butler rewards us, though, with her characteristically stoical, unflinching narration. Sometimes the most reassuring thing you can do when things are really awful is to just tell it like it is—honestly, without sentimentality or brutality—and Butler does this with astonishing, bracing clarity. I wish I knew how to be this kind of honest.

Story of Your Life

By Ted Chiang

I’ve taught ‘Story of Your Life’ in many different ways over the years, depending on the focus of the course and the interests of the students. I wrote down a bunch of thoughts here, so it’s a long post. Our discussion on 2/9/2024 focused mostly on #2, #3 and #5.

I’m not going to try to avoid spoilers here, so proceed at your own risk!

#1. Formal linguistics. This is by far the most linguistic-y story we’ve read. The narrator-protagonist Louise Banks is a linguist, an academic with a field-research background. Aliens have arrived on Earth and she’s been hired to learn their language and figure out what they want.

Chiang sprinkles linguistics jargon unapologetically throughout the narration: we hear about phonemes and graphemes, spectrograms and vocal tracts, logograms, ideograms, case markers, center-embedding. I’ve spent an hour or two with Languages of the World students trying to reconstruct a Heptapod-B-like language based on the descriptions on pp. 105-114. It’s a lot of fun, and I hope students eventually see that while Heptapod B is formally very different from English, every one of its features has a close analogue in some human language. What makes this language different is not its formal structure but its social function, which does not become clear until late in the story (see #3).

#2. The structure of the novella is remarkable, and I make sure to spend at least a few minutes talking about it. It’s broken down into about 45 segments, ranging in length from a few lines to a few pages, and alternating between two narratives:

1. past-tense narrative about Louise’s research on the aliens (heptapods)
2. future-tense narrative about the life of Louise’s child, who is addressed and referred to as you (we never learn her name)

Narrative 1 progresses chronologically and gives a complete account of Louise’s research: It begins with her being hired onto the team, describes how the work proceeds, and ends with the aliens’ departure.

Narrative 2 is neither chronological nor complete. We read first about the child’s death (99), then about the child as a teen (102, 107), then about the child as a 6-year-old (111), then about her college graduation (114), and so on. Many of these segments begin with I remember followed by a future-tense complement: ‘I remember a conversation we’ll have when you’re in your junior year of high school’ (107), ‘I remember when we’ll be driving to the mall’ (114), ‘I remember when you’ll be a month old’ (136).

The first and last paragraphs of the story narrate the same moment: just before the child’s conception, when the father asks, ‘Do you want to make a baby?’ (91, 145) These ‘bookend’ paragraphs are narrated in the present tense, and can thus (as MJ pointed out in class) be understood to be describing the moment of the narration.

Here’s a plot diagram/reverse outline I made for the story, inspired by one of my students last semester (thanks, Nico). So cool!

#3. Social function of language; speech acts. As Louise gains proficiency in the Heptapods’ language, she comes to understand a profound difference between their cognition and ours. Human cognition is sequential and causal, so we experience events chronologically and believe that each event directly influences the next. Heptapods instead experience ‘all events at once,’ with a ‘purpose underlying them all’ (134, 140). A heptapod already knows everything it will ever experience. Its life, Chiang suggests, can be explained teleologically, like Fermat’s account of a ray of light: the endpoint of the life is given, and the path to that final state can be understood as the optimal way to arrive there.

Whoa. It takes a lot of work to get your head around this idea, and I encourage students to talk about it at length (see #5). Somewhere in that discussion, I make sure to spend a few minutes on its linguistic implications.

Near the end of the story Louise poses the hypothetical question: ‘If the heptapods already knew everything that they would ever say or hear, what was the point of their using language at all?’ And then she answers the question for us: ‘For the heptapods, all language was performative.’ (137-138)

We recognize the performative capacity of language in utterances like I hereby pronounce you husband and wife; we discussed this at length with The Easthound. For the heptapods, every utterance enacts reality. Using language the way the heptapods do is ‘like performing in a play’ (139); every utterance is ‘a ritual recitation,’ ‘the realization of a plan.’ (140) Language is still meaningful, but not as a way to share new information, rather as a way to recognize a moment, give moment to the moment.

Remember Mazes? That poor narrator kept trying to perform gorgeous, meaningful dances, while the clueless alien thought the narrator was just trying (and failing) to find food. Neither character ever understood the other; they were doing entirely different things with the maze.

The heptapods are in some ways like the narrator of ‘Mazes’—performing with great intention, awareness and meaning, while (most of) the humans around them are completely missing the point, obsessively fixed on why did the aliens come, what’s their goal, what do they want? The last scene, the botched gift exchange and the heptapods’ sudden unexplained departure, leaves Colonel Weber and the State Department reps as unsatisfied and deflated as the alien at the end of ‘Mazes.’

#4. Whorfian stuff. As Louise gains proficiency in Heptapod B, the language starts changing the way she thinks (126): ‘My thoughts were becoming graphically coded. There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren’t expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams with my mind’s eye…articulating even complex ideas all at once.’ (127)

By the end of the story Louise has gained a heptapod-like knowledge of her own future—including her child’s life and death, as well as her own death. She no longer ‘exercises freedom of choice’; instead she senses her ‘motives coincid[ing] with history’s purposes’ (p. 137).

This sounds a lot like linguistic relativity—the idea (usually attributed to Edward Sapir & Benjamin Whorf) that the grammar and lexicon of your native language have a non-trivial influence on your cognition. But it’s not clear to me that this story is really trying to show us linguistic relativity (or determinism) per se.

For one thing, I think it’s important that Chiang, with all his knowledge of linguistics and willingness to drop linguistic jargon, never mentions Sapir, Whorf, relativism or determinism by name. It just never seems to occur to Louise to frame her experience this way.

Moreover, Louise explicitly says that the effect of Heptapod B is ‘something more than language.’ (127) What does she mean by this? The semagrams are ‘almost like mandalas’; when looking at them, she enters ‘a meditative state, contemplating the ways in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable.’

This description is mysterious, mystical, incomplete. Louise could be experiencing the effects of prolonged meditation, a suspension or infiltration of the mind brought about by her disciplined practice rather than by the grammar of Heptapod B itself. Eventually, Louise says, ‘new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration’ (140). Perhaps learning Heptapod B activates a part of the brain that’s normally latent? Perhaps it has effects like those of a psychotropic drug? The story leaves this a mystery. It’s a fascinating mystery—I’m just not sure how much it helps us understand the Whorfian hypothesis.

The film adaptation Arrival (2016) makes the Whorfian connection much more explicitly, and I think inaccurately. I may write about that later on.

#5. Free will. The aspect of Louise’s story that’s probably hardest for us to accept is that she—and the heptapods—do not have free will. This means that she will answer ‘yes’ to ‘Do you want to make a baby?’, even knowing that the child they conceive will die young and probably in great pain.

The story tries to help us understand that the absence of free will is not necessarily coercion, that there is another way to know both past and future and still live intelligently and meaningfully. To do the story justice, I think we need to spend some time in class really grappling with this idea.

I think it was Micah who helped get this discussion going yesterday. Here are some of the questions we talked about, as well as some others I’ve thought about:

  • What does it mean to ‘come to terms with’ some terrible piece of knowledge? Why do very painful memories tend to get less painful over time?
  • Why is it that even if we already know much of what will happen to us, we still experience it as a surprise or shock? I think Katheryn talked here about the whole story of humankind being framed as predestination in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
  • Why do we love re-reading books, re-watching movies, re-listening to songs?
  • Why do people so often say they ‘don’t regret a single day’ they spent with a loved one they lost, even when that loss has brought them such excruciating pain?
  • The story begins and ends with Louise telling herself to ‘pay attention, note every detail’ (91, 145). Solitude ended with a very similar exhortation: ‘Listen!…Be aware!’ Louise and Serenity are very different characters with different worldviews; what do they have in common that makes them both say these things?
  • Some of you (Emilio and Emily, I think) spoke with affection about how your grandparents take great pleasure in mundane activities like grocery shopping; is this because, as we live through more and more of our experiences, we learn to better appreciate the present moment?
  • What would it really be like for us to suddenly acquire the heptapods’ simultaneous awareness of time? I think Gwen likened it to a profound trauma, something that might induce insanity.

I find it deeply moving to talk about these questions with students. I try not to be maudlin, but these discussions always make me recognize (and remember) how difficult young adulthood is. Our society encourages us to believe that our lives are entirely in our hands, that every decision is either ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ and that the ‘wrong’ choice may lead to crippling regret and turn your whole life into a giant failure. It’s terrible to believe this and virtually impossible to make yourself stop. Ted Chiang, in his story commentary, leaves us with this quote from the elderly Kurt Vonnegut (on the 25th anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five); I offer his words here as an antidote:

[R]emembering the future is child’s play for me now. I know what will become of my helpless, trusting babies because they are grown-ups now. I know how my closest friends will end up because so many of them are retired or dead now… To … all others younger than myself I say, ‘Be patient. Your future will come to you and lie down at your feet like a dog who knows and loves you no matter what you are.’ (278)


by Ursula K. Le Guin

Here’s what Steven Pinker says about language in the intro to his classic The Language Instinct (1993):

‘Chances are that if you find two or more people together anywhere on earth, they will soon be exchanging words. When there is no one to talk with, people talk to themselves, to their dogs, even to their plants. In our social relations, the race is not to the swift but to the verbal—the spellbinding orator, the silver-tongued seducer, the persuasive child who wins the battle of wills against a brawnier parent.’

Pinker’s claims here are so widely accepted that they’re almost platitudes: humans are social animals; we love and need to talk; we will inevitably find ways to satisfy this drive.

‘Solitude’ is a story that asks: Really?

Is it possible for humans to have language without using it socially? What would that look like?

For at least a decade, Chomsky has been urging linguists to stop thinking about language in terms of its (social, communicative) function: ‘It is…odd to think that language has a purpose,’ he insists. ‘Languages are not tools that humans design but biological objects.’ (2015, What Kind of Creatures Are We? p. 16)

But it’s remarkably difficult to really get what Chomsky wants us to get: we’re so used to thinking of language as fundamentally social, as ‘designed for’ communication and collaboration and bonding, that we need help imagining how it could be otherwise. ‘Solitude’ helps us do this. This story shows us how language can be separated from its social function.

‘Solitude’ is set on a planet (Soro) that was populated by humans long ago, then lost contact, and has now been ‘rediscovered’ by a whole new (but still human) set of space explorers. The language spoken on Soro has changed, but it is still a human language, and the explorers learn it without trouble. But this doesn’t lead to mutual understanding. As our narrator-protagonist (Serenity) puts it, ‘language was not a problem. Yet there was a communication problem.’ (p. 120)

The humans on Soro don’t like to talk. Talking is taboo.

Adults can talk to children, and children can talk to each other, so language continues to be transmitted intergenerationally. But adults don’t talk to each other. They don’t chit-chat, gossip, shoot the bull, or bond through conversation.

If a Sorovian adult urgently needs to deliver news to another adult, they tell it to a child within the adult’s earshot (p. 132).

Even when adults are speaking to children, there is a preference for more formulaic language—stories, songs, chants—rather than spontaneous speech. (p. 134)

And above all, using language to influence or persuade is absolutely prohibited—a dreadful kind of magic, to be feared and rejected as ‘an art or power that violates natural law.’ For the Sorovians, ‘marriage, for instance, or government’—which we know are language-independent institutions—'[would be] seen as an evil spell woven by sorcerers.’ (p. 124)

Our last story, The Easthound, helped us ‘dysrecognize’ the world-changing power of language: we were made to really appreciate how shocking and potentially terrifying speech acts can be. ‘Solitude’ takes us further, to a place where any persuasive language is viewed as malign. For Sorovians, it is always wrong for one person to be in another’s power, and any language that attempts to achieve this is evil. Pinker’s ‘spell-binding orator’ and ‘silver-tongued seducer’ would be castigated rather than celebrated on this planet.

Serenity is a child through most of the story. Her mom is an explorer, an anthropologist, who has brought her children to the planet in hopes of gaining easier access to the culture. So Serenity is raised bi-culturally: Sorovian women teach her Sorovian values; her mother uses her to learn about Soro while also trying to instill in her their home-planet’s values. (Spoiler: This ends up not being so easy.)

Serenity is taught that if another child tries to influence her behavior with language, she should ‘back away’ and ‘tell [their] mother’ (p. 126). She learns that if someone asks her a question she doesn’t want to answer, she can simply ‘raise [her] head a little and…not answer’ (p. 127). If someone is really persistent, she is taught to say the words You have no power over me again and again, covering her eyes and ears if necessary, until the ‘sorcerer’ retreats. (pp. 138-139) And she learns that if she allows herself to be overpowered by such a sorcerer, she would be held guilty of ‘working magic’ too. (p. 123, 130)

But this doesn’t mean Sorovians lead lonely, friendless lives. One of my favorite moments from the story is when Serenity returns to the planet after a two-year absence. Her ‘soulmate’ Hyuru sees her outside her family’s old house and walks over:

…Hyuru came by. She squatted down near me in the garden in the sunshine. I smiled when I saw her, and she smiled, but it took us a while to find something to say.
‘Your mother didn’t come back,’ she said.
‘She’s dead,’ I said.
‘I’m sorry,’ Hyuru said.
She watched me dig up another root.
‘Will you come to the singing circle?’ she asked.
I nodded.
She smiled again… ‘Hi, ya!’ she sighed in deep contentment, lying down in the dirt with her chin on her arms. ‘This is good!’
I went on blissfully digging. (p. 143)

It’s comical, to us, to imagine a reunion between two teenage girls that contains so little speech. But Le Guin’s narration (through Serenity) shows us what Serenity’s mother never understands: that Sorovians can and do care deeply about each other, take delight in each other’s company, and feel entirely comfortable and happy in their mutual silence. They still form close social bonds; they just don’t use language to do it.

At one point during her two-year stint with the explorers on the ship, Serenity accompanies a zoologist doing field research on a Sorovian cephalopod species. The creature is intelligent, and appears to be emitting language-like sounds, but the zoologist hasn’t been able to translate them: ‘We don’t know what we’re talking about,’ she says. Serenity observes the creature for a moment, then says: ‘Maybe it’s not speaking at all. Maybe it’s thinking.’ (p. 141)

The zoologist is baffled with Serenity’s insight, but I think Chomsky would be pleased.

There are many, many other things going on ‘Solitude’ that are worthy of attention and discussion; 75 minutes is never enough. ‘Solitude’ is a story about gender and sexuality, about resistance and freedom, about parent-child relationships, about being caught between two cultures and pulled between loyalty to yourself and loyalty to your family. As Le Guin herself said, it’s a story about being an introvert. If you haven’t read it yet, read it! See if you think Soro is a dystopia or a utopia.


by Ursula Le Guin

This story is a good one to start the semester with, for a few reasons.

First, it’s very short, so students who enroll late can read it right before class, or even during class (I set aside 10-15 minutes for this on the first day).

Second, ‘Mazes’ shows very effectively how we’re defining sci-fi in this class. There’s no advanced science or tech in ‘Mazes,’ but it’s still sci-fi by the Philip K. Dick definition we adopt: it ‘dislocates’ some aspect of our real world and thereby produces a ‘convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition.’

The shock of dysrecognition in ‘Mazes’ is almost palpable. Once you understand what’s going on in this story, your perspective is disrupted; familiar things seem strange; everyday things are suddenly puzzles that demand explanation. That’s what makes it sci-fi. Moreover—and another reason why it’s a good story to start with—it shocks us into seeing language differently.

‘Mazes’ is about a catastrophic communication failure. There are two characters: the narrator (‘I’) and the alien (‘it’). The narrator is dying, apparently of starvation exacerbated by profound depression, both of which could probably have been avoided if the two characters had achieved communication. Why couldn’t they? In answering this question, we have to think about what communication is—for the narrator, for the alien, for us.

Here are some questions to get the discussion going. (ALERT: I’m going to try not to spoil the central surprise of ‘Mazes’ here, but if you’re worried you should go read the story now and then come back!)

  1. At what point in the story did you experience the big surprise? What were the clues in the text that led you to it?
  2. The narrator understands the mazes as a medium for communication: ‘It seemed pretty clear that…a first approach toward communication was being attempted.’ (71) How does the narrator try to use the mazes to communicate? What kind of messages does the narrator try to send? How is this kind of communication similar to and different from ‘typical’ (human) language?
  3. What is the alien trying to do with the mazes, and how? In what ways is this similar to and different from ‘typical’ (human) language?

Students of speech-act theory can think about illocutionary force as they consider #2-#3: perhaps one of the characters is using the mazes to ‘utter’ directives, while the other is using them to utter expressives.

As the narrator recognizes, part of the communication problem is due to a difference in modalities. The alien and the narrator use different parts of their bodies to ‘speak,’ and the alien’s anatomy is too different for the narrator to interpret or replicate (‘that is too foreign a language’ (75)). Of course modality mismatches don’t have to lead to communication failure—spoken English, typically interpreted by human ears, can be made interpretable to the eyes or hands instead (English alphabet, Braille, finger-spelling), and we’ll read about other solutions in ‘Story of Your Life’ and Embassytown. But these solutions take time, collaboration and usually technology, and the narrator of ‘Mazes,’ starving in solitary confinement, doesn’t have those resources.

The more profound problem in ‘Mazes’—which may not be surmountable—is that the narrator and the alien have different assumptions about what the maze is for, and by extension, what language is for. They’re bringing in completely different cultural conventions around communication.

‘Mazes’ helps me understand Wittgenstein’s aphorism: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand it.” (Philosophical Investigations, Part 2, XI, p. 225). When I heard this the first time, I thought: Why not? If you actually got to the point of sharing a small vocabulary with a lion, a set of signs that you both recognized, wouldn’t that mean you understood each other?

‘Mazes’ shows us how two species can appear to share some vocabulary but still fail to understand each other, because they have different beliefs about what words are for. The two characters in ‘Mazes’ do in fact share some potential words: the leaves, the food pellets, the knobs, the various gestures and postures they make with their bodies, are all available for interpretation. But each character has been acculturated to interpret these ‘words’ in profoundly distinct ways, to do different things with them. One uses leaves to entice, the other interprets them as a ‘ritual or superstition’ (71). One fails to see the intentionality of the other’s movements; the other sees intentionality where it is absent. The only sign they both understand is the narrator’s rebellious act of defecating on the knobs—presumably because both species happen to share the same cultural attitudes about this act. Otherwise each of the character’s habits, beliefs, Lebensformen (Wittgenstein’s ‘forms of life,’ Philosophical Investigations §19) are utterly foreign to the other.

Some more questions to think about…

  1. Our daily lives are sometimes full of communication failures. Think of some examples from your life. Are these incidents qualitatively different from the communication failure in ‘Mazes,’ or just different in scale?
  2. In our own lives, we can and sometimes do use language in the way the narrator tries to use the maze (e.g. poetry). What would it be like to live in a society where language was used primarily in this way, and only secondarily for transmitting information? (Here’s a passage from Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff & Johnson) that I was reminded of when thinking about this: “Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way…we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing arguing” (5).)
  3. There’s a huge power imbalance between the two main characters; the alien is a ‘giant’ that has used physical force to take away the narrator’s freedom. Certainly this imbalance enhances their communication failure; do you think it also entails communication failure?
  4. The surprise at the heart of this story could be attributed to another communication failure, one between the narrator and the reader (and enabled by the author). What kinds of expectations did you have going in to this story, and why? How did Le Guin encourage your assumptions at first, then shock you?
  5. We talked about lots of other stuff–communication across neurodivergence, differences in metabolic rates (e.g. trees), the possibility that all ‘successful’ linguistic communication is illusory… Feel free to comment further on any of this, or any other aspects of the story.

Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom

by Ted Chiang

At the beginning of the semester we talked about ineffability in the context of two stories: ‘Amnesty’ by Octavia Butler and ‘Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles’ by Theodore McCombs. I found myself thinking about ineffability again after yesterday’s discussion.

In ‘Amnesty,’ what’s ineffable is the simultaneous one-ness and many-ness of the Community. Noah’s (largely self-appointed) task is to talk anyway—to keep trying to communicate with the Community across this impossible divide, and to keep telling her story to other humans in the hope that she might ‘change them a little’ and reconcile them to their future. She does her job very imperfectly: remember how her long trauma-laced monologue fails to win over the job applicants? (It makes a funny contrast with the support-group scenes in ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,’ where Dana avoids telling her own story.) Still, Noah persists in her impossible task: ‘I have to try.’ (p. 600)

In ‘Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles,’ it’s the experience of Collider that’s ineffable. Peter’s ex, the ‘quantum guy,’ barely talks. His date at the dinner party needs to be prodded and prompted to tell the dead-finches story. Nobody is able or willing to describe the experience of Collider; Peter, who might have been, is denied access.

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ is also about quantum theory and alternative lives, but has a very different way of dealing with the ineffable.

We talked a lot, I think with some distaste, about the form of this story: the dry fable-like prose, the many (too many?) shifts in perspective among the oddly flat and puppet-like characters, the ambiguous self-undermining end (if this is a fable, what’s the moral?). I’m so glad Nico reminded us of Ed Simon’s claim that every story is a Frankenstein’s monster (Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost, 2023). The metaphor is wonderfully apt here: mismatched parts of unknown provenance, awkwardly stitched together, resulting in something larger than usual, and adding up to…what?

I love this story though. As I tried to say in class, I love it because of the big, impossible question it’s asking: How do we reconcile our sense of free will with the overwhelming force of random chance? I keep remembering Chiang’s description of particles bumping up against each other: ‘The collisions between air molecules…can be affected by the gravitational effect of a single atom a meter away…[W]hen air is turbulent, it takes roughly a minute for a perturbation at the microscopic level to become macroscopic.’ (284) If our lives are being shaped by an unfathomable amalgam of accidents, how can we believe that our decisions matter at all?

I think most of us do manage to reconcile ourselves, but only temporarily and imperfectly. We have to keep facing and re-facing the question, never quite getting a handle on it even when we think we do. ‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,’ with its incompletely drawn characters awkwardly bumping up against each other, believing they’ve gained insight when they’re still half-blind, showing us ‘progress’ but without any final resolution, seems to me a fine and appropriate response to the problem.

The Kierkegaard passage that Chiang’s title comes from is strange and difficult to parse. It evokes images of someone teetering at the edge of an abyss, holding desperately onto something concrete, falling (or leaping), then re-surfacing, riddled with feelings of anxiety, selfishness and guilt. This is also seems to me a fine and appropriate response to the problem.

Chiang approaches the problem of inevitability in some of his other fiction too, e.g. ‘Story of Your Life’ and ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.’ They’re all very different kinds of stories, and I like that he experiments with—and shows us—different ways of responding to the big impossible question.

Sometimes in office hours (!) I have conversations with students who see themselves at a crossroads and want my advice. The part of ‘Anxiety’ where Dana meets with her client Teresa was painful to read because it reminded me of some of these conversations. Teresa’s phrasing—‘the right decision,’ ‘the wrong choice’—is so familiar and heartbreaking and exasperating. Why do we torture ourselves like this?

I wish I could make these students believe what I believe—that they’ll be fine no matter what they decide—but there’s no way to say that without sounding pompous and dismissive (and unconvincing). So usually I try to honor their trust by telling stories about my own life, choices I’ve made and things that happened to me and what happened next. And I encourage them to ask other people for their stories too.

Telling stories is still a clumsy and inadequate response. Nothing I’ve done has ‘turned out’ in any final sense, and I never know if the student will understand what I intended to say. But telling stories seems to be the best way we have of approaching what we don’t fully understand. And I agree with Noah that we have to try.

Paradises Lost

by Ursula Le Guin

We had a moment of confusion in class about how old Hsing and Luis are at the end of the story. I thought maybe late 20s/early 30s; Nico thought 60s. I just reread the end and realized the answer to this question is ambiguous. The final segments aren’t dated. One clue is Hsing saying, ‘Alejo went fishing with the children’—so we know Hsing’s baby is no longer a baby, but is he a toddler (as I’d thought), or an adult with his own children? Luis’ hair is described as a ‘silver nimbus,’ but is that the hair color or the reflected sunlight? Luis is described as ‘both old and damaged’ and Hsing’s knees are ‘not so good these days,’ but is this due to normal aging over decades, or premature aging from the stress and trauma of the new planet?

Through most of the book, we know exactly when we are (the date is given in each section heading), but not where we are (navigation is off-limits to us as well as the characters). At the end, we’re finally grounded somewhere, but ‘time is not measured as it was’ (348); ‘time [is] not the same here’ (p. 353).  

Were you surprised by how similar Shindichew is to Earth? Usually a sci-fi story about space travel will reward us with some cool/weird difference: the new planet has two suns! little green men! constant subzero climate! etc. Le Guin doesn’t give us any of that: Shindichew  has one sun, changing seasons, brown dirt, trees, bacteria, tiny crawling invertebrates, water, wind, rain, grass, hills, rivers. It could be Earth. I didn’t even notice this as anticlimactic, which I think is the point (and brilliant of Le Guin): we’re seeing the planet through these characters’ eyes, and for them it is all new and weird and different.

We talked about the role of language and words in this story. Luis and Hsing both have an odd, fraught relationship with words. As Dani noted, they believe that the physical, acoustic qualities of words are meaningful: they want to replace ‘dinky’-sounding penis (high front vowels, voiceless consonants) with grander-sounding gowbondo (low back vowels, voiced consonants, additional syllable). They’re also fascinated with abstract meanings: they puzzle over superficial (p. 255), discovery (p. 270), nature (p. 276), belief vs. hope (p. 299), bliss vs. delight (p. 361), and of course freedom (p. 278). For Luis, words are ‘dark stars, some small and dark and solid, some immense, complex, subtle, with a powerful gravity-field that attracted infinite meanings to them.’ (pp. 278-279) Remember, Hsing means ‘star’ and Luis’ last name is Nova

Hsing and Luis are drawn to physical things more generally, as we noted. Hsing refuses contraceptive shots, hates the kitten video and gets claustrophobic in the VR, and enjoys solving the navigation problem herself, without computers. Luis obsessively runs through every option in the ‘Jungle’ VR and leaves unsatisfied—he wants reality, with its unlimited, unpredictable options. His asthma means that he never has enough air on the ship; when he’s distressed he wants to go ‘outside.’  

When they finally do go outside for the first time, the experience is catastrophic: ‘to lose understanding, to go mad… to be translated into a language where no word—ground, air—transgress, affirm—act, do—made sense. A world without words. Without meaning. A universe undefined.’ (p. 348)

It matters that Hsing and Luis spent so much of their time on the ship in silence: ‘They were each other’s privacy.’ (307) It matters that Hsing gave Luis a physical book to write his thoughts in, and that she called it ‘A Box to Hold Luis’ Mind’ (p. 321).

The final scene—Luis and Hsing slow-dancing barefoot on the dirt—is utterly gorgeous and reminds me of Adam and Eve at the very end of Paradise Lost:

Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

Those lines kill me, every time.

Office Hours

by Ling Ma

First, an unrelated note. Someone asked at our opera night about the difference between operas and musicals. I read up a little on this and the consensus seems to be that in opera, the voices are the main attraction – you go to an opera expecting to be wowed by big, powerful, wide-ranging voices trained in vibrato etc., whereas you might go to a musical for the acting, the dancing, or the story as much as for the singing.

I thought about Leonard Bernstein in relation to this because he composed both Candide (1956) and West Side Story (1957) – both in English, close to the same length, both with full symphonic scores, but Candide is almost always performed as an operetta and West Side Story as a musical. You can listen to these two tenor-soprano love duets side by side and hear the difference: ‘Oh happy we‘ (Candide) has those opera-sounding voices while ‘Tonight‘ (West Side Story) has musical-sounding voices. Here’s a more operatic version of ‘Tonight‘ that still, I think, doesn’t sound as operatic as any of the songs in Candide.

Anyway… maybe this wasn’t so unrelated after all, since we talk all the time in our group about the fuzzy boundaries between genres.

What genre does ‘Office Hours’ belong to? I’m not sure, but I would say not sci-fi. In fact, I think that’s why I was so distressed by this story: its world is extremely close to the real world – my real world! – but for the protagonist, this world is so ‘fucking impossible’ she just checks out.

‘Office Hours’ makes my/our real world look like a dystopia. The gross displays of decadence at department events, contrasted with Marie’s poverty and hunger. The way Marie has to package her life’s work as an inane commercial to serve as background noise for the donor event. The way everything that should make our lives meaningful gets relentlessly commodified and turned into a zero-sum game: community engagement –> number of committee assignments; curiosity and inquiry –> number of publications; teaching and learning –> enrollments and evaluations; time with family –> a ‘lost year.’

But I was also delighted by this story. I really liked the way it made me think of vampires as a counter-culture, a group that resists all this. Vampires are anachronistic, never changing. They’re not afraid to spend long stretches of time in utter stillness and privacy. They’re not interested in progress or advancement (the exception here being Count Dracula, who does want to expand his domain – but by invading England, the great colonizer). Vampires aren’t reflected in mirrors, which means they only ever show their authentic selves, never a pretend or fake version. Marie’s life is full of reflected and projected and performed versions of people.

Also, vampires move between worlds, but they respect the boundaries between those worlds. They venture into the human world only at specific predetermined times, and they don’t enter anyone’s private space without permission. There’s a hilarious parallel here to the rituals around office hours – the strict start and end times, the greeting and leave-taking scripts (“Okay?” “Okay”). Professors’ offices can be the entry point for ‘infecting’ a new generation of scholars, as one of you put it, and they can also serve as an interstice between the public and the private, a place where boundaries are blurred and interactions become ‘borderline.’ Marie’s cigarettes cast a literal haze over this space, and the Professor’s over-sharing and her naps are ways to flirt with transgression without quite crossing the line.

So even though this story messed me up, I also found it comically rewarding and weirdly hopeful: it lays out another pathway for resistance. Many thanks to you for recommending it and spending time talking about it with me.

On the side, I started compiling stories and films about doubled, halved and cloned selves. So far I have: ‘Toward a Theory of Alternative Lifestyles’ (Theodore McCombs); The Stepford Wives (Ira Levin); ‘Better Versions of You’ (Ted Chiang); Us and Get Out (Jordan Peele films), ‘Unknown Number’ by Blue Neustifter… what else?

Please add your thoughts. What else did ‘Office Hours’ make you think about?


the 1818 novel by Mary Shelley, the 1931 film directed by James Whale, and the film score by Michael Shapiro performed by the Atlanta Opera on 10/28/2023

The last few weeks have been tough. Our group’s expansive, multifaceted experience of Frankenstein – re-reading the novel cover to cover, dipping back into my favorite bits of Paradise Lost, reveling in the weirdness of the film and enjoying the excitement of a group trip to the opera, plus our little group’s three discussions – was uncannily therapeutic for me. I love fiction best when it’s both an escape from and an immersion in the problems of life, and that’s how I experience the story of Frankenstein. So thank you for being willing to spend so much time with me on this story.

I’m going to record just a few of the key questions and points we discussed. I know I’m leaving a lot out, so please add more points, follow-up points, corrections or elaborations.

We talked a lot about the parallel-but-unshared loneliness of Victor and the creature, their craving for companionship, the fact that Victor seems much more intimately connected with Clerval, Walton and even his creature than with Elizabeth. One of you pointed out that Victor’s making of the creature is a kind of ‘procreation gone bad’ – something Victor does by himself, driven by a desire for fame and glory, instead of taking the familiar accepted route of marriage, babies and an ordinary life.

I thought Frankenstein would be a good chance to re-introduce a question one of you asked at the beginning of the semester: “Why do we tell stories?” We looked at the structure of the novel and asked this question of each ‘layer’ – Why did Mary Shelley write this book? Why does Walton write his letters to his sister? Why does Victor tell his story to Walton? Why does the creature tell his story to Victor? And why is Safie’s story necessary to the creature’s story?

With at least some of these layers, we found ourselves growing suspicious of the storyteller’s purported motives. Victor says he needs to tell his story as a warning to Walton: “Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!” (Letter 4, Aug. 13). But by the end of the book, he’s really waffling: “Seek happiness in tranquillity and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.”

Does Victor really think he’s done anything wrong? Do we? What about the creature – do we condemn the creature, and if so, for what? I keep coming back to these questions, even as I recognize how boring it can be to look for moral lessons in literature. But I can’t help seeing Frankenstein as a text that asks big, essential, moral questions about the human condition: How do we cope with the fact that we’re capable of doing ‘bad’ things, that we sometimes want to do bad things, that we sometimes can’t even see how they’re all that bad?

Frankenstein’s creature said Paradise Lost was the most influential of the texts he read (ch 15). We looked at the passage from Paradise Lost that often appears on the title page of Frankenstein (“Adam’s adolescent tantrum”): “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me Man? did I solicit thee/ From darkness to promote me…?” (Canto X)

Later in that same Canto X is another passage I that I described to you, where Eve is talking to Adam about how to cope with God’s punishment. She suggests that they destroy themselves, or refuse to procreate, in order to save an entire future human race from pain and misery and death: “so Death/ Shall be deceived his glut, and with us two/ Be forced to satisfy his ravenous maw…” And then Adam talks her down, by trying to make God’s punishment seem like no big deal at all:

we expected
Immediate dissolution, which we thought
Was meant by death that day; when lo! to thee
Pains only in child-bearing were foretold,
And bringing forth; soon recompensed with joy,
Fruit of thy womb: On me the curse aslope
Glanced on the ground; with labour I must earn
My bread; what harm? Idleness had been worse;
My labour will sustain me…

In other words: Yes, we’ll have pain and drudgery and then we’ll die, but we’ll also have joy and interests and independence and other rewards.

This speech is a really beautiful demonstration, I think, of what a difference a companion can make. In addition to talking Eve down, Adam is talking himself down here – just a while back he was having his big adolescent tantrum at God; now that he’s faced with Eve’s despair, he’s able to rein in the drama and find some courage to deal with what they’ve been handed. Is this what Frankenstein’s creature had in mind when he asked for a companion?

It’s a very strangely written canto, and it’s not clear to me that Milton really believed in Adam’s pep talk. I kind of like that ambiguity though. The answer to these big moral questions isn’t simple; it’s one we have to keep asking, and I think Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s way of asking them again and again and again.

See also George Saunders’ essay ‘Writing in Hard Times,’ which was published on the day of our last discussion.

The Third Tower

Deborah Eisenberg

Today’s discussion was so good! Thanks to all of you for helping me understand this very strange but very appealing story.

I remembered the Ray Bradbury story this reminded me of: it’s called ‘Jack in the Box’ (hmm!) and it’s about a kid who’s kept trapped and isolated in a castle in the woods. There’s a very memorable scene where he climbs to the top of a tower, goes out a forbidden door and sees the big outside world for the first time. You can read it here.

I think I was also remembering the 2005 film The Island: a severely stratified society with an underclass kept confined indoors and ignorant of the wider world, constantly being shown images of an island paradise that each of them will get to go to someday (which of course turns out to be their doom). It was a summer blockbuster and a little silly, but I enjoyed its aesthetics.

Honestly, I think I had the creepy aesthetics of an amalgam of other stories and films – ‘Jack in the Box,’ The Island, The Hunger Games, Elysium – in mind as I was reading ‘The Third Tower,’ and that was partly why I liked the story so much. I don’t know how the author would feel about this though. Those of you who write fiction – does it bug you that your readers might be bringing in baggage that has nothing to do with your story, or is that all just part of the experience of writing for the public?

Since our conversation, I’ve been thinking about something else Dani said: that Therese is an artist.

What does that mean to you all?

  • Does ‘being an artist’ just mean ‘being creative’? Or does it entail above-average creativity, if we assume that the ordinary human intelligence that gives us generative syntax is itself creative? (Sub-question: Is ordinary human language a kind of art?)
  • Does an artist need to have what Therese has: a heightened capacity to make associations? Or is being an artist more about what Therese produces: a book that others could (in theory) see and interpret?
  • Does art have to include an element of subversiveness?
  • Do artists have to make their art intentionally, or can it be done by reflex/instinct? (You may remember ‘Message in a Bottle’ by Nalo Hopkinson, where some characters thought that a certain kind of seashell was an expression of artistic genius.)

I think this question may come up in Frankenstein too – I’ll be on the lookout.

As always, feel free to comment on what I’ve said here or on any other aspect of ‘The Third Tower’ you want. Thanks!