Reviews, “Connection in the Land of Disconnection”
By Lavie Tidhar
Redstone Science Fiction, September 2012
“Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods“
By Benjanun Sriduangkaew
The Future Fire, September 2012
Our first story sounds a lot like what J.D. Salinger did, except hundreds of years in the future, as it presents us with the history of an artist who is decidedly difficult to track down. Having ripped out his inner connection node, Sandoval is dislodged from the constant communication that pervades the future (much as it does today).
First we’re given a portrait of the colonized moon where he grew up. Second we’re giving a portrait of the earth as seen from the moon. Finally we’re given Sandoval’s early life, running away, getting rid of his node, and the woman he fell in love with: Rohini, a terrorartist.
Narrative in this story is tricky; while we are given a chronological history of Sandoval, all the information is layered. Either through recounting of Rohini (who can then educate us about Sandoval because he used some of her terrorartist tools), or dramatizations of his life—there is no primary source information, it is all mediated.
Disconnection is one of the main themes—beginning with a description of tourists versus people born on the moon. Naturally, they experience the moon differently: “[I]f you were born on the moon you are probably unimpressed by such things, regarding the surface as a place for tourists and poseurs”. Beyond the visitor/resident dynamic, we’re impressed with the disconnection from earth by focusing on earthrise: “a slow rising of the Earth over the moon’s horizon. On the moon, Earthrise lasts for days.”
Birth imagery is used to solidify the disconnection between the moon and earth: “Picture an invisible umbilical cord […] that, at that moment of the first [lunar] baby’s birth, for the first time in humanity’s history, had been cut.” This doubles back on Sandoval’s escape from his family life, fleeing as a youth and getting his node out at 13, in many ways having the umbilical cord of humanity cut from himself.
Carrying over into the reading itself, the audience is perpetually disconnected from Sandoval (as discussed earlier); like tourists and the moon, we only get superficial information about his life. Due to this information drought, we are forced to treat a historical drama as holding some semblance of fact—but conversely, we must treat Sandoval’s art as also reflective of his life. For certain artists, this is a thrill, a desire even; their art is the prism by which outsiders view their life. Using Rohini’s technology, he demands we consider his life with Rohini as inseparable. His removal from cultural consciousness places emphasis on specific facts, as if his life has been edited down to only what he wanted to convey.
Unfortunately, much of his art has been destroyed because it came to be understood as illegal. (He created copies of dead individuals.) Some of the disconnection between audience and artist is self-inflicted. It’s not a one-way street with only Sandoval negotiating presentation, but society also chooses how to interpret him. This criminalization isn’t unique to Sandoval, as the text says, “Art is a crime.” The story doesn’t explore exactly why or how this came to be the case, but either way it’s another layer of disconnection. One could even make the leap that this statement is why the story is presented as a factual narrative; it’s more akin to a profile you’d read in a magazine than a fictional story. The art of the story is disguising itself as fact. Maybe Sandoval disguised his true art of a disconnected life within the life of an eccentric artist. Art was not in creating simulacra of the deceased, but in symbolizing disconnection from earth.
In the final paragraph, the story ponders Sandoval’s fate and by extension the fate of all who become disconnected from earth. “I like to think of him as having a family, children, husbands, wives, of looking up, one Martian night, and seeing stars, amongst which Earth is but one source of light, and it is indistinguishable from the others.” Those born off-earth will naturally see the planet differently, and in time they will perhaps be unable to pick it out of the night sky. Of course, this disconnection is inevitable for everyone: We will die and thus disconnect from earth eventually. But the story is arguing for a chosen disconnection; not one of death but one of rebirth, of looking outward. Why worry about earth when the stars await us?
Our second story is a complicated package, alternating scenes of conquered foe with scenes of the narrator’s love life. In time, the narrator’s comments lead us to believe that the foe was in fact humanity. On the surface, this story is largely opposite the first; it is about connection. Either in the form of love or in the form of civilizations clashing. In either case, two parties are connecting, in some way discovering their “aliveness.”
Yet for all this connection, our narrator Jidri appears well disconnected. The human combatants aren’t understood beyond a physiognomic sense; Jidri’s mate Kanrisa remains an unknowable partner as she is a spectacularly gifted pilot, above a worker like Jidri. Perhaps the tragedy of these characters is their certainty that they’re right; that this is the only acceptable way to live. The humans are so incomprehensible to them that Jidri considers wiping them out “a mercy.”
The irony is thick. Early on, Jidri notes the humans’ records “were littered with moments of first contact that’d proceeded predictably: trade, abjection, conquest.” We can imagine English pilgrims meeting Native Americans, or European tradesmen visiting China and other southeast Asian countries. European subjugation of Africa. Et cetera: our records are littered with these moments. The aliens ruminate on this evidence and decide that the humans will inevitably try to wipe them out, so the only logical step is to wipe out the humans first. Ah, comedy, thy name is intelligent life.
Imagining how humans might shove them into a narrative to find them familiar, the aliens unwittingly do the exact same thing: “Don’t they realize they’re outgunned, outmatched, that they’re barely more than shit-slinging apes?” Apparently, other species cannot rise above the bias that comes from conflict. Humans do not much survive the confrontation, if at all; as earth is annihilated, the aliens mourn four pilots (a substantial toll considering the ratio of humans to aliens is thousands to one).
After the conflict, Jidri’s mate Kanrisa spirals and enters a catatonic state; she’s kept in stasis. Jidri spends most her free time hunting for a solution, but she does keep up appearances in her connections, meeting old friends and attending weddings. She still lives with her extended family in a big compound.
And yet at the end, Jidri is guilty of much the same as Sandoval. She resorts to recreating Kanrisa’s deceased squadmate in an attempt to return her to sanity. The text impresses upon us: “It’s unambiguously, incredibly illegal. If found out I will be punished, my chips and cortices purged, some of my links disabled. It’ll blind me, shackle me, halve my self.” But the parallels don’t stop there: at the end, Jidri’s leaving her family and friends to pursue advanced research opportunities—just as Sandoval did. Is there some related idea between the two narratives, that one must be alone? If not always (after all, Sandoval had Rohini and Jidri endeavors to heal Kanrisa), at least for a while.
It is exceptionally interesting that the two characters (Sandoval and Jidri) perform very similar illegal actions while at the same time disconnecting from their society at large. Cloning in both situations is an attempt to recreate the past; disconnection is an important part of the process because it severs what progress might come from society. In order to stay within a moment, you must be dislodged from time and the ever-advancing social history. But what do you lose? Sandoval loses much of his legacy—only a few installations are left during the story. Jidri loses her happiness, seeing little value in socializing without Kanrisa. There are substantial sacrifices when chasing the past; but not all is lost. Sandoval’s myth grows. And does Jidri receive a happy ending after all? The text is ambiguous.
Concerns about connection and disconnection in our present times are nothing new; neither is looking at these issues through a lens of corporatism or empire. These are some of the most readily addressable themes in science fiction, because technology can so visibly connect and disconnect, and because corporations and empires frequently become grotesque when advanced beyond their current state.
And indeed, cloning in both stories can be interpreted as artistic copying—especially in Sandoval’s case, and implied in Jidri’s case. That is, engaging in copying is a form of nostalgia, one that necessitates disconnection. Revisiting old trends is a valid form of art, but consistently working in outmoded mediums is both deleterious to art and will disconnect your art from society as a whole. Those like Sandoval might welcome this conclusion, but what is the point to it? Unique perspectives are important, it’s true. Jidri alludes to the human condition as weak, with a diluted genetic code: “Each generation carried diseases and gave them to the next, conditions more and more hardcoded. The League was dying”. Keeping alive vibrant and unique artforms does strengthen the artistic gene pool, but it must not be our only focus or we become so monomaniac that, like Jidri, we secret ourselves away in research laboratories. (I call them MFA programs.)
Further, both characters go outside the normal protocols of their societies in order to pursue the broader gene pool. Jidri is mocked for being a monogamist, and Sandoval is a criminal due to cloning the dead. Yet both are locked on their path: Jidri never once considers abandoning Kanrisa, and Sandoval allows his life to fade into obscurity. Love and myth are all that’s left for the two of them.
These stories are heartening for those of us who operate on the fringes of traditional art and are why I analogized cloning with copying: because artists on the fringe are frequently told by their society what they’re doing is wrong. They sacrifice many of the easy choices in order to broaden a society’s genetic pool and thus broaden its possibilities. This perhaps glorifies fringe artists too much, but it must be acknowledged that true experimentation doesn’t occur within the mainstream: it occurs on the borders of acceptability with whatever tools are at hand, cross-cut between nostalgia (past experiments now hailed as genius) and innovation (challenging society’s preconceptions). And those who work on the fringe frequently have a better view of society; they can see all its highlights and weaknesses. Standing in the middle, it’s much harder to see the forest.
Point of fact it’s possible both stories reflect their author’s anxieties about the advancements of technology and its forced connections; technology allows for innovation but can also support the single-mindedness that leads to crushing genetically weak humans. The stories aren’t technophobic per se; they merely argue for getting outside of yourself once in a while.
They are also stories that, in their own way, promote fringe art—or at least allow for the case to be made. It’s not a leap to apply the response to technology to here: get outside of your art once in a while. This goes for both mainstream art and for fringe art. Becoming monomaniacal about art (and technology, and love) is not a path toward happiness. Perhaps it’s as simple as not taking art too seriously; being willing to laugh. Perhaps it’s knowing when to walk away, as Sandoval did. Perhaps it’s tweaking and fixing and breaking all the laws, finally running in the opposite direction as Jidri did—only then can art reach out and bring your hand to its lips, revealing the final ambiguous twist.