Where is the Narrator?

In Galapagos, we have a first person narrator telling us this story from the outside looking in. However, where exactly he’s looking in from is complicated. He often refers to 1986 as “a million years ago,” in a literal rather than hyperbolic sense, so in one way he’s an unreal person reaching back into the far-off past. However, he also asserts that he was someone who had died working on the Bahia de Darwin:

“If I may interject a personal note: I myself had been working as a welder in Malmo for about a year, but the Bahia de Darwin had not yet materialized sufficiently so as to require my services. I would literally lose my head to that steel maiden only when springtime came.” (33)

Our narrator wasn’t even alive when the story he’s telling us takes place. Then further on, we get a hint as to what he might be:

“So…I got into the head of Captain Adolf von Kleist as he rode in a taxicab from Guayaquil International Airport to the Bahia de Darwin.” (132)

This introduces us to a section where our narrator shadows Captain von Kleist’s thoughts, following his footsteps and coincidentally becoming a witness to the fate of the Bahia de Darwin‘s passengers on Santa Rosalia. There are also many references to the “blue tunnel to the Afterlife,” which many of the characters at some point or another travel down. This implies that our narrator is actually a ghost of some sort, stuck watching the fate of the people left stranded on Santa Rosalia. It explains not only his dying in an incident related to the Bahia de Darwin and why he might follow that ship’s story, but also how he is able to continue watching how humanity has adapted to living on the Galapagos.

However, this also raises some questions. For one, what exactly is a ghost doing in a book focused on Darwin and the evolution of humankind? How does this ghost know about the events going on outside his purview, like the name of the man who dropped the atomic bomb which affected Hisako’s later birth or the lives of the Kanko-bono girls before they arrived at the Hotel El Dorado? It’s not very clear what the rules are about this ghost, or even who he’s telling his story to, since all of the humans in his time have evolved without English. His position in time, space, and motivation are all rather obscure and none of this is made clearer despite his prominent position in the text as narrator.

Scientific Aesthetic Cont.

Crake’s goal of creating “the new human race” creates a race which resembles humans, but is so different that they are obviously a different species, inside and out. Crake’s new species of people include everything which they could biologically need to survive, including UV resistant skin, heightened immunity, and insect repellent build into their systems. However, as Crake goes on, what they won’t have starts to come out:

“…as there would never be anything for these people to inherit, there would be no family trees, no marriages, and no divorces. They were perfectly adjusted to their habitat, so they would never have to create houses or tools or weapons, or, for that matter, clothing. They would have no need to invent any harmful symbolisms, such as kingdoms, icons, gods, or money. Best of all, they recycled their own excrement…” (page 305).

Crake is proud of himself here for eliminating what he deems humanity’s most harmful and self-destructive traits, but here he’s deemed all human culture and society harmful and superfluous, disregarding any arguments for the good those things bring. Gods can give people comfort and houses are useful for both storage and shelter, but Crake believes that his new species doesn’t need any of these things and doesn’t deign to give them to the Crakers.

This makes it almost more tragic that Snowman is the one Crake tells to take care of the Crakers. Snowman’s life has been focused on the arts and human culture, learning Shakespeare and the classics as a big part of his schooling. Crake didn’t care for any of that, but he knew that Snowman’s sentimentality would lead him to protect his new species of super-non-humans. Snowman is lost in this new world created by Crake, but he holds on to what he knows and out of spite passes what he can down to the Crakers, so that they won’t lose all culture forever.

Scientific Aesthetic

*Note: since I’ve already done one post on Xenotext, I decided to do another one on Oryx and Crake for this week, since I already went ahead and did the first reading anyways. I’m also using different page numbers b/c of my book edition.*

*Spoilers for Oryx and Crake, first half*

In the conversations between Crake and Jimmy when they discussed what traits the Children of Crake would have as a species, Crake leans towards practicality and survival while Jimmy tries to argue against putting alien traits into a practically human species. In part 7, Jimmy (or Snowman) thinks about how Crake carefully planned and accounted for the mating rituals of the Children of Crake. He recalls how “Crake had worked out the numbers, and had decreed that [for mating] once every three years per female was more than enough” (164). There are also many other behaviors grafted together from other species to create a particularly benign mating ritual, including how sexual drives in males dissipate entirely once they’re turned down. “Since it’s only the blue [sexual] tissue and the phermones released by it that stimulate the males, there’s no more unrequited love these days, no more thwarted lust; no more shadow between the desire and the act” (165).

Jimmy recognizes that there are a lot of positives to this move, including eliminating prostitution and sexual abuse. But he argues with Crake over this move anyways, asking what would happen to art. He asks Crake to “‘think what we’d be giving up’…’All that mismatching you talk about. It’s been an inspiration, or that’s what they say. Think of all the poetry…” (167). In their conversation, Jimmy  gets argued down and Crake gets his way, but I’m not so certain about Crake’s counterarguments.

Crake claims that artists are simply artists for the sake of getting laid, while female artists are biologically confused. However, these arguments are trying to put social behavior into a biological box. Crake is trying to view all human behavior from a strictly biological lens when it isn’t always applicable. What would he say against arguments about societies where being an artist is esteemed? Or cases where people prefer their art to other human beings? Downgrading the meaning of art into misplaced human sexual drive may be fine for the purposes of theoretical biology, but putting this theory into practice is definitely a mistake. Crake doesn’t care for human meaning or culture, only for creating this alien race to be as fit for survival (and maybe as culture-less) as possible, making them scientifically if not artistically pleasing.

Old Ecological Traditions

In the group of three segments titled “On the Ritual of the Crypt” in the section “Colony Collapse Disorder,” Bok describes how people of Ancient Greece used to believe bees could be created from dead cows. The poem says that “Herdsmen there believe in a sacrament / that might replenish depleted beehives…whereupon the zealots [priests] grapple this ox, / choking it, battering the beast to death…all the while, a tender marrow / ferments in the heat, respawning larvae…boiling, abuzz, to erupt from the womb.” (52-53). This poetic grouping ends with a prelude to an explanation of the myth of Aristaeus, the god of bee-keeping, and how he learned to create bees by sacrificing his cows.

People today understand this way of thinking to be a misunderstanding of the ecological world. Bees don’t magically spring up out of dead cows, though people may observe bees coming from dead cows. This observation does not mean that dead cows cause new bees to be born. On the other hand, this ritual isn’t unreasonable for the purposes of the ancient Greeks. They didn’t necessarily need nor want to know about how the bees laid their eggs in the cows when people weren’t looking, or how cows don’t have the ability to give birth to bees after death (mostly because they’re dead). What they observed was a certain kind of repeatable cause and effect relationship between these objects. A dead cow left out in the heat during a certain time of the year was more likely than not to hold a new group of bees in it than not, giving them new bees they could use for getting honey. The effects of this ritual were more important than how this ritual was successful to the Greeks who needed bees to make honey, so it didn’t really matter to them how the ritual worked; only that it did.

Scientifically speaking, bees aren’t born from the inside of the cow, but they are attracted to dead intestines and cow dung as sources of water during dry periods. While the more formal aspects of the Greek ritual aren’t strictly necessary, they do provide a reliable source of a lot of bees in a short amount of time. From killing this one animal, they have provided many other animals which could be very useful for bee-keepers and others that would benefit from the new bees pollinating their crops and gardens. By sacrificing the cow in return for the more ecologically advantageous bees, the Greeks showed a partial understanding for the ecological world around them and how to manipulate it to their advantage.

Nao’s Suicidal Thoughts

In Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being Nao and her father both are suicidal and seriously consider death as a means of escaping their lives. Suicide is usually associated with escape from stressful situations like the ones these two characters are going through, so it’s not unusual for this to be a huge part of Nao’s diary entries. But even though both of them are going through hardships, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be suicidal. Nao states her opinion that she could get through her life, through all of the bullying and academic struggle and culture shock, if she had a reason to keep plodding through her life. She says that people with goals can get through anything because they feel that they have to achieve their goals, which gives them a reason to live. Nao and her dad both suffer from aimlessness, which according to Nao’s logic is why they both have suicidal thoughts.

Suicide then isn’t a means of escaping their hardships, though that is a big plus to the idea for these two. It’s instead a means of escaping the aimless boredom, the purposelessness that pervades their thoughts and actions (or rather, lack thereof). With how much Nao writes about time, she usually considers to herself to be wasting or killing time; not a coincidence. Other people can be doing something with their time or stretching their time out, like Nao’s great-grandmother does, but Nao herself doesn’t have any goal in her life to work towards, so she’s simply passing the time of her own ‘purposeless existence’ while she waits for it to end.

While most stories portray suicide as a means of escaping life’s troubles or inescapable difficulties, Ozeki has Nao look at suicide more analytically than that. Nao is a troubled teen, sure, but her writing style isn’t desperate; it’s like any other cliche girly teen’s diary entries would be, a stream of consciousness reflecting whatever she happens to be thinking at the moment, filled with slang and her own bilingualism. Her writing constantly returns to suicide, but not in a way that screams ‘killing myself is the only way out of this mess.’ It’s simply some of her everyday thoughts, just as much a part of her as anything else. To Nao, suicide is not just a way to escape from your troubles, but a way to break away from the empty time surrounding them.

Uncontrollable Outcomes

*As a warning: I wasn’t certain if we were supposed to read only half or the entire book, so I just read the whole thing. This post reflects that.*

In The Lathe of Heaven Dr. Haber tries to control the dreams of George Orr in order to provide a better world for humanity. However, these dreams change reality in ways that don’t at all fit with his own daydreams about the subject – they change everything that ever happened before to make themselves reality. As George explains it, his dreams don’t just have pink dogs ‘poof’-ing into existence all of a sudden. Rather, they change the entire evolutionary line of dogs, so that the color pink is added to the possibilities of dog fur colors since hundreds of thousands of years ago. This kind of dream then changes not only what you wanted it to change, but also everything surrounding the circumstances of it changing.

While in every case Orr’s ‘effective’ dreams have the desired effect, they never happen without something drastically affecting history as a result, but Dr. Haber isn’t able or willing to see what he’s caused. Orr eventually runs away to his cabin in the forest because he can’t handle Haber controlling his dreams without taking responsibility for causing them. It isn’t Haber’s control that he’s objecting to; it’s his manipulations of reality using this control that he’s against. Orr tells Heather in Chapter 7, “I can’t control my dreams. Nobody can.” His unconscious mind is not logically controllable by anyone else, no matter how much Haber can influence the direction his dreams take.

Their actual effects are almost never what Haber originally wanted or intended, yet he continues to try to manipulate Orr’s dreams to make his own wishes come true. This moral irresponsibility is what pushes Orr to the brink and causes him to try to stop sleeping for several days. Orr can’t dream uncontrolled because he doesn’t know what he would change if he did, but the dreams he lets Haber control wind up causing so many unintended effects that he can’t handle the mere idea of them. Even when he agrees that the ends were worth having, he isn’t so sure about the means, whereas Haber claims that the ends always justify the means. Orr seems to disagree, but he’s such a passive character that it’s difficult to tell. Either way, he feels that his dreams causing these unintended side effects are what is essentially wrong with Haber’s treatment and use of his dreams.

Popular versus Academic Sources

In The Sea and Summer, most of the focus is on the culture that developed in Australia during what’s referred to as the Greenhouse generation’s great climactic and economic changes, starting in the later 2000’s. Andra the Artist is studying it for a play he plans to create while Lenna the Scholar constantly studies it as a part of her work, focusing mainly on the Enclaves designed to house poor State-dependent people, aka. the majority of the population. Lenna’s intense focus on what life was like during these tumultuous years lets readers learn supposedly very accurate information from an academic point of view by way of reading her novel.

There is also an interesting yet opposite parallel happening within Lenna’s novel, where Sweet people are getting inaccurate information through their trivs, popular news outlets for the upper classes. These popular sources skimped and glossed over anything related to the Swill or anything that might make the Sweet uncomfortable. All of the news was deliberately censored and made into harmless tidbits vaguely related to current events, in contrast to the very real vision of poverty and struggle that Lenna’s more academic novel gives voice to. Her academic background creates a much more in-depth understanding of circumstances during the Greenhouse years, in direct contrast to the uninformative and even undermining news spread by the most likely uneducated and uninformed newscasters.

There is also the idea of censorship enforcing the extreme circumstances the Swill were forced to live in. The Sweet were the more powerful class and could have hypothetically done something to alleviate the Swill’s situation, but they were kept deliberately ignorant so that they wouldn’t cause a fuss and create even more chaos in an already chaotic environment. At one point, Lenna says, “Without intellectuals to stir [revolutions], the poor tended to accept their condition and devise philosophies to make it bearable.” Without any Sweets educated enough to care about the Swills’ unjust situation, revolution could not occur – thus the government made sure to keep the Sweet ignorant to prevent them from rocking the boat. Lenna’s novel is very much uncensored, put together from private diaries and unofficial historical documents. It exposes all of these issues of the ‘past’ Greenhouse years and educates the reader on how this worked in the overall plan to keep the Sweet ignorant.

Reality vs. Illusion in La Jetee

In La Jetee, the main character has a strong mental image of his past that works as a gateway into the past and future. However, there is one moment, during his trips to the past, when the narrator remarks that the man had no idea whether he was truly going into the past, being made to see these images, or hallucinating all of his experiences while being experimented on. He knew that his mental image of the woman’s face was very strong, but he didn’t know if it was real, even before the experiments began.

Presumably, by the end of the movie, it’s established that he truly was time-traveling, but was he really? All of his real-world feedback came from his jailers, so there was no real moment that established with certainty his time-traveling escapades. Even his last trip to the past was susceptible to his circumstances, hallucinating his death was the one he had witnessed as a child while he waited for his own execution.

An alternative theory to the man actually traveling through time might be his jailers experiments were not honestly to travel through time, but rather to manipulate what the man saw in his dreams. The experiences they give him could have been in line with their original story so as to keep the man placated, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t influencing his experiences. Plenty of uses can come from this, from controlling their prisoners to giving themselves pleasant experiences to counter the desolation outside. Whatever the truth is, the main story isn’t entirely trustworthy, especially under the man’s circumstances.

A Much Slower Death

Reading Johnson’s article about nuclear tourism of the abandoned area around Chernobyl, I was very interested in the split difference between the “quick” action of the authorities in dealing with the Chernobyl meltdown Johnson describes and the actual effect of it. Less than two days after the meltdown, all of the surrounding villages were being evacuated and serious effort was put into trying to contain the mess: “Crews of liquidators quickly moved in and began bulldozing buildings and burying topsoil. Packs of dogs were shot on sight.”

Given how much effort was taken in avoiding any lasting harm, the low immediate death count should be a hopeful figure, only 31. On the other hand, radiation isn’t like other poisons. Other poisons can be purged from the human body by its natural processes and perhaps some medical assistance, but radiation never stops having an effect on the body, as it never truly goes away. While relatively few died immediately after the nuclear meltdown, “some 6,000 people who were exposed as children to irradiated milk and other food have had thyroid cancer.” Because people usually think of poisons or contamination as temporary and curable, it can be strange to think of radiation exposure in the long term, especially when so much media tends to show the effects of nuclear exposure as explosive and fast (usually as actual explosions), even when the effects last for such a long time.

I was also interested in what one person thought seeing Chernobyl: “I imagined the zone to be a vast, burnt-out place – empty, horrible.” Instead, they saw a beautiful forest, and they kept going back to visit, continuously exposing themselves to the radiation. It’s like the ultimate embodiment of ‘appearances can be deceiving’: many would look at the forest and think, ‘Oh, it’s harmless,’ but it actually could and would slowly kill them.

Cumulative Dangers

While reading through Silent Spring, I noticed how much Carson emphasized that pesticide poisoning was not a temporary state; rather, the chemicals used so liberally on crops for human consumption did not go away quickly nor easily, and continuous exposure to small amounts of them had a cumulative effect, not a temporary one. These chemicals are persistent and do not break down quickly over time. Carson also looks at the cumulative effects of these pesticides in nature, observing how insects, birds, and other species are affected by them. Humans are not the main focus of her novel, no matter how big a role they play.

Furthermore, while much of her book can be seen as the start of green ecology and be clearly classified as a part of that genre, her stances on chemicals such as DDT are not as black and white as those taken in a lot of green ecological discourse. She doesn’t fight as hard as she can against pesticides in general, even when given the chance. In her book, she recognizes that DDT and other chemicals could be replaced with far less damaging pyrethrins, lessening the cumulative dangers of consuming treated produce without completely discontinuing the use of pesticides.

I think that these two things combined point to how Carson recognizes that humans need to maintain a certain natural balance in order to improve their present circumstances, and that that doesn’t mean that “The Desolate Year” level changes need to happen. In fact, she encourages the use of some artificial means in keeping unwanted insects at bay in the present state of the farming system. Her main worry is that the lasting environmental damage created by harmful pesticides will harm the human race via harming the world around them. She recognizes that human interactions with nature don’t go one way – causing environmental damage is causing human damage, bringing to mind ideas of dark ecology.