Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Sisyphus, Androids and Mercer

There is certainly something in the connection between the legend of Sisyphus and the daily, never-ending battle against rogue Androids in 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'.

Sisyphus is condemned to push a heavy rock up a hill and will only be released once he reaches the top - but, as the top approaches, the rock escapes and runs down to the bottom of the hill: Sisyphus has to start all over again.

This is a metaphor for never ending toil - the sort of toil needed to keep a vegetable garden weeded (before the 'devil-opment' [sorry, I'm organic] of chemical weed-killers), or perhaps that of the worker on a production line doing a repetitive job at the command of a conveyor belt.

As this, there is nothing special in P.K. Dick's use of the myth for Rick Deckard's set toil - if he had it in mind at all. Camus applied the myth as a metaphor to modern life – but modern life didn’t consciously apply the myth to itself – Camus simply made the connection. Dick could simply have had modern life in mind when developing the story rather than the myth of Sisyphus.

One interesting question people don't often ask about the myth is, "Why was Sisyphus condemned to this punishment?"

Sisyphus has attempted to deceive - deception is at the root of the labour.

Is their deception in, 'Do Androids...'?

Rather a lot.

Rick opens the novel being woken by a shock from his organ [sorry, it's 'second childishness' creeping in: And whilst I’m at it, what are nom-de-plumbs for if not to replace unfortunate surnames like ‘Dick’?].

His mood is artificially set; it is not honest. His wife, who has an element of fight against this sort of mind control, refuses to participate in the deception of induced moods.

The androids themselves are a deception – multi-layered: They are not human but look it; they do the essential work human’s think they are too superior for in space (but still perform on earth – by using ‘chickenheads’, classified as subhuman); the Rosen Association develops increasing sophisticated androids which are designed to ‘cheat’ the tests of bounty hunters like Rick; and the androids don’t necessarily know they are androids as they are given false memories.

And what are we to make of electric sheep?

The pastoral myth of carefree shepherds is set in contrast to Sisyphrian labour: However, the sheep are as likely to be an electric deception as real.

The result of these deceptions is the labour which dehumanises Rick and which he longs to escape. (Interestingly enough, the Dream Factory film version lets him do so at the end – not that I have seen it.)

And a final twisting deception: Rick’s job is to protect humanity from the ‘de-human’, from the android - that labour is itself dehumanising.

There are certainly strong parallels between the Myth and the novel, but I still don’t think we can yet say Dick consciously used the myth.

So let’s turn to Mercerism: Here is the strongest evidence that P.K. Dick refers to Sisyphus knowingly.

What happens when humans grasp the handles of the empathy box?

It is in a landscape of barrenness, reminiscent of Jesus in the wilderness, that humans merge, to toil up a merciless hill, “Impossible to make out the end. Too far. But it would come.” (Chapter 2, pg. 20)

This repeated climbing of a hill is surely direct reference to the Sisyphus myth – with a difference: The top is attainable.

We first encounter the empathy box in the hands of the ‘chickenhead’, John Isidore – and he has been to the top – where the ‘other part of it’ begins.

Whatever this other part is, however painful, people still join together through the empathy box in order to struggle to attain it.

We have to be careful though with any information that comes via Isidore – he is, after all, a ‘special’. P.K. gives some intriguing information about the finding and early existence of the character – he was picked up from a boat off the coast (possibly Mexico) is adopted by a family called Mercer (!) and seemed to have the ability to bring dead animals back to life – which made him, “…. more special than any of the other specials.” (Chap 2, pg. 21)

I am not so sure that ordinary humans manage to get to the top – their existence is more bound to the labour of Sisyphus than this special’s is.

Monday, 15 January 2007

Who Done it?

At the heart of this novel is the Commander of Ankh-Morpork City Watch, Sam Vimes.

Married to dragon breeding Lady Sybil (who has also taken up Sock Darning: She isn't very good at it, but it is the sort of thing one ought to do, as a wife), and with a young son, Sam, expecting his dad to deliver a daily, 6 o'clock reading of, 'Where's my cow?' - complete with sound effects, The Commander is faced with a situation of developing 'inter-species intolerance' which threatens the very existence of Ankh-Morpork itself.

With Lord Vetinari pressing him to take on a Vampire as a member of his force (which doesn't go down too well with the resident Were-Wolf - or with Sam himself, for that matter) and with several of his Dwarf officers leaving, Vimes is forced to try to ease the situation as the Battle of Koom Valley anniversary approaches - and the hundred's of years of bickering (and worse) the anniversary has brought with it.

A murder in the closed world of the Dwarf Deep-Downers complicates matters, as do threats to his family.

Drug sniffing Trolls don't make matters any easier.

And why was a very large picture stolen?

On one level this is an enjoyable detective romp through (and under) the streets of Ankh-Morpork, driven by a twisting, turning plot and a cast of regular Disc World characters.

But if most detective tales are, `Who-done-its'; and Agatha Christie's Poitrot stories are, `How-done-its'; Thud is a very much a, `Why-done-it?'!

What is driving the characters to behave the way they do?

This is explored most thoroughly in Vimes himself - who is not immune from the petty prejudices of humanity and who exhibits a growing anger as the story develops.

The all too easily justified anger is the most threatening thing in the story and brings Vimes, the Trolls and the Dwarfs to the very edge of destruction.

The book is a comedy, however, and like all comedies, it leaves the reader with a satisfying optimism.

On Disc-World, conflict will never be far away, but it can be resolved.
As in most of Pratchett's books, the themes and observations he makes reflect very much on the real world we find ourselves in.

Koom Valley, to me, has deep echoes of Kosovo and the `Field of Blackbird's' in 1389 - a battle which has had murderous repercussions down through history and well into our future. (Ismail Kadare's, Three Elegies For Kosovo, explores the same issues as Pratchett, but in a very different genre).

And if some of the characters in Thud are almost cliché - so too are some of the real people driving religious, gender and political intolerance (from whichever side).

For those who know the Disc-World stories, this is very much in the tradition of the earlier books - no chapters, footnotes, strong clear plot line and lovably eccentric characters (a 5 star Butler in this one, and totally `heart-of-gold, dumb-blond' pole dancer).

I just can't wait for the next one.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Wintersmith - Carry On meets The Golden Bough

At 113 years old, Miss Treason, a witch, knows about the connection between age, beans, fresh fruit and 'letting out wind'!

Tiffany, only 13 years old, with a 'he's not my boyfriend!' (even if he does send her letters with SWALK on them), is learning witchcraft from Miss Treason. She discovers there is lot of hard work, cleaning around the cobwebs and polishing the skulls, chasing after the cheese - called Horace, a rather single-minded blue cheese - oh, and a strange tingling feeling behind the eyes when Miss Treason, who is blind, uses you as a mirror.

Like most teenage girls, Tiffany has a will of her own - and even if she was told to stay still and just watch, why can't she join in the dance - especially when there is an empty space just waiting for her?

Months latter, with the snow falling thick, burying the newborn lambs, with a young brother missing and with her father begging her to help, she understands why.

This is one of Terry Pratchett's books for 'all children, aged 12 and above' - meaning anyone who is or once was 12!

It has a thumping good story line - strong characters, awful jokes and moments of danger: Perfect for the Christmas stocking.

At the heart of it is Tiffany's growing sense of identity - she has to cope with establishing who she is in a world of strong personalities (none stronger than Granny Weatherwax - control freak leader of the witches - who don't have a leader), deal with Death - and loss (someone has to clean up after the funeral, and milk the goat, and hide the Boffo), and ward off the unwanted attentions of a love-struck adolescent elemental.

This might be Discworld - but the emotions and themes are of this world.

The clear lines of the plot, the straightforward language and the characters all make this an attractive read for younger teenagers - but straight forward doesn't mean without depth.

As with many of his other books, Pratchett taps into age-old myths - fictional expressions of the fears and hopes, the irrational explanations of what it is to be human.

Here we have the Persephony myth entangled with Morris Dancing; Orpheus and the 'Wee People' working together; Celtic Ironsmiths crossed with the Greek pantheon.

This gives the story much greater significance - it is for the proto-adult in the child as much as for the vestigial child in the adult.

Yes, I smile when I see Morris Dancers prancing around in the concrete shopping centres of our towns - but having read this book, I will now see a dance which touches on the very turning of the seasons.

It is a Carry On meets The Golden Bough sort of experience!

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Shakespeare Experience: Blood

Shakespeare Experience: Blood

Reflections on Romania and literature - Hardy and Shakespeare, as well as poetry.

Caryatids, Androids and Empathy

Been watching TV again!

This one was a design programme - and a couple of 'scientists pointed out we like symetry because the human face is symetrical.

An aside was, 'the most satisfying sort of column is a caryatid': Empathy.

Loud church bells, explosions and fireworks.

The difference between the android and the human is empathy.

But, the android is a personification - what is personification but empathy?

Is there a delicious paradox at the heart of, 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep'?

Are we attracted to the android because we empathise with its humanness: But, it is its lack of empathy that stops it from being human.

Friday, 12 January 2007


Technorati Profile

Hardy and Romania

I think Hardy was concerned, amongst other things, with capturing the changes happening in what was left of rural England as mechanisation and urbanisation bit into the social realities based on 'traditional' modes of production.

Romania is going through that process now - much has already modernised, as in late Victorian England, but a few great areas and many isolated pockets are still 'pre-industrial'.

I never really understood what Hardy was capturing until I made my first visit here back in 1993 - and it hit me, almost as a shock wave, when I first travelled through Transylvania (literally: Across the Forest) seeing horse drawn carts, haystacks, scyths - not in a prettyfied BBC mini-series, but in realty - for day to day living.

There are tractors and chainsaws and large industrial agricultural units - but, even now, it still isn't difficult to go up a side road, ascend a cart track which will be impassable to a tractor in winter and find yourself in a clearing in the forest that could have come straight from the Wessex.

At Christmas there are still traditional mummers - not reconstructed - who do the firtility dances of their ancestors - in roles pased from father to son.

The pig killing is a part of these living traditions - and like Hardy I see them going.


What is an android?

If you strip away the pseudo-scientific gobbledegook, and come to the realisation that androids not only don't exist, but have nothing to do with science, what are you left with?


Androids are a literary device - a personification (possibly the ultimate personification).

Which brings us to the question, what do they personify?

Dick seems to have taken the idea of a force, let us call it intellect - although I am not happy with that - and given it as the major component of android persona. Because it is a full personification and not a simple representation, the android needs to be given a much more rounded character - so cruelty is thrown in, and ambition; there is a lust for power and even sexual satisfaction.

But, as with all personification, it is an abstraction - anything more would take the android into full humanity.

The point of personification might be to bring similarities to the fore - but the device doesn't work unless there is a significant difference - we love to admire the cleverness of the authors wit in bringing the sweet and the sour together.

Interesting that the question, 'What makes us human?' comes to mind: Should we be asking, 'What stops the androids from breaking out of the mould of personification?'

(Sorry, double excess - espresso and leisure time.)

Genre: High, Low and Quality.

Larry King Live (CNN) might not be an obvious starting point for discussing Literary Genre, but yesterday there was a fascinating programme on 24 - featuring interviews with Keifer Sutherland and the rest of the cast of the current edition (number 6, I believe).

For those who haven't watched, 24 is so called because all the action takes place 'in real time': i.e. the series lasts 24 hours and all events unfold, like in the ideal Greek Drama, within that realistic time frame.

During the interviews, Mr Sutherland made two fascinating points in regards to the apparent focus on terrorism the programme has and the value of presenting the USA with a realistic, if fictional, Black American president.

Larry King asked if the programme, as suggested by some political and media commentators, vindicated a violent response to terrorism and provided, as a result of its popularity, a straw poll on such tactics.

Keifer Sutherland responded quickly, and strongly, making the point that this was Fantasy - it did not represent the real world and more importantly it was not 'about' terrorism.

Terrorism was used in 24 as a reason for the characters to interact - the interactions are what made the show popular. Because the format required something intense to fill the 24 hour period with interactions, the original writers had looked around for anything which would provide a realistic motivation - they picked terrorism, but some other things would have done equally well.

Sutherland was adamant that 24 was simply 'a thriller' - and could be reduced to a character we care about put under threat.

Which brings me to 'Sci-Fi', Mr Dick and Sheep.

Surely the 'Sci' (which I think would be better designated ‘techno’) is like the terrorism in 24, just a milieu for letting characters interact?

In which case: The stories should be judged on the quality of interaction and character?

With this in mind, I find 'Androids' quite a good book. I particularly like the handling of the Husband/Wife relationship and the effects of pressure of work and status on it. I am also taken with the main character's attempts to define himself through his work and its consequences - and his architypical Pastoral Dream (I mean, Sheep, for goodness sake!).

I'd also single out the interaction of the sub-humans - putting the chicken head and the Android girl into a relationship I found particularly poignant, if not downright painful.

And I also think we can 'reduce' the genre to 'A Thriller' - after all, what happens is no more than a character we have come to care for is threatened.

Which brings me back to Keifer Sutherland.

His second comment was about the showing of Black characters, 'In Power'.

Sutherland made the claim that the show, by presenting in a realistic format a Black President, helps create, "The atmosphere to accept."

Again I was struck by this apparently over simplistic statement.

We are dealing here, not with personal relationships so much as with public ideas.

Has ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’ been influential - without our realising it?

I find a degree of paranoia against science and technology in the book - and despite the apparent humanistic questions, the answer seems to come through the barrel of a gun. From this side of the pond, the American suspicion of science and scientific findings (witness the recent Chrysler comments on 'hysterical' Europeans and climate change) seems to originate in such an atmosphere.

I can't but help compare with Mary Shelly's Frankenstein - the monster, though ugly, is positively optimistic.

High and Low fiction? - for me these are 'snob' classifications: Shakespeare wrote low don't forget.

At the heart is the question of genre and our wish to classify - but what for?

If what we are searching for in fiction is interaction (and I am aware that Keifer Sutherland was talking about television), then that can be depicted successfully or otherwise in any genre.

Quality fiction is therefore not limited to any genre?

Oh dear, could there really be a quality 'Mills and Boon'?


This blog is about what I read for pleasure - mainly fiction, but not exclusively so.

I run three other blogs and this one has sprung out of material that doesn't fit comfortably into the original three.

I came across the OU/BBC discussion group on reading - and much of what I publish here will have been written with that group in mind, but not everything: I hope to go deeper and wider here.

I have a separate blog for thoughts on and reactions to Shakespeare and my experiences - especially those gained living here in Romania. Not infrequent references to other reading matter is also made there so there will be an element of cross over - I will "hyper link" as necessary

All views are personal and totally prejudiced by my taste, intellect and arrogance.