100 Science Fiction Women #70: Felice Landry

Now, here is the post I was intending to write before I got side-tracked into that whole discussion of gender thing.

Felice Landry Saga of the Exiles Julian May

Felice is powerful, but childlike in her capriciousness. Mistreated badly as a child, her incredible psychic powers were forced into latency, a latency which is overcome by the new Pliocene world she finds herself in. Her small body also masked her enormous physical strength leading people to underestimate and misunderstand her, which is not a good idea when dealing with Felice . Felice does not fit into the world into which she is born and abused, and finds consolation in her psychic connection with animals and her sporting prowess. When transferred into a new and unexpected world, she finds that she still does not fit, but this time fights until she masters her power…but the cost is a further descent into insanity. A powerful athlete before she goes into Exile, Felice becomes an asset to the revolutionary Low Lives fighting against the domination of the Tanu, although they don’t entirely trust her. Felice may be amoral and disturbed, but it is not until she is tortured horrifically by the sadistic Culluket that she becomes truly psychotic. Part of her understands her own dysfunction and tries to seek help, but self-doubt in the helper, or fear of Felice’s darkness, mean this leads nowhere. And for an 18 year old bent on revenge, Felice knows how to do it effectively, engineering mass murder on an enormous scale by breaking open the Gibraltar Isthmus to let the Atlantic Ocean into the proto-Mediterranean basin destroying the Tanu capital. Felice is a young woman of power, warped by the treatment of others into a tragic character who is compelled to destruction and death – a victim and a mass murderer.

So fragile, so deceivingly meager, the kernel of her identity within the brain-vault opened. Psychoenergies gushed forth in giddy torrents. The strictures, the wounds, the debris from the torturer’s work that seemed to presage madness…were swept away. A fantastic new edifice that was the unwitting legacy of the Beloved reared in glory. It expanded, it filled, it recovered and restored and reorganized as it grew. In seconds only, the mental seedling burgeoned into a mature and executive psycho-organism. She was whole. She was operant. And he had done it!

…After a time she found the well-concealed thing that would motivate Stein to help her engineer the murder of the Tanu race.

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100 Sci Fi Women #6: Dorothea Macdonald

Dorothea Macdonald aka Diamond Mask  Julian May’s Galactic Milieu Trilogy

We meet Dorothea as a small child, frightened of her own power and frightened of that of others, scared of difference and of standing out. A small plain girl of enormous intelligence of even more enormous repressed metapsychic intelligence, Dorothea attempts to hide from what she is and what she can be. As she grows up she learns that she can’t repress her power for ever, even if it frightens other people. And it is not until she nearly dies that she learns to shed her own fears. As a mature adult she proves that size and looks are not the most important aspects of a person and that it is not necessary to be physically perfect to have the love of others. She hides her horrific facial damage behind a diamond encrusted mask because it is more improtant to her that she gets on with her work of running the planet of Caledonia. She comes to love Jack Remillard, despite the fact that his physical form is nothing but a naked brain. Dedicated to her work, to humanity and to peace, she is willing to die using non-violence to defeat the evil she sees arrayed against the galaxy. I have read Magnificat a bunch of times, and I still always cry the entire way through the final chapter. Dorothea is a great hero who fights without violence and triumphs with love.

She was very young and very human, and this change in her relationship with the Callie citizenry touched her profoundly.  Before, her great abilities had been obscured as it were, by the image of a small, plain-featured woman wearing ordinary clothes. But in her diamond mask and sparkling suit she became almost an icon, a telling symbol of strength and authority. While she wore that garb, no one would ever forget what she really was. And neither would she.

SommeWorld and the Disney-ification of history

In The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde, the characters encounter SommeWorld which “invites its visitors to taste the marrow-chilling fear of being an infantryman in the Great World.” The as yet uncompleted SommeWorld encourages visitors to change into “uncomfortable British army uniforms before manning the trenches outside” where they encounter artillery barrages, mortars and parachute flares.

While this is a wholly fictional theme park, it is not so far from some of the approaches being taken by modern museums, including our very fine Australian War Memorial here in Canberra. The move to a greater level of interactivity, to the idea of “experiential” history goes beyond just making use of technology to attract new visitors. Someone told me yesterday, possibly completely apocryphally, that a Director of the Australian War Memorial had wanted to find a way to include scent in the exhibitions. Given that, as Rosenweig and Thelan found in 1998, museums tend to be viewed by the public as the most reliable source of knowledge about the past, one wonders how this move to the experiential will impact on people’s perception of and interpretation of the past – and also their faith in the museum. Static objects which provide seemingly (but obviously not really) unmediated access to the past make the public value the presentations in museums. While audio visual experiential history might make museums more entertaining, this does not mean equate with making them more trusted as a source of history.

Another interesting sideline in the Australian War Memorial is that aspect of entertainment sited in the past has bled into a commodified form of entertainment value from the space itself. OK, that isn’t very clear, but my own ideas abotu this are not quite clear and something I think is worth working through. Some time ago I attended a ball in the ANZAC Hall at the War Memorial which had a “spy/secret agent” theme. We dined under the remains of the midget submarine on tables decorated with plastic guns and licorice bullets and danced under the wingspan of G-for-George. It is a fabulous venue, but it also leaves you with a slightly odd feeling. I don’t have any of the outrage that somehow we are profaning something sacred or any such investment in the objects of the past, but it is interesting how it turns what has been seen as a space of commemoration and memory into a site of celebration, commercialism and even business – anyone can hire this space as a venue for cocktail functions or balls. Not sure that there have been any weddings there, but I guess it is possible…. Now this is, from a pragmatic viewpoint, a sensible way for the War Memorial to make additional money from what would otherwise be empty spaces at night which it cna use to continue to restore and support its collection. from a theoretical viewpoint, it represents a whole lot of other things. It is interesting, for example, to contemplate what Pierre Nora might think about it, about this use of les lieux of memory.

Perhaps in the future we see the past reflected to us in the form of SommeWorld, or the historical pageant theme parks of Julian May’s Galactic Milieu, which Stein gets thrown out of for being too authentic in his attempt to recapture his viking past, and Mercy orchestrates as she tries to capture something not able to be satisfied in the world she lives in.

Future past

In the wake of the end of Battlestar Galactica and its revelations about the origins of humanity, I was contemplating other science fiction which is set in the pre-human past, and which contains origin myths about humans. There is obviously a lot of science fiction which crosses into extant human history, forming alternate histories or just explaining that past – David Weber has a strong line in it, Doctor Who could survive without it and AE Van Vogt and Robert Heinlein have dabbled in it. There are also the occurrences in a galaxy far far away, a long long time ago.

What was interesting to me though was, however, how little science fiction I could think of that I have read or seen has actually stepped into the pre-human and impacted on humanity. It seems like such a rich vein of exploration. I do wonder whether I am just forgetting some, and thoughts of these kinds of stories do seem to lurk insubstantially at the corners of my thoughts, but I just can’t quite grasp them. The two that have occurred to me are the Pliocene series by Julian May and The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.

In the Pliocene books, humans who don’t fit into the the new Galactic Milieu of the 22nd century travel through a one-way time machine in Southern France to the Pliocene period. Here, rather than discovering an untouched, pre-human world, they find two races of aliens who are perpetually warring despite their genetic relationship. Humans are used by the Tanu, a race of tall, goodlooking faerie like aliens, as their allies, although in some cases they are reduced to little more than slaves. The two races in the books, the Tanu and the Firvulag, are clearly the descendants of fairies, elves, sprites, goblins and trolls of human legend. What also becomes clear through the books is that some humans who have returned to the Pliocene have a genetic relationship to the Tanu themselves, suggesting that they survived to mix with the human evolutionary cycle. The suggestion is that one of the key aspects of the Galactic Milieu, the development in some humans of mind powers such as telepathy and psychokinesis may have in fact been at least in part a result of the inter breeding between human ancestors and Tanu.

In Hitchhikers Guide, the characters do not return to a pre-human earth until a couple of books along. However, it is the first book which nonetheless reveals the origins of the Earth and its purpose – as a huge supercomputer which has been created to discover the question of the meaning of life which gives the answer 42. Once the question is revealed, so too will the meaning of life be revealed, or so the theory goes. Mice were the representatives on earth of the beings who had created the computer/Earth, there to ensure that the processes ran appropriately to reach the answer. Of course, when the Earth is destroyed to make way for a Galactic bypass, the mice’s plan is destroyed and a new Earth must be built.

Interested to add to the collection of pre-human/human impacting science fiction if anyone has any thoughts.

Get your genuine authenticity here

Two quite different things I was reading this morning made me think again about the concept of authenticity. First, an article about Susan Boyle getting a makeover which cited people complaining that she was “altering her appearance” and was no longer “not done up.” The other was #116 of Stuff White People Like – Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore. In here it mentions the idea that white people like “Real Hip Hop” as opposed to what black people actually listen to (and as usual made me cringe slightly in recognition of my own, clearly stereotypical whiteness).

In our increasingly hyperreal world, the search for “authenticity” has clearly become an increasingly desperate one, and, as with an commodity which is desperately sought, one which is subject to marketing like anything else. Tourism searches to offer us ‘authentic’ experiences, but like the cultural pageants Julian May refers to at the beginning of the Pliocene series, these are constructed representations built to meet our own expectations. The first world travellers wants to see the genuine life of people wherever they are visiting – but when this genuine life involves coke cans and satellite television, we feel oddly let down. The slum tourism which has risen in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire is an example of a search for this (and it is ironic that in the film itself, the boys act for a period as guides helping Americans experience “genuine India”).

But what is authenticity in our modern, globalise world. Are we actually looking for forms of primitivism – whether it is the untouched eyebrows of Susan Boyle or the villages without cell phones in central Africa. The more we choose to trek in Nepal, the more this becomes customised to meet our needs as travellers. This is evolution, globalisation, inevitable change. Give people money and they will buy things – give them access to the 21st century and they will embrace it. Is our desire for authenticity indeed a form of cultural imperialism, allowing us to assert our innate superiority by being able to gain pleasure from something while still being able to feel above it? We didn’t live in our “natural” state, the Western world has changed and evolved, rich people have embraced makeovers and improving our appearance – how can we then criticise those who seek to do the same.

We need to re examine our use of authenticity and understand that it doesn’t mean what we think it means – and allow ourselves to experience what is actually authentic that is, how it is.