PCA/ACA, The Ship Who Sang, and Geek Academia

Next week is the annual Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference, which is my most favorite academic conference, and one that I attend each year. I try to alternate my presentations between sci-fi and music, thus ensuring that my most favorite subjects get equal treatment in my own little academic universe. This year, as you may have read in a previous post, I’m presenting on Mastodon’s “The Motherload” video in a paper I’ve decided to call “The Dialectic of T/werk: Hegel, Marx, and Womanist Agency in Mastodon’s ‘The Motherload’ Video.” I’m excessively delighted with my title. My original intention today was to share a little bit of this paper with you, but I’ve recently had an inquiry from a publisher, so now I’m not sure that I can post it on a blog, because of possible future copyright, blah blah blah. So, I’m going to give you an excerpt from a previous paper, from a year that I presented on sci-fi, that still deals with music. This paper was entitled “Brainships and Dragonriders: Posthumanism and Gender in the Work of Anne McCaffrey.”

Before I give you some snippets, I want to add that the paper was inspired by the surprising amount of commentary after Anne McCaffrey’s death that argued that she wasn’t “really” a feminist writer. Many arguments stated that her feminism was out-dated (a rather odd argument, considering that she was writing in the 60s and 70s. Isn’t everything out-dated when we look back?). I contend, however, that her feminism is groundbreaking, and the she was the first post-humanist feminist writer in science fiction.

Also, I’m really hoping that I inspire you to read the works of Anne McCaffrey, if you haven’t already. Not only do many of her books deal with music in some form, but she also was a contributor to the collection Carmen Miranda’s Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three, a collection of sci-fi short stories that was based on a filk-song.

It just doesn’t get much geekier than that.

So, without futher ado, here’s part of my argument for why Anne McCaffrey’s feminism was radically ground-breaking (and, please forgive any citation problems–for conference presentations, I sometimes make notations, not formal citations):

Perhaps the best example, however, of McCaffrey’s gender subversion and radical post-feminisism is Helva, the protagonist of The Ship Who Sang. The Ship Who Sang, published in 1969, is the first book of the Ship Who series. The novel consists of five short stories, all featuring Helva, that were published between 1961 and 1969. One additional story, “Honeymoon,” was published in the short story collection Get Off the Unicorn in 1977. The rest of the Ship Who series was written with various collaborators from 1992-1994 and by separate authors in 1996 and 1997 to make a total of seven full novels. The premise shared in the Ship Who universe is that persons who are born grossly handicapped/disfigured, and without use of their bodies, can become “an encapsulated brain” (Ship Who Sang 1) by installing their bodies into a shell. Shell people, as they are called, are then hooked up to space ships to become the ship, or to cities to become the city. They are not just cyborgs, but cyborgs whose entire “original” body is encased to become the brain of a new, mechanical body. Helva is a shell person who is installed in a spaceship, indentured to the government (Federated Sentient Planets) who paid for her operations and transformation. Traditionally paired with a brawn, an unaltered mobile human, Helva, like all brainships, takes jobs and accomplishes missions for the FSP to work off her debt and become an independent contractor.

In The Ship Who Sang, Helva’s body, as well as her gender, are called into question in the first sentence: “She was born a thing and as such would be condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph required of all newborn babies” (1). She, the gendered self, is a thing, not a girl or female, but an it. Gender is disembodied from the start. Helva retains use of her infant body for a few months before she is encapsulated, surgically altered, and given her shell. Within her shell, or rather, as her shell, she can manipulate attached tools to perform tasks; when she is installed into her ship and becomes the ship, she uses those same synaptic connections to control the ship. The ship becomes her body, and her body, in the shell, becomes the brain of the ship. For Helva, her mechanization helps her subvert her gender early on–as all shell people are encouraged to develop hobbies, Helva becomes interested in singing. What she doesn’t realize is that vocal ranges tend to be gender specific. As a cyborg, singing, for Helva, is a matter of physics–her range is not limited by her physical body. So she creates a singing range that includes male ranges: baritone, bass, and tenor, for example. During her first brawn courtship (where the brain chooses a partner), Jennan is the brawn who discovers her ability to sing male roles; later, after Helva chooses him as a partner, he literally fights anyone who mocks her singing until she is known, with admiration, as the ship who sang. Not only does Helva subvert gender, through her cyborgism, by choosing which ranges to sing, her brawn, Jennan, fights for her ability to do so. Gender is something Helva chooses, and her posthumanism, her literal cyborgness, is what gives her the ability to choose.

Her performance of gender, and the destabilization of gender, becomes more pronounced when Helva is given a mission to take a troupe of actors to Beta Corvi. An alien species, the Beta Corviki, live in a lethal methane gas environment and have developed new ways of harnessing energy. In exchange for their technology, they want the plays of Shakespeare (as they have no dramatic arts). Helva is cast as the Nurse (after she demonstrates she could also play male parts, or, as one of the actors exclaims, she could be the whole play herself. Her shipbody does not preclude her from acting, because her consciousness, with the rest of the actors, will be transferred to a Beta-Corvikian body on the planet. Not only can Helva choose which gender to perform, she can perform that gender in a body completely different from her mechanical body–an alien body–which she thinks her “self” into (as do the rest of the actors). If that isn’t disembodiment enough, in “Honeymoon,” the one Helva story after The Ship Who Sang, Helva and her new brawn, Niall, return to Beta Corvi, have the Beta Corvikian version of sex, which is a literal merging of two physical bodies. In the middle of it, the automatic mind-transfer recall is triggered, and they are brought back into their human and mechanical bodies–mostly respectively. Helva and Niall now share physical sensations, like taste–Helva can taste the coffee Niall is drinking. This is beyond posthuman and radical disembodiment because it’s more than an extension of consciousness through technology; it’s a combination of consciousness in two shared bodies. Posthumanism, and radically extended consciousness, allows Helva and Niall not only to choose genders, but to choose to combine their very selves as well. Helva’s dis-embodied gender(s) demonstrates that McCaffrey’s feminism operates through a posthuman paradigm that subverts gender norms by exploring how disembodiment can be re-gendering.

There’s clearly more to this paper, but I hope you get the gist. And that you immediately go out and read The Ship Who Sang (which is soooo good!) and the entire Dragonriders of Pern series, and everything else she has ever written. And then, I hope you write papers on sci-fi and geek rock for academic conferences because hey, that’s what we do, right?

In Praise of School Pictures, the Anti-Selfie

School pictures — those annual photos taken by schools ostensibly for yearbooks — have turned into a relic from the past, a practice that seems to continue more from inertia than for any particular reason.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, school photos and yearbooks served a pretty important purpose: They provided a visual record of a child’s development, and acted as a way to build comradery and mutual identity for students. According to the OED, the term “year-book” was first used in this sense in 1910, to describe Barnard College’s The Mortarboard, but the practice of taking pictures and marketing them together in a book actually predates the American Civil War, and can be attributed to George Kendall Warren, a daguerreotypist who lived from 1824-1884 and started making “class books” from as early as 1858.

In the 20th century, yearbooks stopped being for colleges only, and became part of the elementary and secondary school landscape. Families that couldn’t afford to pay a professional photographer for a sitting could still get a chance for a picture of their child every year. Pictures were (and still are) offered in various sizes, from 8×10 to “wallet size,” so that they could be given to loved ones and carried about.  School pictures didn’t just provide a record of a school, they provided a record of a family.

Even when chemical film cameras became ubiquitous by the end of the 20th century, school photos still served that important function. In a large family like mine, sitting everyone down for individual portraits year after year would have been a Herculean task — but school pictures made sure that our classmates and families can look back and remember much more clearly.

But today, do those original purposes of school photos really make any sense? I have a semi-daily record of my children from social media, and don’t have any need to distribute pictures to my family and friends, since that is automated. Parents today anxieties today are that images of their children are too widely distributed. And does anyone really think that the Reunion Committee for the Class of 2015 is going to mine the yearbook for nostalgic images, rather than finding them on the internet?

School photos no longer mean what they used to. Today, they are the anti-selfie, one of the few antidotes to our cultural narcissism. The selfie (and its loathsome accoutrement, the “selfie-stick” has only one true challenger to its dominance — the school picture. You can try to look your best, but in the end, THAT picture is going to be the permanent institutional record of you, zits and all. We need school photos to keep us from becoming our own paparazzi.

I will close with an elementary school picture of myself. LOOK ON MY BANGS AND 70s GARB! LOOK UPON THEM AND DESPAIR!

School Pictures