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If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation you may hate it or deify it; but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality. You have, in fact, alienated yourself.

--Ursula K. Le Guin, "American SF and the Other"

The Gender Knot cover

The extent to which such writers, critics, and editors as Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr., and Pamela Sargent have explored the feminine "other" within science fiction is known to many. Indeed, it was Pamela Sargent who criticized and yet realized the potential of the genre in her introduction to Women of Wonder by saying, "One can wonder why a literature that prides itself on exploring alternatives or assumptions counter to what we normally believe has not been more concerned with the roles of women in the future" (xv). While these and other feminist authors have explored alternatives to the alienated status of women constructed by patriarchy, the effects of participating in a patriarchy for men remain relatively unexamined. Although the social system of patriarchy privileges men, this privileged status places men in a position of power which isolates them from women and other men, thus constructing a masculine "other" alienated from relational existence. What Sargent and other feminist writers have done is create space for science fiction and its criticism to deeply explore alternatives to this masculine "other" constructed by patriarchy. Using Allan G. Johnson's conception of patriarchy in The Gender Knot, this essay will offer a new reading of Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" and explore Candas Jane Dorsey's "(Learning About) Machine Sex" in order to explore the question being asked by the mad-scientist narrator in Michael Blumlein's "The Brains of Rats."

The Brains of Rats cover

The mad-scientist narrator of Michael Blumlein's "The Brains of Rats" is asking a question that could only be asked in a post-feminist era: What does it mean to be a man? The short story portrays the discovery of a rhinovirus that, when transmitted through water or air, has the ability to cross the placenta into a developing fetus, creating either an all-male or all-female human species. This single science fictional element places Blumlein's mad-scientist narrator on a journey of self-discovery which creates a certain poignancy to the questions of gender that many of us as readers are already asking.

Part of the beauty of this short story is not so much in what it is saying but in what it does to the reader. To put it frankly, reading "The Brains of Rats" makes some habitual science fiction readers uncomfortable. Several episodes are intended to shock readers, such as when the narrator portrays his homosexual experiment with a black man in as much explicit detail as possible (Blumlein 641-643). This same feeling is created when the narrator asks a friend what is the best thing about being a man and he replies, "Having a penis. . . . Having it sucked, putting it in a warm place," (Blumlein 640) or by the patient who laments that he is impotent and, after having a metal rod placed in his penis, rejoices in his godlike ability to have sex for eight hours straight, pleasing his women by bending the rod in different directions (Blumlein 644-645).

Allan G. Johnson is a sociologist who has written prolifically about problems in gender, and his conception of patriarchy offers an explanation for why readers might feel uncomfortable with these scenes. In The Gender Knot, Johnson explores several cultures different from our own to make an argument about how patriarchy defines sexuality and our participation in this particular social system (17). Johnson notes that two to three percent of human children are androgynous at birth, and that those born with this sexual ambiguity are accepted in some Native American cultures because the system in which they live provides a space for androgyny to exist. For example, those born androgynous in the Navajo culture occupy a third sex category -- "nadle" -- which exists legitimately among the common cultural categories of "male" and "female."

Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature cover

To move back to Blumlein's short story, his mad-scientist narrator crosses boundaries which the specific social system in which we live does not recognize, or is only slowly recognizing. As the narrator crosses these boundaries, by dressing as a woman and experiencing sexuality as a woman, he begins to offend certain deep structures generated by the system in which we live. Our system only recognizes the categories of "male" and "female," but Blumlein's narrator violates this system by living a hybrid existence in order to accumulate knowledge and decide the fate of human gender. To use Donna Haraway's term, he becomes a cyborg, an unnatural monster both male and female, which calls into question these acknowledged categories, thus disturbing some readers.

I would like to further explore Johnson's idea of "deep structures" (which is unrelated to the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky) with reference to Raphael Carter's "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation." In the form of a scientific paper coauthored by K. N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin, this short story recounts the discovery of a disorder which impairs gender perception. People with this disorder cannot readily perceive the sex of a person from appearance alone. In the course of exploring this disorder, Sirsi and Botkin begin to realize that "Sometimes an experiment reveals more about the experimenters than the subjects" (Carter 99).

It is their experience with twins from Minnesota which causes Sirsi and Botkin to view their own perception of gender as the disorder. These twins cannot identify gender in terms of the acknowledged categories of "male" or "female"; however, drawing on their own language developed during childhood, they can identify gender in terms of twenty-two categories, from those with clitoromegaly to different forms of hermaphrodism (Carter 101-103). It is at this point that Sirsi and Botkin begin to perceive the identification of gender using only the two terms "male" and "female" as the cognitive defect, not the other way around.

Sirsi and Botkin conclude that certain innate predispositions control our perceptions of reality. These "innate predispositions" are what Johnson means by "deep structures." "Our knowledge of the world," Sirsi and Botkin explain, "is filtered through an unreliable narrator whose biases deny us direct access to the truth" (Carter 106). Similarly, by dressing as a woman and using his homosexual experiment to experience sexuality as a woman, Blumlein's narrator disturbs those who approach the short story with the innate predispositions generated by the patriarchal system in which we participate because he moves within, without, and through acknowledged definitions of male and female.

Johnson argues that these innate predispositions construct gender and our perceptions of gender by creating paths of least resistance or acceptable ways of acting. To define this concept, Johnson turns to the paths of least resistance created by the board game Monopoly (79). Let me illustrate his argument by telling my own experience with this game. Monopoly, essentially, creates a social system that rewards greed. The rules are built in such a way that a player attempts to create as much wealth as he or she can while pushing the others out of the game. Because of its length, it is a game that easily gets boring. When I get bored, I often miss the opportunity to gain more wealth when I don't notice players landing on my property. I am laughed at because of this, and you could imagine the reaction if I just went around the board not purchasing any property or allowing all to stay at my hotel for free instead of collecting $1500. In contrast, there is my friend who follows the paths of least resistance, and plays by the rules of the game so well that he throws the board at my wife when he loses and then isolates himself in his room. He is not like this outside of the game; the innate predispositions or rules of the game create paths of least resistance or acceptable ways of behaving which construct who the players are and how they interact.

Damon Knight's short story "The Handler" illustrates the nature of innate predispositions and the paths of least resistance they create. "The Handler" tells the story of Pete and Harry, the big man and little man (as they are so often referred to in the story): the mechanism and the handler who operates it from within. A group of people are celebrating the success of the show they have just put on, and Pete is the center of attention, capturing the glances of women and the envy of men. The tone of the party changes as soon as Harry steps out of Pete and reveals his true self as the handler. He is shunned by the people at the party, and only when he is forced to reenter Pete does the party return to its normal state.

The genius of Knight's story is that the portrayal of this single moment can allow us to ask so many questions about the social system in which his characters inhabit and participate. The social system does not provide a space for the acceptance of Harry, the handler, because the notion of being a handler or the idea of interacting with a mechanical man is not acknowledged. When Harry exits Pete, the path of least resistance is to shun Harry; thus, party-goers begin to leave, and the center of attention turns elsewhere. Pete's girlfriend Ruthie does not even acknowledge Harry, and when she is forced to, she evades him, giving him the excuse that she has to talk to someone before he leaves (Knight 47). The path of least resistance for Harry is to climb back into Pete, which he does at the behest of two close friends. Once Pete comes back to life, Ruthie is on his arm as he once again becomes the center of attention. As readers, we are left stunned by the final sentence: "It was a great party, and everything was alright, far into the night" (Knight 48) -- "everything was alright" meaning no other action offended the innate predispositions or rules founding the social system of the story.

Just as the social system within "The Handler" defines the ways in which Harry and the other characters react to the moment, patriarchy separates humanity into two sexes, male and female, by defining what these categories are, including acceptable ways of behaving. Blumlein's narrator shocks because his actions do not conform to the acceptable behavior defined by patriarchy. As a man, he enjoys dressing as a woman; as a man, he uses his homosexual experiment to experience sexuality as a woman. The actions of patients, close friends, and loved ones which he relates also create dissonance in the reader because the acknowledged ways of acting are followed all too well, such as the patient who has a metal rod surgically implanted in his penis in order to control his erection as well as how he pleasures women. The same paths of least resistance that code the female as "other" can also encode the male as "other." Here, the definition of "other" becomes something more than oppressed outsider; I redefine it as ways in which men are constructed adversely by the very same forces structuring the female.

Blumlein's narrator illustrates the nature of this masculine "other" near the end of the story. Unable to answer what it means to be a man by examining close friends, patients, and himself, the mad-scientist narrator turns to his wife:

The question really is how I differ from my wife. . . . She says, my job, it is so hard, I am so tired my body aches. And I think, that is too bad, I am sorry, where is the money to come from, be tough, buck up. I say, I am insecure at work, worried about being a good father, a husband. And she says, you are good, I love you, which washes off me as though she had said the sky is blue. She strokes my head and I feel trapped; I stroke hers and she purrs like a cat. What is this? I ask, nervous, frightened. Love, she says. Kiss me. (Blumlein 645)

The narrator is continually trying to define himself by what he is supposed to be, and his inability to do so creates someone who is insecure and unable to connect with his wife on any emotional level. This is the male "other" that patriarchy creates. Arguing that "patriarchy encourages men to seek security, status, and other rewards through control" as well as "fear other men's ability to control and harm them," Johnson states, "Patriarchy is grounded in a Great Lie that the answer to life's needs is disconnection and control rather than connection, sharing, and cooperation. . . . [It] separates men from what they need most by encouraging them to be autonomous and disconnected when in fact human existence is fundamentally relational" (30). In other words, because patriarchy privileges men by placing them in a position of dominance, the paths of least resistance created by patriarchy encourage men to seek control. The need to seek control and the fear of losing control weakens even the dominant, male sex by cutting off possibilities of connection, sharing, and cooperation not only with women but with other men. I would like to explore control and fear and ways in which these innate predispositions adversely construct men by offering a new reading of Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" and exploring the construction of a female succeeding in a patriarchal system in Candas Jane Dorsey's "(Learning About) Machine Sex."

In Ellison's "I Have No Mouth," only five people survive on a post-apocalyptic Earth, and these five people are forced to live inside a sentient supercomputer called AM which torments them in any way it can conceive. AM is the social system in which these characters participate. AM intensifies the characters' need for control and also their fear of losing this control, and these innate predispositions created by AM construct who these five characters are and how they interact with each other. The reader learns of two rules to this social system. First, the five characters must endure whatever torturous device or situation the machine creates. In Ted's words, "The machine masturbated and we had to take it or die" (Ellison 270). Second, no escape can be attempted (Ellison 271). AM removes all control; it is, in essence, portrayed as a malevolent god controlling the environment, the physical characteristics of the characters, as well as the "gift" of death: the characters have lived in the machine for one-hundred and nine years. Each character, forced to inhabit and participate in this social system, fears this lack of control; thus, resulting actions (no matter how immoral) are directed at regaining control.

Because the reader experiences the inner world of AM through the eyes of the character Ted, everything the reader sees is filtered through Ted's thinking. The story itself concerns the attempt to reach a pile of canned food which AM has supposedly placed somewhere within itself. As the journey continues, another one of the five characters, Benny, suffers a mental collapse, and he attempts an escape. The others attempt to subdue him, for they know if he tries, AM will torture him (Ellison 271-273). Ted, however, becomes furious at Benny. He becomes envious of the oversized penis AM has given Benny, because Benny is the only one who can get Ellen, the sole female character, to climax. Because of this jealousy and anger, which even spreads to Ellen, Ted hesitates to help subdue Benny because Ted might regain a measure of control over Ellen if Benny is killed or altered again in some way. In this case, Ted perceives that the easiest action directed at gaining control is not to act, and by not acting, Ted isolates himself from the other characters.

Ellen is the only woman among four men, and it is particularly interesting how the social system structures the dynamics between these characters. As they are journeying to the canned food, two of the characters carry Ellen while the other two walk in front, hoping to deflect any malice AM throws at them (Ellison 271). Here, the fear is a loss of control. The men would rather face whatever AM creates to afflict them than lose or have something happen to Ellen because she is the only one they can control as each man has his turn with her. Johnson says that "men are encouraged to see everything and everyone as other, and to look on every situation in terms of how it might enhance or threaten their sense of control" (30), and it is this need to see everything in terms of control and fear which redefines intimacy. In Ellison's short story, intimacy is redefined as Ellen takes turns "servicing" the men.

Ellison creates a social system closer to our own than the surreal elements of his story would have us believe, and it is the ability to read AM as a metaphor for patriarchy which brings a certain clarity to what patriarchy is and how it adversely constructs men. Johnson says that "Men pay an enormous price for participating in patriarchy" (29), and we see this "enormous price" in the types of individuals Ted and the other male characters become. It is the paths of least resistance created by the need to control and the fear of losing control that construct men who are insecure, scared, and have a chronic need to prove themselves by gaining more control. It ultimately creates men who are isolated and disconnected from relational existence (Johnson 29-30). The ultimate manifestation of isolation occurs when Ted, after he has regained some measure of control by killing the others, transforms into a green jelly with no mouth.

Science Fiction Culture cover

An exploration of Candas Jane Dorsey's cyberpunk piece "(Learning About) Machine Sex" is interesting in the context of this essay, for it is a story about a female, Angel, who seemingly succeeds in a patriarchal system by creating a machine sex program that simulates orgasm in those that use it. In Science Fiction Culture, Camille Bacon-Smith defines the cyberpunk movement as a "concerted effort" by male authors to force women out of science fiction, part of a backlash against the entrance of women into science fiction in the 1970s (10). What Dorsey does is explore the nature of this backlash which finds its way into the narratives of cyberpunk authors (and the cyberpunk myth as a result) by introducing a female character who apparently thrives in a male-dominated, cyberpunk environment.

The cyberpunk setting portrayed in the short story is a patriarchal system founded on the need to control and the fear of losing control. The opening scene has Whitman, Angel's employer, physically abusing her because she will not reveal the machine sex program to him when he asks (Dorsey 746). Whitman goes out of his way several times to remind Angel that he has "the option" on her bioware or owns the computer programs she creates (Dorsey 747). The control and fear created by this cyberpunk environment is manifested most significantly when Whitman sleeps with Angel one last time before he tells her that he has sold the software company she has single-handedly made successful (Dorsey 751). Each of these episodes demonstrates Whitman's fear of losing control based on Angel's genius as a computer programmer.

Even though she becomes a success in this patriarchal system, the price exacted from Angel is that she becomes as disconnected and isolated as Ted (and the other male characters) in Ellison's "I Have No Mouth." At Rocky Mountain House where she spent her childhood, Angel completes her machine sex program and allows a local cowboy to be the first beta tester. A computer's ability to generate an orgasm seems perverted to him, and the ensuing conversation concerns the nature of love in Angel's life which reveals much about her character. For example during their conversation, she discovers that she has left her drugs in Toronto. She remembers her attempt to "clean up her act" at this moment and how it ended: "All that had happened was that she had spent the days so tight with rage that she couldn't eat . . . for the record, she thought, she'd rather be stoned" (Dorsey 757). When she is clean, the resulting rage, directed at Whitman and other men who have used her, severs her from any other emotion; her consequent decision to remain stoned isolates her from reality. The paths of least resistance for Angel is to gain control and to prevent others from gaining control which is embodied in how she succeeds in this cyberpunk environment: "I know how to set up power blocs. Except in mine there is only one party -- me. And that's the way it's going to stay. Me against them from now on" (Dorsey 758). Like Ted, she isolates herself, disconnects herself from everyone because of the insecurity of losing control.

The machine sex program itself is a physical representation of the ways in which patriarchy adversely affects men. In discussing the ethics of the program, Angel reveals her definition of intimacy: "Even when someone finally made me come, it was just a feather in his cap, an accomplishment, nothing personal. Like you said. All I was was a program, they plugged into me and went through the motions and got their result" (Dorsey 760). In "I Have No Mouth," intimacy becomes nothing more than a service; in "Machine Sex," intimacy is nothing more than a program. Both stories demonstrate how the acceptable ways of acting defined by the innate predispositions of control and fear adversely construct those who participate in a patriarchal system.

In "A Cyborg Manifesto," Donna Haraway says that "In a fiction where no character is 'simply' human, human status is highly problematic" (179). Blumlein's narrator crosses boundaries and explores experiences which make the acknowledged categories of "male" and "female" problematic. Perhaps the narrator is not mad at all. The narrator concludes "The Brains of Rats" by saying "I am still baffled. It is not as simple as the brains of rats. . . . I want to possess, and be possessed" (Blumlein 645). Blumlein's short story is about the difficulty of defining masculinity in terms other than those acknowledged by patriarchy. Within the particular patriarchal system in which he is participating, the narrator cannot be anything else but baffled. The innate predispositions of the social system, represented by the rhinovirus which only recognizes the categories of "male" and "female," will not allow the narrator to conceive a reality in which he can possess and be possessed, control and be controlled. He is asking what it means to be a man, a prescriptive question. Perhaps the better question is a descriptive one: "Who are we?" What feminism has done is create a consciousness that allows science fiction writers not only to explore alternatives to acknowledged genders, but also to explore the masculine monster created by patriarchy.


Reader Comments

Neil Baird and his family live in Reno, where he is working upon his Ph.D. in Composition and Rhetoric. He has recently become a proud father of a baby boy; hopefully, the first word out of his mouth will be "Gandalf." His miniature schnauzer's name is "Q" (from Star Trek).

This article is a small part of a much larger work. As such, Neil welcomes any comments and criticisms, including suggestions of other works that he should consider, either via e-mail or the Forum.

Works Cited

Bacon-Smith, Camille. Science Fiction Culture. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000.

Blumlein, Michael. "The Brains of Rats." The Norton Book of Science Fiction. Ed. Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. New York: Norton, 1993. 633-645.

Carter, Raphael. "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation." Starlight 2. Ed. Patrick Nielsen Hayden. New York: Tor, 1998. 89-106.

Dorsey, Candas Jane. "(Learning About) Machine Sex." The Norton Book of Science Fiction. Ed. Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. New York: Norton, 1993. 746-761.

Ellison, Harlan. "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream." The Mirror of Infinity. Ed. Robert Silverberg. San Francisco: Canfield, 1970. 269-284.

Haraway, Donna J. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

Johnson, Allan G. The Gender Knot. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997.

Knight, Damon. "The Handler." The Norton Book of Science Fiction. Ed. Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. New York: Norton, 1993. 45-48.

Le Guin, Ursula K. "American SF and the Other." The Language of the Night. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: HarperPerennial, 1989. 93-96.

Sargent, Pamela. Women of Wonder: Science Fiction Stories by Women about Women. New York: Vintage, 1974.

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