Scientific Gothic Doubles

Posted by Lobke Minter on September 12, 2013 in Guest Blog, Lobke Minter tagged with

Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote science fiction as James Tiptree Jr.

Gothic is concerned with social or individual transgression; this suggests both imagined and realistic threats to either the individual or society as a whole. With the addition of science, as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, scientific progression became another way in which the Gothic anxiety about boundaries can be explored. Arguably science fiction has become another way in which to explore landscapes just as desolate and alienating as found in the Gothic.  Often science fiction elaborates on themes of transgression by not merely interrogating the placement of these boundaries, but by transforming the limits of human accomplishment.

In a world where gene-splicing, cloning and artificial intelligence are a reality, one could argue that the classical monsters are not necessarily the most effective way of exploring the Gothic any longer. Science fiction becomes a framework for exploring the consequences of unchecked scientific progress. Each generation of science fiction authors has had a new array of technological possibilities to choose from. Science and technology are constantly pushing against the limits or boundaries within society. It is important to understand that where science fiction deviates from the Gothic is that it reintroduces an almost romantic sensibility to the Gothic. And here, romantic should be read as transcendence or at the very least the yearning to transcend the self. If Gothic is the dark shadow of Romanticism, then science fiction attempts to reconnect the Gothic with its counterpoint. In Gothic Romanced: Consumption, gender and technology in contemporary fiction Botting argues that “modernity’s metanarrative, a framework privileging patriarchy, reason and scientific progress is held together fantastically in an opposition of masculine reason and mastery set against the otherness of women, sexuality, monsters and machines” (p.12). The fact that he includes machines in the same subset is enough to imply that what technology is to science fiction as monsters are to the Gothic.

James Tiptree Jr. is a science fiction author who can be seen as having been instrumental in modern science fiction’s maturing process, dragging the genre out of its pulp “golden age” of the 1940s and 1950s. It is important to understand that the complexity of her work, as well as its depth can be attributed to the definite Gothic elements found in much of her work. Her novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In (1973) is a phenomenal example of how science fiction is “matured” by a continuation of Gothic preoccupations. The opening lines “Listen, zombie. Believe me […] You doubleknit dummy, how I’d love to show you something.” immediately invoke the image that the reader is in fact a zombie, or the “doubleknit” creation of Victor Frankenstein. Even though this might not be a classic Gothic strategy, it does draw attention to the Gothic element immediately.

The focal point of Tiptree’s work is that she interrogates the reality of the grotesque human body, specifically the female body in a society where only perfection is acceptable, where advertising has been replaced with perfect human beings who advertise merchandise with their bodies. Tiptree’s description of her protagonist mentions that she is “a tall monument to pituitary dystrophy” with a deformed jaw, a “jumbled torso” and mismatched legs who lurches and stumbles into people, reminiscent once more of Frankenstein’s creation. When P. Burke is drafted for the project of becoming an advertisement, she is plugged in, the description of which is deeply alienating, a fusion of metal and flesh:

The disimprovement in her looks comes from the electrode jacks peeping out of her sparse hair, and there are other meldings of flesh and metal. On the other hand, that collar and spinal plate are really an asset; you won’t miss seeing that neck.

Even though the tone Tiptree uses is consistently mocking or sardonic, the tragedy of this novella is that in order to produce a perfect avatar, P. Burke must transition to being half human, half machine. The descriptions of her body become increasingly “monstrous” as the narrative unfolds. It is the science which enables the mutilated body to connect to an avatar that is called “Delphi” who is a manifestation of a perfected femininity. The science of this transgression becomes the only conduit through which P. Burke; the grotesque is projected into “something that is to all appearances a live girl” who is not older than fifteen. If anything Delphi is just as damning a comment on social expectations of feminine perfection.

Throughout The Girl Who Was Plugged In, Tiptree draws attention to the horror, embodied in the grotesque body of P. Burke, as well as the distastefulness of Delphi, who in her “delicious” child-like innocence seems to imply a paedophilic desire inherent in societal expectations of what a beautiful woman should be. The fact that connected remotely through this technology, P. Burke’s senses cannot feel what Delphi feels, and it is a numb connection, similar to being in a deprivation chamber that underlines the repulsion of the loss of P. Burke’s self as well as the mutilation of her body.

The cover of The Girl Who Was Plugged In

Tiptree uses the science of animating an avatar remotely, through the physical body to show a variation of the Gothic double. Even though Delphi physically is a separate body, outside of P. Burke, the body she inhabits is described as a thing, there is no separate sentience, and she therefore is an expression of P. Burke in a separate form. The polarity often present in Gothic doubling is however blurred in this instance, and distinctly problematised by the science that enables P. Burke to project herself into the “perfect body”. Tiptree does not enable either P. Burke or Delphi to be purely good or evil, both embodiments and perspectives are constructed as equally abhorrent throughout as they after all only physically separate beings.

The tragedy of this duality is finalised in the development of a romantic attachment between Delphi and Paul Isham. However, Tiptree emphasises the fact that it is in fact P. Burke “the monster” who loves Paul from her dungeon, “a caricature of a woman burning, melting, obsessed with true love”.  There is no sympathy in the narration for P. Burke feeling this way, even when she is transported by her emotions for this man. Tiptree draws attention to the fact that P. Burke is ridiculous, her emotional connection is seen as laughable, or more precisely something to sneer at, as her “transformation” into Delphi has not set her free, but rather has shut her off physically from the rest of the world and the part of herself that is communicating with Paul.

In the end, Tiptree kills both “the monster” and Delphi in the final scene. P. Burke is dehumanised completely. She reaches for Paul who has come to rescue her, reminiscent once more of Frankenstein’s creature, yet the description of her body is even more repulsive than before as “a gaunt she-golem flab-naked and spouting wires and blood came at you clawing with metal studded paws“.  As ever with Tiptree’s work, it is the ending which is important, as a summation of horror. The reader is not allowed to watch P. Burke die, but rather is made to watch Delphi collapse. This destabilisation undermines the horror of blood and wires, the “gruesome convulsive disintegration” which is P. Burke’s death. It underlines the fact that there is more concern for the “thing” who “faints” than for the human being.

Even though The Girl Who Was Plugged In is considered classic science fiction, it is the Gothic element; the grotesque melding of flesh and wires, the twisted doubling, the tragic consequence to transgression which gives Tiptree’s novella a darker shadow. There are nuances of Frankenstein as well as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which Tiptree combines with scientific elements. She questions society’s emphasis on physical beauty, as well as the role that science plays to furhter the obsession with the perfect body. Arguably, the social commentary outweighs the scientific elements, as science is only used to explain the way in which Tiptree executes Gothic doubling.

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