Archive for series

The Psychologist in SF: Part Four

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2011 by theclockworm

Two: More Bester! (Besterer?) / The Stars My Destination

In The Stars My Destination, Bester examines the consequences of applying a lack of intelligence to a driving hatred in a world full of back-doors toward self-betterment. Gully Foyle, a sub-human everyman, is absolutely possessed by his desire to murder the Vorga, a vessel which passed him by without offering aid when he was marooned on his own ship, the Nomad. In a shining example of science fiction at its best, we are introduced to a world where people can “jaunte,” a form of teleportation; as bester is wont to do, he makes this development the crux of culture, setting up a complex class system based around the how far a person can jaunte in one jump. He then allows us to follow one wily psychopath with no end of resourcefulness and manic drive as he navigates this world, attempting to do something literally impossible – namely, to kill a spaceship. Foyle has to worm his way into the strangest and most dynamic areas of his world in order to get what he wants.

Ahem. Sound familiar?

To my recollection, there are no actual psychologists in this book. However, there are a few very interesting surrogates. Robin Wednesbury is an occupational therapist of sorts, helping those who can’t jaunte for various reasons to learn or relearn the skill. Foyle takes advantage of her giving nature throughout the book, in yet another example of therapist-as-ragdoll. But I don’t think Bester meant this to reflect negatively on Wednesbury; after all, she sticks with Foyle through all of his questionable deeds, eventually helping him to become a sort of universal savior. It’s not as subtle and obviously Taoist as George Orr in LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven,” but there’s a similar quality here, one that seems to provide a counterpoint to the therapist character in The Demolished Man: Wednesbury is resigned to being part of Foyle’s story while it is taking place, but she is persistent, consistent, and, when the time comes, ready to help him make the most of the path of self-actualization he’s already been on. In “Lathe,” the Taoist patient saves the world by remaining passive but present in opposition to the manic urges of his Psychiatrist. In SMD, Wednesbury helps Foyle save the world by sticking around, letting him play out his manic urges, but guiding him, trusting that they will end in nobler ones.

And then there are the Scientific People. One of the most visually evocative passages in any book I can recall, Foyle’s terrifying encounter with these maladapted “savages” is rife with sociological and psychological implications. The descendents of a group of scientists who crashed into an asteroid (or something like that), these primitive people have formed an entire culture – a ritualistic culture reminiscent of cargo cults in some respects – around the vestiges of the “science” left for them to find. They perform elaborate ceremonies involving men on stilts, wearing medical scrubs embroidered with the patterns of human biological systems; readings from scientific reports as if from sacred texts; and tattooing the names of everyone – visitors included – into their foreheads in a horrific mockery of thorough taxonomy. I am less interested in attempting to parse the implications here than I am in simply presenting them for review in relation to the rest of my points. Tackling the scientific people in any meaningful way would be (could be?) a whole piece.

One very interesting thing comes of Foyle’s encounter, however. Having been swept up into their society and married to one of their women, Foyle is forcibly tattooed with his “name,” actually the name of his ship: Nomad. Shortly after his escape, he has the tattoo removed. The procedure is effective, except for one thing: when he becomes overly emotional, particularly overly angry, his tattoo becomes visible, presumably standing out in white as he turns red. Foyle’s pursuers are looking for a man with a facial tattoo. If he stays calm, this can be a great advantage, as tattoo removal is rare; however, if he allows his emotions to overtake him, he will give himself away. At this point in the story, his journey is just beginning; he is driven and resourceful but emotionally and mentally underdeveloped. His rage still drives him. In order for him to succeed at infiltrating society – both high and low – to reach his goal, he would have inevitably been faced with the need to restrain himself anyhow. This event serves as a kind of “divine behaviorist intervention,” the accidental or serendipitous application, by no one and nothing other than the twists of fate that constitute Foyle’s life, of a sort of conditioning technique that does, eventually, prove effective.

This is really the heart of Bester’s approach to psychology. Though he may include a professional here and there, the real psychologist in Bester’s best works in the world. Not only does our relationship with our environment contribute to our psychological issues, it can also work with us to solve them. In these, his most transcendent moments, Bester proves himself to be more nuanced in his psychology. Elements of environmental and social psychology crop up, working in tandem with behaviorist and humanist ideas. Bester, in his later work especially, is more than just a cheerleader for the rather limited psychodynamic notions of the time. He is a true eclectic – someone who understands that psychology is only the study of the human experience, and not the thing itself – not a solution to a problem, but a sketch of a situation, in which possibility is always present.

Next and last in this series: The Psychologist in PKD (though it may be a while until I can take this on)

Also: Comments are welcome, so feel free to jump in. Science fiction is a dialogue (so is psychology) – embrace it!

The Psychologist in SF: Part Three

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2011 by theclockworm

One: Bester Introduced / The Demolished Man

Alfred Bester loved to write about roles. Throughout his works, he managed to hone in on, caricature, extrapolate, and investigate the minds of criminal saviors, homicidal CEOs, psychic psychologists, sleep-walking (and sleep-killing) perfume designers – the list goes on. Part pastiche, part fever-dream, part jazz-riffing cartooning, it is the characters – and their place in society – that really make Bester the godfather of Cyberpunk. And let’s face it – he does it better than the younger William Gibson in many ways, as hard as that is for me to say. They may be less realistic on the surface, but they’re richer for all their pomp. In all of Bester’s characters, the vein of the psychic struggle runs deep. Bester was deeply aware of the psychological epic of human life, and, even in his earlier, Freud-laden material, his insights still carry these tales.

In talking about Bester, it’s a little more difficult to find “The Psychologist,” or at least to keep him chained to the discussion for long; however, in this case, Bester himself is the psychologist, in a far more literal sense than most others in this series.

SPOILERS FOLLOW. These books were written in the 1950s; I think the statute of limitations applies.

The Demolished Man, one of the two seminal Bester novels, is a Freudian parable, a post-modernist amorality-play that simply examines – with glee, with demented fervor, but never with passé moral judgment – the consequences of mixing passion and power, especially when the motive is revenge. Ben Reich, the CEO of Monarch, is absolutely possessed by his desire to murder Craye D’Courtney, a man who he subconsciously knows is his father. In a shining example of science fiction at its best (and most fun), we are introduced to a world filled with “Espers,” telepaths who constitute a crucial aspect of society; as Bester is wont to do, he makes this development the crux of culture, setting up a complex class system based around the level of one’s telepathic power. He then allows us to follow one wily psychopath with no end of resourcefulness and innovative thinking as he navigates this world, attempting to do something next to impossible. In a world full of psychics, murder almost never takes place. Reich has to snake around almost every barrier of his world in order to get what he wants.

This is a pattern or mode that is repeated in The Stars My Destination. The Oedipal facets of DM are widely acknowledged, as is the fact that SMD is essentially a “retelling” of The Count of Monte Cristo. But what is often overlooked is the “matching pair” of similarities: DM is as much a retelling of Oedipus Rex, and both novels share almost identical plotting – a structure of revenge epic that can be found in both Oedipus Rex and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Reich is the picture-perfect Freudian nut-job: he is plagued by dreams of The Man with No Face, motivated by a self-destructive homicidal impulse, the motivation for which he is completely unaware, and, ultimately, succumbs to “demolition,” a total erasure of his memories, including not only the initial traumatic experiences, but all those that followed. Per Freud, Reich’s entire life was thrown under the train by his early traumas, and even his own recognition of this loses out to his self-destructive impulse, which he confronts within his demolition experience.

As hard as all this is to buy (even some of the most basic Freudian notions seem pretty ass-backwards to me in the majority of cases), Bester pulls something truly wonderful from the whole tale. Even if this isn’t how people really work, hey: it’s science fiction, and that means the freedom – and responsibility – to explore all kinds of what-if scenarios. Try to read DM with “what if Freudian psychology actually applied?” as one of the many science-fictional positions of the novel, and you’ll be fine.

There is a therapist character in this novel. I’d like to go back and re-read the parts concerning him; maybe I’ll do that and throw in an addendum later. Until then: the therapist is an employee of Monarch, of Reich himself, and is, needless to say, an Esper. His presence in Reich’s life is more or less mandatory, either due to company or government policy, and Reich resents it immensely, though he is conflicted in this regard: he uses the services provided up to the point where he becomes threatened. He intentionally keeps a lower-level Esper in the role, one of many actions set up seemingly long in advance to protect his intentions from being discovered.

This relationship, tertiary to the plot though it may be, is revealing of a few things. First, it is an exaggerated version of the resentment-projection I mentioned in part one. Second, it implies something about the nature of power and the effect it has on the way one receives help from others. Though any of us could snap at our psychologists and walk out, we typically don’t. This ‘ability’ is less a literal one, and more a reflection of our attitudes toward the world and others. Reich’s power, in his mind, permits any and all impulses to come to fruition, including those he knows could destroy him.

This relationship, and indeed the role of the therapist here, brings to mind the psychologist in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, which I will cover later in the PKD segment of this series (a seriously daunting task). In both cases, actual treatment is second to the fulfillment of social roles and obligations. It’s a dire extrapolation, and one that, unfortunately, is probably not far from the truth for the very powerful today. The difference with Dick, of course, is that this is available to everyday people, laborers on Mars who develop social anxiety and schizophrenic behavior en masse.

Though we are never guided back to it, I wonder about the therapist’s responsibility in the story, and what Bester would have said about that. Perhaps it was, in some small part at least, his failure to be more assertive that allowed Reich to submit himself to a string of acts which culminated in his identity being decimated? After all, psychologists now aren’t mind-readers, and they still hold some degree of responsibility. Maybe the therapist’s reliance on his own resource of power prevented his acting to the fullest potential of his skills.

Next: More Bester as I cover The Stars My Destination

The Psychologist in SF: Part Two

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on May 11, 2011 by theclockworm

Part Two: The Lathe of Heaven

[A brief introduction: For this series, I am focusing primarily on the role of the psychologist in SF, as opposed to the role of psychology, which is simply too big to tackle. For my purposes, I am considering primarily characters defined as psychologists, psychiatrists, or otherwise noted as mental health professionals. This is not in any sense a promise I won’t veer off into other areas, because I will. The field of Sf is huge, though, and I don’t claim to be versed in everything. So I’m going to focus on a few works that are both personal favorites and generally considered to be of some importance or repute. ]

One book I often think of when talking about psychologists is Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven.” It’s a dark and crazy romp through a shifting reality, powered by one man whose dreams can change that reality and steered by a psychiatrist who thinks he can save the world. It’s more didactic than the other works I’ve read by LeGuin –namely, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. Both works have a real sense of objectivity about the worlds they explore. Both involve (at least) two very different societies, neither of which is portrayed as perfect or utterly awful. Friends and enemies, leaders and tyrants, men and women – all blend together in LHOD. It is a study in ambiguity, moral and otherwise. The Dispossessed manages to make an anarchist society on the moon seem, by turns, beautiful, restrictive, alien; the same process is applied to a capitalist, consumerist society, with largely the same effect. LeGuin is masterful at pulling her characters through a set of experiences that typify a deep and nuanced understanding of psychology. So why is Dr. Haber, the misguided psychiatrist of The Lathe of Heaven, such a certifiable villain?

The short answer is, he’s not. LeGuin’s critique here is not of psychology, which she clearly understands quite well, but of a sort of overblown positivist wet-dream – one far too many psychologists, in particular those of the behaviorist mode, seem dangerously prone to. In many ways, I see LOH as a response to B.F Skinner’s Walden Two, a terrifying tome that casts a cold eye toward a future of “official” social control systems, based on behaviorist principles, designed to make life “better.” In LOH, we are privy to a detailed impression of what one man’s “better” can look like.

But as I said, Haber isn’t a villain. He’s just a narcissist with delusions of altruism – in other words, a bad psychologist. Orr, despite his apparent acceptance of being led by others, turns out to be a kind of Taoist hero, a man wise enough to wait until the right moment (not) to act. He is a counterpoint to Haber’s rampant world-building, utterly free from the desire to wield control. This use of Taoism as a sort of balm against bad psychology reminds me the concept of Buddhism as a sort of transmittable form of cognitive therapy.

Overall, LOH is an odd fit in LeGuin’s bibliography. It’s a much flatter read – but that, too, seems intentional, as the world it is set in and the people who inhabit it are flat, and get flatter as Haber’s paradise comes to pass. It’s a wagging finger on some levels, and this stands out amidst a cannon that so carefully avoids Aristotelian two-value judgments. But it’s a book I can understand writing (in fact, right now I’m working on a story about an ineffective psychologist whose inability to involve himself personally leads a mentally ill AI to a kind of Odin-esque martyrdom).

Maybe it’s the bratty, contrary aspect of being an SF writer that makes poking holes in the things we care about so appealing. Maybe it’s the didactic impulse rearing its head, despite better judgment. Maybe, in LeGuin’s case, all her subtle storytelling and stringent objectivity earned her the right to lay the smack down on those who act with less care when dealing with human lives than she does with the lives of characters.