Robert Sheckley’s “Beside Still Waters”

The New York Review Books edition of the stories of Robert Sheckley ends with “Beside Still Waters,” although it was one of his earliest published stories and the rest of the volume is arranged nearly chronologically.  Most likely this is because the 23rd Psalm, from which the title is taken, is usually read at funerals and so tends to connote endings.  If we want to read this story as a commentary on the nature of ideology, as I do, then we might instead consider how it works as a beginning to a career as a science fiction writer.  

It is, after all, and odd story to have been published in Amazing Stories; nothing amazing happens in it. In fact, not much happens at all.  The story describes a futuristic “prospector” who mines an asteroid, alone except for a worker robot which he gradually programs to have rudimentary conversations with him. In fact, for most of the story he no longer even seems to do any prospecting.  Having “made a little strike,” he simply lives out the rest of his life on the asteroid, having the same conversation with his robot over and over, because he “never gave much of a damn about anyone.”   Eventually, he gets old, his robot gets rusty, and his air pump breaks down, and he dies.  He seems mostly content with this solitary life, doing nothing but repairing his life support equipment, looking at the stars, and having the same conversation with his robot, which gives him only the answers he has programmed it to give.  

What does beginning a career as a pulp short story writer in this way say about the ideological function of the genre of science fiction? 

The story evokes two related themes that inform almost all twentieth-century science fiction: the unresolved oedipal complex and the fantasy of escaping sociality.  And these themes inform all science fiction because they inform all modern capitalist ideology as well.

Mark, our prospector, has a classic unresolved oedipal complex.  He cannot conceive of having a relationship with a woman, because he “never saw a good one yet.”  He programs his robot to have the same conversation with him for years: 

—What do you think of girls?

—Oh, I don’t know. You have to find the right one.

—I never saw a good one yet.

—Well, that’s not fair.  Perhaps you didn’t look long enough.  There’s a girl in the world for every man.

—You’re a romantic!

And isn’t this the goal of much of twentieth-century ideology?  To avoid resolution of the oedipal complex, caught endlessly between blaming women for not being good enough and having foolishly romantic ideas of love?  

Of course the resolution of the oedipal complex also involves entry into the social, acceptance of a symbolic system in which we need to negotiate with others.  Mark names his robot after “a father he had never known,” and programs it to speak to him as the perfect complement to his own personality.  Then, “in time, Mark forgot he had built the answers into Charles.”  The perfect strategy to avoid true sociality is to create an “other” that is really only a reflection of ourselves.  We can then pretend to true dialogism while actually avoiding it.  

The ideological function of the science fiction story is figured perfectly in the relationship between Mark and Charles.  These stories endlessly postpone the resolution of the oedipal complex, and shore up the illusion that escaping the demands of sociality will somehow, someday, yield satisfaction.  The content of such science fiction stories is generally the pursuit of a fantasy realm in which we will have magically powers over reality, like the Jedi knight or the blue people in Avatar, and live in perfect contentment.  The failure to finally bring this about is usually caused by the problem of women: their manipulations and infidelities and deviousness, or just the need to compete for them, collapses many a science fiction paradise.  And of course any retreat from sociality fails to produce enjoyment, which is why we need to be repeatedly convinced that it will.  In the end, the robot’s recital of Psalm 23 simply reminds us that the fantasy of escape into a realm of imaginary plenitude, in which all our appetites are satisfied without effort on our part, is part of the fundamental ideological project central to Western civilization: Judeo-Christian religion.  

To begin a career of writing pulp science fiction stories with this odd story is simply to proclaim that his project will always be to interrogate the ideological form he is participating in.  And “Beside Still Waters” reminds us that  if we were ever to achieve our structuring fantasy, the dream of escape from sociality and the demands of bodily necessity (which, of course, we cannot), then we would still need ideology: we would need to tell ourselves the same stories over and over just to make such a paradise bearable.  

Thoughts on Yesterday’s “Insurrection”

Many people seem stunned, baffled, and outraged by what the media is calling the siege and storming of the Capitol. But it shouldn’t have surprised us, and we really have no right to be outraged. This is what we’ve been working toward, in America, for the last half century.

Personally, I’m a always a bit mystified by the support for Trump among “blue collar” Americans. This is a term usually used to refer to people without college degrees, regardless of the kind of work they do. In my town, support for Trump is enormous. I can look across the street and see “stop the steal” signs on neighbors lawns, or walk down the street and see, on the lawn of a town civil servant, a lawn jockey holding a Trump/Pence sign.

For years, I’ve been unclear about why these people, who are the very ones Trump’s policies harm the most, are so passionate in their support of him. Before the corona shutdown, I used to sit in the coffee shop and ask some of these men: Are you better off than two years ago? Than ten years ago? What specific thing has Trump done to make your life any better?

I’ve never gotten an answer to this question. The response is always sputtering anger and personal insults about what a failure I am. But nobody has ever been able to name even one thing that Trump has done, or one Republican policy generally, that they believe has made their life even a little bit better.

My conclusion is that they admire Trump simply because his presidency is a way to express their fury. Their lives have gotten harder since the 2008 economic crisis. A booming stock market hasn’t helped their income, which has not come close to keeping pace with inflation. They are furious, but so woefully ignorant of how economies work that they cannot conceive of the cause of their declining standard of living. So they buy the standard answer of the right-wing media: it is intellectuals who are causing all the problems, usually with some kind of obscure conspiracy against ordinary (non-intellectual) Americans. These people support Trump not because they have any clear idea of what he might do, but because they identify with his incoherent anger.

The news this morning, both the New York Times and the television news, want to blame Trump’s statements for the “insurrection” yesterday. And clearly, as I’ve been saying for decades now, the man is severely mentally ill and intellectually challenged, always a dangerous combination—but one that usually leads to great success in American capitalism in many different fields. But the cause of this event goes back decades.

For over forty years now, we have been systematically increasing, to astounding levels, economic inequality in America. To the point at which we now have levels of inequality not seen in any other so-called first-world countries.

At the same time, we have systematically dismantled liberal arts education, to the point where it is estimated that more than half of all high school graduates cannot read. Education has become job training, and educations departments and high school hiring committees now take as an obvious given the mantra “smart people don’t make good teachers.” Our children spend their days in school watching YouTube videos, or learning from pre-packaged online programs because their teachers have no knowledge at all of the subjects they are paid to teach.

And so we wind up with a generally ignorant populace, unable to understand the causes of the misery their lives have become. On top of this, we have produced a culture in which to change one’s mind merely on the basis of overwhelming empirical evidence and logical argument is seen as a sign of weakness and hypocrisy. To stick to a falsehood, once you have proclaimed belief in it, regardless of any evidence or argument, is seen as a sign of integrity and strength.

This situation is dire for socialists. Because the enormous unrest would seem to suggest that the country is ready for change. That the majority has had enough of impoverishment by neoliberal “trickle-up” economics, and might demand change.

The problem is, socialism can never be won by storming a building. Smashing some windows and taking selfies sitting in senators’ chairs won’t bring about real change.

No, socialism can only be achieved by rational argument, by persuasion. And for a socialist society to survive, people will need to be capable of reasoned debate, and able to change their minds when the arguments against them are cogent and based on solid evidence. Because socialism will depend on true democracy, not violent oppression.

Capitalism has always required an ersatz democracy, backed by the threat of violence. It has always depended on a state designed to protect the interest of the few against the needs of the many. And to keep this oppressive system going, it has long recognized the importance of keeping the populace uneducated. Yesterday’s events are the fruits of that effort.

Because I believe that we, as humans, have the capacity for reason—and I believe that socialism, and eventually full communism, can only be accepted by people capable of using their reason—the only thing I can think to do is to keep doing what I’ve been doing: working to help people learn how to think better. As this is forbidden by the current educational institutions, my small attempts are not likely to have much impact. But I’ll go on trying, failing, and trying again. I’ll move forward with Imaginary Relations with the hope that analysis of ideological practices can help move us toward becoming reasoning beings.

Because what else is to be done?

Imaginary Relations starts next week! And FarmVille comes to an end.

Next week, I intend to open up the online journal Imaginary Relations with an introductory statement and call for papers. The following week, the first essay will be appear, and my hope is to publish a new essay every week of the year.  

Some people have told me they are still unsure about what kind of essays we are looking for.  That’s understandable, since I think what we are trying to do here has never quite been done before, so there is no model in place for this discourse. We hope, then, that “what we are looking for” will only be clear once we see it—there’s no real preconceived template here.

Nevertheless, I’ll offer one example of the kind of thing that interests us.  Today, I was reading an article in The New York Times about FarmVille, a game that appeared on Facebook and was often played from smartphones about a decade ago. The article explains that FarmVille will no longer exist after next week, and probably few people will notice since it has declined in popularity over the last decade.  But “the behaviors it instilled in everyday internet users and the growth-hacking techniques it perfected” live on, as they have become normal practices in our lives, and are built into every “site, service and app” today.  That is, this entertaining pastime that had people obsessively checking facebook for a couple years back when smartphones were new has altered how we live in the world in an enduring, and I would say troubling, way.  

Analysis of exactly how this works, how forms of enjoyment work to produce ideological practices, is the goal of Imaginary Relations.  Although the creators of the game seemed to have some devious strategy in mind, I doubt most players consciously thought : Oh, great, a way for me to become a mindless slave of big tech companies!  They thought they were just having fun.  

I can’t say much about this, because as I’ve often mentioned I don’t do Facebook and don’t have a smartphone, and so I have never played FarmVille myself. Although I will admit that a decade ago I was both shocked and a bit troubled as I watched everyone around me play it obsessively, always talking about their sheep or carrots or cows or whatever.  But somehow, the game tapped into a source of enjoyment and used it so alter people’s behavior in a way that benefited big corporations at the expense of impoverishing the lives of tens of millions of people. And after all, isn’t that what capitalist ideology is meant to do?  

I can’t imagine what structuring belief made this activity enjoyable to people.  As I said, even at the time it seemed beyond dull to me.  The Times article offers one suggestion, though: “those who went back every day said it had kept them in touch with friends and acquaintances, giving them something to talk about.” Now, even at the end of 2020, I have to say that if this this is true it is the saddest thing I’ve heard in years.  That tens of millions of Americans are so intellectually impoverished that a game as stupid as FarmVille was a welcome topic of conversation. That people really felt so isolated and silence in their daily lives, that even this inane drivel was a welcome improvement.  Could this be true? Are we so unable to even speak to our supposed friends and acquaintances, so lacking in possible topics for conversation, that people would jump at the chance to discuss pink cows appearing on their iPhones?  

Mia Consalvo, who is described as a “professor of game studies” (the existence of such a job is the second saddest thing I’ve heard in years), explains that this didn’t really promote an real conversation; it was “just a mechanic of clicking a button.”  But somehow, most Americans became convinced that such “clicking” is as close as a human can come to meaningful interaction with others. Most still believe this, I suspect, and can’t figure out why their constant texting, scrolling and clicking, so vital (the think) to “keeping in touch,” leaves them feeling depressed, lonely, anxious and just plain miserable. Maybe another hour a day devoted to the iPhone would help?

And then we can’t quite figure out why “deaths of despair” are on the rise in the last decade.  

But before I go off on that tangent, I’ll end here.  What we’re looking for at Imaginary Relations is just some insightful discussion, in ordinary and accessible prose, about how we are made into the kinds of subjects we are by the very things we enjoy.  

The new journal is open as of January 4th! here’s the link: