the naming of things

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

That’s how Atwood begins The Handmaid’s Tale, and today I was thinking about that line and how it’s a totally common thing in science fiction to reference institutions and objects which have been held over from our times but are now put to an entirely different use. At a narrative level this gives a sense of continuity. Atwood’s story is set in the future, but not a future so far-removed from the present that no one would have any idea what a gymnasium was.

Atwood’s construction has a nice philosophical puzzle embedded into it. “what had once been” implies that the room is no longer a gymnasium; now it is some other thing. So what makes anything the type of thing it is? Broadly, the vocabulary we use to talk about it and its relation to other things. More specifically, the use we put it to – how we conceptualize its function and its relation to a problem or goal. So a gymnasium is one kind of thing when we think of it a place where students might gather for a dance, but the same building becomes a new kind of thing when its used to house prisoners.

Of course this is a completely normal occurrence – a tool outlives its function, so it is either put aside or put to a new use.  In science fiction stories, though, there is often something unsettling about such transformations. Think about what makes, say, A Canticle for Liebowitz so freaky. Some sources of anxiety:

1)  If the problems and goals that concern the future society are radically different from those we relate to, the world seems strange and alien. It’s not just about a confusing new social order. The deep uncertainty stems from the protagonist’s confrontation with a world wherein our own values, fears, and objectives are no longer applicable. We lose our bearing.

2) Instead of locating the quality of a thing in its mutable use, we mistake the quality or identity of the thing as something essential to it. Moral codes, certain institutions of religion and law – we commonly think of these things as deriving their most important qualities from a source of good outside the immediate situation of use, and so we are resistant to their revision.

3) Think about the fate of the family in Brave New World. When a thing which we associate with both instrumental and intrinsic value is presented in a purely instrumental context, we feel a sense of loss. Often our conception of a thing is derived from its capacity to fulfill a need which we do not entirely understand. We get emotional, social, and spiritual fulfillment from our families, but its hard to say what that means only in terms of utility. A lot of the horror in technocratic dystopias comes from this sentiment: that in rationalizing our way of life, we are mutilating it in a way we cannot even articulate. Bad descriptions of those inchoate senses of value are a common source of the intrinsic error described in 2.

Neal Stephenson comes to mind as an exceptional instance of an author who mines those same anxieties for great comic effect; that skill is one of the reasons why Snow Crash was the best science fiction novel of the 90s.


~ by staticandme on January 25, 2009.

One Response to “the naming of things”

  1. I think one of the effective things about SF’s use of familiar things for unfamiliar purposes, is that it sets a clear signal for the direction in which society has changed, and how it got there from here. An ex-gymnasium that houses prisoners is a different prospect from an ex-gymnasium that houses disaster survivors, or an ex-gymnasium that is used as a museum, or an ex-gymnasium that now houses welcoming ceremonies.

    The connection between a gymnasium and a prison in particular is unsettling because it says, “this could happen to us, it is a step away”. And poses the question, “if we need gymnasiums to house prisoners, then why are there so many prisoners that we can’t use prisons to do so?” It sends an instant message that something has gone wrong in our world for it to end up like that (even if we don’t know at the start of the novel, what “that” might be).

    (I should note here that I haven’t read ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, I’ve only watched the movie)

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