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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Conversation Partners: Creating Mars and Venus

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In science fiction, humanoid robots were once all androids, albeit without the specific parts that, among humans (and plants and animals), make a body male. In more recent years, as women increasingly enter the ranks of science fiction writers, factories have begun to offer feminine, if not actually female, versions of cyborgs, robots, and other servo-mechanisms of humanoid appearance. Known as fembots or gynoids, these models, like the androids, feature secondary, rather than primary, sexual characteristics, their anatomical curves distinguishing them from their more angular android brothers. However, the ways these feminine humanoids see and interact with the world, including how they converse with others, also often distinguishes them from their masculine counterparts.

A relatively recent book informs us of the true origins of men and women. The former are from Mars, it claims, the latter, from Venus. The book’s origins of the sexes derive, possibly, from the biological signs for male and female. The sign for males is the familiar circle out of the upper right arc of which projects something that looks like an arrow but is supposed to be a spear, just as the circle represents a shield, characterizing men as warriors, belonging to the cult of Ares, or Mars, the god of war. The sign for females is the equally familiar circle from which is suspended, from the nadir of its lower arc, a cross, the whole representing the hand-mirror of the goddess of love, Venus, or Aphrodite. Venus, the symbol seems to suggest, thy name is vanity.

Man, the warrior, and woman, the toilette aficionado--these are the images that correspond to those of the sexes, and, if the work of Deborah Tannen and various sociologists and psychologists is correct, scientific evidence may bear out these rather sexist conceptions of sex and gender, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Xena, the Warrior Princess, notwithstanding.

By knowing the differences in the ways that men and women communicate, a writer may realistically portray conversations between same-sex and opposite-sex male and female characters realistically. In addition, when dramatic situations in which men and women are the speakers occur, these differences in the way that they communicate can lead to the essence of plot itself, story conflict.

According to Tannen’s essay, “Sex, Lies, and Conversation,” boys and girls segregate themselves as youths, boys keeping company with other boys and girls keeping company with other girls. Therefore, separately, the members of each sex teach one another (and, therefore, the men or women that they later become) how to communicate. Viva la difference!

Boys’ groups, Tannen says, are larger and more inclusive than girls’ groups. They’re also hierarchical, with an underdog and a top dog, and conversation among the members of the all-male group tends to be “agonistic,” or warlike, peppered with “ritual challenges.” Conversation is akin to debate, with one boy confronting his fellow with counterarguments. If one of them raises a personal problem as a topic of conversation, his peers are likely to dismiss it as being less important than it seems. Speakers sit “at angles to each other,” only occasionally “glancing at each other,” and leap from topic to topic, rather than focusing for long on any one subject. In public, the males of the species speak to show their knowledge and to fend off the verbal attacks of their peers. However, they don’t like to listen, for, as a holdover from their boyhood days in hierarchical groups, they feel that listening, a seemingly passive role, makes them subordinate to speakers, who play a more apparently active role. They attend silently to the words of others. At home, having nothing to prove and no one to fend off, men tend to speak much less. For them, relationships are based on their relative statuses within the group, and the cement that binds them together is participatory activity, or “doing things together.”

Girls’ groups, Tannen says, are smaller, less inclusive, and more democratic, with members being regarded as equals rather than as greater or lesser subordinates assembled under the authority of a top dog. Their conversation is more sympathetic, intended to “establish rapport.” Rather than confronting a peer with counterarguments, girls are more likely to suggest alternative thoughts, often in the form of non-threatening, or helpful, questions. Personal problems, as topics of feminine conversation, elicit sympathy and solidarity from listeners. Girls maintain almost constant eye contact, looking at one another’s faces directly, and they tend to stay on the same topic for much of their conversation. To indicate that they are listening, girls (and women) often nod their heads and make “listening noises.” In public, afraid that they may offend someone, “spark disagreement, or appear to be showing off,” women tend to speak less, but at home, they are more comfortable in expressing their views, and tend to speak more. For them relationships are founded upon intimacy, and the cement that binds them together is talking.

Knowing these communication secrets of the sexes, writers can portray them realistically as their characters engage in dialogue, but authors can also capitalize upon the misunderstandings and misinterpretations among men and women regarding one another’s conversational behavior, turning these misimpressions into story conflict.

Women, unaware of how and why men listen as they do, believe that men don’t listen to them. Men, misinterpreting women’s “listening noise” as “overreaction or impatience,” consider women overly sensitive or rude. Preferring to hear alternative views expressed as questions rather than as counterarguments, women think men who challenge them directly with other points of view are disloyal, while men believe women simply don’t want to hear any views that differ from their own. Seeing that men are voluble enough in public, women may suppose that their reticence at home shows that their husbands are uninterested in them as conversation partners and that their relationship has become less intimate and may fail. Men may wish that their wives would be more supportive of them in their public stances toward political issues or on current events. Changing the topic, especially when, in doing so, a man involves himself as the new subject of conversation, may make women think that men are indifferent to the woman’s topic and are egoistic. Men may suppose women to be obsessed with a topic and, perhaps, at times, to be narrow minded. Tannen points out that half of marriages end in divorce and that, often, from the woman’s point of view, the cause of the failure of the marriage is “a lack of communication.” Other consequences of these differences in conversational style and technique are that men are often considered insensitive and women as no being assertive enough.

In Erin Brockovich, the protagonist is motivated, at the beginning of the movie, more by her desire to feed and clothe her children than she is by solving a case she uncovers concerning the damage to the health of a community’s residents that a power company’s illicit dumping of a dangerous chemical into the local water supply has caused. She wants the job as an attorney’s legal assistant so she can pay her bills and provide for her children‘s welfare. Later, when she is fired, she uses the facts that she has uncovered about the case as leverage to get her job back, along with a sizeable raise, because, again, as she tells her boss, “I have bills to pay.” Once she is on the case, however, she is dogged in her determination to see that the company does the right thing, paying for its abuses of the residents and the environment. Perhaps it is because she is a mother, concerned with nurturing her children, that she finds the power company’s deeds as reprehensible as she does, for their illegal abuse of the environment is, for her, not only criminal but immoral. It has hurt people, including children. As a woman, she uses investigative techniques that are unavailable to men. When her boss asks her how she expects to gain admittance to the state’s public records concerning the chemicals involved in the case, she replies, “They’re called boobs, Ed.” Erin is quick to accuse her boss of cheating her and of not knowing how to apologize, but, at the end of the film, he increases her share of the money the law firm has won in prosecuting the case, leaving her speechless, before he tells her that she “sucks” at apologizing, just as she had previously told him.

Although Erin Brockovich is not a horror story--at least, not in the same sense as The Toxic Avenger--it capitalizes on the differences in how men and women perceive the world and their respective places in it and on the way that these differences in perception guide and motivate their behavior, including the ways that they speak and listen or, in a word, communicate. Other stories that also capitalize on these differences include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, and, to a lesser extent, Supergirl and Wonder Woman, mostly, in these instances, by the mechanism of role reversal. In the Buffy series, for example, the female characters are empowered and the male characters are, well, emasculated, as it were, although, in their respective conversational styles and techniques, they continue to be the men and women that the boys and girls inside them created them to be. In this regard, at least, in even the eunuch, Mars rules the man.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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