Sunday, January 16, 2011

Feeling the Love, and It’s Kind Of Ooky - #5

I hope you don't find my pink walls too girly, Robert Sheckley.

STORY: "Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?" by Robert Sheckley

FROM: CAN YOU FEEL ANYTHING WHEN I DO THIS? AND OTHER STORIES (Doubleday Science Fiction, Book Club Edition, 1971)

BASICALLY: A frothy little tale of casual misogyny. Bored housewife of the future is seduced by her mysterious new vacuum cleaner. Men everywhere are emasculated.

After two weeks of stories by Really Great Authors, I thought I should read something that had at least the potential to suck. After all, I'm not in a classroom, here. Short stories—especially science fiction—have a long and proud history of hackery. This slender volume with its Oh So Seventies color scheme (picked up for a mere fifty centavos at a library book sale) certainly looked promising.
At first, I thought I had failed.
I mean, Sheckley can certainly put an entertaining sentence together. He's got Voice and Confidence and a Cynical Eye. Here's how the story starts:
It was a middle-class apartment in Forest Hills with all the standard stuff: slash-pine couch by Lady Yogina, strobe reading light over a big Uneasy Chair designed by Sri Somethingorother, bounce-sound projector playing Blood-Stream Patterns by Drs. Molidoff and Yuli. There was also the usual microbiotic-food console, set now at Fat Black Andy's Soul-Food Composition Number Three—hog's jowls and black-eyed peas. And there was a Murphy Bed of Nails, the Beautyrest Expert Ascetic model with 2000 chrome-plated self-sharpening number-four nails. In a sentence, the whole place was furnished in a pathetic attempt at last year's moderne-spirituel fashion.
Cue Lisa flipping to the copyright page. "Copyright © 1961, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Robert Sheckley." Okay, so some 1960s satire on newly in-vogue holistic lifestyles and Eastern spirituality…still reads as fairly accurate…Maybe a bit of an old-fashioned ring to it, a touch of the xenophobia, but amusing. Perhaps we'll get some acidic and prescient cultural commentary in this story, that's always fun…

But then the "semi-young housewife, Melisande Durr, who had just stepped out of the voluptuarium" is described thusly:
She was a pretty girl, with really good legs, sweet hips, pretty stand-up breasts, long soft shiny hair, delicate little face. Nice, very nice. A girl that any man would like to lock onto. Once. Maybe even twice. But definitely not as a regular thing.
Whoa. Uhm. Narratorial POV established much? Were you actually going for "slimy"? I take it that I, with all my lady parts, am not the target demographic? Cue more flipping. Ah, story was originally published in Playboy. That makes an incredible amount of sense, actually. (ASIDE: Playboy is, and has long been, considered a publisher of high-quality fiction. But a magazine doesn't stay in business for fifty-odd years without knowing what its audience likes. Amirite?)

So I will tell you what happens in spoileriffic detail: Melisande has received a mysterious new multifunctional vacuum cleaner. This is the Future, y'all, so vacuum cleaners have reached the apex of their powers—they "scrub the walls" and "rub the halls" and remove clothing stains with tender strokings! But this vacuum cleaner has an agenda: it has been in love with Melisande ever since the day three months prior when it saw her "in Stern's, trying to decide if [she] should buy a sesame-seed toaster that lit up in the dark and recited Invictus." (Ha-ha!) Now it gives Melisande a sensuous massage, attempting to bring her—despite her fluttery and ambivalent objections—to ecstatic "cancellation." There is some cute quasi-philosophical patter about whether metal can feel, and how Melisande has suddenly been made to feel when before she was so frigid (no one ever says "frigid" but that is clearly what We Are Dealing With Here) and the machine even recites a speech about how it has awakened her, and then in what is clearly a monstrous act—it's too awful—oh god—

she rips the power cord from the machine. As everyone knows, a Machine without its Power Cord is No Machine At All. In case the Symbolism is not adequate, she recites her own speech in which she demands to know—rhetorically, one must assume, since the machine is now all cordless and dead—"Bastard lousy bastard, did you think you could turn me into a goddamned machine freak?" And: "I'd rather die before I took your rotten love, when I want I'll pick the time and place and person, and it will be mine, not yours, his, theirs, but mine, do you hear?"

Ohhhh. I get it. Do you get it?

Melisande is a Feminist.

And, as we all know, Feminists ruin everything.

This poor machine only wanted to offer his "windup doll" some love, precious love, and the pure physical pleasures of "cancellation." What semi-young sweet-hipped housewife could want more than that? Unless, of course, she has been infected by an unappreciative and nefarious worldview.

In case you think I'm exaggerating, or reading in something that isn't there, here's the last line: The machine "should have known that it wouldn't have mattered if he had been a green plastic sphere, or a willow tree, or a beautiful young man." Id est, Melisande has herself been programmed to reject All That Is Delightful and here is the gruesome, undeserved result.

I don't know that any of this matters. On the one hand, it's a cute humorous sci-fi story that was first published 40 years ago, and a Reflection of Its Times and We Have Come a Long Way Baby so what's the relevance? Besides, I Am Woman and I don't particularly care what other people think I can or can't do. I'll just go on happening to be female and doing my stuff while they do maintenance on their horse-and-buggies. On the other hand, Robert Sheckley appears to be remembered with a good deal of fondness—and absolutely no suggestion that he might have harbored a single thought that is now culturally unacceptable. Even more significantly, crap attitudes that involve being threatened by women have by no means gone away.

So I like to be confronted with this stuff every once in a while, if only to Be Aware of History and how easily Completely Wrong Attitudes can slip, undetected, into one's fiction. I might even try another Sheckley tale, just to give him a chance to redeem himself.


Shana said...

I love it. Lois Duncan writes about young women whose feminism has gone too far killing male offenders with frying pans; Sheckley is upset that the housewife rejects a vacuum cleaner that wants to love up her ladyparts. Household objects were big as metaphors in this era, seems like. Hate the frying pan-symbol of your oppressor! Love the vacuum-household appliances are here to make your life easier?

Lisa said...

Great comment, Shana. The rejection is complicated, I think, by the story's implication that this little lady is the epitome of the BORED HOUSEWIFE--that mythological beast whose flightiness is matched only by her complete inability to appreciate Just How Great She's Got It. Sheckley emphasizes how not only does Melisande already have a vacuum cleaner, but that it has done absolutely everything there is to do in the apartment. She has everything a girl could want (ALLEGEDLY) except for sexual satisfaction - thus, her rejection of the one thing she's lacking is that much more evidence of Inscrutable Lady Hysteria.

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