Wednesday, 7 September 2011

G is for Gestalt

‘Gestalt’, as we endeavor to use the term here, can refer to the science fiction concepts relating to an alternative somatic existence, ‘special powers’ or alternative in/human form. Use of the word in this manner and for our purposes here, derive from Theodore Sturgeon’s sci-fi novel More Than Human where early protagonist ‘Lone’, who is a telepath, refers to himself as a ‘homo-gestalt’. Gestalt can be analysed through a socio-political lense on the basis that it presents a universe of inequality that transcends the sociological or economic advantages humanity can be either born with or attain. Further to the privilege an individual can receive from his/her background, such fiction presents a novum of physical or mental advantage beyond what we deem ‘natural’. While straightaway the graphic novels of Marvel and DC Comics perhaps come to mind, this can be far subtler than capes and muscles bulging beneath spandex. It might more simply be considered an examination of how fiction portrays post-human, or ‘more than human’ and subsequently, the societal and political implications of this.

Firstly, being more than human is not always appreciated by the fictional, yet on some level contemporarily reflective, society. While the X-Men each have a tragic back-story of abuse, disaffection and persecution, a better example of this might be the children which feature in John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. They have to keep their ‘powers’ secret as such abilities would render them as ‘blasphemies’ in an unenlightened and intolerant religious community. The individuals repression of these abilities, or at least a wider examination of how normative society treats ‘the other’ is arguably a rich source of conflict for writers to explore in their narratives. Widening the net of this application, such exploration can be seen in novels like Dracula and Frankenstein. It might be suggested that the socio-political elements of both of these classics confer the deep fear of ‘the other’ and how such powers are both considered wrong and unnatural. Therefore hiding from society, or repressing what is natural, has significant thrust in such texts.

This analysis can be expanded further if you consider how sociologically and politically ‘the other’ is treated in society. Being different, a minority, or an ‘out group’ member has significant impact of life choices, chances and opportunities. Arguably, belonging to any stratified group that isn’t white, male, able-bodied, straight, cis and middle/upper-class, can empirically restrict life opportunity and similar obstacles faced by characters in literature who are ‘more than human’ can perhaps reflect this on a thematic level.

It might further be suggested that somatic super-powers and economic power/influence can be almost interchangeable if we analyse the texts unaffected by the writer’s sympathy, or lack of, for the protagonist(s). The powers tend to be born with, acquired by accident or somehow bestowed upon a character rather than something they earn and work towards. We could deliberate on what this implies about the wealthy and powerful in our society: royalty, those born into wealthy families or any form of inherited privilege. Does reader sympathy of literary characters with more than human abilities, legitimise or support the inherited power of contemporary society’s elites? Perhaps a more progressive liberal ideology would oppose the inheritance of such power, especially if we consider the incredibly wealthy backgrounds of politicians who go onto govern a society made-up predominantly of those without such privileges. However, champions of individualism might see these texts differently, instead considering them as a legitimisation of inherited power. Such narratives can subsequently exhibit an kind of vulgar libertarianism that propagates notions of privilege over fairness. The political message of a story submitted to The Future Fire is therefore an important component to demonstrate with coherence and accuracy. Perhaps especially so when concerning ‘gestalt’, as such narratives may be erroneously perceived as containing a subtext which endorses unfairness and inequality.

Even within texts that consider the ‘more than human’, there can exist an array of conflicts and issues that present opportunities for explorations in the narrative. Authors such as Ursula LeGuin, for example in her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, have been able to consider and explore alternative versions of life that transcend so much of what we consider normative regarding gender. Although dealing with aliens, the reader has to consider such texts as a mirror to his/her human norms and values. It demonstrates that ‘more than’ humanity or, by extension, the ‘different yet similar’ allows for self-reflection- another valuable tome for authors to address.

With a principal component of ‘gestalt’ being difference, there are arguably a wide variety of themes which could work within the ethic of The Future Fire. ‘Difference’ perpetually creates elements of distrust within society, consider again the ‘blasphemies’ within The Chrysalids or the way in which the writers of X-Men include political perspectives, usually negative, towards the ‘mutants’. Gestalt narratives might be created which perhaps include a correlation between the way in which characters of ‘homo-gestalt’ are treated by a fictional society and the way minority groups are stigmatised in contemporary society. For example, could the story be a reversal on the way disability is discussed in society? Perhaps a perspective on what is natural and unnatural could be explored, or further, an epistomological consideration of how society defines normality might also also work. Texts that attempt to deal with what might also be called Human 2.0 have been popular in science fiction, especially in light of scientific discoveries such as atomic power and genetic code. Therefore such narratives remain an interesting way through which to explore implications for such research, either good or bad. The vector between which science and society creates any number of socio-political discourses, and good stories play with these new and unexplored spaces.

1 comment:

  1. You could really make some fascinating stories out of a Gestalt sub-species of humans: the way people mistrust anyone who has a feature they perceive as an advantage over themselves (the kids who don’t need sleep in Beggars in Spain; constant attacks on mutants in X-Men); the way some people fear, hate and persecute anyone different from themselves or their perceived “holy perfection” (Chrysalids); the libertarian élitism of the gestalt as a threat to society (the kid in The Incredibles whining that “if everyone’s special, then no one is”).

    What does it mean to be “normal” anyway? What does it mean to be “fair”? Professional sports quite rightly (imo) ban the use of performance enhancing drugs and other unfair behaviours that would just turn the game into a competition between pharma companies and the athletes potentially destroying their health. But they’ve also recently tried to ban Oscar Pistorius for his running blades, and Caster Semenya for allegedly having an unfair gender advantage over “regular” female athletes. (Both bans were overturned, but it shows up a deep problem with the concept of “normal” in athletics and in the culture at large.)