June 29, 2011

A Short Story About Berkeley's Theory of Vision

On the plane back from Zurich last week I read a very interesting story, "He Who Shapes," by Roger Zelazny. This work won the Nebula for best novella in 1965. The story centers around essentially the same piece of technology depicted in the recent movie Inception: a device that allows two people to share a dream, with one of them, the 'shaper', in control of the dream world. However, unlike Inception, in which the technology is used primarily for corporate espionage, in "He Who Shapes" the device is used for psychotherapy. This would be interesting enough, but it gets better: one of the characters in the story is a psychiatrist who was blind from birth. She wants to be a shaper, but lacks the ability to interpret visual stimulus and, of course, for normally sighted persons dreams are primarily visual. The solution is for her to be attached to a normally sighted shaper who can give her visual dreams in order to teach her how to interpret visual stimulus and properly correlate it with the tangible (etc.) stimulus she already understands. In other words, the story is about Berkeley's New Theory of Vision.

While I'm on the topic of philosophical science-fiction, it occurs to me that Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" (Nebula for best short story, 1972; I also read this on the plane) deals with the same issues as James Triptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" which I recommended in my previous list, but is in many respects better. The issues in question arise (in both cases) from the sudden appearance of men in a society which has been without them, and relied on artificial reproduction, for several generations. What's especially striking about Russ's story is the way statements about gender that might have seemed pretty progressive in the middle of the twentieth century are convincingly portrayed as raising the specter of subjugation for women who have lived their whole lives in a world without men. I had read this story before, several years ago, but for some reason it didn't stand out in my memory as much as Triptree's. That might just be because Triptree has a more dramatic ending.

Posted by Kenny at June 29, 2011 11:51 AM
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