Joseph McElroy's Cyborg Plus
Joseph McElroy's Cyborg Plus
Salvatore Proietti straddles science and fiction to offer an interpretation of a McElroy Cyborg.
1. All around Plus
What do we gain in looking at Joseph McElroy’s Plus as, among other things, a science-fiction novel? Along with the experience of translating Plus and the essay ” Plus Light” into Italian, I recently had two chances in Rome to talk about McElroy, a doctoral seminar on Beckett and a conference on Emerson. I acknowledge my gratitude to the organizers, Professors Agostino Lombardo, Giorgio Mariani, and Igina Tattoni, as well as to Daniela Daniele who first alerted me about this project. In science fiction, a literalized metaphor is extended and made to become the narrative center of a possible, estranged world, as theorists have argued (cf. Suvin). My reading of Plus focuses on the presence of the icon of the compound entity, organic and technological at the same time, which science and science fiction have called the “cyborg.” Throughout its history, this metaphor has been put to manifold uses: agent of unrestrained power and authority, form of absolute subjection and dispossession, attempt at hopeful interaction between humans and technology.
Despite long and sustained attention from critics, science fiction appears not to have made it into respectability, and cautious caveats continue to accompany many readers’ responses when facing texts and authors deemed worthy of critical praise. In the specific case of Plus, critics have both argued and denied its generic status (respectively, cf. LeClair’s introduction to the 1987 edition [v], and Hadas), and only in the 1990s did references to the cyborg begin to appear (Tabbi 145). In general, analyzing such a struggle for legitimacy would lead a long way into both aesthetic and institutional issues, in which old-fashioned standards of timelessness are still applied by commentators who regard with suspicion the use of metaphors whose “technological” or “scientific” signifiers (whether coming from “hard” or “soft” sciences) are hopelessly bound to historical contingency, haunted by the specter of a readership not necessarily coinciding with the “distinction” of canonicity. With regard to McElroy, the “disproportion between accomplishment and recognition” pointed out by Tom LeClair (ibid.) might precisely stem from an emphasis on science unparalleled among contemporary Anglophone novelists.
For our purposes, it might suffice to say that Plus is, among other things, the best science-fiction novel written in the 1970s by a non-specialized writer. Formally speaking, its focus on the standpoint of the cyborg, providing an inside view of the consciousness of the (semi-)artificial intelligence, brings Plus closer to a genre novel such as Pat Cadigan’s 1993 Fools (another novel about a search for memories) rather than to a highbrow take such as Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2: if the latter is a novel about the confrontation with the posthuman, McElroy and Cadigan’s protagonists try to enact what being posthuman might be like.
Among McElroy’s works, the presence of science-fictional motifs also haunts Women and Men. And in going through the essays reprinted in his recent Italian collection, Exponential, one finds many references to science-fiction writers and works: from precursors such as Samuel Butler (16) and Jules Verne (38); to contemporary genre classics such as Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (32-4, 37), J. G. Ballard (47, 55, 64, 76), and Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s The Sirens of Titan, in conjunction with mentions of William Burroughs and cyberpunk (75); to non-specialized examples such as Richard Powers (78), John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (34, 54, 76), William Hjortsberg’s cyborg novel Gray Matters (58), and Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics cycle, along with a story from that cycle’s immediate model in Italian literature, Primo Levi’s collection The Periodic Table (69-70). Exponential also contains reviews of Calvino’s Invisible Cities (115-9) and Samuel Beckett’s The Lost Ones (125-9), both at least marginally science-fictional texts. To these I would add the mentions of Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City and, again, of Calvino in LeClair and McCaffery’s interview (238, 244) - different facets in a consistent tradition of literature exploring the territories of science.
The metaphor of the cyborg has a very long history in 20th century science and science fiction, which here can only be hinted at. I tried to examine this history in my unpublished PhD dissertation. For some probings into cyberpunk discourse, cf. my “Jeremiad” and “Bodies.” Heads or minds separated from bodies: an age-old dream, or nightmare, with intertextual resonances emerging so strongly that isolating dominant texts and filiations is virtually impossible. Much is at stake in this metaphor and in all discourses evoking it, with fiction and nonfiction creating two parallel histories with mutually communicating rhetorics. Since the beginning in the 1920s, in the speculations of scientists such as J. D. Bernal and J. B. S. Haldane, personal body, body politic, and space have been interacting. In Bernal’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1929), the “colonization of space and the mechanization of the body are obviously complementary” (73): cosmic policing and prosthetic technology will free the human mind from all material fetters and ensure its undying control over the universe. Individual self-sufficiency and will to expansiveness are the collective ideals incarnated in a view of the body such as that of Alexis Carrel, Nobel-prize winning pioneer of transplant technology, who sees in his popular Man, the Unknown (1935) skin and body surfaces as “the almost perfect fortified frontier of a closed world” (65).
And since the 1930s, U.S. pulp authors powerfully include semi-artificial humans and brains encased in boxes in the repertoire of their imagery, often drawing on Darwinian and eugenic myths: tales on transparent eyeballs being nothing and seeing all, dominating space and other people, parables on technoscientific hubris, in different degrees of tension between empowerment and socialization.
Officially, the birth of the cyborg takes place in 1960 at a conference held at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas, in a paper delivered by physicians Nathan S. Kline and Manfred Clynes, entitled “Drugs, Space, and Cybernetics: Evolution to Cyborgs.” In their view, the cyborg prefigures the advent and triumph of “participant evolution”: (military) science and technology are about to make possible the planning and designing of infinite variants of homo sapiens, able to live long and prosper in the worlds of space exploration. This new entity “deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments.” Body processes and the attendant “robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, thus freeing man to explore, to create, to think, and to feel” (347-8). Their epic narrative of mastery over the universe, while ostensibly foregrounding a pluralism of embodiments, posits not only a mechanistic view of the body, but also a faith and hope in its irrelevance and coming supersession: the self-regulating, homeostatic balance along the boundary of the interface between organic and inorganic components renders the cyborg less an empowered body than an armored mind. The body mechanic is the body obsolete, a pure thinking apparatus, who has broken free of the devilish materiality of world and flesh: a literal self-made man, capable of “adapting his body to whatever milieu he chooses (345).
With its Protean self-making act and its asocial expansive thrust, the cyborg is ready to connect into the mainstream of U.S. national mythology. Following in the steps of early cyberneticians such as Norbert Wiener and Vannevar Bush, Kline and Clynes also present their creation as conqueror of a “New Frontier” (347). In this vein, before cyberpunk made science fiction part of the postmodernist narrative, two decades crowded with theory, fiction, and popularization had established a rhetoric centered on the drive toward the limitless frontiers of scientific imagination. This rhetoric, turning ostensible symbiosis and coupling into (self)instrumentalization, was - and to a great extent still is - divided between celebrations of omnipotence soon to come and specular humanistic recoils from reification, but united in saluting the cyborg, either with enthusiasm or with dismay, as a new beginning for the American self (cderf. Martin), launched toward definitive abandonment of the body and of history: Leo Marx’s technological sublime as a dream come true for the individual and as an analogue for the nation (cf. Wilson).
As studies such as Mark Dery’s Escape Velocity and N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman show, at the core of much theorizing about the posthuman still lie those same dreams - informed with a technological determinism which figures such as Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler have updated and popularized for the contemporary age. From the science-fiction field the responses to this finalistic narrative have been more nuanced, exploring the cyborg identity in detail, with a keener awareness that both personal bodies and the body politic are made of very resistant materials, all of which (including ethics and language) must be considered on their own terms. The very root of the genre, inherent to the idea that science and technology can become usable tools for literature, is a deep faith in metaphor, in the hope that possible worlds can be created in the reader’s mind capable of providing estranged versions of its own world. As Darko Suvin writes, these fictions are complex parables, not mechanic allegories (“homologies,” as McElroy describes his attempt in Plus in many of his essays: cf. ” Plus Light” and Exponential 81): linguistic creations, but nevertheless narratively solid and reconstructible, always meant to achieve an inner consistency. In this, science fiction has always proposed a challenge that appears to escape the dichotomy between ontology and epistemology, between world and interpretation: the science-fictional worlds have at their center an “absent paradigm” (Angenot) just as Faulkner’s have at their center a “climactic ellipsis” (Materassi) Both these notions (ironically resonating, I realize as I write, with the matter at hand), in different ways, might also be pertinent to the themes of McElroy’s The Letter Left to Me, a novel of endurance in the face of loss whose Beckettian undertones are no less strong than those of Plus. : the interpretive quest of the reader, ultimately, consists in recostructing the world the narration itself is an emanation of. Therefore, I would maintain that the relevance of Plus lies in its taking its central metaphor seriously and in its own terms. Plus goes much further and deeper than texts that “simply” (quotation marks are due, of course, in order not to unduly belittle achievements such as Powers’ Galatea 2.2 or Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy) explore it for its impact on an observer who is participant but ultimately safely on the outside of the boundary between science and the body. Thus, I would argue that one tenor of McElroy’s multiplex parable is the assertion that such a somewhat nostalgic intellectual figure still belonging to a separate sphere is no longer conceivable. McElroy’s cyborg’s tale “told from within” is an example of pure science fiction, of what science fiction should be, of what all important science fiction manages to be.
2. In Touch with Imp Plus
In the critical mainstream surrounding Plus, many have read the novel as an example of a “world elsewhere” created by an empowered self (cf. Brooke-Rose; LeClair, Art 144-6; Miller), a Cartesian subject dominating a literally mechanized res extensa. In such analyses, cybernetics provides a template for self-sustaining aesthetic autonomy (cf. Porush, Fiction). Rather, I would read Plus, the interior monologue of the brain of a dying scientist implanted into an orbiting satellite, as an early metafictional, intertextual critique of the rhetoric of absolute, empowering openness, and of transcendence through disembodiment.
My analysis will follow, in the progress of Imp Plus’ linguistic and cognitive self-awareness, the tension between openness and closure, between expansion (or retreat?) into an undifferentiated void and the (re)discovery and inescapable necessity of coming to terms with its own new bodily being, with the world and with otherness. I will read its final act as the double rejection of both the myth of the instrumental body and of the myth of unfettered expansiveness - that is, of the most widespread ideological assumptions underlying the rhetoric of human-technological interfaces (either in the years preceding the publication of Plus or in much current “cyberculture”).
As the novel starts, the explanted brain is indeed a literalization of Emerson’s classic transparent eyeball scenario: a tabula rasa hooked into an “Interplanetary Monitoring Platform” experimenting on solar energy storing devices, perceiving himself against the background of a surrounding void. But in the very act of self-perception - an act of feeling, an act of imagining - Emerson’s Nature is powerfully revised:
He found it all around. It opened and was close. He felt it was itself, but felt it was more.
It nipped open from outside in and from inside out. Imp Plus found it all around, and this was not the start. (3)
For Imp Plus, this feeling of openness and openendedness brings about the awareness of a previous existence. The emergence of his own self is never privileged as a creation ex nihilo, and involves a two-way traffic, a true interaction between subject and world. Imp Plus’ acquisition of language also starts from scraps of past and present experiences and not from scratch. Consistent with this, language and vision (being and understanding, ontology and epistemology, self-scrutiny and outward observation) are facets of the same drive: ” see was the need or effect of say ” (143). As in Emerson’s Divinity School Address, here too “always the seer is the sayer. Somehow his dream is told…clearest and most permanent in words” (78). Imp Plus’ first metalinguistic remark is about sight: “Socket was a word” (3). In learning how to see himself, he learns how to say himself. This is the experience he describes, over and over, as “lifting,” as he acquires (at once acquiring again and acquiring anew) the language with which to express his condition, and to communicate it to others. What he perceives and communicates, though - and this is definitely unlike Emerson - is the birth of a body. The attempt of overcoming dispossession and instrumentalization can only be predicated on physical existence; his first attempts at articulate communications will be about the development of his new perceptual system, centering on the imagery of growth - a growth involving a process of cellular fusion and differentiation of unheard-of proportions, and allowing a new consciousness, capable of acting beyond originally programmed routine operations, to emerge together with the new body.
From the very first page of Plus, memories start coming in, sketches from a fragmented mind trickling in recurring associations, scenes, as well as isolated words and phrases. And what makes this protagonist unforgettably moving is his unceasing quest for love among the ruins of a past which does not even yield his “human” name: moments back on Earth, ill and dying, with wife and daughter; moments with a “woman at the California sea,” and with another one met shortly before the final operation of brain excision, “by the Mexican fire” (109), which also triggers images of birds and the sun. In the past and in the present, in emotions and body, the sun resonates as a salvific force, just like the repeated reminiscence about the encounter with the blind, bandaged “news vendor,” who manages to compensate for his sightlessness and keeps trying to perceive the world. Most disturbing are the conversations with the “Acrid Voice,” who tells him that the eventual orbital decay of the satellite might somehow be controlled (perhaps with the brain’s own help), so that he might be recovered, but who left too many doubts to be fully believable.
In the following chapters the disordered accumulation of memories slowly and progressively coalesces into semantic clusters of highly specialized languages associated with biology, alternating and coexisting with an initially minimal vocabulary, articulated through an incremental process of linguistic redundancy and overload (cf. LeClair “McElroy”), of repetition with variants:
Imp Plus caved out. There was a lifting all around, and Imp Plus knew there was no skull. But there had been another lifting and he had wanted it, but then that lifting had not been good. He did not want to go back to it. He did not know if that lifting had been bad. But this new lifting was good. (3)
If Imp Plus is a cyborg, it is one very much like that of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” among many other reasons because in Plus there is no nostalgia for any idealized past experience: Imp Plus’ past as an integral human is one source of his present state as an integrated cyborg, not the goal or hope of a fullness he strives for. As the new identity develops, the organic and the inorganic are bound to interact, without according either component any superior or inferior status. And this past has no intrinsic ethical connotations, is the site of both positive and negative present sensations.
In the above quoted third paragraph, ethics is introduced in the shape of ambiguity: there are, within Imp Plus’ words, a number of types and meanings of “lifting,” and the option between good and bad shows up as inescapable, if not always with a clear-cut value judgment following it: the lifting of the brain from the body (from “the skull”), the launch into space, the activation of the new system of (self-)perception. And somewhere in the background, an echo from that solitary “head” in Emerson’s Nature, “uplifted into infinite space”, intent on being “nothing” and “see[ing] all,” throwing at the self and at others a literal and imaginative imperative: “Build…your own world” (Emerson 6, 46). Here, though, there is no lifted mind prior to the world-building striving: the entire novel, indeed, portrays the mutual construction of a subject and its surroundings. Linking both is the former’s will to existence, a choice and a longing which for the semiartificial being is no less (perhaps, more), as it were, heartfelt than it would be for an ordinary human.
The only automatism in Imp Plus’ action is his choosing to perceive its own self, rejecting the position of mere “monitor,” receptor or reflector, passively intent on perceiving the outside. In doing so, he refuses the master narrative of the cyborg as instrumental body (upheld by cyberneticians and other rhapsodes of the posthuman), which means for him being somebody else’s instrument, and instead embraces another longing, which sees the technologizing of the body as the possible catalyst for a new fulfilling relation between subject and object. There is a contest for autonomy going on inside the cyborg body, but it is a contest in which there is no direct relation between component and axiology: organic vs. inorganic are not equated to whole vs. reified (as in classic liberal attitudes) or to obsolete vs. futuristic (as in teleologic-posthumanist speculations). Both elements can be the site of such a contest, and their inevitable interaction can bring about further complication; as Haraway writes, “the relation between organism and machine has been a border war [involving] pleasure in the construction of boundaries and… responsibility in their construction” (150).
Many are the boundaries crossed by McElroy’s cyborg self. Fragmented as he is, Imp Plus (the “more,” the “Plus” supplementing the “he” with the “it” - after all, “Imp Plus” = “I am “Plus,” as noted by LeClair [“McElroy” 35]) will become a multiply inclusive being, holding together two kinds of components, not just two items: organic elements include the brain and the nutrients he is inserted in (vegetables and glucose are mentioned), connected with several computer and measuring systems. In this way, the “cognitive estrangement” (Suvin) of this science-fictional situation presents the reader with a surprising, hopeful possibility of heterogeneous wholeness; as McElroy said in his interview with LeClair and McCaffery, “I also saw in Plus the good old theme of reintegrating the body and the soul, a dynamic drama of growth, unexpected growth” (239). And, as he commented in ” Plus Light,” about the reformulation of personal autonomy in the age of technology: “In Plus, in Imp Plus, you have something in between instrument and person. In the beginning you do.”
In this complicated drama of desire and frustration, all the verbal games redefine but never erase the presence of a consciousness. Whereas the reader might be baffled by the juxtaposition of indirect and free indirect discourse, in the novel most glaring for his listeners on Earth is the confusion within Imp Plus’ communication between the speech of his operative functions and the speech of self-reflection, which leads him to evoke the “shadows” of his memories in one of his dialogues with Ground Control: “The answer was that Imp Plus was able to think in transmission” (11). Bakhtinian and not Chomskyan, he has the ability to think dialogically; his self-perception is connected to communication with others. And he learns how to lie.
If Imp Plus opens his self-expression by talking about an opening, as he begins to gain some degree of self-awareness, the awareness of a distinction between self and world, between the he and the it of his first sentence, brings about a degree of closure. As in frontier discourse the advance of the settlement can only be the cause of a receding of the open territory, in Plus pleasure can only be shaped by the needs and responsibilities of selfhood:
Everywhere he went there was a part just missing. A particle of difference. And in its place an inclination, a sharp drop.
And through this Imp Plus thought: or was suddenly looking back at having thought: that those particles that were just missing were driven away by the aim of his looking: and that his sight was the Sun’s force turned back into light in him by means of an advanced beam. He had many aims. He?… The Sun in Imp Plus was one eye; and if so what might be two? It was the chance of something.
What came to Imp Plus amid the brightness was that some of him was left.
So some of the gradients were Imp Plus.
Which was why he could fall into himself. (6)
Imp Plus’ outward drive, almost immediately, encounters the limitations of identity, even as he strives toward other purposes (“aims”) than those imposed upon him by the controlling agencies from Earth, and finds among the signals another sight worth detecting (that is, himself). As the potential becomes actual, as that “chance” becomes the possibility of “something” specific, his vocabulary translates all this into images of a downhill course: a Fall for the cyborg.
At the end of Chapter 2, already “the more that was all around was getting closer and closer to Imp Plus” (22): as he builds himself, he also builds a boundary around his self, meeting constriction while at the same time looking for freedom. In this condition, the cybernetic feedback of a character bootstrapping himself into selfhood can only appear as suffering, as the loss of a Beckettian sort of pre-Oedipal bliss: “He had nothing to stand on; the bulge he was on was himself. The bulge was on the brink of the cleft, the cleft was in a fold, the fold was more open, and when it was all open it would not be a fold. He could not help wanting this, but with each unfolding a fold was gone” (98).
As flashes and associations keep bringing back his past existence, body and human connections become a pervasive “absence” (136), “emptiness” (195), “vacancy” (196), which must be compared with the present situation: “Words remembering other words, but new words for what he had become” (142). At the threshold between past embodiment and present disembodiment, Imp Plus imagines himself as a personified “fence” (151, 159), imposing limits upon what could only have been a source of perfect fulfillment as an unfulfilled promise of boundless openness to be contemplated from the edge. As Imp Plus’ memory progresses - as his contacts with Ground Control continue - past connections appear more and more vivid and more and more distant, in “an emptiness of reciprocal failure to be remembered between them in which they began to share if not know what was escaping each other’s thought” (212).
Words are also presences surrounding him and linking him with Earth: Ground Control, Travel Light (Travelling on Light, Operation TL), Cap Com, the Good Voice and the Acrid Voice, and the Dim Echo, which is both outside Imp Plus’ new being and a part of him, wholly subordinate to the Ground agencies - ironically, the closest thing to an “original” self he can claim (and whom he can access far less easily than Ground). For Imp Plus and for the reader of his story, the ghostly presence he calls the Dim Echo is an ominous, cold reminder that the semi-artificial being might be more human (more humane) than the remnants of his flesh-and-blood human counterpart. Keeping them all together, keeping together what he describes as a “great lattice,” within and around himself, the light: a connection which is immaterial, but emotionally and physically real.
Sensations and emotions are the part of the past he is still reaching out for:
Imp Plus wanted to find the foot he had put in the yellow leather shoe; to find the voice in which he had told the blind news vendor in that cold place in another sea, “That’s my daughter,” as she ran down the pavement to meet the dark-haired woman. He wanted to find…the eyes to see spilt blood, spilt smells, the point of jokes, things not so beautiful as what had come to him through growth… (204)
But one of his ties with the past is hardly conducive to hope: “the Acrid inferences would not let up” (ibid.), confirming that his fate lies in his present state; he can’t go home again: “He had to see his being only as it was now” (143).
And the way he is now is determined by those unknown forces who try to keep him under control, for unstated (given the origin of cyborg speculations, we have to ask, military?) purposes. Knowing, growing, search for origins, self-determination, all are mediated and shaped in the proud construction of language right at the moment in which deconstruction (or un construction) appears triumphant. Self-diminishment, like Bartleby’s anorexia, could be a way of imposing one’s own vanishing self as a felt absence. And yet Plus is all about the recreation of a presence: not (as in Ihab Hassan’s The Dismemberment of Orpheus) a literature of silence, but a literature out of silence and speechlessness (in a confrontation with “Voices”): a will to remaking when the unmaking process is spreading everywhere.
Plus, in other words, reinterprets its acknowledged sources, Samuel Beckett’s The Lost Ones and the history of Moon flights (especially Apollo 13) as parables of impossibility of control over personal and collective existence, and of endurance and defense of dignity in such a condition of isolation. Space might be a trap, but offers also a dream never to be discarded. And thinking of McElroy’s references to Calvino, we could probably add the Cosmicomics’ protagonist, Qwfwq, as a source for McElroy’s fascination with weightlessness (a keyword in Calvino, of course) already pointed out by Tony Tanner (Scenes 207-37).
As in the previously quoted passage from Emerson, in both seeing and saying, Imp Plus as well is looking for some kind of permanence. So, the most Beckettian passages in Plus are its strongest affirmations of hope: “Imp Plus knew he had no eyes. Yet Imp Plus saw. Or persisted in seeing” (3). And later:
He had no choice but to go on to understand what was going on. No choice he thought but to be centered and to see out from the brain hub, but then in from the body bonds; see meanwhile from the rounds of tendril bendings up out of cells near an open cleft to those message rounds pressed small in the bulb-bun of branchings at the rear of the brain, to (then) the fine turn of a limb tip finding a nearby limb to join or a bulkhead shine to brush. He thought in the pieces - he did not know how except that the pieces whether refracting in toward a center he hardly had any more or aiming each its own moves separate along a many-sided tissue of inclination were him. So Imp Plus tried to take heed, tried to think - what was it? (118)
Centerless and multiplex, shapeless and manifold (in this, similar to many protagonists of contemporary U.S. fiction, as Tony Tanner argued in City of Words), his new identity thrills and scares Imp Plus at the same time:
He found it on his mouth and in his breath. Him. A thing in all of him. But now he wasn’t sure. He saw he’d felt this him in the brain. But where was it now? In too many centers.
And there was a shifting like the subtraction of a land mass so two or more seas that had been apart now slid together. What happened to this him? (114)
The scary part is that any process bears the mark of inherent instability: any growth can become a decline: “He was not just increasing. He could become less” (132). After all, he will never be isolated by the rest of “humanity,” just as he has never been; the threat of the “Concentration Loop” will always accompany him: “Which meant Imp Plus would be in touch with Ground again” (155).
In the end he is forced to consider the alternatives, which he tries to sort out with his new powers (as McElroy writes in ” Plus Light,” Imp is “evidently neuro-connected to Ground Control, word-wired, linked electronically, pulse-translatable evidently into communicable sounds - thought-wired?”: a form of telepathy?):
So he began to answer and to ask. And while the IMP twisted, tumbled, spun, and pushed into lesser orbits, Imp Plus talked to the familiar ovals of the Acrid Voice. And not knowing where to begin, he used old words the Acrid Voice used. Words sometimes that the Acrid Voice had been going to use. But more wonderful than this in all the words that passed was what they lacked. It was far more than the words were equal to.
Imp Plus felt it all around. If he did not wish to tell Ground that what had been at first a body grown like a starfish of mouthless hydra seemed now other than body, wish faded into inability which was in turn only a shadow thrown by his sense that he could preserve what the Sun hoped they might become. (184)
He can cooperate in order to be retrieved, he can run away toward deep space: but then, both these options would mean accepting the patterns of instrumentalization and asocial empowerment the Powers-That-Be hope to incarnate in the cyborg body, whereas Imp Plus wants and needs connection and, above all, communication: “He had to tell all the truth he knew” (201).
The final question from Ground, as he is about to enter the Earth atmosphere toward likely self-destruction, has obvious allegorical undertones: “DO YOU HAVE POWER? ” (214). His self may have been developing, but rather than “transcendence through power” and the “mastery…of the re-creative intellect” (Miller 175, 177), McElroy and his cyborg seem preoccupied with the uncertainty of an alienated interiority, and Imp Plus’ answer is “YES AND NO… No desire to carom into space, no desire for re-entry ” (214-5).
In concomitantly refusing to act as pure instrument, and to accept the mythologies of individual expansiveness, McElroy’s cyborg satellite restores a role to embodiment. As Tabbi writes, the “body he desires, like any sublime object, is made all the more painfully real to Imp Plus by virtue of its unattainability” (143). The finale of Imp Plus’ story appears to be a heroic sacrifice in the quest for a fulfilling form of literally limited, yet non-alienated self.
Something very solid melts into air in this ending: this is a defeat. And yet, this defeated, powerless science-fictional being ironically incarnates a hope. In Daniele’s interview, McElroy talks about the need for moving away and beyond wholesale rejections of technology, so common among intellectuals, and provocatively evokes Thoreau in connection with Plus (100). And ” Plus Light” concludes by describing the novel as a science-fictional pastoral idyll. And indeed, skeptical as it is, Plus appears to have been literally an ironic novel about the construction of a garden in the middle of the machine. A postmodern novel about innocence.
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