Men Creating Men
In Robert Silverberg's World's Fair 1992,the young hero, Bill, is projected into an adult world, in which he must prove himself to be equal to the men around him. He has won a competition by writing an essay about life on other planets, and the prize is a trip to and a job at, the World's Fair, which is being held at an orbiting space station 50,000 miles above the earth.
Similarly, the protagonist of Arthur C. Clarkes's Islands in the Sky, Roy, has been awarded a stay at a working space station as a result of a competition. Both boys are high school seniors. In each of the novels there is a subtle strain of rejection; the young men must almost forcibly leave home, against (mostly maternal) opposition, if not to seek their fortunes as in the literature of the previous century, but to pursue a life which is predicated on a "rite of passage" that is largely based on the experience he can gain by association with men. The world that held them in their youth is deemed to be no longer large enough to offer them a future.
These science fiction novels belong to a genre which was once known as "young men's fiction" not only because they were read predominantly by young men, but because they were written for them. This may seem like the same thing, but in fact, it is not. Unlike young people's stories of a previous age, (Tom Sawyer and Toby Tylercome to mind) which had a general, engaging, human appeal, these science fiction adventure stories have an air of instruction about them. They seem to say, "this is the stuff of which men are made, and this is how to achieve it."
This maxim is revealed not by what is said, but by what is assumed and by what is omitted.
In the case of Roy, who is aided in his objective by an uncle, against the wishes of both of his parents, he has already taken his first step toward what appears to be his destiny before he leaves the planet. His uncle instructs him on how to overcome the regulations of the award, which state that the winner's prize will be a trip anywhere in the world (and not on the space station). By a series of legal manoeuvres, and arguments with his parents, Roy manages to attain his objective, and in doing so, declares himself a candidate for manhood. There is no scene in which this battle takes place. It is the omission of such detail that makes this a very "masculine" book. Roy has simply made up his mind about what he wants to do, and with the aid of an older man, done it. It is as if this were de rigeur, expected, not worth mentioning. There is a short chapter in which he takes his medical tests, and in the next chapter, he is on his way to the station. Family dismissed. Curiously, or perhaps not, given the genre, this is the same pattern which unfolds in the novel we previously studied, Space Cadet, by Robert Heinlein.
In her book, Some American Men, Gloria Emerson observes,
"Every twelve year old boy knows what must be done in order to make it as a man, what it will cost him to be an American: the lessons seep through the skin forever. Money must be made, nothing is as masculine as this...What cannot be permitted is more intricate: timidity, squeamishness, kindness toward too many people, a habit of pleading or the look of pleading, an excessive concern for mercy and justice except when confined in church, a tendency to dither, and the habit of asking for help."
In Roy's world, apart from making money - he is absolved only because of his youth: the Captain of the Space Station makes so much money that Roy wonders how he will ever spend it because he doesn't go to earth often - he is trained by the men around him to adopt, acquire, become those qualities mentioned above. In the first few minutes after his arrival, he is taken in hand by an older boy, and his lessons in manhood begin:
Tim looked thoughtful; then he glanced at his watch.
I'm not on duty for half an hour, and I want to collect something I've left out at the rim. We'll go outside.
But... I gulped, my enthusiasm suddenly waning, Will it be safe? Doesn't it take a lot of training to use one of these?
He looked at me calmly. Not *frightened* are you?
Of course not.
Then let's get started.
The italics are in the novel, as if to emphasise the horror of fear. Roy learns quickly to disguise, and then to eliminate any expression of lack of confidence. Even though he is new, young, inexperienced, no concessions are made for him. Like Matt, in Space Cadet, he is expected to learn by going where he has to go. And although the space station is not a military organisation, unlike the Patrol, the absence of any female or feminine influence results in the same, tough, unyielding code.
Bill fares little differently. Although there are several women and girls at the World's Fair Pavilion, his real world is limited to his roommates, and his work. Early in the novel, he vows (like Matt, who stated that he doesn't have time "to waste on girls") that he will never marry. This is is the kind of statement that is not meant to be taken at face value in our culture, but it is, nevertheless, a highly approved of sentiment. What it says is "my goal is not marriage - if it happens, fine, but right now, I have more important things to think about." This relegates association with females to a pastime, like basketball or chess; the real life of men is lived out with other men.3 There is a clubbiness; a collective instinct in the relationships that both Roy and Bill have with the other males on the space stations. It is not unlike a gang mentality, (although both authors are confirmed pacifists, and there is no violence in either of these novels) wherein a kind of species loyalty is always in the forefront of motivation.
In Islands in the Sky, Roy's initial contact with the other males is largely physical. There are a lot of actual exercises and physical tactics to learn in order to cope with zero gravity, and the maze of the space station, but most of what is described is horseplay, mock fighting, establishing himself as part of the gang.
The purpose of Bill's visit is more intellectual; he actually works as an apprentice xenobiologist, and yet his arrival is the most starkly physical of all. Within minutes of arriving in his room and meeting his "bunkmates", he decides to take a shower, and without hesitation, takes his clothes off, has a shower (not in a separate room) all the while talking to his roommates. When he has finished his shower, moreover, he does not dress, but continues to stand with them, naked, talking. When they finally decide to go to dinner, he gets dressed. This may not appear to be a significant act, but it falls into the category of things not said.
These novels were written for males, by males, and it is unlikely that a male reader would attach much importance to the fact that the main character had a shower. However, it is just as unlikely that a female character in the same circumstances would have behaved in quite the same manner. In fact, it is probably safe to assume that the women's rooms on the space station were arranged differently. This unselfconscious undressing can be seen as an initiation rite. Perhaps that is too strong a term, but it is well documented that groups of boys usually include among the codes they establish for acceptance into the group, some kind of physical or sexual display. I think this was entirely sub (or un) conscious on the part of Robert Silverberg (although he is well known for his highly sexual science fiction novels of a later period), but of course, this is precisely the point.
The male perspective is so ingrained in these "young men's" novels, that it would be as unnecessary to explain this scene, as it would to explain that humans have two legs. It is an assumption that this is correct behaviour in this circumstance. Bill is merely conforming to the code of the group:
"You never saw a molecular bath before? Antonelli laughed. This place is run on an economy basis. They can't afford water just to keep mere employees clean. Get your clothes off and I'll show you how it works." Bill peeled down. He had heard of these devices but he had never seen one before."
Like Roy, Bill accepts the instruction of the alpha male without question. He has begun the transition from newcomer and individual to member of the group. Throughout both of these novels, the qualities of manliness continue to be taught, not by overt instruction, but by example. A large part of the experience of both boys is to anticipate the reactions of the others, particularly the leaders, to any action they themselves might take. This is to avoid the "habit of asking for help"; and yet to take the correct action in order not to appear "timid." There is a sense of intense concentration on their peers, so that all codes are learned as quickly, as painlessly as possible.
In describing his first day on the space station, Roy remarks that the confusion he felt was not so much the result of the newness of everything, or the number of people he had to meet, but the realisation that he would have to "learn to live all over again."
Bill finds himself the "only private in an army that otherwise consisted of six colonels and a general"and although he quickly becomes part of the working team, feels that he cannot ask questions, because he is "too new here." It would seem that the most logical time to ask questions is when one is new at a task, but in the male world of desperate self-sufficiency which is integral to the definition of manhood, this recourse is denied. It is the trust in the association with other men, rather than any instruction offered by them that is central to this theme.
By contrast, in World's Fair, 1992, the only female character with whom Bill has a semi-relationship, Emily Blackman, is not to be trusted. Basically, she is a lightweight diversion, confusing, bewitching, and scheming. But she serves a purpose. As a character, she is there to prove that Bill is a "normal" - that is, heterosexual:
"In this [20th century American] society, male peer groups generally offer strong reinforcement for heterosexuality, and heterosexuality has become a central symbol of masculinity, which in turn is clearly tied in with male dominance. As Joseph Pleck points out, "Our society uses the male heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy as a central symbol for all the rankings of masculinity, for the division on any grounds between males who are 'real men' and have power and males who are not. Any kind of powerlessness or refusal to compete becomes imbued with the imagery of homosexuality.8
Emily Blackman is merely an affirmation that Bill is a man. In Islands in the Sky, there is no such character. The only female in the story is a movie star, Linda Lorelli, who comes to the space station, briefly, to film a movie. She is described "glamorous"; and basically dropped as an object of interest. Lest the reader assume that the boys are not "normal," there is one sentence regarding their attitude toward her: "There was much excitement at the news that the star was none other than Linda Lorelli, though we wondered how much of her glamor would be able to get through a space suit."
In fact, the real attraction is Tex Duncan, the male star, whose physical appearance, attitude, history, and actions are described in much more detail. He is a hero to some of the young men at the station, one of whom has his picture pasted up inside his locker. (No one, apparently, has Linda Lorelli's picture anywhere!) It is revealing in the context of this essay that when Tex does something stupid while at the station, his picture is removed from the boy's locker, and "was never seen again."
The real hero of both of the novels, of course,is manhood. Tex fell from grace because he did not conform to the code of the group, however important he was in his own right. Roy and Bill, on the other hand give up their individuality with alarming speed, instinctively realising that their futures as men depend on other men, and that the sooner they assimilate, the more secure is their right to manhood. Only by accepting the assumptions that men make are they able to reject the boyhood that women (mothers) make.
It is interesting to note here that whenever the mothers of these two boys are mentioned, there is an almost identical description of them, and an identical reaction to them:"There was also a parcel from home, containing a good assortment of candy and a letter from Mom telling me to be sure to wrap up tight against the cold. I didn't say anything about the letter, but the rest of the parcel made me very popular for a couple of days."11
When Bill has an opportunity to go to Pluto (the temperature of which is absolute zero) his mother makes similar remarks, thus confirming her unsuitability to participate in the process of manhood:"They looked a little baffled about it all, of course, particularly his mother. But they knew the whole story before he came on line, and from the way they spoke, it was evident that someone had done an expert persuading job on them, possibly even Regan himself. [Man vs Mother]..."
Take good care of yourself," his mother kept saying. "Be careful not to get a chill." The point of these silly remarks of course is to indicate that the boys have passed through some kind of door which divides the men from the boys. They are both amused at and slightly ashamed of their mothers' remarks. It is obvious that they cannot go back.
At the end of both novels, the protagonists realise that they have somehow "made it" - that they don't have to go back. For Bill, the future is "work to do tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow, and all the tomorrows after that."
Roy's final comment upon returning to Earth is that "the space station was too near home to satisfy me now."
© Harrison Solow 1991
1Emerson, Gloria.Some American Men. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
2 Islands in the Sky, pg 35
3 In the United States, rituals are still around that reflect the attitude of ‘the boys,’ that is, male peers, toward marriage, The stag party for the groom before the wedding is an occasion at which males commiserate with the poor prospective husband for having got himself "hooked." Johnson, Miriam. Strong Mothers, Weak Wives. California: The University of California Press, 1988, pg. 126.
4 World's Fair, 1992, pg. 23.
5 Islands in the Sky pg. 32.
6 World's Fair 1992, pg. 56.
7 Ibid., pg.60.
8 Strong Mothers, Weak Wives, pg.124.
9 Islands in the Sky, pg. 66.
10 Ibid., pg. 78.
11 Ibid., pg. 57.
12 World's Fair, 1992, pg. 170.
13 Ibid. pg. 239. (Emily Blackman is married by this time - at 18! this seems to say something about the relative values of males and females in the world of this novel.)
14 Islands in the Sky, pg. 157.
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