Chapter 10: Feminism and Science Fiction part 2
from In the Chinks of the World Machine by Sarah Lefanu
The goal of absolute unity between self and other, or subject and object, that is, the point of maximum entropy, is indeed exemplified by Pamela Zoline's short story, 'The Heat Death of the Universe' and Rhoda Lerman's The Book of the Night, both of which have as their sub-text the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As Lerman puts it in an epigraph: '... the world will eventually die, decay, fall into drift, come to a hopeless end, burn out, slide into disorder.'
The potential implications of this in The Book of the Night are held in tension by a contrary proposition, namely that in certain instances the Second Law fails; that there is within matter an anti-entropy drive. Or as Zoline puts it in paragraph 19 of her 54 paragraphed story:
'The second law of thermodynamics can be interpreted to mean that the ENTROPY of a closed system tends toward a maximum and that its available ENERGY tends toward a minimum. It has been held that the Universe constitutes a thermodynamically closed system, and if this were true it would mean that a time must finally come when the Universe "unwinds" itself, no energy being available for use. This state is referred to as the "heat death of the Universe". It is by no means certain, however, that the Universe can be considered as a closed system in this sense.'
The 'subject' of 'The Heat Death of the Universe' is a housewife and mother, the archetypal figure who brings order out of disorder, life out of death, meaning out of chaos. But, here, housework is a closed system, tending towards maximum entropy. The story describes a day in Sarah Boyle's life, from the dishing out of Sugar Frosted Flakes to her children at breakfast time to clearing up after a birthday party in the afternoon. The paragraphs are numbered; seven of them including the one above, are 'inserts': on entropy, heat death, light, Dada, love, Weiner on entropy, and turtles.
Sarah Boyle's life is a struggle against disorder. Death and chaos are held at bay by cleaning, ordering, measuring and naming. The numbered paragraphs fulfil the same function, as do the 'factual' or scientific inserts, and the careful precision of Zoline's language. But order seeps away, the I tends towards not-I. Sarah has 32 lines on her face (charted in an image on the wall) but isn't sure how many children she has; cancer lurks, perhaps in the Sugar Frosted Flakes; the turtle is dying.
The wealth of metaphor and meaning that make up language, literature and art becomes irrelevant. The touchstone of nature has been replaced as a source of meaning by value-free, culture-free synthetic creations. On the colour of Sarah's eyes, for example:
"24. Sarah Boyle's blue eyes, how blue? Bluer far and of a different quality than the Nature metaphors which were both engine and fuel to so much of precedent literature. A fine, modern, acid, synthetic blue; the shiny cerulean of the skies on postcards sent from lush subtropics, the natives grinning ivory ambivalent grins in their dark faces; the promising, fat, unnatural blue of the heavy tranquillizer capsule; the cool, mean blue of that fake kitchen sponge; the deepest most unbelievable azure of the tiled and mossless interiors of California swimming pools. The chemists in their kitchens cooked, cooled and distilled this blue from thousands of colourless and wonderfully constructed crystals, each one unique and nonpareil; and now that colour hisses, bubbles, burns in Sarah's eyes."
As natural order is displaced so hierarchies of value tumble. The meaning acquired through weight of cultural accretion is wiped out. So, on the Sugar Frosted Flakes packet are squandered 'wealths of richest colours, virgin blues, crimsons, dense ochres, precious pigments once reserved for sacred painting and as cosmetics for the blind faces of marble gods.' As signifiers slip from signifieds, the sign becomes arbitrary. Sarah incorporates this arbitrariness into her ordering activitites: 'Sometimes she labels objects with their names, or with false names; thus on her bureau the hair brush is labelled HAIR BRUSH, the cologne, COLOGNE, the hand cream, CAT.'