The Machine, Stopped

Changing the content of the courses I teach is normal, as ordinary as grading papers. Some semesters, I do it radically, overhauling the whole ship from stem to stern. Other times, I tweak the syllabus, change some assessments, maybe try out a new grading policy. Without fail, I end up changing at least some of the texts we read. 

The reasons for adding or dropping readings range from the quotidian to the philosophical. I’ve realized I assigned too much and need to cut back. Or, a text bounces off students and I can’t find a way to make it stick. Selfishly, I might just long for something new. And, sometimes, my understanding of something critical about a text changes — I come to recognize problems that might be more harmful to students than would be empowering and useful to deconstruct. Those judgment calls are always tricky. I never expected to have to make one because, in a science fiction and fantasy course, the readings had suddenly become too true.

Alice Sheldon (aka James Tiptree, Jr.)

In February in 2020, I was more giddy than I had been in years to assign my students James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain.” It’s a reconstruction-of-the-crime narrative following the movements of the titular character, a biologist we realize by the end has been jet-setting a circuitous path to a scientific conference in order to expose himself to as many people as possible. Ain is Patient Zero in a viral pandemic cooked up in his own lab. An ecological terrorist, Dr. Ain has designed a “leukemia virus” that transmissible by all warm-blooded creatures, fatal to all higher-order primates, and armed with a 90% recovery rate for all other species. It’s a biological superweapon designed to cleanse the earth of its human blight. And somehow, “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” is also a love story, one man’s retribution for the sake of the planet. The reader watches, powerless, seeing every step of his plot to ensure human destruction. 

Oh, and because he’s thorough, Ain feeds birds on his layovers. Because birds are warm-blooded.

Tiptree’s story reconstructs how Ain got away with it — how he revealed his plan to the world, when it was already far too late to stop him. How, even after he was captured, no one understood well enough what he had done and how powerful it was, because the police  let him feed birds in the park in between legs of goose-stepping him back home to face legal consequences that don’t matter anymore. With the virus needing just three days of incubation and less than three weeks to achieve fatality, everyone is already done for. Through ignorance of the meaning of their choice and misplaced empathy, the police help Ain become the Dylann Roof of specicide.

I was excited to share this story at the end of February 2020 because coverage of COVID-19 had just started to penetrate the daily news cycle. About half of my students had heard of it. A few had talked about it in their bio classes. Some had relatives in China, sharing their own firsthand experience with a pandemic the rest of the world had yet to see. I teased them gleefully, playfully about this literary viral apocalypse and its mournful, existential vibe. They chuckled along with me — a little tensely sometimes, but that’s what Tiptree’s writing makes you do.

Two weeks later, our school transformed from a residential academy to fully remote learning. Students scattered back to their homes across the state, on lockdown until (we thought) March 31. 

We thought wrong, of course. 

We’ve been in fully remote teaching and learning since then, ending one year and beginning another with software and hardware bridging the gap between us. Over the summer, one of the students from my speculative fiction class wrote me a lovely thank-you email and mentioned offhandedly thinking about “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” a lot since February. 

I’ve thought about it a lot, too. Mostly, I’ve wondered if I was wrong to teach it.

Medical doctors (we are at a time where, apparently, it is especially important to some to specify medical doctoral achievement over other doctoral achievements) take the Hippocratic oath, so often cited in cultural shorthand as the vow to “do no harm.” Teachers don’t have a formal, equivalent oath. If we did, it might be, “We recognize that learning is challenging, and sometimes challenge is painful, but we must not create pain out of malice, indifference, or by design.” I’m not entirely sure that in assigning “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain” — doing it because I was specifically excited to point out its eerie relevance to the present moment and the fears surrounding it —  that I didn’t do my students some disservice or harm.

In the pandemic, few people have been more disempowered and disenfranchised than students. Whether learning fully in person, in a hybrid environment, or fully remote, students are largely subject to policies designed by adults, policies into which they have limited (likely zero) input. The pandemic teacher takes on a keen importance in students’ lives. Especially for students in fully remote learning environments, like the one I’ve been working in since March, teachers have the power to dictate the circumstances under which they “see” their classroom peers (Cameras mandated, or no? Breakout rooms? Synchronous or asynchronous work? Group projects, or solo work?). Teachers stage students’ conversations, create the questions they are supposed to process together, and often dictate what happens as a result of that processing. 

However timely, maybe prescient, elements of Tiptree’s story was, with another semester of remote learning about to begin — one in which I know from the start my students will see me through Zoom and interact with me through email, and Canvas, and a chat room, all because of a real pandemic and a woefully uneven national and global response to it — can I justify prodding that wound by assigning it?

Cover for ebook version of Forster’s “The Machine Stops”

The problem doesn’t stop there, of course. A colleague in my department asked if I would be teaching E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” this spring. I often do. “I want to see you not through the Machine . . . I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine,” he noted, was a line of particular poignance under our present circumstances. He planned to reference it at the start of his Digital Literary Studies class.

And it is a striking bit of dialogue. Kuno’s agonized desire to relate to his mother — to anyone — without technology as a mediator is the same yearning I see in my students when they end classes, almost on reflex, by waving at the screen, or typing “*hugs!*” into the chat. Given that my students’ normal isn’t just going to school, but literally living there for weeks and months at a time, to be separated from their roommates, wing mates, study partners, “big sisters” and “big brothers,” residence life counselors, and — yes — even their teachers is more than just painful. It’s an amputation of a limb holding up their collective identity. Zoom, and Google Hangouts, and Facebook chats, and Discord, and Slack offer ill-fitted prostheses, one-size-fits-some solutions not designed for how this wound has hobbled each student differently. 

On the one hand, academics teach texts that confront difficult issues because in confronting them with our students, we hope to create deeper understanding. Perhaps useful reflection will follow that confrontation, or even the ideas needed to chart a solution. When the solution isn’t there, we hope that dismantling our assumptions surrounding it by confronting the problem head-on will offer its own compensation. 

And, sometimes, the confrontation is that and nothing more: an assault on the reader. The pain or the problem doesn’t change just by being held up in class. Our understanding of it doesn’t magically change. Often, living through such problems has already taught a student more than a dramatization of them could. I’m used to weighing the difficulty of such confrontations, calculating the cost-benefit to the best of my ability, in matters of race, sex, gender, ableism, violence.  . .

I am not used to struggling with the question, “Has this science fiction become too real to be instructive?”

In “The Machine Stops,” Kuno escapes the Machine because he’s willing to accept the possibility of his own destruction in the world “outside.” He is recaptured and forced to endure the Machine’s slow, steady decline and deterioration, knowing that there was a world beyond the Machine that a system much larger than himself forbade him to touch. Finally, he and his mother perish, realizing together that accepting and connecting to the natural world should have been their highest value all along, rather than surrendering themselves to be dependent on the Machine. 

Is it ethical to suggest to my students that they should reject “the Machine” circumstance has thrust them into, when public safety demands that we endure it? Is it fair to tease them with this eco-libertarian vision when I am part of the very system that confines them, part of “the wearisome Machine” myself?

It’s possible that this reading experience could plunge my students into a deeper reflection on the costs of the pandemic. But I would be fooling myself if I claimed they haven’t had these thoughts already. 

And yet, reading is an outlet for empathy, and for recognizing oneself and others. Would it help them to see themselves in Kuno? To see themselves in his technology-dependent mother, Vashti? 

Or would it just grind salt into that wound? Would it be another scary bedtime story, another Tiptree triumph for me to regret, apt in the moment but without much to offer beyond “I guess we have to trust the Machine, for now, despite feeling its harm firsthand”? 

Would the story actually help

There is no Hippocratic oath of teaching, but at times like this,  I wish there was one. I’m out of answers. Like a good science fictionally-minded person, all I have left are questions.  


One thought

  1. Lynda Barry suggests that reading is not so much about escaping reality as it is about giving us the means to live in reality. Perhaps reading Forster and Tiptree (and others) gives us the vocabulary and ideas we need to make sense of a lot of change thrust on us in a very short time.

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