Fascinating lists!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Robert Sheckley’s “Gray Flannel Armor”: A Lesson on Love and Literature

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Published in 2005 by The NESFA Press of Farmingham, MA, The Masque of Manana offers science fiction fans forty one of Robert Sheckley’s often-satirical, always incomparable short stories, one of which, “Gray Flannel Armor,” I discuss here, because it offers a lesson not only in love but also in literature.

The protagonist is a young man named Thomas Hanley whose very ordinariness as an everyman makes him an appealing character. He is also made interesting by Sheckley’s omniscient narrator’s description of him. Hanley’s ordinary nature comes through in story’s first two paragraphs:

Thomas Hanley was a tall, slim young man, conservative in his tastes, moderate in his vices, and modest to a fault. His conversation with either sex was perfectly proper, even to the point of employing the verbal improprieties suitable to his age and station. He owned several gray flannel suits and many slim neckties with regimented stripes. You might think you could pick him out of a crowd because of his horn-rimmed glasses, but you would be wrong. That wasn’t Hanley. Hanley was the other one.

Who would believe that, beneath this meek, self-effacing, industrious, conforming exterior beat a wildly romantic heart? Sadly enough, anyone would, for the disguise fooled only the disguised [i. e., Hanley himself].

The narrator’s description of Hanley, in paragraph five, suggests that Hanley is also an everyman:

Young men like Hanley, in their grey flannel armor and horn-rimmed visors, are today’s knights of chivalry, Millions of them roam the streets of our great cities, their footsteps firm and hurried, eyes front, voices lowered, dressed to the point of invisibility. Like actors or bewitched men, they live their somber lives, while within them the flame of romance burns and will not die (427).

When Joe Morris, a salesman, appears at his apartment’s door, trying to sell him on a subscription to New York Romance Service, assuring Hanley that the “service” that the company provides has nothing to do with call girls, but, instead, will help him to find the woman of his dreams, the protagonist earns the sympathy of readers who, like Hanley, understand how difficult it is for men and women to find romance even in a city of millions. Therefore, they are likely to care enough about his plight (and, by extension, in many cases, their own), and the story’s opening sentence is likely to prompt them to continue to read, promising them, as it does, that, as a result, they will learn how Hanley met “the girl who later became his wife” (427).

Most of Sheckley’s stories establish a problem for which their characters seek solutions. “Gray Flannel Armor” is no exception: Hanley’s problem is that he cannot meet a fiancée. The solution, he is told, is New York Romance Service, which employs “scientific precision and technological know-how” based upon “a thorough study of the factors essential to a successful meeting between the sexes” (429). These “essential” elements of romance, the salesman says, are “spontaneity and a sense of fatedness” (429). Readers may be curious as to how Hanley meets his future wife, but, like the protagonist himself, they are also apt to be skeptical that romance can be analyzed on the basis of science and secured through technology.

Still, the premise is intriguing, and, in the second scene of the story, the salesman’s claims are put to the test. On a trial basis, Morris loans Hanley “a small transistor with a tiny video eye” by which New York Romance Service can track and coach him in his quest for romance (neither sex nor love is guaranteed, just romance). Directed by a voice he hears through the radio, Hanley goes to a rooftop, where he meets a beautiful young woman who is there stargazing. When he is uncertain as to how to proceed, the voice advises him to talk about “the lights,” which results in the following romantic exchange:
“The lights are beautiful,” said Hanley, feeling foolish.

“Yes,” murmured the girl. “Like a great carpet of stars, or spearpoints [sic] in the gloom.”

“Like sentinels,” said Hanley, “keeping eternal vigil in the night.” He wasn’t sure if the idea was his or he was parroting a barely perceptible voice from the radio.

I often come here,” said the girl.

“I never come here,” Hanley said.

“But tonight. . . .”

“Tonight I had to come. I knew I would find you” (431).

The voice on the radio next directs him to “take her in your arms,” and, when he opens his arms to her, she steps into them (431).

Although their encounter ends well, in romance, Hanley can’t help but feel that “something about it seemed wrong” (432), and he wonders “how many dreams the Romance Service had analyzed, how many visions they had tabulated, to produce something as perfect” as his seemingly spontaneous and fated meeting of the lovely young woman on a rooftop under the stars (431).

A second date, with a different woman, also ends well, in romance. Guided again by radio, Hanley arrives at the scene of a mugging just in the nick of time and, after saving the beautiful young woman from the muggers, enjoys both a “meeting that was not only spontaneous and fateful, but enormously pleasant as well” and “a wild, perfect, and wonderful” night with her. Nevertheless, he is still “disturbed” and cannot “help feeling a little odd about a romantic meeting set up and sponsored by transistor radios, which cued lovers into the proper spontaneous yet fated responses. It was undoubtedly clever but something about it seemed wrong” (432). He realizes--and his realization is the part of the story’s theme--that “you simply can’t throw strangers together at random and expect the fiery, quick romance to turn into love. Love has its own rules and enforces them rigidly” (434).

Hanley’s insight is confirmed when, walking through a park, his radio silent for once, he encounters a third beautiful young woman. At last, he experiences an “adventure” that seems “truly fated and spontaneous.” However, he soon discovers, that this experience, too, is staged, albeit by a company that employs more sophisticated methods than the use of “a small transistor with a tiny video eye”:
. . . I am your Free Introductory Romance, given as a sample by Greater Romance Industries, with home offices in Newark, New Jersey. Only our firm offers romances which are truly spontaneous and fated. Due to our technological researches, we are able to dispense with such clumsy apparatus as transistor radios, which lend an air of rigidity and control where no control should be apparent. . . (435).
Hanley is so disheartened by the sales pitch that, as he flees the scene, “he plucked the tiny transistor radio from his lapel and hurled it into a gutter” and “further attempts at salesmanship were wasted on Hanley” (435).

At the outset of the story, the narrator promises to show how the protagonist met “the girl who would later become his wife,” and the end of the story makes good on this promise: “It is interesting to note,” the narrator tells the readers, that Hanley was among the last to find a wife in the old, unsure, quaint, haphazard, unindustrialized fashion” (436), i. e., through a blind date arranged for him, and chaperone by, his old-fashioned aunt. Even this natural experience becomes the subject of a scientific study and crass commercialization:
And now one of the Companies’ regular and most valued services is to provide bonded aunts for young men to call up, to provide these aunts with shy and embarrassed young girls, and to produce a proper milieu for all this in the form of a bright, over-decorated parlor, an uncomfortable couch, and an eager old lady bustling back and forth at meticulously unexpected intervals with coffee and homemade cake.
Ironically, the narrator adds, “The suspense, they say, becomes almost overpowering” (436).

The story’s title reinforces the relationship between the narrative’s story and its theme. Hanley (the readers’ stand-in) learns that “you simply can’t throw strangers together at random and expect the fiery, quick romance to turn into love“ because “love has its own rules and enforces them rigidly,” especially when the “romantic meeting is set up and sponsored by transistor radios, which cued lovers into the proper spontaneous yet fated responses.” Fortunately for Hanley, as an everyman he is protected from such artificiality-by-design. He is armored, as it were, by his own everydayness and the conventions and traditions of conduct of such everydayness that are symbolized by his “gray flannel suits and many slim neckties with regimental stripes” (427):
Thomas Hanley was a tall, slim young man, conservative in his tastes, moderate in his vices, and modest to a fault. His conversation with either sex was perfectly proper, even to the point of employing the verbal improprieties suitable to his age and station. He owned several gray flannel suits and many slim neckties with regimented stripes. . . .
If part of the story’s theme is that “you simply can’t throw strangers together at random and expect the fiery, quick romance to turn into love. Love has its own rules and enforces them rigidly,” the rest of it seems to be that it is the interplay between the commonplace and the romantic, not contrived spontaneity and an artificial “sense of fatedness,” that makes encounters and relationships truly romantic.

Sheckley’s story is a more-timely-than-ever satire against dubious dating services and dismal lonely hearts clubs (or today‘s computerized equivalents), some of use (or claim to sue) scientific surveys, psychological testing, personality profiles, and statistical analyses to match strangers. However, “Gray Flannel Armor” is more than a lesson in love; it is also a lesson on literature, for Sheckley’s implicit critique of the absurdity of trying to quantify love is applicable also to fiction. Natural, but unpredictable, plotting creates true suspense, but there is something “wrong” with formulaic stories that are cranked out in assembly-line fashion. That’s a lesson that writers of horror as well as of science fiction (or any other genre) can take to the heart.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

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