Sunday, October 21, 2018

Skull Month, week 3: Brain and brain!

I admit it. Sometimes I make obscure cultural references just to make my kids wonder what's wrong with their mother.

One of the things I sometimes say is, "Vagel, I'm coming!" It's from Stephen R. Donaldson's Mordant's Need duology. One of the characters is a master mage gone mad, and he has a tendency to hop through mirrors while yelling to another master mage that he's on his way. (The Watchers in the audience are saying, "I knew that!")

Another phrase that pops into my head occasionally is, "Brain and brain! What is brain?" I expect more folks will get this one -- it's from the opening episode of the third season of the original Star Trek. The episode is called "Spock's Brain" and in it, a crew of marauding women procure said brain from Spock's head and make off with it. Kirk and the gang track them back to their home planet, where they discover that the women -- who are called Eymorgs -- have installed Spock's brain as a sort of planetary CPU.

In case that doesn't refresh your memory, here's a four-minute condensed version that I found on YouTube:

As you can see, uninstalling and installing a brain requires advanced technical knowledge, but it's clear the Eymorgs don't have any. In order to complete their task, their leader must don special headgear called The Teacher. The device temporarily imparts sufficient information to the leader so she can do what needs to be done. It's kind of like cramming for a test. And Mr. McCoy must resort to using the same device to put Spock's brain back where it belongs.

Supposedly this is the worst episode of the series. I have no opinion either way -- other episodes annoy me more -- but it does underscore the way the original Star Trek was a creature of its times, particularly when it comes to portraying women.

Don't get me wrong -- the series made great strides for women. Uhura, who was both black and female, was a bridge officer, and the voice of the computer was female. One presumes there were more women on the crew than just Uhura and Nurse Chapel, although we never see them -- or at least I don't remember seeing any. (Yes, I know that Majel Barrett was both Nurse Chapel and the computer's voice. And yes, I know she was married to Gene Roddenberry.)

But then there's Kirk's constant womanizing. And you also get the story lines like the one in "Spock's Brain," in which the women are dumb bunnies who are looked upon by their male counterparts as "givers of pain and delight." To be fair, the men don't appear to be any brighter. Why "the builders" -- the ancestors who built the underground facility where the Eymorgs live -- thought it would be a good idea to keep their descendents stupid is a question for the ages.

Be that as it may, I find this women-as-other attitude in a lot of early science fiction, and it keeps me from appreciating it as much as I otherwise might. For example, I enjoyed Robert Heinlein's early work, but then he started relying on horny old Lazarus Long as a deus ex machina who got him out of every plot hole. And I remember thinking when I read Dune that Frank Herbert didn't have much use for women.

I get that these guys were writing for other guys, or for themselves. But still I'm glad that science fiction has progressed to the point where women are captaining starships instead of asking what a brain is.

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These moments of brainy blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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