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Author Topic: Pseudopod 264: A Study In Flesh And Mind  (Read 5677 times)
Bdoomed
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« on: January 19, 2012, 05:52:14 PM »

Pseudopod 264: A Study In Flesh And Mind

By Liz Argall .
This story originally appeared at DAILY SCIENCE FICTION on Friday, May 20th, 2011. Liz’s work can be found in a range of publications, including, Strange Horizons, Meanjin and will be in Machine of Death 2. Related to this story, she supported the Parisian Life Models Strike of 2008, details on which can be seen here and here.

Read by Philippa Ballantine who appeared here last in “In Memoriam”. Her website is currently sporting the covers of her new books, at the link under her name.


“‘Try to observe closely,’ says the Great Teacher, not really looking at her fresh pose, tapping the baton in his palm and smirking at the short-skirted student. ‘It’s like this.’

The model observes his new stance, the way his right hand grasps his hip, the left held in the air. She mimics his pose exactly, although she keeps her face carefully blank and does not include his sneering expression.

The Great Teacher snorts in disgust, shakes his head and rolls his eyes. She swiftly finds a new pose, a mangled combination of the previous three, fighting down anger and a hint of panic. She has no idea what he wants and she will not survive at this school without his recommendation.”




Listen to this week's Pseudopod.
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Unblinking
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« Reply #1 on: January 20, 2012, 10:33:32 AM »

This story drove me nuts.

It was clear from early on that he was behaving the way he was to draw out true emotions in her poses, rather than affected ones.  Which makes sense, as long as you don't mind torturing people, which apparently he doesn't.  So for the rest of the story I was left watching the inevitable torture reach its inevitable conclusion, and to know that she would go through the same thing the next day.

In our world, I think she'd have plenty of grounds to take legal action against this guy, but it seemed that this was not today's world.  It seemed like it was a world set up entirely so that she could not refuse his actions without literally risking starving to death.  It seemed that the only way she would get a food coupon is if she followed his orders no matter how abusive and sadistic they were.  It seemed like the author went to great lengths just to set up a world that is very much like ours, but with just enough details changed to make this an inescapable situation.  And the mental interface (which I wasn't entirely sure was actually an SF concept, rather than just artsy metaphors, until the end) was another thing that just seemed to be added onto our world to subjugate this article.

I found this story very frustrating because she had no opportunity to take any real action.  She is trapped at the beginning and she is trapped at the end, and that's apparently not going to change.  It like watching a movie in which the story begins when a bear is caught in a bear trap, and then we spend the next two hours watching it try to gnaw off its foot, and then we fade to black with the certainty that it will either die of dehydration/starvation, or be shot by the hunter who trapped it.

Also, it didn't help that the author did not deign to give the protagonist an actual name, only referring to her as "the model".  It seemed that, in that way, the author was on the side of the artist, dehumanizing her as much as possible, so that she had no existence other than her occupation.  It didn't bother me that the artist was not named--he's supposed to be celebrity, so either it would be a name I don't recognize (which would make the claim of celebrity a weak one) or it would be a name I do recognize (which has difficulties of its own).
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justenjoying
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« Reply #2 on: January 20, 2012, 11:31:07 PM »

This is a gorgeous representation of how fragile our psyche really is.  Recognizing how easily we can be manipulated despite our best intentions is sobering and the evilness infllicted is devastating. I loved how relatable this character was.  This is a female archetype worthy of emulating.

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Marguerite
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« Reply #3 on: January 22, 2012, 02:40:50 PM »

This story drove me nuts.

This is a very interesting viewpoint, and one I hadn't thought about.  But by the same token, I think it makes the Great Artist just as much a victim of this system as the model.  I didn't find any implication the artist ENJOYED having to torment his model in order to access the emotions he was teaching his students.  While I'm sure he could have started with positive emotions, maintaining the length and intensity of ANY emotion would be extremely difficult for model and teacher alike.

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« Reply #4 on: January 22, 2012, 03:45:17 PM »

This story drove me nuts.

This is a very interesting viewpoint, and one I hadn't thought about.  But by the same token, I think it makes the Great Artist just as much a victim of this system as the model.  I didn't find any implication the artist ENJOYED having to torment his model in order to access the emotions he was teaching his students.  While I'm sure he could have started with positive emotions, maintaining the length and intensity of ANY emotion would be extremely difficult for model and teacher alike.



I see what you mean when you say that the artist didn't ENJOY having to torment his model, but at the same time he has a heartless cruelty about it that is, to my mind, worse. The monster isn't out to get you - it doesn't even care about you.
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« Reply #5 on: January 22, 2012, 04:54:32 PM »

I liked this story.  It was an interesting idea.  I will echo what Unblinking said above and will add only that there were certainly times when I did not feel this was a horror story.  The peril she was in was vague; I wasn't sure if failure meant certain death by starvation or only the humiliation of losing until she could get another modeling gig.
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« Reply #6 on: January 22, 2012, 05:43:15 PM »

I quite enjoyed this one. The model's experiences tell of a private little horror that is extremely easy to imagine one's self in: being stuck in a body and mind-destroying situation because you have to be or you will suffer for it. While I've never been in that specific situation, I've had bosses that seem sadistic enough to get the same unholy glee that the Great Teacher showed from making those under them squirm.

Thanks.
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« Reply #7 on: January 22, 2012, 07:10:12 PM »

In our world, I think she'd have plenty of grounds to take legal action against this guy, but it seemed that this was not today's world.  It seemed like it was a world set up entirely so that she could not refuse his actions without literally risking starving to death. 

Maybe the point is that this IS how our world works. The bits of it that make our sneakers, anyway.

That's why this one drove me nuts too. It was depressing because it didn't take much of a stretch of the imagination to make it believable.

I think that's why I didn't like it. By any literary standard it was good, but I personally prefer horror stories about werewolves and man-eating plants and stuff like that. I don't enjoy the genre when it cuts as near to the knuckle as this story does.
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Unblinking
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« Reply #8 on: January 24, 2012, 10:45:04 AM »

This story drove me nuts.

This is a very interesting viewpoint, and one I hadn't thought about.  But by the same token, I think it makes the Great Artist just as much a victim of this system as the model.  I didn't find any implication the artist ENJOYED having to torment his model in order to access the emotions he was teaching his students.  While I'm sure he could have started with positive emotions, maintaining the length and intensity of ANY emotion would be extremely difficult for model and teacher alike.

Since we didn't get to peek into his head, I guess we don't know that he loved it, but I didn't see any implication that he didn't love it either.  I got the impression that he is so good at what he does because he feels no remorse about it.  He is willing to inflict whatever pain on others that is required in order to improve his own position, and that's why he is the "great artist" that he is.
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« Reply #9 on: January 28, 2012, 09:05:41 AM »

I had a slightly different take on this story, since I've just been diagnosed with a "protruding disc" in my back that's pressing down on a nerve.  A lot of everyday poses feel like her stress positions in the story.  (Pseudopod is part of my pain management strategy--thanks, Alistair & Co.!)

I was curious if anyone can recommend other horror/genre stories about pain (the idea of pain, the experience of pain, the embodiment of pain).  I stumbled upon "The Pain Epicures," a short piece of weird Victorian literature which you can read online here  http://www.horrormasters.com/Text/a2241.pdf  ... I was hoping for a wittier or more profound ending but still, that author was testing the limits of the publishable for his time.

One thing I respected about "Flesh and Mind" was that it explored a new horizon of suffering, a particular kind of humiliation that could only occur in that setting.  The model starts off confident and took pride in her work, but she's taken apart bit by bit and the exhibition of her failure is what makes it so awful.  The idea that the students could look inside her mind as well makes the humiliation more complete.  It's common for fiction to explore the horror of family and intimate relationships, but sometimes what we do as workers or as professionals--and the lengths to which we push ourselves to "get the job done"--is an unexplored country.

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justenjoying
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« Reply #10 on: January 28, 2012, 11:02:24 AM »

It's common for fiction to explore the horror of family and intimate relationships, but sometimes what we do as workers or as professionals--and the lengths to which we push ourselves to "get the job done"--is an unexplored country.

Amen!
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Sgarre1
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« Reply #11 on: January 28, 2012, 11:14:14 AM »

quick possibility

"The Lords of Pain" and "To Pain", poems by George Sterling.

Sorry, my extensive notes are not too extensive on this topic...
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Marguerite
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« Reply #12 on: January 29, 2012, 06:24:08 PM »

It's common for fiction to explore the horror of family and intimate relationships, but sometimes what we do as workers or as professionals--and the lengths to which we push ourselves to "get the job done"--is an unexplored country.

The recent Natalie Portman movie "Black Swan" comes readily to mind, as would just about anything written about professional dancers and probably athletes. This is an intriguing point, and I'll definitely keep my eyes peeled.
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« Reply #13 on: January 30, 2012, 03:23:13 PM »

By any literary standard it was good, but I personally prefer horror stories about werewolves and man-eating plants and stuff like that. I don't enjoy the genre when it cuts as near to the knuckle as this story does.

I would actually argue the opposite point. I think that the story had an interesting concept which intrigued me, but by literary standards it just wasn't well-written.

I usually try to be as positive as possible when commenting on stories, but in this case I'm finding it really hard. The story seemed like a strange daydream that the author had while she herself was modeling (I'm willing to bet that since she's an artist's model, this story came to her during a modeling session); however, I think it needed a lot more thought put into it before it could be called a finished story. It felt half-formed to me, for these reasons:

1.) The setting was vague--either the future or an alternate reality, with the only defining characteristics being the unspecified "neural interface" and the food coupons the model was working for. We never really found out why the students were using the interface (to give them deeper insight into her emotional state, I guess?), and it seemed like an unnecessary detail. It didn't advance the plot or affect the characters in a significant way--the same themes could have been explored without it--and it raised distracting questions which actually took away from the effectiveness of the story, I felt.

2.) There weren't any well-defined characters for us to care about. The model and the teacher were the only ones explored in any detail, and we only got the model's inner monologue to go by. It would have helped if she could have had a discussion with one or two of the students, or even with the teacher, but she just kind of stood there in silence. I guess that's a requirement of her job in this world, but I thought a little bit of dialogue would have done wonders to engage the reader.

3.) There didn't seem to be much at stake. There were implications that the model could lose her job if she didn't perform well, but that would just force her to find another job at a different school. Since we don't know anything else about the world except that it has neural interfaces and food coupons, we don't know how hard that would be for her. If the teacher was just bullying her to elicit her emotional states, then she wasn't really in danger of losing her job anyway. And if she's been doing this for a while, shouldn't she have realized what he was doing? If he wasn't doing it for that reason, then he's just a dick, and she's better off not working with him anyway. I understand that a certain amount of her self-esteem was at stake, but if the story was just about her self-esteem then it didn't need the food coupons and neural interface elements.

Overall, it felt like an SF story, and not a horror story. It would have seemed more at home on Escape Pod, but even then I'd have had the same problems with it. As an idea, I think it has potential, but, for me, the execution was lacking. If the author's intent was just to say, "Man, it's hard being an artist's model. Some days I feel like I'm working for food coupons, and I have to put up with some mean teachers," then that's fine, but it's not very compelling. If the author's intent was to say something more profound about the human condition, then it was too muddled to work for me.

There, that's pretty brutal. I don't feel good about myself for tearing apart someone else's work, but this one just really bothered me. I thought it stuck out as a sub-par story--but that's compared to Pseudopod's usually very high standards of quality. It's possible that I missed some really good aspects of the story because I was too focused on what I didn't like. Maybe it's just a case of "this wasn't for me."
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Jesse Livingston
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« Reply #14 on: February 15, 2012, 10:12:15 PM »

Did this remind anyone else of Chair by Martin Mundt over on Tales To Terrify?

That story is more humorous, but you have the same rich-exploiting-poor-as-horror dynamic, and even something of the idea of poor people as tools/furniture for the rich.  I couldn't really evaluate this story well for all the time I spent thinking of Chair while listening.  I re-listened to them both in opposite order just recently, and I didn't have the opposite problem, so I think I liked Chair better, but this story didn't bother me.

I don't mind the SF setting, it is obviously designed to allow the poverty commentary the story is providing, but it isn't any worse than a tale about a psychopath harassing someone in any other setting.  It wasn't really scary, and I don't think the story was all that interesting, but I didn't dislike it either.  I think it was solidly mediocre, maybe on the low-end of good.
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« Reply #15 on: February 15, 2012, 10:52:41 PM »

Having just listened to "Chair" over the weekend - and having enjoyed immensely - I'd say (as might be expected) "yes" to the similarity in some way, but "no" to others.

The difference seems to be that the protagonist of "Chair" has completely bought into the situation he's in (really no other way to write it without the narration becoming open to criticism of being "whiny") and that the situation, while similar, is not about his suffering at all - it's just about his being trained in being a slave while never realizing he is (for one rather reductive reading of the scenario.  I also liked the "only one actual rich man left" aspect).  As I posted in their comments section, "Chair" seemed like a nice post-capitalism riff on Sade's ogre Minski from 120 DAYS OF SODOM extrapolated into a surreal, cartoon version of our future (it's something to say how much I enjoyed it, as horror-science fiction, and grotesque cartoon horror sci-fi to boot, is not one of my favorite starting points - but then I'm all about writers being aware of overall tone and controlling story in regards to that, which "Chair" had in spades).

"Study" didn't strike me as mining the same material - the model may be from a lower economic strata (well, "is", I guess, to be more precise) but I never got the feeling that the students and even her teacher are necessarily from the highest strata, just a higher strata, and the group dynamic, orchestrated by the Professor, was all about her suffering - she's being trained... but they're being trained as well - to suffer/how to appreciate suffering and expect it.  More serious/less comic than "Chair", as befits the focus.  She really didn't strike me as furniture to the class or the teacher, more of an art object to be appreciated, just not the one she thinks, and not in the way she thinks...


“Contrary to the common opinion, it is the wealthy who are greedy of wealth; while the populace are to be gained by talking to them of liberty, their unknown god.  And so much are they enchanted by the word of liberty, freedom and such like, that the wise can go to the poor, rob them of what little they have, dismiss them with a hearty kick, and win their hearts and their votes forever, if only they will assure them that the treatment which they have received is called liberty.”
Arthur Machen, “The Terrror”
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Umbrageofsnow
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« Reply #16 on: March 11, 2012, 07:34:15 PM »

All good points, and a much more insightful explanation of why "Chair" was good than anything I could come up with when I got into an argument about it recently and realized I should come back and respond to this.  Yes, the tone was different, as was the focus, but I think the protagonist of "Study" was very much a piece of furniture, or at least a tool.  She wasn't so much an art object in herself as an inspiration for the creation of art objects, using her physical posture and psychic pain.  She wanted to be seen as an art object, but I don't think the teacher was just refusing to acknowledge her artistry to make her into better art.  

That was part of it, but I think he also views her as so far beneath him that she doesn't matter.  He acknowledges her feelings so far as they can be used to get better results out of her, but he doesn't give a shit.  I actually read him taking a little bit of sick joy in breaking her down.  Her suffering is more horrific for there being monstrous people like him that can make her suffer if she wants to live.  The horror of "Chair" is that the protagonist doesn't realize his slavery, and the horror here is that her suffering is useful to the rich, but there is a very strong common theme of the rich subjugating the poor to absurd extremes as horror.

The one rich man thing was a nice bit of humor, but I don't think the absolute rank of the antagonists matters, just that they are both so much better off than the protagonists that they can do pretty much whatever they want.  At least that is what matters to the comparison I'm trying to draw, and I wonder if this is going to be a more common theme in horror and science fiction going forward.

Would you read "Chair" as more similar to "Mentor", from the February 2nd Pseudopod?  I'm wondering if the willing-but-horrific subjugation of protagonists is a more common theme in horror than I'd realized.  Sorry, I'm sort of rambling off topic here, but I've typed to much now to delete it.  Ummm, okay, done.
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The Far Stairs
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« Reply #17 on: March 13, 2012, 11:26:50 PM »

I loved "Chair"! Classic satire. It was great how the author just kept piling on more and more ridiculous humiliations to show how completely bewitched we are by capitalism.
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Jesse Livingston
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« Reply #18 on: March 19, 2012, 07:52:11 PM »

Quote
Would you read "Chair" as more similar to "Mentor", from the February 2nd Pseudopod?

In all honesty, Umbrage, someone else may need to field that.  "Mentor" I read, enjoyed, bought and put out there and I was quite happy with the audience reaction and willingness to find depth in it, but it's receded so far behind me now (dozens, possibly more than a hundred stories later, between all my personal and professional short fiction reading) that I doubt I could be articulate about it.
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Umbrageofsnow
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« Reply #19 on: April 05, 2012, 02:48:14 PM »

Don't worry about it, I was mostly just thinking aloud about themes and trends in horror and in all honesty I need to continue these type of conversations more quickly.  I have an unfortunate habit of forgetting about conversations and then picking up right where I left off a month ago while other people have completely forgotten what we were talking about.  I do it verbally and on the internet.  So no worries, and keep up the good editorship!
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