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Irreal Technology in "The Semplica Girl Diaries" and "In the Penal Colony"

by G.S. Evans

In her blog post “Quirky Narrators and Occasional Irrealism in George Saunders’ Tenth of December,” Alice Whittenburg discusses “The Semplica Girl Diaries” as the only story in that collection that had a distinctly irreal element, that element being the “installation” of four Semplica Girls (SGs) into the suburban backyard of the story’s protagonist as a way of keeping up appearances with his neighbors. As Alice describes it, in the story “we don’t learn very much about these SGs (Semplica Girls), but we are told that they are women from economically and politically challenged societies. They are brought to people’s homes by a landscaping company that also sees to their physical needs while they are engaged in the service they are being paid to perform. This involves dressing in white smocks and being hoisted into the air, attached to each other by ‘microfilament’ that joins them brain-to-brain, so that they float above people’s backyards.” Alice concludes that they introduce an irreal element into the story because, though they clearly have an allegorical meaning, this meaning is hard to pin down precisely and draws a parallel with Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis.”

I would like to focus here however on a parallel that can be drawn between “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and another Kafka short story, “In the Penal Colony”; specifically, between Saunder’s description of the “Semplica Pathway,” the invention which made it possible to hang the SGs up in a line and Kafka’s description of the “peculiar apparatus,” i.e. the machine that forms the central part of “In the Penal Colony” and with which the Condemned Man is to be executed. In both stories, the authors use a kind of medical/technological sensibility to present a device that, though (and this can be taken as a “trigger” warning) clearly brutal and cruel, is also difficult to fully fathom, thus making possible an irreal “event” in the form of the stringing of the girls in a line in Saunders' story and the bizarre, drawn-out executions of the Condemned in Kafka’s.

In the Saunders story, we first come across the Semplica technology when the SGs are about to be hoisted in the protagonist’s backyard:

SGs exit truck, stand shyly near fence while rack installed. Rack nice. Opted for “Lexington” (mid-range in terms of price): bronze uprights w/Colonial caps, Ezy-Releese levers.

SGs already in white smocks. Microline already strung through. SGs holding microline slack in hands, like mountain climbers holding rope. Only no mountain (!).

…Doctor monitors installation by law. So young! Looks like should be working at Wendy’s. Says we can watch hoist or not. Gives me meaningful look, cuts eyes at Pam, as in: wife squeamish? Pat somewhat squeamish…[they go inside]

Soon, knock on door: doctor says hoist all done.

Me: So can we have a look?

Him: Totally.

We step out. SGs up now, approx. three feet off ground, smiling, swaying in slight breeze. Order, left to right: Tami (Laos), Gwen (Moldava), Lisa (Somalia), Betty (Philipines).

And, later, we get another detailed description when the protagonist tries to explain to his concerned daughter, Eva, that, in spite of how it might sometimes appear, there is nothing harmful in the process:

Eva: I don’t even – I don’t even get it how they’re not dead.

Suddenly occurred to me, w/little gust of relief: Eva resisting in part because she does not understand basic science of thing. Asked Eva if she even knew what Semplica Pathway was. Did not. Drew human head on napkin, explained: Lawrence Simplica = doctor + smart cookie. Found way to route microline through brain that does no damage, causes no pain. Technique uses lasers to make pilot route. Microline then threaded through w/silk leader. Microline goes in here (touched Eva’s temple), comes out here (touched other). Is very gentle, does not hurt. SGs out during the whole deal.

In spite of their calm invocation of cutting-edge science and technology, these passages nonetheless challenge our common sense of the physiological capacities of human beings by asking us to imagine it possible that a line could be strung through the SGs’ skulls that would allow them to hang up on a line for hours upon hours without causing great pain (even if Dr. Semplica did find a way to route a microline through the brain that didn’t cause any damage). And this is assuming that it would be structurally possible for the human skull to actually sustain the stress of one hundred plus pounds of dead weight without giving way and horrifically killing the SGs in the process. Yet, in the story, which in no other way challenges our perception of physical reality, it seems to work as Dr. Semplica and the narrator promise.

The reader, however, in imagining these four pretty young women hanging by the line in such a matter, senses this disparity even if he or she is not likely to dwell on it because the Semplica Pathway is both explained and seems to work in the narrative. Nonetheless, the disparity between what the reader knows to be possible and what is happening in the story (enhanced of course by the unease of what would happen if the device didn’t work) suffices to cast the story, otherwise very much in a realist mode, into an unreal mode. How it also leads us into the realm of irreality is something that we shall see shortly.

The “apparatus” in Kafka’s famous story functions in a very similar sort of way in that, though a very precise description is given of its workings (indeed, far more so than in the Saunders’ story), it remains unclear how it actually works.

As its proponent in the story, the Officer, explains to the Traveler, the apparatus is designed to deliver justice in a particularly brutal, and yet subtle, fashion – i.e., by inscribing the Condemned’s sentence onto his naked body (anybody accused of a crime is always found guilty), a process which slowly kills him over a period of 12 hours. The extreme pain of the process leads to an epiphany after about six hours. How all of this is achieved is explained in great detail. To quote just the beginning of the Officer’s description of the apparatus:

As you see, it [the apparatus] consists of three parts. With the passage of time certain popular names have been developed for each of these parts. The one underneath is called the bed, the upper one is called the inscriber, and here in the middle, this moving part is called the harrow … the shape of the harrow corresponds to the shape of a man. This is the harrow for the upper body, and here are the harrows for the legs. This small cutter is the only one designated for the head … When the man is lying on the bed and it starts quivering, the harrow sinks onto the body. It positions itself automatically in such a way that it touches the body only lightly with the needle tips. Once the machine is set in this position, this steel cable tightens up into a rod. And now the performance begins. Someone who is not an initiate sees no external difference among the punishments. The harrow seems to do its work uniformly. As it quivers, it sticks the tips of its needles into the body, which is also vibrating from the movement of the bed… [transl. by Ian Johnston]

And yet, as with the Semplica Pathway, for all the description presented there is no clear answer as to exactly how it is that the apparatus can achieve the results attributed to it. In part, it can be described as an automatic tattoo machine that operates (until the fateful end of the story) with extraordinary precision, but this description only raises the problem that there is not now, nor has there ever been, such a thing as an automated full-body tattoo machine. This is largely because of the seeming impossibility of a fully automated machine being able to a) do such precise work on even a small section of the body, such as an arm that has been secured to a table, much less b) do an elaborate, whole body tattoo while the “bed” is rotating the body of the Condemned [Footnote 1] and c) do it so precisely and uniformly that after about six hours each and every one of the Condemned reaches a recognition as to what is happening to them and the nature of the message that is being transcribed onto them (indeed, spectators of the execution clamor at that point for an opportunity to observe the inevitable “expression of transfiguration on the martyred face”).

To this, we might add the question of how such a drawn out process of jabbing and cutting at the skin of a human being would be possible without the affected area becoming just a large, bloody wound and, additionally, ask how this apparatus could elicit such a uniformity of physiological responses when the far more straightforward method of executing somebody in an electric chair elicits a wide variety of physiological responses and resistances (i.e., some  condemned are killed only after being subjected to multiple electric shocks, which is why electrocutions have largely been phased out as a method of execution).

This sense of disparity between what should be possible and what is happening in the story, and the resulting ambiguity as to exactly how these devices function and achieve their results, leads the reader, as I wrote earlier, into the unreal. But it is when this is combined with the ambiguity of their result that these devices actually take us into the irreal. There is, that is to say, many a fictional device -- such as the time machine in Wells’ famous story -- whose scientific and technological workings are on the hazy side; the result, however, such as when Wells’ device takes the traveler from one particular year to a different one, is quite concrete and there is nothing particularly irreal about them. [Footnote 2]

Or, to take another famous fictional technology to which whole books of description and schematics have been devoted, the “warp drive” of Star Trek: whatever the scientific and technological description that is made of this device, in the end a warp drive simply transposes a physical commonplace of our world to another world. Thus, we transpose a situation on our present day Earth in which we can fly in an airplane from point A to point B to one where in the future we can do the exact same thing in interstellar space and covering far greater distances. For most readers, who likely don’t understand or think in detail about the physical process involved, it is perhaps only a difference of degree to imagine being flown by means of the forward thrust resulting from the burning of a hydrocarbon-based aviation turbine fuel in a jet engine from Chicago to New York as it is to fly from Earth to Alpha Centauri by means of a warp drive fueled by the energy released in a matter-antimatter annihilation and regulated by dilithium crystals in a warp drive. Even to somebody with a real knowledge of physics, to whom it would not only be a difference of kind but one quite beyond anything but the most fanciful of physics, a simple willing suspension of disbelief can enable them to quite comfortably imagine in the context of the story the members of the Starship Enterprise traveling between star systems in the same way as we travel between cities.

But this simple transposition doesn’t apply to the Semplica Pathway or to the penal colony apparatus. In the case of the former, in which young women hang by a line, the result is truly ambiguous as it is so strange and seemingly pointless; in the case of the latter, one of the results, the actual death of the Condemned, that flows from the apparatus may be what we would expect from an execution, but the other results – the elaborate, whole-body tattooing and the Condemned’s epiphany – once again take us into an ambiguous realm.

Such “irreal technology” as the Semplica Pathway or the penal colony apparatus – which undermine our sense of the how and why of technology – represent then another avenue to the “the impossible and unexplainable physics of the irreal” that separates irrealism from other genres of non-realistic fiction. [Footnote 3]


[Footnote 1] It is only with the recent development of 3D printing, almost a hundred years after Kafka wrote the story, that such a device has become even remotely feasible on even a small part of the body and even then with no hint of being able to do a whole body tattoo -- “This tattooing robot” ( Back to the Text

[Footnote 2] Another type of unreal story uses a kind of alchemical vagueness to put forward a “scientific” process; see, for example, Hawthorne’s "Rappaccini's Daughter." And this story too leads to a single, concrete result, namely that Rappaccini's daughter becomes poisonous like the plants that surround her. Back to the Text

[Footnote 3] For more on “the impossible and unexplainable physics of the irreal” see my “What is Irrealism?” It is important to note here that such irreal technology is a comparatively rare thing. Even in the pages of a publication dedicated to irreal fiction like The Cafe Irreal, only a few examples come to mind among the several hundred stories that we have published (such as “Instructions on How to Build a Cloud” by Daniel Hudon and “Preparing” by David Oates). Back to the Text


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