Pamela Zoline - SF that shows clear affinities with the avant-grade. Zoline’s work illustrates a striking connection between “the modern myths of science (entropy, etc.) as they are understood by the layman with that great myth figure of modern fiction, the Victimized Domestic Woman
Pamela Zoline, The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories, Mcpherson & Co., 1988.
read The Heat Death of the Universe here or here
Is there such a thing as a female voice? If so, this story is written in such a voice. The voice of futile resistance. Nothing happens, except that the universe winds down eight hours further. Sarah Boyle expends her human intellect and capacity for grief on tidying a house. Pamela Zoline acknowledges the Universe. It's beautiful, but not very comforting.
There are many definitions of entropy: 'the probability of encountering a particular micro-state within a closed system'. As things become more disordered they become less predictable. Ordered systems, as Tolstoy said about happy marriages, are all the same. Tidy houses and healthy children approach similarity. Sarah Boyle, like this planet's bubble of life, expends energy to resist entropy. She is not thanked for her effort. But then, neither is the biosphere.
Through resistance to entropy all states become more similar, more like California.
All topographical imperfections sanded away with the sweet-smelling burr of the plastic surgeon's cosmetic polisher, a world populace dieting, leisured, similar in pink and mauve hair and rhinestone shades. A land Cunt Pink and Avocado Green, brassiered and girdled by monstrous complexities of Super Highways.
Eventually entropy wins. Is this a happy ending? Zoline asks us why we continue to resist. Why we prefer Ajax to Dust.
Poised in what has become a solid cube of light... the dust is indeed the most beautiful stuff in the room
But entropy is death. It is cancer and starvation. It is the woman growing old. With every paragraph and word, Zoline acknowledges the necessity and futility of our resistance to the winding down of life. The metaphors are nested like Russian dolls, a lesson in infinity.
What colour are Sarah Boyle's eyes?
the promising fat, unnatural blue of the heavy tranquilizer capsule; the cool mean blue of that fake kitchen sponge; the deepest, most unbelievable azure of the tiled and mossless interiors of California swimming pools.
The blue video colour of a TV, tuned to a dead channel. - Alison Page
The February book for the Feminist Science Fiction Book Club at Pilot Books was Pamela Zoline’s The Heat Death of the Universe. It’s a collection of five short stories, four previously published.
Although I read all five stories, we only discussed the title story. The discussion helped me understand that story, but the remaining stories remain a mystery to me, at least as far as what happened in each story. I still enjoyed the subsequent stories, but more in a floaty osmosis kind of way. Ms. Zoline associated with the New Wave of science fiction, a movement that tried to infuse science fiction with literary values. She wrote particularly avant-garde works that do not follow a narrative structure. Generally, the more experimental the style, the harder a time I have understanding.
The Sarah Boyle of the story, The Heat Death of the Universe, fits the mold of the housewife as described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique: bored, unvalued, and not connected with purpose. Her thoughts wander through various things, most of which have little to do with being a housewife and many connected to the end of the universe.
Due to our discussion in the group, I have a general sense of the story. However, I am ill-equipped to write something intelligent that wouldn’t be repeating pieces of the discussion. So instead of giving my own thoughts, I’m going to point you at Mary Papke’s essay
A Space of Her Own, from the Justine Larbalestier edited book Daughters of Earth. It’s a quite good piece of criticism, and will give you a much better idea of what’s in the story than I ever could.
Of the rest of the stories, I really enjoyed
Sheepthe most. No clue how to deconstruct it at all. Throughout the pieces of the text, the narrator counts sheep as they jump a fence. I’m not even sure they are all jumping across the fence in the same direction, or that it’s the same fence. Sometimes they jump in connection with a previous portion of the text, but usually they do not. There are a lot of sheep. As I read, I anticipated the next appearance of the counted sheep.
Beyond those two stories, I shall not comment.
At some point, I should probably write an essay as to why I keep reading these books that experiment with form when I rarely understand them. I would like to understand them. I feel like I’m missing out on something grand. So I keep trying. - Philip Weiss
“Heat Death” was the first story Zoline had written since high school and appeared in the same month that one of her paintings was exhibited in the Tate Gallery.1 While she would go on to write only a few more new-wave science fiction stories, published in The New SF, Likely Stories, and Interzone, all her works are noteworthy for their refusal of straightforward realistic narratives; and in “Sheep” (1981) she ingeniously deconstructs particular Western cultural genres—the pastoral, the spy story, the western, and science fiction itself—exposing, as it were, the Wizard behind the curtain putting on a show to keep the audience entranced and docile.
Her works are highly experimental in form and content, intensely provocative, and deeply felt. Moorcock himself said that upon first reading “Heat Death” it struck him so forcibly that it made him cry.2 In the twenty years following its first appearance, “Heat Death” was reprinted in at least nine science fiction anthologies.3 However, because of her limited output of fiction, Zoline remains relatively unknown and underappreciated by both general readers and literary critics.4
“Heat Death” might not at first reading strike the reader as science fiction at all. It contains no bug-eyed monsters, interplanetary flights, postapocalyptic worlds, or technological marvels. It focuses not on outer space as much as it does inner space—notably that of a woman—and the geography of the mundane—that of the home and the supermarket—rather than the fantastic or extraordinary. Like some of the work Kate Wilhelm, Judith Merril, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Anne McCaffrey produced around the same time,5 Zoline’s story explores relational spaces, those shared by mothers and children, husbands and wives, domestic economy and the public sphere.
The story does so by extrapolating from the everyday reality of a middle-class American wife and mother a nightmare vision of endless meaningless routine, demands, and expectations, focusing intently on issues of gender, the ethics of care, and the promise of the future. Within this domestic space, “aliens” appear in the guise of children, the mother-in-law, high and low cultural figures such as Shakespeare and Tony the Tiger, and even, in the most disturbing scenes for the female protagonist, the central character herself.
The majority of women characters in male-authored science fiction originally served as receptacles for male valor, scientific expertise, or, literally, for out-of-this-world sex.6 As the essays in this volume argue, women writers early on broke from this science fiction expectation in which women characters were merely instrumental, played upon by superior male protagonists for the pleasure of the readership, the vast majority of it male.7 For these women writers, women characters are active subjects and not simply objects of lust or passive helpmates, though the extraordinary dilemmas they face are not always easily resolved or their worlds redeemed. While the women characters in these works often fail in their quests, the works draw attention to the writing of science fiction as a political act. That is, as we will see in Zoline’s story, while the main character cannot alone succeed in saving the world, Zoline’s writing of her plight foregrounds the absolute necessity of Zoline’s readers doing so.
Written shortly after the publication of Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique, a book quickly recognized as a groundbreaking feminist text, and novels such as Sue Kaufmann’s 1967 The Diary of a Mad Housewife, Zoline’s story was perhaps influenced by second-wave feminism. First-wave feminism focused on women’s suffrage at the turn of the twentieth century; this new second wave focused its attention in turn on the social devaluation of women and the work they do. The issues of sex, gender, race, and class addressed by the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s were certainly taken up in several major science fiction novels of that period—Joanna Russ’s Picnic on Paradise (1968) and The Female Man (1975), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and, perhaps most famously, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), to name a few.
At the same time, Zoline’s work shows clear affinities with the avant-grade and frequently confrontational extrapolative fiction appearing at the time, of which J.G. Ballard’s “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” is the most infamous example. Not surprisingly, in view of her attitude toward literary genres, Zoline herself considers the strict boundaries between types and subtypes of fiction as much more fluid than do most critics, and she suggests that much art and literature is more productively viewed as “cohort-based”; she says, “in my case, the fact that I was lucky enough to run with a bad crowd in London including Tom Disch, John Clute, Mike Moorcock, John Sladek, Jimmy Ballard, etc. certainly gave a certain neighborhood for my stories.”8 Further, she happily acknowledges being influenced by and owing debts to “a very big library of writers, among whom are Nabokov, DeLillo, Pynchon, Disch, Ed Abbey, Crowley, Clute, Wallace Stegner, Gary Snyder, E.O. Wilson, John LeCarre, Robert Lowell, Louise Erdrich,” and the reader can see those multiple influences mirrored in her venues of publication.9
Pamela ZolineBesides “Heat Death,” Zoline wrote four other stories between 1967 and 1985, all available in the collection entitled The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories published by McPherson and Company in 1988. The cover illustration is by Zoline as is that of the 1988 British edition entitled Busy About the Tree of Life published by The Women’s Press. In addition, she wrote and illustrated a children’s book, Annika and the Wolves, published by Coffee House Press in 1985, a tale that bears striking commonalities with Angela Carter’s reimagined fairy tales.
Zoline lived in the UK for eighteen years, mostly in London; there, she says, “my work consisted of writing, painting, constructing some installations, activism and practical politics as part of the group founding the first Arts Labs, studying art at the Slade School, studying philosophy, also at University College, London, where its founder Jeremy Bentham holds court, his body preserved and stuffed and sitting in a glass cage in the main rotunda.”10
Zoline has lived in Telluride, Colorado, for the last three decades where she continues her work as a social activist/artist, most recently helping to write scripts for the MuddButt children’s theatre and with others the opera libretti for Harry Houdini and the False and True Occult and Decreation: An Opera in 3 Parts: The Forbidden Experiment. She is currently working on a novel “set one hundred years in the future in the Four Corners region on a planet much like our own. . . . It will be heavily illustrated with drawings, photos, charts and maps. Jeremy Bentham is featured, as are the local rivers and mountains, and there is a focus on opera, on bees, on fountains, on tribes, and much more.”11
Like the artist Joseph Beuys, Zoline believes art to be “a radicalizing modality” that if “properly deployed” is “the pivot point for major progressive change.”12 “As to my agenda,” she writes, “I believe that we bonny clever humans have outsmarted ourselves into a massive downward spiral, into the Age of Drastic Simplification as to the loss of species and of human languages and cultures, and that this means that we’re living in a burning building, and that our works and actions have to do with how to survive, how to sustain, what to save, how to start building in the ruins.”13 For her, “art as action, huge, subtle, the irresistible seed,”14 remains an enclave wherein or a venue through which one might envision this world, our home, as something other than a vale of tears.”
“Heat Death of the Universe” and Science FictionZoline’s fiction, notably “Heat Death,” can be found in several science fiction anthologies such as Decade The 1960s alongside pieces by Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Roger Zelazny, and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Hers is often the only work included by a woman writer.15 Her second story, “The Holland of the Mind,” after first publication in a science fiction venue, was reprinted in Strangeness, sharing space with works by Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, Graham Greene, Thomas Mann, and Jorge Luis Borges.16 While stories by these authors vary greatly in terms of aesthetic agendas, they consistently seek to defamiliarize what is accepted as the real and to make us question the most common assumptions we have about human affiliations and desires. Attacking “middlebrow well-made meretricious” high art, “those dreary bedroom/boardroom dramas,” as useless, Zoline insists that “whatever the corpse of the Great Tradition (sic) is doing to our culturescape, it’s not useful, as the real, messy, whirling world is under closer analysis and more profound exploration in the best of the Science Fiction, Speculative, Experimental, Extrapolative etc. etc. fictions.”17
Michael Moorcock relates “Heat Death” to the other works in his Best SF Stories from New Worlds 3 through the common link of mythology. While some stories in the collection are built upon the heroic myths of Western culture or the human need for myth-making, Zoline’s work illustrates for him a striking connection between “the modern myths of science (entropy, etc.) as they are understood by the layman [sic] with that great myth figure of modern fiction, the Victimized Domestic Woman.”18 The story marries science to fiction, all for the purpose of detailing one day in the life of Sarah Boyle and her mental disintegration. It effects this marriage through the inclusion of scientific explanations but also in its presentation of all information through a series of axioms, hypotheses, definitions, narrative fragments and summaries that instantiate the scientific principles inserted into the story. The story thus literally embodies a new form of science fiction, one that in both form and content questions relentlessly the truth of science and the blandishments of fiction.
Not surprisingly, many conservative critics of science fiction dismiss such new wave writing for what they see as its too facile, manipulative but inconsequential gestures toward science and, so, bracket it off as not science fiction. David Ketterer, for instance, in his New Worlds for Old, insists that like the work of J.G. Ballard, Zoline’s story merely borrows “a science-fictional conception only for its metaphoric appropriateness.” While her description of one woman’s ennui in relation to universal entropy is perhaps “apocalyptic in a psychedelic or surrealist sense,” he argues, “because the reality is grounded in a housewife and her kitchen and because of the lack of plausible scientific rationale connecting the end of the material universe with her state, Zoline’s piece cannot legitimately be classified as science fiction.”19
Ketterer’s reading suggests why many women writers have been denied admission to the science fiction camp: woman’s work simply doesn’t merit attention, exactly the sort of devaluation that Friedan, Lisa Yaszek, Justine Larbalestier and other feminists have argued against so vociferously. Of particular importance here is Lisa Yaszek’s discussion of Alice Eleanor Jones’s “Created He Them” and the 1940s/1950s development of housewife heroine science fiction. As Moorcock’s remarks above suggest, Zoline’s story clearly fits within this sub-genre and thus extends its life-line into another decade. Further, as becomes quickly apparent in comparing Jones’s and Zoline’s stories, Zoline’s work is more overtly committed to radical political activism, and in that sense underlines the powerful way an author’s times are reflected in her work. One clear connection between Jones and Zoline is that until very recently housewife heroine science fiction did not garner much critical respect. As Yaszek points out in her essay, even some early feminist critics such as Pamela Sargeant at first seemed to dismiss housewife heroine science fiction as a negative development in the genre. Sargeant would, however, include Zoline’s story in her 1978 The New Women of Wonder: Recent Science Fiction Stories by Women about Women, perhaps privileging its experimental nature over popular fiction like Jones’s story. That the issues housewife heroine science fiction raised were important can perhaps best be illustrated by the appearance of Ira Levin’s reactionary Stepford Wives in 1972. While the housewives in all these science fiction works are extremely limited in agency, they are nevertheless threatening. These stories’ power lies precisely in their threat of disturbing the status quo of male-female relations and the future of the worlds science fiction investigates. Indeed, Zoline’s story subtly insists through its meticulous elaboration of the relation between Sarah Boyle’s increasing angst and her reflections on entropy that there is deep social value in defamiliarizing the “real” world of a woman who seems to have it made. Not to acknowledge this is to have a very skewed worldview, for, as Brian Aldiss points out, “the center of the galaxy lies in Sarah Boyle’s kitchen.”20
The debate about whether or not Zoline’s story is science fiction is particularly puzzling in that “Heat Death” is imbued throughout with science fiction thinking. As Brooks Landon defines this term in his Science Fiction after 1900, science fiction thinking is not simply genre specific but, instead, is “a set of attitudes and expectations about the future,” including particular protocols of both writing and reading, that now permeates and at times determines modern consciousness. “Most broadly,” he writes, “science fiction thinking is a sense of common enterprise that underlies the discussion of science fiction, a belief that better thinking is a desirable goal for humanity.”21 Whether we consciously realize it or not, science fiction itself fosters one type of epistemology or way of knowing; and as Zoline’s story illustrates, it is a most curious mix of rationalism and humanism, the objective and the subjective, the here and the now and the future.
In “Heat Death,” Sarah Boyle’s life is presented as if it were a science experiment focusing on what she knows and what that knowledge means to her, thus explicitly focusing both on ontology, or ways of being, and implicitly on epistemology, ways of knowing. As Brooks Landon points out, “Heat Death” thus “has one foot in the camp of ‘hard’ SF with its traditional interest in physics, astronomy, and chemistry, and the other foot in the camp of ‘soft’ SF with its traditional interest in psychology, sociology, and anthropology.”22
More importantly, science fiction itself demands “new ways of seeing from its readers.”23 Readers do not simply extract a moral from a science fiction text but must work at a constant decoding of each paragraph, phrase, and even each word to construct and thus come to understand the text’s world and what it might mean to this world. Zoline’s experimental style and subject thus require an experimental way of reading, one comfortable with observation, hypothesis, indeterminacy, and ethical adjudication, demands, that is, an ability to speculate not only about “what has not yet happened” but about what “will not happen and events that might happen” as well.24
Writing outside the American market and within the radical British art scene, Zoline extrapolates in her work the dark view of a post-Enlightenment rejection of the myth of inevitable social and technological progress. Scientific knowledge is not always a comforter, as Sarah Boyle discovers; the quest for knowledge of the future, the preeminent subject of science fiction, can lead as easily to quotidian despair as to extraordinary triumph. In Zoline’s work, Landon asserts, “science and technology enter SF through the back door, stripped of wonder, submerged in the details of mundane life, offering neither pleasure nor horror.”25 No wonder few science fiction traditionalists, like Ketterer, could recognize Zoline’s way of thinking for what it is—the cutting edge of a very different apocalyptic vision.
This is not to say that Ketterer’s critique hides a simplistic sexist agenda of exclusion; as Ketterer’s extended praise of Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness intimates, as well as his overall rejection of virtually all New Wave writers (most of whom were male), it is the style of writing—how one presents the science fiction narrative—that may be the major problem. LeGuin’s work, however radical in its intent, is still easily recognizable as science fiction. That is, there is a clearly sequential story, extraterrestrial worlds and people, the usual elements brilliantly manipulated to forward a feminist/humanist message. Zoline’s story, on the other hand, simply refuses to conform to or to satisfy those expectations.
“Heat Death” and PostmodernismWhile women in kitchens were not at first favored in science fiction, the main reason conservative science fiction aficionados such as Ketterer find new-wave writing off-putting is its highly experimental nature. Zoline’s story is roughly chronological, interrupted at times by scientific inserts, the story’s action confined to a home and a supermarket, but the narrative is also fragmented, literally so on the page, and the “story” is comprised of a puzzling mixture of scientific discourse, domestic fiction, and direct address to the reader; in short, it refuses easy interpretation. It is an early taste of what became known as postmodern writing, the roots of which, as Ketterer and many others point out, lie in the surreal assaults of Alfred Jarry and Marcel Duchamp, the modernist mind journeys of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the effect of stream-of-consciousness and magic realism on fiction, as well as the acceleration of world disasters since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including, most notably, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and simultaneously, for many, the end of believing in innocence, in the democratic process, and in a positive future. At the same time, this period saw the rise of suburbia and the mega-cities, intense commercialization touching every aspect of a person’s life, and the mass production of goods and a new mass society taught to want those goods.
Postmodern writing focuses in particular on the failure of grand narratives, stories the majority in a particular place or time believe or buy into such as the utopian promise of Marxism or the Christian originary tale of the Garden of Eden, stories that sustain and console through their ostensible explanation of why we are here and what we should do. Even though these stories have failed, postmodernists argue, many people still crave some sort of consoling fictions, since post-World War II culture has become both atomized and, in strange ways, hyper-individualized. That is, the rise of Western mass culture depends upon a certain conformity of desires with the products (including the human) of the moment; as people become lost in the mass, they also become more and more alienated from others as they move to protect home turfs and to satisfy just those desires that they are programmed to have.
Postmodern theory also posits that as the cityscapes take over the natural world and the remaining natural sites become centers of tourism, people are pressed into the position of voyeurs instead of actors, passive spectators rather than active agents, unable to distinguish the simulacra of the real from the real (watch any episode of “reality” TV to experience vicariously one’s own desires performed by others). And while everyone is engaged in this endless process of buying and consuming, of attending to appearances above all else, the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
It is exceedingly strange that traditionalists dismiss experimental writing as incapable of sustaining or transforming science fiction’s multiple agendas in productive ways, for science fiction’s capacity for embracing the newly imagined and socially relevant is unparalleled. Feminist and left criticism, in turn, often fault science fiction for not living up to its own potential, that of critiquing and challenging the status quo. Zoline’s story, however, does precisely that. In Zoline’s work, housewife heroine science fiction is both centered and then fragmented, instantly recognized and then estranged, radicalized, politicized, and made deadly serious play. As Brooks Landon argues of “Heat Death,” “despite its ostensibly microcosmic view of Sarah’s life, her thinking tends ever toward the macrocosmic, particularly as she repeatedly considers her children not in sentimental terms but in terms of the species implications of their bodies and manners.”26 Zoline, then, challenges the greatest status quo of all, our belief in our species superiority and future.
The marriage of postmodernism and science fiction should, then, be cause for cautious rejoicing. Postmodernism refuses passive voyeurism and so transgresses against readerly expectations, often relying on eccentric juxtapositions, the blurring of fact and fiction, the inclusion of pornography, even, in some works, plagiarism of other well-known texts to shock the reader awake and to make the reader work, to engage passionately with the text. While many critics of all stripes fault postmodernism for its supposedly nihilist stance or apolitical making of art for art’s sake, the most provocative postmodernist writers, very often women, promote social activism even in the face of despair. As decades of science fiction writing illustrates, the future is ours to make—or not. Zoline’s story demonstrates how very hard it is for those living now to imagine a future at all.
“Heat Death of the Universe”Zoline’s story, presented in fifty-four separate entries, begins with a definition of ontology—”That branch of metaphysics which concerns itself with the problems of the nature of existence or being”—calling attention to what constitutes experience and who is privileged enough to engage in the quest for knowledge. The second entry sets the scene for the ‘experiment’ of our observing Sarah Boyle. This experiment concerns her particular “problems of the nature of existence or being,” its setting an idyllic landscape in which there is both continual birth and growth (babies’ fingernails) and death and decay (the eroding mountains, rotting fruit, the hair of the dead). There is still time for both even as time is running out.
The story reads something like a lab report, chronologically linear, highly descriptive, objective. The ostensible subject is the well-educated, financially-secure, privileged Sarah Boyle, mother and wife, everywoman in a mass society. She is troubled: her nose is too large; her appearance doesn’t fit the norm as she perceives it or has been taught to perceive. The scope then narrows to the particular place and time in which she exists: California, Alameda, La Florida Street, her house, breakfast time.
This is her closed system in which she continually expends energy, at the moment reluctantly serving her children sugary cereal that will, she believes, rot their teeth, just as mothers across America do in endless replication. She is called upon to adjudicate which of her children will own the secret gift inside the cereal box, who will win the Shakespeare mask on the back. High culture here meets low culture: Shakespeare and Tony the Tiger are equalized figures of everyday consumption, both rendered mundane by their mechanical reproduction. Sarah withholds having to decide until the box is emptied, and the secret gift in the (Pandora’s) box of cereal remains concealed. The aggressive oversell of the cereal company’s special offers makes Sarah wonder if the contents are poisonous, if she is being complicit in the slow murder of her children, but entry nine assures us that she is really a happy and proud mother, dismissing the concerns of entries four and eight as momentary aberrations of thought. Entry ten puts Sarah on track again, planning a birthday party that afternoon, a celebration of birth and growing.
Entry eleven clearly positions the reader as participant in this experiment; “we” the readers are directly addressed by the unknown narrator (the primary investigator? a teacher?) and introduced to the kitchen, the central space of Sarah’s closed system. The narrator up to this point seemed to be simply the omniscient “know-it-all” voice typical of much fiction, giving us access to all pertinent facts, even to the protagonist’s thoughts. The narrator in this entry pointedly reflects Zoline’s commitment to agit-prop activism. That is , “we” the readers are presented not only with a detailed description of a particular situation but are now positioned within the story itself and then lectured at by the narrator. We are told by this “professor” that as yet we all live in a larger closed system—”this shrunk and communication-ravaged world”—and that there is little chance for us or Sarah to escape “the metastasis of Western Culture,” the phrase recalling Sarah’s fears about the cereal’s carcinogenic potential now transmogrified to the level of overall social dis-ease caused by a cancer that as it is transmitted throughout a body or system ravages and kills. The narrator’s inclusion of such analysis (propaganda) is meant to agitate us. We are both invited to be spectators of Sarah’s particular suffering and made to realize our own suffering, or passive acceptance, of this dying world, our complicity, then, in this “metastasis of Western Culture.” Zoline thus destabilizes our comfortable position as perhaps sympathetic but nevertheless distanced readers. As the narrator will continue to insist through inclusion of readers through the use of “we” or (the supposedly universal) “one,” even as we are privileged enough to be voyeurs into Sarah’s inner space, we are each, just as she is, also an agent in that world. Fittingly, we now see, the narrator is an agent provocateur. And, as the story has suggested from the first, we are far from knowing it all. Our future depends on our decoding the story’s address to us and its message—that the “aliens” destroying this world are us.
Surrounded by grime and the detritus of the everyday (bobby pins, a doll’s eye, dust, a dog’s hair), Sarah cannot be faulted, the narrator tells us, for imagining that all the world simply replicates her supposedly ideal setting; everywhere for her is the same, but it is grotesque. Mother Nature herself has been forcibly and obscenely transformed into “a land Cunt Pink and Avocado Green, brassiered and girdled by monstrous complexities of Super Highways.” It is at this point in the experiment that the reader is offered its guiding principle and Sarah’s principal obsession—the theory of the heat death of the universe.
As entries thirteen and nineteen inform us, the universe is a closed system subject to the second law of thermodynamics. As the entropy or disorder of particles (a doll’s eye, a dog’s hair) increases, we will approach the end of the universe as we know it as its energy is used up and time “unwinds.” The juxtaposition of these entries to those describing Sarah’s work in her house foregrounds the similarity between the two closed systems. Sarah’s work is never done, and while she maintains the fiction of the possibility of homeostasis, of maintaining some sense of constancy, she is overwhelmed by the ever-increasing chaos of her home space. She attempts to use language and numbers to control disorder, carefully annotating, naming, or counting the things that constitute her world, but the arbitrariness of language’s and enumeration’s relation to real objects renders her attempts at ordering futile.
Such ordering is always provisional, as entry fifteen states, an experiment itself having little relation to lived experience (what does it mean, after all, to know that you have 819 moveable objects in your living room?). Indeed, such ordering actions, like encyclopedias and dictionaries, serve only to give a false sense of control. They are an unreal “simulacra of a complete listing and ordering.” While Sarah is “transfixed” by ordering texts such as reference books and children’s ABCs, concrete meanings, indisputable facts, ultimate order always remain beyond her reach (the hand cream is labeled CAT).
Sarah finds similar reassurance in the Baba, a toy that depends upon identical reproduction except for matters of size, all the various dolls fitting one into the other in a neat, harmonious closed system. Of course, it bears no resemblance to Sarah’s own reproduction—she cannot, for example, remember, or count, how many children she has—and her system most assuredly does not offer the promise of infinite reproduction if one just had a large enough Baba or womb to contain all. Infinite reproduction of the same would, in any case, lead one to endless self-reflection, what literary theorists call the mise-en-abyme, a fall into sameness with no possibility of escape or change; and crawling back into the womb is not an option either. Sarah is, instead, living on the edge of the abyss, though she hasn’t yet accepted this.
Impotent in her attempts at ordering chaos, Sarah tries to imagine space as freed from sameness, sometimes to positive and sometimes to negative effects. She invokes surrealist and dadaist spectacles of riot and suffocating fecundity: New York will melt like a Dali watch, her house will go wild, its dust recognized as aesthetic perfection, and she will be freed of work, of pets, and of children. However, while these transgressive visions offer her momentary mental respite, time, as entry two reminded us, is running out (or, perhaps, is already broken): the sand in the egg timer falls, only some of the four clocks tick away, her life is measured and calibrated to the last degree of heat/energy (entry twenty-eight). A wrinkle in time—imagining an unclosed system—gives way to an all too real wrinkle on Sarah’s face. As she gazes into the mirror at her own simulacra, her future is foreseeable in her present, and though she is, entry thirty insists again, a proud and happy wife and mother, chaos and death are prefigured in the increasing chaos around/on/in her.
By entry thirty-five, Sarah is being described as fragmenting herself into mind-body dualities. Already in entry thirty-three, agency was seeping out of her as she is constructed by language instead of constructing it (“Sarah muses or is mused”). Something, she feels, is being done to her by inexplicable unnameable forces, so she continually acts out in frenzied animation trying to hold off the state of becoming inanimate (those “terrible glass eyes”; her dead mother, her Baba in whom she was once safely enclosed).
The larger landscape serves only to intensify her disquietude. The sky is bleached of color; the blue of her contact lenses, her tranquilizers, the swimming pools of California have an acidic and synthetic tint bearing no relation to anything in nature as it once existed. The supermarket offers too many choices of the same thing in different sizes, again recalling the Baba, about which products Sarah cannot decide and so must buy (into) everything. In entry thirty-eight, her mother-in-law reinvokes the constant menace of a cancer metastasizing wildly, chaos vitiating the system, any system. Perhaps Sarah cannot recall how many children she has since she is obsessed with apocalyptic visions of world destruction, both natural and man-made; she cannot bear, that is, to remember how many children she has as they might be fated to die in a worldwide catastrophe. Art, she imagines, in entry forty-four, might offer salvation from such cruel absurdities, but she has no time for it, and nothing, in any case, will last forever. Even the turtle, symbol of placid longevity, will soon die.
The birthday party is both a momentary stay against Sarah’s obsession and another scene of increasing chaos. The future promise it celebrates—another year, a cake in the shape of a rocket, an escape to an unclosed system—is undermined by the animality and unnaturalness of the children. One child, refusing to eat the food of the others, chokes on the cereal’s surprise gift, a little green plastic snake, that once coughed up becomes the prize all the children want. The child’s seemingly individual act of refusal is thus readily transformed into and coopted back into mass conformity and desire. Further, the snake—a debased mechanical reproduction of the natural—recalls Western culture’s originary grand narrative, that of the Garden of Eden and Eve’s quest for the knowledge of good and evil. The promise of experiencing knowledge, reinvoking the need to understand the reason for one’s existence that opens this experiment/story, is most tempting, most seductive, but as we see throughout, for Sarah knowledge is also a very dangerous thing.
Sarah knows from the outset that home life, like the birthday party, is only a temporary stay against confusion and chaos and in fact breeds even more chaos and fragmentation. Tellingly, Zoline’s own illustration for the first appearance in print of the story emphasizes this: it was a montage consisting of pieces of Duchamp’s Mona Lisa, an ad for a bathroom cleaner, and maps of California.27
Every momentary attempt at order is undone by visions of profound dis-ease. She bathes and puts to bed her children; she also imagines eating them. She dreams of cleaning and ordering the entire universe but breaks down when she finds the turtle’s dead body, a pathetic reminder that death will come, that no amount of cleaning will wash away that eventuality. She has cried before, as entry fifty-three informs us; she will cry again and again and again. And there is no one to respond to her cry for “Help, help, help, help, help.” Her husband is strangely absent, her mother is dead, her mother-in-law a surreal intrusion into her space, her children “debauched midgets.” Although grievously fatigued, in a last surge of energy before entropy is reached, she destroys the kitchen, hurling her eggs (and the promise of future life) into space only to watch them fall. An end to reproduction, an end to sameness, the sands have run out. She comes full circle, then, madly burdened with the problems of the nature of existence and being.
What, finally, does the experiment of “Heat Death” achieve? To mimic Zoline’s countdown or piling-up of facts:
1. Her story is not simply a decadent exercise in despair or madness but has meaning beyond the personal world of Sarah Boyle, the object of observation;
2. It suggests that perhaps this world is not, despite all the material evidence available, a closed system or, at least, that there might exist enclaves where life might be experienced without repeated surrender to despair;
3. Art, even a science fiction short story, may be a means of salvation, although language is always tricky, easily ignored or misread, far from transparent;
4. The revolt against entropy must begin in the smallest of closed systems—your own body, the home, your family, must be an opening out of that closed system;
5. Women, slandered in Western culture’s originary grand narrative of Eden, have always been set up for a fall, fortunate or otherwise, and know only too well what is good and what is evil;
6. Perhaps a woman will lead humanity (again) into a new world and new narratives, not necessarily grand but nevertheless life-sustaining ones. Zoline does so in this and her other short stories, particularly in her 1985 “Instructions for Exiting this Building in Case of Fire,” in which the Mothers of a later time than Sarah Boyle’s act in shockingly outrageous ways in their attempt to save this world from man-made destruction. Even the very depressing conclusion of Sarah Boyle’s story rejects annihilation: the eggs fall, but they do not break; that closure is denied or, at least, postponed.
As Brian Aldiss writes, “the fatal error of much science fiction has been to subscribe to an optimism based on the idea that revolution, or a new gimmick, or a bunch of strong men, or an invasion of aliens, or the conquest of other planets, or the annihilation of half the world—in short, pretty nearly anything but the facing up to the integral and irredeemable nature of mankind—can bring about utopian situations. It is the old error of the externalization of evil.” He continues by stating decisively that “‘Heat Death makes no such error.”28
Zoline’s story is, in her own words, “an attempt to ‘make sense’ of things, of general data, by organizing the private to the public, the public to the private, by making the analogies between entropy and personal chaos, the end of the universe and our own ageing and death.” She captures the unreal real world as she experiences it; the experimental form of her story, what she describes “as an arrow, an energy flow,”29 challenges readers to be more than passive consumers of yet another useless fiction. We have to put the pieces together, to study the data, and, unlike Sarah, to make careful ethical adjudications about what matters, what stories to create and consume.
Rose Flores Harris writes of Zoline’s stories that “the alienation of Zoline’s characters seems to be offset by their intelligence and desire to survive in a world not of their creation, which they do not understand yet struggle to cope with. This common dilemma of human beings of all eras and the tenacious frailty of the author’s heroes unite the reader sympathetically with them and with their creator.”30 Thomas M. Disch, in turn, extols “Heat Death” as “the most technically accomplished and humane mosaic fiction produced by the New Wave.” It is, he says, most importantly a piece written not simply for personal fame and glory but “for an Other,”31 for you, for me, for another mode of being with each other.
1. There is very little material available on Zoline. I have gleaned biographical facts from the following sources: Brian W. Aldiss’ “Foreword” to “The Heat Death of the Universe” in The Mirror of Infinity: A Critics’ Anthology of Science Fiction, ed. by Robert Silverberg New York: Harper & Row, 1973, 267-273; “P. A. Zoline . . .” in England Swings SF, ed. by Judith Merril Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1968, 329-330; and “Michael Moorcock” in the same volume, 343-349. The last source also gives an interesting account of Moorcock’s takeover of New Worlds and Zoline’s involvement with the magazine. I have also been in correspondence with Zoline.
2. See Michael Moorcock’s “Introduction” in his Best SF Stories from New Worlds 3 New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1968, 7.
3. “The Heat Death of the Universe” was reprinted in England Swings SF (1968), ed. by Judith Merril; Best SF Stories from New Worlds 3 (1968), ed. by Michael Moorcock; Decade The 1960s (1976), ed. by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison; The Mirror of Infinity (1970), ed. by Robert Silverberg; Voyages: Scenarios for a Ship Called Earth (1971), ed. by Rob Sauer; The New Women of Wonder (1978), ed. by Pamela Sargeant; The Road to Science Fiction #4 (1982), ed. by James E. Gunn; New Worlds: An Anthology (1983), ed. by Michael Moorcock; and The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories (1988). The best source for print bibliography information on Zoline’s stories is
4. Besides the works cited in this essay, see also my “What Do Women Want?” Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture 11 (Fall 2002): 12-13.
5. See, for instance, Merril’s “That Only a Mother” (1948), Zimmer Bradley’s “The Wind People” (1958) and McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang” (1961).
6. See Eric S. Rabkin’s “Science Fiction Women Before Liberation” and Scott Sanders’ “Woman As Nature in Science Fiction” in Marleen S. Barr’s Future Females: A Critical Anthology Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981, 9-25 and 42-59 for examples of vacuous women characters in early science fiction.
7. See Lisa Yaszek’s essay on Alice Eleanor Jones’s story in this volume for an overview of housewife heroine science fiction as well as Justine Larbalestier’s The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002 for a detailed account of “the evolving relationship between men and women in sf” (1).
8. Email correspondence with Pamela Zoline, 24 March 2004.
9. Email correspondence with Pamela Zoline, 24 March 2004.
10. Email correspondence with Pamela Zoline, 24 March 2004.
11. Email correspondence with Pamela Zoline, 24 March 2004.
12. See the website at
13. Email correspondence with Pamela Zoline, 24 March 2004.
14. See the website at
15. See, for example, Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, eds., Decade The 1960s London: Macmillan London Limited, 1977; Robert Silverberg, ed., The Mirror of Infinity: A Critics’ Anthology of Science Fiction, cited above; and Michael Moorcock, ed., Best SF Stories from New Worlds 3, cited above.
16. Strangeness: A Collection of Curious Tales, ed. by Thomas M. Disch and Charles Naylor New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977.
17. Email correspondence with Pamela Zoline, 24 March 2004.
18. “Introduction” to Michael Moorcock, ed., Best SF Stories from New Worlds 3, cited above.
19. New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1974, 187.
20. “Foreword” to “the Heat Death of the Universe” in Robert Silverberg, ed., The Mirror of Infinity, cited above, 270.
21. Brooks Landon, Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997, 4, 7.
22. Landon, 27.
23. Landon, 7.
24. Landon, 8-9.
25. Landon, 27.
26. Landon, 29.
27. The illustration is described by Brian W. Aldiss in his “Foreword” to “The Heat Death of the Universe,” cited above, 269.
28. “Foreword,” cited above, 267-268.
29. Ibid., 268.
30. “Zoline, Pamela A.” in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, ed. by Curtis C. Smith New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981, 610.
31. “The Astonishing Pamela Zoline,” in The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories Kingston, NY: McPherson & Company, 1988, 8.ž
Elizabeth Hewitt: Generic Exhaustion and the "Heat Death" of Science Fiction
Pamela Zoline, Annika and the Wolves. Coffee House Press, 1985.