The Heat Death of the Individual (Queering SF #26)

Image by adege from Pixabay

In 1967, Pamela Zoline published a short story in New Worlds entitled “The Heat Death of the Universe.” The story caused a bit of a furor because it didn’t seem quite like anything SF readers had read before. Why was this being published in a science fiction magazine? What were Zoline and editor Michael Moorcock doing? The story relates the events of one day in the life of Sarah Boyle, a housewife who is planning a birthday party. She feels as though her own identity has been subsumed into her functions as housewife, mother, and consumer. She feels as though everything around is winding down into a heat death. In order to maintain some semblance of order, she labels things in her household. It is not a battle that she can win.

In 2016, writer/activist M. Téllez published a short story entitled “Heat Death of Human Arrogance.” It doubtless owes something to Zoline, and, yet, is wholly its own story with its own aims. Téllez’s story first appeared in Meanwhile, Elsewhere. That publisher went out of business. The revised story appeared on Téllez’s personal blog. In 2018, it was reprinted in Transcendent 3 (ed. Bogi Takács).

The story centers on two entities (I cannot say “individuals” for reasons that will become apparent). Loma is a “human-identified Earth organism,” and Inri is a “third generation Slow Stepper™.” Loma is a human, who lives on Earth. She lives in a commune, lives in close proximity to plants, rejects “colonialist expansion into space,” and fought for “individual freedoms” for the Slow Steppers™.

Inri, on the other hand, is part of a rhizomatic collective. This particular version of Slow Steppers™ is bipedal and makes regular trips to Mars. The Slow Steppers™ form a “symbiotic relationship” with the bacteria on Mars, in order to cultivate it and bring it into an active state. They are terraforming Mars for human colonization. The Slow Steppers™ are not individuals; they do not think of themselves as individuals. They did not ask Loma or the humans to secure “individual freedoms” for them.

But Loma and Inri have a relationship. Loma uses verbal language for communication; Inri does not. Loma has sexual organs; Inri does not. Inri wears a prosthetic. They cannot quite agree on what “love” is, but they enjoy sensual and sexual pleasures.

Inri is quite confused when Loma claims that she would rather die than be shipped off to Mars. When Inri returns from the latest trip to Mars, they are unsure whether Loma has been shipped off, or whether Loma killed herself. As Inri returns to Loma’s neighborhood, they think: “I would connect to all these people if they were part of my rhizome. But here everyone is a free individual.”

For one, the story raises the question of individuality. That concept has been central in the West. Psychologists say that we must each go through the process of individuation, of becoming an individual apart from our parents, in order to become a well-adjusted human being. The story shows, though, just how fully integrated individuality is in all human interactions, how individuality permeates our midsets. Loma and Inri cannot agree on what “love” means because they have fundamentally different ideas about what that means to an individual or to be a rhizome. Loma cannot imagine that Inri would not want individual freedoms; “individual freedom” has no meaning to Inri.

While I think Téllez raises the question of individual selfhood, I believe that the story also offers a take on the queer politics of assimilation. One version of queer activism argues that “We just want what straight folx want. We want to get married, buy a house, have a kid.” Another version of queer politics argues that “We want to rethink that whole paradigm. We do not want to replicate straight life but throw it out the window.” In the case of “Heat Death of Human Arrogance,” we see the intersection and collision of two fundamentally different perspectives. Inri doesn’t really want what Loma wants; Loma can’t imagine that Inri isn’t just like her. In the final lines of the story, Inri reminds themself that “I am like them now. Free and autonomous.” But that rings hollow. Inri really doesn’t want to assimilate to individuality.

As noted, our Slow Stepper™ is named Inri. The sentence introducing Inri appears by itself, on a separate line:

“My name is Inri.”

In Spanish, the expression “para más inri” means “to make matters worse.” And, perhaps, that is the case here. Inri does seem to think, on several occasions, that Loma and the well-meaning humans are making matters worse. Inri also wonders if the new iterations of Slow Steppers™ are making things worse. As they become more and more like humans, and become more indistinguishable from humans, is it making their situation worse? Are they losing their sense of themself? Are they becoming more individuated like human beings?

This, perhaps, ironic separation of this sentence also emphasizes Inri’s name. When written in upper case, INRI is used as an abbreviation for: “Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum,” or, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” These initials are frequently inscribed on the cross above Christ’s body as he is crucified. What would it mean to read “The Heat Death of Human Arrogance” as a religious allegory? The reference, I think, can only be read as ironic. Christ was an individual who was crucified to save individuals. Salvation is individual. Inri is no individual. The very idea makes no sense to the Slow Steppers™.

Finally, just what is the “human arrogance” that will lose all energy and dwindle into nothingness? Is our human arrogance the idea that we can produce laborers to do dangerous work off-planet? Is it the idea that we can terraform and colonize another frontier (here, Mars)? Is it that we as humans can persist as individuals, locked into individualism? Is it that we tell ourselves that we can know the Other? Is it that we fool ourselves into thinking that we can be selfless? Is it that the notion that something, or someones, will rescue us? Save us from our own greed?

In “Heat Death of the Universe,” Sarah Boyle finds herself unable to cope, unable to embody and fulfill the model for a housewife and mother. She is unable to hold it all together. Everything ends up in a heap of smashed pieces. At the end of “Heat Death of Human Arrogance,” Loma cannot cope. She states that she would rather die than continue participation in the status quo. Perhaps Inri sees such individuality as unsustainable. Inri fears that the rhizome will collapse, that they will become individual.

Long live the rhizome.

Ritch Calvin is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at SUNY Stony Brook. He is the author of Feminist Epistemology and Feminist Science Fiction (Palgrave), editor of “The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism” (Aqueduct), and editor of a collection of essays on Gilmore Girls (McFarland).

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