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Notes on "Like the Gentle Rain"
By Lewis Shiner
During the 80s and 90s I hung out with a group of academics centered around George Slusser at the University of California at Riverside.
Slusser was a UC professor who was a highly vocal supporter of my work and did a lot to advance my career. I presented several papers at Riverside's Eaton Conferences, such as "The Role of Compassion in Daniel Clowes' Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron." Through these conferences, and the Science Fiction Research Association, I made a number of friends for life, including Brooks Landon, Carol Stevens, Eric Rabkin, Joe Miller, and many others.
The last Eaton Conference I was involved in centered on J.D. Bernal's 1929 essay "The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Inquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul." This is actually a proto-cyberpunk piece that talks about putting human brains in boxes and the whole absolute faith in rationality program. I found it deeply offensive, and a simple academic paper could not contain the depth of my disdain, so I turned to fiction.
Thus, instead of presenting a paper at the conference, I read "Like the Gentle Rain." This falls into the category of fiction as thought experiment. I tried to visualize a world built around Bernal's ideas, and then put real people in it. Though never mentioned by name, Bernal is the "Master" of the story, and the dialog is full of quotes and close paraphrases from "The World, the Flesh and the Devil."
Sadly, funding for the conference had dried up, it had to be rescheduled a couple of times, and in the end we contributors sat around a conference table and read to each other and a videotape recorder. I can't say the story was well received--my fellow panelists seemed more of the opinion that Bernal was cool and ahead of his time, or at least no worse than eccentric. I was pleasantly surprised when Gordon Van Gelder liked it well enough to publish it in F&SF.
A note on the names--Jeanne Donovan got her name from Curt Siodmak's classic brain-in-a-box novel, Donovan's Brain, and from my friend Jeanne Clanan. Gowan is named for the bass player in The Nashville Blues Group, my college psychedelic blues band, and Mikey for my pal Mike Autrey.
© 2009 by Lewis Shiner. First published in Fiction Liberation Front, February 2009. Some rights reserved.