Chicken Little (short story)

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Doctorow, Cory. "Chicken Little." Gateways (A Festschrift of Great New Science Fiction Honoring Grand Master Frederick Pohl). Elizabeth Ann Hull, editor. New York: Tor, 2010. Pages 365-410. Reviewed by Ellen M. Rigsby. SFRA Review #294 (Fall 2010): 15, the source of the first part of our annotation.[1]

Rigsby summarizes the plot:

The Doctorow novella “Chicken Little” is an homage to Pohl’s advertising experience depicted in (among others) [...] The Space Merchants. In this story Leon, a recent college graduate, is hired by a company, “Ate,” that works for ultra-rich clients who have been medically stabilized in their advanced age to the point that they exist in vats, protected by networks of buildings. “Ate” is desperately trying to sell something, anything to the clients that they don’t already have but want. Leon thinks he is the perfect person for this position because he has spent his adolescence and early adulthood training himself into a highly disciplined way of being in the world to compensate for his tendency toward sloppiness. No persuasive appeals get through to him, so he thinks he might be able to get past similar blocks put up by the clients.

Note image of the clients as "metastatic, these hyperrich, lumps of curdling meat in the pickling solution of a hundred vast machines that laboriously kept them alive amid their cancer blooms and myriad failures. Somewhere in that tangle of hoses and wires was something that was technically a person, and also technically a corporation, and, in many cases, technically a sovereign state." Each vatted client, or "Each concentration of wealth was an efficient machine, meshed in a million ways with the mortal economy. You interacted with the vats when you bought hamburgers, Internet connections, movies, music, books, electronics, games, transportation — the money left your hands and was sieved through their hoses and tubes, flushed back out into the world where other mortals would touch it" (p. 368). Cf. P. K. Dick's "Mr. Spaceship" and other uses of the thought experiment of a "brain in a vat" — but combined with the mythic and folklore motif of "Holdfast": a monster holding trapped the wealth of the community, modernized into the literary tradition of the concentration of capital withheld, as in H. G. Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes or William Gibson's Count Zero.


Note that the entrance into the building containing Buhle, the super-rich vat-person in the story, parallels the "descent" into Chicken Little — a huge, in vitro growth of protein — in Space Merchants chapter Nine.

Key relevant references/quotations from the story follow.

• Ria, key agent for the hyperrich Buhle, explains to the protagonist Leon how the Buhle operation became the "largest jetpack manufacturer in the world," in a complex, layered structure of shell companies, and got most people to buy quiet jetpacks, on a motorcycle model. "[...] the chop shops have been selling 'loud pipes save lives' since the motorcycle days, and every tiny-dick flyboy wanted to have a pack that was as loud as a bulldozer. It took a lot of market smarts" as in marketing, "to turn it around; we had a low-end model we were selling way below cost that was close to those loud-pipe machines in decibel count; it was ugly and junky and fell apart" and sold with different branding from their better jetpacks. Then the Buhle jetpack operation sold their high-end models at cut rate, "and at the same time, we engineered them for a quieter and quieter run." Eventually "Every swish bourgeois was competing to see whose jetpack could run quieter, while the low-end was busily switching loyalty to our loud junk mobiles," changing the fashion toward quiet jetpacks and reducing, though not eliminating, the noisy models (Gateways 379). This story relates literal machines with human beings and our psyches and how those psyches can be manipulated by people with resources, starting with money resources; and that should prime readers to take as an "objective correlative" Buhle in a vat in a building with connections communicating with the world, in a large part communicating and manipulating through money and corporate organization.

•• Buhle as a body-in-a-vat within nested mechanisms, with symbolic implications (all quoted from Gateways).

"I'm telling you the monster doesn't have a liver. What that man has, he has machines and nutrients and systems" (p.[365], first page of story).
[Ria ...] "we're inside Buhle's body now." She saw the look on his [Leon's] face and smiled. "No, no, it's not a riddle. Everything on this side of the airlock is Buhle. It's his lungs and circulatory and limbic system. The vat may be where the meat sits, but all this [inside the containment building and fairly far beyond] is what makes the vat work. You're like a gigantic foreign organism that's burrowing into his tissues. It's intimate." [...] "When you're outside, speaking to Buhle through his many tendrils, like me, or even on the phone, he has all the power in the world. He's a giant. But here, inside his body, he's very, very, weak. The ["bunny," full environmental] suits [they're wearing], they're there to level out the playing field. It's all head games and symbolism. And this is just Mark I, the system we jury-rigged after Buhle's . . . accident [she tried to kill him, rather successfully]. They're building the Mark II about five miles from here, and half a mile underground. When it's ready, they'll blast a tunnel and take him all the way down into it without ever compromising the skin of Buhle's extended body." (p. 399)

Buhle in vat like your average rich ancient Egyptian (but looking like a Pharaoh with the vat inside so large and expensive enclosing structure):

Buhle's vat was surprisingly small, no bigger than the sarcophagus that an ancient Egyptian might have gone to in his burial chamber. He [Leon] tried not to stare inside it, but he couldn't stop himself. The withered, wrinkled man floating in the vat was intertwined with a thousand fiber optics that disappeared into pinprick holes in his naked skin. There were tubes: in the big, highways in the groin, in the gut through a small valve set into a pucker of scar, in the nose and ear. (p. 401) 

••• Leon looking at Ria, moving past the revelation of what Buhle wants from Leon: "He looked at her, really looked at her for the first time. Saw that she was the face of a monster, the voice of a god. The hand of a massive, unknowable machine that was vying to change the world, remake it to suit its needs. A machine that was good at it (p. 408).

RDE, Initial Compiler, 27Dec18, 9Jan19