The Cosplay Feminist

July 2012 archive

Food stamps: How do they work?

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about food stamps, either because they want to know if they can get them or just because they’re curious. So I thought it might be a good idea to write a resource about food stamps, including debunking some myths and offering some advice. I only have experience with food stamps in Texas, so your experience may be different (and the procedures almost certainly will be at least a little different) in another state.

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A Lone Star EBT card. It’s white and has a blue and red Lone Star logo next to a gold foil symbol. A long series of numbers in blue is written below.

Food stamps are actually called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), so that’s the language that will be used at the food stamps office, on their customer service line, and usually by the people who work at the food stamps office. And they are precisely that: supplemental. This means that if you receive food stamps, based on your income, you will not receive enough to feed you for a month. (Unless you are literally eating only rice and beans for a month, and even that would be pushing it.) Food stamps are no longer stamps, and the money is instead loaded onto a Lone Star EBT card, which looks like a white debit/credit card. You create a pin, the money is automatically loaded each month, and you spend it like you would a debit card. Depending on your case, your money is loaded on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd of each month. Now let’s debunk some myths.

Myth #1: There are no breadlines anymore, so people need to stop acting like hunger is a problem in the U.S. This is patently untrue. People are still hungry in the U.S. and there ARE still breadlines, they just don’t look the same. They’re spread out and less visible. They’re in front of food pantries. When I lived in Georgetown, TX, there was a line that stretched out for two blocks in front of the food pantry near our house every other Sunday. Bread lines are also at grocery stores at midnight at the beginning of the month. I’m not the only food stamp recipient who goes to the grocery store at 11:30 on the 2nd of the month (my benefits are loaded on the 3rd) and makes sure to check out after midnight. Bill Simon, the U.S. CEO of Wal-Mart, said in 2010,

And you need not go further than one of our stores on midnight at the end of the month. And it’s real interesting to watch, about 11 p.m., customers start to come in and shop, fill their grocery basket with basic items, baby formula, milk, bread, eggs, and continue to shop and mill about the store until midnight, when … government electronic benefits cards get activated and then the checkout starts and occurs. And our sales for those first few hours on the first of the month are substantially and significantly higher.

And if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they’ve been waiting for it. Otherwise, we are open 24 hours—come at 5 a.m., come at 7 a.m., come at 10 a.m. But if you are there at midnight, you are there for a reason.

So our bread lines aren’t as visible (remember that food stamps are loaded on three different dates, meaning the uptick in customers on one of those dates at midnight might not be as obvious to the casual observer), but many people are finding it difficult to eat in this country. The fact that 44,708,726 people, about 1 in every 7 Americans, are enrolled in SNAP suggests that a lot of people are facing economic hardships bad enough to result in food insecurity.

Myth #2: I know someone on food stamps who bought an x-box, plasma screen TV, new computer, etc. They can’t be THAT poor. The people who get food stamps just aren’t making a whole lot of money. In Texas, a household of 1 person cannot have an income higher than $1180 per month; a household of 2, $1594; a household of 3, $2008; and a household of 4, $2422. So if they saved up for a new TV or computer, it probably took them a long time, and it is not a sign that not-poor people are getting government benefits. Poor people are allowed to buy things, and they are allowed to have access to culture, entertainment, and leisure.

Of course, most of the time, the people who say this are so full of shit I’m surprised they can breathe. They usually mean, “I know someone on food stamps who HAS an x-box, plasma screen TV, new computer, etc.” And since most people who go on food stamps only do so temporarily, this is utterly unsurprising. Not everyone on food stamps was poor from birth, and so they may have bought these items before they lost their job, or had to take a paycut, or had a huge medical expense that ate into their savings. They may have received these items as gifts. (I have, for example, a very expensive and awesome PC computer that was bought by my grandfather when I was in school.) And some people think if you’re poor and asking for government assistance, you should sell EVERYTHING and live in a box first. That’s stupid. Poor people are allowed to have things, and they are allowed to make their own priorities.

Myth #3: People just live large on food stamp money. This is absolutely wrong. If you are unemployed and have zero income, you can still only get $200 in food stamp money a month in Texas. That is the limit for one person, and if you only eat two meals a day, it’s $3.33 per meal. It doesn’t afford you very many luxuries. On my food stamps, ice cream is an occasional HOORAY treat. So is orange juice, cheese, and any meat that isn’t ground beef, ground pork, or chicken. For families of two, the limit per month is $367; for families of three, $526; and for four, $668. The national average of SNAP benefits received by one person in the U.S. is $133.85, or $2.23 per meal, if you eat twice a day. Trust me, no one is living large off that.

Myth #4: The food stamp program is fraught with fraud. SNAP has less fraud than basically any other governmental assistance program. Payment error (over and underpayment) has declined from 9.86% in 1999 to 4.36% in 2009. Trafficking (that would be criminal fraud) rates have fallen from 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent in 2006-2008.

The picture painted by the ZOMG FOOD STAMPS FRAUD zealots is one of dishonest people looking to cheat the government out of taxpayer money. In reality, most instances of overpayment are the result of mistakes made by caseworkers, data entry clerks, and administrators, not the recipients. Most cases in which overpayment is the result of the recipient are honest mistakes. (That’s why the rate of error is about 4% while the rate of fraud is 1%.)

Myth #5: People on food stamps shouldn’t be allowed to buy processed foods/candy/soda/etc. This is less a myth and more just an asshole attitude I dislike a lot. Food stamps (thankfully) will buy anything that is food or drink, except alcohol and “ready to eat foods,” like the rotisserie chickens you see at grocery stores, sandwiches, and any restaurant food. Wisely, the government decided that policing what poor people eat would take up too much time and money, so they let you decide what’s best for you and your family. And believe me, you can’t win either way. If you buy processed foods and soda, the poor-police will say, “I’m paying for your food, and you should eat healthy!” And if you buy fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables, they’ll say, “I can’t eat that well, so why should people on food stamps use my money to do so!” Which brings us to the last myth.

Myth #6: I pay for your food, so I should get a say in what you eat. For anyone who thinks this, I have two responses. One is to explain the social contract to you. We all pay taxes (even me) to provide services for the whole society. Our taxes pay for services that almost everyone uses, like roads, firefighters, the police, and public buildings like libraries. They also pay for services only some people use, like student loans and government benefits. Because we all pay, you don’t get to tell people how to use these benefits as an individual, and you don’t get to pretend that poor people are the only ones who use public services. You saying this is about as stupid as me saying, “I paid for that road you use to get to work, so I should get to have a say in what car you drive.”

My second response is to say, “You’ve personally paid for less than a penny of my $200 a month in grocery money. So I’ll be generous. You can decide what 1 cent of my purchases should be.” This is facetious, of course. I wouldn’t let an asshole decide even that little of my expenditures.

***

So if you make less than $1500/month, and you want help, how do you get food stamps and what can you use them for? To get food stamps, you have to apply with your local Health & Human Services Commission office. If you are a college student, you must be part-time (less than 12 hours of courses during the fall and spring semesters) to be eligible for food stamps. If you are full-time, you are not eligible.

You can apply for food stamps online, but you can also go into your local office and fill out a paper application. (To find an office, click the “Find an office” tab on that link.) If you do this, be sure to bring your last two pay stubs and that you know how much you pay each month in rent, car payments, electricity, water, and phone payments. If you have any assets, including bank accounts, you’ll want to know their worth. If anyone lives with you, you’ll need to know their personal information, like their social security number and their birthday, even if they aren’t applying with you. If you have access to a reliable internet connection at home, I suggest filling out the application online. It’s a lot easier.

Once you’ve turned in your application, you’ll have a phone appointment set up for you by the SNAP office. I’ve had some bad experiences with the phone appointment, so I’d suggest (if possible) setting up an in-person appointment via the phone number on the sheet telling you your phone appointment date. There are a lot of reasons you might not want to do this (you have kids and don’t want to cart them there, you work during the office’s working hours, you don’t have reliable transportation), but if it’s not inconvenient for you, an in-person appointment can be a better option. I think I’ve had better experiences with in-person appointments because it’s harder for the interviewer to see you as an application, rather than a person. With my interviewers on the phone, they ask questions and I answer them. It’s very formal and awkward. In person, we also joke and make small talk. It’s friendlier and more casual. If you do opt for the phone interview, be sure to answer clearly and politely, and don’t leave anything out. If you have questions, ask them. If errors occur because you don’t understand something, it’ll probably take longer for you to get your benefits.

Once you’ve completed your application, you’ll get a piece of mail asking you for verifying paperwork. In general, all you need to give them is:

  • A copy of your lease agreement/mortgage bill
  • A copy of your reported bills (phone, electricity, water, car payment)
  • A copy of your last pay stub (or last two pay stubs)
  • A copy of your bank statements, both checking and savings (I usually give the official one from the last month AND a printout of the most recent transactions and balance of my account, from my online banking site)
  • A copy of your ID (usually a driver’s license) and social security card

At the end of your interview, your interviewer will tell you what you should give to the office, so have a pen ready to write it down. You can wait until you get the mail from Health & Human Services telling you what to turn in to them, but the sooner you do this, the faster your application goes through. I suggest gathering most of this paperwork before the interview, then getting together anything extra they ask for during the interview and turning it into the office the next day. You’ll want to bring these copies in person to your local SNAP office, where you’ll receive a receipt for all of them.

You’ll wait a week to two weeks for your application to be processed, then you’ll get a letter in the mail telling you whether you are approved or denied, and for how much. If you’re approved, you’ll get your Lone Star card separately in the mail, with instructions on how to set up your PIN number and activate the card (much like any other debit card). After a week, if you haven’t gotten anything in the mail, I suggest calling the customer service number (211 in Texas) to check on the status of your application. If there’s a problem, you want to catch it early, rather than finding out after 3 weeks that you have to re-interview or turn in additional paperwork.

So now you have money! What can you spend it on? The short answer is: pretty much any food or drink for humans at any place that accepts food stamps and isn’t a restaurant. The long answer is: You won’t be able to spend it on anything considered “ready-made,” like fully cooked rotisserie chickens, sandwiches at the deli, or pre-made salads. You can’t spend it at restaurants, including fast food places. You also can’t buy pet food. But pretty much anything else is fair game: soda, meat, vegetables, frozen food, candy, cookies, baby food, cereal. You can also usually buy food at your local butcher’s, as many butcher’s are accepting food stamps these days. There’s even a trend of accepting food stamps at farmer’s markets, so you should check to see if yours does if you’re interested.

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A white hand reaches into a cardboard box full of small red peppers at a university’s famer’s market. Source.

Your paperwork from Health & Human Services will tell you not to share your PIN with anyone, but places that accept food stamps but NOT debit cards will often ask you tell them your PIN number. I plan on making a business card that says my PIN on it, so that I can hand it over instead of saying the number out loud in front of other customers. This is a method I would suggest to anyone else who regularly shops at a butcher’s or farmer’s market, who frequently don’t accept debit cards.

Food stamps help millions of Americans eat, and if you’re struggling to cover your grocery bill each month, you might consider applying for SNAP. If you need additional help, research food pantry options in your area as well. (Honestly, I just google “food pantry [city, state]” to find my local food pantries.)

If you have any questions about food stamps, leave them in the comments!

Don’t you know you aren’t special?

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A lilac custom someecard. On it, a man in a suit is leaning forward with his hands clasped to his head in a kind of praying position. It reads, “I’m afraid of a world run by adults who were never spanked as kids and got trophies just for participating.”

People in my generation are often told we’re slackers, we’re entitled, we’re narcissistic, we’re not as special as we think we are. We’re the boomerang generation, too immature or lazy to get our own homes. Some person on my Twitter feed said something along the lines of, “What self-respecting 20-something would WANT to be on their parents’ insurance?” in response the PPACA’s allowing young people to stay on that insurance until they are 26.

The unemployment rate for people under 25 is 16.4%, twice that of the overall unemployment rate. And we’re looking at astronomical rates of underemployment, as well. 19.1% of young college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. It’s undoubtedly much higher for those without the resources to go to college. And those of us that manage to find jobs are working harder for less money, as wages have been dropping for 20-somethings for a decade. It’s no surprise that millenials are being forced back into their parents’ homes and back onto their parents’ health insurance, and it certainly isn’t looking like it’s our fault.

***

I spent high school in a rat race, like most people my age who wanted to climb the social ladder. Nothing I did was for my own enjoyment, and I was encouraged by everyone (my parents, my teachers, my friends) to do extracurricular activities. Not because they would help me impact the world, or fulfill me, or be enjoyable. But because of the college application, which I had to sacrifice, I was told, all my teenage years to pad. I was told it would be better once I got to college, or at least after college. Then, I was led to believe, you can do what you like, start to be normal and do things that make you a whole person. Until then, live half a life or you will never succeed. So I did. I lived half a life. I was in yearbook, I worked on the literary magazine, I took every AP test I could afford and pass, I was in colorguard, and we practiced 10-20 hours a week on top of competitions. I worked 20-30 hours a week, so that I could supplement my mother’s income and have a tiny bit of financial independence (though I never did anything with that; who has time?). And in between, I tried to have a social life and studied like mad.

I was told, proudly, that I was a perfectionist, and no one even noticed that my perfectionism was a generational symptom of a profoundly dysfunctional way of living. Most people I was friends with were “perfectionists,” because we knew that working hard didn’t guarantee us anything. Perfection didn’t guarantee us anything. We knew that at 17. So we obsessed, and we compared notes, and we deprived ourselves of sleep. We accrued a figurative wall of trophies, not because we thought they were worth anything, or because we were proud of them. Because we needed a wall of trophies to get into college, to get scholarship money. Perfectionism, we were told, was a virtue. And it made us worn out, anxious, depressed, and terrified to fail.

When I graduated from high school, my favorite teacher wrote in a card to me that she was impressed with how I did it all, that I was a superwoman. And when I read it, I literally cried with relief, because I thought, I don’t have to do it anymore. I don’t have to survive on 4-5 hours of sleep and constant exhaustion.  I don’t have to hear people crow, “I don’t know how you do it!” and bite back the bitter “I do it by not sleeping and having weekly panic attacks.”

I was wrong. That pressure to do more, study more, work harder was in college too. I didn’t want to do extracurriculars unless they really interested me, and everyone told me how stupid that was. Did I really think I was allowed to spend my college life enjoying my studies and my life? Did I really think I could get a major I thought was important and fulfilling? Did I really think the world would let me survive by doing something I enjoyed? UGH, SO ENTITLED.

But by that point, I had had enough. I realized how screwed up this system was, where I was called lazy while I pushed myself to the breaking point. I knew it wasn’t normal to have regular panic attacks because of the fear of failure. I knew my parents’ generation didn’t spend college ruthlessly padding their resumes because that’s what you have to do. So I didn’t do it. I didn’t work for free in an internship (not that I could have afforded it). I didn’t fill all my hours with responsibilities, and I made time to take care of myself and my mental health. That isn’t to say I didn’t do anything. I graduated from undergrad with a 3.93 GPA. I was president of an honor society. I got into graduate school, where I graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and went to conferences, and wrote a blog, and got an article published in the Guardian. I achieved and worked hard, but I also slept. I tried to eat regularly. I stopped working out, because it was feeding my disordered eating and my body was becoming just another thing in which I had to be perfect. I went out, I had friends. I took care of myself.

And I have been shit on because of it. I can’t get a job to save my life, and my bachelor’s degree isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. If I hadn’t gone to graduate school, I would be back in my mother’s house, wondering how my life went all to shambles. Well, I wonder that now anyway.

I’m a little tired, to say the least, of the sanctimonious rhetoric spewed about my generation, about our entitlement and laziness. I’m tired of being told that if I had just worked hard enough, I would be succeeding already. I’m tired of being told to “just get a job,” as though jobs are easy to be had. I’m tired of people acting like millenials have had their futures served to them on a silver platter, and we just batted them away like petulant children. Our future is the biggest recession since the Great Depression. Our future is underemployment, exploitation, and a lower standard of living. Our future is 1 trillion dollars in student loan debt, and resigning ourselves to the fact that we won’t pay it off in our lifetimes, because we can’t find jobs that pay living wages.

Maybe we do feel a little entitled. I feel entitled to hope. I feel entitled to being paid what I’m worth, to not being continually screwed over by a morally bankrupt financial system. I feel entitled to have access to healthcare, to not worry that one health crisis will tip me over into an early bankruptcy. I feel entitled to take calculated risks, to try and do the things I love and value. Hell, I feel entitled to fail, and not literally die if I do. I may never get those things; I’m not unrealistic. But I don’t think that the correct response is to accept things that are unfair, to say, “Get over it.” If it’s unfair, we should agitate to change things. We should be fixing this broken system, not calling people who point out it’s broken whiners.

So maybe I’m okay with being called entitled. An entitled generation may end up being the most civically and politically engaged generation in decades. It may get off the treadmills we’ve been placed on by the generations before us (get yours, get ahead, forget everyone else), look around, and decide the system is broken. It may stop treating unfairness, exploitation, and hopelessness as normal. It may decide that hope, stability, and choice should not just be for the wealthy and the privileged, that it isn’t greedy to demand those things for everyone else, too.

Further reading: Open Letter from a Millenial: Quit Telling Us We’re Not Special

EXTERMINATE: Are the Daleks Scary? (Part 2)

Wow! It’s been a long time since part one! Sorry about that! I’ve been getting new jobs, moving, finding homes for my now-stray kitties. But enough excuses, let’s get to the Daleks.

In part one, I talked about fan art seems to indicate that many fans find the Daleks cute, silly, and ridiculous as often as they find them scary. In part two, I talk about why I think the Daleks are supposed to be scary: namely, that they are modeled after the terrifying Martians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.

Cross-posted at Doctor Her.

While science fiction is often posited as a kind of “what if” genre—What if aliens landed? What if we had interplanetary spaceships? What if we could genetically engineer people?—I don’t think that’s a great definition for the genre. After all, not all “what if” questions have anything to do with science, technology, or ray guns. My own definition of science fiction, based on my time as a fan and scholar of it, is pretty broad. I consider something science fiction if it has all or most of the following characteristics:

1. It is about sci­ence or the prac­tice of science.

2. It stays within the bounds of mate­r­ial reality/natural laws orit is con­cerned with appear­ing within the bounds of mate­r­ial reality/natural laws. This means that if it tries to explain its real­ity within the con­fines of our own nat­ural world, even if this is tech­nob­a­b­ble or lamp­shad­ing (á la Doc­tor Who’s “magic door” in The Girl in the Fire­place), then it could be sci­ence fic­tion. I don’t agree with def­i­n­i­tions that say sci­ence fic­tion must be strictly pos­si­ble in the real world or accord­ing to con­tem­po­rary sci­ence, because that is a ridicu­lously lim­it­ing def­i­n­i­tion, and would exclude sci­ence fic­tion like Star Trek, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, Doc­tor Who (actu­ally, pretty much any sci­ence fic­tion that uses time travel), Armaged­don, Char­lotte Perkins Gilman’s Her­land, and Red Dwarf. What these nar­ra­tives have in com­mon is not that they are sci­en­tif­i­cally fea­si­ble, but that they are con­cerned with mate­r­ial real­ity, and explain their real­i­ties as the same as ours. Of course, the extent to which they are concerned with this explanation will vary.

3. It forces the reader to leave the famil­iar world of here-and-now. This is the char­ac­ter­is­tic that is most often absent, but I think, when it appears, it is extra­or­di­nar­ily impor­tant. When this char­ac­ter­is­tic is present, it becomes imper­a­tive that the nar­ra­tive adhere to the second characteristic listed above, because this means the narrative can make the famil­iar unfa­mil­iar, which can func­tion in a num­ber of ways. By mak­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of our cul­ture, for exam­ple, dis­ap­pear (like gen­der or racism), sci­ence fic­tion can denat­u­ral­ize those con­cepts within our real­ity. By paint­ing a utopia (like Star Trek), it can make that utopia seem not so out of our reach. It can take a neg­a­tive human behav­ior, and com­pletely exag­ger­ate or trans­form it; Dis­trict 9 por­trays how racism dehu­man­izes peo­ple, in a really stark and lit­eral (and thus unfa­mil­iar) way. With­out exist­ing within our own real­ity, how­ever, that lit­eral dehu­man­iza­tion loses some of its power.

If a narrative has this characteristic, but does not adhere to the second, it is very likely fantasy.

4. It is con­cerned with the mate­r­ial nature of human­ity or human society.*

Because science fiction is a literature about science, about the material condition of humanity, it is a well-suited space for authors to explore the anxieties and concerns we feel about our relationship with science and technology. To say science fiction is a “what if” genre ignores this relationship it has with the cultural identity of science; it suggests that science fiction is about prediction, caution, prescription. (“Don’t create a society based on genetic manipulation and bodily fitness!” warns Gattica, while 1984 cautions us on the dangers of the police state. Star Trekshows us a utopian future, which somehow came about with a government run by the military.) This is a shallow way to look at science fiction, which is very rarely any good at predicting the future. What science fiction does do well is give us a glimpse into our cultures’ view of science: what scares us about it, what makes us anxious about it, what excites us about it, what role we think it should play in our society.

***

H. G. Wells’s War of the Worldswas published in 1898, the tail-end of the Victorian era. The 19th century saw a transformation in the culture of science in Britain. Science went from being a gentleman’s hobby, with the “dirty work” done by underappreciated and uncredited middle- and lower-class laborers, to an institutionalized profession, with researchers who got their hands dirty for money, funded by universities and the government. Science fiction of the era was often concerned with the corporeality and dirtiness of science, distrusting the body and the material, as opposed to the cleaner and more rational mind and spirit. The fact that the material of science is detritus (flesh, organs, blood, brains, plant matter, insect corpses, dirt, rock) made science a problematic institution, made more acceptable by removing the gentleman scholar from the material practice of science and limiting him to theoretical work. The fact that observational science relied on the imperfect instruments of the human body (eyes, fingers, skin, eardrums) was also of concern, made more acceptable by supplementing them with machines like microscopes, telescopes, chronometers, daguerreotypes, and scales.

This distrust of the material and the body carried over into anxieties about evolution, which was something much of Wells’s fiction is concerned with, including War, The Time Machine, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. In War of the Worlds and a related piece he published in 1893, “The Man of the Year Million,” Wells suggests that our suspicion of the physical and glorification of the mental could actually lead to the end of humanity as we know it. In “The Man of the Year Million,” a tongue-in-cheek prediction, he argues that

man is the creature of the brain; he will live by intelligence, and not by physical strength, if he live at all. So that much that is purely animal about him is being, and must be, beyond all question, suppressed in his ultimate development.

In the article, he outlines a course of eventual evolution, in which humans will lose much of their bodies, and will end up mere brains, in helpless, useless bodies that consist only of heads and hands.

We notice this decay of the animal part around us now, in the loss of teeth and hair, in the dwindling hands and feet of men, in their smaller jaws, and slighter mouth and ears. Man now does by wit and machinery and verbal agreement what he once did by bodily toil; for once he had to catch his dinner, capture his wife, run away from his enemies, and continually exercise himself, for love of himself, to perform these duties well. But now all this is changed. Cabs, trains, trams, render speed unnecessary, the pursuit of food becomes easier; his wife is no longer hunted, but rather, in view of the crowded matrimonial market, seeks him out. One needs wits now to live, and physical activity is a drug, a snare even; it seeks artificial outlets and overflows in games.

He argues that technological innovation will guide our evolution, and that as we create more ingenious devices to take care of our bodily functions, those functions will cease to be possible in our bodies.

[Man] has a new organ, a mandible not of irreparable tissue, but of bone and steel—a knife and fork. There is no reason why things should stop at partial artificial division thus afforded; there is every reason, on the contrary, to believe my statement that some cunning exterior mechanism will presently masticate and insalivate his dinner, relieve his diminishing salivary glands and teeth, and at last altogether abolish them.

All that will be left of the future human is his brain and his hands, since Wells believed the hands to be “the teacher and interpreter of the brain.” Because Victorians believed that emotions were seated in the body, not the mind, since they were far too messy and not intellectual, Wells also pictured these future humans as emotionless and cruelly self-serving.

And so at last comes a vision of earthly cherubim, hopping heads, great unemotional intelligences, and little hearts, fighting together perforce and fiercely against the cold that grips them tighter and tighter.

It’s a horrifying vision, in which technology and intellect have, through the processes of evolution, done entirely away with the body, empathy, and emotion. It reminds me a bit of the way modern science fiction will romanticize about people becoming pure consciousness in computers or online; we haven’t lost our desire to be rid of the bodies that tie us to the material world, that cry and shit and piss and digest and orgasm and bleed. Our bodies make us uncomfortable, make us feel dirty and vulnerable. But Wells didn’t think that transcending our bodies through evolution was a good thing at all; the vision in “The Man of the Year Million” is purposefully horrifying. And if it wasn’t obvious enough, that vision came back to haunt us in his The War of the Worlds.

All the things that were scary about the future man are what is scary about the Martians in War. They are also great brains, with only eyes and hand-like tentacles. They are vastly intelligent and emotionless. But what is far more terrifying than their inability to feel is their technological prowess. Like the future human, they have replaced their bodies with machines. While Wells only explicitly imagined eating machines in “The Man of the Year Million,” he imagined the Martians as a people with machines instead of bodies, which they can change for the purpose like so many changes of clothes. The machine body we actually see is the spider-like tripod:

A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder.

In these machines, the Martians literally eat human bodies; they drain them of their blood for sustenance, like vampires. And Wells draws a direct connection between the lack of a material body and the lack of emotions. Their reliance on technological bodies makes them capable of escaping emotions altogether. By pairing War with “The Man of the Year Million,” we can see that Wells is trying to flesh out a fear that the end-point of human evolution is the destruction of the human body and thus of emotion, compassion, and morality. By valuing intellect, science, and technology, we could lose our humanity. Corporeality, Wells suggests, is a constitutive part of humanity, and the use of the machine to overcome the limits of the body could lead to a loss of our compassionate natures. Wells values the human body and its material nature, the way that our bodies cause us to depend on one another, the way that our bodies tie us to the world we live in.

***

Okay! So why am I talking so much about Wells’s Martians? Because I think the Daleks were modeled after the Martians.** After all, they’re bodiless brains who lack all emotion and compassion, and they have replaced organic bodies with machine ones. They even look like the Martians: gray, gross, and full of tentacles.

Kaled_mutant

The machine body comes apart to reveal the organic body of a Dalek, from the “Dalek” episode of Doctor Who. The Dalek is a mucous-covered, gray mass, with a brain at the top and multiple tentacles at the bottom. He has one eye. Source.

Unlike the Martians, the Daleks are genocidal, but their inability to feel compassion, coupled with their cyborg nature, makes them dead ringers. (The Martians were actually kind of scary in part because they didn’t hate humans. We were merely in their way as they colonized a new planet. Cold fuckers, those Martians.)

But, I still don’t think the Daleks are scary, because I think they are poorly executed versions of the Martians. A lot of the things that made the Martians frightening are missing from the Daleks, in particular their machine bodies. Like the Dalekanium body of the Daleks, the Martians are hard to kill or disable. But that’s where the comparison seems to end. The small Dalek machines are slow and clunky, whereas the Martian machines are terrifyingly huge, fast, and efficient.

Woking_tripod

A shiny 23-foot statue of the Martian tripod machine from Wells’s War of the Worlds. This sculpture was designed by Michael Condron and is located in Woking, Surrey in England. The design is true to the source, with a small body, two metal tentacles, and three long, flexible, mobile jointed legs. This thing would own the Daleks. Source.

The Martians were also quite alien and removed; for all the hate the Daleks seem to spend on the Doctor and the rest of the universe, they sure do talk to them a lot. The Martians never bothered to communicate with the humans, because the humans were food. It’d be like if we started having conversations with cows. The Daleks spend so much wasted time and energy on talking to the Doctor and his companions. The Daleks obviously don’t think they’re thatsuperior to us, or they wouldn’t bother communicating. Communication necessitates seeing another being as something on (about) the same level as you; it creates a connection between the communicators. And the excessive amount of communication between the Doctor/humans and the Daleks makes the Daleks feel less threatening.

And as a viewer of only NuWho, I’m starting to wonder how the Daleks got powerful in the first place. The advantages of being a brain in a machine is supposed to be that you’re smart. But the Daleks seem pretty stupid a lot of the time. They waste time talking and scheming. They get fooled by jammie dodgers. They get captured by rich morons. They spend more time yelling EXTERMINATE than they do actually killing people.

The Daleks just don’t do it for me the way the Martians do. They don’t have the cruel, heartless grace, the efficient killing and maneuvering power. They don’t feel alien and utterly unintelligible.

The Martian model makes it clear that the Daleks could have been frightening. But they simply weren’t well-executed, and lack the terror of Wells’s Martians.

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* (This definition, altered slightly, originally appeared in my post on Eli.) You’ll notice I don’t have any­thing about tech­nol­ogy in this def­i­n­i­tion, and that is for a rea­son. While most people’s con­cep­tions of sci­ence fic­tion have a big focus on tech­nol­ogy, I find that focus prob­lem­atic. This kind of def­i­n­i­tion is invested in the idea that old tech­nolo­gies are not tech­nolo­gies that mat­ter (in the sense that we no longer think of them as tech­nolo­gies) or count in sci­ence fic­tion. But it is wrong to sug­gest that books, pens, print­ing presses, chairs, cars, scis­sors, cameras, alarm clocks, DVD play­ers, elec­tric lights, laun­dry deter­gent, air­planes, ad nau­seum are not tech­nolo­gies that sig­nif­i­cantly shape the human con­di­tion in many parts of the world.

** Thanks to Amy Montz for originating this idea!

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Works Cited

Wells, H. G. “The Man of the Year Million.” Pall Mall Gazette6 November 1893: 3.

Wells, H. G. The War of the Worlds. 1898. Ed. Martin A. Danahay. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2003.