Thursday, March 21, 2013

They're Made Out of Meat

In this post, I'm putting some lesson plan information you might find useful to teach some lessons about a great, humorous science fiction short story by Terry Bisson called They're Made Out Of Meat. (<-- link takes you to the text of the story)

A still from the best adaptation of They're Made Out Of Meat.
The story was first published in Omni magazine in 1990.
It’s the story of two alien beings conversing about their discovery that the intelligent life on Earth, is made out of meat. Flesh. Us. This is evidently a disturbing and nonsensical proposition, and the beings decide to delete the records of their discovery to avoid further discomfort.
The story works because it’s punchy and brief, with the dialogue between the two protagonists flowing and exuding variously disbelief, bemusement and yet a very alien detachment to the hopes of mankind.

This story has been cited in sociological and philosophical contexts. One example is its use to demonstrate “Carbon chauvinism”; the idea that intelligent life can only “look like us”. This has an obvious analogue at a cultural level. Is our way of looking at other ways of being, the only valid way? How do we feel at the way the aliens treat us? This relates directly to a number of cross-curriculum priorities stated in the NSW English syllabus, including “Ethical understanding”, “Intercultural understanding” and “Diversity and difference” (p9 of the 2009 Syllabus)

The original story gives no clues as to the location or physical description of the protagonists. Bisson has presented the story theatrically and provides this description:

The set is a deep space galactic panorama projected on a screen--the Universe. Two lights moving like fireflies among the stars on the screen represent the the TWO VOICES

Lesson 1 begins with the best adaptation of the story, a short film made by Stephen O’Regan in 2005. As you can see, it dispenses with Bisson’s setup, and demonstrates its wonderful malleability.

I wrote to O’Regan (now in New York) to ask about how his version differs from the text (the flourishes with costuming, the behaviors of the extras, the music, and his excisions from the original. He wrote back:

Regarding the excisions...we shot all the dialogue...but simply dragged too long on screen no matter how clever the writing was on page. So I had to be tough on it. one point I cut it down to a 2 minute version. 

The video is watched twice. Once in isolation so it can be absorbed without preconception. Then again reading along with the text to compare it to the original. Differences are noted. Students examine how the choices affect the meaning of the story. Multiple discourses are evoked: How are humans represented? How are the “aliens” (focus on “otherness”)? Does the film exist in only one genre? Are there analogies between the aliens attitudes to humanity and our attitude towards other complex life on Earth? (Dolphins? Termites? Primates? Western culture vs other cultures?). How does costuming, the music, or the pacing of the dialogue affect meaning? Could this story suggest an answer to the “Fermi Paradox”? (the lack of evidence for intelligent life in the universe when the scientific consensus is that, statistically, it could be common). Why would the aliens be so averse to the idea of sentient meat? (Aside: our word meat comes from old English mete, meaning food generally. Are we food?)

As far as language is concerned, we explore several features. It is vernacular (The use of “Omigod”, “Nope”). Adjectives, exposition, in fact any context, are lacking. The repetition of the word “meat” is so pervasive, the phenomenon of “Semantic Satiation” occurs (when a word is repeated so much, it loses its meaning. The falling-apart of signifier and signified. Who knew there was a term for that?) As the text is entirely dialogue, with no descriptive element or exposition, we are left to infer the what/who/where. What effect to these choices have? (For example, do we end up thinking of this meat as, say, a steak, than our own meat? Our own grey matter and viscera?)

If time permits, vignettes from two other filmed adaptations and one audio-only adaptation can be sampled (although I don’t recommend watching them all in their entirety) for contrast. How do they differ? For example, in one, the alien kills a human. Do they use the "whole" text? Which one is best? I'll wager the one with the most changes. Can you cite other works that have changed in adaptation? What about the the “reboot” phenomenon in Hollywood? The difference between the Tolkien books and movies, etc. 

At the end of the lesson, students are grouped and told in the next lesson(s) they will be creating their own interpretation of the story.

In lesson 2, students choose from some options to extend their exploration. They could record an audio version of the dialog (in pairs) or a video version (groups of 3 or 4) using what are likely to be a plethora of student owned smartphones or iPods. Students choose which role to play, and more importantly, what could be added to their performance to make it distinctive. For those struggling for inspiration, suggest: Being robots, speaking with an unnatural cadence, deliberately mispronouncing words, emphasizing a particular emotion (disgust, incredulity, amusement), wearing attire (sunglasses, hats?), dubbing their dialog over footage of other animals or objects (Two dogs? Two rubbish bins? Sock puppets?). As the aliens are evidently in “human” form, are they phantasms? Have they “possessed” two bodies? Either assumption may change the performance. Could intertextuality between this work and other texts (X-Files? Invasion of the Body Snatchers?) inform or influence our understanding or representation here?

Post processing in a computer might alter the pitch of voices or the hue of skin. Imagination is more important than mastery in execution, and students should at least present some evidence of their intent in development by the end of the lesson if the project will go on. Some students may choose a representation that does not lend itself to a recorded format, and has to be performed live. Some students may choose to re-write the story in a different genre or perspective, or to write a sequel.

Enterprising students should be given leave to develop their project in this lesson but not record it if they have undertaken to film or record it elsewhere. These two lessons may be assumed to be the first of 3 or more lessons on the subject (the assignment criteria didn’t say they couldn’t be). Future lessons could be ICT lessons in video or audio editing, podcasting or vodcasting the raw material accompanied with a discussion about how the medium and technology enable new meanings or change the perception of the text.

The textbook Charged with Meaning (p275) suggests that the principles necessary to support students in creating screen or drama narratives are to encourage collaboration, promote self-management, to express contemporary cultural knowledge, employ flexible learning in space/time, permitting trial and error, and utilizing intertextual knowledge. These activities are geared toward applying these pedagogical principles.


 The freeloader adaptation (2005) directed by Stephen O'Regan. In my view, the best adaptation of Bisson's story there is.

Another adaptation, using the whole story, but the alien kills a human (definitely not in the original!)

Yet another one, not very good.

Lastly, here's a link to an audio-only radio adaptation.  

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