Unless otherwise indicated, all citations are from Kate Wilhelm. “Baby, You Were Great!” ENGL 246: Science Fiction. Ed. Daniel Newman. Concordia University Bookstore, 2014.
Alive? by Amanda Cloutier-Santos © 2015
In the futuristic short story “Baby, You Were Great!,” the television world has changed its technology to better emit emotion. Despite having written this fictional work in the late sixties, Wilhelm depicts a future that is eerily close to our present. A future where people are consumed with technology and lose their identity. A lazy and selfish life where they forgot the meaning of living.
In the short fiction, a television producer named Herb holds auditions for a new role. Unlike modern auditions where it is about how well someone can fake emotions, the producer is looking for someone who can share real emotions with the audience. The star of Herb’s hit show is a young woman by the name of Anne who after years of being constantly filmed and televised, now desires to quite the production. Despite being rich, and able to travel whenever and wherever she would like, Anna feels confined. She can’t really be living if she is not living for herself. She has to constantly put on a show and be put in dangerous situations for the audience to experience different emotions. How can she truly be living if she has no freedom? Her life is dictated by a producer, and viewed by the world.
Herb tries to convince Anne otherwise. He tells her that women rely on her to have a life. “For the first time in their lives they’re able to feel like their living” (31). No one can enjoy life on their own. People, in Wilhelm’s world, are pulled into a life of the nonliving. With a helmet, they feel the raw emotions, see the right pictures, but none truly have experienced what Anne is living in the moment. The audience has chosen the simple and lazy way. “Baby, You Were Great!,” depicts human’s keenness towards laziness and selfishness.
John is Herb’s business partner, and the person Anne trusts the most. While Herb does all the auditions, John isolates himself in his lab. While Anne and Herb have their argument during the climatic part of the story, John watched without a word, wondering whether “he would be able to stand the tape she was transmitting” (32). He could have helped Anne escape and be free to live her life on her own, but he chose otherwise. Instead, he selfishly lied to her. John is not only selfish, but he’s lazy as well. After the argument between the Herb and Anne, John installed himself comfortably in a chair and placed the helmet on his head. His lack of action keeps Anne imprisoned, but maintains a source of ‘living’ for John and the world. He prefers feel through Anne than truly experience life on his own.
If no one is experiencing situations on their own, how can they be truly living? The audience in Wilhelm’s story are said to need Anne to fully be living. Being plugged in to someone else does not make one live. Anne herself is not truly living, because to live consists of freedom. Her life is constructed. It is fake. People do not have a life of their own, and so lack an identity. Anne has an audience because no one can experience life for themselves. This sad fate might be coming true as technology advances. As Herb says, “All those nice little people who aren’t even alive unless they’re plugged in” (30). In other words, people have forgotten what living truly is.
A Violation of Privacy, by Jemima Astaire © 2015
Disgust. Indignation. Pity. Such is the nature of the bitter taste left in your mouth after having witnessed the injustice that is Anne’s life, the violation of the privacy of her mind and body.
As a title, “Baby, You Were Great!” has an obvious sexual connotation. It hints at a moment of romantic intimacy: you can imagine one lover turning to another and reassuringly uttering those words after an intimate moment, sincerely or not, depending on their level of satisfaction or disappointment. Instead, the story begins in an auditioning studio with a one-way glass panel, making it more about privacy, or lack thereof. I first imagined an interrogation room. Knowing that an unseen person is not only looking at you but most likely judging you while you’re giving your best performance is far from private.
The near-rape scene that repeatedly unfolds behind the window then led me to wonder if they were perhaps holding auditions for pornographic movies. The women’s lack of utter dismay or disgust at being attacked and their simple nervousness or “bland nothing kind of feeling” (Wilhelm 333) as opposed to fear indicates that they’re giving a performance. This could be seen as a parallel to the title, which might be something a director would say to an actress who is following a script.
When John Lewisohn sits down next to Herb Javits and puts on a helmet that connects with spots on his skull, I remembered a scene from The Matrix, when the main characters are in a ship, sitting together with cables plugged into the backs of their heads. The very essence of their beings is uploaded to a matrix and shared with millions of others, who believe that the matrix is reality. Technology that allows an audience to experience an person’s emotions firsthand―John and Herb’s helmets, or Aldous Huxley’s feelies in Brave New World―removes all barriers of mind and body, making the private public. Anne’s viewers’ reality is indistinguishable from hers when they’re connected, and her most private thoughts are shared with anyone who can afford to rent a helmet.
In discovering that Anne’s entire life is being constantly transmitted to an audience, most readers can immediately associate her reality to The Truman Show: “What had started out as A Day in the Life of Anne Beaumont was now a life in the life of Anne Beaumont, and the audience was insatiable” (Wilhelm 337). Unlike the main character in The Truman Show, Anne is initially aware of her audience and of the fact that she is providing a performance. Unfortunately for her, she has been on the air around the clock, even in her most private moments: ‘Where’s the camera, Anne? Do you ever know where it is anymore? Have you ever seen a camera in the past couple of weeks, or a recorder of any sort? You have not, and you won’t again. You’re on now, honey. [.] In fact the only time you aren’t on is when you’re sleeping. I know you’re in love. I know who he is. I know how he makes you feel. I even know how much money he makes a week. I should know, Anne baby. I pay him.’ (Wilhelm 339) The outrage in this passage is palpable: Anne’s relationship with her lover is an illusion, just like the distinction between her private and public life.
The repeated insistence on eliciting fear in Anne to give her viewers more excitement is a preview of the injustice that Herb and John will commit against her. Their “gimmick” (Wilhelm 337) is a betrayal and a violation of the privacy her mind and body, and it could also be considered a form of rape. The relationship between Anne and these men is twisted, as can be seen when John takes pleasure in the thought of experiencing her suffering: John “wondered if he would be able to stand the tape she was transmitting. A wave of excitement swept [over] him, and he knew he would play it all, feel it all, the incredibly contained rage, fear, the horror of giving a death to them to gloat over, and finally, anguish. He would know it all. Watching Anne, he wished she would break now. She didn’t. She stood up stiffly, her back rigid, a muscle hard ridged in her jaw. Her voice was flat. She left them without looking back” (Wilhelm 341) The men enjoy her suffering in the same way that a rapist would take satisfaction in assuming control over his victim, making her powerless, and eliciting terror in her.
In the end, Anne’s resignation is clear. Without the privacy of her thoughts, she is helpless, with no way of escaping her predicament. Even her death would bring the men satisfaction. Sadly, there’s no easy way out for Anne.
Wilhelm, Kate. “Baby, You Were Great!” Science Fiction: Short Stories and Contexts. Ed. Heather Masri (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008): 331-342.