Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Genre and Subgenre

Sometimes I like to try to classify my writing. Perhaps this isn't seemly. But I find that it helps me figure out what I'm trying to do, what I like and what I don't like, what I want to cleave to and what I want to break away from.

So. I've often expressed dissatisfaction with the fantasy/sci-fi dichotomy. It's useful and necessary, I know, but these are basically commercial categories. They do reflect a real division in the literature, but the boundaries don't everywhere coincide. The same holds true to a lesser degree for all the various subgenres. My main problem, I think, is that the classification concerns material elements only. If you have an elf, it's a high fantasy, or maybe an epic fantasy. Unless he hangs out in coffee shops and tattoo parlors, in which case it's an urban fantasy. But I don't read books because of the matter. I read them because of the form. Reading Tolkien was a life-changing experience. Terry Brooks never appealed to me. What was the difference? Certainly not the matter!

Take Perelandra. The pedants usually classify it as a fantasy because it has angels and concerns original sin. But they're wrong; from their point of view, it's science fiction. C. S. Lewis happened to believe in angels and sin, and wrote compelling speculative fiction about them. If we accept the characterization that sci-fi makes the improbable possible while fantasy makes the impossible probable, then Perelandra falls into the first category. How many science fiction writers, I wonder, believe in the immateriality of the human soul? Do we classify all their works as fantasy because of they contain elements of the supernatural? But this underscores the problem. The classification of a story shouldn't change when we uncover some new datum in the author's biography. So, if the pedants were consistent, they would call Perelandra science fiction, but I would still call it a fantasy, not because of its supernatural elements, but because of its structure and aims.

Everyone's heard the canard about how advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to primitive peoples. What this ignores is that magic is technology. There's no difference. Let me repeat. There is no difference between magic and technology, except in the eyes of conceited modern observers. Just because I've rejected some hypothesis in my systematic attempts to control my environment doesn't somehow render the  hypothesis a member of a different category from the ones I accept. A savage practicing homeopathic magic or whatever it is they do nowadays is merely exhibiting a certain belief regarding cause-and-effect. A medical professional does the same. The latter presumably has better results. But this is a difference of degree, not of kind. A belief in a supernatural world subject to testable and consistent rules and limitations is no less "scientific" than phlogiston theory or M-theory, whatever we may think of the truth of the thesis.

So, when people go on about how a fantasy needs to have a well-defined magic system that's adhered to consistently, they're not talking about fantasy at all. They're talking about science fiction, or, at any rate, technology fiction. Galadriel the queen of Lothlórien gently mocks Samwise for wanting to see "elf magic," confessing that she isn't entirely certain what is meant by the word. Thus does she smile at dragon dice, Magic cards, and other systems. Did Merlinus Ambrosius adhere to a magic system? No. He simply went places, and things happened. Do you get the feeling that the plot is contrived or arbitrary because of that? No. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, et al., knew what it was to write a romance. It's these systems that allow for contrived, unreal plots. In the end it's no different from Scotty saving the day by rerouting the secondary reactor drive through the main power converters. You know. Just difficult enough to add the right amount of tension.

Anyway, my writing is in the same boat as Perelandra. The pedants would call it fantasy because of various material elements. But really, from their point of view, they should call it science fiction. It is fantasy, just not for the reasons they cite. Its "macrobial" agents are rigorously conceived. It has not an iota of magic, though it might seem otherwise to primitive readers. But it's supposed to hit the fantasy spot. And what is that? I admit that I'm not certain. It's something I've struggled with. Speaking broadly, we might say that fantasy has an ecological, holistic outlook. It integrates. Science fiction is about doing; fantasy is about being.

So let's call my writing fantasy, despite the fact that it features space elevators, prehistoric biota, topological puzzles, etc. What subgenre shall we place it in? There's a jumble of tags to choose from, but they can't be regarded as concrete, mutually exclusive genuses, so we'll just have to pick what seems most appropriate. Let's see, let's see. Much of my fiction features warriors who wear sandals, carry swords, and battle dread Elder Gods and beasts from the Outside, but it isn't sword and sorcery, which is lusty, amoral, action-oriented, and narrow in scope, lacking the ecological sensibility I spoke of before. It displays a global consciousness and is centered around a battle for the soul of the world between forces of order and chaos (as I conceive of them), but isn't high fantasy or epic fantasy, as these connote a nostalgic restriction of technology and a certain elevation of manners alien to my mind. A lot of the action takes place in cities (or, rather, a City) powered by steam engines and decorated with Art Nouveau motifs, but it most certainly is not steampunk, which I leave to those who like such things. It isn't dark fantasy because it's not, well, dark (not that most things marketed as such really are), and it isn't urban fantasy because it isn't contemporary and sparkly.

No, none of these tags really apply. What remains left to us is, I think, the category we're looking for: sword and planet, occasionally (but not interchangeably) referred to as planetary romance. Think of the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. They couple high technology (mechanical fliers, radium pistols, air plants) with Bronze Age culture. There's a certain focus on action, but an ecological awareness runs right through them as well. A Princess of Mars, with its towering green warriors, haughty oviparous princesses, thoats and zitidars, gladiator pits, fleets of airships, long-range rifles, and age-empty ruined cities, is the epitome of the sword-and-planet subgenre. Planetary romance, on the other hand, is exemplified more by novels like Dune or The Left Hand of Darkness. My own novel and assorted stories are definitely closer to Barsoom than Arrakis. They take place in a counter-earth at the cosmic antipodes inhabited by paleozoic biota and antediluvian races.

Sword-and-planet novels are a threatened breed these days. Edgar Rice Burroughs was the great forerunner, but his descendants have been sadly lacking. The sixties and seventies saw a glut of nostalgiac homages and pastiches, like those awful Green Star books of Lin Carter that you're always seeing in used bookstores, and the Gor books of John Norman, which I haven't read for obvious reasons. I'm always looking for Leigh Brackett's Mars books but they must be good since no one wants to sell their used copies.

Yes, I find the writing of sword-and-planet novels a high and lonely art. I don't mean to imply that my work can be pigeonholed, though. My hope is that it embodies a certain literary flair. The models I adulate (and fall far short of) include Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Flannery O'Connor, and Willa Cather. But I'm also inspired by the great exemplars of pre-Tolkien fantasy, from "high" British works like The Well at the World's End, The Night-Land, the short stories of Lord Dunsany, and The Worm Ouroboros, to the "low" works of American pulp writers like Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and C. L. Moore.

There, that helps. Now back to work on the sequel of that novel I'm still trying to sell…

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ender's Game

I went and saw Ender's Game tonight. The verdict: it was okay as a synopsis.

I'm a math/science geek who's into changing coordinate systems to suit different problems and things like that. I first read Ender's Game when I was an undergraduate (in a single night, no less; and actually, I haven't read it since), and what really impressed me were the three-dimensional battle tactics.

Well, they just about cut all that out of the movie! There aren't even any real battle-room games. How can you make a movie of Ender's Game without some detailed games? They kind of mention the psychology of choosing your own coordinates once or twice, but the battles are all horizontal. I guess the production team just didn't get it, or assumed we wouldn't get it.

Also, as I rather suspected, Hollywood's lust for special effects gave the plot twist away. Or at least I suppose it did. Hard to say, since I knew it was coming. The movie completely ignores relativity and its effects on the storyline in the interests of getting Ender somewhere CGI-worthy. I did hear an ansible mentioned in there somewhere. Maybe they don't realize what an ansible is supposed to be a fig leaf for.

Anyway, it strikes me that, on the whole, Ender's Game would have come out better as a movie, though with worse special effects, in the eighties. In many ways the plot kind of goes more with War Games and Real Genius (yes, I loved that movie) and things of that sort than with Star Wars.

Since I just reviewed Soylent Green, I suppose I should mention that a character referred to the bugs' population growth as "unsustainable, just like ours." Still, twenty-whateverth Planet Earth looks pretty neat and green to me.

The surprising and deeply empathetic postlude was what really stayed with me after I read the book, and I was glad to see that the movie retained this. I wasn't emotionally invested enough at that point to really care much, however. Overall, the movie was as faithful to the book as it could have been, with the exception that Ender's sister should have accompanied him at the end. It just had a rushed, cursory feel.

So, it was okay. It had its moments. But could have been better. On the other hand, the town theater only charges $6.00 a ticket, and that on a Saturday night, so I can't really complain. Room was almost empty. The midnight showing of Bad Grandpa seemed to be pretty popular, though.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Soylent Green

I just watched Soylent Green for the first time. This is a review, forty years late.

Let me begin by saying that I gravitate toward classic film noir. Of course, no one seems to be able to say what exactly film noir is; it's a fuzzy set, I suppose, defined by proximity to certain central films. Stylistically, it recalls German Expressionism, with low-key lighting, night-for-night shooting, sharp chiaroscuro, asymmetrical picture formats, unusual angles, an emphasis on stark lines and patterns, an equation of actors with objects, etc. Thematically it varies, but always carries a sense of emotional detachment; this is tied to its style.

This isn't to say that the stories are less than engrossing. On the contrary. But emotional involvement in minimal. The protagonists are frequently annoying or despicable, and even when they're not, you're not so much afraid of what's going to happen to them as interested to see what form their own particular doom is going to take. This appeals to me; being autistic, I'm generally unresponsive on an emotional level, but once my emotions do get stirred they flare up almost uncontrollably, and I get really agitated and lose a lot of sleep. So, in general, I avoid movies that try to stimulate empathy and that kind of thing. Which means that noir films are perfect for me.

What ever happened to film noir, really? Did it die, or just morph into other forms? At the time, of course, no one really knew they were making noir films. That would have ruined it. And that's part of the answer right there. It's hard to make a self-conscious noir film that isn't really stupid. A voiceover and a trench coat do not a film noir make. It's not a genre! More than that, though, I think movies with that much detachment are just a hard sell. Theater-goers, God bless them, want to care about the characters, or at least want to feel like the movie wants them to care about the characters.

Which brings us to future noir or tech noir or whatever you want to call it. My personal theory is that the reason so many noir elements get reincarnated in science fiction films nowadays is that people will go see a sci-fi film simply because it's sci-fi. The futuristic elements add an extra level of interest that makes up for the lack of emotional investment. Plus, dystopian visions — which are inherently attractive for various reasons (what a chimera is man!) — naturally go hand in hand with doom and predestination. There was always something dystopian or post-apocalyptic about film noir and the hard-boiled genre.

The difference is that, in future noir, instead of Robert Mitchum or Fred MacMurray chain-smoking cigarettes while narrating his fall, it's the whole ruined world doing a voiceover. You could even argue that the careful attention to set design in future noir (which sometimes comes at the expense of acting and plot, as in Blade Runner) reflects the visual equation of persons with objects and the sense of alienation so prevalent in film noir. Unfortunately future noir has become a Thing now, so that big directors try to make big-budget future-noir films and botch it.

At any rate, I have to regard Soylent Green as one of the first true future noirs. It features two of the great noir stars — Edward G. Robinson (who steals every scene in every movie he's in, and who died a mere twelve days after making SG) and Joseph Cotten — and thus links true film noir with its bastard offspring. Charlton Heston, the lead actor, also starred in the last of the great noirs, Touch of Evil, a film in which Cotten had a cameo role.

Further, SG leaves the viewer emotionally detached. The citizens of the horribly overcrowded New York of the future evoke fear and disgust rather than sympathy. We aren't particularly concerned with the protagonist's ultimate fate, either, but with his actions as he goes about a murder case and the generally brutal life of a police officer in 2022. And the sequence in which Robinson's character flees the horror of the world by going "Home" (checking in at a euthanasia clinic) is more full of dark irony than pathos.

I have to admit that I found the part where Heston's character sneaks through the Soylent Green factory genuinely horrifying, despite knowing (as I suppose everyone does) the precise ingredients of that nutritious little wafer. On that note, it's interesting, isn't it, that several scenes, including the final one, take place in a Catholic church crowded with homeless people, a church in which Mass is no longer said because there's no room for it? Soylent Green is thus the antitype of the transubstantiated Host. The cooked meal shared by the detective and his partner has strongly Eucharistic overtones as well.

I also admire the production design. The flat where Cotten's character is murdered and where the protagonist subsequently romances the house "furniture" (apartment concubine) is a beautiful retro picture of its time; it reminds me of a futuristic hotel I once stayed at in Amsterdam. The crowded streets and slums are quite effective as well, and the soothing, hospitable euthanasia clinic is exactly how I've always imagined such places.

We all know how the movie ends. What I never realized was that the horror comes, not from realizing the ingredients of Soylent Green, but from the sense of utter despair that man has been driven to feed on himself in his uttermost extremity, and that this is a dead end from which there will be no emergence. The last shot of the protagonist being borne out of the cathedral focuses on his his blood-drenched, raised hand, and fades beautifully into a field of red flowers and green grass, providing the perfect denouement to this bleak and paranoiac 70's film.

All that said, I do have a slight issue with the film's premise. It never states the world population, but Wikipedia tells me that in Make Room! Make Room! (the novel on which the film is based) the world population is 7 billion. Which is…about what it is right now. Less, actually. And, well, things aren't that bad, you know, globally speaking, and certainly not in the United States. Yes, I know that there's hunger in the world, but to me this seems due less to overcrowding than to social problems resulting from mass industrialization, exploitation, and the disruption of traditional norms and structures. Yes, we have to be prudent and look to our resources, but we also need to remember that people are people, deserving of dignity, and that for every new mouth to feed there are two hands, a brain, and a beating heart to make the world a better place.

When I was a kid I went to this week-long environmental training workshop. This was the early nineties, when everyone was talking about CFCs and acid rain; I recall that I was the only one there with a notebook made from recycled paper, and that my friends made fun of me for it. A very intense, angry man ran the session on population, and the image he painted of our future, unless drastic steps were taken right now, was Soylent Green on steroids, so bleak and horrifying and misanthropic that it literally took years to get it out of my system. Because I wholeheartedly believed it.

He was, I suppose, a disciple of Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted mass starvation by the 1980s and other terrifying things that, disappointingly, did not come to pass. It's interesting to me that The Late, Great Planet Earth came out around the same time and continued to be popular long after its expiration date. I've always thought it would be interesting to do a parallel analysis of the two sets of readers.

Anyway, there's a disturbing scene in Soylent Green where "scoopers" (dump trucks with big buckets like front-end loaders) come in to quell a riot by scooping the people up in heaps and dumping them like garbage into the receptacles in back. Well, that's exactly where this alarmism about overpopulation gets you if you're not careful: into viewing human beings as garbage to be cleared out of the way or vermin to be exterminated or strays to be sterilized. What's more, when it comes to predicting the future, Ehrlich, et al., seem about as accurate with statistics as Tim LaHaye is with the Book of Revelation, and as apt to reinterpret things after the fact. So the model we're using to justify whatever control measures the leaders of the moment are telling us we need might very well be total crap. Frightening.

Welp, this is getting a little political, and I don't really care to go there on my blog, so I'll stop. I don't mean to fault the movie. Not in the least. It made me think, which is what sci-fi is supposed to do, right? If we extrapolate this trend, what will happen? Here's one possible answer. Actually, I think Soylent Green is a terrific movie, and vastly underrated for reasons that I don't entirely understand. So, if you haven't seen it, and you like future noir and dystopian sci-fi, please do yourself a favor and watch Soylent Green.


Monday, October 28, 2013


I've been struggling with viewpoint. These are my musings.

Second person is rejected out of hand. It makes me think of Zork. So we're down to first person and third person.

When it comes to third person, I incline toward a limited point of view restricted to a single character, with very few of even that character's thoughts and feelings. Basically, the very opposite of Dune and its sequels, which I find unreadable now because of their constant viewpoint-switching and expression-of-thoughts-through-italics.

The Lord of the Rings is less restrictive than I like to be, but I think it's successful. It employs a limited third-person point of view but switches between characters periodically, generally from one hobbit to another. Thoughts are revealed chiefly through actions, conversations, and interior locutions. When a hobbit isn't involved, as when Aragorn and Legolas and Gimli pursue the orcs across Rohan, the narration is more remote. It's interesting that, as Frodo comes more and more under the power of the One Ring, the viewpoint transfers from him to Sam. We thus almost always have a humble, down-to-earth hobbit witness.

Limited third person is probably the best for epic fantasies and sword-and-sorcery tales. Restriction to a single character at a time and reticence to jump into minds gives it an immediacy that Dune somehow lacks, coming off as immature and artificial instead. It also gives the author freedom to include a paragraph or two that an ordinary first-person narrator would never say of himself. For instance, if the narrator were an excellent organist or pit-fighter (or both!), he could hardly say so without sounding like an ass. First person is usually only adopted in action stories when the narrator isn't the real hero; Moby-Dick comes to mind, as do A. Merrit's The Moon Pool, Poul Anderson's World Without Stars, the Sherlock Holmes stories, and various other things, both good and not so good.

There are exceptions, of course. Two that come to mind are the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, both particularly beloved by me. It's hard to write a book in which the narrator is the main protagonist without making him sound like a boastful jerk. Burroughs avoids it through making John Carter, Warlord of Mars, something of a doofus; and he abandons the first-person point of view in the fourth installation, Thuvia, Maid of Mars (my personal favorite), in which the protagonist is the serious-minded Carthoris. A felicitous change! It was the first I read of the series, and my fancy would never have been caught by a narrator's ruminations as it was by the tapping of Thuvia's shapely foot as she sat on the bench of polished ersite beneath the gorgeous blooms of the pimalia. As for BOTNS, the narrator, Severian, has in fact been frequently charged with being a jerk. I don't find this to be so myself, but, as I said, it's hard to avoid giving the impression.

Raymond Chandler completely sidesteps the problem. How, exactly? I suppose through having a narrator who cracks wise all the time and doesn't mind seeming ridiculous, but partly also through narrating actions rather than thoughts and a habitual attention to seemingly trivial details. Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, another favorite of mine, is also first-person, and operates much the same way. For the record, I find Chandler's later novels, like The Long Goodbye, much less enjoyable because the narrator has grown dour and self-righteous.

I'm in the process of chronicling the adventures of a youth who's just come of age. He's sanguine, in the sense of the theory of humors. I originally wrote the first novel in limited third person, but it just seemed too distant to me, so I rewrote it in first person. Of course I had to expunge some passages I rather liked, etc., etc. The benefit, from a practical point of view, is that I can address the reader to some extent without breaking the spell of the story. The first-person narrator can say things the omniscient narrator never could. He can say, "The real reason, of course, was that I…" whereas saying something like "The real reason, of course, was that he…" makes me think of The House of Seven Gables. Certain things, such as fight and sex scenes, require great delicacy, to which I hope I am equal. But, as I've mentioned in this space before, Chandler is my great exemplar here.

It might seem that having a first-person point of view can restrict the outcome of the story — the narrator must make it out alive, right? — but I don't feel that this is so. To be pedestrian about it, the novel could always be a posthumous "manuscript," as in C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, or entries from a "diary," as in Dracula. The narrator could also simply be dead, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, with no explanation as to how he could be narrating the story. This is fantasy, right? The poet-scribe could have received his story from the world of the dead through being impaled on an ash tree for nine days and nine nights, which is how I generally get my own ideas.

Maybe, though, it isn't necessary to be strictly first- or third-person. Plenty of novels get creative with switching viewpoints. Some, such as Dracula or Carrie, attempt verisimilitude through presenting themselves as documents. Others — the works people call "experimental" and "modern," although in speculative fiction these are apparently synonyms for "derivative" and "quickly dated" — are even more unclassifiable. After all, anything is possible.

Personally, I can't stand Ulysses and always skip the social movement parts of The Grapes of Wrath. For me, The Brothers Karamazov and Moby-Dick are more useful examples of voice-variation; The Book of the New Sun seems to take the latter as a model in this respect. But this kind of writing calls for great skill on the part of the writer, and, more importantly, great trust on the part of the reader, trust that I have yet to earn.

So for now I think I'll stick to a colorful, action-oriented first-person point of view.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

El Libro de Arena

Let's discuss Jorge Luis Borges' short story "The Book of Sand" ("El Libro de Arena"). First, a synopsis. (You can also find an English translation here.)

The story opens with a few sentences about points, lines, and planes. More on this later. A man (the narrator — Borges?) receives a visit from a traveling Bible salesman. He expresses disinterest in buying a Bible, as he owns a Wycliff Bible, a copy of Cypriano de Valera's translation, Luther's translation, and the Latin Vulgate. The salesman — a man of indistinct features, dressed in gray, with a gray valise — then shows him the Book of Sand (so-named because sand has neither beginning nor end).

The narrator opens it. Each page is numbered with an Arabic numeral; the left-hand page might be numbered, say, 40514, or some eight-digit number, the left, 999, or a number raised to the ninth power. There are crude illustrations as well. "Study the page well," the salesman says, "for you'll never see it again." The narrator notes the page number, closes the book, then tries to find it again. He is unable to. He also discovers that he can't reach the beginning of the book. No matter how close he tries to open it to the cover, there are always pages between his thumb and the board.

In the end he purchases the book in exchange for his retirement fund and his Wycliff Bible. He hides it behind his volumes of the Arabian Nights. As he investigates the book over the coming months he concludes it to be monstrous. Rather than burning it — he's afraid that the smoke from an infinite book would suffocate the whole earth — he hides it on a shelf at the National Library.

A strange, enigmatic tale in its basic outline. Possibly I've left out some of the most significant details, but I've included those that strike me. Though a writer by night and a painter on Sundays, I'm a mathematician by day, and it's the mathematical aspects that I wish to speak about.

The opening seems to me to be the key to the whole thing, for in many ways the Book of Sand might be likened to a line segment of finite length, e.g., the segment from zero to one on the number line. I mean the segment between these two points, excluding zero and one themselves. For such a segment has neither beginning nor end. No matter how close to zero you choose a point to be, there will always be infinitely many numbers between zero and your point. Notable, too, is the fact that the narrator can never again find a page he's visited. This is true of any infinite set. Choose an element at random, then choose a second. The probability that the choices will be the same is precisely nil.

So, the book resembles the line segment to some extent. But there are many infinite sets within the line segment. We could, for instance, take all the points that correspond to fractions. For a number between zero and one to be a fraction we have to be able to write it as a/b, where a and b and whole numbers and a is smaller than b. Though infinite, it is possible to denumerate this set by taking them in the order

1/2    1/3    2/3    1/4    3/4    1/5    2/5    3/5    4/5    1/6    5/6    1/7

so that 1/2 is the first, 1/3 the second, 2/3 the third, and so on. We're skipping the fractions that can be reduced and thus have already appeared in the list. Because this set of rational numbers (so-called because they are ratios of whole numbers) is denumerable (can be numbered off without leaving any out), it seems to me to resemble the pages of the book. The page numbers would correspond to the labels affixed to the rational numbers. For instance, the page that occurs exactly two-fifths of the way through the book would be labeled as page 7, because 2/5 appears seventh in our list. Going against this interpretation is the fact that facing pages have different numbers, and that the narrator can turn the pages one at a time; for between each pair of rational numbers are infinitely many rational numbers. It isn't possible to find two that are right next to each other, so to speak. For the book to be exactly like the rationals, recto and verso would need to bear the same number (and thus be identified), and the pages would have to stick when the narrator turned them, much as the "first" pages cling to the front board, so that he can never quite turn a single one.

Another possibility is that the pages correspond to the points in the entire continuum from zero to one; but this seems to be ruled out by the pagination, because the continuum, as Georg Cantor showed, is not denumerable. It is "more infinite" than the infinite set of rational numbers. (Incidentally, Cantor's proof made use of the decimal system, which originated in India; the Bible salesman had bought the Book of Sand from an Indian untouchable.) What we noted about page-turning above also goes against this interpretation.

There are of course many other infinite sets on this line segment that could be considered.

It's interesting, by the bye, that the book is called the Book of Sand; for the number of grains of sand is in fact finite. Though counterintuitive to some, the fact was demonstrated by Archimedes in a little book called The Sand-Reckoner, to which I feel almost certain Borges must have referred in at least one of his stories.

In this book, Archimedes obtains an estimate for the size of the material universe, which was very, very large (it is a myth that the ancients believed in a small cosmos and a flat earth), and, using another estimate for the density of packed sand in terms of grains per unit volume, computes an upper bound for the number of grains that could possibly be contained in the cosmos, were it packed solid with sand. He arrives at the number 1063, which is very large, but still, of course, finite. The square of this number would be larger than a googol, if that puts it in perspective for you.

The fact that the narrator fears polluting the whole earth with the smoke of his book makes me think of a certain nineteenth-century mathematical controversy, of which Cantor, mentioned above, was at the center. Cantor showed that the points on the line segment could be paired in a one-to-one fashion with the points on a unit square and, thus, with the set of points in any such space of any dimension. This pairing, though not continuous, scandalized the mathematical community, for it seemed contrary to reason that a one-dimensional space could be equally as infinite as a two-dimensional space.

Later on, Guiseppe Peano and David Hilbert devised continuous mappings from the segment onto the square; these were no longer one-to-one. The first several steps in the construction of Hilbert's mapping are shown above; the "squiggle" eventually fills the square, with no points left out. There is a three-dimensional analogue of this mapping, which fills the cube, and could, in principle, fill all of space.

So, if we imagine the pages of Borges' book to correspond to (say) the rational numbers, then the particles of its burning might not fill all the atmosphere, but, since the rationals are dense on the segment (infinitely many lie between any two points, no matter how close), we could easily imagine that its smoke might be so dense as to entirely pervade the atmosphere, with infinitely many particles in every space, no matter how small.

Cantor, as I noted, was a figure of controversy; he was denounced as a "scientific charlatan" and "corrupter of youth" by other mathematicians, and the strange curves and mappings he and others of his "school" described were shunned by many as monstrous or pathological. His investigation into the infinite also had a bearing on metaphysics and theology, for medievals like Thomas Aquinas had held that there could be no such thing as an actual existent infinity, only a potential infinity. Cantor's research seemed to some to indicate the existence of actual infinities, and thus, for various reasons, to tend toward pantheism. Cantor believed that further distinctions had to be made, and that Thomas wouldn't have objected to his ideas, had he been able to explain them; he corresponded with philosophers, theologians, and cardinals of the church, and even addressed a pamphlet to Pope Leo XIII, whose encyclical Aeterni Patris had advocated a renewed interest in scholastic philosophy.

But to return to the "monstrous" Book of Sand, whose serial infinity inspires in the narrator the same horror Cantor's theories had struck in his contemporaries. The narrator traded for it a copy of scripture that was a historical and literary treasure in itself as well as his savings for retirement. Might not this be a statement about modern man, who has traded his patrimony and future for a kind of gorgon's head of infinity? How fitting, too, that the narrator hides the book in a library, making it one page in the monstrous Book of Sand that is the modern glut of information, our "Library of Babel."

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Tell it Slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
— Emily Dickinson

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Nightspore Forest of Ir

My most recently published story, "The Goblin King's Concubine," has now appeared in podcast form in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Journey through Nightspore Forest of Ir on your commute!

Lois Tilton of Locus Online reviewed the story, and had this to say:
Maugreth is on an expedition to find the lost princess of the house of Adul, there being a reward for her return. After a perilous journey of murder and betrayal, much of it on his part, he discovers her living comfortably in a village of the goblins, here called helborim. She agrees to be rescued but insists on bringing along her half-breed offspring.
"I know what you're thinking," said Minuë. "It's true, we're hideous to them. But to Cheirod I was a peerless prize. He brooks no dissent and consummates his every desire. Several of his wise men objected when he chose to adopt the fruit of my womb as heir. They were promptly impaled."
A dark, cruel fantasy, where the unlucky are devoured by spiders or suffer other gruesome fates. There is a strong retro tone to the tale, as the central image is that of a naked white woman held as a sex slave by a monster – or a creature that most humans would consider a monster. But this princess is a match for human or goblin. There is also a sense here of a larger world beyond the backwater where the story finds itself, nations and races and languages yet unseen. A maugreth, for example, is a term of disgust and we don't know why our character has chosen to call himself by such a name, although it certainly seems fitting, given his actions.
Which I suppose about sums it up. I wrote a bit about the story's inspiration in a previous post. I should probably also mention Heart of Darkness as a rather obvious source of inspiration. As to the sense of a larger world, I appreciate that insight; this is an episode in a cycle of stories centered on Zilla and his fate in Enoch, explored in a number of yet-to-be-published short stories and a complete full-length novel.

UPDATE: Thanks also to Fletcher Vredenburgh for his kind review over at Black Gate. I aim to please!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tom Cruise and Tech-Noir

I've now advanced to the point where, instead of watching only movies that come out in the $5.00 bin at Wal-Mart, I actually rent them online, through a company that shall remain nameless, because I haven't been paid for an advertisement, although it isn't one whose CEO publicly insults the intelligence of its American patrons. Now, generally these movies consist of either sci-fi action flicks from the eighties — preferably with my favorite actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (no, really) — or else Japanese kaiju films, because what I really like is film noir, and it isn't easy to find obscure noir titles available for streaming. But last night I got out of my rut by renting a more recent sci-fi action flick, and that despite its having my least favorite actor, Tom Cruise; the reason being that the flick in question has frequently been described as neo-noir or tech-noir, and was based on a Philip K. Dick story.

I speak, of course, of The Minority Report. Alas, it disappointed in the film noir department. Before I get to that, though, let me discuss…product placement.

Off the top of my head, I saw ads — not just products, but overt ads — for Lexus, Guinness, The Gap, Aquafina, Pepsi… The neat thing about advertisements in the dystopian future is that they scan your eyes so as to tailor their annoying, intrusive, soul-crushing distractions specifically to you, in public places. Now, think about this. We all know what it's like to have Google or Facebook or whatnot try to guess what we're into and adapt their ads accordingly, with sometimes rather mortifying results. Can you imagine a giant animated billboard shouting at you—using your own first name—while you're drifting along with a crowd of strangers, blasting something like: "HEY JOHN WE KNOW YOU SUFFER FROM INCONTINENCE WHY NOT TRY DEPENDS FOR A CHANGE?" Yeah. I mean, would there be an Adblocker for that? And, if that future Adblocker began working so well that it threatened to burst the public advertising bubble, would it begin admitting certain ads so that the world as we know it wouldn't come crashing down around our ears in a case of the parasite killing the host and, thus, itself? But I digress. What I really want to know is why these mega-corporations thought such product placement was a good idea. Do they want to be seen as intrusive, soul-crushing mega-corporations that stalk you every waking moment of every day? Apparently!

This might all seem like a quibble, but I think it says something about the sold-out nature of the movie and of Hollywood in general. The ads obviously aren't intended as dystopian satire, although Spielberg does leave that escape route open to himself, despite having taken whatever money he took to place them in the movie in the first place. How much more cynical can you get? Placing soul-crushing advertisements under cover of satirizing soul-crushing advertisements! Compare it with the true tech-noir, Blade Runner. We do see obtrusive advertisement in Blade Runner, but it's presented as dreary, frightening, and/or weird. Yes, there are some actual brands here and there, but they stay where they're supposed to: in the story.

The comparison with Blade Runner is an apt one. It is, as I said, the true tech-noir. It maintains emotional detachment. It follows an unsympathetic protagonist through a dirty job and a twisted romance with one of the replicants he's assigned to destroy. It closes without closure, bringing the plot to a logical conclusion while leaving you in the air regarding the protagonist's destiny (or identity). It definitely stands in the line of Kiss Me Deadly and The Maltese Falcon.

This is the kind of picture Hollywood is afraid to present us with now, on a large budget at any rate. It can't give us a seemingly unsympathetic character without making sure we know it's only skin deep and stems from some awful tragedy that the character will get over by the end of the film. Another movie that masquerades as noir — L. A. Confidential — shows the same squeamishness. The two movies — L. A. Confidential and The Minority Report — actually have a lot in common, including pivotal scenes and plot elements. That's neither here nor there, perhaps, but at any rate they share this merely superficial resemblance to film noir. The Minority Report borrows classical music from Kiss Me Deadly, makes a variety of nods to various noir motifs, uses a desaturated palette, etc. But just as it takes more than bleached-out filmstrips to approach the stylistic marks of film noir, so does it take a lot more than an emotionally justified substance-abuse problem to make a true noir protagonist.

As an aside, I find it remarkable that, under the restrictions of the Hays Code, Hollywood could plumb the very depths of human depravity — sure, sometimes you have to read between the lines, but it's definitely there — while in our more liberal time it can show you a lot more, but to little effect, because it's evidently lost its sense of good and evil and their dirty mixture in a man's soul. Characters like Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan can't exist anymore. Everyone is a white hat or a black hat, and writers think they're being profound when they reveal a white hat to have secretly been a black hat all along.

More generally, The Minority Report doesn't take up the challenge it sets itself. It has the potential to ask profound questions about time and free will, but is content with letting the protagonist run around trying to clear his name. The philosophical difficulties with using precogs to prevent crimes and incarcerate the would-be offenders are raised but left more or less to the side; in the end the program is shut down because it happened to screw up. This is Philip K. Dick turned it into a Mission Impossible adventure story with a happy ending; indeed, the specific questions Dick raises are lost in the shuffle. And yes, I've heard the argument that the protagonist is hallucinating the last scenes while in deep freeze or whatever, but I don't buy it. If you ask me, it's just another way the movie compromises its principles while leaving an out for the cultists.

All that said, it's not a bad movie. I don't understand the praise lavished upon it, but I enjoyed watching it. The plot holes, though numerous, aren't that obvious, and the backdrops are quite memorable. The technology really does seem prescient at some points. There are a lot of nice little touches, like the dancing figures on the cereal box that won't turn off like they're supposed to. So, if you're reading this (!), and hanging on my very words (!!), I would say, watch it if you haven't. Just don't expect Blade Runner.

And if you're really wanting to see a great Spielberg movie, go watch Duel. That's where it's at.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Goblin King's Concubine

I'm pleased to report that my story "The Goblin King's Concubine" has just appeared in Issue 129 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies. BCS is an excellent venue for literary adventure fantasy, and I'm honored to have my work appear there for the second time.

The story itself is in part a subversive tribute to Robert E. Howard. It's inspired by the "rescue" of Cynthia Ann Parker (mother of Quanah Parker) from the Comanches by Sul Ross and the Texas Rangers, an event also echoed in Howard's tale "The Vale of Lost Women." Howard's latent racism, which unfortunately mars several of his stories, is in evidence here, and my story explores chauvinism and otherness (and goblin villages and lycopod forests). But I also admire Howard as a small-town Texan who inhabited his locality through speculative fiction; as a writer, he stands head and shoulders above his various imitators and posthumous collaborators.

The character of Zilla, by the bye, is inspired by certain (to me, chilling) passages of Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, e.g.:
Meanwhile there grew up in his son that much more dangerous and harder new type of skepticism—who knows how much it owed precisely to the hatred of the father and the icy melancholy of a will condemned to solitude?—the skepticism of audacious manliness which is most closely related to the genius for war and conquest… This skepticism despises and nevertheless seizes; it undermines and takes possession; it does not believe but does not lose itself in the process; it gives the spirit dangerous freedom, but it is severe on the heart…
They say that you shouldn't reveal the "bones" that went into making the soup of a story, but I presume that people clicking the link to this blog are interested in such things. Anyway, all of this concerns the matter; the form is something else entirely.

America's Great Epic

Last weekend I drove in a single day from the torrid depths of my place in the Texas hinterlands amid prickly pears and palm trees to the airy heights of the Colorado Rockies, then drove all the way back two days later, again in a single day. But it was no wearisome journey, for I had as companion and copilot an unabridged audiobook of Moby-Dick, read by the peerless Frank Muller, who (by gum) did an Ahab that seemed almost enfleshed beside me in the cab of my pickup truck. After twenty-one hours of listening I reached from hell's heart I stab at thee in a town called Eden set upon the rolling uplands of central Texas, with sunset thunderheads flashing in the distance before me.

I recently wrote a post comparing Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun to Moby-Dick. But, oh, while it may be argued that BOTNS is the Moby-Dick of science fiction, being the "Moby-Dick of" something and actually being Moby-Dick are quite different propositions. O sublimity, O profundity, O humor and vivacity of that greatest of American epics!
But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb's boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip's ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man's insanity is heaven's sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dick's Broken-Backed Novels

I've read nothing like a majority of Philip K. Dick's novels, but I have read quite a few. Most recently I read We Can Build You, about which more below; it's among the prizes I bore away from the Cool Book Sale I described a few weeks ago. (The dear old ladies are selling those books by the box now. It's criminal, I tell you!) I started reading Dick in college after seeing Blade Runner for the first time. Naturally I began with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but since then have read a pretty good selection of his work from different phases of his career.

Probably my least favorite Dick novels are the ones with his trademarked what-the-hell-is-going-on-oh-that's-what's-going-on plotline. These include Ubik and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Even these have their moments, though, like the subtle dig against the protagonist at the end of the latter.

It's quite interesting, really, if you think about it. (In fact, I'm having a little epiphany right now as I'm writing.) In a nutshell, international celebrity Jason Taverner wakes up to find himself utterly unknown and without papers of identification. It's as though he'd never existed. After various adventures he throws himself on the mercy of Mary Anne Dominic, a potter. She's so introverted and unworldly that you get the impression she wouldn't have known who Taverner was even when he was famous.

This is where it gets interesting. Taverner thinks her pottery is nice in an offhand sort of way, but through carelessness breaks one of her beloved pieces. Afterward (or maybe it's before, I can't remember) they go to a café, where they hear one of Taverner's records on the jukebox. People begin to recognize him, and everything is back to normal. Eventually everything is cleared up in typical Dickian fashion, i.e., through drug use. But the epilogue is where the dig is; for we find that Taverner has lived out the rest of his rather frivolous life like any A-list celebrity, in pointless dissipation, while Mary Anne's simple yet beautiful work continues to quietly inspire. Do you see? Taverner returned to reality only after making contact with Mary Anne, whom he plainly saw as a nobody and whose work he took for granted; then it's Mary Anne who's revealed to have lived the true life.

And that's what makes Dick great, in my opinion: his humaneness. It's always people that he cares about, not things; beauty, and not power. This sets him apart from a great many science fiction writers. His most unsympathetic characters are handled with a profound compassion. This is attributable, I suppose, to the suffering and existential bewilderment Dick himself underwent throughout his own life.

Schizophrenia runs in my family. My uncle, who's severely paranoid schizophrenic, lived with my grandparents up until their death; he was (on the surface) a silent, morose man with an enormous brown beard who spoke only in monosyllables, but sometimes he'd lock himself in his bedroom and guffaw and chat about crazy things with the voices in his head. I remember listening to him late at night. He's in an institution now, and isn't the first in the family to have been institutionalized. There are various other quirks and hang-ups that crop up here and there. I myself have of course been diagnosed with an autism disorder, and have at times lived on the verge of homelessness.

So, it's something I have a bit of experience with. Dick's novels are often gripped with a terrifying paranoia that stemmed in part from his LSD use but more, I suspect, from his disorder, for which drug abuse was probably only a desperate remedy, as it was for my uncle. But, miraculously, he was able to turn it to good effect, and the people in his stories are real people, not figments or delusions.

Some of the novels in which he tried to handle themes of mental illness ended up not being wholly successful. Perhaps this is because a what-the-hell-is-going-on story has to have a stable backdrop of reality in order to arrive at a satisfying resolution. When the characters are deluded it's anyone's guess what the real story is. This would apply to V.A.L.I.S. and We Can Build You, both of which have a kind of broken-backed structure; but they're quite memorable, and a more "successful" attempt, The Clans of Alphane Moon, strikes me as rather trite.

V.A.L.I.S. is largely autobiographical; it amuses me that the Library of America copy I have on my shelf is entitled V.A.L.I.S. and Later Novels, as if the editors weren't entirely certain how to classify it. It's narrated in third person by the protagonist, Horselover Fat, which is of course a cryptogram for Philip Dick. The first half is a fairly realistic account of Dick's mental illness, drug use, and various theophanies; the second, a typically Dickian sci-fi story, is quite different in tone, and ends without a clear resolution. That's not doing the book justice, I know, but what I'm pointing out is the visible seam in the middle, where we go from schizophrenia to sci-fi. I'll discuss the work itself in a later post.

We Can Build You, a much earlier work, has this same seam, but it goes in the opposite direction, from sci-fi to schizophrenia. I read it, as I do most of Dick's books, in a single day, and the ending both disappointed me—because the main plot of the book had been abruptly and completely abandoned— and filled me with a very real, poignant sorrow. It is, from many points of view, a failed novel, but it's one that I think I'll go back to long before I re-read Ubik

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Claw of the Conciliator

This is a continuation of my previous post on Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. I was commenting on objections to the book, and had just suggested a parallel with the Grail cycle, with the Claw of the Conciliator as the "grail" that moves the plot along.

It's interesting, by the bye, that the Claw only performs "natural" miracles. It cures diseases, heals wounds, and raises the dead, but has little or no effect on the artificially enhanced beauty of Jolenta and the like. The miracle that most stands out to me is the changing of water into wine at the inn in Saltus. It is, of course, an echo of Christ's first miracle at Cana. In The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson, speaking of the attitude of the medievals toward such phenomena, has this to say:
In a way everything is a miracle. At the marriage of Cana Jesus made water into wine and everybody was astounded; but rain becomes wine in our vines every day, and we take it all as a matter of course. Nevertheless, it is God Who creates the rain and the vine and the wine; but He does it regularly, and we get so accustomed to it that we cease to wonder. Again, He speaks, and one rises from the dead and the whole countryside flock to see; but men are born every day in the usual manner and we enter the birth in the civil register as if it were the most natural thing in the world… Miraculous phenomena are not necessarily more admirable in themselves than the daily spectacle of nature; the government of the world, at once as a whole and in all its least details, is a much more wonderful thing than the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves.
He elsewhere notes:
The true Christian feeling for nature is that which finds expression throughout the Psalms, and, above all, in the Canticle of the Three Children in the fiery furnace: Benedicite opera Domini Domino; laudate et superexultate eum in saecula. And after many centuries St. Francis of Assisi will echo that song in his Laudes and the Canticle of Brother Sun, wherein not only water, earth, and air, and stars, but the very death of the body itself, will receive their meed of praise and benediction. If anywhere the heart of man entered into fraternal communion with all that lives and breathes and has being, most assuredly it did so there; for this purely Christian soul it was altogether one and the same thing to love the works of God and to love God.
This is the very spirit that runs through BOTNS from beginning to end.
What struck me on the beach and it struck me indeed, so that I staggered as at a blow—was that if the Eternal Principle had rested in that curved thorn I had carried about my neck for so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in anything, and in fact probably did rest in everything, in every thorn on every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and indeed touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground. [The Citadel of the Autarch]
Here Severian echoes Moses before the burning bush—recognizing that every bush is a burning bush—and also Francis, the barefoot friar whose optimism was equaled only by his stern asceticism, as well as Augustine of Hippo, after whose Confessions his personal chronicle is perhaps modeled:
In loving you, what do I love? No physical beauty, no temporal glory, no radiance of light that commends itself to these eyes of mine; no sweet melody of songs tuned to every mode, no soft scent of flowers or of ointments or of perfumes, no manna, no honey, no limbs that can receive corporal embrace; yet I do love some kind of light, some kind of voice, some kind of fragrance, some kind of food, some kind of embrace, when I love my God, who is light, voice, fragrance, food, embrace to my inner man…

I questioned the physical world concerning my God, and it replied to me, "I am not he, but it is he that made me." I questioned the earth, and it said, "I am not he"; and all that was in it confessed likewise. I questioned the sea and the depths, and all living things that creep, and they replied, "We are not your God; look above us." I questioned the winds that blow, and the whole air and all its indwellers said, "Anaximenes is wrong; we are not God." I questioned the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars: "Nor are we the God whom you seek," said they. And I said to all these things that surround the doors of my flesh, "Tell me about my God, that which you are not; tell me something of him." They cried out with a great voice, "It was he that made us." My questioning was the concentration of my mind, and their response was their beauty. [Augustine's Confessions, Book X, trans. Philip Burton]
After reading a number of bad reviews, I begin to wonder if the issue isn't partly a matter of prejudice. I'm reminded of C. N. Manlove's study (Modern Fantasy), which finds The Lord of the Rings and Perelandra to be unsuccessful, while books like Phantastes and Titus Groan are held up as successful. Never mind that the former are perennial favorites available in any bookstore, whereas the latter are hardly read anymore. The cause, he's forced to conclude (after some fairly tortuous criticism), is religion:
[O]nly unprejudiced realists can write fully imaginative fantasy; only those who know one world thoroughly can make another with the inner consistency of reality.
And only those who eschew dogma are unprejudiced realists who know the world, because dogma is prejudiced and unreal and ignorant. I'm not going to throw myself into that fray because I don't like writing about religion per se on this blog, but I will suggest that this attitude seems more likely to be an a priori opinion than a reasoned conclusion. The notion that Tolkien's fantasy is not "fully imaginative" when compared to Peake's is laughable. But to those who prefer the joy and the hope, the grief and the anguish of Middle Earth to the dreary pointlessness of Gormenghast Castle and the zero-dimensional caricatures that inhabit it, Manlove has this to say:
It is almost worth…the failings of The Lord of the Rings to have that one frail, beautiful vision of the vanished garden in Lothlórien. But the word is 'almost': one must leave to the cultists the readiness to dispense with [what makes a successful novel].
Indeed. You know, I find books like The Left Hand of Darkness and A Voyage to Arcturus and VALIS and The Worm Ouroboros and Mythago Wood and Hart's Hope every bit as enjoyable as (say) The Lord of the Rings or The Book of the New Sun. A writer reveals herself in her writing, whether she wants to or not; if she holds a belief, religious or otherwise, then that gets woven in there with the rest. But the end is not the communication of an idea or an opinion. The end of the novel (unless it is a failure, as Perelandra to some extent is) is a kind of beauty, and this beauty is the beauty of truth only secondarily. It can be entered into by anyone, but you have to submit to its rules and make yourself vulnerable for the moment. I admit that this is not always easy. But it has this tendency: it makes you more humane.

As far as Wolfe goes, it's clear that it really is his confessional status that bothers some people, and not the book itself, because its symbolism is as pagan as anything. For that matter, Tolkien's mythopoeic ouevre isn't as Catholic as is always made out—he departed from received dogma on at least one important point, and was taken to task for it—while Lewis' stories are strongly neoplatonist. These writers are being found wanting because of something extrinsic to their works.

We all have this tendency to get trapped in our little ghettos, me as much as anyone else; but insofar as I've limited my horizons to what I'm comfortable with, I've become less of a person. That's something I seem to have to discover again and again.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Book of the New Sun

My wife and I read together a lot. It's amazing when I think about it what we've gotten through this way. Long works like The Lord of the Rings, Don Quixote, Emma, The Brothers Karamazov, David Copperfield, and The Worm Ouroboros; short works like Heart of Darkness, The Time Machine, The Big Sleep, The Man Who Was Thursday, and Our Man in Havanna. She used to teach elementary school, and we've read a lot of juvenile fiction, too, like the Curdie books, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Wind in the Willows, The Neverending Story, and Lang's fairy tale collections. As you can probably tell, our tastes differ somewhat. Sometimes we read nonfiction, although we often don't finish this, usually because of my short attention span. It's easier to come back to something after having laid it aside for awhile when you're reading on your own than when you're reading aloud with someone else.

This summer we've been reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which is appropriate as he recently received the SWFA Grand Master award. I've read it before; this is her first time. It's a good book to read aloud because of its formal voice and attention to language. I suppose that's why we tend to go through a lot of nineteenth-century literature together—choppy dialogue and stylistic experimentation don't lend themselves to vocalization. Actually, in order to really appreciate beautiful writing, I find that I have to read it aloud; my pace makes me miss a lot otherwise. Conversely, bad writing becomes painfully apparent this way.

BOTNS is one of those books that divide people. Some think it's one of the great novels of modern times; others just don't get it. Unsurprisingly, it garners more stars on Goodreads than Moby-Dick, and the reviews are really rather similar. People who don't like it find the plot too meandering, the action too halting, the ruminations too digressive; people who like it have a hard time giving a single, coherent reason. Everyone who reads Moby-Dick and hates it takes great pains to make it clear that they get it—understand the symbolism and allusions and so forth—only that it doesn't impress them. But "getting" a book in the sense that you know all the stuff the endnotes would tell you isn't really getting it at all. There's a landscape here, and you have to live in it. You have to have come to love the cadences of the King James Bible, been daunted by the cruelty of the Old Testament, set yourself up against Nature in hate and fear, looked into the maw of a universe without God, been swayed by the music of Pantheism. It isn't a story, for God's sake. It's a monument. Much the same can be said of BOTNS.

So, first let me offer some faltering explanations of why I like the book. After that I'll discuss a few objections.

To begin with, I've written elsewhere about how much I admire the vocabulary. It's eminently suited to the story, which takes place in a Dying Earth so far in the future that the only productive mining is in the "hills" of heaped remnants of previous civilizations, the great city is a world unto itself tapering into ruins at its extremities, and exposed strata in the mountains consist of layers of million-year-old human artifacts. Wolfe has a way, too, through careful word choice and image-painting, of making you think you understand something—the nature of a building or a person, perhaps—and then dashing it to pieces by the narrator's casual mention of some minor detail. For example, you realize only gradually that the Citadel in which the story begins is in reality a collection of ancient space crafts. The vertigo of "time's abyss" (as The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has it) occurs too many times to count.

The structure of the book is that of a traveler's tale. Such stories bore some people to tears, but I find them profoundly enjoyable when done well. This one is done well. Its cast of disappearing, reappearing characters reminds me, oddly enough, of the anime cartoon Belle and Sebastian, which I watched on TV when I was in kindergarten but haven't seen since. It also contains numerous tales-with-the-tale, much like Moby-Dick, something that, again, isn't to everyone's taste, but is to mine. A couple of the stories are far-future retellings of current tales (Theseus and the Minotaur, Mowgli's Brothers). It is, in general, as profoundly erudite a piece of speculative fiction as you will ever find.

Objections to BOTNS fall into several categories. Some people take offense at the fact that the book doesn't spell everything out. Some reviewers have concluded that BOTNS is little more than an immense puzzle for the reader to solve. Admittedly, the book does contain many puzzles. Personally, from a stylistic point of view, I appreciate it that Wolfe didn't clog his story with infodumps. I mean, the infodumps (and, in the later volumes, the synopses) are there, but you have to put them together yourself. It's really rather artfully done. It's as it would be if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings by taking Frodo from his front step to Rivendell, with no "Shadow of the Past" or Council of Elrond, ending with his acceptance of the quest for Mount Doom. No appendices, no backstory: the history of the One Ring—including Frodo's destiny—is to be pieced together by the attentive reader from an assortment of hints and allusions. They are, of course, vastly different works, but have this in common: verisimilitude. LOTR purports to be a version of the Red Book of Westmarch, a chronicle, while BOTNS is presented as Severian's confessions.

Other people get angry about the treatment of women in Wolfe's Urth, as if this is his coda for how he thinks women ought to be treated. One reviewer lists all the rights women in Urth fail to enjoy as though they are Wolfe's crimes against humanity, ending with a heartfelt "f*** you." It's strange. Would they feel the same way about a historically accurate novel set in (say) Imperial China? I mean, setting a story in a milieu in which women (and people in general) don't enjoy basic rights and privileges doesn't make the author an apologist for it.

Of course, some authors might be accused of taking a little too much pleasure in the mistreatment of female characters. John Norman comes to mind. I personally can't bring myself to read Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane because of the rape scene at the beginning. But I don't get same feeling from BOTNS. Severian certainly beds a lot of women, and some people argue that that's chauvinism right there, in that the author is making all the women want the protagonist. However, he also makes monstrous undines and masked hierodules want the protagonist. So, perhaps it serves a thematic purpose.

And what might that purpose be? Given that Severian's predecessor is an impotent androgyne, and that Urth is dying of exhaustion and sterility, perhaps his prodigious virility and attractiveness signify his role as the one who is to bring the New Sun. Actually, the book practically says as much in one of the final chapters:
If I am he who is to renew the youth of the sun with the White Fountain of which I have been told, may it not be that I have been given, almost unconsciously (if that expression may be used), the attributes of life and light that will belong to the new sun?
Again, time is spoken of as a tapestry woven from many threads, and Severian's particular course seemingly leads to a planet inhabited by green men who live by drinking in the rays of the sun. He aids a green man sent back to his own time and is aided by him in turn. As is well known, the Green Man is a personification of fertility.

Severian is, in fact, a Grail Knight, in the sense of From Ritual to Romance and The Waste Land. Remember that the "grail" of Wolfram von Eschenbach's version is a mysterious stone, not unlike the miracle-performing Claw of the Conciliator carried by Severian through most of the story.

Well, this is getting to be a long post, so I'll continue in another.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Stars My Destination

One of the spoils of my book-sale conquest a couple weeks ago was The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester. I'd read The Stars My Destination (1956) some time ago and liked it a lot, so this new one was the first I read of the bunch. It caused me to revisit TSMD. After A. E. van Vogt, I'd now say Bester is my favorite of the Golden Age writers.

It's quite surprising how contemporary these two books feel. They've been hailed as precursors of cyberpunk; in fact, they're merely early entries in the subgenre. Neuromancer (1984) certainly goes beyond them, but I don't see anything significantly new about it apart from the idea of cyberspace. TSMD has a high-tech underworld, super-powerful corporations, criminals with cybernetic enhancements, and all the rest. I don't say this to diminish Neuromancer in any way, as originality is, I think, overrated.

Both novels (TSMD and TDM) abound in delightful invention and colorful detail passed over quickly. I think, for instance, of the neo-savage Scientific People in their cobbled-together space habitat; the underground Shanghai "hospital" for people addicted to illegal diseases; the Gilt Corpse, a notorious socialite with a surgically enhanced, "pneumatic" body; a commercial jingle so persistent it allows a murderer to keep his mind from being read by the police while he has it going around his head; the Coop, a former ceramics factory bombed into a rainbow-colored labyrinth during the last war and serving to house a brothel and psychic act. The novels jump from one thing to the next and are truly a pleasure to read just for that. It isn't a surprise that Bester seemingly wrote himself out so quickly, for any one of the ideas he touches on so lightly might have served as the conceit for an entire novel in the hands of a lesser author.

The esper world of TDM is, to me, a terrifying one, a world in which crime has been eliminated because the police can read minds. Bester doesn't really comment on whether this is good or bad, which I appreciate. My own opinion is that enhanced safety is generally accompanied by diminishing freedom, and that it is possible to trade away so much freedom that the safety is not worth having. Does that have a contemporary application? Hm, no comment. Except to say that I recently read an article discussing advances made in brain-mapping and the possibility that answers to questions posed by (say) law enforcement officers might one day be scanned directly out of the perp's head. Does the right not to testify against oneself include keeping one's own mind from being read? I hope I'm dead before the SCOTUS attempts to answer that question.

TDM is, they say, explicable only in light of Freudian psychology. I didn't find this to be so myself. Certainly Freudian psychology lends the plot cohesion, but I don't find that I have to suspend my disbelief in it in order to enjoy the book. Attention is generally drawn to the Oedipal urges of the protagonist, but the "Electra complex" that develops in the young Barbara (who is mentally regressed to infancy and raised by a police prefect—whom she refers to as "Daddy"—and his love interest, ultimately coming to maturity and stealing the heart of the former from the latter) is, shall we say, slightly more unsettling. It reminds me of the strange, immature kinkiness one finds in many of van Vogt's novels.

Weird and immature or not, there's nothing of the sort in TSMD. Its original title (in the UK) was Tiger! Tiger!, and the epigram to the first part is a verse from Blake's poem:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

This serves as a description of the protagonist, Gulliver Foyle, whose impetuous, comet-like course in pursuit of revenge defines the novel. He's an Everyman, a type of the human race, rising from apathy and savagery to enlightenment only to discover what a chimera he is, and how unworthy and pointless his mission. But also to find the stars within his reach.

Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destination

The basic conceit of the book is a world transformed by the advent of jaunting—personal teleportation—which allows a person to instantaneously move to a distant location simply by willing it. The difficulty is that the jaunter has to have seen the location previously. This permits the rich and the powerful to keep their hold on society; as the novel says, the limitations on jaunting give the Grand Tour a whole new significance. Also, jaunting through space is seemingly impossible.

The secret of the space-jaunte is revealed in the end and is, appropriately, rather metaphysical. In order to jaunte, one needn't have seen the place of desire; it's necessary only to have faith that the place exists. This is, I think, a beautiful exploration of a purely natural faith or (to be more accurate, in my opinion) hope. The ancients averred that hope could degenerate into one of two opposite vices: the infantility of presumption and the senility of despair. TSMD is a tale of the middle course being laid open to man, and no more.

It closes on an ambiguous but optimistic note, with Foyle distributing PyrE, an agent of mass destruction, to the great unwashed to do with as they will, then going on a jaunte through the furnace-places of the cosmos. The last paragraphs find him curled up like a fetus in the hold of an outer-space cargo cult, dreaming divine dreams, a sleeping giant whose awakening will bring enlightenment to humanity.

After his brief science fiction career in the fifties and sixties Bester went on to edit a travel magazine. He eventually returned to what made him famous, with mixed results. I haven't read his later novels, but the reviews paint them as violent, joyless, and misanthropic. He gained the reputation of being a mean drunk in his last years, died right before receiving his SFWA Grand Master award, and left his estate to his bartender.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lost in a Maze

One movie that I like a lot, that I'm a bit ashamed of liking, is Labyrinth. I watched it many times growing up, renting it over and over again from the tiny Videoland huddled in the front part of the warehouse down the street. I guess I always had a thing for Jennifer Connelly. I also actually still think David Bowie's a pretty good actor; he played an excellent Andy Warhol in Basquiat.

Part of what makes it a good movie, despite its goofiness (and David Bowie's pants), is its poignant message, some of which goes unstressed. The protagonist, Sarah, having faced a personal tragedy—some barely-glimpsed newspaper clippings reveal her mother to have been an actress, possibly dead(?)—, has retreated into a fantasy world, constructing an elaborate environment (her bedroom) over which she has complete control. Each item is beloved, each in its proper place, and her foray into the labyrinth is in reality a foray into the maze of her own mind. With muppets.

This theme becomes clear when she awakens from the stupor induced by a poisoned fruit to find herself in a vast, nighted junkyard. She's accosted by a creepy old woman-muppet with an enormous pack, a little goblin who reminds me strongly of certain second-hand dealers I've met. Sarah goes through a door into a perfect replica of her bedroom, with all her beloved things in their places. She shuts the door, shutting out the world, and everything is as it should be. Except that soon the old woman bursts in and begins burying her under a pile of stuffed animals and knicknacks. Sarah, entranced at first, rejects it all in the end. The room falls to pieces and caves in, and she climbs out to be reunited with her friends.

That old woman is for me the embodiment of the spirit of hoarding. I've been thinking about it a lot. We just passed the third anniversary of my grandmother's death, who was almost literally smothered by mountains of junk and decay. I lit a votive candle in church for her. That's what people of my bent do when someone we love dies, especially if they were in a bad way.

About fifteen years ago I watched Grampa die. He'd had a stroke but was recovering, when a nurse accidentally put his feeding tube into his lung. And that was that. Watching his brain-dead body gasp for air after we unplugged him was like watching a machine wind down, and when his heart finally stopped his mouth was frozen in a permanent snarl. After that I dreamed about him every few weeks or so. He would come among us again, but I'd know that something was wrong; in the end I'd always remember that he was supposed to be dead.

When I told my father about the "visitation," he advised me to light a candle while I slept. Granny's brother—the alcoholic air-traffic controller after whom I was named—had haunted Grampa in the same way, it seems, and lighting a candle had done the trick. (My grandparents were both from Puerto Rico, and were what we of the anglosphere would call "superstitious.") I never did "light a candle," and the haunting never stopped, either, although it became less frequent with time. In hindsight I suppose the practice comes from the custom of praying for souls in purgatory. So it could be said that I light candles for both my grandparents now.

They were troubled people with a lot of secrets. Some of the secrets came out when Granny died, but probably not all. I won't reveal them. Let what the dead saw fit to bury remain buried. They'd lived in an atmosphere of mutual animosity, but Grampa was Granny's mainstay, too. She was both strong and weak. When the decision was made to let him die she refused to leave the waiting room. The rest of the family had no patience for her, but I remained behind. "Fifty years down the tubes," she kept saying. I told her how wrong she was, and how she'd always regret not having been by his side at his death, and in the end she consented to go, holding my hand all the way like a child. In his room she clasped his hand and wept, whispering mi Dios, mi Dios as his body heaved and groaned. I was nineteen at the time.

It was then that things began coming apart at the seams.

My grandmother, in the sixties.
She'd always had the propensity, I suppose. She lived in a small, sunless house cluttered with exotic bric-a-brac picked up on their travels, with bars and heavy curtains over the windows, and an iron-wrought gate covered with ivy before the front door, and an overgrown, labyrinthine backyard, and about eight yapping dogs that did their thing on newspaper under the dining room table, and cages with the injured birds she took in. She never got rid of anything. One of the bedrooms upstairs had remained exactly the same as when my aunt had lived in it as a girl. Actually, I was twenty-seven or so when I was suffered to go up the stairs for the first time in my life, to use the toilet; and I'd grown up about mile down the road, so it wasn't like I hadn't been there much. Grampa's bedroom, also upstairs, hadn't been altered after his death, either. I should have known that her not letting me into the downstairs bathroom, which lay beyond her bedroom, was a bad sign, but I didn't. Her house was like her mind. There were parts locked away and left alone. The thing is, when you leave something alone, it doesn't just remain the same. Entropy sets in. It begins to decay.

We remained close after Grampa's death. She told me she considered me her spiritual advisor. Sometimes she would confide in me, telling me about how she could feel Grampa's presence in the house, speaking to her. That it might have been dementia didn't occur to me, for her mind was quite sharp in other ways, and she'd always been given to paranoid fancies.

Without Grampa there to check her, the mountains of junk began to grow. During the last year or two of her life you couldn't really get past the living room. She lived in it, watching TV on one of those little sets they used to sell, and sleeping on the couch at night. You could hardly move around even there. A distinct odor of death and decay pervaded the house, and there was always a telltale rustling. I tried to ignore it. Of course we all knew she had a problem, though we didn't realize the extent of it. My parents tried to get her to let them clean the place for her, attempts which were met (finally) with open hostility. To me she admitted that she needed help, but was terrified of the immensity of the task. I ought to have done more, I think. With my place in her life, I might have been able to start cleaning for her. She would have trusted me. But I was wrapped up in my own affairs, with a new baby and a fresh doctorate. Then again, maybe she was too far gone even for my help. Maybe she would have just cut me off as she had my parents.

Her body was a wreck. She was diabetic, took about thirty different medications, lived on bottled oxygen, and had legs that were swollen into thick clubs that wept tears of blood. When the hallucinations started my father and aunt had her committed to the psychiatric ward of a hospital downtown. There was nothing else to do. I visited her there often. If dementia was truly her problem, its onset had accelerated. She would go into strange fugues and talk about how the hospital was built on a cemetery and how "creepy things" would come out of holes in the wall for her. Eventually she was moved to a nursing home, and there died after a matter of weeks. During her last days she spoke often of suicide.

The clean-up started once she'd been committed, and continued well after her death. It was one of the most horrific experiences of my life. Working our way into the kitchen, we discovered that she'd been relieving herself in a bucket on the floor. The cockroaches had colonized virtually every nook and cranny in the house. Nothing was free from their excrement and egg cases. After we bombed the place I found about twenty of them soaking in a coffee pot like shrimps in a boiler. The sink was full of dishes that hadn't been washed in years. When I mined out a corner down near the cabinets I came across rat nests and skeletons. There were piles upon piles of unopened mail-order merchandise: appliances, and clothes, and sheets for the big four-poster bed that she hadn't even seen in who knows how long.

It took months to clean the place out. I helped my parents as much as I could. My father hauled tons—literally, tons—of junk to the dump in a big flatbed trailer. And then they discovered the storage room, which hadn't been opened since well before my grandfather's death. My father calculates that my grandparents spent something like twenty-five thousand dollars on it over the years, for a pile of shit they'd forgotten they even had.

Granny's hoarding was something grown wildly out of control, out of a natural agoraphobia, a habitual desire to control her surroundings, and (I suppose) an irrational fear of the regret of loss. She and I were alike in many ways, and sometimes I see a similar propensity in myself. What if one day it's me who gets lost in the labyrinth?

For Granny, all I can do now is light a candle. I suppose that writing this is a way of lighting a candle, too. I love her, and I miss her, and I hope she is happy.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sci-Fi in the Hinterlands: A Tribute

I am, as long-time readers of this blog will know, a used-book aficionado. I also have a fondness for classic science fiction.

Recently, the town in which I live was part of the Hotter 'n Hell Hunnerd Mile Yard Sale, or some such thing, with all and sundry lining the highway from Point A to Point B and trying to sell junk. As part of this, the worthy ladies who support the county library were holding a "Cool Book Sale." You see, they always have this little room in the lobby where they sell used books for a dollar or two, right beside the maize exhibit, but I never find anything good, not being interested in coffee-stained copies of Going Rogue or the Left Behind series. So, I figured, I'll go to this little sale they're having and poke around, because, you know, I have family in town and want to go hide out somewhere, but surely I won't find anything.

Was I ever wrong!

It was just this big room filled with big tables filled with stacks of old hardcovers. For fifty cents apiece, no matter what. First edition of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key? Fifty cents. First edition of A. E. van Vogt's Empire of the Atom, cover and all, in perfect condition, from a run of 2,000 copies by a small press that went out of business immediately thereafter? Fifty cents. I got an excellent old Modern Library copy of Plutarch's Lives, and a collection of C. L. Moore's best pulp stories, and a flawless Everyman's Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dorothy Day's autobiography, and a book on Thomist existentialism by Jacques Maritain, and, well, other things.

And then there were these tables filled with old paperbacks. They had plastic grocery sacks: fill one for a dollar. There's just something wrong with me, I think, but I genuinely enjoy certain books more when they sport simple, non-glossy covers with crude artwork and lots of exclamation points. Well, I now have enough to last me through, oh, the rest of the year. A. E. van Vogt! Alfred Bester! Poul Anderson! Damon Knight! James Blish! Robert Heinlein! E. E. "Doc" Smith! They had stacks of 'em, and they were begging me to take as many as I could carry! Which I did. Twice.

In all I spent eight dollars and twenty-five cents. Eight dollars and twenty-five cents! It was like one of my bizarre bookstore dreams. I mean, here's this perfect and rather rare first-edition copy of a classic science fiction novel, and I only paid fifty cents for it. Actually, I feel kind of bad about it, and am tempted to see what I can get for it on Amazon, so I can donate the money back. I'm not sure if I feel that energetic, though; maybe I'll just sit on it for a few years and see if the price varies. Right now it would bring in anywhere from sixty to a hundred and fifty dollars. It's a shame that the library people can't wrap their minds around doing something more with these books, but hardly surprising. People around here simply don't use computers much. I would try to get involved, but I don't know. The guy spearheading the disc-golf course project is already making enough waves as it is…

I think most of the novels came from the same person, probably through an estate sale or a donation by family members. The Hammett novel has a name in the front, dated 1944, and the same name appears in many of the paperbacks. He served in the Marine Corps and apparently had much the same taste in science fiction as I do. Based on what I heard the old ladies saying while I was crawling around on my hands and knees under the tables, pawing madly through boxes like Gollum looking for his Precious, a lot of the paperbacks came from the drugstore right off the town square. They dated into the seventies at least.

So here we have this native son, a marine and possibly a veteran—I would guess World War II or Korea, given the spread of dates—who, during his mature years, would frequent the town drugstore to see what new science fiction they had on the rotating rack. But some of the paperbacks plainly came from second-hand dealers in other parts of the country, so maybe he sought out the writers he really wanted, too. And what he wanted was the greats. None of that Asimov stuff.

Our marine apparently wasn't much of a fantasy reader, alas. There were some sword-and-sorcery items (Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, &c.) but no out-and-out fantasy. My abiding dream is to find an old hardcover copy of The Worm Ouroboros for really cheap. It seems that I must continue to wait.

So, to conclude: Sir, I salute you for your service to our country, your loyalty to our town, and your enlightened and wholly anomalous taste in fine literature. Your collection will (partly) be in good hands. Requiescat in pace.