Music of the Fears

One of the most powerful yet ineffable experiences we are occasionally granted is the moment when music opens us up and sets our brains afire with the possible.  Music, being abstract in the extreme, is difficult to slot into the kind of “safe” categories to which we relegate much else.  Stories certainly have subtext and can expand our appreciation of the world, but they are still “just” stories and all that mind-altering power can be rendered ineffective by dint of the filters used to shunt it aside.  Paintings and sculptures likewise can be “seen” as purely representational—or ignored when such designation is impossible.  Even when we appreciate what we see or read, the power of taking the work in as merely a reflection of a reality we think we understand can have the result of diverting any real impact.

Not so with music.  Once we open ourselves to the emotional realities of the sounds and let them have their way with our psychés, it becomes difficult if not impossible to shove a piece into a conventional box.  You either take it as it is or ignore it.  A great deal of pop music is written with this fact in mind, that people want to be coddled, “entertained,” and humored—not moved.

Because when music moves us it is not in easily definable ways.  We experience, when we allow it, heady mixtures of emotional responses that have no convenient hole for the pigeon.  We are altered for the time we experience it—sometimes altered for hours or days afterward.  Less often, we are altered for life.  We can, after such an experience, never hear music the same way again, and sometimes life itself becomes different.

Richard Powers understands this as well as it may be possible. In his new novel, Orfeo, he unleashes the revelations music can bring:

Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future. The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravity. Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hand in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.

Music has that power.   (For an excellent examination of the various effects of music, I recommend Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.)  Music can transform us in the listening.  Occasionally such transformations remain after the music is over.

It was not wrong of people in the 1950s to look askance at rock’n’roll and think it subversive—it was, but in no way that could be detailed.  It was in exactly the same way any new musical form is subversive.  In the same way that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused riots during its premier or Wagner altered the politico-æstehtic personality of an entire people.  Music both seeps in and charges through the front door of our minds and, if we are listening, changes the way we apprehend the world.

In Orfeo, however, Powers gives us a portrait of how music informs a life with its power to rearrange priorities by setting Peter Els on a quest to find the music of life itself.  And in so doing inadvertently make himself the object of a nationwide manhunt as a terrorist.  This unlikely combination would seem absurd, but Powers handles them deftly, with a logic that matches our present world where people going off to do things by themselves for their own arcane reasons can seem threatening and cause for mass public alarm.  The passions that drive Peter Els are both universal and singular and make him the ideal protagonist for what becomes a lifelong quest for an unseizable transcendence.

For he wants simultaneously to be free and to be important.  The two things may well be mutually exclusive, but he is driven to find the essence of what has driven him through a life that, on its face, appears to be a failure.

Powers knows music.  Throughout the novel he exhibits an enviable command of its history and its theory and, most importantly, its effect.  Anyone who has been in the grip of music that has touched the inmost part of us will recognize Peter Els’ obsession.  This is one of the finest prose explorations of that bright nonspace of luminous shadows and delicate splinters of emotion that is the mystery of the musical experience.

Set within a story about the present and all its fears and insubstantial alienations, its cluttered paths of chance and chaos, and the difficulty of being one’s self in the midst of panicked conformism, a time when it may be more important than ever before to acknowledge the possibility of becoming more, of embracing other, of refusing limits imposed out of fear of losing something we may not even have.

Inside Outside: Two Views of Science Fiction

Histories and analyses of science fiction are often fragmentary. Like histories of rock’n’roll, there are just too many different facets to be meaningfully comprehensive. That is not to say there aren’t excellent works that manage to deal with essential elements of science fiction, only that inevitably something will be left out or overlooked or, now and then, misunderstood.

I recently read two books about the subject that represent the poles of such analyses—those done from the inside and those done from the outside—and between them a clarity emerges about the fundamental misunderstandings that abound about the nature of science fiction.

Brian W. Aldiss’s almost majestic Billion Year Spree was published in 1973, a good year to attempt an overview like this, which covers precursor works as well as traces the development of the specific qualities of the genre through the 19th Century and then treats the major corpus of what we have come to recognize as science fiction from the 20th Century. Aldiss is very smart, very savvy, and his wit is equal to his intelligence in putting things in perspective. It is in this book that the idea that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first genuine science fiction novel was presented. Most dedicated readers of science fiction may be acquainted with this proposition, which has gone viral within the field, but may not have read Aldiss’s arguments in support. They are worth the time.

The second book is very recent. Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds, which does not purport to be an overview like Aldiss’s work. Instead it is a very personal history with opinions and judgments. It covers Atwood’s association with science fiction and showcases her take on it as a genre. In some ways it resembles a memoir. On the question of what the first SF work was, Atwood is much less rigorous and far more concerned with SF as myth than Aldiss, so we find allusions to Gilgamesh and several other works along the way, which she does not specifically name as the primogenitor.

Which makes perfect sense by the end of the book because—and she pretends to nothing else—she doesn’t know. She doesn’t seem to know what science fiction is as practiced by those who work mainly within the field, nor does she seem to understand the nature of the particular pleasure of SF for the dedicated fan. And as I say, she never claims to.

This would normally not even be an issue but for the fact that Atwood has been committing science fiction for some time now. But it’s not her primary interest, as represented by a long and successful career writing and publishing what is generally regarded as mainstream literary fiction and commentary upon it. It’s not her sandbox, even though she is clearly attracted to it and likes to come over and play.

The different focus of her appreciation of science fiction highlights aspects of the longrunning and disputatious relationship between the so-called literary establishment and the declassé realms of genre fiction. Especially after having read Aldiss on science fiction, the bases of mutual incomprehension across the fictive divide becomes clearer.

Aldiss establishes his premises early:

No true understanding of science fiction is possible until its origin and development are understood. In this respect, almost everyone who has written on science fiction has been (I believe) in error—for reasons of aggrandisement or ignorance. To speak of science fiction as beginning with the plays of Aristophanes or some Mycenean fragment concerning a flight to the Sun on a goose’s back is to confuse the central function of the genre; to speak of it as beginning in a pulp magazine in 1926 is equally misleading.

In chapter one he then sets out his operating definition:

Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.

Contrast this to Atwood’s opening stab at definitions:

Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy…I realized that I couldn’t make a stand at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction means anymore. Is this term a corral with real fences or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi-accurate or at least lucrative way?
…sci fic includes, as a matter of course, spaceships and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong…

Then later, this:

In a public discussion with Ursula K. Le Guin in the fall of 2010…I found that what she means by “science fiction” is speculative fiction about things that really could happen, whereas things that really could not happen she classifies under “fantasy.”
…In short, what Le Guin means by “science fiction” is what I mean by “speculative fiction,” and what she means by “fantasy” would include some of what I mean by “science fiction.”

There are harbingers in this which emerge meaningfully later in the book.

My own definition of science fiction is less specific than Aldiss’s and far more rigorous than Atwood’s—science fiction is at heart epistemological fiction: it is concerned with how knowledge (and subsequently technology) forces change on humans. You might argue that any good spy novel would meet that criteria, and certainly many spy novels (and movies) contain large dollops of science fiction, but only as collateral concerns. The change in a spy novel is earnestly resisted and often successfully so—the status quo is all important. Science fiction usually starts with (the authorial) belief that any status quo is an illusion and goes from there. Again, any surrealist novel might meet that definition, but I said epistemological, which is the tell-tale, because we’re talking about knowledge and knowing and acting, which is a communal experience, across society. And so the Federation of Star Trek qualifies as an epistemological proposition while the Isle of Avalon does not. And of course the second important condition—force—is essential in this regard. If there is a classical myth at the heart of SF it is Pandora’s Box. Open that lid—which is an act of will—and then deal with the consequences of uncontrollable environmental change.

I take it as read that there are other definitions of science fiction. This one is mine. It has the virtue of being completely independent of tropes—those spaceships and Mad Scientists of which Atwood speaks. Which brings something like Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi into the fold quite plausibly while leaving something like Allen Drury’s Throne of Saturn out.

Aldiss proceeds in chapter one to make his case for Frankenstein and he does so adroitly. For SF to be true to itself, a change must be apparent that can be prompted and shaped no other way than by the conceit of the Sfnal idea. Dr. Frankenstein has learned how to reanimate dead tissue. The change this causes in him is to be faced quite unmetaphorically with the responsibility of being a god.

What separates this effectively from a straightforward horror novel is the utter humanity of Victor Frankenstein and the absence of any hint of either the divine or the demonic. What unfolds is a human drama anyone would face under similar circumstances. Frankenstein is not “mad” but becomes so. The Creature is not supernatural, it’s a construct. The questions of soul and moral responsibility permeate the drama—unresolved and unresolvable. Frankenstein has made a change in the world and has to figure out how to deal with it. He fails, but it’s the wrestling with it that brings the book into the fold of science fiction, because the change is both external and personal and depicted as humanly possible.

The rest of the novel is a Gothic—namely, it partakes of the tropes that define the Gothic: lonely castles, empty landscapes, isolation, darkness, and a kind of vastness that seems ponderously empty (but may not be). In that respect, Aldiss is correct about SF being in the tradition of the Gothic. It deals with vastness, isolation, the alien as landscape—and moral conundrum.

Atwood seems to think it’s all about utopias, which is why she seems unable to locate a definable beginning to the genre. There is a palpable reluctance throughout her book to deal with the subject directly, in a way that addresses the particular history of the stories that comprise the principle body of what we call science fiction, as if by searching around the perimeter she might find the point where it can all be subsumed into the larger, primary literary history of the last couple of millennia.

Aldiss talks throughout Billion Year Spree about the writers who informed the genre ever since it split off into its own distinct digs in 1926 with the founding of Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernsback, who Atwood barely mentions in passing. In Aldiss we have complete discussion of Gernsback, of Edgar Rice Burroughs, of E.E. “Doc” Smith, Leigh Brackett, A.E. Van Vogt, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov—names which are oddly absent from the Atwood even though it is hardly possible to discuss SF meaningfully in their absence.

The writers they do cover, both of them, are Aldous Huxley, Jonathan Swift, George Orwell. Aldiss talks about them as what they are—literary writers who found useful tools in the SF toolbox, but who in most ways barely acknowledged the existence of the genre. (In Swift’s case, obviously so, since the genre did not exist in his day. But this itself is telling, since Swift is excluded by Aldiss as a precursor SF writer while Atwood sees him as primary.) Aldiss is remarking on how the same observations led to writers of quite different dispositions to do work recognizable to the main body of SF in its own day. To be sure, such writers are often used by the genre in a kind of reflexive self-defense, as if to say “See, serious writers do it, too!” But while Aldiss shows how these are basically one-offs, Atwood seems to think these writers represent the central goal of the genre—that all SF writers might be aspiring to the level of Huxley and Orwell. Perhaps in matters of craft and even art, but not necessarily in terms of theme or subject.

Atwood begins the biographical parts of her association with the genre in an understandable but curious place—in comics. (She also read H. Rider Haggard as a child, which left a distinct impression on her.) The trouble seems to be that she did not move from comics to the major magazines, and so what she shows is an attempt to make whole the literary connections between the superhero motifs of the 30s and 40s and classical myth. A valid and fruitful analysis, certainly, but it leaves one of the principle distinguishing features of the science fiction of the same period unaddressed—technology. Greek myths care not a fig for how Zeus generates his lightning bolts. They are super natural, beyond such understanding, as befits the divine. Science fiction is all over those bolts and how they are made—and, consequently why.

I would argue that while he did not create the first SF, Homer gave us the first SF character in Odysseus. In his own way, he was a technophile and a geek. He did not believe the gods were utterly inscrutable and unchallengeable and spent the length of the Odyssey figuring out how to beat them. He was a clever man, a man of reason, who clearly believed there was something to be understood about everything.

The mistake many literary critics make in their regard toward science fiction is in consistently assuming SF is all about its gadgets—i.e. its tropes—when it is really about the people who make them, understand them, use them, and all those who are changed by them.

Aldiss clearly understands this. He rarely argues for less science and tech, only for better human depictions. Because SF is about the world those tools are allowing us to make.

The question that springs to mind while reading Atwood’s examination is whether or not she ever read anything “of the canon,” so to speak—like Sturgeon or Herbert or Niven or Brin or Cherryh or even Butler—or if, having read it, she simply found it not worth discussing in the same breath as her token SF writer, Le Guin, and the others she selects to dissect, like Marge Piercy. Even in the case of Piercy, the work she chooses to examine is the one that can be read differently, Woman On The Edge Of Time, rather than the less ambiguous He, She, and It. In the closing paragraph of her examination on Piercy’s time travel-cum-woman-under-pressure novel, Atwood says:

Woman On The Edge Of Time is like a long inner dialogue in which Piercy answers her own questions about how a revised American society would work. The curious thing about serious utopias, as opposed to the satirical or entertainment variety, is that their authors never seem to write more than one of them; perhaps because they are products, finally, of the moral rather than the literary sense.

Even in praise, there seems to be a reservation about the work in question. Not literary, then, but a moral work. In this regard, Aldiss would seem to agree with her:

The great utopias have better claim to our attention, for utopianism or its opposite, dystopianism, is present in every vision of the future—there is little point in inventing a future state unless it provides a contrast with our present one. This is not to claim that the great utopias are science fiction. Their intentions are moral or political…
The idea of utopianists, like our town-planners, is to produce something that is orderly and functions well.

One of the chief drawbacks of utopias is this achievement of function. Basically, the whole point of them is to end history. They are “nowhere” because once attained there is theoretically no further need for people to change. In fact, they must not change, lest they destroy the perfection. As Aldiss goes on to say:

The trouble with utopias is that they are too orderly. They rule out the irrational in man, and the irrational is the great discovery of the last hundred years. They may be fantasy, but they reject fantasy as part of man—and this is a criticism that applies to most of the eighteenth-century literature…

Given this, one wonders what it is that Atwood is attempting in implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—treating SF as utopianism without a nod toward the thing at its core, namely the embrace of inexorable change. Because change is the driving fascination in science fiction and for it to have any valence in the imagination or utility in its constructs, it must present as something other than metaphor. Let me give you two quotes from a pair of SF writers, one of whom seems to be Atwood’s choice of exceptional ability:

Science fiction is a tool to help you think; and like anything that really helps you think, by definition is doesn’t do the thinking for you. It’s a tool to help you think about the present—a present that is always changing, a present in which change itself assures there is always a range of options for actions, actions presupposing different commitments, different beliefs, different efforts (of different qualities, different quantities) different conflicts, different processes, different joys. It doesn’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. It presents alternative possible images of futures, and presents them in a way that allows you to question them as you read along in an interesting, moving, and exciting story.
Samuel R. Delany, The Necessity of Tomorrows

If science fiction has a major gift to offer literature, I think it is just this: the capacity to face an open universe. Physically open, psychically open. No doors shut.
What science, from physics to astronomy to history and psychology, has given us is the open universe: a cosmos that is not a simple, fixed hierarchy but an immensely complex process in time. All the doors stand open, from the prehuman past through the incredible present to the terrible and hopeful future. All connections are possible. All alternatives are thinkable. It is not a comfortable, reassuring place. It’s a very large house, a very drafty house. But it’s the house we live in…and science fiction seems to be the modern literary art which is capable of living in that huge and drafty house, and feeling at home there, and playing games up and down the stairs, from basement to attic.
Ursula K. Le Guin, Escape Routes

Taken together, these point to the disconnect with traditional literary forms, traditional literary expectations. Science fiction contains utopias, certainly (and dystopias, clearly) but it is not in the main about them. Nor is it about some desired escape from the present into an alternative world that may offer some kind of release for a mind at odds with itself, which seems to be the basis of so much neurotic fiction. The focus is on the wrong point here. It is about living in a changed milieu.

The problem with utopias was summed up concisely by Virginia Woolf “There are no Mrs. Brown’s in Utopia.” Like all superlatives, counterexamples can be found, but in the main this is a self-consistent criticism of the form which Atwood seems intent on using as her functional definition of science fiction. There is no room for ordinary people in Thomas More’s Utopia—if they are ordinary, they aren’t people, they’re memes. If they aren’t ordinary, Utopia doesn’t stand a chance of surviving.

And most ordinary people, when you get down to it, are not ordinary.

Which seems to be the major concern of most literary fiction—ordinary people. Which, by a tortuous logic of taxonomic reassessment, means, since Atwood seems to believe SF is principally utopian, that science fiction cannot deal with ordinary people and therefore, though she does not come right out and say this, cannot be considered relevant to mainstream literary concerns.

Welcome back to the ghetto.

In a blatantly dismissive review of Atwood’s own Oryx and Crake, Sven Birkerts asserted that SF can never be [true] literature because it “privileges premise over character.” In other words, the world at hand is more important than the people in it—which, of course, would make it utopian.

Henry James famously claimed “Landscape is character.” (Of course, he then criticized H.G. Wells for dealing more with “things” than characters—in other words, his landscapes.)

Birkerts and Atwood are on the same page, it seems, though Atwood is striving to come to terms with a form she clearly likes, even while misapprehending it. Perhaps had she found a stack of Astounding Stories instead of H. Rider Haggard and comics in the attic as a child she might have understood where the divergence happened and SF split off from two millennia of myth-driven fantasy. Novelty can overwhelm truth-seeking and a great deal of SF falls into the pit of self-involved gizmo geekery, but at those times when the work rises out of that pit to deal with the future and science and their immanence within the human soul it is unfair to not see its true worth. It’s like comparing Sherlock Holmes to the Hardy Boys and dismissing Holmes because he comes from the same stock.

It’s interesting that Atwood chooses Marge Piercy’s Woman On The Edge Of Time as her example, because Piercy worked a further subversion, perhaps unwittingly so, in the scenario she examines. Connie is regarded by everyone around her as insane. But she knows she isn’t, she’s dealing with a real situation, the future. But the world she lives in, the given world, her context, insists of denying the reality of that future and treating her involvement with it as symptom rather than legitimate experience. The parallel to the way in which the science fiction writer and his or her work is treated by those who see themselves as the keepers of context is remarkable. This is a metaphor which Atwood overlooks. The question of whether or not Piercy is writing what Atwood thinks she is or has understood the nature of the form she’s indulging is open.

The misunderstanding is simple but with complex consequences. Most genre fiction—mystery, western, war, spies, even romance—takes advantage of altered context to set mood or establish a range of possible action. Done well, these shifts target different thematic concerns and aim at specific moral (or telec) points. But in all but science fiction (and to a lesser extent the related genre of fantasy) the context would seem to be more attitudinal than material. Except in westerns, but we tend to treat the context of the western as “our” world insofar as it is historical and therefore, legitimately or not, we see it as familiar. The differences fade into background and the metaphor run out of our sight, almost as window dressing.

Science fiction dramatically reverses this relationship.

Which makes it a very uncomfortable place, especially for the writer who has spent his or her career writing from character rather than from landscape through character. Instead of seeing the world as a consequence of character, in science fiction the world is a character and must be dealt with concretely, as if to say “Here’s your new reality (context), now learn to live in it.”

It is precisely that discomfort that is the drug of choice for the reader of SF.

Attempts to corral it into a more familiar tradition run up against what must often seem like a perverse and intractable exoticism on the part of the writers.

Of the two books at hand, the Aldiss is the more taxonomically useful as well as æsthetically relevant. Aldiss, after all, is a science fiction writer. He has lived within the genre, knows it to its marrow, and, while critical of its excesses and irrelevancies, clearly loves it for itself, redheaded stepchild though it may be to others.

Which is not to say the Atwood is a failure. She is just as clearly fond of science fiction and has done considerable grappling with its conventions and conceits. But for her, it feels as if SF was an important love affair that last a summer or a year and then ended, leaving her with good memories and an impression of something missed, a road not taken. Nothing she regrets but it might have been nice for it to have lasted longer. She doesn’t know it the way Aldiss does, but she doesn’t fear it the way some of her colleagues have in the past and may still. So while her observations may seem coincidental, there’s worthy insight, if only of the tourist variety. Taken together, the two books give one a view of SF both from the inside and from the outside and the distinctions are telling.

Way back in my youth, when rock’n’roll had muscled its way into the serious attention of people who, not too many years earlier, once derided it as loud, obnoxious “kid’s stuff” I found an album by Andre Kostelanetz, who led an orchestra that specialized in symphonic renditions of popular music. He would take Sinatra or Como or Crosby or film themes or light jazz and turn them into quasi-classical pieces. This album was his take on the band Chicago. I remember listening to it bemused. It was interesting and it was “accurate” but it lacked some vitality that I at first couldn’t define. But then I realized that he had stripped everything out of it that said “rock’n’roll” and all that remained was the melody, the chord changes, and the form, but none of the guts. He’d taken music that could, in its original, get you churned up, excited, and agitated in a particular way and converted it into something palatable for the inspection of people who did not understand rock music but may have been curious about it. Unfortunately, he missed the point and the result was “interesting.”

I often feel that way about attempts at science fiction by people who do not understand it.

More importantly, however, is the dialogue between those who get it and those who don’t and in this respect Atwood has written a very useful book with considerable care and insight. It is, ultimately, less about science fiction than about her attempts to alchemically transform it into something familiar to her own early impressions of magical and dissociative fictive experiences. This is underscored by the Aldiss, which is about the heart and soul of science fiction. Reading them in tandem clarifies the ongoing misapprehensions and perhaps shows us how and why SF seems to be infecting much of today’s literary fiction. There must be a good reason why someone like Atwood now writes it, even if she doesn’t seem entirely to embrace it for itself.

 

Light Goes On

George R. R. Martin has become nearly ubiquitous since the advent of his massive, multi-volumed and cable-networked Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known as The Game of Thrones (even though that is only the title of the first book in the series).  Before that, he successfully helmed a network television series, Beauty and the Beast, and before that he worked on the excellent reboot of The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s.

Even before that, however, he was establishing a reputation as a fine writer of speculative fiction and fantasy with a handful of novels and short story collections.  His first novel, Dying Of The Light, published in 1977, demonstrated his strengths and served notice that what would follow would be worth anyone’s time and attention.

Returning to early work like this can sometimes be a dubious exercise.  Writers grow into themselves, rarely doing anything approaching their best work in the beginning.  But sometimes the talent and skill are evident from page one and early work is as polished and significant as anything that comes after.  That appears to be the case with Martin.  Dying Of The Light is work one might expect from mid-career, a deft exploration of complex themes of identity and myth set against a background of rich cross-cultural shifts, all vividly portrayed.

Dirk t’Larien, living in the husk of a life in a city laced with canals, receives an esper jewel from the woman he lost years before.  t’Larien has been wallowing in self-pity and ennui ever since Gwen Delvano left him.  Before parting, they had these jewels made, psychic encodings of their emotional selves, and exchanged them with the promise that when one sent their jewel to the other, the receiver would come at once.  Dirk sent his, years before, and Gwen did not come.  He has mourned her since, mourned himself, and has been slowly crumbling in on himself since.  Now he has received hers, a summons he swore he would honor.

Should he, though?  She did not answer his call, why should he answers hers?

He does.  He has nothing else.  This is the last obligation, the last devotion he has.  Without Gwen, he has nothing.  As he sits in his room, debating what is undebatable, he watches a gondolier drift by in the waning light of day, and in that image we understand the story about to unfold.

This a journey to the underworld, a quest to rescue Eurydice from hell.  That gondolier is Charon and Dirk t’Larien is a phlegmatic Orpheus.  Worlorn, the rogue planet briefly brought back to a kind of life by its passage close to a group of stars on its way out of the galaxy, is a kind of Hades.

Too-close comparisons have the drawback of forcing a reading that limits truth-seeking.  The framework of the Orphic Myths is here, but it is only a framework, because our erstwhile Orpheus is neither a musician nor a particularly attentive lover.  He dwells too much on a past that turns out to be partly mischaracterized, as Gwen, when they are reunited on Worlorn after Dirk responds to her summons, bluntly schools him.

“I did call you. You didn’t come.”

A grim smile.  “Ah, Dirk.  The whisperjewel came in a small box, and taped to it was a note. ‘Please,’ the note said, ‘come back to me now.  I need you, Jenny.’  That was what it said.  I cried and cried.  If you’d only written ‘Gwen,’ if you’d only loved Gwen, me.  But no, it was always Jenny, even afterwards, even then.”

Dirk, during their time together, had created a persona for her which he—playfully, he thought, affectionately—used as a private sign of their love.  But “Jenny,” his alternate Gwen, was not Gwen.  And what Gwen teaches Dirk now, on Worlorn, is the power of names.  When you name a thing, she tells him, it becomes that thing.  Whether he intended it or not, Gwen had been becoming someone for him she was not for herself. She had to leave and when he called the wrong woman back, she had to refuse or surrender.

The novel is replete with this game of names.  The men, the “family” to which Gwen has tied herself, are Kavalars.  Kavalan is a harsh world, one that had been cut off from all the other human colonies by a long, savage war, part of which was conducted on Kavalan and formed them into the tradition-bound, violent society of codes and honor and ritual commitment into which Gwen—because she met Jaan Vikary while he was visiting one of the older, more cultured worlds and fell in love with him—has given herself.  Names mean everything, and yet they mask inaccuracies parading as history, myth as religious practice, race memory as an excuse to remain unchanged.

Vikary wants to change it all.  He is a scholar, something of an oddity among his people, and he has learned the real history of what happened on his world, and understands how that history had been transmuted into myth.  Now that the war is long past and recontact with the older colonies has been made, Kavalan looks like a barbaric, hide-bound world of obsolete ritual.  Vikary sees the necessity of change if his world is to enter as an equal into the fold of human civilization.

But it will be difficult, almost impossible.  Tradition is all the Kavalar have as a source of identity.

Dirk arrives on Worlorn well after the major event that clearly will one day become part of new myths.  The Festival.  When the world was detected and it was understood that its proximity to certain stars would thaw it, allowing a brief window during which it would support life, 14 of the human worlds came and built exemplary cities and held a great festival.  Doomed, to be sure, but a momentary, beautiful gesture, a testament of life against the inevitability of eternal night.  For as Worlorn continues on, it will once more freeze and die.  All the forests transplanted to its surface will perish, the oceans will turn to ice, as will the atmosphere, and these lovely cities will become fossils for the archaeologists of another galaxy to find and puzzle over.  A pointless gesture, in some ways, but a fist in the air and a rude gesture to the gods of entropy.

Gwen is here with her co-spouses because she is, as further resonance with the myth of Eurydice, an ecologist, a woman of the woods, so to speak.  She’s here to study the interactions of all these varieties of never-before combined plant and animal life, even as the world itself is dying.

Yet Dirk is convinced she wants to leave her Kavalar husbands, return with him, try again.  And for a short while it almost seems true.

What plays out subsequently is a contest between tradition, bigotry, and a desire to cast off chains.  Dirk is a catalyst in all this, the necessary ingredient to create the transformations.  In so being, he undergoes his own rebirth, which, after all, is the whole point of journeys through the underworld.

The dying in all this is not so nihilistic and tragic as the lines from Dylan Thomas might suggest.  The light is fading from several people and institutions in this novel, but that is not Martin’s major revelation.  He deftly weaves an understanding of how myth works and how traditions are created and at the same time shows how they become bonds that hold back even while they provide sustenance.  But it is not death at the center of this novel but enlightenment, and the things dying are ancient and near-parasitical distortions.  Misinterpretation, mischaracterization, and misapplications all dies in the full light of truth.  Jaan Vikary is casting light on his own past; Gwen shines new light on Dirk’s incomprehensions; the essence of human is newly revealed by fearless looking.  And even if it is not a wholly successful venture, a new accord is struck by the end, that new ways will at least be sought.

Paradoxically, Dirk, who is largely a cipher throughout the novel, finds the possibility of rebirth in an embrace of a very old and oft misunderstood trait learned from the Kavalars he has come to respect—honor.  In keeping with the game of names Martin plays throughout, Dirk’s name is telling. t’Larien. Larien is a variant of Lawrence, which comes from the Latin  Larentum—place of the laurel leaves.  Laurels usually indicate honors, but it can also be seen as a criticism, as is “resting on one’s laurels.”  This is the case for Dirk in the beginning—and also the case for some of the other Kavalars present on Worlorn.  At the end, Dirk decides it is time to stop living in the past.  It may mean a new name.  Certainly it means a new beginning.  Even as he goes to face a potential death, he has found a new way to live.

Mixed Signals

I listen to music every day. Intentionally.  I choose something to set my internal harmonic brainscape and listen.  It was a difficult and startling revelation to me back in my youth to realize many people don’t. That is, even when they have music playing, they don’t listen.  For many, it’s wallpaper, and this just struck me as sad.

But it explained what I thought of then as the execrable taste a lot of my acquaintances seemed to display in music.  I have never cared for so-called Top 40 tunes, with rare exception, because in my experience such songs were either the least interesting pieces on their respective albums or they were the zenith of a mediocre musical imagination.  Boring.  Listen to them three or four times and their content is exhausted.

I also used to have an absolutely absurd prejudice that if I could manage to play it myself, on guitar or keyboard, with only a few practices, it was just too insignificant.  This was ridiculous, but I’d been raised to appreciate technical difficulty as a sign of quality in most things.  It took a long time for me to overcome this notion and I still have not completely.

For good or ill, though, it informs my taste to this day, and in the presence of the technically superb I am seduced.  I have found technically accomplished work that was simply not as good as its polish, but I have more rarely ever found sloppy work that was so much better than its presentation that it didn’t matter.  Technical ability, precision of execution, polish…these are not simply ancillary qualities.  The guitarist may know all the notes of the Bach piece but if the timing is wrong, the chording inaccurate, the strings squeak constantly, it will be a thoroughly unenjoyable performance.  Likewise, if the guitarist has composed a beautiful new piece but then can’t perform it as imagined…who will ever know how beautiful it is?

Ultimately, technical sloppiness gets in the way of the work.  The better the technique, the clearer the art shows through.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about here.

The other day I sat down with two works that for whatever reason seemed to counterpoint each other.  Put it down to my peculiar æsthetic, as I doubt anyone else would consider them complimentary.  And perhaps they aren’t, but they shared a common quality, the one I’ve been going on about—technical superiority.

Ansel Adams is a byword for precision in art, especially photographic art.  His images are studies in excellence, from their composition to their presentation.  There is a fine-tuned carefulness in many of them, if not all, that has set the standard for decades.  I have a number of his monographs on my shelf and I have been an admirer and follower since I was a boy.  His set of instructional books, the Basic Photo series, were among the first I read when becoming a photographer myself.  Every year I hang a new Ansel Adams calendar in my office.  I have a biography of him, one signed volume of his Yosemite images, and I find myself constantly drawn to his work.  These photographs are replenishing.

So when a new collection came out this past year—400 Photographs—it was a given that I would acquire it.  (I do not have all his books—there’s a heavy rotation of repeats strewn throughout his œvre.)  I had it for some weeks before I found time to sit down and really go through it.  When I did I was surprised.

The collection is broken down in periods, beginning with some of his earliest images made when he was a boy, reprinted directly from the scrapbooks in which they were pasted, all the way up to the very early 1970s when he, according to the commentary, stopped making “important” photographs and devoted his time to the darkroom.  Gathered are most if not all his iconic images, many that will be familiar to those who have more than a passing acquaintance with his work…

…but also a number of relatively unknown photographs, peppered throughout, many of which show a less than absolute control on Adams’ part.  They do not come up to par.  Some of them, the composition is slightly “off” or the tonal range is not fully captured.

Which is not to say they are not beautiful.  Adams at his worst is equal to most others at their best.  But historically it’s interesting and instructive to see the “not quites” and the “almost theres” among the otherwise perfect works we have all come to expect.  But rather than detract, these works actually enhance the overall impact of the collection, because there is variation, there is evidence of “better”, there is obvious progression.  The commentary between the periods by Andrea Stillman is concise, spare, and informative as to the distinctions in evidence.  This is a chronicle of an artist’s evolution.

Looking at an Ansel Adams photograph, one sometimes feels that the very air was different around him, that light passed from landscape to film plane through a more pristine medium, that nature itself stood still for a few moments longer so the image could be recorded with absolute fidelity in a way given to no other photographer.

As I went through the images, I listened to a new album.  New to me, at least, and in fact it was released this past year.  Levin Minnemann Rudess.

Who?

Of the three, two had been known to me before this year.  Tony Levin is a bassist of extraordinary range and ability.  Besides his own work, he seemed for a time the player the serious groups called in when their regular bassist was unavailable.  Which means he played bass for Pink Floyd in the wake of Roger Waters’ exit.  He played bass for Yes. Dire Straits, Alice Cooper, Warren Zevon, and even Paul Simon and Buddy Rich.

He was also one of the most prominent members of King Crimson during one of its best periods.  He is a session player in constant demand and his ability seems chameleonic.  He can play anything in almost any style.  He is one of those musicians who always works, is always in demand.

Given his associations, sometimes it is a surprise to hear his own work, which can either be described as a distillation of all his influences or as a complete departure from them.  Such would seem to be the case here.

Jordan Rudess plays keyboards and came out of the progressive schools of Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, UK, and others, although the first band with which he was associated was the Dixie Dregs. He later joined Dream Theater, but like Levin has been a much in demand session player whose name I’ve seen pop up many times since the early 90s.

Marco Minnemann, then, is the only name with which I am unfamiliar, but that’s changing.   As a drummer, he’s played with former members of UK—Eddie Jobson and Terry Bozzio—and has been doing session work with metal groups.  I learned of him just this past year in association with guitarist Guthrie Govan, with whom he has formed a trio with bassist Bryan Beller, The Aristocrats.  He seems committed to that unit, so I believe the album I’m discussing may be a one-off, an experiment for these three musicians.  He is an explosively complex, solid drummer.

What does this have to do with Ansel Adams?

Not much other than what I began with—precision.  There is an overwhelming technical precision here that, for the duration of my study of the Adams book, formed a complimentary experience of sharp-edged landscapes and absolute control.  The LMR album is largely instrumental (which has slotted it into my writing queue) but fits no particular genre exactly.  Jazz?  Sure.  Metal?  Somewhat.  Fusion, certainly, but fusion of what?  Rudess’s runs evoke classical associations, but no single track is identifiable with a particular Great Composer.  This is experimental work, theory-in-practice, done at a high level of musicianship and compositional daring.  An aural high-wire act that is constructing the landscape as it records it.

As I said earlier, it happens more often than not that technical prowess can substitute for significant content.  “Too many notes” can mask as absence of substance.  Too-fine a presentation can distract from the fact that an image contains nothing worthwhile.

But when substance and technique are combined at a stratospheric level of ability, when performance melds precision and depth, then we have something truly special.

All I needed that afternoon was a fine wine to complete the immersive experience.

Quantum Branching…As Literature Embraces Science Fiction, the Past is Again and Again

Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, Life After Life, is a remarkable achievement.  It’s several hundred pages of exquisitely controlled prose contain the story of Ursula Todd, who is in the course of the story, born again and again and again.  Each life, some so very brief, ends in a tragic death, accidental, malevolent, heroic, painful, and each time she starts over, comes to the point where that mistake was but is now sidestepped, turned away, avoided.  She lives multiple times, each one different, and yet she remains herself.

The novel opens with a shocking scene—Ursula, a young woman living in Berlin, enters a café wherein she finds Adolf Hitler, surrounded by sycophants, enjoying his celebrity.  She pulls a pistol and takes aim,

Then she is born.

It is 1910, in the English countryside, and snowing heavily.  The scene is reminiscent of Dickens.  She is born.  First she dies from strangulation, the umbilical cord wrapped around her with no  one around who knows what to do.  Then in the next life that obstacle is overcome.  And so it goes, as she ages, staggers through one life after another, growing a little older each time, her family battered by one damn thing after another.  Ursula herself, a middle child, watches as much as participates in the homely evolution of this middle class English family, and we are treated to an almost microscopic study of its composition—its hypocrisies, its crises, it successes, its failures.

Ursula endures.  As her name almost punningly suggests, she Bears Death, over and over.  She never quite remembers, though.  She has intense feelings of déjà vu, she knows such and such should be avoided, this and that must be manipulated, but she never quite knows why.  At times she comes perilously close to recognition, but like so much in life her actions are more ideas that seemed good at the time than any deeper understanding.

Unlike the rigor of traditional time travel, the past does change, but then this is not a time travel novel, at least not in any traditional sense.  You might almost say it’s a reincarnation story, but it’s not that, either, because Ursula never comes back as anyone other than herself.   At one point in the novel, time is described, not as circular but as a palimpsest—layers, one atop another, compiling.  The result here is a portrait more complete than most not of a life lived but of life as potential.  But for this or that, there wandered the future.  It is a portrait of possibility.

The big events of history are not changed, though.  Nothing Ursula does in her manifold existences alters the inevitability of WWII or Hitler or the Spanish Flu or any of the mammoth occurrences that dominate each and every life she experiences.

What she does change is herself.  And, by extension, her family, although all of them remain persistently themselves throughout.  It is only the consequences of their self expression that become shaped and altered.

We see who are the genuine heroes, who the fools, the cowards, the victims and victors as, where in one life none of this might emerge clearly, in the repeated dramas with minor changes character comes inexorably to the fore.

Atkinson does not explain how any of this happens.  It’s not important, because she isn’t doing the kind of fiction we might encounter as straight up science fiction, where the machinery matters.  She’s examining ramifications of the personal in a world that is in constant flux on the day to day level even as the accumulation of all that movement builds a kind of monolithic structure against which our only real choice is to choose what to do today.  Consequently, we have one of the most successful co-options of a science fiction-like conceit into a literary project of recent memory.

On a perhaps obvious level, isn’t this exactly what writers do?  Reimagine the personal histories of their characters in order to show up possibility?

Future Historicity

History, as a discipline, seems to improve the further away from events one moves. Close up, it’s “current events” rather than “history.”  At some point, the possibility of objective analysis emerges and thoughtful critiques may be written.

John Lukacs, Emeritus Professor of History at Chestnut Hill College, understands this and at the outset of his new study, A Short History of the Twentieth Century, allows for the improbability of what he has attempted:

Our historical knowledge, like nearly every kind of human knowledge, is personal and participatory, since the knower and the known, while not identical, are not and cannot be entirely separate.

He then proceeds to give an overview of the twentieth century as someone—though he never claims this—living a century or more further on might.  He steps back as much as possible and looks at the period under examination—he asserts that the 20th Century ran from 1914 to 1989—as a whole, the way we might now look at, say, the 14th Century or the 12th and so on.  The virtue of our distance from these times is our perspective—the luxury of seeing how disparate elements interacted even as the players on the ground could not see them, how decisions taken in one year affected outcomes thirty, forty, even eighty years down the road.  We can then bring an analysis and understanding of trends, group dynamics, political movements, demographics, all that go into what we term as culture or civilization, to the problem of understanding what happened and why.

Obviously, for those of us living through history, such perspective is rare if not impossible.

Yet Lukacs has done an admirable job.  He shows how the outbreak and subsequent end of World War I set the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989, the two events he chooses as the book ends of the century.  He steps back and looks at the social and political changes as the result of economic factors largely invisible to those living through those times, and how the ideologies that seemed so very important at every turn were more or less byproducts of larger, less definable components.

It is inevitable that the reader will argue with Lukacs.  His reductions—and expansions—often run counter to what may be cherished beliefs in the right or wrong of this or that.  But that, it seems, is exactly what he intends.  This is not a history chock full of the kind of detail used in defending positions—Left, Right, East, West, etc—and is often stingy of detail.  Rather, this is a broad outline with telling opinions and the kind of assertions one might otherwise not question in a history of some century long past.  It is intended, I think, to spur discussion.

We need discussion.  In many ways, we are trapped in the machineries constructed to deal with the problems of this century, and the machinery keeps grinding even though the problems have changed.  Pulling back—or even out of—the in situ reactivity seems necessary if we are to stop running in the current Red Queen’s Race.

To be sure, Lukacs makes a few observations to set back teeth on edge.  For instance, he dismisses the post World War II women’s consciousness and equality movements as byproducts of purely economic conditions and the mass movement of the middle class to the suburbs.  He has almost nothing good to say about any president of the period but Franklin Roosevelt.

He is, certainly, highly critical of the major policy responses throughout the century, but explains them as the consequence of ignorance, which is probably true enough.  The people at the time simply did not know what they needed to know to do otherwise.

As I say, there is ample here with which to argue.

But it is a good place to start such debates, and it is debate—discussion, interchange, conversation—that seems the ultimate goal of this very well-written assay.  As long as it is  debate, this could be a worthy place to begin.

He provides one very useful definition, which is not unique to Lukacs by any means, yet remains one of those difficult-to-parse distinctions for most people and leads to profound misunderstandings.  He makes clear the difference between nations and states.  They are not the same thing, though they are usually coincidentally overlapped.  States, he shows, are artificial constructs with borders, governmental apparatus, policies.  Nations, however, are simple Peoples.  Hence Hitler was able to command the German nation even though he was an Austrian citizen.  Austria, like Germany, was merely a state.  The German People constituted the nation.

Lukacs—valuably—shows the consequences of confusing the two, something which began with Wilson and has tragically rumbled through even to this day.  States rarely imposed a national identity, they always rely on one already extant—though often largely unrealized.  And when things go wrong between states, quite often it is because one or the other have negotiated national issues with the wrong part.

Which leads to an intriguing speculation—the fact that nativist sympathies really do have a difficult time taking root in this country.  Americans do not, by this definition, comprise a Nation.  A country, a state, a polity, certainly.  But not really a Nation.

And yet we often act as if we were.

Questions.  Discussion.  Dialogue.  This is the utility and virtue of this slim volume.

End Times

The Sixties.

Depending on what your major concerns are, that period means different things.  For many people, it was revolution, civil rights, the peace movement.  For many others, it was music.

For Michael Walker, it was evidently the latter.  In his new book, What You Want Is In The Limo,  he chronicles what he considers the End of the Sixties through the 1973 tours of three major rock groups—The Who, Led Zeppelin, and Alice Cooper.

His claim, as summarized in the interview linked above, is that after Woodstock, the music industry realized how much money could be made with this noisy kid stuff (which by Woodstock it no longer was—kid stuff, that is) and started investing heavily, expanding the concert scene, turning it from a “cottage industry” into the mega-million-dollar monster it has become.  1973, according to Walker, is the year all this peaked for the kind of music that had dominated The Sixties, made the turn into rock star megalomania, and ushered in the excesses of the later Seventies and the crash-and-burn wasteland of the Punk and New Wave eras (with a brief foray into Disco and cocaine before the final meltdown).

The bands he chose are emblematic, certainly, but of the end of the Sixties?  I agree with him that 1973 is the year the Sixties ended, but the music aspect, as always, was merely a reflection, not a cause.  What happened in 1973 that brought it all to an ignominious close was this: Vietnam ended.

(Yes, I know we weren’t out until 1975, but in 1972 Nixon went to China, which resulted in the shut-down of the South China rail line by which Russia had been supplying North Vietnam, and in 1973 the draft ended, effectively deflating a goodly amount of the rage over the war.  The next year and a half were wind-down.)

Walker’s analysis of the cultural differences before and after 1973 are solid, but while the money was certainly a factor, a bigger one is exhaustion.  After a decade of upheaval over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, people were tired.  Vietnam ended and everyone went home.  Time to party.  Up to that point, the music—the important music, the music of heft and substance—was in solidarity with the social movements and protest was a major component of the elixir.  Concerts were occasions for coming together in a common aesthetic, the sounds that distinguished Woodstock acting as a kind of ur-conscious bubble, binding people together in common cause.

Once the primary issues seemed settled, the music was just music for many people, and the aspects which seemed to have informed the popularity of groups like Cream or the Stones or the Doors lost touch with the zeitgeist.  What had begun as an industry of one-hit wonders returned to that ethic and pseudo-revolutionary music began to be produced to feed the remaining nostalgia.

(Consider, for example, a group like Chicago, which began as socially-conscious, committed-to-revolution act—they even made a statement to that effect on the inside cover of their second album—and yet by 1975 were cashing in on power ballads and love songs, leaving the heavily experimental compositions of their first three albums behind and eschewing their counter-culture sensibilities.)

To my mind the album that truly signified the end of that whole era was The Moody Blues Seventh Sojourn, which was elegaic from beginning to end.  The last cut, I’m Just A Singer In A Rock’n’Roll Band, was a rejection of the mantle bestowed on many groups and performers during the Sixties of guru.  With that recording, the era was—for me—over.

Also for me, Alice Cooper never signified anything beyond the circus act he was.  Solid tunes, an edgy stage act, and all the raw on-the-road excess that was seen by many to characterize supergroups, but most of Cooper’s music was vacuous pop-smithing.  The Who and Led Zeppelin were something else and both of them signify much more in artistic terms.  Overreach.

But interestingly enough, different kinds of overreach.  Walker talks of the self-indulgence of 45-minute solos in the case of Zeppelin, but this was nothing new—Cream had set the standard for seemingly endless solos back in 1966 and Country Joe McDonald produced an album in the Nineties with extended compositions and solos.  Quadraphenia was The Who’s last “great” album, according to Walker, and I tend to agree, but two kinds of exhaustion are at work in these two examples.  Zeppelin exhausted themselves in the tours and the 110% performances.  The Who exhausted the form in which they worked.  After Quadraphenia, all they could do was return to a formula that had worked well before, but which now gained them no ground in terms of artistic achievement.  As artistic statement—as an example of how far they could push the idiom—that album was a high watermark that still stands.  But the later Who Are You?  is possibly their best-crafted work after Who”s Next.  “Greatness”—whatever that means in this context—had not abandoned them.  But the audience had changed.  Their later albums were money-makers with the occasional flash of brilliance.  They were feeding the pop machine while trying to compose on the edge, a skill few manage consistently for any length of time.

“Excess” is an interesting term as well.  Excess in what?  The combination of social movement with compositional daring had a moment in time.  When that time passed, two audiences parted company.  Those who wanted to party (often nostalgically) and those who were truly enamored of music as pure form.  They looked across the divide at each other and the accusation of excess was aimed by each at different things.  The one disdained the social excess of the other while the latter loathed the musical excess of the former.  People gleefully embracing Journey, disco, punk, and a gradually resurgent country-western genre thought the experimental explorations of the post-Sixties “art rock” scene were self-indulgent, elitist, and unlistenable.   People flocking to Yes and Emerson,Lake & Palmer concerts, cuing up Genesis and UK on their turntables, (and retroactively filling out their classical collections) found the whole disco scene and designer-drug culture grotesque.  Yet in many ways they had begun as the same social group, before the End of the Sixties.

The glue that had bound them together evaporated with the end of the political and social issues that had produced the counterculture and its attendant musical reflection in the first place.  Without that glue, diaspora.

And the forms keep breaking down into smaller and smaller categories, which is in its own way a kind of excess.  The excess of pointless selectiveness.

Is the Novel Still Dying?

In 1955, Normal Mailer was declaring the death of the novel. A bit more than a decade later, it was John Barth’s turn.  There have now been a string of writers of a certain sort who clang the alarm and declare the imminent demise of the novel, the latest being a selection of former enfants terrible like Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.

Philip Roth did so a few years back, adding that reading is declining in America.  The irony of this is that he made such claims at a time when polls suggested exactly the opposite, as more people were reading books in 2005 (as percentage of adult population) than ever before.  In my capacity as one-time president of the Missouri Center for the Book I was happily able to address a group of bright adolescents with the fact that reading among their demographic had, for the first time since such things had been tracked, gone precipitously up in 2007.

And yet in a recent piece in the Atlantic, we see a rogues’ gallery of prominent literateurs making the claim again that the novel is dying and the art of letters is fading and we are all of us doomed.

Say what you will about statistics, such a chasm between fact and the claims of those one might expect to know has rarely been greater.  The Atlantic article goes on to point out that these are all White Males who seem to be overlooking the product of everyone but other White Males.  To a large extent, this is true, but it is also partly deceptive.  I seriously doubt if directly challenged any of them would say works by Margaret Atwood or Elizabeth Strout fall short of any of the requirements for vital, relevant fiction at novel length.  I doubt any of them would gainsay Toni Morrison, Mat Johnson, or David Anthony Durham.

But they might turn up an elitist lip at Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Tannarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Walter Mosley, or, for that matter, Dennis Lehane, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson (just to throw some White Males into the mix as comparison).  Why?

Genre.

The declaration back in the 1950s that “the novel is dead” might make more sense if we capitalize The Novel.  “The Novel”—the all-encompassing, universal work that attempts to make definitive observations and pronouncements about The Human Condition has been dead since it was born, but because publishing was once constrained by technology and distribution to publishing a relative handful of works in a given year compared to today, it seemed possible to write the Big Definitive Book.  You know, The Novel.

Since the Fifties, it has become less and less possible to do so, at least in any self-conscious way.  For one thing, the Fifties saw the birth of the cheap paperback, which changed the game for many writers working in the salt mines of the genres.  The explosion of inexpensive titles that filled the demand for pleasurable reading (as opposed to “serious” reading) augured the day when genre would muscle The Novel completely onto the sidelines and eventually create a situation in which the most recent work by any self-consciously “literary” author had to compete one-on-one with the most recent work by the hot new science fiction or mystery author.

(We recognize today that Raymond Chandler was a wonderful writer, an artist, “despite” his choice of detective fiction.  No one would argue that Ursula K. Le Guin is a pulp writer because most of her work has been science fiction or fantasy.  But it is also true that the literary world tries to coopt such writers by remaking them into “serious” authors who “happened” to be writing in genre, trying ardently to hold back the idea that genre can ever be the artistic equivalent of literary fiction.)

The Novel is possible only in a homogenized culture.  Its heyday would have been when anything other than the dominant (white, male-centric, protestant) cultural model was unapologetically dismissed as inferior.  As such, The Novel was as much a meme supporting that culture as any kind of commentary upon it, and a method of maintaining a set of standards reassuring the keepers of the flame that they had a right to be snobs.

Very few of Those Novels, I think, survived the test of time.

And yet we have, always, a cadre of authors who very much want to write The Novel and when it turns out they can’t, rather than acknowledge that the form itself is too irrelevant to sustain its conceits at the level they imagine for it, they blame the reading public for bad taste.

If the function of fiction (one of its function, a meta-function, if you will) is to tell us who we are today, then just looking around it would seem apparent that the most relevant fiction today is science fiction.  When this claim was made back in the Sixties, those doing what they regarded as serious literature laughed.  But in a world that has been qualitatively as well as quantitatively changed by technologies stemming from scientific endeavors hardly imagined back then, it gets harder to laugh this off.  (Alvin Tofler, in his controversial book Future Shock, argued that science fiction would become more and more important because it taught “the anticipation of change” and buffered its devotees from the syndrome he described, future shock.)

Does this mean everyone should stop writing anything else and just do science fiction?  Of course not.  Science fiction is not The Novel.  But it is a sign of where relevance might be found.  Society is not homogeneous (it never was, but there was a time we could pretend it was) and the fragmentation of fiction into genre is a reflection that all the various groups comprising society see the world in different ways, ways which often converge and coalesce, but which nevertheless retain distinctive perspectives and concerns.

A novel about an upper middle class white family disagreeing over Thanksgiving Dinner is not likely to overwhelm the demand for fiction that speaks to people who do not experience that as a significant aspect of their lives.

A similar argument can be made for the continual popularity and growing sophistication of the crime novel.  Genre conventions become important in direct proportion to the recognition of how social justice functions, especially in a world with fracturing and proliferating expectations.

Novel writing is alive and well and very healthy, thank you very much, gentlemen.  It just doesn’t happen to be going where certain self-selected arbiters of literary relevance think it should be going.  If they find contemporary literary fiction boring, the complaint should be aimed at the choice of topic or the lack of perception on the part of the writer, not on any kind of creeping morbidity in the fiction scene.

Besides, exactly what is literary fiction?  A combination of craft, salient observation, artistic integrity, and a capacity to capture truth as it reveals itself in story?  As a description, that will do.

But then what in that demands that the work eschew all attributes that might be seen as genre markers?

What this really comes down to, I suspect, is a desire on the part of certain writers to be some day named in the same breath with their idols, most of whom one assumes are long dead and basically 19th Century novelists.  Criticizing the audiences for not appreciating what they’re trying to offer is not likely to garner that recognition.

On the other hand, most of those writers—I’m thinking Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, Hardy, and the like—weren’t boring.  And some of the others—Sabatini, Conan Doyle, Wells—wrote what would be regarded today as genre.

To be fair, it may well be that writers today find it increasingly difficult to address the moving target that is modern culture.  It is difficult to write coherently about a continually fragmenting and dissolving landscape.  The speed of change keeps going up.  If such change were just novelty, and therefore essentially meaningless, then it might not be so hard, but people are being forced into new constellations of relationships and required to reassess standards almost continually, with information coming to them faster and faster, sometimes so thickly it is difficult to discern shape or detail.  The task of making pertinent and lasting observations about such a kaleidoscopic view is daunting.

To do it well also requires that that world be better understood almost down to its blueprints, which are also being redrafted all the time.

That, however, would seem to me to be nothing but opportunity to write good fiction.

But it won’t be The Novel.

Persistent Ghosts

Recently I read two novels that, after some thought, work as examples of effective and ineffective sequels.  I confess up front I’m stretching things to make a point here and I in no way recommend a similar reading strategy.  I’m indulging myself in this in order to explain something.

I haven’t read Philip Roth since Portnoy’s Complaint came out in paperback.  Yes, I read it that long ago and, yes, I was probably far too young for it.  My impression of it at the time is hard to recapture, but it left me kind of stunned.  For one, I hadn’t encountered that kind of writing before (not even in some of the porn magazines I’d snuck into the house) and to see it in something on any best seller list was a shock to my 13-year-old psyche.  For another, the self-conscious analysis of an adolescent “matter in transition” surprised me.  I’m not sure it helped or just made me feel that the malaise in which I found myself then (and for a few years to come) was inevitable, which was depressing.

For whatever reason, I never went back to Roth.  From time to time I’ve thought that might have been a mistake.  He’s a Big Deal and maybe I’ve missed something.

So a month or so back I found a couple of used copies of his later novels, picked them up, and the first one I read was Exit Ghost.  For those who’ve kept up, of course, this is one of the ending books in his ongoing Zuckerman series.  From this novel, I gather Zuckerman is a kind of alter-ego for Roth himself.  A famous and successful writer (they aren’t always the same thing) moving through the travails of his fame and success, observing with his writer’s eye the changing landscapes around him.

In this one, Zuckerman has been living as an isolate in the country for several years, especially after prostate surgery which has left him both incontinent and impotent.  He returns to New York on the promise of a new procedure that may at least address his incontinence.  Roth vividly allows the reader to feel the misery of Zuckerman’s condition.  While in New York, Zuckerman meets a young couple who wish to leave (this is the aftermath year of 9/11) for some place Not New York, and offer to swap their apartment for his cabin for a year.

Zuckerman falls headlong into lust for the wife.

He begins working on a fictionalized treatment of their potential liaison, cleverly counterpointing it with what actually happens, at least in their conversations, which he (fictionally) idealizes.  The fictional treatment makes her more self-possessed and himself cleverer.  While all this is going on, Zuckerman finds himself dealing with resurrected ghosts of his literary (and erotic) past and the fact that he no longer knows how to function in this New York after having been away so long.

The writing is beautiful.  There are sentences here superbly crafted, achingly fraught with meaning.  I can see why Philip Roth is considered so highly.

But there is, in the end, only one ghost present which is seeking exit.  Portnoy.  It seems he is still writing about the problems of wanting to get laid, not getting laid, and wishing ardently to not feel guilty about either condition.  Fifty plus years after my last Philip Roth novel, I find that the work is still, at least in part, about the same things.  At least, in this instance.

Portnoy, however, is rather pathetic as a ghost.  He doesn’t disturb much other than the memory of erections no longer possible.  He moves around in the ruins of what was once a vital life, trying to find a way of accepting things as they are, not quite succeeding, and changing nothing.

Tim Powers, however, gives us much more tangible—and dangerous—ghosts in his Hide Me Among The Graves, which is at least a thematic sequel to his The Stress of Her Regard.  As in the previous novel, Powers gives us vampires, but not of the usual sort.  Powers’ vampires are not half-rotted corpses rising, undead, from graves, former humans with a thirst for their living cousins’ blood and a desire to replicate themselves.  Rather, Powers gives us the Nephilim, the remnants of a race that once dominated the Earth before the rise of the oyxgen-breathing, fast-living creatures of a Cambrian eco-system with no place for silicate-based life.  For Powers, these holdovers are the Lamiae, and they feed on iron and love in a grotesque symbiosis, one byproduct of which is artistic brilliance.  Among their captive suitors are Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Coleridge.

With their attention comes madness and the destruction of all competitors for the obsessive love they seem to crave.  Long life, genius, and ultimately a kind of moral corruption that ends up justifying any destruction in the name of…

Well, continuation, really.  These are ghosts that seek actively to persist.

While they come from outside the psyché, they are profoundly dependent on it.  On the willingness of their human partners, on their devotion, their protection, really, and therefore, for Powers, everything comes down to a matter of will.

In The Stress of Her Regard, the artistic center is represented by Byron and Shelley.  In this new novel, that center is the Rossettis—Dante Gabriel and Christina, specifically, with Swindburne as a sort of fifth wheel who learns about the lamiae and very much wants their attention, pining for the brilliance that results from it.

And as in the previous novel, it is those on the sidelines who are instrumental in ending the possessions of the ghosts.

As in the Roth, sex is very much at the heart of the infection.  There is spiritual V.D. in the relations Powers depicts.  We all bring our ghosts along to bed with us, but in the case of the Nephilim these are ghosts with lingering, almost incurable consequences.  And yet, celibacy is no guarantor of health.  Those with whom one’s cousin sleeps could kill you just because.

The brilliance that is a symptom of their infection strikes one as kin to the apparent genius unlocked by syphilis, as in people like Nietzsche

Powers’ ghosts move amid ruins as well, in this case the ancient tumbledowns of a London burned by Boadicea, who is herself become one of the Nephilim.  The new London often seems not much more than an incipient ruin itself as the protagonists, John Crawford and Adelaide McKee—both collateral damage in their own ways of the bigger game being played among these ancient monsters—strive to defeat them so they can save their daughter and try to have something like a normal life in which simple love dominates.

In this, Powers shows us a place of solace, a resolution, a condition wherein the ghosts can quieten finally, and peace has a chance to succeed.  The ghosts are recognizably Outside and putting them back outside offers a chance to go on wholly according to one’s self will.

Roth, on the other hand, shows us someone whose ghosts are completely of his own contrivance who treats them as if they are (or should be) something Outside—that can be run from, hidden from, denied.  The failure to recognize them for what they are—ultimately failures of will—condemns Zuckerman to a sophisticated kind of adolescent denial of reality.  Success—however it is defined, no matter how modest—is impossible.

In this, curiously, there is one other similarity between the subtexts of the two works, and that is that genius can be a trap.  What we might sacrifice for it can cut us off from kinder choices, saner trajectories, blind us to certain obvious realities, and give us a justification to cause harm without acknowledging that its expression, too, is a matter of will.  Powers, of the two, shows us clearly that genius is no excuse for embracing monsters or giving our lives over to ghosts.  I’m not altogether sure Roth would accept that formulation.

Jack Vance: No Place At Saponce

Jack Vance wrote idiosyncratically in a field of idiosyncracy.  The very lushness of his prose bespoke an era well past its prime that, when sought, could never be found.  Azure, jeweler’s brass, roseate and softly crystalline.  Contradictions made to coexist and cross-inform.  Footprints trace a path along the the receding shore of a sea once filled with more deliberate monsters than now, the waves gilded by a fading sun that somehow shines proudly if wearily, attesting to empires whose ruins are more wondrous than any new powers might contrive.

He often wrote of the stuff of melancholy, while avoiding melancholy itself.  One could see how tales told about these times and places might turn maudlin for greatness lost, but not yet, not now.  Now we must see what fascinations recomplicate in a present not yet to form a past still waiting.

Was it science fiction? Fantasy?  Did it matter?

Suis generis is sometimes used only when imagination fails to pigeon-hole, where appreciation falls short, and the thing judged is greater than those judging.  Works can signify its proper definition, but more often individual writers are better gauges.  Jack Vance wrote science fiction (The Last Castle, Araminta Station) and fantasy (Lyonesse, Maduouc), and amalgams of both (Mask: Thaery, Dragon Master, The Dying Earth) that even within their clearly defined provinces did not quite fit with expectation.  He was an altogether sensual writer more concerned with moving the reader slantwise into a state of mind to perceive in unique ways places that ran counter to any norm than might be applied.

Deep in thought, Mazirian the Magician walked his garden. Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet.  Such was Mazirian’s garden—three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetations.  Certain plants swam with changing iridescenses; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow.  Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal…

He established a quasi-mystical ground for what might loosely be called science-fantasy, worlds where physics and genetics obtained but suggestively and where the motivations of alien minds twisted landscapes into ur vistas against which struggles for power played out in atypical fashion.

In The Languages of Pao power resides in grammars, linguistics the key to control, and a strong and unusual acknowledgement that cultures are latent repositories of destiny.  In The Last Castle a comfortable ruling class is suddenly face with the fact that their servants have become more powerful than they and because thought was never given to them as more than labor, any basis for negotiation is completely unknown.

Vance seemed to write most eloquently about the days just before declines begin.  A last Indian Summer played out sometimes across galactic stages.  He was never less than grand.

The impact of an artist can be seen in his or her heirs, those who internalize their vision and produce new works.  Gene Wolfe paid homage to Vance in his Book of the New Sun even as he did something wholly his own and in some ways superior.  Vance was certainly not the first to try to combine science fiction with fantasy, but he was one of the most successful, and writers like Roger Zelazny, Lin Carter, and Michael Moorcock benefited from the results.

There is a bit of Tolkein to be found strewn throughout his prose, but Vance began publishing before Tolkein’s epic appeared, so the apparent influences are coincidental only.  They shared, if anything, a sense of the vastness of time and the importance of even forgotten history.  Vance’s stories are weighted with the awareness of pasts.

Vance retired from writing several years ago.  Eyesight failing, health precarious, he withdrew.  Now he has gone.  Other writers of his generation—Heinlein, Asimov, de Camp, Silverberg, Williams—seem to have garnered more attention.  At least more vocal advocates.  But each of them held Vance in high regard and the enormous body of work Vance has left us seems to be tenaciously inspiring new works and reassessments and gaining new readers.

“There is your home; there is Saponce.  Do you wish to return?”  

She shook her head.  “Together we have looked through the eyes of knowledge.  We have seen old Thorsingol, and the Sherit Empire before it, and Golwan Andra before that and the Forty Kades even before.  We have seen the warlike green-men, and the knowledgeable Pharials and the Clambs who departed Earth for the stars, as did the Merioneth before them and the Gray Sorcerers still earlier.  We have seen oceans rise and fall, the mountains crust up, peak and melt in the beat of rain; we have looked on the sun when it glowed hot and full and yellow…No, Guyal, there is no place for me at Saponce…”

Guyal, leaning back on the weathered pillar, looked up to the stars. “Knowledge is ours, Shierl—all of knowing to our call.  And what shall we do?”

Together they looked up to the white stars.

“What shall we do…”