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.

 

The Wimsey Principle

Recently I read my first two Lord Peter Wimsey novels.  An acquaintance has long held Gaudy Night to be an exceptional work, so I settled down to indulge a period mystery, only to discover a very different sort of work full of surprises of remarkable relevance.  Finishing that, I picked up Whose Body?, the first Lord Peter novel.  What I found between the two was a substantial exhibition of intellectual and emotional growth.

It is always striking to encounter a character at two far-removed periods.  Reading novels in a series in the order of their appearance can have a leavening effect of the profound changes visible.  You grow along with the characters, if there is growth (and too often, it seems, in murder mysteries there is little growth in the principle character—but then that’s not what such series are about, is it?), and what may be striking changes seem natural, depending on the author’s skill.  In this instance, Sayers’ skill was masterful in that the older Wimsey of Gaudy Night is so believably one with the much younger and more frivolous portrayal in Whose Body? even while the experiences of a life spent finding murderers and other assorted criminals have eroded the finely-modeled lines of youthful enthusiasm, allowing the layers beneath to rise, transforming as they emerge into a new kind of intellectual sensitive.

The real story in Gaudy Night is not the solution of the mystery driving the plot—which Wimsey solves in a fairly short time—but the demonstration of honest love rooted in genuine respect.  Demonstration rather than revelation since the latter has already been done.  It’s reception and acceptance are at question, hence the demonstration.

The hang up?  Harriet Vane, subject of Lord Peter’s amorous devotion, cannot get past the suspicion that she is in fact merely an object of his devotion.  She is invested, wholly, in being her Own Person. Their meeting (in the novel Strong Poison) was one more likely to elicit profound gratitude and a sense of obligation rather than the congeniality of equals, and Harriet has fended off his protestations of love and repeated offers of marriage since.  She does not trust either her own feelings about him nor his motives toward her, even though she is willing to take him at his word regarding their sincerity.  It is a delicate set of problems, a minefield around her heart, and in order to successfully consummate what is likely to be a fine companionship Wimsey is required to demonstrate time and again that he will not dominate her, will not coddle her, will not in any way treat her as lesser in any respect.  All this while wanting above all else to protect her.

This is the classic conundrum of true love.  In order for it to be true, one must not only allow but genuinely enjoy the independence of the one loved, even at the cost of letting them go.

Harriet Vane wants to be, and has worked very hard at being, her own person.

Sayers sets the story at a women’s college attached to Oxford, Vane’s alma mater, where a series of ugly, often childish, increasingly destructive acts of vandalism threaten to spoil the reputation of the school.  This is all the more threatening because this is at a time when serious public debate over the utility of women’s education is ongoing and scandals add fuel to the fires of reaction.  Harriet herself is emblematic of the pitfalls of living a life consistent with education and independence.  The man she had lived with—not married—had been murdered and suspicion fell on her.  This was the incident that first brought Wimsey and her together.  Wimsey proved her innocent, hence the weight of obligation that causes Harriet to distrust the sincerity of her own feelings.  She was held up as everything bad about the New Woman.  She knows the problems a woman has making her own way without a man, yet she has persevered and made for herself a successful career as a novelist.  Independence hard earned and not lightly surrendered, especially after having been nearly hanged for killing her lover.

What Sayers gives us turns out to be a thoroughly-considered examination of the problems of emancipation.  It is astonishing how the arguments, pro and con, seem as fresh today as they doubtless seemed radical in 1935.  Condescension is absent, questions of class and personality are examined, and the difficulties of maintaining individuality and pursuing ambition are laid out, all within the context of a thoroughly engaging mystery.

Harriet Vane is asked by the Dean of the college to come and help them discover the culprit.  Calling in the police has its drawbacks as the events could become very public to the discredit of the college.  Something, as it unfolds, the culprit very much wishes.  Harriet, frustrated by the intractability of the case, finally sends a letter to Wimsey.  The assistance she asks for is not what she gets.  Instead of advice or a suggestion, he arrives.

Here it becomes tense.  It would be easy for Wimsey to take over the case.  He is the experienced detective, Harriet only writes about detectives and detecting.  But Wimsey has far too much respect for her to simply butt in.  And he knows that would lose her forever.  He believes she can solve it.  He provides assistance and no more, although he does give her some needed distraction, and renewed attention.

The dance Wimsey undertakes is as finely-performed as any solution to any murder.  His object is to be what Harriet needs him to be and no more.  He is clearly bursting to just do for her, but he knows he cannot, because the fragile bridgework between them must be based on equity and sharing and mutual respect.  In some ways, it is a one-sided effort.

Gaudy Night is very much a comedy of manners.  It is also a disquisition on self-possession.  It is also a feminist critique.  And it is a romance.  All at once and successfully achieved.

Whose Body? on the other hand is a straight-forward Who-Done-It, an introduction to the character of Lord Peter Wimsey.  Serviceable.  The pleasure of the novel is the characterizations involved, which are ample and sophisticated.  Sayers portrays Wimsey as someone very much in need of distraction.  He is damaged by service in WWI.  He is too intelligent by far to be satisfied with the usual and stereotypical distractions of his class.  He is a rare book collector, a fair pianist, a gourmand.

He is also impatient with a tendency to be judgmental.  He is in a hurry.  Too lengthy an immersion into a case threatens to open old psychic wounds.  Therefore, what patience he exhibits in the course of solving a case must be an act of will.  He seems shallow to some.  This is a side effect of his aversion to too-deep an introspection, although he cannot avoid it.  At the end of the book, we are left with the impression of someone who needs to unravel and solve his own self as a way toward healing, but he can only do so indirectly.  Solving murders is his way of occasionally showing a mirror to himself, finding another piece.  Had he met Harriet then, they could never have worked together, they would never have found each other.  He would not have survived her rejection, she would never tolerate his insistent perceptions.

In Gaudy Night there is a long discussion of principles and morals.  Principles, Wimsey maintains, are inherently destructive, morals possibly a chimera.  Yet he clearly has both and knows it.  In Whose Body? the question arises as to why he bothers with criminal investigations and clearly the answer is that a principle is at stake.  He can do this, he has the skill and talent, so how could he—morally—not do it?  It’s never asked quite so baldly, but it threads through the entire book.  It does, in fact, put the question forward.  By Gaudy Night it seems Wimsey has answered it, at least for himself.  And the evidence for the principle is the way he is willing to walk away from Harriet rather than impose anything on her.  The imposition of one’s will on another is abhorrent to Wimsey, and what is murder if not the ultimate imposition, the total denial of self?

But even without murder, the principle maintains.  Even built in to the crime being enacted at the college, there is the question of imposing wills on others.  At the heart of the vandalism is a different sort of crime, or perhaps the same sort at a different level, a lie, a libel.  Choices are all we have, really.  To be able to make a choice freely is a kind of ideal state.  But it is what we strive for, one hopes as a civilization.  Wimsey goes to impossible lengths to guarantee that freedom.  It is fascinating to see the answer to the questions he poses himself emerge between these two novels.

Turning The Wheel: Principle At War In Iain M. Banks Consider Phlebas

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

“Consider Phlebas…”  The phrase focuses attention and sets expectations.  As the novel progresses, we are primed to consider.

And yet, it seems to be little more than a big, yawping space opera, set during a war, with a lot of zipping about, fighting, explosions, deaths, intrigue.  All of that, to be sure.  What is there to consider?

Iain M. Banks loaded the dice before the first page by taking his title from an enigmatic stanza of a famously complex modern masterpiece.  He has claimed in interview that he “just liked the sound of it” and had to use it as a title in something.  An easy, dismissive answer to a question that begs for something more.

Consider Phlebas opens with an escape.  In the midst of combat, a self-aware ship fashions a new Mind, a self-contained assemblage of massive intellectual potential, and shoots it out to make a getaway before it can be captured.  The Mind is too young, unprepared, empty of experience, but it knows this, making it a remarkable construct.  It executes a dangerous, almost hopeless maneuver that puts it—temporarily—out of reach, buried within the catacombs of a dead world that once was home to a civilization not terribly different than our own that failed to survive past its nuclear age.  The planet is now a shrine, maintained by an enigmatic alien race which is as shapeless as water.  The Mind finds sanctuary, but it has also trapped itself.

The next scene introduces Phlebas—in this case, a Changer named Horza—who is about to drown in a dungeon as punishment for espionage.  He is chained to a wall while waste water is dumped into the chamber, gradually filling the space.  He will die, ignominiously, wretchedly, tastelessly.

And indeed, he once was handsome and young, but in his present physical state he is an old man, having Changed himself for the purposes of his mission.  Caught, he will not even die as himself, at least not physically.

The problem, though, as he keeps being forced to confront after his last-minute rescue by the hands of his alien masters, is who exactly he is.  He is Bora Horza Gobuchul, a Changer, member of a species of human having the ability to imitate others by physically—and to a fair extent emotionally and intellectually—altering to become Someone Else.

Horza has allied himself with the Idirans in a war against The Culture.  Here we find paradox.  The Culture is an empire in that it covers vast stretches of (interstellar) territory and claims many races as members.  It is tolerant in the extreme, vital, but in many ways essentially human.  While there are many variations of human, there is a recognized standard, of which the Changers claim consanguinity.  The Idirans on the other hand are definitely Not Human.  Tripoidal, somewhat reptilian, they are also religious zealots.  They seem congenitally incapable of recognizing the validity of different viewpoints on the question of Truth and have been engaging crusades of absorption (or annihilation) for some time before running into The Culture and finding themselves in a serious fight.

The Idirans consider all other races inferior—including their allies.

Yet Horza fights for them.  Or, as he puts it, he is fighting on their side against The Culture, which he sees as the true enemy of humanity.

Because The Culture also includes machine intelligences as equal partners.  For Horza, this is the line crossed that has set him in opposition.  He cannot see machines as being in any way equal to biological life.  They can only ever be either subservient—or masters.

So Horza indulges the classic choice—the enemy of my enemy, etc—without seeing the irony of his own position other than in the most superficial ways.  He knows he could never accept the Idirans as master, he utterly rejects their religious purity, and yet if they beat The Culture they will continue conquering less capable polities, absorbing or eliminating apostates, until one day they will force the Changers to choose.  Horza does an ethical dance with himself to permit his alliance for the immediate goal of stopping The Culture, which is also growing and absorbing new territory.

Though in a completely different way.

But more than that, The Culture itself is in a profound ethical quandary about the war.  The Culture hasn’t fought a war in so long that it has to reinvent its capacity to do so.  The decision to go to war against the Idirans has been highly unpopular with most of its citizens, and even those prosecuting it have serious doubts about their right to do so.  The Culture has to consider the possibility that this will change it into something it does not wish to be in order to win.  As well, there’s no clear idea what “winning” means.  This is not how The Culture does business.

the Idirans seem to be the only ones in the mix with a clear, confident idea of what they are and why they’re doing this.  But as it is revealed, they had to change in order to become imperialists.  The evangelical urge was once a new thing, turning from an inward-facing, contemplative people, to crusaders.

Oh, you who turn the wheel and look to windward…

Horza is rescued only to find himself set adrift in a spacesuit during an assault by a Culture ship on his rescue ship.  He faces drowning in vacuum.  His rescue by a privateer is the most improbable of events, but as it turns out not quite as unlikely as it might seem.  Ships like the Clear Air Turbulence shadow the forces in these huge engagements, looking for opportunities for salvage or cover for smuggling.   Hence, Horza finds himself on board a freelance, unaligned ship with a crew of misfits looking for the next big score.  They are just competent enough to almost succeed at something.  They’re very good at getting into situations for which they end up being unprepared.

Horza decides to use them—by changing himself gradually into their captain—to accomplish the mission he had been given before being shucked out an airlock: recover the Culture Mind that has hidden itself on that off-limits world.

The bulk of the plot involves this mission and Horza’s manipulations to achieve it.

Into this two players are added that complicate the ethical issues—Balveda, an agent of The Culture’s Special Circumstances department; and Unaha Closp, a maintenance drone, a self-aware machine, both of whom get trapped on board the ship during an escape Horza engineers.  Balveda has been tracking Horza all along and is caught by him as he fully manifests as the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence.  Closp is doing maintenance on the ship and is unable to leave when Horza makes his escape.

Of the two, the drone is the more important complicating factor.  It forces Horza continually to engage it as an equal, something Horza is loathe to do.  It exhibits character, personality, resilience, and competence.  It is, as we get to know it, impossible to see as “just a machine.”  Which, of course, is the whole point.  This is the key to Horza’s entire objection to The Culture.  A self-aware “device” that refuses to be treated as a lesser being.  In what way, its presence asks, am I any different than a biological form?  In fact, it demonstrates an appreciation of choice and life that is categorically denied by Horza’s employers.

Balveda, while of secondary importance in this equation, is nevertheless absolutely necessary.  She represents The Culture’s willingness to deal with any situation that threatens to impair exactly the kind of status Unaha Closp demands.  Her department, Special  Circumstance, is itself the embodiment of an understanding of the impossibility of creating a one-size-fits-all moral program.  There will always be conditions that do not allow for cut-and-paste solutions.  At the same time, The Culture realizes that dealing with questions such as the Idirans present has the potential to distort what The Culture is at its core.  Hence, Special Circumstances, a division of Contact, put out there as a kind of moral buffer.  Or at least a cultural one.  Balveda and her colleagues are the immune system of The Culture.

What Banks built in this universe is a subversive ethical microscope, subsumed into the fabric of what appears to be little more than an epic space opera.

In fact, though, Consider Phlebas, like most of The Culture novels, is subversive of the form itself.  Anti-space operas, because the outcomes are never as clear cut and triumphal as the great space operas of the past.  On the contrary, clarity is only found in an appreciation of the irony at the heart of a Banks Culture novel.  Horza himself subverts his own purposes at almost every turn.  He defends something he does not believe in, fights something that might give him purpose, and like the Phoenician is drowned in a sea of bad options and murky choices.

And who is the hero?  A space opera, by long tradition, requires a hero, one character we can point to and show clear-eyed purpose and to whom some degree of success accrues.  Who is that here?

Unaha Closp.  Of them all, the drone exhibits all the traits of the hero.  The very thing Horza identifies as inimical to everything he believes in is the one that comes through every time, acts consistently on its convictions, and perseveres as well as survives.  Banks seems to be saying that principle is not determined by form.  Biology can lay no exclusionary claim to it—in fact, by example, biology has the hardest time with it.  But the prejudice of the flesh, so to speak, precludes genuine tolerance, and principle is sacrificed when options are reduced to two—the ideal or the beneficiary.

The underlying ethos of The Culture, though, is a denial that choices are ever only reducable to just two.  That if that’s what we believe, then something has been overlooked.

On the off-chance, though, that time or resource refuse an opportunity to find third or fourth choices, it would be useful to have a Special Circumstances to deal with the contradictions and conflicts.

Great Causes often come down to one or both parties making the statement that no one has the right to impose principle or form on someone else.  It can be confusing when terms like freedom get tossed into the mix.  Freedom from what?  To do what?  To be what?  The universe would appear to be too mutable to admit unitary definitions of freedom or rights or even morality.  The Culture, Banks suggests, understands this fundamental fact.  They work to preserve a space in which people can decide for themselves, and intervene when the decision produces evangelical movements.  The question then is, what if the evangelicals are right?  Well, that would be a very special circumstance indeed.

Horza makes his way by engaging mutability as an innate talent and, he must at some point realize, a self-claimed right to be anyone or anything he can imitate.  But he can’t imitate everything.  Perhaps this is the basis of his metric as to what is or is not acceptably his equal.  He can’t become a machine.

And yet, he does.  A tool, a cog, a machine in a larger mechanism.  He forgets ultimately who he was.  Maybe who he is.  He clings to his prejudices as a way of maintaining some sense of identity.  If he cannot say exactly who or what he is anymore, at least he can say what he is not.  One cannot help but see his choices as driven by a desire to find some cause that will give him solid shape.  Unfortunately, while he’s searching, everything around him shifts, and he drowns in a sea of change.

Mary Poppins and Mr. Banks

(I am cross-posting this from my other blog, the Distal Muse, as it relates to the theme of this one.)

There was a hardcover copy of a Mary Poppins book in my grade school library.  I remember finding it and being very excited.  Naturally, I’d seen the movie and I was already discovering how much better the books from which films were made could be.  So I checked it out and took it home and that night opened it up and—

 

Took it back the next day, unfinished.  To say it was nothing like the film is beside the point.  To say I found no magic in it would be closer.  But frankly, the Mary Poppins of P.L. Travers—of which we now are so vigorously concerned of late—I found to be a cold, humorless drudge who was obsessed with discipline.  She was more like Mr. Banks from the film, who had to be saved from his stern, business-before-all attitude before he let all of life pass him by.  I grant you, I was quite young—ten—and not, perhaps, the most patient of readers or the most perceptive, but the contrast was so sharp and jarring that I’ve never gone back.  Travers’ Mary Poppins was no one I would have wanted anything to do with.  That Walt Disney found something magical in these stories amazed me at the time.

 

Fast-forward to my erstwhile attempts at being a writer and the slight knowledge I’ve garnered about property rights and adaptations and so forth, and many things make much more sense now.  The books were popular—not Harry Potter popular, not even close, but they sold—and there was presumably a market that could be exploited.  It must have appeared to Uncle Walt to be an opportunity to do a little payback toward England, where his Peter Pan  was barred by the tidy little trust Barrie had put together that guaranteed revenues for the orphanage to which the playwright was dedicated.  Disney had gamed international copyright to make the film without cutting them in for anything and they successfully kept the product out of British markets (until only recently, when a new deal was cut, paving the way for, among other things, the wonderful Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry novels about Peter and the Lost Boys).  Walt was snatching another British property and this time nothing would keep the film from English audiences.

 

And he saw something my ten-year-old self didn’t—a way to extract a Disney production from the elements of the stories.

 

But the result was so different from the source material, one must wonder why he didn’t just come up with something completely new on his own.

 

Well, at a guess, that name.  Mary Poppins.  (Especially the way Dick Van Dyke said it, in that exaggerated cockney accent.)  And the setting.  And the back story.  Safer, maybe, to grab something whole from a long siege than risk opprobrium by cutting out a new set of characters and then being accused of plagiarism.  Uncle Walt, after all, had an image to protect—his was part of an America trinity that included Abraham Lincoln and Santa Claus, honest, uncorrupted, generous, and pathologically well-meaning.  In his calculus it must have seemed worthwhile only if he could show that everyone, from the creator to the audience, approved.

 

And he bloody well paid Travers enough for her work.  Sixty thousand pounds, which would have worked out to roughly  one hundred two thousand dollars, which, adjusted for inflation etc etc would be worth about three-quarters of a million today.  Plus she got five percent of the box office gross.

 

She was, as they say, set.

 

Yet from all accounts the new film, Saving Mr. Banks, portrays Travers as just as difficult, odious, and perpetually disapproving as her signature character, granting Disney an aura of magnificent patience in dealing with this woman he seemed intent on making rich just by making Mary Poppins even more famous.

 

Why?

 

Because the fact is Travers went to her grave hating the film Disney made.  He turned her work inside out, cut away large portions of it to leave in the bin, and concocted a musical mish-mash of mind-numbing magical mush which she reportedly loathed.  The serious points she wanted to make in her stories got short-shrift, the “proper British household”(which she rather admired, especially being the daughter of a man who struggled for the position of Mr. Banks but lost it, only to die prematurely when Travers was six) was held up to ridicule, and Mary herself came off closer to an Edwardian jet-setter than the nanny who could fix anything Travers intended.

 

Mary Poppins was a creation from her childhood.  She had grown up with this character, it was part of her DNA, so to speak.  Disney worked at getting the rights to make the film for 20 years.  Can anyone fault Travers for being protective?  Indeed, obsessively so?  This is something most writers understand in their bones—it is their work, no, it is their being which is, depending how you view it, either being praised or raped.

 

The success of the film did not hurt.  She published more Mary Poppins books after it came out, among other things, but she never agreed to another Disney adaptation.  At a guess, at a minimum, she must have thought Disney had trivialized her character.

 

(To understand what must have gone through her mind, imagine for a moment the idea of telling, say, Ibsen that one of his plays was going to be made into a new production by Gilbert and Sullivan.)

 

Turning things over to someone else’s control is hard.  It can wrench to see your work treated differently, with apparent disregard for what you envisioned.  Even if no ill intent is on hand (and surely Walt Disney had nothing nefarious in mind—he was first and foremost an entertainer, he wanted to make magic that sold well) it can be galling to watch what you have done…altered.

 

I find it ironic that the film has been titled Saving Mr. Banks.  Disney as an institution has had more than a hefty dose of bad luck since Walt died and is often criticized for a variety of business practices which, while perfectly normal in the Hollywood milieu seem horrid and crass given the “Uncle Walt” persona the company wishes to put forward.  I realize it’s a play on the Banks family from the books and that part of the story Disney put on the screen concerns saving Mr. Banks’ soul from the creeping corporatism that is stealing him from his family.  But the film is about Walt Disney and his company.  Saving Mr. Banks, then, is about saving an image, saving a corporation, saving…Walt?

 

I have met no writer of books who was ever satisfied with the job a film did with his or her work.  Not one.  It is a very different medium from the printed page.  Those few films that have successfully (however one defines success) translated book to screen are the exceptions, not the rule.  The film maker very often finds it easier or more workable to just dump large parts of a written work and start over.  If everyone knows this is going on up front, then the results can be artistically fine.  Take for instance Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  There is maybe 15% of the book in the movie, but it is a brilliant film for all that it has departed from Dick’s original story.

 

Be that as it may, one wonders at the reasons behind putting together a hagiographic film about a relationship, while certainly important, probably few people really cared about so long after the events.  Why now?  Why this?  And what use is there in misrepresenting so much of what happened?  (Which films do all the time, this is nothing new, but for those who know better it is nevertheless aggravating.)  I wasn’t aware that Walt Disney’s image needed a new coat of varnish.

 

For the record, I liked the film Mary Poppins.  I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews ever since.  I liked it.  I didn’t love it.  I disliked musicals then, rather intensely, and the story seemed somewhat removed, but there were moments, magic moments, that took me out of my young head and made me marvel.  Enough that I became excited when I found that book in the school library.  Enough that I was disappointed at what I found on the page.

 

And that’s a point.  It matters what we’re exposed to first.  It sets out expectations.  While it may not be cool to admit it among certain circles, if the film is the first thing to which we’re exposed, it sets a bar that the books then must meet or surpass, and that’s just as difficult if the relation is reversed.  For me, the film remains stubbornly primary, even though I “know” better.  In a time when copyright and corporate ownership of intellectual rights is coming under more and more sophisticated scrutiny, it might behoove Disney to put forth an additional bit of mythology suggesting that this primacy is the valid one, that through his almost saint-like patience and paternal good will Uncle Walt was the one with the preferred vision and Pamela Travers was just, you know, being difficult.

 

Even a cursory glance at Travers’ life belies this.  She was an unmarried woman who had been making her way in the world of the theater and publishing for some time, who was in no way the constitutional drudge apparently being portrayed.  To be successful in that kind of life at that time, she could not be without considerable experience and business savvy.  It’s likely she smelled snake oil in Disney’s wooing and she reflexively recoiled.  She knew well enough that such a project would make her material existence easier, even if her conscience bothered her.  To personify what was a pragmatic business decision as some kind of character defect—because she was repelled by the subsequent production—is unkind, unnecessary, and more than a bit nasty.

 

Something Disney is not supposed to be.

 

Light Fallen

I’ve read three books in tandem which are connected by subtle yet strong filaments.  Choosing which one to begin with has been a bit vexatious, but in the end I’ve decided to do them in order of reading.

The first is an older book, handed me by a friend who thought I would find it very much worth my while.  I did, not, possibly, for the reasons he may have thought I would.  But it grounds a topic in which we’ve been engaged in occasionally vigorous debate for some time and adds a layer to it which I had not expected.

William Irwin Thompson’s  The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  is about myth.  It is also about history.  It is also about grinding axes and challenging paradigms.  The subtitle declares: Mythology, Sexuality & the Origins of Culture.  This is a lot to cover in a mere 270-some pages, but Mr. Thompson tackles his subject with vigor and wrestles it almost into submission.

His thesis is twofold.  The first, that Myth is not something dead and in the past, but a living thing, an aggregate form of vital memes, if you will, which recover any lost force by their simple evocation, even as satire or to be dismissed.  Paying attention to myth, even as a laboratory study, brings it into play and informs our daily lives.

Which means that myth does not have a period.  It is ever-present, timeless, and most subtle in its influence.

His other thesis, which goes hand in hand with this, is that culture as we know it is derived entirely from the tension within us concerning sex.  Not sex as biology, although that is inextricably part of it, but sex as identifier and motivator. That the argument we’ve been having since, apparently, desire took on mythic power within us over what sex means, how it should be engaged, where it takes us has determined the shapes of our various cultural institutions, pursuits, and explications.

It all went somehow terribly wrong, however, when sex was conjoined with religious tropism and homo sapiens sapiens shifted from a goddess-centered basis to a god-centered one and elevated the male above the female.  The result has been the segregation of the female, the isolation of the feminine, and the restriction of intracultural movement based on the necessity to maintain what amounts to a master-slave paradigm in male-female relationships.

Throughout all this “fallen” power play, ancient myths concerning origins and the latent meanings of mutual apprehensions between men and women (and misapprehensions) have continued to inform the dialogue, often twisted into contortions barely recognizable one generation to the next but still in force.

There is much here to consider.  Thompson suggests the rise of the great monotheisms is a direct result of a kind of cultural lobotomy in which the Father-God figure must be made to account for All, subjugating if not eliminating the female force necessary for even simple continuation.  The necessity of women to propagate the species, in this view, is accommodated with reluctance and they are, as they have been, shoved into cramped confines and designated foul and evil and unclean in their turn, even as they are still desired.  The desire transforms the real into the ideal and takes on the aspects of a former goddess worship still latent in mythic tropes.

Certainly there is obvious force to this view.

The book is marred by two problems.  I mentioned the grinding of axes. Time was published originally in 1981 and, mostly in the first third, but sprinkled throughout, is an unmasked loathing of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.  He takes especial aim at E.O. Wilson for promulgating certain reductive explanations for prehistoric cultural evolution based wholly on biological determinants.  Thompson’s prejudice is clear that he wants even early homo sapiens to be special in its cultural manifestations and he derides attempts at exclusively materialist explanations.  The fact that E.O,. Wilson himself has moved away from these earlier “purely” biological considerations one hopes would result in an updating.

But interestingly, part of Thompson’s rejection of such early modeling comes from an apparent belief in Race Memory.  Not, as I might find plausible, race memory as deeply-entrenched memes, but apparently as some undiscovered aspect of our genome.  He never quite comes out claims that such race memory is encoded in our DNA, but he leaves little room for alternative views.

Hence, he asserts, the genuine power of myth, since it is carried not only culturally, but quasi-biologically, as race memory.  Which we ignore at our peril.

He does not once mention Joseph Campbell, whose work on the power of myth I think goes farther than most in explicating how myth informs our lives, how myth is essentially meaning encoded in ideas carried in the fabric of civilization.  He does, however, credit Marija Gimbutas, whose work on goddess cultures extending back before the rise of Sumer and the constellation of civilizations commonly recognized as the “birth” of civilization was attacked by serious allegations of fraud in order to undermine her legitimacy and negate her thesis that early civilizations were certainly more gender equal if not outright female dominated.  (Just a comment on the so-called “birth” of civilization: it has been long remarked that ancient Sumeria appeared to “come out of nowhere”, a full-blown culture with art and some form of science.  But clearly common sense would tell us that such a “birth” had to be preceded by a long pregnancy, one which must have contained all the components of what emerged.  The “coming out of nowhere” trope, which sounds impressive on its face, would seem to be cultural equivalent of the virgin birth myth that has informed so many civilizations and myth cycles since…)

My complaint, if there is any, is that he undervalues the work of geneticists, biologists, and sociometricians, seeking apparently to find a causation that cannot be reduced to a series of pragmatic choices taken in a dramatically changing ecosystem or evolutionary responses to local conditions.  Fair enough, and as far as it goes, I agree.  Imagination, wherever and whenever it sprang into being, fits badly into the kind of steady-state hypothesizing of the harder sciences when it comes to how human society has evolved.  But to dismiss them as irrelevant in the face of an unverifiable and untestable proposition like Race Memory is to indulge in much the same kind of reductionist polemic that has handed us the autocratic theologies of “recorded history.”

Once Thompson moves out of the speculative field of, say, 8,000 B.C.E. and older and into the period wherein we have records, his attack on cherished paradigms acquires heft and momentum and the charm of the outsider.  (His mention, however, of Erich von Daniken threatens to undo the quite solid examination of the nature of “ancient” civilizations.)  It is easy enough to see, if we choose to step out of our own prejudices, how the march of civilization has been one of privileging male concerns and desires over the female and diminishing any attempt at egalitarianism in the name of power acquisition.  The justification of the powerful is and probably has always been that they are powerful, and therefore it is “natural” that they command.  Alternative scenarios suffer derision or oxygen deprivation until a civilization is old enough that the initial thrill and charm of conquest and dominance fades and more abstruse concerns acquire potency.

But the value of The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light  may be in its relentless evocation of institutional religion as a negation of the spiritual, as if to say that since we gave up any kind of natural and sane attitude toward sexuality and ignored the latent meaning in our mythologies we have been engaged in an ongoing and evermore destructive program to capture god in a bottle and settle once and for all what it is we are and should be.  When one looks around at the religious contention today, it is difficult if not impossible to say it is not all about men being in charge and women being property.  Here and there, from time to time, we hear a faint voice of reason crying out that this is a truly stupid thing to kill each other over.

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.

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Addendum:  When I posted this, I was challenged about my claim that Mailer said any such thing. Some suggested Philip Roth, others went back even further, but as it turns out, I have been unable to track down who said exactly what and when. Yet this is a stray bit of myth that refuses to die.  Someone at sometime said (or quoted someone saying, or paraphrased something ) that the Novel Is Dying and it persists.  It has become its own thing, and finding who did—or did not—say it may be problematic at best.  It is nonetheless one of those things that seems accepted in certain circles.  It would be helpful if someone could pin it down, one way or the other.

Life On The Dark Side

There is a moment in Dennis Lehane’s Live By Night in which the protagonist, Joe Coughlin—Joseph to his father, the man against whom Joe gauges himself all his life—realizes that he is not what he wants to be, what he always asserted himself to be.

“How many men have you killed?” Estaban asked.

“None,” Joe said.

“But you’re a gangster.”

Joe didn’t see the point in arguing the definition between gangster and outlaw because he wasn’t sure there was one anymore. “Not all gangsters kill people.”

“But you must be willing to.”

Joe nodded. “Just like you.”

“I’m a businessman. I provide a product people want. I kill no one.”

“You’re arming Cuban revolutionaries.”

“That’s a cause.”

“In which people will die.”

“There’s a difference,” Estaban said. “I kill for something.”

“What? A fucking ideal?” Joe said.

“Exactly.”

“And what Ideal is that, Estaban?”

“That no man should rule another’s life.”

“Funny,” Joe said, “outlaws kill for the same reason.”

Throughout the novel, Joe is teasing at distinctions.  He gets involved in crime to distinguish himself from his father and his older brothers.  He disobeys his boss in order to fulfill an image of himself as his own man.  He takes as lover his boss’s moll because she is someone he wants more than he ever wanted anything before and cannot see why he should not risk all in order to be who he wants to be.

It costs him and in the end he loses—constantly and dearly—even as he achieves exactly that goal, to be himself.

Live By Night may be a turning point for Lehane, who has been consistently raising the bar in his own work by engaging his worlds and his characters at a level beyond the expectations of noir.

Joe Coughlin considers himself an outlaw.  Not a gangster.  For him, there is a fine by significant difference.  While both engage similar tactics, the reasons are different, and in his own way Joe seems to think there is a moral distinction.  The outlaw sets his own rules, but reserves the right—indeed, believes in the necessity—of setting limits on what he will and will not do in pursuit of his goals.  He will not kill indiscriminately.

This alone sets him at odds with his putative superiors.  As far as Joe is concerned, if he achieves the same thing without indulging in what he believes to be senseless violence, why should anyone be disappointed.

Sometimes this works out well and everyone is happy.  Other times, it runs afoul a deeper motivation on the part of the people with whom he is in league.

Set during Prohibition, Lehane gives us a rich view of the borderline landscapes where the illicit and licit blur into each other.  In Joe’s own view, he and his “live by night,” where the rules are murkier, the motives different, the standards other than for those who live in the day.  Day and Night are almost metaphysical concepts.  Similarities abound, but in many ways superficial.

Joe begins in Boston, the son of a prominent man in the police department who despairs of his youngest boy, even while he loves him.  The Oedipal tangles binding them in an impossible relationship are revealed but only as foundational constructs.  Nothing can be resolved between them.  Life has taken them in such directions that they cannot accommodate each other.

And yet their lives intersect tragically when Joe is sent to prison and falls into the orbit of one of the most powerful mob bosses on the east coast.  Joe plays the situation masterfully, but the game is ultimately rigged and the house claims it tonnage of flesh over the course of a career that sees Joe rise to power in Florida, becoming the chief rum runner in the Gulf.

What sets this story above the standard-issue gangster novel is Lehane’s insistence on a moral center that, flawed as it is, possesses real force for Joe and takes him in directions that often irritate him because it would be simpler, easier to just go along with the power structure.  In this, Joe becomes iconic—a moral man (such as he is) caught within a broken system.

As well, Lehane’s wordcraft—his art, his dextrous use of image—puts him on par with Chandler and Cain, Ross McDonald and Hammet.  There is a flavor of Scott Fitzgerald in his evocations, in the in-built tragedy, in the almost Shakespearean psychologies at play.  Even the minor, bit players feel fully fleshed and viscerally authentic.

And the passion is narcotic.  Joe loves two women in the course of the novel and Lehane makes it real.  Through this as much as anything else he shows us the costs of being an outlaw, of refusing the safer trajectories of life.  Joe makes his choices—because he can and also because he can’t not—and accepts the risks.

A superior read.

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…”

 

Veering Into The Present

An attractive pitfall of popular history is the Pivotal Moment.  The writer centers on an event or an idea that signals a shift in the course of history, leading somewhere other than where it had been heading.  The Donation of Constantine, the First Crusade,  the invention of moveable type, Galileo’s confrontation with the Church, Newton’s codification of the law of gravity, things like that.  The point being made is that these events are so tectonic that Everything Changes.

The pitfall is not so much that they are wrong but that they are taken as solely responsible, isolated moments, forks in the road.  It is easy to ignore or forget everything else around them.  Focusing only on the Emperor Constantine can suggest that without him, Christianity might not have become the official religion of Rome and thus history might have taken a different course.  (Personally, I think Constantine’s moving the capital of the empire east was far more significant as something he alone could have done, or caused to be done.)  It overlooks the fact that Christianity had become a tremendous movement by then.  Had Constantine been of a mind to resist it, he might have delayed its ascension for another emperor, but it would have become what it did in any event.  Constantine was being politically astute.  (After all, he left Rome to the Church even as he moved the center of imperial power to the new city of Constantinople.  It’s telling that he chose to isolate them geographically.)  The Crusades were important as expressions of political currents leading to a contraction of Rome’s vision of itself and certainly set the stage for subsequent events in the Levant, but not even the death of Richard the Lionheart changed all that much in even British history.

Newton might be arguably more important, at least for the calculus, but such things were in the wind.  Leibniz, rival and competitor to Newton, invented a calculus, and while the debate goes on as to who was first and which was better, such a mathematical tool was going to emerge.

Picking pivotal events, therefore, is a challenge.  Placing them in context is a duty and one it is often tempting to underplay.  It makes a better story if the singular event is the hero, as it were.  But it can sometimes make for bad history.

Stephen Greenblatt avoids that problem admirably in The Swerve: How The World Became Modern.  Even though the title is a bit hyperbolic and suggests the kind of history more consistent with a tabloid approach, what one finds within it first-rate history written for a general audience about a rather arcane subject:  the way ideas can change entire cultures.

The story is about the discovery of a manuscript, De Natura Rerum, an epic poem by the Roman Lucretius (99 B.C.E. to 55 B.C.E.), an acolyte of Epicurean philosophy who died just before Rome became an Empire instead of a Republic.  De Natura Rerum—“On the Nature of Things”—is a a surprising work in that it espouses ideas which we think of now as wholly modern.  That the universe is composed of atoms, that time and space are unbounded, that life evolves, that matter is all there is.  If one squints, one sees the foundational ideas of contemporary physics in all this.  Physics and cosmology.

But it continued on to suggest that pleasure is the highest moral purpose, that doing that in life that increases one’s pleasure and the pleasure of those around us, is the primary aim of a moral life.

It’s easy to see how this might run afoul the kind of moral philosophy that has dominated Western culture since before the rise of Christianity.  But Lucretius was not advocating hedonism, but the more constrained program of Epicurus, the 4th Century B.C.E.  Greek philosopher who advocated philosophy based on the two standards of ataraxia and aponia, namely peace and freedom from fear (ataraxia) and the absence of pain (aponia).  To do this, one must lead a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends and occupying the mind with constructive and pleasing contemplations and treating the body to that which brings pleasure.  Though the name has been linked to self-indulgence, hedonistic abandon, and all the ills of unrestrained pleasure-seeking, what Epicurus had in mind was something very different, and defined by moderation.  The kind of self-indulgence we assume attends such a life he did not see as peaceful, pleasurable, or free from pain.

He also believed that when we die, nothing survives.  The soul is an aspect of our physical existence like anything else and fades to nothing once the container ceases to function.

Lucretius wrote a poem of purportedly great beauty in support of this philosophy.

It is a common misapprehension that the Greco-Roman world of that time would have embraced all this eagerly.  The fact is, Christianity rather easily took root in the Roman Empire because it bore much in common with ordinary Roman morality.  Epicurus was almost as disdained under the Caesars as his ideas were later despised under the popes.  Christianity succeeded largely because of its commonalities with pagan culture, a culture which found Epicurean ideas almost as off-putting as any later devout Catholic might.

A culture which fully embraced the spiritual side of attitudes toward the material world that relegated this life to a condition of transient, burdensome necessity, pain, and suffering which must be borne with the faith and dignity of an acolyte who seeks a better existence in an afterlife, fully convinced that nothing in this realm matters.  A culture that had no use for the idea of atoms, that believed the universe to be bound tightly in a very local set of spheres, and with a time limit on its existence that was easily comprehensible—a few thousands of years.  People wanted the comfort of believing existence to be closely bound, finite, with a way out.

Lucretius’ poem faded from memory.  Rome’s collapse was as much a result of neglect as of catastrophe, and by the 9th century, much of the written legacy was sequestered in monasteries, scattered, mouldering, often ignored, certainly unstudied.  It required that civilization rise back to a certain material level before interest in ideas, old manuscripts, and the past could matter.

Enter Poggio Bracciolini, Florentine, scholar, humanist.

Humanist meant something a bit different in the 14th and 15th centuries than it does today, but it is possible to see the connection.  Poggio was one of that group of avid collectors who scoured the monastic libraries for old books.  Most of them were copies of even older books, the remnants of a vast ancient world epitomized by the Library of Alexandria, most of which seemed to offer glimpses into a Golden Age.  Aristotle had long been seen as the basis for rationalizing certain troublesome aspects of Christian theology.  The flood of recovered books from the Reconquista has been both benefit to a slowly recovering European civilization and troublesome bane to a Church that saw itself as the final arbiter of what it was proper to know, to consider, to believe.

Poggio worked for a succession of popes.  In his “spare” time, he hunted manuscripts, and helped return them to circulation.  He found Lucretius’ tome in Germany, a 9th century copy.  According to Greenblatt, he may not even have realized what it was.  He’d only heard it mentioned with respect and some reverence in other ancient manuscripts.

The Swerve reveals the events surrounding the poem’s creation, loss, rediscovery, and subsequent dissemination throughout a culture that was on the verge of becoming something other than what it had been.  The ideas embraced in the eloquent lines are ideas with which we are more than familiar today.  Indeed, they are common coin in debates on the right and the good and resonate in the foundations of modern science.  Greenblatt suggests that it was this book—its reintroduction to a wide audience—that caused the veer into what has become a secular civilization.

He is careful, however, to contextualize his assertions.  Something like this, it seems, would have had to be invented if it hadn’t been found.  Its arrival at the onset of the Renaissance was fortuitous.  Coming along when it did—when science was beginning to coalesce out of the mish-mash of alchemy and reactions to Aristotelianism, when people like Bruno, Galileo, Newton, and many others were present to respond—hastened events, gave focus to certain schools of thought, fed the furnace that was recasting conceptualizations of nature and the universe.  It lent the weight of a more complete philosophical conception to the fragmented components of what would one day become the modern world.

It is perhaps surprising (and somewhat disillusioning) that the arguments spawned by De Natura Rerum are still being waged today.  Reading Greenblatt’s examination of the central ideas of the poem and the subsequent responses to it is itself a lesson in historical context, because we can look around and find exactly the same kinds of debates—and sometimes bitter battles—going on around us.

But it is also encouraging.  Ideas survive.  People keep them alive, even over centuries, millennia.  Greenblatt is, in his own way, continuing that fragile, necessary, and yet astonishingly powerful tradition, passing on to the future what is important not only for today but what has been important all along.