In Review

2015 is done and I have read what I read.  It was a year fraught with turmoil in science fiction, a year prompting reassessments, a year when required reading competed with reading for pleasure, and the time constraints of working on a new novel (two, in fact) impeded chipping away at my to-be-read pile, which mounds higher.

As in the past, I count only books I have read cover to cover here.  If I added in total pages of unfinished reading, I’m probably up with my usual volume (somewhere around 90 books), but that would be a cheat.  That said, I read 50 books in 2015.

One thing I concluded, both from what I read and the upheaval in the background about what is or is not worthy science fiction, is that the decades long pseudowar between mainstream and genre is over.  Skirmishes will continue to be fought here and there, certain elements will refuse to yield or concede, but by and large the evidence suggests that, on the part of the literary writers at least SF has made its point. A couple of examples:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is science fiction.  In fact, after talking it over for nearly a year since I read it, it seems to me to be Heinleinesque.  Better written, the characters less exemplars than real people, but in basic conceit and plot, this is a Heinlein novel. It has all the elements—survivors, a plucky heroine, a global catastrophe forcing those who remain to learn quickly a whole suite of new skills, and an ongoing discussion throughout about what is of value and ought to be preserved.  It is a superbly written work and that alone made the identification difficult.  Heinlein, at his best, could be as good as anyone in any genre, but to see the form raised to this level shows both his virtues and his weaknesses.  The population of the Earth is reduced buy a superflu.  The novel flashes back and forth around the life of a kind of patriarch whose biological and artistic progeny struggle in a post-technological world to both survive and preserve the best of that former world.  The novel prompts questions, challenges preconceptions, and draws us in.  It was not marketed as science fiction and it has continued to sell very well.  It is science fiction and no one has batted an eye.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.  An ecological thriller, an examination of a different kind of breakdown, a different kind of survival, peopled by characters as real as can be.  In a decade this will be historical fiction, probably, but it is SF and also mainstream and also uncategorizable.  Exceptional.

Straddling the boundary is Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, which is a curiosity.  It proceeds like a straightforward “survey mission” novel—specialists set down upon an alien world and struggling to unravel its mysteries before said world kills them.  Only in this case the “alien” world in a patch of reclaimed wilderness somewhere along the eastern seaboard, probably north Florida, that is undergoing some strange transformations due to an experiment gone wrong.  There are touches of zombie fiction, government conspiracy, and even Lovecraftian uber-malignancy evoked, but the story, as told by The Biologist, feels more meta than any of those suggest.  the landscape works to inform the soul-wrenching recognitions and evolutions within the Biologist as she works to understand what is going on in the aptly named Area X.  Vandermeer has created a work bordering on genius here by virtue of externalizing and foregrounding mystical revelation as ecological transmutation, but as you read you can’t tease the meta passages from the plot in any clear way, so the experience, when you give yourself over to it, is wholly immersive.

So what I’m seeing—in many more titles still on my TBR pile—is the embrace of science fiction by what was formerly an ambivalent cadre of artists who are using it to ends traditionally ignored by main-body SF.

In the other direction, the infusion of literary concerns, which necessarily drag real-world issues in with them, into genre writing has prompted a squeal of protest from those who wish to keep their starships pure, their aliens obvious, and their weapons decisive.  “Good writing” is still a poorly understood quality by too many in the genres (by no means a problem exclusive to SF, but because of the nature of SF a problem which yields far more obvious failures) and the clinging to an aesthetic attributed to the so-called Golden Age and exemplified by writers probably more often revered than actually read (and therefore misperceived in intent) has exacerbated the old antagonisms and a final flaring up of fires dying to ash.  The clunky sentence is a hallmark of much of this, more likely as consequence rather than intent, and the cliched scenario becomes more obviously so as the whole point of what we mean by “literary” in its most useful mode is overlooked or, perhaps, willfully ignored in a fit of defensive refusal to pay attention to what matters, namely the truth of human experience and the profitable examination of, for want of a better word, the Soul.

Where the cross-fertilization of mainstream and genre has been successfully accomplished, we’ve been seeing novels and stories of marvelous effect.  We have been seeing them all along and in the past such examples were readily offered as proof that SF wass “just as good” as anything published as mainstream.  I’ve always felt that being “just ad good” was selling our potential short, but the work has to rise to the challenge, and there always have been such works.

Among such that I read this past year were a few from that rich past, mainly for the reading group I host at work.  The Two of Them by Joanna Russ; Extra(Ordinary) People, also by Russ; The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis; Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock; The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell; and Engine Summer by John Crowley.  In retrospect, there have always been writers writing in the full embrace of science fiction but without any of the stylistic constraints of its pulp origins, and such works remain trenchant and readable and offer surprising commentary still on current questions.

The Sparrow was a highlight. I have known since its publicatin that it was sort of a riff on James Blish’s classic, A Case Of Conscience, but it so much more. Russell’s elegant reversal of the moral question elevates this novel to the top tiers of useful literary works. I have not yet read its sequel, but I am looking forward to it after this treat.

I also reread Harlan Ellison’s Shatterday for the reading group. It’s been a good long while since I did so and I was not disappopinted, although I read many of the stories through a more cynical eye. The opening tale, Jeffty Is Five, remains, for me, one of the most gutwrenching short stories of all time.

Another highpoint this past year was James Morrow’s new novel, Galapagos Regained, a neatly unclassifiable work of speculative history.  I gave it a lengthy review here and recommend a look. This is a superbly done work that deserves more attention than it has received.

I also read Morrow’s amusing novella, The Madonna and the Starship, which runs a delightful gamne via Fifties television and alien visitors who come to bestow an award and offer assistance in exterminating the irrational on Earth.  Morrow is acerbic even as he is funny.

Among the most interesting new works of science fiction I red this year is The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translation by Ken Liu.  This is the first part of a trilogy about alien invasion and resistance as written from a Chinese perspective.  It is an exceptional translation.  It won the Hugo Award, the first, I believe, translation to do so, and certainly the first Asian novel to win.  There is high-end physics, nasty politics, murder, and the conundrums of committed action. The cultural quirks made it even more interesting.

Like almost everyone, it seems, I read The Martian by Andrew Weir. This was great fun and well executed.  My quibble, along with many others, was with the opening gambit to explain the marooning of the astronaut, but I’m content to see it as a mere dramatic choice.  It didn’t preent me from enjoying the rest of the book, which, in the words of the screen adaptation, “scienced the shit out all this” and did so in an accessible and entertaining manner which I applaud.  I couldn’t help seeing it as a newer version of an older film, Robinson Crusoe On Mars, and naturally this one works a bit better.  Hell, we know more, there’s no excuse for bad science, and Mr. Weir that.  He wrote a realistic piece of speculation and followed through admirably.

Another novel that gave a far more “realistic” view of an old, favorite SF trope, is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora.  There is much to love about this book, but it is not lovable.  It’s a clear-eyed look at what an interstellar generation ship would actually be like.  And it is bleak, in terms of the traditions of SF.  Suffice it to say without giving away too much that Robinson fully incorporates entropy into his formula with predictably gloomy results, but for all that it is a thoroughly engaging work.

At the other end of the “hard” SF spectrum is Charles Gannon’s Fire With Fire.  Future interstellar expansion brings humanity into contact with our neighbors.  The resulting tensions drive the novel.  I reviewed it here.

Science fiction is a broad, broad field and has room for a magnificently wide range even on the same subjects.  It even has room, as I noted above, for exceptional style.  One of the most enjoyable reads for me, on that note, was Ian McDonald’s new novel, Luna.  There will be comparisons made to Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  Look for an upcoming review where I will argue that the comparison, while in some ways valid, is superficial.  Anyone who has not read McDonald, treat yourself.  This would be a good one with which to begin.

In a completely different area of the playground, there is Daryl Gregory’s AfterParty, which I found excellent.  It’s about drug abuse and the workings of delusion and murder.  Anything I might say here would spoil it.  Go.  Find it.  Imbibe.

The bulk of my reading, after that and a few other titles, has been scattered.  I found a brand new history of the Group f64, which was the first dedicated group of photographers to push the pure art of the straight photograph.  Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, several others, in the 20s and 30s established the ground upon which all photography came to be viewed for the rest of the 20th century and even, arguably, into today. Mary Street Alinder, who has previously written a biography of Ansel Adams, did a superb job chronicling this group of prickly independent artist.

I read a history of a superhero, Wonder Woman, and discovered that the story of her creation was even stranger than the character herself.

A new work by journalist Johann Hari, Chasing The Scream, opened my eyes to the thorny issue of the Drug War.

In the wake of seeing the film Interstellar and beginning work on my own novel about (partly) interstellar travel, I dove into Kip Thorne’s Black Holes & Time Warps and had my mind bent in some ways I didn’t think it could be bent.  This has prompted a reengagement with science on this level which is proving difficult, tedious, and yet rewarding.  My mind no longer has the plasticity it once enjoyed.  On the other hand, experience has proven a benefit in that I seem to be absorbing and comprehending at a much deeper level.  We shall see.

Quite a bit of history, much of it unfinished.  In a separate reading group, I’m going through Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and reading in the history of the French Revolution, the Republic, its fall, all partly to complete the third novel of my trilogy, but also because the literature available is so rich and surprising that it has become its own pleasure.  It would seem now I’m about to embark on early American history again, anchored by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton.

There was a new Mary Russell novel this past year, Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King.  I discovered a Dan Simmons novel about Holmes which I’d overlooked when it came out, The Fifth Heart, in which he is paired with Henry James, one more in a long line of novels and stories concerning Holmes’ unlikely interaction with historical figures.  Simmons is a terrific writer, but even he tended toward the tedious in this one.  He needs to learn to leave his research in his files.  But it was a unique take on Holmes and he even managed to elicit my sympathy toward James, a writer I find problematic at best, insufferable at worst, and annoying the rest of the time.

So much for the highlights.  Let me end by noting that the Best American series has finally realized that science fiction and fantasy are a real thing and launched one of their annual collections to cover it.  This after both Best Of infographics and comics.  Better late than never, I suppose.  The series editor is John Joseph Adams—difficult to imagine better hands—and this first volume was edited by Joe Hill, which I found interesting to say the least.  Mr. Hill is a horror writer.  Certainly many of the stories have a strong horror element, but over all this is a collection full of marvels, from the writing to the ideas.  I’ll try to keep track of this one in future.

So while not numerically great, 2015 was filled with many very excellent books.  I’m looking forward to 2016.  My stack awaits.

Happy New Year.

 

 

Moral Crisis and The Reality of God: Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow

Sometimes it is very much worth the wait before reading certain books.  Too early an exposure and the substance could be misapprehended, misinterpreted, misconstrued, or simply missed. Such, I feel, is the case with Mary Doria Russell’s superb The Sparrow, which came out in 1996. I bought a copy shortly after it appeared in paperback and it has remained, unread, on my shelf since. Until this month. Why?

I don’t know, really. I started it a few times and something in the opening pages either left me unengaged or daunted. Whatever the reason, it waited till this year, and perhaps that was as it should be.

I knew enough about the novel to tell people that it is a natural successor to James Blish’s excellent novella, A Case of Conscience, which has many of the same elements. A Jesuit as member of a first contact mission to an alien world and the moral conundrum arising from certain inevitable questions.  Interestingly, I find that both novels hinge on an evolutionary question going directly to matters of fundamental morality.  Blish suggested powerfully that our entire conception of god and its concomitant moral structures may be simply a consequence of how we evolved.  That the sociology resulting from our biology allowed for certain cross-generational assumptions which a different biological system simply wouldn’t produce.

Russell’s concept is less pat than Blish, since in many respects the biology involved is similar enough to ours to muddy those particular waters. She adds another component to the mix, though, that results in a basic difference of moral priority.  In fact, in the end there’s a question of whether or not morality is relevant at all, overwhelmed by opportunity and expedience.

What we have in The Sparrow is deliciously layered examination of cultural assumptions that continues to play even after the book is finished and the afterimages begin cycling through our minds.  She set a series of logical land mines throughout that set each other off with the inevitability of a Socratic dialogue.

Father Emilio Sandoz, Jesuit and linguist, a child of the slums who has through a series of fortunate accidents become more than his beginnings would ever have suggested possible, is on hand when the first evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered at the large radio array of Arecibo. After analysis, the signals resolve into music. Odd, alien music that is nevertheless compelling, a siren’s call to erstwhile explorers.  There is no question upon hearing this music for Sandoz. We must go.

The mechanism by which they travel to Alpha Centauri is grounded in solid extrapolation of how space technologies may proliferate in the near future.  Asteroid mining is a going activity and it is a matter mainly of financing to turn an abandoned asteroid into a starship.  The Catholic Church, through the offices of the Jesuits, opts to send a mission.  They ask no one’s permission, in fact pretty much tell no one that they’re going.  The U.N. is debating sending a mission and later they do, but this one—the Stella Maris—is the first.

I don’t wish to spoil the plot, which, even without the substantial subtext would be a page-turner.  The careful revelation of detail through which Russell presents her thesis is important to its impact, and that subtext is the whole purpose.  Suffice it to say that the mission fails.  Emilio Sandoz returns to Earth, a broken man, the only survivor of the party of eight.

When I say “a broken man” I mean in every sense of the phrase.  His hands are a wreck, he has numerous physical problems, including scurvy, and his mind is all but gone from the trauma of the mission itself and its costs and from the fact that he was forced to make the return voyage all alone, a long journey through a deeper dark night of the soul than one might ordinarily encounter.  Upon return, he is to be brought before an inquest, established by his own order, to find out the facts of the mission and determine their meaning.

Sandoz doesn’t want to cooperate.  He doesn’t want to relive the events that ended in such failure nor does he want to infect anyone else with the knowledge that has caused him to renounce his faith.

Though not exactly. This is one of the interesting aspects of the layered game Russell plays throughout. It’s an open question, even at the end, whether Sandoz has in fact lost his faith.  He seems to wish it, certainly, angry and bitter he is at a god by which he feels betrayed.  But Sandoz is a brilliant man.  He exemplifies what has become axiomatic about Jesuits and maintains his faith by dint of reason supported by a passionate belief in justice.  No simple “believer” and having emerged from a hellish childhood to become one of the best linguists not only in his order but anywhere, it takes enormous challenge for him to question his commitment to a god which more facile minds would characterize as bizarrely cruel.  Even at the close of the novel he is wrestling with the nature of god.

At the center of the novel is a particular formulation of the question of evil which goes to what might be termed beneficial expedience.  The alien race to which he goes as linguist and missionary lives in apparent harmony with itself and its environment.  A complex harmony, mirrored in the songs that are the first knowledge humankind receives of them.  There is much about them that is admirable but also puzzling—until they realize that what they at first thought to be a single species is in fact two intelligent species and their evolved cohabitation of their world requires of them certain accommodations that for humans would be odious.

There is the question of judgment—not our world, not even our evolutionary history, how are we to judge?  But any concept of a god as source of moral law must necessarily exhibit certain basic consistencies, regardless.  There is the question of expedience—if something works not only for the individual but for the planet as a whole, again, who are we to question?

But finally, Sandoz comes face to face with the human example as baseline for any kind of moral assessment and asks: “What do we have to show as in any way superior, when the condition of our species is questionable at best?”

Russell sets a serious moral trap in this novel, leading us step by step to the point where we must look at our own condition and ask how our own apprehension of moral law plays out.  Does it enforce any kind of justice?  Does it bring us into harmony among ourselves and our environment?  Does the dogma by which our moral adjutants dispense advice and guidance actually serve the function for which it is claimed?

Like a good Jesuit, Sandoz is still asking these questions at the end of his ordeal, and a terrible ordeal it is.  On a certain level, he is brought to the condition of all colonized and oppressed peoples and made to know what it is like to have everything he believes and assumes overwritten by a more powerful circumstance.  By the end he has suffered every indignity. Every single one that arises from basic injustice.

And yet the system which puts him through this is not by its own metrics oppressive—merely an embellished example of evolutionary imperative.  By comparison, Sandoz wonders if the horrors of our own condition are not the results of a fundamental rejection of evolutionary imperatives, the imposition of a wholly artificial system presumed to be based on moral assessment but really little more than a gloss on power relations having little to do with anything “natural.”

In turn, one can then ask the same thing about the aliens and their relationships.  If, which seems to be one of the unspoken assumptions by which Sandoz operates as a moral agent, sapience is the deciding factor in applying standards of justice and equity, then how can the two species on Rakhat maintain the self-evidently immoral system they do?  By the same token, if equality is of such value to us as a basis for our moral decisions, how then can we maintain the cultural systems we do?

There is, Socratically, a dialogue at play throughout the novel, and a rigorous one at that.  Each of the eight humans who go to Rakhat as well as the priests conducting the inquest represent choices and judgments based on different apprehensions of the god question.  Each stands for a different set of conditions calling into question our basic assumptions about civilization and moral action.  Often it’s subtle, but sometimes powerfully visceral.  We realize that this is a novel which, practically from page one, takes every assertion of right and wrong and expedience and morality and says “Sure, but” in the very next passage.

Finally, it is an examination of the limits of accommodation.

The earlier novel, A Case of Conscience, asked a few of these questions, but it shied away from many others.  Nor did it offer such a full range of mirrored arguments.  Its conclusion was in many ways annoyingly ambiguous and turned on a question of epistemology which was less personal, less visceral than what Father Sandoz is forced to face.  But there remains a line between them which is not insignificant, which is that we must ask if any conception of god is not in the end purely a matter of intellectual expedience that cannot stand up to exposure to truly different cultures and biologies.  If, basically, in the end such conceptions are, like anything else, merely systems designed to see us through to the next level of understanding.  They do change.  The Jesuits themselves changed from their beginnings as an order dedicated to the authority of the pope and an enemy of developing knowledge to an order of the best educators and some of the finest scientists on the planet.  Whether admitted or not, their conception of god changed.  Sandoz is dealing with the question of how resilient any such conception is.

Or was Spinoza right and that god is simply nature and morality is ours to construct and adapt and modify?  Sandoz seems at times a closet Spinozan, but as flexible as he often is, he finds his limits and snaps.

Or does he?

I’m not sure I possessed the stuff to appreciate this novel when it came out.  I may not now, but I can at least see, sometimes vaguely perhaps, Russell’s intent.  In any case, it was certainly worth the wait.

Roundup 2014

Time for a year in review.  I am bound to say, though, that my reading once more has been disappointingly thin.

When I am working on a novel, time for leisure reading necessarily goes down. Reading for research goes up, but that rarely requires me to finish an entire book.  I look at my reading list for the year and the only titles I ever include are those I’ve completed, so on such years I appear to be under-achieving.

That said, I completed 42 titles this year. (To be sure, I’ve probably read, by volume, closer to 90, but most of those I did not finish.  For instance, I am still plodding my way through Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.  I’ll likely have to start it over.)

There were several that were rereads for me.  Unusual in that I seldom if ever reread a book. I don’t read fast enough to feel good about covering old ground when there’s so much new to be trod.  But I started up a reading group at Left Bank Books—Great Novels of the 22nd Century—and I’ve been choosing classics to discuss, so among the rereads were: Dying of the Light by George R.R. Martin (I wanted to show people that he could write, write well, and write economically about something other than the War of the Roses, although to my surprise I found many of the same themes playing out in this, his first novel); Slow River by Nicola Griffith (her Nebula winner and still, I’m happy to say, a powerful, poignant novel); Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh, one of the best interstellar warfare novels ever penned and very much an inspiration in my own work (for one thing, one has seldom found such solid treatment of working class issues in such a novel); Burning Chrome by William Gibson, which just made me wish he still did short fiction; Timescape by Gregory Benford, one of the best time travel novels ever written, although I’m bound to say it felt socially dated, though not fatally so; Nova by Samuel R. Delany, a lyrical, multilayered congeries of mixed mythos in an exuberantly realized interstellar setting; A Case of Conscience by James Blish; Gateway by Frederik Pohl; and now Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.

While some of these provided me with revelatory experiences (I missed that the first time through! and I never thought about it this way before) the chief benefit of this exercise for me was in seeing how these books have informed what came after.  Over the past three-plus decades since it’s original publication, Timescape reads like a novel which escaped much of social consciousness progress even of its own time.  Not egregiously so, but there is only one female scientist in the story and she is very much in the supporting cast category.  Certain political strands feel thin.  None of this is a detraction from the primary story or from the fact that Benford is one of our better stylists (which really makes me wonder who was doing what in his recent collaboration with Larry Niven, which I found virtually unreadable because of simple clunkiness in the prose) and paid attention to character more than many of his contemporaries—or, I should say, realized such attention better.  On the page, his people feel real, whole, fleshed out.

The time travel device in the novel leads directly into one of the best books I read this past year, Gibson’s new one, The Peripheral, just recently reviewed here.  Along with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and a handful of others, this enters my personal canon as one of the finest time travel works ever written, even though the plot seems deceptively commercial.

The most telling revelation of my rereads has been in finding my own reactions to the texts so different.  I remember my initial response to many of these as being quite different.  True, I missed many very good things in retrospect, but also I forgave a lot more than I do now.  There are books I come across today which I find off-putting which I know 20 or 30 or 40 years ago I would have raved about.  Much of this comes down to simple artistry.

Or perhaps not so simple.  I found it interesting that my more positive response to Delany’s Nova for its elegance and its precision left others a bit cold.  One brings a history of reading to a book which largely determines how one’s expectations will be satisfied…or disappointed.

I did reread James Schmitz’s Demon Breed.  Not for the reading group—it is sadly unavailable—but to refresh my memory for another project, and I still found it to be an exhilarating book, well ahead of it’s day in its basic assumptions about gender roles.  This is one I have now read four times since first discovering it as an Ace Special way back in 1969 and each time I’ve found it holds up extremely well and attests to an underappreciated genius.

Knowing now more clearly that elegance of execution is vitally important to me, my patience for certain kinds of writing has diminished.  I mentioned the Niven/Benford collaboration which I found impossible to get through, although it crackled with ideas.  What I have learned (for myself) is that the entire argument over style versus substance is a straw man.  It assumes they are not the same thing.  Quite the contrary, they are inextricably entwined.  Very simply, style emerges from a clear grasp of substance.  A sentence works at several levels, revealing information of different kinds in the way it presents its contents to the reader.  A lack of substance will show in a stylistic failure.  Too often we erroneously hear “style” as code for “decorative.”  Not at all.  The style is all important to the conveying of mood, of character, of setting, of theme.  But style cannot impose any of these things—the style is a result of the writer having a solid knowledge of what needs to be conveyed and an attention to how the sentence should be written in order to convey it.

Which is why I say style is an emergent property.  Almost no one gets to this level without a lot of practice, over time.  Which is also why most writers become clearer—“better”—as they go on.  They’re learning what matters, paring their words down, and revealing more.

For example, two novels I read this year which could not be more different serve to show how that experience and growing clarity result in unique styles.  Jim Harrison’s Brown Dog (which is a collection of linked novellas about the title character) and Richard Powers’ Orfeo.  On the page, the writing could not be more different.  Brown Dog is a semi-literate, often-itinerant aging naif who tells his story in what appears to be simple-minded affectlessness.  Things happen, he’s bounced around by events, lands (inexplicably) on his feet (wobbling often) and while clever is so guileless that one begins to believe in guardian angels.  The style reflects this.  Read carefully, though, and a world is revealed in each passing sentence.  Powers, on the other hand, reads like a musician scoring a great symphonic cycle.  The language is rich, evocative, challenging—and yet absolutely transparent, consistent with the story.  It can only be what it is in the telling of this particular tale of a failed composer who at the end of his life finds himself on the run and becoming an icon of his own life, with one more song to write and perform.  Each sentence reveals a different world, just as clearly, just as uniquely.

Style comes largely, therefore, from perspective.  Perspective informed a pair of books I read about the genre in which I labor, science fiction.  I finally read Brian Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree, which is an excellent history-qua-analysis of science fiction.  Because I had it to hand, I then read Margaret Atwood’s collection of essays about her experience of SF, In Other Worlds.  I wrote a longish examination of my gleanings from these two very different-yet-similar works, but let me just say that in them is revealed the font and consequence of perspective.  Atwood, for all her professed appreciation of science fiction, does not “get it” while Aldiss, who breathed it in like air in his youth, does, leading them both to unique understandings.

Another “paired reading” I did this year was Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsy novels, Gaudy Night and Whose Body?  It was fascinating because the latter is the first Wimsy novel and the former is late in the cycle.  What I found fascinating was the growth of the character.  The late Wimsy is very different from the early and yet are clearly the same man.  (Another instance where style is essential to the content, the revelation of such growth.)

One of the most interestingly-written novels I found was Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit, which can be said to be all about style, and yet nothing about style.  It is written in first-person plural, an ever-present “we” as the story is told from a collective point of view which nevertheless reveals individual character.  The “wives” form an amalgam of experience in opposition to, judgment of, and distance from the events that formed the core of their subsequent lives as they followed their scientist and engineer husbands to Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb.  A stunningly gutsy thing to do for a first novel, marvelously successful.

I finished the immense Heinlein biography with volume 2 of the late William Patterson’s work on one of the major figures in science fiction.

There was also Thomas Pynchon’s newest, The Bleeding Edge, which exhibits many of Pynchon’s trademark stylistic acrobatics in what may be one of his most accessible convolutions on the American obsession with conspiracy.  Often one encounters a Pynchon novel rather than reads it and you come away with a sense of having toured a vast foreign country, appreciating many things, but knowing you haven’t grasped it, possibly not even its most salient features, but glad you made the trip.  Not this one.  It felt whole, penetrable, complete, and possessed a satisfying conclusion.

One of the most pleasant pair of readings this year was Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and its sequel, Ancillary Sword.  Ambitious and superbly realized, set in an interstellar milieu with fascinating aspects and a unique approach to empire, both books tell their tales from the viewpoint of an ancillary—basically a human-made-robot extension of a much larger AI, a ship mind (borrowing a bit perhaps from Iain M. Banks) that is destroyed in the first book with a single ancillary survivor.  Breq remembers being a ship, being one facet among hundreds, having access to vast data resources, but now much function as a single consciousness in a lone body.  Leckie is indulging an examination of the nature of empire, of morality, of political expedience, and what it means to be a part of something and also what it means to be outside of that something.  What I found most gratifying was that the second volume, while picking up the story a heartbeat after the first book, was a very different kind of book, about…well, not about something completely different, but about a completely different aspect of this enormous subject she’s chosen to tackle.  Serendipitously, a timely book as well, dealing as it does (effectively) with social justice and minority oppression.  I find myself looking very much forward to the third book.

One of the biggest surprises of the year was Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.  I reviewed this as well and have nothing to add to that.

I don’t think I read, cover to cover, a bad book.  I’ve largely gotten over the compulsion to finish any book I start.  If it’s bad, it isn’t worth the time.  I readily admit I may and probably am wrong about many books that strike me this way.  I’ll talk about them if I find something instructive in my negative reaction, but otherwise I’ll just put it down to taste.

A good number of the nonfiction books I read this year concern the Napoleonic Era because of one of the novels I’m working on.  One I can recommend whole-heartedly is Tom Reiss’s The Black Count, a biography of Alexandre Dumas’s father, a creole who became general under Napoleon.

I am hoping to read more next year.  I have a to-be-read pile on the verge of daunting.  Working in a bookstore as I now do is also a problem because every day I see another book or two I want to read.  When? I ask myself.  It’s not always sufficient to dissuade me.  As I said, I read slowly these days.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book in one sitting.  That said, though, I think I’m getting more out of them now than I used to.  An illusion, maybe, but…

Have a safe, bookfilled 2015.

Ends, Beginnings, Rebirths, Beliefs: Two Works of Science Fiction and a Fantasy

In recent months I have read two classic novels which, curiously enough, deal with matters of a religious nature.  I’ve decided to review them together for a number of reasons, one of which is both are part of the syllabus for my monthly reading group at Left Bank Books. Another reason for the review now is that I have finally, and not without some reluctance, seen one of the new generation of Biblical epics recently released, Noah, with Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly.  There are points of interest in this deeply flawed film which I will touch on after dealing with the novels.

The first novel is James Blish’s superb A Case Of Conscience, published originally in 1953 as a novelette and later expanded to novel-length and published in 1958 (the same year, coincidentally, that Pope John XXIII was elected to his chair).  The questions posed by the story are simple enough even if the answers are nearly impossible: what does Christianity, and more specifically Catholicism, have to say about extraterrestrial with regards to the matter of souls? Depending on the proposed answer, what responsibilities does the Christian have toward them? And, finally, what is to be done/considered if such extraterrestrials appear to have no taint of original sin?Case Of Conscience

These questions may seem naïve today, even irrelevant (although not sufficiently so to make a newer take on the matter a more than relevant work, namely Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow), but Blish’s treatment was anything but naïve in that he bound it up with questions of very nondenominational morality and respect.

To begin with, this is a First Contact novel, even though the “contact” has been an established fact for quite some time as the story opens.  That said, contact has barely begun, and that is the anchor for the drama. Because the ability of the two species, human and Lithian, to speak to each other aside, the story is sunk in the problem of cultures and their mutual incomprehension.  Blish is dealing with assumptions based on a telec understanding of the universe.  Because the guiding principles of his faith are telec, Father Ruiz-Sanchez grapples with whether or not to condone further interaction between his people and the Lithians.  In the end, he reacts rather than deliberates and argues for quarantine, stripping the Lithians of any say in the matter and laying bare the flaw in Ruiz-Sanchez’s own stated system of ethics.  Namely, if Ruiz-Sanchez is, as he claims to be, committed to a system devoted to the saving of souls, then shutting out all contact with creatures who may need saving would be fundamentally immoral.  The problem for him is whether the Lithians have souls, since they appear to lack any evidence of having “fallen.”  They live amicably among themselves, show no judgmentalism, solve problems by consensus without struggling against individual venality, do not appear to know what lying is, have no discernible crime, in fact exhibit none of the traits or conditions of being in a state of sin.  It’s as if, rather than being morally and ethically advanced, they in fact have no need to be, since they have none of the cultural dysfunctions requiring advancing along such lines.  To Ruiz-Sanchez, they are born wholly developed in a moral sense.  This, of course, runs counter to his beliefs in the nature of the universe.  Ruiz-Sanchez betrays, usually in subtle ways, a perverse devotion to dysfunction.  For instance, Earth is portrayed as having solved many of its fundamental economic problems and has adopted (by inference) rational systems that seem to promote equity, yet Ruiz-Sanchez feels that such evidence of progress demonstrates a failure because it moves humanity further away from an assumed ideal which may have no basis in reality.  In short, people are living better lives, at least materially, but are abandoning belief systems which have no use for them.  Better, perhaps, that progress never have occurred so that people would need the Church and the beliefs Ruiz-Sanchez feels matter.

It is understandable that the Lithians trouble Ruiz-Sanchez.  Almost everything about them is a rebuke to the way he has always believed things work.  Biologically, there is a complete disconnect with the human system of nuclear families, and by extension both patriarchy and the question of inherited sin. Their very reasonableness is testimony to the fact that such a state of mind and cultural condition not only can exist but does exist.  At one point, in debating with his colleagues over the issue of quarantine, he says “This has been willed where what is willed must be.”  This is from Dante’s Inferno, lines 91 to 93, in which Virgil says to Charon: “Charon, bite back your spleen:/this has been willed where what is willed must be,/ and is not yours to ask what it may mean.”  By this statement, Ruiz-Sanchez seeks to shut down questioning, his own surely but also his colleagues.  In this, he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Dante, but no matter.  The line is taken as a divine justification.  Lithia, in this view, must exist as it does because it does.  I am that I am, as it were.  For Ruiz-Sanchez this is also his justification for requesting the quarantine.  It would be fatal in two ways for intercourse to continue.  One, primarily, this Eden he thinks he has found will be eventually corrupted by interaction with humanity, for we embody the serpent, after all, which would be a form of blasphemy.  Two, it might well develop that the Lithians’ ability to function as they do will turn out to be no more than an evolutionary inevitability—which would make humanity’s condition equally so.  Ruiz-Sanchez already claims the exemption for humans from evolution that was dominant in theological thought prior to our present day (although not among Jesuits, making Ruiz-Sanchez a bit of a puzzle).  Ruiz-Sanchez is at base terrified that the Lithians are proof that the Church got it wrong.

Ruiz-Sanchez is a puzzle, as I say, because he’s not much of a Jesuit.  Possibly a Dominican.  Blish seems not to have had a very solid grasp of Catholicism, but he was dealing is large symbols here and parsing the vagaries of the multiplicity of protestant sects would muddy his point, perhaps.  His choice of the Society of Jesus makes a rough sense because of their history in the sciences and in exploration.  What is really on display is the breakdown of intellect in the face of the personally unacceptable.

This is apparent in Ruiz-Sanchez’s choice of reading material.  He’s reading Finnegan’s Wake at the beginning, a curious choice, especially for Blish as he had quite vocal problems with the kind of stream-of-conscious narrative Joyce produced in what amounts to a linguist parlor trick that strips away the pretensions of the intellect by questioning the very precepts of language itself.  But it is an inspired choice in this instance.  Ruiz-Sanchez is wrestling with it, trying to make moral sense of it, which is almost impossible.  In this context, Finnegan’s Wake is the universe as it is, and it forces the reader to accept that whatever “sense” comes out of it is of the reader’s own making.  It is a sustained refutation of a telec universe, which is anathema to Ruiz-Sanchez.

The ending of the novel is a famously achieved moral serendipity.  Because Blish kept the narrative inside Ruiz-Sanchez’s head throughout, perception is everything, and that may ultimately be the point of the novel.

Which brings us to the next novel, also a First Contact work albeit one that reverses many of the tropes in Blish.  Octavia Butler’s Dawn is also a story wherein aliens are first encountered and a world is destroyed.  In this case, though, the aliens have found us and the world destroyed is Earth, by our own hand.

In some ways this is an anachronistic novel.  Dawn was published in 1987, a few years before the Soviet Empire came apart.  It is sometimes easy to forget how convinced many people were that a nuclear holocaust was going to put paid to the entire human enterprise.  But no matter, Butler dealt with it as an event in the story’s past and did not dwell on its particulars.  Any extinction event will do.  She was not interested in judging that or examining the why of it, only in what it established for what follows.

The Oankali, one of the more fascinating and successful nonhuman creations in science fiction, found Earth devastated, with few survivors.  As part of their own program of survival/colonization, they rescued these survivors, healed them where possible, and kept them aboard their immense ship for 250 years while the Earth recovered.

DawnLilith Iyapo is Awakened into a situation she cannot deal with, a lone human in a room dealing with aliens that terrify her with their strangeness.  It transpires that they have plans for her, that part of their own program is the reseeding of worlds like Earth with recovered local species and some of their own.  Humanity, she comes to understand, will be Different.  She rejects this again and again, seeing it as a defilement of what it means to be human, even though, relentlessly and with inconceivable patience, the Oankali show her and teach her that it will be, in some ways, better.  Certainly better for the people of Earth, but better for Lilith personally.

She is to be a leader, a teacher.  She becomes part of an Oankali family.  She finally accepts them for what they are, though she never fully understands them or accepts their plans, but over time she takes up the responsibilities immediately in front of her, namely to shepherd reAwakend humans and prepare them for resettlement.

Butler brilliantly folds several biblical motifs into this story.  It is very much a Moses story.  Lilith does become a teacher, she does lead, but she herself, at the end, is not permitted to “cross over into the promised land.”  Her own people do not accept her, see her instead as a race traitor.  She becomes an irredeemable outsider.  This is also a Noah story.  The world has been destroyed, what has been salvaged must be returned to start again, and Lilith is in some ways Noah, head of a human race given a second chance.

But it is also right out of Revelations.  A new heaven and a new Earth and the handful of appointed shall inherit…

Because it is a new heaven for these people, who stubbornly reject the idea that aliens have saved them and that they are on board a ship.  They reject everything Lilith tells them, their minds recoiling at the totality of the new universe.  It would be a new universe for them, one which now includes aliens right there in front of them.

If there is a flaw in the novel, here it is.  Butler created a masterpiece of psychology here, a study of humanity under stress, and her portraits are amazing in their precision and economy.  However, none of them have any of the traits of those who would eagerly welcome the prospect of meeting aliens and living in a new milieu. And certainly there are people like that.  The odds are Lilith should have found at least one or two allies who were well beyond her in acceptance.  Instead, almost all the people she deals with are in this aspect profoundly mundane.  This, however, is a quibble.

Strikingly, for a story so grounded and informed by religious motifs, there is no real mention of anything religious.  It is significant by its absence.  It is as if Butler decided “if you can’t see the symbolism yourself, spelling it out will cause you to miss all the other points in the book.”  One could also read this as a tacit acceptance on the part of all these people that religion failed them and they’re done with it.  Nothing has happened in a fashion they would have been raised to expect.

The Oankali have determined the cause of humanity’s epic failure.  Two traits which combined disastrously, as they explain to Lilith:  exceptional intelligence and a commitment to hierarchical structures.  Hierarchical thinking and the cleverness to build weapons of mass destruction led inevitably to the annihilation of the human race and the poisoning of the planet.  In order to survive, the Oankali tell her, this must be changed, and therefore humans will be changed.  The Oankali are masters of genetic manipulation—their ship itself is a living thing—and they inform her quite clearly that this must be done.  This becomes the point of greatest contention—for Lilith this is a loss of what it means to Be Human, even though clinging to that is what destroyed humanity and nearly the planet itself.  Butler simply puts this out there.  The Oankali explain themselves, Lilith rejects it even as she comes to accept them.  Her experiences trying to teach and lead the first group of newly Awakened survivors would seem to support the Oankali position.  And yet…and yet…

The question of self-determination comes into this throughout.  Sensibly, Butler never actually examines it, only leaves it present as an emotional issue, while she shows the other trait within humans that is significant and necessary—adaptability.  Humans always change under pressure, always have.  This time  the pressure seems less circumstantial and so an opportunity for people to reject the necessity of change can be placed center-stage.

In both novels we see the primacy of moral determination in the face of the unanticipated.  The very nature of the universe is turned upside down and the givens of the past no longer suit.  In the end, circumstance determines far more than we may allow ourselves to admit, and the narratives by which we live must change to allow us to move forward.

Which brings me to the film, Noah.  When this movie came out there was a spasm of objection from certain quarters over its revisionist take on the Biblical tale.  Upon seeing the film, which is in many ways a fairly silly movie, I can see where it would bother a certain mindset, but also how that mindset would blind the viewer to some of the interesting aspects of it that make it not so easily dismissed.

The Creation myth is reduced to its elements, the Fall is handled almost as a fantasy tale, and the aftermath of Cain killing Abel is the real basis of all that follows.  The children of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, become caretakers of the world while the children of Cain build “a great industrial civilization” and set about conquering, killing, and polluting everything.  The story is transformed into an eco-fable, one in which the punishment inflicted is in response to mines, murders, and misuses of the “gifts” of creation.  The Sons of Cain are depicted as warmongering, patriarchal butchers, nascent NRA members, and proto-imperialists. while Noah and his are shown as gentle nurturers, Noah himself much in the Dr. Doolittle vein.  The landscape is a stark contrast between the urban ruin of the Cainites and the meadowy greenscapes in Noah’s care.

An interesting moment occurs, among several “interesting moments,” when the King of the Cainites, Tubal-Cain (which one might feel references surgical birth control, but in fact he is mentioned in Genesis and  credited as being a master metal worker), explains to Noah’s son Ham that he and his people have the same religious mythography, but they believe The Creator adandoned them, turned his back on mankind, and left them to survive and fend for themselves without his help.

Had there been more of this, the film might have achieved some kind of philosophical sophistication, but as it was Aronofsky, in spite of clever touches and good dialogue (and a stunning visual æsthetic), reduced it to a side-bar of the Lord of the Rings.  All the components were there to show how the story might be relevant to the present, and yet the message was muffled in the extravagant imagery and an attempt to extract an ur-myth from the Hebrew iconography.  It’s a better film than many of its critics, on both sides, credit, but it’s failures of reach make it less potent than it might have been.

One thing I found compelling is the portrayal of Noah in the course of building the ark and trying to keep his family together as a man suffering, essentially, PTSD.  He becomes convinced that what the Creator wants is for all humanity to die out and he intends to kill his son’s firstborn should it turn out to be a girl.  Aronofsky folds the story of Abraham and Isaac into this rather neatly and also manages to extract a better lesson—Noah cannot kill the girls (they turn out to be twins) and feels he has failed the Creator.  But his daughter-in-law, played well by Emma Watson, teaches him that it had always been in his hands because why else would the Creator have chosen him to do all this if not that he, Noah, had the ability and the responsibility to decide.  A rather mature lesson to take from all the slaughter grandly depicted.

All three works offer end of the world scenarios of one kind or another and all three portray moral decision-making that ultimately comes down to what humans do with what is in front of them, for their own benefit and for the benefit of others.  All three place that power squarely on human shoulders and suggest, in their various ways, that solutions are never to be found outside ourselves.  And even if such solutions occasionally can be found, it remains for us to do something with the consequences.

On Heinlein and Expectations

William Patterson Jr. finished and delivered the second volume of his copious biography of Robert A. Heinlein not long before he passed away of a heart attack.  He was too young.  After reading his opus, he may well have had another book about Heinlein in him which we will now not see.

I base that on the fact that while volume 2—The Man Who Learned Better: 1948 to 1988—is filled with the minutiae of a crowded life, there seems little in-depth analysis and assessment of Heinlein’s work.  Given the few and scattered remarks about the shortcomings of other books of criticism published during Heinlein’s lifetime, one might reasonably expect such an assessment from a writer of evident skill and insight.  It is not out of the realm of probability that he may have intended such analyses for a third volume devoted exclusively to such an assessment.

To be sure, there are brief passages about several of the books of a critical nature that are useful.  (Detailing the travails of writing a given work, while fascinating to anyone interested in Heinlein’s life, is no substitute for a thorough study of the work in question.  This is not intended as a criticism of what is in the book, only that the wealth of information spurs a desire for more, especially when presented with tantalizing explanations of some problematic works that alter past perceptions.)  For instance, in discussing one of Heinlein’s most poorly understood later period novels, I Will Fear No Evil, Patterson reveals that Heinlein’s ambition in writing it was as response to postmodernism, taking apparently as inspiration John Barth’s Giles, Goat Boy and work by Philip Roth.  If true—and I have no reason to doubt him, as Heinlein himself discussed this in his own correspondence—this casts a very different light on what has become the Heinlein novel even ardent fans seem to dislike, often hate.

Although Heinlein rarely discussed his process with the story that became I Will Fear No Evil, …[i]t was as if he was working on crafting a New Wave kind of story that worked as story—the kind of thing for fiction that Frank Lloyd Wright had done with the Bauhaus when he designed Fallingwater in 1935…

He had Nabokov on his mind as well as the New Wave movement (this would have been right in the middle of it) and postmodernism, as well as reacting against the enshrinement going on in fandom of Campbellian Golden Age conventions.  He wanted to shake everyone up.

If in fact that was the nature of the work, it becomes clear why the book seemed to have no “natural” audience and served to confuse people more than reinforce Heinlein’s reputation as the “dean of space age fiction.”  The core readership of science fiction—fandom—would have loathed the postmodernist ambiguities while mainstream critics still treated science fiction as a fad and a not very good one at that.  Had someone told the New York Times reviewers that the book was a postmodern allegory, they would have (perhaps silently) laughed in dismay.

At this point a deeper analysis of the book might have been in order.

But Patterson was not doing literary analysis, he was chronicling a fascinating life.

Heinlein has long been the largest head on the Mount Rushmore of science fiction.  The myths about him, from his first sale to his unhindered success to his idolization of redheads to his supposed fascism, have stood in for any real knowledge about him, seasoned here and there with personal anecdotes.  In fact, Heinlein was almost pathologically private and resented anyone poking into his personal life.  He had a public persona, which he apparently enjoyed using, based on certain aspects of his character which those who saw only that took to be the whole man.  In later years his critics viewed him as hopelessly anachronistic, conservative to the point of feudalistic, a reactionary, and, despite sales figures, marginal to the field.  The service Patterson has done, besides the obvious demythologizing (especially in the first volume), is the extensive contextualizing of the man, the filling in of event, and the examination of how surfaces hide as much as reflect what lies behind what the public sees.

Heinlein was nothing if not experimental.  Often, because he was conducting his experiments at the times he did, the experiments were misperceived and misunderstood.  One can sympathize with his repeated desire not to have his work “analyzed” in an academic sense because he felt it would rob readers of seeing for themselves.  He likely disliked the idea of seeing his own motives and character analyzed through the lens of his work, something which happens often, especially in academic works.  He did not wish to be “psychologized” by people who may well not “get” what he was trying to do in the first place.

He was very much about control in this regard.

As in much of the rest of his life.  His detractors occasionally riff on the idea that he was in some ways a fraud, that his desire for control was only to mask a deep sense of incompetence or even incomprehension.  This is an unfortunately shallow reading.  Consider: Heinlein’s one ambition as a youth was to have a Navy career.  He worked himself into physical breakdown to get through Annapolis only to find out a short time into what he thought would be a lifetime calling that his own health was sabotaging him.  He had to leave the Navy because his body failed him.  The one thing he truly wanted to do was denied him.

Some people might give up and sell siding for the rest of their lives.  Heinlein tried many things.  He ran for political office, he tried mining, pursued his education, finally coming to writing.  Even after early success at that, he continued trying to serve his country and ran a research lab.

That he may have felt some ambivalence about the thing that eventually became his most successful endeavor might be understood given all this.  Rather than hiding incompetence, it is perhaps more accurate to say that he lived with continued fear that some new malady or accident might put an end to this as well.  It is not inconceivable that he expected, however minutely, that the bottom would fall out in the next step or two.  Reading about the speed with which he turned out clearly superior novels, it is not hard to imagine a nagging imp of doubt that he might not be able to do this next week for reasons completely out of his control

Misrepresentation and fraud have nothing to do with this.

What is most interesting in all this is seeing the bell curve of influence with each new book.  Heinlein’s work was audacious when written, groundbreaking when published, influential throughout the period when other writers reacted to it, and then reassigned as exemplary of some shortcoming on the author’s part as the culture caught up with it and passed it by.  In hindsight, the flaws are myriad, some profound, but I can think of no other science fiction writer to suffer such extremes of regard, especially within their lifetime.

What becomes apparent in reading the 1000 plus pages of Patterson’s work is that the one thing Heinlein intended with each book was to start a discussion.  What so many seem to have taken as pronouncements from on high, Heinlein intended as the opening gambit in a long conversation.  Instead of engaging in the argument, too many people made him their personal guru, something he consistently rejected, and when they realized finally that some of the things Heinlein said were problematic or downright inflammatory, they turned on him.  He wanted to be Socrates, not Aristotle as remade by the Church.  He wanted people to disagree, to engage.

How else to explain the wild variations of philosophy between works like Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land, Beyond This Horizon and Farnham’s Freehold, Methusaleh’s Children and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress?

On the other hand, he seemed often to work in a vacuum of his own making.  He bridled at the confines of expected SF forms, yet he did not avail himself of relationships with the mainstream literary establishment he longed to be part of.  He wanted to write work that transcended genre boundaries—and read extensively outside the field—and yet he rarely seemed to engage in the cultural discourse going on outside the SF “ghetto.”  He and Virginia, his third wife, were usually politically isolated, even while trying to fully interact with the ongoing political dynamic.  Heinlein’s politics were more of the “curse on both your houses” variety than anything categorizably useful.  He claimed affinity with libertarianism, yet had no real respect for much that passed for political philosophy under that banner.  Neither fish nor fowl, it came to others to try to define him, and he gave them little assistance.  The country moved in directions with which he disagreed, but his reactions gave no support to others who thought the same way and wanted to do this or that to change it.  He lived by a definition of liberal that was being quickly left behind by those working under that label.  His consistent message through his fiction was “Think for yourself” and yet it came across more and more as “if you don’t think like me you’re an idiot.”  Those looking for ready-made answers in his work could only see the latter.

Narratively, volume 2 is packed too tightly to be as good a read as the first book.  No doubt this is a result of trying to keep it usefully in hand in combination with the increased wealth of information available about this forty year period.  But it nevertheless offers a fascinating look at a genuine iconoclast within his context, and for that it is a very worthy book.

Finally, as much as detractors would like to make Heinlein an irrelevancy, the very obsessiveness with which many of them attend his deconstruction suggests that while one may disagree over him profoundly, he is not easily ignored or dismissed.  Whatever else, he did succeed in getting a conversation going.  Sometimes it’s actually about what he considered important.

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.

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.

 

Mixed Signals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who?

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

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

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

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

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

What does this have to do with Ansel Adams?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she is born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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