Strange Inversions

Jeff Vandermeer has been mining the hills of what for a time was called New Weird for years. His Veniss Underground stories are exemplars of the power of the oblique, the odd, the displaced, the exotic in service to demonstrating one of the principle delights of science fiction, namely that setting is character. His newest novel is another example of how landscape transforms imagination and redirects the focus of our self-reflection.

The City—unnamed, unlocated, but somehow American for all its desolate ambiguity—has been reduced to the condition of decimated near-abandonment. We are told the entire world has undergone a series of collapses and that this city is representative of most of it. Those remaining pick over what is left, and there would seem to be plenty.  But there is a constant danger, the looming presence of Mord, a giant bear that can fly. It tortures the landscape and the survivors, eats indiscriminately, slams about remaking the skyline according to no discernible plan. Mord is just a great big bear with no table manners.  And that uncanny ability to fly.

Rachel is a seasoned scavenger who finds it useful to shadow Mord. One never knows what good salvage one might find in his wake. The risks have been worth it in the past. As the novel opens, though, she has made a find that will reshape everything she thought she understood about the world she inhabits.  It is an odd bit of biotech, a blob attached to Mord’s hide, just large enough to find and still fit inside her pocket. It is, in its indefinable way, attractive.  She describes it sometimes as a vase that occasionally has wings. She calls it Borne and brings it back to her domicile, the Balcony Cliffs, where she lives a not altogether unpleasant life with her lover, Wick, who is some kind of biotech engineer. Wick immediately dislikes Borne, wants to take it to dismantle to see how it works, but Rachel refuses. This creates the first real conflict between them, which grows worse as Wick begins to see Borne as a threat.

Because Borne is changing.  Growing, certainly, but also acquiring new traits. Rachel discovers one day that it can talk. She hides this fact from Wick. As Borne continues to grow and change, she continues to try to hide its capacities from Wick, but Wick is not fooled.

Into this comes new threats. There are factions in the City, vying for power, control, advantage, in a game that feels purposeful but ultimately has little point. There is Mord, of course, raw power, incontestable, frightening.  There is also the Magician, another human who may or may not have been a colleague of Wick’s back when he worked for the Company, whose facility still stands, still functions, and had much to do with the destruction that befell the city. There is the Company itself, which continues to exert an influence albeit of an almost subterranean kind.  Once it had been the power in the city, but since the general collapse, both locally and globally, it persists because at least it seems to possess structure.

And Wick, after a fashion, because he is a node of stability in the chaos.  He makes things people will trade for, that people need, although his ability to do so is diminishing because the resources he needs, which Rachel is so adept at finding, are dwindling. As they do and his production shrinks, their danger increases.

Borne is a fey factor, an unknown in all this, and Rachel finds her attachment to it both comforting and unnerving. Her attachment to Wick is of a different kind and, for all the stress on it, more secure than she comprehends.

It is a curiously compelling story.  It reveals, offers insight, confers meaning, even when it is unclear what underlies all the struggle. Rachel’s inability to give Borne up resonates, as does Wick’s well-reasoned suspicions of it. The disturbing changes in Borne unsettle in a perversely familiar way. And Mord just scares us with his unpredictable rages and the offshoots of his savage personality which appear to do murder to what remains of order and humanity in this landscape, which as we continue on, feels ever more like somewhere we’ve been before, if only we could remember…

Borne as creation bothers us and intrigues us and somehow we understand that it—he—is not really our enemy.  This is confirmed in the novel, but that confirmation is not what brings this to the forefront of our myth-responsive memory.  Borne takes in everything—literally eats reality—and excretes nothing. Just grows. But he should, because we sense what Borne is. Borne is incomplete.  Borne requires…

Comparisons are never one to one, rough at best, but then originality is not served by direct corollaries.  Something that is “just like” something else may have novelty but it does little to feed the desire of new truths and fresh perspectives. Nevertheless, they are potent when done well, and this is done well.

Wick—in this instance, an obscure form of Wizard—is in some sense the creator of all that Rachel moves through.  He worked for the Company until he was expelled, and when we learn finally all that he may have created his place becomes clear in Rachel’s universe.  He protects her more than she knows because he is responsible for so much, in a way a master narrator. He cannot ultimately protect her from herself, and that is where the elements of this marvelous piece of clock-work aligning and arranging come together.

As borrowings go, Alice Through the Looking Glass will suffice. There’s even a mirror. But that landscape—collapsing, reforming, surprising, terrible and amazing—is what we find when our illusions are outgrown as we persist in living within the precincts of an imagination that will not yield to new possibilities and the stronger forms of mature dreams.  The child must be reborn into a bolder reality, and if in that reality bears cannot actually fly, well, there are other wonders to sustain us.

Sleeping Dragons

Kazuo Ishiguro works a consistent theme. Even in his earliest novels, he explores the manner in which people refuse to acknowledge the reality through which they move. Many of his characters display a kind of aphasia, an inability to grasp the issues surrounding them, the motives of people, even those they are close to, or what is unfolding before their eyes. In a way, they are peculiarly narcissistic. I say peculiar because quite often their sense of themselves is the last thing they seem concerned with, even when others are.

At times this has led him to experiment with tactics of evasion that result in novels that resist our attempts to connect, even to access what is going on, but we read them anyway because he cloaks the experiments with plots and devices that hold our interest, but which we suspect are little more than extensions of the evasions at the core of his characters’ lives.

In a few instances, he has his characters actually go out in search of the mystery that seems to enshroud their worlds, though usually they look in the wrong places or simply fail to comprehend what they discover.

Such is the motive behind Axl and Beatrice as they leave their small village in the heart of a post-Arthurian England to find their long-absent and possibly estranged son and perhaps get to the bottom of the cloying fog suffocating memory. Their journey takes them to the source of a strange amnesia in The Buried Giant.

The landscape is mythic. This is a land occupied by Britons and Saxons. It is a land that has only recently been host to the epic struggles of King Arthur, Merlin, his knights, and the aspirations of Camelot. If there is any doubt how real Ishiguro intends us to treat this, he dispels such doubt by having Axl and Beatrice encounter the aging Sir Gawain, one of the few survivors of those days.

There is much of the Quixote in this Gawain, although his skills are impressive. Age alone has blunted his abilities. Ostensibly, he is still on a quest. Not the Grail. No, that is never mentioned. Rather he claims to be on a mission to slay the she-dragon Querig.

Joining them is a young Saxon warrior, Wistan, and a boy he has rescued from a village where because of a wound the boy suffered from ogres the villagers intend to kill him for fear that he will become an ogre.  As, indeed, he is destined to—but not in the way superstition would have it.

Wistan for his part is also on a mission.  He, too, is on the hunt for Querig. But for him Querig’s demise is but a means to an end, and a terrible end at that. He and Gawain come into conflict over it eventually and thereby we learn both the source of the Mist, which robs people of their memory, and a truth about King Arthur not recorded in the myths.

Through all this, even as it would seem rich material for a dense fantasy about knights and dragons and kings and ogres, Ishiguro’s focus is on Axl and Beatrice and the nature and quality of commitment and forgiveness.  For in the mists of poorly-glimpsed memory there are terrible things between them and as they progress on their journey to find their son Axl begins to have second thoughts, not at all sure he wants to remember, afraid that perhaps he had been the cause of great pain and sorrow.  Ishiguro is concerned here primarily—and almost exclusively—with the nature of time, memory, and forgiveness and the many ways they are the same essential thing.

In that sense, the controversy he stirred when the novel appeared by claiming that he was not writing a fantasy—that he did not want to be seen as plowing the same fields as George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss—was unfortunate. He spoke truly.  This is not a fantasy in the sense of contemporary sword & sorcery or secondary-world fantasies.  He is not doing the same thing as Martin, although he may have borrowed a subtheme or two from Tolkein. His disclaimer was taken as a derogation of fantasy, yet one can see from the text that he is fond of those elements of the book taken directly from the long tradition of English fantasy.

If there is a fantasy element here worthy of the name it is in his portrayal of the end of a mythology and the terminus of one world as it transforms into another.  The Buried Giant is about remembering as much as it is about things forgotten.  The changes soon to be wrought by the conclusion of Wistan’s quest and Gawain’s final stand have to do with how history turns and what is taken after a time of interregnum during which things lost are grasped, reshaped, and put to new uses.

But it is always about what is between people and how we use memory and its infelicities.

As in other Ishiguro novels, there is much that annoys.  His characters talk.  And talk and talk and talk and often it is about nothing until we realize that it is all tactic.  Dissimulation as replacement for substantive communication—until finally the act of avoidance itself becomes the point and the things hidden are revealed by inference. Axl and Beatrice as blind and trying to perceive the elephant they explore with tentative fingers. That it is to a purpose, however, makes it no less frustrating, but it would be a mistake to see this as anything other than absolutely intended.

The point of the quest–for all of them–becomes evident when at last they find Querig and it turns out not to be what they had all expected.  And we then see how myth sometimes is more useful than reality.

Crossovers

Cross-genre experimentation often produces interesting failures, less often brilliant chimeras.  The novelty seems to open up possibilities.  Steampunk has been one of the most successful in recent years, but it seems to be wearing thin as too much of it tends to be old-fashioned occult or mystery, rather Sherlockian (or more Wilkie Collins) in essence with a thread of SFnal gadget-geekery running throughout.  Often it’s just a new suit of clothes disguising an old set of bones.

One of the things that has rarely been successful but is perhaps the oldest of these mix-and-match tropes is the attempt to blend science fiction and fantasy.  Try as we might, it usually ends up being demonstrably one or the other merely borrowing the trappings of its often unwilling partner.  Roger Zelazny was perhaps the most sucessful at it, but he managed it by bravura sleight-of-hand, or wordcraft, rather than through genuine alchemical mergers.  What we generally find are stories that set the fantasy conceits at odds with science, in a kind of battleground plot where one or the other must prove superior or “right” in some epistemological sense.  Poul Anderson wrote one called Operation Chaos (and a few sequels) that attempted it by a clever deployment of magical “universes” as essential parallel universes of higher or lower energy states, but in the end it was science fiction in the way it treated the conceits.  The thematic utility of fantasy was sublimated to the SFnal conceptualizing.

The problem is that fantasy, dealing as it does with physical propositions of how the universe operates which run counter to our understanding of the same concepts, develops thematic conceits which have very little if anything to do with the concerns found in science fiction.  They are, at base, about different things.  Attempting to assert tyhat those two worlds (nevfer mind world views) can plausibly coexist and have anything to say together which cannot be said better by one or the other usually ends up as special pleading or simply a fashion statement.

(Example?  The big one is Star Wars, despite Lucas’s belated attempt to shoehorn any kind of science fictional justifications into Episodes 1,2, and 3, which is a full court quest fantasy dressed up like science fiction.  The machinery, the technology, the science never avails against magic, which is portrayed as both physically superior and in fact the true moral battleground.  It’s a fantasy, not a blending of the two.)

All that said, it was only a matter of time before a genuinely successful hybrid would appear. Artists keep working at something long enough, eventually that which one generation says cannot be done, will be done.

Quite happily, I discovered this success in a thoroughly enjoyable novel by Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds In The Sky .    9780765379948

Briefly, Laurence and Patricia are outcasts. Their parents, who are shown as almost polar opposites of each other, fail to “get” them, and their attempts to “correct” what they see as bad trends or unhealthy characteristics end badly around. Likewise at school, where they meet and become friends out of desperation (they’ll actually talk to each other), their lives are simply untenable because their peers also do not understand them.  It becomes, at one point, life-threatening for them to hang out together.

Added to this is the appearance of a trained assassin from a secret society who has identified them as the nexus of eventual social collapse and global catastrophe.  His Order does not permit the killing of minors, though, so he is limited to ruining their lives and attempting to keep them apart.

What is special about them is…

Patricia is an emergent witch.  She discovers early on that she can speak to animals, but it may be an hallucination (it’s not).  Her older sister, who spies on her, makes matters worse by secretly recording Patricia in some of her more extreme attempts at revisiting her chance discovery of “powers” and releasing it on social media.

Laurence is an emergent technical genius who sets about building a self-aware AI in the closet of his room.  His parents, who are in most ways failures, see his obsession with staying indoors, reading obsessively, and attempting to gain admission to a science school as unhealthy and insist on outdoors programs and forced social interaction.  They have no clue that everything is against this.

Patricia and Laurence are eventually driven apart and grow up to make lives in their separate spheres, both successfully.  They re-encounter each other and fall into an alliance concerned with saving the Earth, which is in the late stages of environmental collapse.  Each in their own way must address this problem and here is where it gets interesting.

As if all the rest isn’t already interesting enough.  Anders has painted fulsome portraits of the outsiders we all knew (or, in some instances, were) with sympathy and understanding that avoids pity and makes for pleasurable character study.  Laurence and Patricia could easily have become archetypes, and certainly in some ways they are, but here they are simply people we may well know, and even wish to know.  And the relationship she builds between them is complex and resonant and satisfying in surprising ways.  In a novel already repleat with strengths, this is a major achievement.

How she makes the merger of magic and science work is also by way of character.  Laurence and Patricia are both in dialogue with the universe.  They use different languages, elicit different responses, but in the end it turns out to be the same universe.  Anders suggests that we still don’t have a firm grasp of how manifold and multifaceted that universe is, but in the end it is all a conversation. Multilingual, to be sure, and compiled of palimpsests sometimes hard to identify.  What is required is an appreciation of the wider concept.

What makes this a successful blending—merging, really—of usually antipathetic concepts is that dialogue and the acknowledgment in the end that both views make for a greater understanding.  The solutions—if any are to be found—come from the combined strengths of the divergent views.  Laurence and Patricia, depending on each other, coming to know that here there is genuine friendship, love, acceptance, and a willingness to understand the other side, make for better answers than they do apart.

I do not wish to spoil the myriad of dialectical twists and turns salted throughout.  Anders has not given us a set solutions, but as series of antiphonal arguments leading to a place where a wider view may be achieved.  Throughout she plays with the tropes, the themes, the assumptions, connects them to human concerns, and manages something greater than the sum of its traditionally antagonistic parts.

Highly recommended.

 

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.

 

 

…Behind Door Number…

After viewing Ex Machina I sat in a bit of a daze wondering what it was I’d just seen.  Stylish, well-acted, the now-expected seamless special effects, and a story with pretensions to significance.

The next day, I spoke to a good friend about it, who has also written about its flaws, and came to the conclusion that the film is not at all what it seems to want to be. In fact, it may be the perfect demonstration of style over substance.

It would be easy to see the film as a misogynistic attempt to intellectualize adolescent cluelessness, and certainly there is that in it, but perhaps that doesn’t go far enough.  Misanthropic may be more accurate.  It has nothing good to say about anyone or anything.  The chopper pilot may be innocent, he’s just doing his job, but once Caleb lands and approaches the isolated superhouse of his employer, Nathan, sympathy for anything human vanishes and we’re treated to a narrow, pseudo-socratic disquisition on how stupid people can be, even with high I.Q.s and a lot of money.

But it is smooth, it is elegantly filmed, and the acting is convincing, and the soul-searching seems genuine, and the robot is so enticing. It feels superior. It says smart things, makes fascinating assertions, but all in the least engaging manner possible.  Instead of actually dealing with the presumptive subject—strong A.I.—we are treated to a reboot of Frankenstein as The Dating Game.  Bachelor Number One, how do you answer these simple questions from Bachelorette Number nth, and do you get to date her when the show is over?

Nathan is the typically clichéd billionaire genius who, instead of trying to learn how to connect with actual people, builds himself a fortress of solitude and sets about building himself a companion. Of course, since he doesn’t understand people as individuals, he keeps making sexbots that fail to meet his expectations. Partly, he excuses this (to himself) by claiming that he’s only pushing the envelope on A.I. instead of searching for a perfect fuck.

No, he never actually says that, but consider the machines.  All women, all one stereotype or another of gorgeous, and he has fitted them out with sensate genitalia. Since until he ropes Caleb into the equation it’s only him interacting with them, why do this if your claim is an interest in their cognitive and self-awareness abilities?  And the almost throwaway line where he reveals Ava’s sexual capabilities is about as arrogant and dismissive as can be.  He wants to create self-aware machine intelligence than can mimic human but talks about them like a new car model with the latest features.

Okay, so Nathan is an asshole.  Dramatically, he’s supposed to be, he’s Victor Frankenstein, whose arrogance foreshadows his doom. In this instance, the one bit of psychological nuance which could have elevated this story above the level of Weird Science (which, in the end, was a more sophisticated film than this one, despite the comedic aspects) his arrogance leads him to assume a specific “type” for women in general and he manages to create one that lives up to his expectations—she stabs him in the back and runs off.

This, in case anyone missed it, is called sexism: the complete failure to understand how one’s expectations shape circumstances to guarantee a thorough and complete misunderstanding of women as people, and then using that to dictate the terms of all interactions with females.  (Note, one does not have to be a male in order to do this, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

But what about Caleb? He’s a presumptive innocent. Why is he left to starve to death, locked in the prison Nathan has built below ground?

Perhaps not so “innocent.”  He is inserted into the storyline to act, ultimately, as Ava’s rescuer, but he is incapable of rescuing himself from the same set of expectations that Nathan exhibits.  He doesn’t want to set her free, which is kind of undefined given the context, but to have her for himself.  Nathan allows that her “design” was more or less aimed at him, so he could not help but respond in the most predictable fashion, which makes Caleb at best an adolescent who can’t tell the difference between what is and is not human, even when the difference is revealed to him at the outset.  But he’s more than just a toy.  He’s a rival.  He’s a thief.  He’s a liar.

Learning from these two examples, it might not be a surprise that Ava has turned out the way she has.

But “she” would have had to have been programmed to manipulate someone other than Nathan, who, we assume, she cannot manipulate because he knows exactly what she is.  Which then suggests that such programming is inevitable in the simulation of Woman.  That she can’t help but be this way from the first instance of her base code, which means that Woman is an essential something that emerges regardless of circumstance.  But if that’s so, then why is the essential woman inevitably a sexually manipulative sociopath?  Because that’s what Ava is.  The only possible way she could have become that is by way of her initial programming, which is Nathan’s—the technobabble about using his search engine’s datamining as the source of her programming is facile; he would have to select and edit or she would simply be a collection of data with little or no organizing principle—which then would be what he has predetermined defines Woman.

Ava does not even attempt to help her predecessors.

The single facet of all this that puts the lie to Nathan’s superficial explanation as to why he made Ava female is that he could have made Ava Alvin.  Or made Ava ten.  Or—and this would have pushed this rat’s maze of a film out of the simplistic—made Ava homosexual or even transgendered.  Push Ava out of the sex toy model she was clearly designed to be so that interaction with Nathan would produce the personally unexpected.

Even that would be a bit conservative.  There are people who are asexual.  Humans do not all fall into binaries.  Nathan is being disingenuous.  At best, he wanted Caleb to trigger in Ava a desire to choose—between him and Nathan or between either of them and an unknown.  Maybe the chopper pilot.  Or one of the other sexbots.

Or the gray box Nathan insists would have no reason for interaction. The final cop-out.  People interact all the time without knowing each other’s gender.  The initial basis of human interaction itself is not sex but Other.

Instead, we are given a treatise on the challenged expectations of a narcissist with the means to externalize his narcissism and what happens when a competitor narcissist enters the bubble to supplant him.  Had the film been more honest about this, it might have been worth the time spent watching two adult adolescents compete over the rights to a masturbatory fantasy.  Ava could, at a minimum, have schooled them on being adults.

There are moments that stop right at the edge of really interesting, but they are subverted constantly by all the testosterone soaking the scenery.

But it looks so good.  It is done in the serious manner we might wish all science fiction were done in, and there is where the final failure is most apparent.  Because obviously the makers wanted it to be taken seriously.  It’s just that they managed to feed right into the pitfalls of both a Turing test exegesis and the presumed realities of gender relations based on search engine dynamics.  They missed the trees for the forest and painted a sexual fantasy that reinforces stereotypes and says almost nothing about intelligence worth discussing—artificial or human.

 

Now A Word From Paradise Island

Of all the unlikely confluences you might stumble over in life, here’s a set: what do Margaret Sanger, lie detectors, and superheroes have in common?

If you answered “Wonder Woman!” you would be correct.  And if you could answer that before Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman came out, you would be in rare company knowing that.  lepore_wonder_woman_cover

Wonder Woman was the creation of one William Moulton Marston, of the Massachussetts Marstons. If that familial pedigree escapes you, don’t feel bad, you didn’t miss it in history class.  The Marstons had come down a ways from their 19th Century heights, enough so that William was forced to apply for grants to finish his degree at Harvard in 1915 in psychology (Ph.D. earned in 1921).

Psychology was still a relatively “new” science and Harvard was in the vanguard.  Marston attached himself to the recently founded Harvard Psychological Laboratory and eventually ended up running it.  But only for a short while.  And that career curve would follow him the rest of his life.

Marston emerges in the pages of Lepore’s book as a brilliant man-child who just couldn’t seem to make a success that lasted of anything.  It becomes evident as his story unfolds that he simply confused personal fame with genuine success and made a series of bad calls with regards to where and how to apply his energies.  He was a self-promoter but when it came to backing up his claims he was lacking in substance.  He “invented” the lie detector and established it as a viable methodology and then ruined its use in court for decades through sloppy application and shoddy research.  Not only that, but the court case which apparently set the precedent for the exclusion of lie detector results from court rooms cast a pall on him personally, a circumstance he never quite recovered from.  If not for the three women he eventually lived with, it seems likely he would have been indigent.

That is where the story takes a turn toward the culturally amazing.  Marston was a hardcore feminist, of the “old school” that marched and advocated and disrupted (although being a man this rarely led to any inconvenience for him).  He seems to have been genuinely dedicated to the idea of equality for women and also a devotee of free love, a parallel movement to the equal rights movement that led to considerable discord among feminists.  He met and eventually married Elizabeth Holloway, who shared his philosophy.  She earned a law degree from Boston University and of the two possessed the discipline to apply herself to her chosen tasks, a trait Marston apparently lacked.  Eventually, Holloway (who kept her maiden name) was the principle breadwinner in the house, which grew to include Marjorie WIlkes Huntley, a woman he met while doing work for the Army under Robert Yerkes, and then later Olive Byrne, who was Margaret Sanger’s niece.

At a time when “alternate lifestyles” could land you in prison, this was, to say the least, unorthodox.  Marston apparently possessed enormous personal charmisma and none of the women ever left him.  After his death, the three more or less remained together almost until death.  Byrne and Holloway each bore two of Marston’s four children, but Byrne claimed to be a widowed cousin and refused to tell her own children that she was their mother.

How did all this produce one of the most well-known superheroes of all time?

Lepore, who obtained access to archives and letters never before made public, has detailed this remarkable story with clarity, humor, and insight.  Wonder Woman is probably one of the most rigorously constructed superheroes of the Golden Age of comics.  Marston did not see her as entertainment but as a tool for social propaganda, namely to advance the cause of equal rights for women.  In fact, Marston thought women should be in charge.  His Wonder Woman was no one’s servant and the first couple of years of her publication reads like an indictment of everything broken in society’s attitude toward women.

DC Comics was in a bit of a bind.  They were by and large uncomfortable with the feminist “messaging” but Wonder Woman, almost from the first issue, was one of the three most popular superheroes of all time, right behind Batman and Superman.  They were making too much money to just kill her off.  But once Marston lost control of the comic (due to illness, first polio then cancer) the editor put in charge seemed to do everything he could to declaw this difficult woman.  That she survived to once again be the powerful symbol of womanhood is remarkable, but it also goes some way to explain the bizarre manifestation of the Seventies TV show.  Comparing the Lynda Carter characterization to the forthcoming Gal Gadot realization shows a marked difference in attitude and approach.

TCDWOWO EC007 Wonder Woman Gal GadotThe holdovers from the Silver Age era in Carter’s look, while “true” to the traditional Wonder Woman, nevertheless supported the highly sexualized aspect of the character, while the new look shows the underlying mythology that was originally loaded into the construct, that of a warrior, and Amazon, something out of the bloodier, martial past of the ancient Greeks.

Lepore’s book examines the period as much as the principles and shows us the problematic world in which suffrage, feminism, and tradition often came into conflict.  The urgency to “put Wonder Woman in her place” especially after WWII played out in the comics in often tragicomic ways.  Wonder Woman becomes a full-fledged member of the Justice League only to be made the secretary.

Some of this may seem silly to modern readers.  Why couldn’t people just get over their prejudices?  Wasn’t it obvious, etc etc.?  Maybe.  And maybe that it was obvious was part of the problem.  Justice often conflicts with privilege, ethics with desire, and change is never welcome to the fearful.

Marston himself, as a human being, seems by turns charming and repulsive.  Art rarely emerges from pristine sources, unalloyed with the questionable.  But then, Marston probably did not see himself as an artist or Wonder Woman as a work of art. He had causes to pursue, beliefs to validate, and…well, bills to pay.

Lest anyone believe that Wonder Woman was all Marston’s invention, though, Lepore makes it abundantly clear that the women around him contributed just as much if not more and served in many ways as models upon which he based the character.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a fascinating look at a time in America and an aspect of culture that for too long was underappreciated.  It is a serious and thorough examination of popular mythology and from whence many of our modern concepts came.  In these times when women are once more required to defend their rights and the very idea of equality, it might be useful to see how and in what ways this struggle has been going on for a long time and under some of the most unexpected banners in some of the most unusual ways.

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.

Inside Outside: Two Views of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aldiss establishes his premises early:

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

In chapter one he then sets out his operating definition:

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

Contrast this to Atwood’s opening stab at definitions:

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

Then later, this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome back to the ghetto.

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

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

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

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

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

Science fiction dramatically reverses this relationship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Light Goes On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did call you. You didn’t come.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.