Fatal Prose?

The year of the fatwa, an acquaintance of ours hurried to a Walden Books store that still had copies of the book. He had called around to find them, only to be told time and again that they had been packed up and returned. This one outlet had not yet sent them back and he asked—demanded, really—that they not, he would come in and buy them all. I’m not sure why they believed him, but he told us afterward that as soon as he walked into the store all the employees showed stark terror. He was dark, black hair, what you might call Mediterranean. He looked to them, apparently, Arabic.

They had ten copies and he did in fact buy them all. He gave us one, which we still have. It’s a First Edition, second printing.

Until this global scandal and the media coverage attendant upon it, I had never heard of Salman Rushdie. This, I learned, was his fourth novel. Prior to this he was among the literary writers praised by academies, taught in creative writing courses, and of little interest to me as I was at that time pouring all my energies into trying to become a published writer of science fiction. What Rushdie wrote, I discovered, was from the literary borderlands known as magic realism, which put him in company with Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Manuel Puig and, to some degree, Carlos Castenada.

I read The Satanic Verses from a kind of voyeuristic viewpoint—what is there here that might earn a death sentence for the author? There was a sensationalist aspect to it all that was related to books that had been banned or challenged, books that had stirred public outcry or denunciation. The celebrity of the circumstance drew in readers and I confess that I wondered very briefly if this were as serious as it seemed. But bookstores, especially the chains, were yanking the book from shelves out of fear of reprisals, so if this was a promotional gimmick it was backfiring horribly. My suspicions along those lines did not last long and as details emerged, it became clear that the Ayaltollah Khomeini had indeed decreed a reward for Rushdie’s death for blasphemy.

Part of the privilege of living in America, at least until recently, is the security of greeting that kind of news with complete dismay. You don’t kill someone for blasphemy. What does that even mean? (As the Religious Right has gained more prominence in public awareness, we may be learning that.) It’s a novel, for goodness sake! Fiction!

And at some point you wonder, just how thin-skinned can they be?

After reading the novel, I was still baffled. The title and the events referred to by it are part of the lore and tradition involved. As far as I could learn, Rushdie misrepresented none of it. I honestly could not see cause for an accusation of blasphemy, but then, I am not Muslim and my own relationship with the traditions in which I was raised has been problematic since adolescence. I thought it was a good example of its kind but nothing special.

But there is a section of the novel that I thought did make sense in terms of insult, and that is the parts concerning the Imam. This character is clearly based on Khomeini, a cleric living in exile who is given a chance to return to his country and overthrow the oppressive government. It is not a flattering portrait.

‘We will make a revolution,’ the Imam proclaims…’that is a revolt not only against a tyrant, but against history.’ For there is an enemy beyond Ayesha, and it is History herself. History is the blood-wine that must no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies—progress, science, rights—against which the Imam has set his face.

And then a bit later:

‘Death to the tyranny of the Empress Ayesha, of calendars, of America, of time! We seek eternity, the timelessness, of God. His still waters, not her flowing wines.’ Burn the books and trust the Book; shred the papers and hear the Word…

I thought then and still do that this is what drew the ire of the clerics. It was personal and had nothing to do with any presumed blasphemy. But then, it also demonstrates how the personal had become political, in that the thing desired, according to this, was to stop anything and everything that might detract from the exaltation of a stasis anchored by a changeless devotion.

Rushdie had to go into hiding. He lost access to much of his life. He lost his wife.

Khomeini died, but the fatwa remains, reaffirmed in 2006 (on Valentine’s Day, curiously enough) that the vow to kill him is permanent.

It is still difficult for us to accept that a work of fiction could result in a death sentence, but then we have that privilege here. Though it’s not like books aren’t regularly challenged and sometimes it seems those in the forefront of condemnations might work themselves into a killing frenzy. Words are powerful and we need to remember that.

For that reason, we should cherish them and protect them, because in that power we find the capacity to conceive the world and acquire wisdom and grow. Words that cause discomfort, that stop us in our self-satisfied tracks and make us look at the world in different ways are among the best tools we have to find justice. If what we read causes the kind of dismay that only offers condemnation as a response, it may be our preconceptions and prejudices that need examination. We will never know what we can become if we arbitrarily silence the diversity of other voices.

Collisions of cultures can often result in incomprehension. As an aside, I had occasion once to discuss this issue with a Muslim, who told me she supported the fatwa because of the blasphemy. I attempted to learn what about the book was so blasphemous. Instead, I received a jeremiad on its obscenity. Now, there is talk of sex in the novel, but to my mind it is far from graphic, but she insisted, especially given the depiction of oral sex in the first chapter.

“What oral sex?” I asked, completely baffled then.

The first chapter depicts the aftermath of an airliner bombing—probably Lockerby—which has dropped the two principle characters into freefall. Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, who are bound in odd ways through the rest of the book and exhibit spiritual (and physical) mutability in very clever and insightful ways, tumble through the air and fall into a rotation around each other, head to toe, as they fall. When I read it the first time, I immediately saw it as a physical metaphor of Yin and Yang, and as the book proceeded this was clearly intended.

“What is that?” my communicant asked. She had never heard of it. The cultural literacy that might have made the scene make sense to her that way was absent. Instead, she drew the inference that they were in a 69 position, fellating each other.*

Later, I couldn’t help but wonder, what am I missing because of a lack of cultural knowledge? It’s easy to slip into judgmental mindsets without noticing that such blindnesses go both ways. Expecting everyone, everywhere, to possess the same set of cultural awarenesses is another form of privilege that fails to serve.

Burning the books would leave us bereft of the kind of global and cross-cultural familiarity that is essential to understanding each other.

But then, such knowledge leads to choices, and for a certain mindset, choices are the ultimate blasphemy. (I am mindful of the spasmadic rejection of education and information in the aftermath of 9-11 that swept this country, that any attempt to understand, to contextualize, to become aware was seen as somehow treasonous.)

Now finally someone has managed to assault Mr. Rushdie and damaged him horribly. The kind of unquestioning commitment to narrow causes is also something we often are unable to comprehend, although that may be changing even here. It still leaves us with a puzzled dismay. Why? On the one hand, it’s just a book. (Killing Rushdie will not change that, the book will not magically disappear should he die, and in fact this event will cause even more people to buy it and read it, so by what logic is this even construed as effective?) Then again, it is that the ideas in the book—in any book—cause so much fear that the choice seems to be to yield and learn or lash out and destroy, and the latter is preferable somehow.

This is something many of us have experience with, people so terrified of ideas that they will move heaven and earth to keep such things at bay. Books are being challenged and removed from libraries all the time. It’s never enough that we allow people to make such choices for themselves, some demand their fears be enforced on everyone.

So let me leave my own statement on the “virtue” of absolutist positions here:

Nothing is so sacred that it justifies killing someone because they express a different opinion about it. Nothing. The concept of blasphemy is only fear in ritual garb. We must overcome terror in the face of new ideas.

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*When I asked her how her initial reading held up through the rest of the novel, she admitted she had not read past that first chapter. On that basis she was willing to accept that Rushdie’s death was justified.

Intrusions

The latest eruption of reaction from certain viewers of the new Sandman series on Netflix is another example of a phenomenon that I, in my 20s, would never have thought to indulge: the intrusion of the audience directly into the aesthetic choices of an author. I grew up in a time in which you either liked or did not like something, and if you did not like it you would then go off to find something you did like. What you did not do was presume to publicly dictate to the creators what was wrong with the work as if you had any place in that process.

Professional (and amateur) critics would analyze and examine and write pieces about a given work to explain what does and does not work, but rarely, if ever, would you find a demand that a work be different. Certainly lively discussions among those interested over a given work were common and healthy, but that work would be accepted as presented, to be dissected and studied, liked or disliked, as it stood.

Today it would seem the audiences harbor elements that take it as given that there is a right to tell the creator to rewrite, reconstruct, or otherwise revise a given work, based on the apprehension that said work is “wrong” and should be fixed. Among this group there seems little interest in examining those objectionable aspect to discern the whys of the creator’s choices—and thereby maybe learn something from them—or even the consideration to simply say “this is not for me” and go find something else. This intrusion of a self-assumed participation (which becomes strident, because obviously it ought not and seldom does have any result on the work in question) has become a fixture of the current literary and media zeitgeist.

We see this presently in the splenetic condemnation of so-called Woke aspects in something and an implied—or explicit—demand that they be gotten rid of. It seems not to occur to such tyros that maybe an examination—of self as well as the work (which, in the best of worlds, become one in the same, because that is what the best work does for us)—would be edifying and perhaps personal growth might result. It seems not to occur to them (and others not so vocal about their personal discontents) that the whole purpose of engaging with a work that may challenge preconceptions is to force a bit of self-analysis.

Given that the United States now ranks far down the ratings of literacy in the world today, it would seem that we have a massive group of people who have decided that the literary world, be it in print or film, must conform to their definition of acceptable and allow them the comfort of never getting out of their heads.

This is a level of intrusion I find toxic. Even though it may well be a minority, these days numbers seem not to matter in relation to degree of attention. For the purposes of this essay, let me just speak to the lone individual who, disgusted by Dr Who being a woman or the aspect of two boys or two girls kissing, or the appearance of any minority in a role long-assumed to be the province of white people, reacts with a public display of condemnation and a demand that this not be allowed.

You are to be pitied. You have locked your soul into a box so that it is never touched by anything other than the presumptions chasing each other inside your skull. You do not know how to read (and by that I mean the vicarious immersion through connection with a character and a text that offers something New for consideration; indeed, consideration itself would seem a foreign and hateful thing to you) and you no doubt have caged your empathy in such a way that you flinch at any suggestion that the world is not what you wish it to be. You see something like this (Sandman) and you look forward to being dazzled by the special effects and the novelty of magic and other worldly mysteries, yet any hint of the personal that might challenge your prejudices is unwelcome because what you want is to be wowed, not enlarged. Literature is, at its best, a gateway to parts and places in the world you have not had and might never have direct access to—that is the point.

You do not have the right—nor fortunately, as yet, the authority—to tell a writer he or she should take something out because it disturbs you. Go read/view something else and leave this to those who do appreciate it.

It’s this attitude, this sense of privilege that suggest because you are a fan you own the property and can dictate the landscape, that troubles me. It’s ugly. It’s selfish and small and poisonous. And, as I said, pitiable.

And just an observation…if something bothers you that much, odds are it’s not irrelevant at all. Rather it may be the most relevant thing about it and it would be a good idea to maybe look into that a bit deeper. If it was genuinely gratuitous, it likely would not cause even a minor stir in your psyche.

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and the Pursuit of Taxonomy

There are some discussions about literary forms which are of use primarily to the academic, the author, and the dedicated taxonimist obsessed with lists and categories and the minutiae that separate one column from another. For the average reader—including deep readers, serious in their immersions into literature—most of this is beside the point, sometimes just a distraction, and occasionally a serious annoyance. Most simply do not care “what” something is—where it slots in on any spreadsheet of literary types—as long as the book at hand works and provides the pleasures they seek.

For the former group, though, these things can matter quite a lot. Tracing the lineage of a form or where a given writer drew inspiration or the cross-referencing of varied texts is a species of archaeology that can enrich understandings of the evolution of literature. Movements, iconoclasts, even the politics of certain writers and groups of writers, the impact specific works have had on whole fields…all this is both real and fascinating for a particular area of study. It should be there for those inclined to ask the kinds of questions addressed. For the writer, such distinctions are relevant for a variety of reasons, starting with the kind of work to be done and how to do it and going on to considerations of market and further to the sorts of broad conversations engaged across published texts. Knowing the deep roots of what one writes can solve problems, make the work itself richer, and give direction to later work.

As for the taxonomist…this kind of thing is part and parcel of bibliographic study. As our archives grow, this becomes more important, lest things are lost. Or misunderstood.

But as I say, for the general reader, all that matters is that the book provides what it has promised. In the main, the obligation of the writer is to provide entertainment, an experience that satisfies whatever requirements the reader may seek to fulfill. As far as the reader is concerned, as long as what is found on the page serves that goal, what goes into creating that page is irrelevant. And like a good magic act, it should not intrude. Granted, there are some readers who enjoy deciphering texts to see how they work, those who feel good about being able to perceive the scaffolding, trace the connections, and catch all the well-incorporated quotes, references, sources, and links. (And too many lit classes based on the assumption that this is the important part of reading.)

Achieving that seemingly effortless immersion, though, is far from simple and work well done requires a knowledge of those behind-the-scenes apparatuses. The architect has to know the skeleton of the building that supports the surface that everyone then sees and uses.

There is interest for the lay reader as well. Not all readers are disinterested. The how of things has an appeal. But for the most part, understanding how something works and what it is intended to accomplish and the way it achieves its goals is primarily in service to the ongoing endeavor to continue to create works that do certain things.

So let me state up front that distinctions between forms and what makes them distinct will make no difference in the case of a given work if people enjoy it. Regarding this current essay, what makes science fiction science fiction will matter little to readers who are loving what they are reading. The ride is all. The play of ideas, the novelty of landscape, the exoticism of the distortions within the story that produce a pleasurable experience are all that count. If you have no interest in how the centipede walks, this is perhaps not worth your time.

As well, most of us have been tortured by lit classes in which the examination, over-directed and flensed of the joy a given text is intended to supply, becomes a kind of reductio ad absurdum in the hands of amateur taxonomists who seem to think the only value to be found in a story is its derivation from and relationship to deep-rooted myths and symbolic board-gaming. “What do you think the author intended/meant by this?” Such questions are certainly valid. I do not suggest they have no place in the creation and reception of a story, only that they are questions that form anchors between the actual creation of the work and, at the other end, the analysis of such creations by those fascinated in all the inner structures that make it a culturally-relevant artifact. For those between the anchors, the resonance of an insider’s familiarity can add a special frisson to the experience, but if the work is done well it is the least important quality.

To be done well, though, would seem to require at least a passing familiarity with those structures. When watching a magician work, the point is to be fascinated and entertained by the effect. Knowing how a trick is done may add an extra layer, but the fact remains that for the purposes of the performance, only the magician needs to know. For it to work well, the magician needs to not only know but fully understand what all that backstage apparatus does. The degree of such understanding can determine the quality of the performance.

So we come to this question of, essentially, genre distinctions. Few other forms seem to have such spill-over for the audience as does science fiction and fantasy. (In music, I can think of debates over distinctions, or at least points of departure—is rock’n’roll blues or was there a split at some point allowing them to be distinct modes? Broadway musicals and opera share certain commonalities, but they are not the same things. Is Ragtime jazz? Valid questions, all of which can be dismissed in the face of “I don’t care, I like it.” But for the creators, such distinctions are much more relevant.)

My own sentiment is that science fiction and fantasy are distinct. There’s overlap of form, motif, and occasionally aesthetic effect, but functionally they are concerned with different things. That it took a good part of the 20th Century to sort this all out, with a great deal of hybrid work being produced that tended to confuse the two (science fantasy? Really? I know what it’s supposed to me, but personally the concept, if not specific works, offends me) but by now, with the actual manifestation of the worlds being proposed in so much of that literature providing ample real world bases by which to assess the function of the two forms, it should be clear that the science fiction discourse has followed a different path than fantasy. At the end of the day, they are not different versions of the same thing.

This is often obscured by examples of the actual work.

My working assumption of science fiction (hereafter simply SF) is that, first and foremost, it is what I call epistemological fiction. This is what grounds it in science. The accuracy of the science in a given story, while certainly desirable, is not critical. Rather, it is the philosophical framework that science comes out of that matters.

The philosophy of science, according to the Oxford Guide to Philosophy, “can be divided into two broad areas: the epistemology of science and the metaphysics of science. The epistemology of science discusses the justifications and objectivity of scientific knowledge. The metaphysics of science discusses philosophically puzzling aspects of the reality uncovered by science.” SF has, generally speaking, indulged the metaphysical aspect for effect, but structurally, as essentially problem-solving fiction, it is the epistemology that has provided the framework. It is the struggle of character to come to terms with a reality understood or amendable to understanding by the tools and criteria of science that underlies the SF endeavor. Characters seeking justifications—explanations—for the problems set for them by the world they move through drive the thematic and plot concerns of SF. The assumption that the world, in such instances, is in fact knowable, manipulable, and therefore “real” in the sense understood by science gives SF the unique effect readers seek.

The broadest distinction that can be made, therefore, from fantasy is simple: fantasy is not at all concerned with such understanding.

No one cares how Gandalf taps into whatever powers he may wield. No one cares how the rings of power work or how Sauron survived death. No one, frankly, cares why that tree blossomed just because a particular man allowed himself to be crowned king. (This is straight out of Arthurian myth, that the health of the country is dependent on the health of the king. Again, no one cares how that mechanism functions.) No one cares about the material justifications of the fantasy milieu because that is not the concern of such stories. Fantasy has other interests.

It is legitimate to ask why such understanding is even important, important enough to draw such broad distinctions between the two genres.

One of the principle benefits of fiction is its utility in permitting the empathetic connection with other lives through vicarious immersion—in character, in landscape, in intellectual and emotional play through alternate scenarios. The mental and emotional scope of the fictive experience allows for a kind of acclimation to situations and intimate experiences with people we will never otherwise encounter.

Until, sometimes, we do.

This is, of course, a byproduct of the primary utility of fiction, which is to entertain. The degree to which one is entertained, however, depends on an ability to empathize and subsume our self into the fictive experience, and this ability increases with exposure. And with that increase, the byproduct becomes more and more central—not by displacing the primary function but by merging with it, so that such increase becomes one with our apprehension of “entertainment.” (Which is why we become bored, over time, with work that once fascinated and delighted when we grow out of it.) At some point we enter a realm of discernment in which the critical understanding of those underlying structures may become important to our pleasure in a given text. At such points certain forms may fade in interest while others become more important, providing the sought-after effects. Distinctions come into play in new and significant ways.

Realizing this may prompt one to ask why.

For the purposes of this essay, the question clarified for me over repeated encounters with the proposition that SF and Fantasy are the same thing. Except in the most superficial ways, they are not, and their differences have to do with the nature of the aforementioned concerns over epistemology. That both forms may utilize the same archetypes from time to time does not alter the fact that those archetypes are used differently because they are based on different assumptions regarding their place in their primary milieus. (Correlation is not Causation.) For one example, the Scientist (as archetype) is not the same as the Wizard (as another archetype). While they are often apprehended as variations of the same thing, their grounding in very different philosophical assumptions could not be more foreign to each other. The world that finds the Scientist plausible, useful, and affective is not the same world in which the Wizard is an essential icon. The Scientist is the lens through which the world may be brought into focus; the Wizard is the conduit of raw power by which the world is maintained. The Scientist is representative of potential change, progress, and understanding; the Wizard is representative of stasis and the infantilization of entire civilizations that are not permitted to evolve beyond him. The Scientist represents expanding knowledge and the capacity to live with it because she understands that knowledge is infinite and nonexclusive; the Wizard perceives knowledge as a finite resource that must be preserved, tended, and kept out of the hands of those not fated to understand it (as he is). The Scientist is a liberator (knowledge wants to be free); the Wizard is a custodian (there are some things man is not meant to know).

We could go on. Both deal with arcana, but the Scientist sees it as part of her work to demystify, while the Wizard seeks a “worthy” apprentice who can be trusted to guard the secret wisdom. I simplify, of course, because both archetypes, to be useful in fiction, must still be human, and humans are polymorphous. My point, though, is that our starting assumptions determine deployment.

(The Wizard generally has no place in our world other than as a point of chaos which must be dealt with. Interestingly, one could put a Scientist in the Wizard’s world to completely different effect, but in both instances, the Wizard would lose relevance.)

Inasmuch as some critics argue that SF is Fantasy (or, less frequently, that Fantasy is SF), it seems the point of departure concerns myths and those aforementioned archetypes.

The archetype in SF is primarily the Scientist, a form nascent throughout history but not truly realized until the 18th Century, and certainly not much featured in our major stories even then. Certainly there is Daedalus and in very rough outline Odysseus is a kind of scientist. A handful scattered here and there, but usually cast in warnings to Not Go There. Faust is the last of the great warnings against science, or at least the “dabbling in things best left alone” motif of science. The difficulty is that for a good deal of that time science was conflated with magic by way of alchemy and as such confined to the secret society mode wherein knowledge was not to be shared and used only at great peril. This aspect attached to the first genuine scientist to be depicted in a major work of fiction, Frankenstein, even as most other elements involved in the story are recognizably material science. It took the rest of the 19th Century for the Scientist to emerge unfettered as a positive archetype and with the 20th Century took his/her place as one of the dominant archetypes of our evolving cultural mythos.

However, with the spread of science and its apprehension as a communal endeavor, one which benefited from greater and greater general participation, the whole embodied mythos began to split off from what had been the dominant form of cultural mythic reservoirs. Science, at base, is democratic.

When I claim that the Scientist is the central archetype in SF, I do not mean that a Ph.D. lab-coated grandee working in a study on arcane problems is the model. I am saying the Scientist as a very human mode of a particular kind of exploration and understanding of the world. A three-year-old playing with blocks is being a scientist. In SF, any character that progresses through a story with the basic assumption that the universe can be understood through the power of intellectual examination is being a scientist, be that character a soldier, a merchant, a pilot, or any of the myriad other forms present in SF (and in most other literature).

Of course other archetypes are present in SF, but more and more they must conform to the presence of the Scientist.

What gave birth to this, as in much else in the modern world, was the Enlightenment. In essence, the Enlightenment declared tradition a quaint holdover from eras wherein most people lived as if nothing would ever change. The components of transformational progress had been assembling for a long time. With the Enlightenment they had reached sufficient complexity, valence, and momentum to dispel the general assumptions of the past and send civilization forward on the wavefront of fundamental discovery that proved far more than mere novelty.

Which gives us the cultural assumption on which SF is based—change is the only constant.

But with change comes a multitude of problematic consequences which have resulted in a world in continual churn in ways it had never experienced before. In both scale and sentiment, what followed the Enlightenment was unprecedented. While change had always attended the ruling precincts throughout history, rarely had it affected the general population in so fundamental a way. (If there is an American story that records this sense of displacement among the general population perfectly, it would be Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, one of the first stories of note to exemplify cognitive dissonance, which would become another primary ingredient of SF.)

The reaction to the Enlightenment—the Romantic Movement—gave credibility to the subsequent disdain for the kind of materialist focus which informed science. One can see it as the social oyster bed of modern Fantasy. It privileged the raw, unstructured encounter of the soul with nature, rebelling against intellectualism that demanded analysis and understanding of underlying principles in favor of a kind of naked immersion in reifying sensation. Wagner would eventually epitomize the primary focus of such sentiments, with the heavy reliance on myth and the idealized past, which would by mid-20th Century become the core aesthetic motif of Fantasy. (Even a work like C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy shows the continuum from SF to Fantasy book by book. While Out of the Silent Planet is largely if not wholly SF, by the time we arrive at That Hideous Strength we are wholly in the Fantasy mode, complete with a modern resurrection of Camelot in the form of Ransom-as-Arthur.)

Lewis’s work provides an example of one of the chief distinctions separating SF from Fantasy, one seldom remarked. In the final volume of his Space Trilogy, it becomes clear that this is a work thoroughly anti-bureaucratic. Not anti-bureaucratic in the specific, as in a critique and comparison of bureaucratic examples, but as an ideology opposed to bureaucracy in total.

(Certainly there are SF stories in which bureaucracy is cast as a Bad Thing, an enemy, and the hero’s quest is to block or destroy it, but for the most part even the hero in an SF story cannot function without benefit of the bureaucratic support structure that would have provided all the tools necessary for the hero to know how to fight a bureaucracy, and in the end a different bureaucracy arises, one which presumably works better.)

I have noted in the past that another, though dubious, distinction between Fantasy and SF is in the fact that when asked to name a primary text that more or less encompasses the genre, no such text seems to exist for SF, but there is one for Fantasy. I stipulate that other, older examples may serve as well if not better, but I suggest that The Lord of the Rings serves as a primary exemplar for Fantasy. In its epic sweep it gathered together and subsumed so much previous work and cast a shadow that reaches even to the present. Works are written either accepting this as the principle mode or in opposition to it, but this would appear to be the hallmark. No such work can be found in SF because it is not and has never been reducible to such a mode.

But the purposes of comparison, let us take as an example of SF Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I use that one for the expedient reason that both these works were on the same nomination ballet for Best Series in 1966, the only time till recently a Hugo Award was given for series. We can assume that at the time the nominations were made, an attempt to put forward broadly encompassing examples of what was considered best in SF was being made and Asimov’s was the work chosen. It won that award.

Firstly, the two works are nothing alike, which is to be expected. But the distinguishing features of the two are instructive. Starting with the aforementioned observation that Fantasy is anti-bureaucratic, consider that in LotR, it is the bureaucracies that are at the center of every calamity. Never mind the principle antagonists, take for example the Steward of Gondor, who is about as hide-bound a bureaucrat as one could want, and of course he has made a mess of things and has to go. Aragorn must take over, but in truth, what kind of preparation has he had for running things? He has spent most of the past several decades avoiding any kind of responsibility of an administrative nature and lived as a Ranger. This is an implicit virtue for him. Gandalf’s “order” is nowhere to be seen other than in the form of Saruman, who turns out to be basically an arms merchant. The elves, who might take some kind of lead in the struggle, have given it all up as a bad idea and are leaving, so whatever management skills they might have are about to be absent. The actual heroes of the tale are from the one place in Middle Earth that apparently has no government at all. This, in the great prose and sweep of the book, is put forward to be enough for everything to work fine in the aftermath of the war against Sauron, who is clearly a rather masterful politician (the rings he talked everyone into accepting, the alliances presumably built, etc) and administrator. Granted, he is loosely modeled on Hitler and his aggression reflective of Nazi Germany, which was seen then as the chief example of bureaucratic and technological overreach. At the end, there is only Aragorn, with no hint of an administrative machine. Quite intentionally, as the suggestion running throughout is the ability of peoples to manage themselves without such things.

Move to the Foundation stories and there is no instance in which bureaucracy is not only present but essential, and no one is arguing otherwise. The conflicts are over how things are to be administered, not whether or not they should be. The Empire, the Foundation, and the Second Foundation are each other variations on bureaucratic systems shown throughout the stories to be necessary to civilization. The crisis at the heart of the cycle is the collapse of the Empire, which leaves chaos in its wake. The solution is the expansion of the Foundation, which asserts new and more appropriate forms of administration. And the hidden Second Foundation, a collective of mathematicians, is concerned with the overall administration of the collapse-recovery. The one character that might be construed as anti-bureaucratic is the Mule, who has a singular gift and is shown ultimately as a incapable—a monarch against a collective.

Other significant features distinguishing the forms: The Scientist and the Wizard are completely on display for comparison—Hari Seldon and Gandalf. Seldon works with knowledge that, while difficult, requires no special powers to use, and which is open to all. Gandalf is a member of an arcane order of specially empowered custodians of knowledge kept secret. Gandalf recruits others to work with him, but does not (cannot) share his power, while Seldon recruits otherwise ordinary people to use what he freely offers. Seldon works within a system, Gandalf is above systems (or outside, which functionally within the story is the same thing). The universes depicted are quite different, based on distinct assumptions. There is no one achievement that solves the problems in the Foundation, but a series of adroit adaptations and situational responses collectively leading to less chaos, while in Middle Earth everything depends on Aragorn accepting his place as king (the flowering of the tree symbolizes exactly this) and the destruction of an artifact the purpose of which is to empower the ultimate in evil bureaucracy.

As noted, however, Foundation, while displaying the conditions and requirements of a science fiction work, is not in any way The Exemplary Text, but is only one example of myriad. This is because SF is not concerned with the kind of mythic reification which informs most Fantasy. SF has little use for myth, seeing it usually as a set of prejudices which require examination and, frankly, constraint. SF, as one aspect of the “science” intrinsic to the form, is constructed for the purpose of analyzing and understanding the world, rather than imposing preconceptions designed to validate illusions of destiny. Middle Earth only “works” when all the destiny-driven elements are in their proper place. If they fall out of harmony, things enter an entropic slide. In SF, there is no such condition of harmony.

I take it as stipulated that there are exceptions on both sides of the divide, but they are usually curiously clunky things the chief effect of which is a kind of off-balanced drunkard’s walk that is often accidentally appealing. I mentioned cognitive dissonance in relation to Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, which I regard as a prototypical Fantasy of the kind that recognizes the divide. In the story, Rip, harried by his wife, picks up his rifle to go hunting, encounters what are clearly elves (fairies, leprechauns, “little people”) who invite him to a game of Nine Pins. He is drawn into their party, he drinks too much, and falls asleep, to awaken 20 years later and find the world has changed. The place where he had slept is a kind of bubble attached to the “real” world wherein the rules of time are different. This is a Fantasy realm. As depicted, though, it is apart from and not of “this” world. It is not, in the story, somewhere Rip can return. Fast forward to the novel Little, Big by John Crowley and we see the same idea of an adjunct universe wherein the fading world of Faerie can be found, a bubble universe that keeps shrinking as the modern world encroaches. (Crowley has addressed the transition from the Old World of magic and alchemy to the New World of science and technology often, most especially in his excellent Aegypt Cycle.) The overlap between the two realms is inconsistent, fading, and clearly definitive. In a sense, such stories are a recognition of the changes that followed in the wake of the Enlightenment, and as such are profoundly nostalgic. (Nostalgia imbues subtext in much Fantasy; what else are the Gray Havens but a dream of nostalgia?)

I have taken time to delineate the differences between SF and Fantasy in response to what have become cyclic attempts to define them as somehow the Same Thing. On the surface, and by the most facile of definitional characteristics, they seem to share a great deal and therefore may appear essentially the same. But essentially, in their constructions and presumptions and primary concerns, they are not. They operate differently because their assumptions about the world are apposite—the world as a material realm as well as the structures humans build to operate in the world.

What distinguishes SF from other forms is the way in which the conceits of the setting—the world, if you will—necessitate an examination in order to fully enter into the fictive experience. The differences in that world set it apart from our own in specific ways, ways which permit a distinct reading experience. The way in which this is done sets up an expectation that everything encountered is accessible with the proper tools. In some cases, it is the world we believe we are moving into from the present. In other cases it is a world we might have inhabited given certain alternate choices in our past. But in either case it is a world comprehensible as a habitable place possible by virtue of the mechanisms derived from the philosophical stance called Science. Science itself does not have to be visible on the page, nor does it necessarily have to be science as we presently know it. It only has to be framed in such a way as to validate our present understanding of the universe available to us derived from the practice called Science.

Which brings us back to my initial criteria: SF is epistemological fiction. The narrative power is in the character’s encounter with that new world.

And what about myth? Fantasy is derived from our conception of myth as ur-story, a fundamental narrative that runs through everything. It takes as given that myth is wired into existence as experienced by sapient beings—us—and represents a reservoir of validation and reification that, properly encountered, gives us our identity. While the narrative frames of myth are powerful and SF can certainly utilize them for effect, myth in SF is simply another part of the world that is to be examined and understood. SF, like science, is not concerned with repeating the dictates of a distant shaping force—that is where notions of Destiny and Fate come from—but in putting them on the workbench and taking them apart to see how (and if) they work. (The first step in freeing ourselves from the expectations of unquestioned tradition.) The universe in which such forces are accepted as real outside social structures is not the universe of science or SF. In that way, SF is not about finding new myths for a modern age, but about constantly reevaluating the age and aggressively keeping our options open.

Which is why there is not and probably cannot be a primary SF text. Reassessment like that does not permit things to “settle” into the kind of stasis where one set of meanings above all others can emerge. SF, therefore, is an assertively destabilizing practice. Unlike Fantasy which constantly seeks equilibrium and, ideally, stasis. (Whether this is achieved is unimportant, only that this is the goal.)

Therefore, Science Fiction and Fantasy are distinct practices which overlap in certain aesthetic effects but in the end seek different literary goals and offer, for the careful reader, distinct pleasures.

The Downside of Expanded Participation?

It occurred to me the other day that there is a serious problem with the way audiences and films interact these days. It’s a relatively new problem, one that has grown up with social media, but it has roots in an older aspect of film production, namely the test screening. The idea being that before a general release, a film is shown to select audiences to gauge reactions and tweak the final cut before it is set free into the zeitgeist.  There’s logic to it, certainly, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with it because it’s an attempt to anticipate what should be an honest reaction to a work of art.  I try to imagine Rembrandt showing a painting to a client halfway or two-thirds finished and, depending on the reaction, going back to change it to conform to some inarticulate quibble on the part of someone who has no idea what should be on the canvas. Art, to a large extent, is a gamble, and test screenings are the equivalent of loading the dice or counting cards.

It’s understandable, of course, because a movie is not a painting done by one person, but a hugely expensive collaborative work with investors and questions of market share. But it still bothers me. (What if a test audience had complained that Bogey didn’t get Bergman at the end of Casablanca and the studio went back to change it to suit?)

Today there’s another phenomenon that is related to test audience but is even more invasively surreal. The pre-assessment by fans ahead of release. Sometimes years ahead.

This obsessive speculation has evolved into a form of semi-creative wheel-spinning that mimics a huge test audience, the key difference being that it is “testing” work not yet done. Fanfic seems to be part of this, but only as a minor, and apparently undervalued aspect. We have a large, active community engaged in predetermining what will, should, ought not, and might happen in forthcoming movies. Large enough and active enough that I believe it has affected how those movies are made, possibly unconsciously. The feedback loop is pernicious. The vindictiveness of the test audience can also be so severe as to impact decisions that have yet to be taken up.

The most visible way this has manifest—and this varies from franchise to franchise—is in the “look” of new films, especially in the effects, but also in the selection of cast, location, and choreography. Whether intentional or not, film makers pump things into next productions in an attempt to meet the expectations of this hypercritical superorganism.

This organism constructs alternate narratives, raises possible plot lines, critiques character development, and then, when the finished product fails on some level, engages in the kind of evisceration that cannot but give the creators pause to rethink, check themselves, question (often pointlessly) every choice made to that time.

I’m not sure this process happens at any conscious level, but it seems to mean the Doc Smith approach to bigger, splashier, louder, stranger films, at least in the Marvel and DC universes, and to a lesser extent the related products like Valerian or any given Bruce Willis vehicle of late, is a response to this incessant viral nattering. The anticipatory critical response must get through and affect the people in the main office.

Television has suffered less of this, it seems, because, at least in terms of story, these series suffer less from the kind of crippling second-guessing the motion pictures display.

Before all this near-instantaneous data back-and-forth, studios produced movies, people may have known they were being made, but little else got out to the general public until the trailers announcing upcoming releases. Based on those, you went or didn’t, and the movie was what it was, and you either liked it or didn’t. We were not treated to weekly box-office reports on news broadcasts. The films, with few exceptions, had a two-week first release run at the front line theaters, then moved down the hierarchy for one or two week engagements at smaller chains until they ended up at a tiny local theater, after which they vanished until popping up on tv at some point. You then went to the next and the next and the next. Choice was addressed by the fact that at any one time there might be a dozen new movies coming to the theaters a month. The film was what the producers made it. It was offered, you saw it, you took your response home, that was it.

A lot of the product was mediocre, but often reliably entertaining, and for the most part was made in a way that studios were not threatened with bankruptcy if they failed.  The really great ones came back from time to time or enjoyed extended runs in the theaters.

Fandom evolved and when the age of the internet dawned and the cable industry grew and the on-demand availability of movies was met by videotapes (later DVDs) and now streaming services, the products remained in front of self-selected audiences all the time.

This has changed the way these films are made. Not altogether to the bad, I hasten to add. I believe we’re passing through a kind of golden age of high quality films and certainly exceptional television.

But the budgets, the tendency to ignore better stories that lack the kind of epic myth-stuff of the major franchises, the endless bickering online and subsequently in conversations everywhere, and now this absurd war on what is, for wont of a better term, SJW content…

I can’t help it. Grow up.  So Doctor Who is a woman. Big deal. The character does not belong to you. Instead of chafing that some reification of idealized masculinity in being threatened, try just going with it and see where it takes you. That’s the whole purpose of storytelling! To be remade by narrative and offered a new view! To be challenged out of your day-to-day baseline assumptions!

Star Wars has been ruined by all the SJW crap! Really?

While I can see that discussion groups and this expanded dialogue can be fun and instructive, I think an unintended consequence has been to grant certain (very loud) people a sense of ownership over what is not theirs. The cacophony of anticipatory disappointment actually has a dampening effect on those of us who would simply like to be surprised and delighted all on our own.  There is utility in silence, purpose in the vacuum, a vacuum to be filled by a new film. Box office is (or can be) detrimentally affected by the chattering carps of disillusioned fan critics who are terrified of James Bond becoming black, of Thor being turned into a woman, of the Doctor showing us how gender prejudice applies in our own lives.

I’ve been disappointed with new manifestations of favorite characters in the past, don’t get me wrong. My response has been to turn to something else. Those characters don’t belong to me, I don’t have a right to expect their creators to do what I think they should, and I recognize that probably a whole lot of people are just fine with a new direction. Otherwise sales figures would push them to change it again. it’s the pettiest of sour grapes to try to preload a rejection in advance of actually seeing the product.

I have no numbers to back up my impression, but I think it worth considering that the “my life will end unless the next movie comes out exactly the way I want it” school of anticipatory criticism is having a distorting effect over time, both on the product and on the ability of audiences to simply encounter something “clean” and take a personal and unmitigated response away from it.

Just a thought.

Roundup 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a safe, bookfilled 2015.

Is the Novel Still Dying?

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

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

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

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

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

Genre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it won’t be The Novel.

____________________________________________________________________

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

Culture’s End (The Ends of Culture)

Once in a while, work comes along that, while not doing anything apparently new, turns a settled form inside out and frees possibilities.   In writing, this generally means that, in the wake of such work, the things it is possible to say and the ways in which they are said broaden.  Branchings occur, reactions, new growth, inspiration ripples along.

Iain M. Banks triggered—at least for me—a renewal of an old science fiction mainstay, the Space Opera.  Practically from the beginning of the modern form in the 1920s, interstellar adventures have been woven into the DNA of the genre, replete with strange planets, exotic aliens, and occasional examinations of political systems, albeit not on a very sophisticated level.  Everything from the Roman Empire to a kind of United Nations model has been used, sometimes to unintentionally silly effect.  Given the suppositions on hand, it is not a small task to plausibly imagine such a universe.  Some of the best works have ignored the details, lest unwanted hilarity result, suspension of disbelief sabotaged by, of all things, the wallpaper.

Space Opera lost some of its cachet in the Seventies in the wake of Star Trek, which combined much of the long history of the form in a single popular television show, and made it difficult to write anything that didn’t look like Star Trek.  In written SF, Space Opera receded in prominence.  Then in the early Eighties, with Neuromancer by William Gibson, Cyberpunk muscled its way into prominence and one of those moments of expansion occurred.  For the next two decades, it seemed,  reaction to Cyberpunk dominated the field.

But in 1987 a novel was published in England (a year later in America) that signaled the coming resurgence of good ol’ fashioned Space Opera.

Consider Phlebas was a thick, densely-detailed, elegantly-penned adventure that seemed to have come from the mind of a literary writer who had no real idea there had ever been such a thing as Space Opera.  But that was impossible, since it handled the conventions of the form with such grace and sympathy as to suggest a lifelong devoteé.  Iain Banks simply didn’t write from a traditional æsthetic, even when it seemed he did.

One of the most interesting choices he made in the novel was putting his major invention—the Culture—in both a background position and as an antagonist.  One might be forgiven if, from reading just this book, one thought the Culture was a throw-away idea, never to appear again.  Because the other civilizations depicted, several of which are at war, are so vividly and thoroughly imagined that any one or five of them might have served as the solid foundation for a series of breathtaking novels.

To be clear, what the Culture subsequently became, in novel after novel (and a handful of short stories) was not a hero’s preserve.  The Culture seems often like the Good Guy, but just as often they are a meddlesome, arrogant, dangerous collection of diplomatic bullies.  What Banks constructed with the Culture is a kind of Swiss Army Knife of an interstellar empire.  It is what it needs to be in any given circumstance.  And like any real government, expedience is its chief operating mode.

But.  And this is a large exception.  Because the Culture actually has no material needs—it is what we’ve come to term a “post scarcity civilization”—its political motivations are a bit more abstract.  The Culture has a moral compass, one which it seems to ignore as often as it follows, and has, in complete contradiction to the famous and also often ignored Prime Directive of Star Trek, no compunction about interfering with another civilization at all.  In this way, Banks created the perfect sociopolitical tool to examine what might be termed Moral Expedience.

Rather than confirm the essential uselessness of Space Opera, Banks made it relevant by making cases for right action within a vast and complicated set of interlocking political, social, and ethical systems.  Philosophy 101, in many cases, but deftly handled and often pointedly specific in its potential relevancies.

By further expanding the players to include wholly autonomous machine intelligences—ships that owned themselves and acted according to their own interests, AI advisers, habitats both awake and involved—he opened the dialogue on the question of rights as a, if you’ll forgive the seeming contradiction, concrete abstraction.

If one of the primary attractions of science fiction is the examination of the question “How, then, shall we live?” then one could do much worse than Iain M. Banks as a complete buffet of fascinating riffs, postulates, improvisations, and dialogues on exactly that question—which, at its heart, is the primary concern of what shall be done with virtually unlimited power?

All this would imply a dry, discursive study, plodding expositions, info-dumps that slow the action (what there may be) to a near halt.  That would be a mistake.  Banks’ skill has been to lay all this depth and contemplative meat, bone, and gristle into exceptional adventures with high stakes and finely-drawn characters.  Everything in a Banks novel is profoundly personal.

Space Opera has enjoyed a come-back since that first Culture novel came out.  Banks is now one of many well-respected practioners of the form.  It may be that the field was ready to revisit it anyway.  But without Banks, it may be wondered how satisfying such a visit might have been.

As we shall be wondering when there are no more Culture novels.

Iain M. Banks has announced his last novel (not a Culture novel) because he has terminal cancer.  The 59-year-old writer of eleven Culture books and sixteen other novels says he has perhaps a year to live and his new novel, as yet unreleased, will be his last.

An appreciation of Banks’ Culture stories is only the half of it.  He has enjoyed the enviable ability to write so-called “mainstream” works under “Iain Banks” all along.  His first novel, The Wasp Factory was an experimental work that bordered on SF, reminiscent of both J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.  He has written thrillers, literary novels, satires.  Since 1984 his work has made a significant impression in the U.K. and has gained a large following in the United States.

He is only 59.  If there is any justice, he will be long remembered as a pivotal voice in Western Letters.  Treat yourself.  Go read one of his novels.  Then read another.  Repeat.

Detecting Sauvage

Savage DetectivesA couple of years ago I read Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives.  I still have the one for which he gained considerable fame posthumously, 2666, waiting for me to tackle.

I say “tackle” fully cognizant of its implications.  For a book like this, one should prepare.  Stockpile food and water, coffee (my god, yes, coffee!) and tell friends you’re going on a long trip and to maybe take care of your pets for you.  One should be prepared to leave one’s life by way of the page and cut what ties are possible, because it will be a journey.  This is not “light reading.”

November 2   I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.  I accepted, of course.  There was no initiation ceremony.  It was better that way.

So it begins.  Might as well say he had been invited to join Life.  It’s rare that anyone is “cordially invited” to do so, although there are many opportunities along the course of our living to join at a more engaged level.  Too many people pass these opportunities by, either because they do not recognize them or because they do and would rather not.

November 3   I’m not really sure what visceral realism is. 

Of course not.  He goes on to say he’s only 17.  How many of us ever know so early what life is?  But Bolaño sets out to show us.

He never explains it.  He simply takes us through a long journey, immersing us in the viscera of other lives who are all desperately trying to be real.  None of these people know what they’re doing, what they’re after, what they hope to get out of whatever it is they’ve gotten into.  But they go, and that’s the entire point of the several hundred pages of what amounts to a hero’s quest for the internally tangible.

Most of them fail.

They try to find it in art, doing radical experimental poetry, through sex, having affairs that, while not exactly forbidden, are at least not likely to be fulfilling, through violence, through alcohol, through fleeing their country, through poverty and work and opportunistic spiritual muggings.  They are purposeful while lacking a purpose, at least beyond short term stand-ins for purpose.  They hurt, get hurt, love, suffer, burn out, and none of them end up where they began, although there seems to be a return.

One character is named Ulises and this is not capricious.  If anything, Savage Detectives is a recapitulation of The Odyssey.  Years of travel to find home.  But, like Odysseus, they come back, some of them, to find home has left as well.  You get the sense that one or two of them finally understand that home is something you carry with you, not a geographic location, but it’s hard to tell because the mysteries they strive to uncover and reveal mutate in the hard light of day.  Just about the time you see them find something and say “That’s it!  That’s the thing!” it’s gone, slipping away with serpentine grace and telec perversity.

You come back from your own journey, having stayed true to the quest, and feel…reworked.  You’ve been through living and followed the clues to answers that have only the suggestion of questions.  For some, it might feel like a cheat.  In that regard, Savage Detectives is kin to novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, The Sunlight Dialogues, and, yes, Ulysses.

But I suspect it really had more in common with Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.  Bolaño seems to have fractured the character of Larry in several pieces and sent them all on the same kind of quest, to find Meaning, only to have it all turn pointless on them.  Larry expresses the realization in himself that he had gone about it backwards when he admits that he thought Sophie would be his reward for having lived a good life.  (Sophie, sofia, wisdom, and in a way, Larry achieved it, but Bolaño has a darker view.)  It’s the living that’s the reward and we ignore that at our peril.

Of course, living can be a punishment as well, and it may be that you can’t have one without the other.

I still have 2666 there, waiting.  Daring me.  I have some vacation time coming…

Breakneck Mousetraps—Past and Future in Cloud Atlas

It begins in the past.  Not one past, but three, and then a kind of present.  Then a future.  Two futures, but the furthest is so much like the past as to be functionally the same, only reversed.  The great ship of the technologically advanced is the image fading in the center of this novel, as if the reader has risen to a height of inevitability that can do nothing now but sink back through the layers that cannot support it.  The hyperbolic arc of human trajectory achieves its limit, turns, and falls back to the point where the mirror reality of that insubstantial future rests.  We cannot stay in that future because it is built on anticipation and hope, contending with dread and cynicism, which rob it of any force of inevitability.  It looks real, substantial, has within its possibilities everything we know and everything we are and everything we can be and everything we should not be.

There were once places in the world (and maybe this is still the case) notated on maps as Obscured By Cloud.  Unknown. Protected areas, mostly, in the islands around New Guinea and New Zealand, valleys where the weather systems conspire to keep a permanent layer of cloud cover over them, and which, in somewhat belated attempts at responsible behavior, colonial governments placed off limits.  They are not mapped.

Much like the future, even though we have now more than a century of “futurism” behind us, attempts at forecasting, and not simply confined to science fiction.  We might be tempted from time to time to believe that the future is knowable, even set.  Perhaps we’re not wrong in that, but likely not in the way we might think. Divining the future is very like doing cartography on clouds.  The effort is substantive even while the results are necessarily transitory, because in doing so we learn something about the essence of “cloudness” and perhaps something of the predictability of form.

One of the secondary characters in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas explains it this way:

…The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming + ever more problematic to access + reconstruct: in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.
* The present presses the virtual past into its own service, to lend credence to its mythologies + legitimacy to the imposition of will…Symmetry demands an actual + virtual future, too.  We imagine how next week, next year, or 2225 will shape up—a virtual future, constructed by wishes, prophecies + daydreams.

Which is what Mitchell has accomplished in this curious novel of nested narratives, linked by the most tenuous of threads, like the fraying tag-ends of clouds pulling apart.  The connections between the six distinct—and distinctive—fictions are circumstantial, coincidental, and, on some level, genetic, but unlike novels in which such connections coalesce into resolving tissue upon which the entire plot depends, none of these surface connections does much more than influence the atmosphere.  They are clouds contouring the background against which a bigger game is being played.

Cloud Atlas

There is a journal written by a notary on a long sea voyage, which is discovered by a musician who is composing a sextet that will be the crowning achievement of his short life, which is recorded and printed by obscure labels and found by a reporter working to uncover major corporate corruption, whose story informs a book proposal an unlikely specialty publishers reads while trying to free himself from bizarre circumstances, whose life becomes a film seen by a clone-cum-messiah in a corporate future, who is herself the source of a Buddhist-like liberation faith in a future witnessing a collapse of civilization back to the level found in the first narrative.

Another connection is a curious birthmark shared across time, a suggestion of reincarnation.  Mercantile concerns dominate the cultures throughout, the making of money a driving force in all but one. Servitude.

On the surface, the novellas comprising the total work, except for these superficial connections, seem as disparate and unique as the styles in which they are written.  The journal, written with the stiff formality of a somewhat pretentious educated young man of the 1840s; letters written by a refugee from the Lost Generation to his best friend; a detective story told in third person; a manic tell-all written by an aging publisher with the possibility of a movie in mind; an interrogation session, question and answer; and a first-person oral tale by a semi-literate inhabitant of a future past the collapse of global technical civilization.  Mitchell displays enviable skill in each idiom, moving smoothly not just between periods but among the voices of both the times and the genres in which his narrative(s) unfold.  (A cloud is always a cloud, regardless its particular shape.)

What links them that they should appear as a unified work, as a novel?

Mitchell, in each and every one of them, is writing about slavery and emancipation, and the costs of both.

Certainly the manifestations are unique to each period, but the essence is there throughout, in some more blatantly than in others, but with rigorous consistency.  Freedom, he shows us, means different things to different people, but bondage is the same regardless.

The result of Mitchell’s considerable craft and intelligence is a largely thematic work that doesn’t read like one.  Except for a few passages scattered throughout in which circumspection melds with introspection, the stories of these various actors scattered across time are their own, not the theme’s.  To do otherwise might perhaps suggest the inevitability (and perhaps desirability) of the very bondage under examination. If not approval, at least acceptance.  It would have been easy enough to lose control of his material and produce exactly that validation by writing about his disapproval too obviously.  Instead, we find a work in which the judgment is rendered through the lives depicted and not through the author’s too-pointed explications.

Consequently, we have another rarity—a successful work on a profound theme that is actually fun to read.

Mitchell’s pasts are vibrantly-realized, just as the futures are both exotic and familiar at once.  As his “theorist” continues, however, in the passage on actual and virtual pasts and presents:

One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments, each “shell” (the present) encased inside a nest of “shells” (previous presents) I call the actual past but which we perceive as the virtual past.  The doll of “now” likewise encases a nest of presents yet to be, which I call the actual future but which we perceive as the virtual future.

As has always been the case, fiction is about the present—distorted through the lens of past or future in order to make a particular case about Now.  (Nowhere is this distortion more obvious and sometimes poorly-used than in science fiction, but only because of the inherent exoticism of the seemingly unknowable.  Mitchell admirably escapes this pitfall.)

Which suggests that in a world wherein actual slavery has been and is being abolished but virtual slavery is on the rise, it is worth trying to distinguish between virtual emancipation and actual emancipation—which is the struggle each one of the people in Cloud Atlas engages.  As he carries his theme into the future, he inverts our gaze and shows us that no matter how elusive and indefinite our terms, virtual slavery, if unrecognized, will become actual slavery.  In between, we must define what constitutes emancipation and choose between the virtual and the actual.

But the shapes change.  Much like clouds in competing fronts.

It is perhaps no accident that the title appears within the novel in relation to only one thing, a piece of music.  Music by its nature is infinitely malleable, even while it remains ostensibly the same.  Mitchell gives us our map in Zedelghem, Belgium.  If we required any further evidence of his thematic telos, here it is.  The Cloud Atlas Sextet is composed in a place where, historically, one of the largest complexes of concentration camps was built, and which today remains a largely military area.  The ironies implicit multiply under scrutiny.

All of which unfolds and is watched over by the silent judges of history, the dead.  In the beginning piece, an alcove is discovered by the narrator of Adam Ewing’s Journal on the island upon which he has been awaiting the repair of the ship he is to take home.  Within this alcove, the discovery of which nearly kills him, he finds carved faces along the wall, obscured from above.  A collection of memorial carvings, icons, the faces of past denizens of this island.  He tells no one, other than those who might read his journal, fearing its destruction (because memory is one of the things conquerors most seek to obliterate).  In the far future, where the world is returning to this pre-20th Century condition, the faces are once more present, gathered in a cave where their caretakers go to pray and be in the presence (the Present) of a past (virtual) they no longer remember (actual).  The icons of the dead frame the time passing and give us our final connective thread.

History as vapor made momentarily stable, visible.

Multitasking

Me-Colored EyeHow many books do you read at the same time?

Once in a while, a book so grabs me that I can’t read anything else till I’ve finished it.  (Also, once in a while, I have to read a book that is by its nature a struggle and if I read anything else during the effort I’ll never get through it.)

There are days I miss the ability to do multiple things at once—read, listen to the radio, watch television, carry on a conversation.  I think we all remember a time when we could do this, but I also wonder if we remember how much we actually got out of it.  I know that if there are voices around me now, spoken or sung, reading is impossible.  I write to music—instrumental music—but that’s the limit of my cross-discipline multitasking.  (I’m writing this to Glen Gould’s performance of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto.  I find myself recognizing passages during the pauses between thoughts, but the rest just flows by, creating a kind of aural creative cushion, a continuity that fills in the gaps left by interrupted imagination.)  I rarely read to music.

But I do generally have three or four books going at the same time.

Right now I’m reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and at the same time working my way through Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.  (Does that count as a kind of musical background?  Nah!)  In between, I’ve been reading short stories in current issues of Asimovs SF  and I’m about to start research into Madame de Stäel for the next book in the trilogy I’ve been working on.

The trick is to mix them up.  I almost never read two novels simultaneously.  History and a novel, essay collections and a novel, science, politics, etc.  From time to time they color each other, to interesting (but I’m not sure to superior) effect.  I recall once reading Michael Moorcock’s marvelous The War Hound and the World’s Pain and C. V. Wedgewood’s history of the Thirty Years War more or less at the same time.  Whatever else I might have been reading got overwhelmed by the totality of those two books.  Sort of like reading Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead and a biography of Admiral Halsey together, or just a good history of World War II in the Pacific.

While we read with our entire brain (especially fiction, in which the internal creation of images is strongest), it seems we can compartmentalize detail.  I wonder sometimes if when I put down one text and pick up another, what I’m doing is giving my subconscious an opportunity to process the first text.  It feels curiously relaxing sometimes to go from one to another, like changing up an exercise routine.

I am a slow reader.  I read roughly 80 books a year, cover to cover (probably if I added in the total page count of articles, short stories, partial reads, and such it might get closer to 120, but nevertheless) and it can sometimes take me a seemingly inordinate length of time to get through a book.  (Having done two works now with a reading group—Ulysses and Dante’s Commedia—the upper range now stands at seven years to get through a text.)  Many factors are involved, the chief being the time to sit down and read.  Life interferes.  Where once it seemed I had a whole day to go through a book, now I read them in 20 minute to 2 hour chunks.  And the depth of the text places its own constraints on how quickly it will be absorbed.  (I can read a standard murder mystery in a couple of days, but I’m looking at a book on my shelf that I know will take a month at least—Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a history of the United States from 1815 to 1848.  The older I get, it seems, the more attention I find I must give to such books.  I zipped through William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in high school and did it in less than a week.)  “Processing time” is more necessary, but the urge to keep reading is abated only by picking up a different book for a while.

I have yet to confuse texts.  I always manage to keep whatever I’m reading this way separate.  That might change were I to read similar books simultaneously.  (In fact, I do recall confusing sources during a period of intense research into the Civil War, wherein I switched from one text to another regularly in an attempt to glean a collective comprehension of the period.)

Almost all of my reading, however, is linear (as probably is most people’s).  There are some I’ve known who open books at random and read in the middle, then the beginning, then somewhere else (though not novels, but I wonder how this might work in history?) but not me.  Beginning to end.  Yet I keep them all separate—multi-linearity?—which might seem difficult, since I put one down to pick another up and each return is like starting over.  Yet…

It makes for an interesting, often fascinating journey.  Dancing down the Yellow Brick Road on the way to Versailles at the height of the Sun King’s reign and finding the legation from Vega waiting in the trans-Plutonian consulate fora.  Metternich and Monroe are over there in corner, at the end of the buffet, discussing the Euro with Aragorn while Peregrin and Meriadoc introduce Nero Wolfe to delicacies from Canopus.  There are serious issues under discussion among the gathered dignitaries, not least of which is the true location of the Maltese Falcon and whether or not the heirs to the Dukes of Burgundy have right of return, for which cause Chingachgook represents them to the Culture Minds who may or may not intercede.  The whole arrangement of the imaginative universe could be altered.  Everyone is waiting for arrival of the next book in the series.  in the meantime, we read widely to grasp the multiverse in which existence itself is given meaning…