Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #29: John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting

From Caemarfon to Chester the road remained, and at Caerhun in the Vale of Conwy there were pieces of walls and straight ditches left where the legionary fort had held the river crossing.  Roman stones, but no Romans; not for a thousand years.

Beyond Caehun the road would upslope for a mile, to an inn called The White Hart.  Hywel Peredur lived there in this his eleventh year, the nine hundred tenth year of Arthur's Triumph, the one thousand ninety-fifth year of Constantine's City.  This March afternoon, Hywel stood on the Roman paving below the innyard, and was King of the Romans. (p. 3)
In two recent reviews of SF Masterworks books posted elsewhere, Pavane and Bring the Jubilee,  I touched upon the pitfalls and rewards associated with the reading of alt-histories.  John M. Ford's 1983 alt-history, The Dragon Waiting, takes a different approach than those of Keith Roberts or Ward Moore.  Rather than concentrating on a single modern event and extrapolating a plausible alt-future or setting a story of intrigue and curiosity within such an alt-history, Ford's work perhaps is much more radical than just a simple reimagining of the past along plausible grounds.  With its magicians and vampires, perhaps The Dragon Waiting could be better described as an alt-reality in which fantastical elements co-exist with changes in the Earth's political history dating back to the mid-4th century CE.

In Ford's alt-reality, the Eastern Roman Empire never weakened.  Instead of failing and becoming known as Julian the Apostate, this Emperor succeeded in his attempt to stem the tide of Christianity within the Empire; in the 15th century (never called such, due to the failing of Christianity to become paramount in Europe) the former Western Empire and the Eastern Empire are both polytheistic societies, with Greco-Roman gods rubbing granite shoulders with Celtic and Norse deities in pantheons throughout European temples.  The Eastern or Byzantine Empire has begun a sort of reconquista in Central Europe, with the Anglo-Celtic England, now bearing the ancient Empire of the Romans moniker that the Holy Roman Empire managed to hold during the same time frame in "real" 15th century Europe, being the only major force opposing it.  There is but a few buffer states between these two pagan empires:  the German principalities, the Italian city-states, and a shrunken Kingdom of Gaul, ruled by King Louis XI, a Spider still despite the change of realities.

The action in The Dragon Waiting revolves around several characters in these locales.  From the exiled pretender to the Byzantine throne, Dimitrios Ducas, to the Welsh magician Hywel to the Florentine medic Cynthia Ricci to a German artilleryman, Gregory, who is afflicted with porphyria, the novel begins with leisurely examinations of life in quasi-15th century Europe.  We see how the addition of magic, as wielded by Hywel and others, has influenced the course of events in the British isles.  We also encounter much that is very familiar to those readers who are familiar with late medieval European social and political history:  the reign of the Medicis in Florence, the machinations of the Sforza in Milan during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the squabbling of the proto-mercantilist German states organized in an analogue of the Hanseatic League, as well as references to the Wallachian Vlad the Impaler and other nefarious figures.  These real historical characters, existing now in an alternate reality, serve to ground the narrative to an extent, but they also underscore some of the weaknesses inherent in having an alt-history include so many connections to our shared reality.

Are leaders shaped by their times or do they shape times?  That age-old question seems to be answered with the latter possibility in Ford's novel.  After all, Christian or pagan, the Medicis are reigning, Louis XI is still the Spider, and the Lancasters and Yorks are still battling over the Plantagenet lineage (despite a paucity of hints that there was even a Battle of Hastings four centuries before).  For some, this might make it easier to follow the story, particularly in the second half of the novel, when the four main characters mentioned above manage to have their narrative arcs intertwine.  For others, and I am one of them, there is too much predictability in the narrative once the characters are united and they are then encouraged to remove themselves post haste to England to help settle a new variation on the War of the Roses element, the one of 1482 dealing with Edward IV, his brother Richard of Gloucester, and two little princes who may not be in the Tower of London.

Sometimes a reader can know "too much," especially when it comes to reading alt-histories or alt-realities.  This was certainly the case for me in reading The Dragon Waiting.  Although Ford is not a poor prose writer, there really is not anything spectacular about his writing; he describes events in a workman-like fashion and the plot pieces just fall, one-two-three, finis.  The slightly-altered historical personages and Ford's invented protagonists do not mesh well together and there is nothing convincing about the dialogue that takes place.  Although the question of the "dragon" may be of interest to some readers, it failed to have much of an impact with me.

Overall, The Dragon Waiting is an adequate alt-reality novel.  For those who want to reimagine late medieval/early modern European history, perhaps the story's merits will outweigh its deficiencies.  But for those who want intriguing characters to go along with the alt-history plot, for the most part they will be disappointed with this novel.  There just aren't enough compelling historical scenes, such as those described in Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, or character interactions with their alt-pasts, as is found in Keith Roberts' Pavane, for The Dragon Waiting to be anything else but a solid but unspectacular work that fails to be on the level of several "masterworks" reviewed here in recent weeks.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

SF Masterworks #74: Christopher Priest, Inverted World

For millennia, cities have represented a sort of metaphorical movement.  Whether it be the increased hustle and bustle within the teeming masses found in the largest cities or the steady stream of people that would flow into cities during both times of prosperity and crisis, there is something about cities, whether it be "the city that never sleeps" or "the city of lights," that attracts us to them.  In SF, there have been several stories that have tapped into this envisioning of cities as objects of movement.  James Blish's classic Cities in Flight (to be reviewed here at a latter date by another) portrays cities as being lifted up physically from the Earth and sent into orbit.  More recently, in his Iron Council, China Miéville utilizes a train full of those discontented with New Crobuzon's dictatorial rule to symbolize the movement of a city's masses for greater change.  There is great power in cities and their masses that still inspires some of the most powerful images in literature.

Christopher Priest's 1974 novel, Inverted World, is perhaps the most compelling of these novels that concretize this sense of "city as movement."  Influenced to a degree by Blish's earlier novels and certainly an influence in turn on Miéville's more recent novel, Inverted World takes the notion of "city as movement" and it twists it.  Instead of a sense of "moving toward," there becomes a realized "moving away from" over the course of the novel, as the city/world of Earth travels slowly in tenths of a mile increments across a landscape, fleeing something behind it and attempting to reach what is called "the optimum," always a few miles in front of the city and ever moving.

Priest sets himself a very difficult task in writing a tale of a city on rails that never can stop, lest something ominous behind them overtakes them.  Smartly, he does not reveal the nature of this city/world at once, but rather in drips and dribbles, as seen through the eyes and mind of the story's main protagonist, Helward Mann, whose very name perhaps might be a clue to unraveling the mystery surrounding the city-Earth:

I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles.  Beyond the door the guildsmen were assembling for the ceremony in which I would be admitted as a guild apprentice.  It was a moment of excitement and apprehension, a concentration into a few minutes of all that my life had been until then.

My father was a guildsman, and I had always seen his life from a certain remove.  I regarded it as an enthralling existence, charged with purpose, ceremony and responsibility; he told me nothing of his life or work, but his uniform, his vague manner, and his frequent absences from the city hinted at a preoccupation with matter of utmost importance.

Within a few minutes the way would be open for me to join that life.  It was an honour and a donning of responsibility, and no boy who had grown up inside the confining walls of the crèche could fail to respond to the thrill of this major step. (p. 7)

Almost from the very beginning we are thrown into a different world, where time is not measured by the earth's rotation around the sun, but rather around the city's movement across the plains, hills, and valleys.  We also learn of a guild and a secrecy that surrounds it, a secrecy that seems to extend even to family relationships, rendering the whole cold and distant.  As young Helward progresses in the guild, learns its secrets, and swears its oath of secrecy on pain of death, the reader learns just a little bit more about the city-Earth.  We see that the sun is not a spherical object, but rather shaped like a parabola.  We learn that there are other settlements that the city passes, as it barters and takes from them supplies and even women for a period of time.  Yet Priest does not rush to explain what is occurring; we witness all of this through Helward.

As a character, Helward is a conflicted and imperfect soul.  He has his doubts about the entire affair, doubts that infects his new wife, Victoria, and which ultimately causes irreparable breaks in their relationship.  He covers these doubts with a thin veneer of certainty in the guild's mission, in the worry of that vague threat looming behind the city.  As he (and the reader) learns what that threat is, the meaning of the actions depicted in earlier chapters shifts.  This continues up until the fourth part of this five-part book, when the character of Elizabeth Khan, previously mentioned in the Prologue, is reintroduced into the plot.  Her role, as an Outsider, is to reveal just what the city-Earth really is and how perceptions affect understanding and even concepts of reality.

These final two sections, comprising less than 1/4 of the novel, are problematic.  Here, after a laborious attempt to restrain the flow of information and knowledge, the proverbial shit hits the fan, leaving a bit of a mess as the central mysteries of the city, its origins and why it is moving, are revealed.  Elizabeth's character, although she executes well the author's apparent intent in terms of revealing the "inversions" of Helward's world, serves as a deconstruction of every thing that had occurred up until that point.  The mysteries, the weirdness surrounding Helward's visits outside the city, the apparent horrors of the nebulous force trailing miles behind the city, all of these come across as being little more than that little man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz's throne room.  Perhaps that is the point, showing just how distorted our own fears and dreams can be, with the disconcerting effect of diminishing the seemingly infinite (said analogy can be applied to the apparent "inverted world" here as well) down to a drab, reduced entity.

Yet despite this, Inverted World on the whole works, both as a novel of deceptive intents and as a brutal deconstruction of those built-up constructions of purpose and theme.  It certainly is a powerful work in regards to its thematic use of "city as (realized) metaphor for movement" and its conclusion lays bare several contradictions that can be found in the building of edifices on the backs of dreams and fears.  Although the cold, sometimes distant characters may not be appealing to those readers more accustomed to vivid dialogues, even those reserved interactions serve a larger purpose here.  While I believe the conclusion fails to live up to the promise of the beginning (again, this may be exactly Priest's intent), Inverted World certainly is a work that deserves to be read and re-read, along with other "masterworks" of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #14: Sherri Tepper, Beauty

If asked to define "what is beauty?", there doubtless would be a myriad number of answers.  Some might point to a sunrise or sunset, while others might think of the smile that two lovers share.  Others may see beauty in a mirror, while others may behold it while walking through a park.  Beauty may be wild, or it may seem tamed, but regardless of how we attempt to describe it, it is almost impossible to define it.  Perhaps that is why in the old folk tales, beauty was personified as Beauty and fated to fall asleep for a hundred years before a charming prince could awaken her with a kiss.

In her introduction to Beauty (1991), Sherri Tepper discusses how the idea for this novel came to her one day as she was driving from Denver to Santa Fe.  Reflecting on the terrible environmental changes wrought by commercial and residential development in the region, she said the following:

It seems to me sometimes that all beauty is dying.  Which makes me hope that perhaps it isn't dead but only sleeping.  And that makes me think of Sleeping Beauty and wonder if she - Beauty, that is - might not be a metaphor for what is happening to the world at large:  perfect Beauty born, Beauty cursed with death, Beauty dying - but with the magical hope of being reawakened, maybe by love. (p. 3)
It is an interesting take on the old fairy tale, one that appropriates the imagery of the past to explore the problems of the present.  Much of that interpretation does seem to ring true for us in the early 21st century:  we are witnesses to environmental degradation, the loss of trust and hope in relationships, the sense perhaps that things just are not the way they should be; we, as human societies, have somehow been "cursed."  It is for those of us who are most sensitive to these degradations of the body, mind, and soul that Tepper addresses this novel and depending on how you view the topics referenced above, Beauty may either be one of the better allegorical tales of the past twenty years, or it may be, for some at least, a didactic tale that manages to lose some of its own narrative beauty in the process.

The story begins in the beginning year of the Black Death, 1347.  Beauty, then a young noblewoman, has begun questioning about her mother's fate.  She is in a world where women are subservient to men and her loquaciousness, coupled with her love of learning, places her at odds with the patriarchal society of the 14th century.   Learning in passing of her cursed fate, she manages to sidestep that fate by having another young woman, Beloved, take her place in the bewitched Westfaire castle while she escapes.  Tepper's description of the following scene sets up most of the action that follows:

It was pure hypocrisy.  Suppose I had known what was going to happen, wouldn't I have done the same thing again?  I may even have known what would happen without admitting it to myself.  Even then I caught myself thinking, better Beloved than I.  She would be thrilled to be awakened by a prince, and why not?  It was a far finer fate than a weaver's daughter could ordinarily expect.

As I stood looking at her, I was aware of two things:  first, that Westfaire was redolent of that odor I had always associated with the chapel; and second, that there was an aura of glamor which flowed from Beloved's form in a swelling tide.  When I went out into the hall, the aura came after me, a shining mist of silent mystery, an emanation of the marvelous.  Every stone of the hallway throbbed with it, giving my footsteps back to me like the slow beat of a wondrous drum or some great heart that pulsed below the castle, making the very stones reverberate with its movement.  Above me the lacelike fan vault sparkled like gems; through the windows the sunbeams shimmered with a golden, sunset glow.  Once outside, I looked up at the towers and caught my breath, for they had never seemed so graceful.  Over the garden walls the laburnum dangled golden chains, reflowered on this summer evening as though it were yet spring.  In fact, springtime had miraculously returned.  In the corners the lilacs hung in royal purple trusses, and roses filled the air with a fragrance deep as smoke.

All around me beauty wove itself, beauty and the strange, somehow familiar smell of the place.  Westfaire became an eternal evening in an eternal May, the sun slanting in from the west as though under a cloud, making the orchards and gardens gleam in a green as marvelous as the light in the gems I carried.  Slowly the sun moved down, and I feared it would not rise again on Westfaire for a hundred long years. (pp. 72-73)
Here we see a venal Beauty, one that is not radiant in and of herself, because of the duplicity she has committed and which she already is trying to deny.  This is contrasted with the ethereal quality of the setting sun as Westfaire enters into its century of darkness.  Yet what will happen to a Beauty that is not sleeping, seemingly free from her curse?

Tepper almost immediately opens up the story, as Beauty encounters documentary filmmakers from the 21st century who have traveled to the 14th century in an attempt to film Fairy magic in the wild before it fades away completely.  Beauty gets caught up with them and she learns how to time travel herself, from the hideous pornographic 21st century, where beauty is subsumed by the use of the body as if it were a privy instead of a temple, to the schizophrenic 20th century, where people no longer understand each other and their environs, much less their own selves.  Tepper devotes several passages to issues of changing sexual mores over the centuries, condemning both the patriarchal past and the possible pornographic future where love and beauty are conceived of as being merely bodily functions and not matters of the heart and soul. 

Tepper is quite strident at times in these explorations of sexuality and of the failing harmonic relationships between people and between their environments.  Some may take offense to her equation of anti-abortion supporters with helpers of the Dark Lord that threatens both Faerie and human life alike, but these more direct passages are relatively brief and do not interfere with the unfolding narrative about the connections between Beauty, the concept, with Beauty, the person, and how each affects magic in the world.  Tepper alludes to several other folk and fairy tales over the course of this nearly 500 page novel, ranging from the impish Puck to vague references to works by Spenser and Shakespeare.  This references are relatively constrained and they only but add to the richness of the narrative as a whole.

Tepper's prose is a delight to read here.  She easily switches from the near poetic to sometimes rather harsh and ugly descriptive scenes in order to illustrate the fading beauty and magic in the world.  The character of Beauty is vividly drawn, never as as simple cipher of a character.  The other characters introduced, from the gallant Giles to the venal Jaybee, serve to further the thematic elements of Tepper's plot.  There is little sense of events being too sketchy or too laborious; the pace is wondrous.  Although there might be a few occasions where Tepper is not subtle enough with her points, on the whole the themes, plot, and characterizations mesh nicely.  Beauty is one of the better riffs on fairy tale motifs that I have read and it certainly is a classic "Masterwork" that deserves to be read for decades to come.

Monday, August 23, 2010

SF Masterworks #75: Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

Jonah--John--if I had been a Sam, I would have been Jonah still--not because I have been unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail. Conveyances and motives, both conventional and bizarre, have been provided. And, according to plan, at each appointed second, at each appointed place this Jonah was there.


When I was a younger man--two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago . . .

When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended.

The book was to be factual.

The book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then.

I am a Bokononist now. (pp. 1-2)

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those rare writers who wrote SF, was rarely considered SF, and whose SF works could in turn be considered anthropological studies (he did, after all, earn his MA from The University of Chicago in 1971 for this 1963 novel, Cat's Cradle).  Born into a family of freethinkers, Vonnegut's experiences during World War II, especially his time spent as a PoW during the Firebombing of Dresden in 1945, are deeply etched into his writings, as seen in the opening chapter of Cat's Cradle.  In many ways, Cat's Cradle may be considered a sort of ur-text for the ideas and narrative modes that Vonnegut would later explore in novels such as Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.

The story begins with an allusion to Ishmael from Moby Dick, as well as a nod to the biblical Jonah, who warns the city of Nineveh of impending doom.  The narrator, John/Jonah (but not Sam, mind you!), is a midget, and this factors heavily into the warped narrative that follows.  John begins his story by narrating how much his life had changed after he was introduced to the religion of Bokonism on the (fictional) Caribbean island of San Lorenzo.  John at first was interested in narrating the history of the atomic bomb and he attempts to contact a (fictional) co-creator of the bomb, Dr. Felix Hoenikker.  However, Dr. Hoenikker has died and it is his youngest son, Newt, who writes back to John, telling of his father's experiences the day that the bomb was dropped at Hiroshima:

"That was the way he was.  Nobody could predict what he was going to be intereste in next.  On the day of the bomb it was string.

"Have you ever read the speech he made when he accepted the Nobel Prize?  This is the whole speech: 'Ladies and Gentlemen.  I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school.  Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn.  I am a very happy man.  Thank you.'

"Anyway, Father looked at that loop of string for a while, and then his fingers started playing with it.  His fingers made the string figure called a 'cat's cradle.'  I don't know where Father learned how to do that.  From his father, maybe.  His father was a tailor, you know, so there must have been thread and string around all the time when Father was a boy.

"Making that cat's cradle was the closest I ever saw my father come to playing what anybody else would call a game.  He had no use at all for tricks and games and rules that other people made up.  In a scrapbook my sister Angela used to keep up, there was a clipping from Time magazine where somebody asked Father what games he played for relaxation, and he said, 'Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?'" (p. 11)
In the events that follow, from the interviews with the Hoenikker children to the discovery that Dr. Hoenikker had developed a second, potentially more lethal substance called "ice-nine," which would turn water into ice at room temperatures whenever water would come in contact with the substance, to the travels to San Lorenzo where the local dictator has managed to gain control of this substance, the narrative tilts toward the strange and bizarre.  There are seemingly throw-away discussions on music, on religion (the fictional creole religion of Bokonism and its emphasis on the harmless untruths of other religions plays a vital role in shaping the final chapters of Cat's Cradle), and the cruel ironies of life that Vonnegut deftly weaves back into the narrative toward the end to create a very powerful and sad reflection on the failings of humanity to rise above itself. 

As a novel, Cat's Cradle can take a little bit of time before those unfamiliar with Vonnegut's writing will be able to follow not just what is happening on page, but also behind those narrative accounts of the tenets of Bokonism, calypso singing, and so forth.  But by the halfway point in this roughly 280 page book, the reader will begin to connect the narrative dots and form their own understanding of the sad truths that underlie the convenient untruths that have plagued human societies since their inceptions.  By the end the final page is reached, the growing horror that John has narrated so blithely is revealed in its full splendor, as not just the catastrophic effects of ice-nine are revealed, but so too are the connections between dictatorship and religious worship.  All of this combines to create a cautionary tale that is also hilarious in several places, without ever losing its power to make strong, biting commentaries about human societies and the destructive powers inherent in them.

Vonnegut several times over his career cited Mark Twain as a sort of literary patron saint for him (he went so far as to name his only son after Twain) and in Cat's Cradle there certainly is a kinship with Twain's latter writings, namely in the way that humor is used to underscore the terrible realities present in everyday life.  In this novel, Vonnegut develops his story brilliantly, rarely wasting space, even when it might seem at first that certain narrative events might be too bizarre for comprehension.  Everything is focused toward setting up the conclusion and that conclusion is executed almost perfectly.  This is perhaps one of Vonnegut's two or three best novels for prose, theme, and narrative execution and it certainly is worthy of being considered a "Masterwork" for how well it utilizes SF tropes on nuclear end-of-earth settings to convey a strong and clear message about ourselves and our ways of life.  It is, when looked at in an anthropological fashion, a sort of ethnologue of our lives, our dreams, and how easily we can self-deceive ourselves.  It is an enduring work, one that has lasted far past the MAD years and one that still contains some terrible truths that we still need to confront nearly a half-century after its initial publication.  So it goes.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

SF Masterworks #55: Philip K. Dick, Time Out of Joint

Another day, another Dick... no wait, that sentence ended in a scary visual place... So anyway, Time Out of Joint is another one in the long list of PKD books in the SFM series, and another one considered to be among his best. The novel definitely promises a lot, but whether it delivers, or not, is a question of perspective.

The year is 1959. Ragle Gumm is a bachelor "between jobs", who lives with his sister's family in an idyllic neighborhood in small-town America. He contributes to his household by repeatedly winning the "Where will the little green man be next?" daily competition in the morning paper. In fact, he wins that competition every day. And that is not the strangest thing that happens to him. As the novel progresses, his reality continuously shifts. Objects disappear, to be replaced by pieces of paper with the object's name written on them. While playing in an abandoned building, his nephew finds a magazine that talks about a movie star that he has never heard of, and a phone book listing telephone numbers that do not exist. Ragle's '59 seems to differ from what we remember by a lot of other little ways as well, but it is the way everything seems to be centered around him that in the end makes him question his own reality. And that leads to a devastating effect.

Time Out of Joint is the first PKD book to portray characters whose world unravels around them. It is also unique in its '59 setting, as Dick usually preferred an imagined future (even if at times that future was the late 90s). That makes for a strange read, especially if you've read his works before. Dick's description of the time is perfect (not a big surprise, as the book was written in that same year), and I've always had a soft spot for the 50s. They are such a wonderful setting for all sorts of supernatural and horrific events with their happy sunny neighborhoods, happy housewives with happy smiles and happy kids playing with happy dogs while their happy fathers went to their happy work... Creepiness is bound to ensue, and ensue it does in Time Out of Joint.

The plot is energetic and to the point. The book reads very fast, even though for the most part it just shows us Ragle and his daily dawdling, and the mystery surrounding him doesn't allow you to not read the next page.

Ask me where Time Out of Joint fails. Come on, ask me. You know you want to.

Because the book does fail miserably, and for one simple reason - it explains. And the explanation isn't good enough. As much as I hate weirdness for the sake of weirdness, there has to be a level of mystery that remains untouched, some sort of uncertainty to make the reader doubt whether he has understood what it's all about. Time Out of Joint doesn't let you have that. Around its last third, it bluntly explains what the big deal is, why it's all happening and why it's happening to Ragle... And it doesn't make sense. Or rather, it mostly does, but the explanation is neither good, nor engaging enough. It actually has a Heinlein feel to it, and as much as I like Heinlein, a mixture between him and Dick is one hell of a no-no.

In the end, I guess Time Out of Joint was a necessary first step in the road that would lead to such glorious reality-bending works as Ubik, Martian Time-Slip and A Scanner Darkly, but what bugs me is that before Dick forgot to be very stoned and decided to uncharacteristically explain everything in a really failing way, the book is actually amazingly good! The atmosphere works, the mystery works, it all works! But then explanations happen, and with them - unsavory conclusion. Is Time Out of Joint a good novel? I'd still mostly say yes. It is worth reading, and is surely among Dick's better works. But - just like the overhyped The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - it is not "masterwork" material. I am beginning to think that there is a very specific order in which Philip K Dick's works are to be read if one wants to enjoy the most of them...

Monday, August 16, 2010

SF Masterworks #52: Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

I'd read a lot of Dick when I finally got to The Three Stigmata... It is obvious to everyone who looks at the SFM list, that there are way too many PKD books there and it's not possible that all of them are masterworks. Still, this particular title is counted among Dick's very best, so I had high hopes for it.

The story is set in the near future. Under UN authority, humanity has been forcefully made to colonize every habitable planet and moon in the Solar System, while Earth's temperatures rise to levels that could not sustain life. In the colonies, people live empty, hopeless lives with no ambition or purpose, barely scraping by. The only thing that keeps them sane is the drug Can-D which allows them for a little while to live in an imaginary perfect world defined by the miniature "layouts" developed by one of Earth's mightiest corporations. However, when genius industrialist Palmer Eldritch returns from an interstellar trip and brings with himself the alien drug Chew-Z which is a hundred times more powerful than Can-D, the whole game changes. But is Eldritch really what he appears to be? Who gave him this drug? And what exactly does Chew-Z do?

As with many of Philip Dick's stories, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is dependent on its ambiguity. After the first ingestion of Chew-Z by a character in the novel, the reader is left unsure of whether anything that follows is real or not. Problem is, apart from the titular three stigmata, there is not really any surreal element in the book, anything that makes you care whether what goes on is real or imagined. And by the end of it - around the time when reality-shifting turns into mind-swapping and time-traveling - you realize it actually doesn't matter.

Stylistically, the book is not among Dick's best as it suffers from his typical intention-declaring characters syndrome and a lot of really chunky prose, but it's not among his worse ones either. The author's favorite SF tropes - space colonization, precognition and campy human evolution - are all present, but for some reason Dick doesn't seem to care about any of them. They don't play a significant role in the story, and he makes no attempt to develop them in any meaningful way. His sole focus is the characters' questioning of their reality, but he somehow doesn't go the whole way there either. What the novel lacks, is focus. Something - a concept - around which to rotate the whole thing.

To be perfectly honest, after all the hype I've read for The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, I sort of expected more from it. Perhaps the fact that I recently read the hellishly mediocre Our Friends From Frolix 8 - which is basically a draft for the Stigmata... - didn't help either. Thing is, the book has always been praised for the way it blurs the lines between reality and illusion. And don't get me wrong, the mindfraking that goes on there is at times pretty impressive. Unfortunately, I can think of at least four other Dick books that do the same, and do it better. I guess its value lies in the fact that it is among the first of his works to actually delve deep enough into the topic.

Is The Three Stigmata... a masterwork? I would say not. It lacks the punch of The Man in the High Castle, the psychotic uncertainty of Martian Time-Slip, the aggressive schizophrenia of A Scanner Darkly, and the sharp purpose (not to mention the sheer number of ideas) of Ubik, although it makes claims to all of those. As a point of origin for Dick's later classics, it certainly has a significant place in his bibliography and I wouldn't argue that it's among his better works, and definitely worth reading. But to me the book has not aged well, especially in comparison to others of Dick's novels.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #47: Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates

As a historian, I tend to take a rather dim view of alt-histories.  Or rather, I distrust works that tackle "history" head on, seeking to fiddle-faddle about with the notion of changing world events through a simple "what if" thesis.  However, this distrust does not extend to those works who use historical periods as a backdrop, as there is a lot of room to play around in the gaps and interstices of historical events that can lead to fun, creative, and thoughtful stories.  Thankfully, Tim Powers is one of those rare writers who can research a historical period, find obscure but "true" facts, and then play around with those events, bending interpretations to fit the needs of whatever story he chooses to tell.

Powers' most famous work is The Anubis Gates (1983).  It is, among several things, a time-travel novel, a "sensational novel," a 19th century period piece, a tale of Egyptian magic, a werewolf murder mystery, and much more.  It is a story that skips, jumps, and hops its way along, creating a frisson of excitement at several points.  What it is not is a stolid, "safe" novel, as Powers takes quite a few narrative risks in constructing this story, succeeding for the most part.

The Anubis Gates begins in 1802, with a nefarious Egyptian magician attempting to cast a spell that would reverse England's dominance and would reintroduce the old Egyptian gods back into a world long abandoned by them.  Something seems to go somewhat awry with the incantation, as one of the magician's lieutenants is turned into a werewolf that can possess the bodies of its victims.  Furthermore, there seem to be a radial spoke of time gaps created, stretching backwards and forewords through time roughly 300 years years in either direction from this event.

The year is now 1983.  A struggling academic, Brendan Doyle, whose expertise is on Samuel Coleridge and who desires to research an obscure Regency poet named Ashbless, is contacted by the mysterious head of the DIRE corporation, J. Cochran Darrow, who desires to exploit the newly-discovered time gaps for historical/tourist purposes:

"Right - if there happens to be a gap then.  And there.  You can't reenter at arbitrary points, only through an existing gap.  And," he said with a note of discover's pride, "it is possible to aim for one gap rather than another - it depends on the amount of...propulsion used in exiting from your own gap.  And it is possible to pinpoint the locations of the gaps in time and space.  They radiate out in a mathematically predictable pattern from their source - whatever that can have been - in early 1802."

Doyle was embarrassed to realize that his palms were damp.  "This propulsion you mention," he said thoughtfully, "is it something you can produce?"

Darrow grinned ferociously.  "Yes."

Doyle was beginning to see a purpose in the demolished lot outside, all these books, and perhaps even his own presence.  "So you're able to go voyaging through history."  He smiled uneasily at the old man, trying to imagine J. Cochran Darrow, even old and sick, at large in some previous century.  "I fear thee, ancient mariner."

"Yes, that does bring us to Coleridge - and you.  Do you know where Coleridge was on the evening of Saturday, the first of September, in 1810?" (p. 29)

Although Doyle does agree eventually to help Darrow and the mission to 1810 to see Coleridge give a speech is successful, Doyle ends up getting detached from the rest of the party.  He has to learn how to survive on the streets of 1810 London, while a vicious, monstrous serial killer, Dog-Faced Joe, roams the streets at night, seeming to shift bodies but not his hairy visage.  There are other mysteries and horrors to be found, ranging from a criminal boss who dons clown makeup to disguise his facial deformities to other dark forces that seem to want to use these time gaps for their own purposes.  And through this, the mystery of who exactly is Ashbless builds throughout this novel.

Powers' prose is excellent throughout.  He clearly has researched the time periods he explores (there are brief jumps to other eras), including minutiae that are mysterious in a true, "historical" sense, but when incorporated into the main plot, these become delightful mysteries to solve.  His characters are well-drawn, memorable creations who blend almost seamlessly into the historical background.  Powers also utilizes elements of the traditional gothic to inform the atmosphere, as there are a few traces of the sort of sensationalist literature that was dominant in England during the Regency period.  Although the time skipping might be a bit confusing in places, Powers on the whole integrates it well into the mystery introduced with the Egyptian magician's failed incantation in 1802.  The result is a fun, fast-paced read.

If one were to apply the definition of "masterwork" as being a memorable, well-constructed piece that will continue to have meaning and purpose decades or centuries after its creation, then almost certainly The Anubis Gates would qualify.  Powers' adroit handling of both the major and minor elements of his story were superb and his mixture of different historical periods into this tale makes for an exciting read beyond just the initial read.  Certainly one of the better books in the Fantasy Masterworks series.

Fantasy Masterworks #2: Lord Dunsany, Time and the Gods

Before there was a Tolkien, E.R. Eddison, or C.S. Lewis, there was the Anglo-Irish writer Edward Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany.  More commonly known as Lord Dunsany, his writings, spanning over a half-century, from the late 1890s to his death in 1957, cover a wide range of genres, both classical and modern alike.  Dunsany was equally talented as a prose writer, dramatist, and poet.  He was a soldier and master chess player and each of these play roles in his fictions.  He wrote hundreds of short stories in a wide variety of styles; the Jorkens stories may be some of his most memorable, at least from the late few decades of his long and illustrious writing career.  But it is his mythopoeic stories, ranging from the six volumes included in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition of Time and the Gods to his 1924 novel masterpiece, The King of Elfland's Daughter (also part of the Fantasy Masterworks series), that are perhaps Dunsany's best work.

Time and the Gods consists of six volumes:  Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories (1908), A Dreamer's Tales (1910), The Book of Wonder (1912), The Last Book of Wonder (1916), and The Gods of Pegana (1905).   In each of these volumes, Dunsany weaves tales of beauty, caprice, and discovery.  The first part of this collection, Time and the Gods, is perhaps representative in tone for these six volumes.  Over the course of twenty related short stories, Dunsany traces the relationship between the gods (retreading with certain changes the ground trod in The Gods of Pegana) and their slave Time, who dreams of overthrowing and devouring the gods just as he has been given license to do to the gods' creation, the world.

Some of the best mythopoeic literature approaches poetry and each of these stories is infused with poetic cant.  Read aloud this passage that opens the first tale, "Time and the Gods":

Once when the gods were young and only Their swarthy servant Time was without age, the gods lay sleeping by a broad river upon earth.  There in a valley that from all the earth the gods had set apart for Their repose the gods dreamed marble dreams.  And with domes and pinnacles the dreams arose and stood up proudly between the river and the sky, all shimmering white to the morning.  In the city's midst the gleaming marble of a thousand steps climbed to the citadel where arose four pinnacles beckoning to heaven, and midmost between the pinnacles there stood the dome, vast, as the gods had dreamed it.  All around, terrace by terrace, there went marble lawns well guarded by onyx lions and carved with effigies of all the gods striding amid the symbols of the worlds.  With a sound like tinkling bells, far off in a land of shepherds hidden by some hill, the waters of many fountains turned again home. (p. 3)

Dunsany employs a very florid style here, one that perhaps might get the unwary writer in trouble were she to attempt aping this style without paying close attention to how Dunsany utilizes imagery.  Within the lush descriptions lies a directness, as may be found in this telling passage from later on in the first volume:

And a gentle rain came falling out of heaven and stilled the restless sand, and a soft green moss grew suddenly and covered the bones till they looked like strange green hills, and I heard a cry and awoke and found that I had dreamed, and looking out of my house into the street I found that a flash of lightning had killed a child.  Then I knew that the gods still lived. (p. 89)

Poetic prose coupled with sardonic commentary.  That perhaps is a fitting one sentence description of this first volume.  In the following volumes, there is not quite the biting commentary of the first, but there are still stories that combine descriptions of beauty with a sense of impermanence.  One such example may be found in "The Fall of Babbulkund," found in the second volume, The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories

Now this is the dream that King Nehemoth dreamed on the first night of his dreaming.  He saw move through the stillness a bird all black, and beneath the beatings of his wings Babbulkund gloomed and darkened; and after him flew a bird all white, beneath the beatings of whose wings Babbulkund gleamed and shone; and there flew by four more birds alternately black and white.  And, as the black ones passed Babbulkund darkened, and when the white ones appeared her streets and houses shone.  But after the sixth bird there came no more and Babbulkund vanished from her place, and there was only the empty desert where she had stood, and the rivers Oonrana and Plegáthanees mourning alone. (p. 156)

This dreamlike quality, which creates settings that are ephemeral and shimmer like gossamer, allows Dunsany to craft short fictions of fifteen pages or less that are vivid and memorable as if he spent much more time developing the settings.  Yet despite the florid prose he often employed (apparently learned from his school-age forced studies of the King James Bible), Dunsany displays an ability to develop his settings with just a single paragraph or two; something that several writers ought to learn how to master when trying to place stories in constructed settings.  But beyond these memorable settings are characters who tend to be somewhat out of place.  This sense of disconnection accentuates the otherworldliness of the settings and this strangeness adds to the unfolding stories, whose plots are generally very simple in their execution.  Yet because Dunsany utilizes language and setting so expertly, these plots, with their relatively plain progressions, complement the prose nicely, thus creating stories that are a pleasure to read, as the reader can get "lost" in the words and not in trying to decipher the plot.

There are very few "off" stories in this collection.  Dunsany crafted tales that remind the reader of some of the best vignettes of William Blake.  If anything, Dunsany perhaps is a perfect example of how the Romantics and their visions of Beauty and Ruin influenced the fantasists of the late 19th and early 20th century, such as George MacDonald and William Morris, who in turn influenced later writers such as E.R. Eddison, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien.  His fictions, as well as his dramas and poems, have influenced so many of the writers who influenced more "modern" fantasists, that it is a shame that his works, "Masterworks" nearly one and all, have so often gone out of print since his death in 1957.  Dunsany's writings are so poetic and yet so direct in their communication of ideas and emotions that they will doubtless bring pleasure to most readers who decide to read them as a pleasant diversion.

SF Masterworks #2: Richard Matheson, I Am Legend

I finished reading I am Legend weeks ago, but writing a review is a daunting task, especially when trying to evaluate whether or not Matheson’s book fits the criteria for a ‘Masterwork.’ The book has been printed in the 1950s and society has since changed considerably. The departure from the cultural background adds a challenge, since I have no idea how society thought back then.

This task of evaluating Matheson’s story became even more difficult when I found Matheson's writing to be dry, minimalist, and monotonous and other adjectives in the same vein. To match his prose in the Spartan spirit, his dialogue is stripped to the point where it reads like a script, with line exchanges dominating the page with little to no tags or any description in-between. The opening twenty pages or so, which present Robert Neville's routine as the sole human in a town infested with vampires, bored me, but I guess the monotony here was intentional to a point as it established an atmosphere of flavorless repetition.

A long bench covered almost an entire wall, on its hardwood top a heavy band saw; a wood lathe, an emery wheel, and a vise. Above it, on the wall, were haphazard racks of the tools that Robert Neville used.

He took a hammer from the bench and picked out a few nails from one of the disordered bins. Then he went back outside and nailed the plank fast to the shutter. The unused nails he threw into the rubble next door.

Even so, I found the torment Robert felt from the vampires' taunts and his own sexual urges over the top, if not a bit caricatured and bland. At the same time I can understand how he reacts the way he does, because he is under psychological attack every night and like all men in their prime has a libido, which can affect the mind. But then again, it’s the 1950s and the sexual revolution was way ahead. This explains how something hilarious to me would be dire for someone with the state of mind from the 1950s.

It might sound as if I didn't enjoy this novel, but after Robert reaches the bottom of his despair, flirts with the idea of suicide and then decides to be proactive about his situation, I am Legend becomes enticing. Upon completion I understood why I am Legend was included in the Masterworks list and why it should remain there even in today's context. After much consideration, I decided to discard my usual method and adopt a more structured approach for my review. I’ll list the main reasons as to why I am Legend works as a Masterwork.

First, published during the Cold War (1954 to be exact, which if Wikipedia is to be trusted, is when the tension escalated), I am Legend conveys that particular Zeitgeist of the threat of a Nuclear War, the result of which here is an epidemic unlike any other. This is hinted with subtlety since Matheson only mentions bombings once and their responsibility for the dust storms in the 1970s, when the novel takes place. Right now, the world is past the possibility of a Nuclear War, but the fear of a large scale epidemic remains strong (swine flu anyone or is that too soon?). Fear of disease is often a sign of a subconscious social fear. By presenting vampirism as a virally transmitted condition, which has surpassed the Black Death in devastation, Matheson taps into an archetypical phobia each nation carries. In that sense I am Legend will remain relevant until we cure all possible diseases.

I am Legend is at its core a retelling of Robinson Crusoe. The island is replaced with a house and the ocean keeping him captive is the swarming of undead. However, I can't say the clever deduction is mine, since at some point the author draws the comparison in the text. Even so, the appeal of the trope retains its original power as it is inspiring to see a human in isolation and in danger rise to the occasion. Where Crusoe had to utilize his mind and talents in a purely physical manner, Robert Neville strives not only for survival (he fashions weapons for his self-defense, maintains a generator and scavenges for necessary food and supplies), but he also reads franticly books on blood, viruses and medicine. He aims to decipher what caused vampirism and to prove that it is in fact viral. The reader is treated to a brilliant theory being born through trial and error, which on its own is satisfying to read. What makes it outstanding is how Matheson marries the scientific with the superstitious. While a virus is responsible for the physiological alterations, the validity of common myths such as stakes and garlic and crosses can be explained with the power of mind over matter and how the human psyche has perceived vampires before the victims turned into ones themselves.

Another strength of this novel is how Matheson applies emotional layers to his work. I am speaking about the chapter in which Robert befriends a dog and deals with how loneliness is its own brand of insanity. As social beings we fear isolation and for good reason as Matheson scratches the surface of what eventual psychological harm it can cause. I won't go in detail, because it has to be experienced. I was moved, which I considered to be almost impossible, since the style is uninviting and because I’m against the use of animal companions in fiction. More often than not, they’re boring or a deus ex machina waiting to happen. Matheson’s ability to write touching scenes involving a dog was an achievement given my own dislikes and cemented my belief that this novel is above average. In order for a novel to be memorable, it has to engage the mind as well as anchor the memory with a strong emotion.

If so far I thought I am Legend is above average, then the final revelation about this new world and the ending blew my mind away. After living for three years alone, Robert comes into contact with a woman, Ruth, whom he sees in the fields and after a wild chase takes into his home. Needless to say, by then Robert isn't much of a human himself, his voice is awkward from lack of use and he has lost most of his social skills. He’s become a predator, deprived of speech and similar in some respects to the vampires. His distrust is animalistic, but he manages to let his guard down only to be betrayed by Ruth and discover that the vampire virus has mutated. The result of this mutation is a brand new society of intelligent and self-aware vampires, vampires which feel and have retained their humanity. To them Robert is the true monster, a sociopathic bogeyman responsible for the death of hundreds of vampires, the executioner of a miniature genocide, a dark legend. It is the combination of this abrupt role reversal and the realization of being extinct that makes for such a powerful and memorable ending.

As a conclusion, I am Legend is still a competitor and has enough to make a reader think about before losing its relevancy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #35: Jack Vance, Lyonesse II and III: The Green Pearl, Madouc

Rather than recapitulating everything that I said in my earlier review of the first Lyonesse book, Suldrun's Garden, this review of Jack Vance's latter two volumes in his Lyonesse trilogy, The Green Pearl and Madouc, will be much briefer.  For those who haven't yet read the above-linked review, it would behoove you to do so now, as I discussed there the origins of the Lyonesse legends as well as certain qualities in Vance's prose that appealed to me.

As much as I enjoyed the prose and storylines found in Suldrun's Garden, the subplots contained within The Green Pearl and Madouc are nearly as fascinating.  Although each sequel furthers the Aillas and Dhrun storylines, to the point where father and sun are reunited late in the series, each contains its own subplot around which much of the action of each of the two volumes is centered.  In The Green Pearl, it is the malevolent power of the green pearl that shapes destinies.  Here is the description of the pearl's origins:

In achieving her aims, Desmëi used a variety of stuff:  salt from the sea, soil from the summit of Mount Khambaste in Ethiopia, exudations and pastes, as well as elements of her personal substance.  So she created a pair of wonderful beings:  exemplars of all the graces and beauties.  The woman was Melancthe; the man was Faude Carfilhiot.

Still all was not done.  As the two stood naked and mindless in the workroom, the dross remaining in the vat yielded a rank green vapor.  After a startled breath, Melancthe shrank back and spat the taste from her mouth.  Carfilhiot, however, found the reek to his liking and inhaled it with all avidity.

Some years later, the castle Tintzin Fyral fell to the armies of Troicinet.  Carfilhiot was captured and hanged from a grotesquely high gibbet, in order to send an unmistakably significant image toward both Tamurello at Faroli to the east and to King Casmir of Lyonesse, to the south.

In due course Carfilhiot's corpse was lowered to the ground, placed on a pyre, and burned to the music of bagpipes and flutes.  In the midst of the rejoicing the flames gave off a gout of foul green vapor, which, caught by the wind, blew out over the sea.  Swirling low and mingling with spume from the waves, the fume condensed to become a green pearl which sank to the ocean floor, where eventually it was ingested by a large flounder. (pp. 3-4)

As was in the case with Suldrun's Garden, Vance splits the narrative into several subplots, each of which is largely independent of the others, although there is some convergence toward the end.  Aillas continues his adventures in opposing Casmir, although at times he finds himself on the wrong side of a quarrel, especially with the sometimes-comic clashes with the fiercely xenophobic Ska.  Casmir continues in his quest to avoid the dire prophecy about his grandson via his dead daughter Suldrun overthrowing him.  As he seeks answers to what happened the night that Suldrun gave birth, he learns that the Princess Madouc is actually a changeling, leaving him to worry ever anew about the future threat.

Vance mixes the serious and the whimsical adroitly here.  He sets the stage well for the adventures of each of his protagonists and while at times the action may verge on becoming too droll, he usually returns to the more dour side of this tale before things become tedious to read.  Often the legends surrounding Lyonesse, Ys, and the sunken lands would contain a mixture of the comic and the tragic, in order to make each more effective.  Too often, modern adapters of these settings would emphasize too much of one at the expense of the other, but Vance manages to find a good balance of both here in The Green Pearl.

The concluding volume, Madouc, is perhaps the most comical of the three.  Starring the changeling princess Madouc and her desire to discover her true parentage, several of the passages here contain witty exchanges that make any scene in which she appears a delight to read:

Casmir slowly drew back.  He looked down at Madouc.  "Why did you throw fruit at Lady Desdea?"

Madouc said artlessly:  "It was because Lady Desdea came past first, before Lady Marmone."

"That is not relevant to to the issue!"  snapped King Casmir.  "At this moment Lady Desdea believes that I pelted her with bad fruit."

Madouc nodded soberly.  "It may be all for the best.  She will take the reprimand more seriously than if it came mysteriously, as if from nowhere."

"Indeed?  And what are her faults, that she deserves such a bitter reproach?"

Madouc looked up in wonder, her eyes wide and blue.  "In the main, Sire, she is tiresome beyond endurance and drones on forever.  At the same time, she is sharp as a fox, and sees around corners.  Also, if you can believe it, she insists that I learn to sew a fine seam!"

"Bah!"  muttered Casmir, already bored with the subject.  "Your conduct is in clear need of correction.  You must throw no more fruit!"

Madouc scowled and shrugged.  "Fruit is nice than other stuffs.  I well believe that Lady Desdea would prefer fruit."

"Throw no other stuffs either.  A royal princess expresses displeasure more graciously."

Madouc considered a moment.  "What if these stuffs should fall of their own weight?"

"You must allow no substances, either vile, or hurtful, or noxious, or of any sort whatever, to fall, or depart from your control, toward Lady Desdea.  In short, desist from these activities!"

Madouc pursed her mouth in dissatisfaction; it seemed as if King Casmir would yield neither to logic nor persuasion. (pp. 27-28)

Madouc makes the concluding volume much more of a romp than either of the previous two volumes.  Her willful nature contrasts with the meek despondency of Suldrun and her ability to confound and frustrate King Casmir's machinations plays an important role in this novel.  In short, Madouc is an almost total reversal in tone from Suldrun's Garden; as the comic wit of the characters, especially Madouc and Shimrod, come to dominate the tone and flow of the story.  The various subplots, mostly independent until now, begin to weave together, until finally the prophecy regarding Dhrun and Casmir is played out in a fashion that is both expected and surprising in some of the manners of its execution. 

As a whole, the three Lyonesse volumes were a delight to read; easily my favorite of Vance's work.  In turns witty, tragic, and almost always full of a vitality of character and setting that most fantasists fail to achieve, these three volumes are more than worthy of being called "Fantasy Masterworks."  They are exemplary models of how to meld myth, tradition, and imagination together into a fascinating story that deserves to be read and re-read several times.  Easily one of the best "high fantasies" that I have read in quite some time.

Fantasy Masterworks #27: Jack Vance, Lyonesse I: Suldrun's Garden

King Arthur. The Round Table.  The sad tale of Tristan and Iseult.  Avalon.  The drowned city of Ys.  The lost kingdom of Lyonesse.  These disparate elements constitute part of the medieval "Matter of Britain,"  one of the three great sources of medieval myth and legend (the other two "matters" being those of France and Rome).  Nearly nine centuries after the most ancient lays and ballads of this "Matter of Britain," there are still a plethora of stories created from this amalgam of Breton, Cornish, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxon legends.  Whether the writer be Béroul, Shakespeare, Tennyson, or more recent writers such as Jack Vance or Stephen Lawhead, these tales of betrayed kingdoms, honorable soldiers, starcrossed lovers, and fateful watery dooms still resonate with readers today.  A strong case could be made that modern Anglo-American fantasy could not exist anywhere near its present form if it weren't for the shaping power of these enduring stories.  Certainly there would not be quite the same connotations about fairies (and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene unfortunately would have never existed without them), changelings, and luck of seven years' duration.  There is a remarkable vitality in these mostly-Celtic myths that informs so many fantasies today.

One of those elements in the "Matter of Britain," (with Arthurian legends at its core) is that of Lyonesse.  Over centuries, Lyonesse, the home of the Round Table knight Tristan, came to be associated with Cornish legends of a kingdom doomed to perish under the rapacious waves of the Atlantic Ocean.  It, along with its Breton city counterpart of Ys, contains tragic elements.  Not just because these city/kingdoms were doomed to drown, but in part because of the tragic histories bound up in each place.  Several writers over the centuries have written epic poems and ballads concerning these remnants of local folk memories of drowned ancestral lands.  One of the more recent adaptations of the Ys/Lyonesse tragedy is the trilogy written between 1983 and 1990 by the American writer Jack Vance.  Vance used these famous locales to create a "lost" archipelago comparable in size to Ireland that was located nearly equidistant between Ireland, Britain, and Amorica (Brittany).  This tale, set roughly two generations before the time of King Arthur, is perhaps one of the best recent adaptations of Lyonesse/Ys legends.

In the first volume, Suldrun's Garden, Vance introduces the setting and main characters for the trilogy.  Usually, long, detailed introductions to constructed settings disinterest me because they tend to distract from the story at hand, but in Vance's case, he creates a vivid tapestry quickly, one that reveals even more depths the more familiar one is with the legends from which Vance drew to write this trilogy.  Don't just "read" the quote below, but rather "listen" to it:

On a dreary winter's day, with rain sweeping across Lyonesse Town, Queen Sollace went into labor.  She was taken to the lying-in room and attended by two midwives, four maids, Balhamel the physician and the crone named Dyldra, who was profound in the lore of herbs, and by some considered a witch.  Dyldra was present by the wish of Queen Sollace, who found more comfort in faith than logic.

King Casmir made an appearance.  Sollace's whimpers became moans and she clawed at her thick blonde hair with clenched fingers.  Casmir watched from across the room.  He wore a simple scarlet robe with a purple sash; a gold coronet confined his ruddy blond hair.


During the months of winter and spring King Casmir looked only twice at the infant princess, in each case, standing back in cool disinterest.  She had thwarted his royal will by coming female into the world.  He could not immediately punish her for the act, no more could he extend the full beneficence of his favor.

Sollace grew sulky because Casmir was displeased and, with a set of petulant flourishes, banished the child from her sight. (pp. 1, 3)

Vance displays a masterful use of language here.  In just a few, short descriptions, not only can we visualize the ruling king and queen of Lyonesse, but we learn of their personalities, the hard life ahead for their infant daughter from their selfish inclinations.  Furthermore, there are just a few hints, seeded for further plot flowering later, of the supernatural, present in the form of Dyldra.  Vance's ability to construct well-drawn, vivid characters is balanced with his propensity in this series to "pan out" and hint at the histories of this doomed land:

Centuries in the past, at that middle-distant time when legend and history start to blur (p. 3)
Ehirme warned her:  "I've never fared so far, you understand!  But what grandfather says is this:  in the old times the crossroads would move about, because the place was enchanted and never knew peace.  This might be well enough for the traveler, because, after all, he would put one foot ahead of him and then the other and the road would at last be won, and the traveler none the wiser that he had seen twice as much forest as he had bargained for.  The most troubled were the folk who sold their goods each year at the Goblin Fair, and where was that but at the crossroads!  The folk for the fair were most put out, because the fair should be at the crossroads on Midsummer Night, but when they arrived at the crossroads it had shifted two miles and a half, and nowhere a fair to be seen. (p. 6)
This commingling of legend and history occurs throughout Suldrun's Garden, as the lands of Faerie and those of humans are intertwined, with only a few mysterious passages between each.  This is important later on in the novel and series, but for much of the first half of the novel, the story is concerned with the horrible treatment that Princess Suldrun receives from her parents after her father learns that Suldrun's first-born son will occupy the Lyonesse throne in front of him, a dark portent for an ambitious king who aims to unite the ten kingdoms of the Elder Isles under his iron rule.  In a scene that could be the twin to that of Danae and Perseus, Suldrun is banished to a remote garden, where she will stay under threat of enslavement and (presumably) rape if she strays from it.  However, there is a prince, Aillas, from a rival kingdom, who stumbles upon Suldrun's garden and they fall in and make love, with Suldrun becoming pregnant.

This sets the stage for one of the most tragic scenes in the book, their forced separation, Aillas' imprisonment in an oubliette filled with the bones of twelve prior prisoners, and the switching of Suldrun's baby son, Dhrun, with a fairy changeling.  Despairing, Suldrun takes her fate into her own hands:

In the garden the first day went by slowly, instant after hesitant instant, each approaching diffidently, as if on tiptoe, to hurry across the plane of the present and lose itself among the glooms and shadows of the past.

The second day was hazy, less breathless, but the air hung heavy with portent.

The third day, still hazy, seemed sluggish and drained of sensibility, yet somehow innocent and sweet, as if ready for renewal.  On this day Suldrun went slowly about the garden, pausing at times to touch the trunk of a tree, or the face of a stone.  With head bent she walked the length of her beach, and only once paused to look to sea.  Then she climbed the path, to sit among the ruins.

The afternoon passed:  a golden dreaming time, and the stone cliffs encompassed the whole of the universe.

The sun sank softly and quietly.  Suldrun nodded pensively, as if here were elucidation of an uncertainty, though tears coursed down her cheeks.

The stars appeared.  Suldrun descended to the old lime tree and, in the dim light of the stars, she hanged herself.  The moon, rising over the ridge, shone on a limp form and a sad sweet face, already preoccupied with her new knowledge. (p. 188)

This is such a tragic scene, but as important as it is for future events, it is in itself only part of the greater narrative tapestry being woven.  Vance writes so beautifully of her despondency, setting up the achingly simple phrase, "she hanged herself."  By this point, the reader will have come to have identified with her plight, to have felt her sorrows, and perhaps this will be devastating.  And yet this novel (and series) is not just about tragedy.  Suldrun and Aillas' son, Dhrun, experiences nine years' worth of life during his time with the fair folk, and the description of life among them is in turn droll and vaguely threatening:

"Thank you, Sir Dhrun!"  Nerulf drank the potion, and expanded to become his old burly self.  Quick as a wink he leapt upon Dhrun, threw him to the ground, tore away his sword Dassenach and buckled it around his own thick waist.  Then he took the green bottle and the purple bottle and flung them against a stone, so that they shattered and all their contents were lost.  "There will be no more of that foolishness," declared Nerulf.  "I am the largest and strongest, and once again I am in power."  He kicked Dhrun.  "To your feet!"

"You told me that you had repented your old ways!" cried Dhrun indignantly.

"True!  I was not severe enough.  I allowed too much ease.  Things will now be different.  Out to the cart, everyone!" (p. 222)

These scenes involving Dhrun's often-comical (mis)adventures among the faires, ogres, and other secret folk serve as a counterbalance to the mostly-grim happenings of the human adults in Lyonesse, Ulfland, and Troicinet, Aillas' home.  Vance expertly mixes these disparate elements together, creating not two entwined tales, but rather two tangential ones whose separate qualities serve to balance the excesses of the other.  Thus this story contains not just Suldrun's tragedy and what that portends for the remaining two books in the trilogy, but also the madcap adventures of Dr. Fidelius, mountebank and curer of sore knees.  This blend of humor and tragedy makes for an excellent beginning to a great trilogy.

Is Suldrun's Garden worthy of being called a "Masterwork"?  While I will address the series as a whole in my review of the remaining two volumes of this trilogy, it certainly is a fantastic tale that borrows from medieval legends without feeling too constrained by their forms and personages.  Vance has staked out his own territory in the midst of this rich collection of tales, creating a story that will appeal to readers of all sorts.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

SF Masterworks #57: Philip K. Dick, The Simulacra

Philip K. Dick is perhaps the most visionary American SF writer of the 20th century.  From the late 1950s until his death in 1982, Dick wrote over forty novels, several of which dealt with issues of authority, identity, deception, and the mutability of perceived reality.  In previous novels discussed here, Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and The Man in the High Castle (1962), Dick developed these themes in stories that were often fast-paced, frentic, and seemingly on the verge of dissolving into a textual mess.  In his 1964 novel, The Simulacra, Dick has written perhaps one of his stranger, more frayed narratives.

The Simulacra is set in the mid-21st century.  The United States and the former West Germany have merged to form the United States of Europe and America.  The government has dissolved into a sort of byzantine council, with a First Lady, Nicole Thibodeaux, who is actually a line of actresses (currently at number four) who portray the feminine half of the United States.  An android simulacra has become Der Alte, or the "old man" that presides/reigns in public with Nicole.  Psychotherapy has been banned, except for one psychologist, Dr. Egon Superb, who is permitted to practice his banned profession on a patient who is convinced that he has lethal body odor.  There is a neofascist who wants to takeover the USEA and he uses his mysterious position within the ruling USEA council to further his plot.

Confused yet?  There is so much happening in The Simulacra that it would be difficult to keep track of everything easily.  In fact, it appears that the main idea behind this novel is to point out that beyond the surface level of paranoia and deception lurks deeper levels of mendacity, treachery, and equivocation.  Compounding these levels of duplicity at the highest levels of the USEA government is a complex social structure divided into the "Ges" and "Bes"; those who know many of the secrets surrounding Nicole and her cabal and those who do not.  It is in this morass of dissimulation and prevarication that the stories of Kate (the fourth Nicole), Egon Superb, Bertold Goltz, and Richard Kongrosian unfold.

At first, these subplots bear little relation to one another.  Nicole/Kate's need to maintain the deception that she has inherited from her previous Nicole imitators is a matter of state security:  if the veil of who really runs the USEA were to be revealed, the entire socio-political structure would be in grave danger.  Yet more and more people, the "Ges," have to be in the know in order to maintain the deception.  This leads to cynical exchanges, such as this one between two "Bes" who wonder about "Nicole":

'Loony Luke,' Ian said, 'have you ever met Nicole?' It was a sudden thought on his part, an intuition.

'Sure,' Luke said steadily.  'Years ago.  I had some hand puppets; my dad and I travelled around putting on puppet shows.  We finally played the White House.'

'What happened there?' Ian asked.

Luke, after a pause, said, 'She - didn't care for us.  Said something about our puppets being indecent.'

And you hate her, Ian realized.  You never forgave her.

'Were they?' he asked Luke.

'No," Luke answered.  'True, one act was a strip show; we had follies girl puppets.  But nobody ever objected before.  My dad took it hard but it didn't bother me.'  His face was impassive.

Al said, 'Was Nicole the First Lady that far back?'

'Oh yes,' Luke said.  'She's been in office for seventy-three years; didn't you know that?'

'It isn't possible,' both Al and Ian said, almost together.

'Sure it is,' Luke said.  'She's a really old woman, now.  Must be.  A grandmother.  But she still looks good, I guess.  You'll know when you see her.'

Stunned, Ian said, 'On TV - '

'Oh yeah,' Luke agreed.  'On TV she looks around twenty.  But go to the history books...except of course they're banned to everyone except Ges.  I mean the real history texts; not the ones they give you for studying for those relpol tests.  Once you look it up you can figure it out for yourself.  The facts are all there.  Buried down somewhere.'

The facts, Ian realized, mean nothing when you can see with your own eyes she's as young-looking as ever.  And we see that every day.

Luke you're lying, he thought.  We know it; we all know it. (p. 117)
 Notice the self-deception contained within the passage.  Even when the evidence should be obvious that there are cover-ups, several people in this society willingly deceive themselves rather than question the discrepancies within their government.  Although it is difficult to judge with certainty due to Dick's opaque writing, it appears that in scenes such as this that Dick is criticizing the often sheep-like acceptance that citizens have for governments that are corrupt and deceptive.  This is further evidenced in the Goltz subthread, where he tries to engineer a neofascist coup d'etat of the government, a government in which he is a secret member.  Surrounding this is the enigmatic relationship of Dr. Egon Superb and the mentally ill Richard Kongrosian.  Kongrosian is convinced that he has lethal body odor and it is through Superb's efforts to restore a sense of rationality to a world that apparent has become more and more full of maladjusted people that provides yet another level of irrationality to a story that is already full of the strange and twisted.

Although there are some connections between these subplots, Dick purposely does not create a tight interweaving.  Instead, each is left with frayed edges of uncertainty about what is really occurring behind the scenes.  It is these mostly-unwitnessed elements that provide The Simulacra within its inconclusive and yet fittingly strange conclusion.

Is The Simulacra worthy of being considered a "Masterwork?"  Not really.  It is a minor, flawed piece that contains several of Dick's weaknesses as a writer and not enough of his strengths.  Although The Simulacra is purposely left disjointed, even in that disjointedness there is a sloppiness in character, plot, and thematic execution that is not as prevalent in his more famous stories.  Here, the point of there being deceptions behind deceits is constructed well, but behind that lurks the sense that there is a pointlessness to the novel that detracts from some of its fine qualities.  Unlike the three novels of his mentioned at the beginning of this review, The Simulacra lacks the thematic unity necessary to make this hodgepodge of paranoiac scenes more than just a scattershot of ideas that fail to coalesce into something more than the sum of its part.  The Simulacra is interesting only in seeing how some of the ideas here were developed with greater success in several of Dick's other novels from the 1960s.  It is not a quality work on its own and thus should not be recommended for reading unless the reader already has some understanding of Dick's other novels.

SF Masterworks #12: George R. Stewart, Earth Abides

Après moi, le déluge (After me, the flood).   This phrase, attributed to the dying Louis XV of France, perhaps best sums up our collective view of human life after we have departed.  At some indeterminate time, we know that human beings will cease to exist on this planet.  Perhaps it'll be millions or billions of years in the future, or maybe our species will end in a massive conflagration.  Whenever or however human life should cease, surely it would occur after all of us living now are dead and buried, right?

But what if there were some massive event, like a nuclear holocaust or a more lethal descendant of the Black Death that were to strike us?  What if there were only a few stragglers left as witnesses to a massive near-extinction event that wiped out billions over the course of days or weeks?  What if the entire weight of preserving civilization were to fall upon our shoulders?  How would we decide what to keep and what to discard in case the remnant populations manage to forge a civilization of their own out of the wreckage of our "modern" societies?

Ever since Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) was published, there have been frequent attempts to tell a convincing story of future "lastness."  Several of the books on the Gollancz SF Masterworks list focus on this theme, either obliquely or directly, often through the use of rapid environmental change (such as those described in J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World or Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang) or the chronicling of "deep time" (H.G. Wells' The Time Machine or Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men).  But with the possible exception of Stapledon's novel, none of these stories ever attempts to look at how societies might be reconstructed after the "deluge" of disease/nuclear warfare/environmental catastrophe, except for American writer George R. Stewart's 1949 novel, Earth Abides.  Even after sixty years, this novel is still one of the best post-apocalyptic novels ever written because of its depth of themes and the ease for which readers have in understanding its main character, Isherwood (Ish) Williams.

Set in 1940s California, the action in Earth Abides unfolds over nearly fifty years.  When the story begins, Ish is out alone in a wilderness expedition when a deadly superplague strikes almost simultaneously across the planet, wiping out well over 90% of the world's population in a matter of a couple of weeks.  As Ish returns to his San Francisco home, he learns of the situation after it has alreay passed:

He stared hard against the reflection of the light in the window, and suddenly he saw that there were headlines as large as for Pearl Harbor.  He read:


What crisis?  With sudden determination he strode back to the car, and picked up the hammer.  A moment later he stood with the heavy head poised in front of the door.

Then suddenly all the restraints of habit stopped him.  Civilization moved in, and held his arm, almost physically.  You couldn't do this!  You didn't break into a store this way - you, a law-abiding citizen!  He glanced up and down the street, as if a policeman or a posse might be bearing down on him.

But the empty street brought him back again, and panic overbore the restraints.  "Hell," he thought, "I can pay for the door if I have to!"

With a wild feeling of burning his bridges, of leaving civilization behind, he swung the heavy hammer-head with all his force against the door-lock.  The wood splintered, the door flew open, he stepped in. (p. 12)

And in this short scene, we begin to witness the gradual evolution of human life away from its pre-plague years.  The old proprieties on how to interact fade in light of civilization having collapsed.  With this comes the question of whether or not commonly-held moral codes ought to be abandoned or not; Stewart repeatedly comes back to this issue throughout the novel.  After Ish then embarks upon a cross-country tour to see what other survivors he can discover, encountering only an African American farming family in the South and a couple in New York, he returns to San Francisco, where he meets Emma (Em):

"Oh, it's not that!  It's not that!"  she cried out, still trembling.  "I lied.  Not what I said, what I didn't say!  But it's all the same.  You're just a nice boy.  You looked at my hands, and said they were nice.  You never even noticed the blue in the half-moons."

He felt the shock, and he knew that she felt the shock in him.  Now everything came together in his mind - brunette complexion, dark liquid eyes, full lips, white teeth, rich voice, accepting temperament.

Then she spoke again, scarcely in more than a whisper, "It didn't matter at first, of course.  No man cares then about that.  But my mother's people never had much luck in the world.  Maybe when things are starting out again, it shouldn't be with them.  But mostly, I guess, I think it wasn't right with you."

Then suddenly he heard nothing more, for the whole vast farce of everything broke in upon him, and he laughed, and all he could do was to laugh and laugh more, and then he found that she, too, had relaxed and was laughing with him and holding him all the closer.

"Oh, darling," he said, "everything is smashed and New York lies empty from Spuyten Duyvil to the Battery, and there's no government in Washington.  The senators and the judges and the governors are all dead and rotten, and the Jew-baiters and the Negro-baiters along with them.  We're just two poor people, picking at the leavings of civilization for our lives, not knowing whether it's to be the ants or the rats or something else will get us.  Maybe a thousand years from now people can afford the luxury of wondering and worrying about that kind of thing again.  But I doubt it.  And now there are just the two of us here, or maybe three, now."

He kissed her while she still was weeping quietly.  And he knew that for once he had seen more clearly and more deeply, and been stronger than she. (pp. 110-111)

Fairly controversial for pre-Civil Rights, segregation-era America.  This scene where Ish and Em decide to start a family, one that would not be judged on skin color, represents perhaps one of the strongest "breaks" of the many that occur within this novel.  Although this passage may not have the same sort of effect for a 21st century reader that it had for readers in the 1940s and 1950s (after all, it was not until 1967 that anti-miscegenation marriage laws were ruled to be unconstitutional in the United States), Stewart makes an extremely powerful argument about then-present (and still present?) social absurdities through the casual addressing and dismissal of them in this one short but poignant scene.

There are other conflicts that occur as more survivors find each other and found a small settlement of less than twenty people in San Francisco.  As Ish, Em, and new friends George, Ezra, and others, male and female alike, gather together, questions of how to reproduce are introduced (bigamy is not exactly an issue with which most Americans would be comfortable), as well as debates on systems of government, holidays to be celebrated, and how years would be marked.  Sometimes, such as the first couple of years of the new colony, much time would be devoted to what was transpiring, while at two other points, decades would pass in a few pages.  As the settlement continues to expand, the salvaged technology (such as cars, gasoline, and rifles) wear out.  The children have no real concept of pre-plague society, viewing it increasingly as myth rather than a past reality.  The elders of the community see their relationships with each other and with their offspring change in ways that are similar to how pre-industrial societies used to view their ancestors.  

This shift to a more "pre-modern" mindset is done adroitly here.  Stewart does not spend more than a couple of pages on any of the moral, political, social, or technological crises that face the community.  However, he manages to infuse each of these issues with a profundity that adds layers of meaning to these events.  As Earth Abides builds to its moving conclusion (one that references the source of the novel's title), the reader is challenged to consider the import of the issues that are raised throughout the book.  

Is Earth Abides a "Masterwork"?  Considering how well Stewart addresses social concerns of the time, some of which still persist today, it could be argued that this book is perhaps one of the two or three best post-apocalyptic novels, not just because of the vivid nature of the devastation, but rather because of how plausible the post-disaster societies are shown in their attempts to salvage meaning from the event and how fragile social and natural ecosystems can be.  Stewart's prose is direct and devoid of florid phrases, yet still manages to be evocative when necessary.  The problems that plague Ish and his new community make this novel a great, absorbing read.  People's tastes may come and go, but Earth Abides certainly will be a relevant, moving work long after we return to dust.