Sunday, June 26, 2011

SF Masterworks #87: Brian Aldiss, Greybeard

When Martha was asleep, he rose.  The mutton-fat light still burned, though he had shielded its glow from the window.  He stood, letting his mind become like a landscape into which strange thoughts could wander.  He felt the frost gathering outside the house, and the silence, and turned away to close his mind again.  The light stood on an old chest of drawers.  He opened one of the drawers at random and looked in.  It contained family trinkets, a broken clock, some pencil stubs, an ink bottle empty of ink.  With a feeling of wrongdoing, he pocketed the two longest bits of pencil and opened the neighborhood drawer.  Two photograph albums of an old-fashioned kind lay there.  On top of them was the framed picture of a child.

The child was a boy of about six, a cheerful boy whose smile showed a gap in his teeth.  He was holding a model railway engine and wore long tartan trousers.  The print had faded somewhat.  Probably it was a boyhood photograph of the man now stacked carelessly out in the sheep shed.

Sudden tears stood in Greybeard's eyes.  Childhood itself lay in the rotting drawers of the world, a memory that could not stand permanently against time.  Since that awful - accident, crime, disaster, in the last century, there had been no more babies born.  There were no more children, no more boys like this.  Nor, by now, were there any more adolescents, or young men, or young women with their proud style; not even the middle-aged were left now.  Of the seven ages of man, little but the last remained. (pp. 37-38)

Death is an integral part of human life.  From embryo to newborn to adolescent to adult to the old-timer sighing out a death rattle, there is a natural progression in human societies as we age.  For many, the fear of the inevitable death is mitigated by the knowledge that their legacy will continue with the children they have engendered and raised to carry on family traditions.  For others, there is no consolation in death, only the forced acceptance that from birth, one is in a constant state of dying.  Old age in particular contains its mixture of memory and grim acceptance:  nostalgia for things now past, with few certainties besides death remaining for them to experience.

But what if the greying age did not bring the hope of future generations to continue the cycle?  What if this were it, that human life would become extinct when your generation passed?  How would you react in such a situation?  Would there be acceptance or denial?  These questions were raised in several novels in the 1950s and 1960s as humans came perhaps the closest to wiping out human civilization - and the majority of all lifeforms - that we have ever seen.  This period saw the release of novels such as Nevil Shute's 1957 novel, On the Beach, that posited the end of all human life as deadly radioactive fallout slowly moves toward the last southern outposts of humanity, as well as Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s 1959 classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, that deals with the wiping out of human civilization due to nuclear war and its rebuilding. 

British author Brian Aldiss's 1964 novel, Greybeard, takes a different tack to exploring the worry and paranoia that were present during the first two decades of the Atomic Age.  Rather than showing a sudden decline, instead his novel is devoted to a human civilization, as Eliot might describe, that is going out more with a whimper than a bang.  The story begins in 2029 in Oxford, roughly fifty years after the "Big Accident," in which a nuclear weapon explodes in the upper atmosphere, rendering all humans (or so it seems) sterile.  There are no more children, everyone is in their 50s or older.  The story's narrator, Algy Timberlane, most commonly known as Greybeard for his navel-length beard, reminisces on the changes wrought by the collapse of human society following this incident that occurred when he was little more than a toddler.  He does not remember a "before," only an "after."  From billions, the worldwide human population has shrunk to a bare few million.  Flora and fauna rush in to fill in the gaps.  Instead of the hedonistic last days portrayed in Shute's novel or the religious imagery found in Miller's work, Greybeard's focus centers around a slow, gradual march of wilderness overtaking the last remnants of human society:

Man had gone, and the great interlocking world of living species had already knitted over the space he once occupied.  Moving without any clear sense of direction, they had to spend another two nights on islands in the lake; but since the weather continued mild and the food plentiful, they raised very little complaint, beyond the unspoken one that beneath their rags and wrinkles they regarded themselves still as modern man, and modern man was entitled to something better than wandering through a Pleistocene wilderness.

The wilderness was punctuated now and again by memorials of former years, some of them looking all the grimmer and blacker for lingering on out of context. (p. 156)
As Greybeard and his wife Martha move down the Thames River from the ruins of Oxford in an attempt to reach the sea, they encounter not just the empty reminders of what was lost, but oddly enough, signs that perhaps there are still fertile humans.  Yet this discovery does not enliven them with hope.  No, rather it makes no difference to Greybeard's generation, other than these half-feral upstarts are a disturbance to them and a threat to the quiet dissolution that so many of them seek.

This realization is what makes the novel almost lyrical.  More so than its quiet, understated metaphors for decline, decay, and dissolution, Greybeard contains a poetic power in its grim resolution to remember what is passing and celebrating that rather than any nebulous hope that might be born with a new generation that might succeed where they have failed.  This lends the novel a sense of gravitas that otherwise would be lacking.

Greybeard is not a novel to be read for its plot; there really is little to the story other than Greybeard's reflections on the changing scenery and how those changes were wrought.  There is little overt conflict, unless one counts that inevitable conflict with that unbeaten champion of Death.  Some readers might find this 239 page novel to be dull for these absences, but for those who are willing to consider the themes, especially that of aging and the reluctant acceptance of one's impending doom, Greybeard might prove to be one of the more quiet, yet powerful, masterpieces of post-apocalyptic literature produced during the past half-century.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

SF Masterworks #84: M.J. Engh, Arslan

"It is true that Kraftsville was a safe and pleasant place, in comparison with other places.  Your hungriest paupers have been better fed than the chiefs of towns.  Your people have slept in security.  They were free, they were healthy, as human health and freedom go.  They had never suffered war.  But you know that in most of the world, sir, there has been war and war again, and again, and again war, so that every generation learns again.  Strange.  It is very strange."  He shook his head like a man in real puzzlement.

"What is?"

“More than a hundred years without war. A strange way of life.”

“What do you mean, without war? My God, we’ve-“

“You have made war, you have not suffered it! Your nation, sir, has been perhaps the happiest to exist in the world. And yet consider its history. The natives despoiled, displaced, cheated, brutalized, slaughtered. The most massive system of slavery since the fall of Rome… The upheaval, the upswelling, of savagery, of violence. Not revolution, sir, for revolution requires coherence. Not eighteenth-century France, but fifth-century Rome… Grotesque, sir, this combination of a primitive puritanism and a frantic decadence; very like the Romans whom you so resemble.”(pp. 80-81)

M.J. Engh's 1976 novel, Arslan, will aggravate, frustrate, and confound many readers who encounter it.  It is, among other things, a story of the United States falling under the sway of a global dictatorship, a tale of resistance, a narrative on childhood, but above all else I would argue that it is a commentary on power and the relationships engendered from it.  For some readers, Engh's seeming reduction of a vast array of complex issues down to the size of town/county affairs might not be as much an affirmation of former US House Speaker Tip O'Neill's adage, "All politics is local," as an annoying conceit that serves to cover up the sketchiness of Engh's plot.  For others, however, her decision to focus the action of the story around the rural Illinois town of Kraftsville frees herself from the encumbrances of having to explain the external mechanics which might divert the reader away from the often uncomfortable socio-political issues that Engh wants to explore here.

The basic premise can be discussed and dismissed briefly:  a young warlord, Arslan, from the fictional Central Asian country of Turkistan, has bluffed and threatened his way into gaining control of a secret Soviet anti-missile laser system (SDI a decade before the "Star Wars" program was ever announced to the American people).  In short order, the major governments in Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States surrender.  Arslan and his soldiers, Turkistanis and Russians alike, suddenly set up camp in the small American town of Kraftsville, where Arslan regales his troops with a victorious gathering topped off by the raping of two selected youth:  a female and a male, Hunt Morgan, who later becomes one of the novel's two narrators.  From this graphic scene, Arslan comes and goes in Kraftsville (or District 3281) over intervals of several years for the next two decades.

Rape, especially over the past half-century since it became a war crime, is a problematic issue in any novel that contains it, but even more when the rape of a (male) child is involved.  Several reviews of Arslan focus on the shock and discomfort found when encountering the rape of Hunt Morgan in the opening chapter of the book.  Since Hunt's complex relationship with Arslan forms an integral part of the novel, perhaps it is best to explore the ways in which this rape is used.  Engh certainly does not sensationalize, nor does she dismiss with a cavalier attitude, Hunt's rape.  Rather, his rape becomes a concrete metaphor that works on several levels:  the representation of the plight of youth of both sexes in war-torn areas (the fact that the US hasn't suffered this since the end of the Civil War is harped upon in passages like the one quoted at the beginning of this review); the degradation of power relationships along the lines of imperialist resource/people exploitation (here shown in reverse); the terrorization that is unleashed on District 3281 in the immediate aftermath of Arslan's triumphant entry into the city.  This does not diminish the reactions engendered by Arslan's rape of Hunt, but it does serve to provide a context in which Hunt's later actions can be seen as much more than a sickening case of sympathy for one's own tormenter.

Arslan's character and actions might be just as disconcerting for several.  From the ceremonial rapist, Arslan moves away from the diabolical, warlord character toward something more nuanced and mystifying.  His initial actions are unequivocally brutal (the rape, the rounding up of girls for a harem, the harsh martial law established in District 3281), but the bon homme that he is portrayed as being after the first third of the novel is much more seductive than assertive.  It is, as he says about Hunt (and which could be applied to others), "after the rape comes the seduction."   In his conversations with Franklin Bond, the principal of Kraft County's high school (and later the conflicted head of the Kraft County Resistance), Arslan comes across as being more and more reasonable, even as some of his actions (the injection of people worldwide with a sterility-inducing virus) are perhaps even more horrific than his first deeds, mitigated only by the distance (the world outside of Kraft County is shrouded in a fog of non-news) and reader sympathy with the root cause (the need to reduce human overpopulation).  By the novel's concluding chapters, Engh's seduction of the reader's sympathies has been far advanced after the sudden rape of their sensibilities.

Why does this occur?  Perhaps it is because Arslan's character is never presented as being "just" evil or "just" anything; he is, just like President Clinton was a philanderer who was still admired for his policies by many despite his numerable character flaws.  Arslan is a breath of life compared to the stolid, sometimes smug Franklin Bond.  He achieves things, he overcomes certain socio-political roadblocks that just aren't broken in contemporary representative democracies.  His dismissive attitude to his own power is beguiling because it promises a possible non-corruptive personality, even if subsequent events might lead one to question that presumption.  He has power over the other characters precisely because he has control over himself.  He may weep, he may rage, but what Arslan does best is expect.  This is seen in how quickly he overcomes Bond and others with his force of personality; he expects them to hate him, distrust him, revile him, but also to ultimately obey him because they have run out of other alternatives.  This might ring untrue to most reading it, but there is a certain appeal to this powerful cult of personality that certainly has its parallels in several charismatic leaders of the past two centuries whose callous actions still garnered them admiration from their purportedly-repressed constituents.

Throughout Arslan, these unbalanced power relationships are played out.  From Hunt's subsequent treatment by the townspeople to how he, when he appears as a narrator, casts Arslan as a noble, complex personage, power relationships are presented in terms that underscore the inequalities of the relationships.  Very rarely are people presented as being co-equal.  No, what we see is a smug, pathetic "resistance" to Arslan's commander, Nizam, that amounts to nothing substantive and which presents as its only "victory" the continual honoring of those executed for an assassination.  Never is Arslan's own authority ever really challenged; even the symbolic resistance grounds down into a sullen compliance.  This subordination has become so final that even when the signs of dominance are removed, the effects of Arslan's reign still rule the people of Kraft County.  Power might corrupt, it might beguile, but it certainly does hold sway over people, even when they think themselves free from it.

Engh's up-close look at power relationships through the character of Arslan and the dramatic changes he engenders is not free of flaws.  Some might find the local/personal nature of the story to be underwhelming because so much is lost in the "fog" of events elsewhere that might seem more appealing to them.  Others might find the messages contained within the narrative to be unappealing and unconvincing because they are not argued for as much as presented as being fait accompli.  Certainly some will not experience that "seduction" which follows the "rape."  But for others, Arslan is a moving, powerful work because it forces the reader to reconsider his or her own assumptions about how power relationships work and whether or not one might be willing to be an accomplice in the subversion of ideals once held to be steadfast and true.  For those readers, Arslan will be a true masterwork that will resonate with them long after the initial read is complete and after re-reads are done in coming years.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #43: Geoff Ryman, WAS

Hell was full of the souls of children. They were made to sing merry school songs, chained to desks. They were drilled by tormenting demons in gray clothes with spectacles and fangs and rulers that beat wrists until hands dropped off.

There was a race of dwarves in Hell. They wore black leather harnesses, just like in certain L.A. bars. They had interesting deformities that took the better part of a day to create in makeup, and they flayed people alive. They sang and danced as they worked, like a Disney movie played backward. At the climax, Hell was harrowed by a visiting priest, and Mortimer escaped in a blaze of fire, out into the real world, an eternal spirit, to kill again and again in a chain of sequels. Mort was the wounded spirit of the eternal hatred of children. (p. 284)

Geoff Ryman's WAS is perhaps the black sheep of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks list. Unlike every other book that was republished under this banner, WAS contains no overt or even subvert "fantastical" elements to it. Instead, it is more a story about how fantasies can shape people's lives. But even that barely gets at the heart of this rather "mundane" tale.

WAS contains three main threads. The first is set in Manhattan, Kansas in the 1880s and revolves around Dorothy Gael, presumably the main influence for Frank Baum's original Oz stories. While there is a Toto and an Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, Dorothy does not lead a happy life. Orphaned at the age of five and condemned to a life of harsh mistreatment at the hands of her aunt and uncle, Dorothy becomes a painful figure to read. I had to stop reading at times because it was getting too close to my professional life (working with abused and troubled male teens), because Ryman did an excellent job of showing how such abused children often will flee into an imagined world in which they yearn for a release from the toils and trammels of everyday existence (not life, as for some, "life" has "died" when the traumas began). The climactic part of this thread is when Baum comes to meet Dorothy and he takes her misery and her almost-crushed hopes and he spins something from that to give back to her to cherish.

The second thread concerns Jonathan, a horror actor and The Wizard of Oz aficionado who is now dying of advanced AIDS. Jonathan himself comes from a troubled background and he finds himself wanting to know in his dying days just what can be found over the rainbow, whether or not Baum's Dorothy has a basis in real life. While his thread is not as painful to read as the Dorothy Gael one, there are certain uncomfortable moments about how Jonathan's own fantasies are both sustaining him and driving him deeper into a form of madness.

The third and unifying thread belongs to Bill, Jonathan's therapist, who also happens to have encountered someone else with a deep connection to the world of Oz. Bill's cheerful approach to life, tested many times (as seen in one important flashback), serves to bind the threads together in a way that illustrates how fantasizing can be a consoling and healing process. His thread, although by far the shortest of the three, serves to balance out the raw emotions of the other two threads and to help fashion an ending that while true to the notion that fantasies are not "real," appears to provide some form of reconciliation between Desire and Reality.

Is WAS worthy of being called a "Fantasy Masterwork?" Only in the most broad, vaguest sense. In many ways (the author's afterward is pretty explicit about this), the book was written to showcase the perceived conflicts between fantasizing and everyday reality and how the former can have deleterious (and occasionally meloriating) effects on the latter. Yet despite the author's attempt to wrest interpretation duties from the reader, I found the book to be engaging and thoughtful on several levels. The three threads did mesh well at the end, even if the first half was hard to follow the connections at times. The characterizations hit a little too close to home for me, but I do not regret having read such painful passages. But for me, this book does not sit well next to the genre fictions surrounding it on the Gollancz list. It is at least near a masterwork in terms of prose, chacterization, and thematic development, but the themes just seem to be at such odds with those contained in the other 49 books of the Fantasy Masterworks list that I am uncertain if many genre-mostly readers will warm to this novel as much as I did.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #8: Robert E. Howard, The Conan Chronicles Volume I: The People of the Black Circle

Conan went up the stairs and halted at the door he knew well of old. It was fastened within, but his blade passed between the door and the jamb and lifted the bar. he stepped inside, closing the door after him, and faced the girl who had betrayed him to the police.

The wench was sitting cross-legged in her shift on her unkempt bed. She turned white and stared at him as if at a ghost. She had heard the cry from the stairs, and she saw the red stain on the poniard in his hand. But she was too filled with terror on her own account to waste any time lamenting the evident fate of her lover. She began to beg for her life, almost incoherent with terror. Conan did not reply; he merely stood and glared at her with his burning eyes, testing the edge of his poniard with a calloused thumb.

At last he crossed the chamber, while she cowered back against the wall, sobbing frantic pleas for mercy. Grasping her yellow locks with no gentle hand, he dragged her off the bed. Thrusting his blade back in its sheath, he tucked his squirming captive under his left arm, and strode to the window. Like most houses of that type, a ledge encircled each story, caused by the continuance of the window-ledges. Conan kicked the window open and stepped out on that narrow band. If any had been near or awake, they would have witnessed the bizarre sight of a man moving carefully along the ledge, carrying a kicking, half-naked wench under his arm. They would have been no more puzzled than the girl.

Reaching the spot he sought, Conan halted, gripping the wall with his free hand. Inside the building rose a sudden clamor, showing that the body had at last been discovered. His captive whimpered and twisted, renewing her importunities. Conan glanced down into the muck and slime of the alleys below; he listened briefly to the clamor inside and the pleas of the wench; then he dropped her with great accuracy into a cesspool. He enjoyed her kickings and flounderings and the concentrated venom of her profanity for a few seconds, and even alloed himself a low rumble of laughter. Then he lifted his head, listened to the growing tumult within the building and decided it was time for him to kill Nabonidus. (pp. 83-84)

Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, 21 tales written between 1932 and Howard's death by suicide in 1935, stand like a Colossus in the subgenre of sword and sorcery fantasy that followed. For his supporters, Howard's imagination burned like a meteor through the night sky, brilliant, dazzling, lasting all too brief of a time. Howard's detractors, however, deplore his seeming chauvinistic, capricious attitude toward women, and they would point to scenes such as the one quoted above as an example of how degrading this form of fantasy literature could be, not just toward women, but also toward the numerous real-world ethnic groups that Howard depicts in very slightly-altered form in his Conan the Cimmerian tales.

When I began reading this first volume of two, I had quite a few reservations. Oh, I had heard much about how vivid and "alive" Howard's tales were and that if read as simple adventure pieces, much enjoyment could be gained from them. But I was uneasy about learning of his casual references to "wenches" and his use of racial stereotypes. I feared that I might be in for a reading of a series of stories that, while certainly better-written than the imitative work, would possess the depth and meaning of a The Eye of Argon. After finishing this first volume, my reservations still remain.

Howard certainly had a flair for telling an action-packed, vividly-rendered tale in short story or novella form. His Hyperborean Age setting of an Earth tens of thousands of years ago that would serve as a clear mirror for the "distorted myths" that would follow, certainly allowed him much leeway in creating interesting backdrops for Conan's adventures. Depending on what the reader brings to the table, passages such as the long one I cited above can be thrilling, as the villains get their comeuppance in short order and Conan survives to fight for another day.

But for those like myself who have certain beliefs in regards to ethnicity and gender relations, Conan's tales present quite a few roadblocks to enjoying Howard's writing. The frequent mentions of naked or half-naked "wenches," many of them chained to slave masters or kings, serving mostly as props for Conan's enjoyment or as a weak-willed, weak-hearted damsel in distress for him to rescue, makes for a rather dated and sometimes repellent world-view that hopefully is fading into the past. I could not, as much as I tried, distance myself from my own views when reading these tales. While I could recognize Howard's ability to tell an exciting yarn, ultimately I was left thinking that most writers (John Norman being a notable exception) who have been influenced by Howard are at least writing tales that invert or subvert Howard's often-odious notions regarding race and gender.

Was this volume worthy of being called a "Fantasy Masterwork?" Despite my reactions to elements of his writing, Howard has had too much of an influence on too many writers over the past seventy-seven years for him not to be considered one. Whether or not one might enjoy his writings today depends on the type of baggage that the reader brings to the table. For myself, I can appreciate much of what he accomplished with these tales, but that I have reservations about some of his elements to enjoy them fully.

Fantasy Masterworks #39: Evangeline Walton, The Mabinogion

That day Pwyll, Prince of Dyved, who thought he was going out to hunt, was in reality going out to be hunted, and by no beast or man of earth. (p. 15)

Myths are an absolute bitch to translate properly. Grounded in a particular milieu, myths rarely reveal their full power to those not raised in that particular culture's time and values. Yet a good translation can approximate the best qualities of the original, making for a powerful tale that carries the echoes of something deeper, wilder, and more mystical than what a present-day reader may behold.

I have only the tiniest trace of Welsh ancestry (being in most part Irish and Cherokee ancestry, I grew up with other legends), so while I had heard of the Welsh myth/story cycle called the Mabinogion, I was not familiar with its particulars. So in some senses, I am the ideal reader for American writer Evangeline Walton's adaptation of that story cycle, also entitled The Mabinogion. Originally published as four books (Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty) in the 1930s, Walton's books aimed to "modernize" the Welsh stories without (according to Walton, in a couple of her endnotes) adding or subtracting from the originals. However, these stories were not successful until they were republished in the 1970s, likely in response to J.R.R. Tolkien's popularization of fantasy stories.

Each of the four books is in turn broken down into parts that revolve around particular story events. In the first volume, Prince of Annwn, the young Prince Pwyll dominates the first thread, while in succeeding "branches", the reader encounters the wizard-prince Gwydion, the beautiful Rhiannon, and the doughty Branwen. In each of these stories, there are echoes of certain cultural clashes, such as the invasions by the Romans and (later) the Anglo-Saxons, or of the infiltration of Christian values into what originally were pagan myths. Walton does not attempt to whitewash these, but instead she went to great pains to keep these competing cultural values embedded within the stories. From what I can judge, being almost wholly ignorant of Welsh mythology, Walton attempted to do for that story cycle what John Steinbeck at the end of his life aimed to do for Thomas Mallory's Le Morte D'Arthur: make the story "readable" for a "modern" audience while as retaining as much of essence of the original as possible.

Did Walton succeed? For me, I found myself paying very close attention to the stories. There were echoes of other cultures' mythologies in Pwyll's day-long duel with Havgan, whose strength waxes and wanes with the sun's rise and setting. Walton told stories such as this in clear, evocative language that was in turns direct and poetic, but never dull or obtuse. In reading this omnibus, I saw names and locales which I believe were later used by other fantasy writers, making me wonder if they had been influenced by Walton or if they too were tapping into the same mythological streams. Some might say these tales are very "Celtic," and I suppose that would be an aptly vague, almost meaningless title, except Walton's tales do not feel as though they are copies of greater works. Instead, she manages to infuse these stories with a vitality that makes for a very enjoyable read.

Is Walton's The Mabinogion worthy of being called a "Fantasy Masterwork?" In my opinion, yes. She relates powerful, timeless tales in clear language that might make many readers want to delve further into the original Welsh myths. The best translations inspire a curiosity as to how the original would be for the reader, and in this, Walton has succeeded with me.

SF Masterworks #71: Frank Herbert, Dune

"I must not fear.  Fear is the mind-killer.  Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.  I will face my fear.  I will permit it to pass over me and through me.  And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.  Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.  Only I will remain." (p. 8)

The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear is perhaps one of the most famous passages from a 20th century SF novel.  It certainly is a powerful truism and it is one of the things that people first associate with Frank Herbert's Dune.  Published in 1965, Dune was the first winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1966, in  addition to winning the Hugo Award that year as well.  Dune is one of the earlier "ecological" SF novels, predating the first Earth Day by five years.  As such, there is a powerful unspoken character, the planet Arrakis, who comes to dominate the narrative much more than any of the human protagonists.  Harsh, seemingly unyielding and full of dangers, Arrakis appears at first glance to be untameable, but ultimately it is the taming of this planet that drives much of the novel.  From the awesome Shai-Halud (or the huge sandworms) to the water-preserving stillsuits that the Fremen wear to the cataloging of the effects that the spice melange has on its users, Herbert develops a vividly-rendered desert environment that contains an aura of mystery and danger.  Arrakis indeed is by far the most realized and dynamic of the characters that appear in this novel.

The human conflicts, whether it be between the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen, between the Emperor and the Landsraad or between the Fremen and the Harkonnen, are nowhere near as well-developed.  Despite the interesting choice of naming the name of Paul Muad'Dib after the mythological Greek house of Agamemnon, very little is made of this purported connection with Greek tragedy.  Perhaps Paul's father Leto I, fated it seems to die and with everyone expecting it, may seem at first to fit the tragic role, this is undercut by Herbert's sloppy narrative.

The characters in Dune rarely seem to be "human" in their thoughts, actions, or mistakes.  In large part, this is due to Herbert's unfortunate tendency to overuse internal monologues, with several scenes containing multiple characters, each of whom will be shown to say something, only to be followed with their internal monologue indicating whether or not "truth" was spoken.  Below is a scene where Duke Leto, his Bene Gesserit concubine Jessica, the water-shipper Bewt and the Imperial Planetologist Kynes interact:

"My Lord, the Duke, and I have other plans for our conservatory," Jessica said.  She smiled at Leto.  "We intend to keep it, certainly, but only to hold it in trust for the people of Arrakis.  It is our dream that someday the climate of Arrakis may be changed sufficiently to grow such plants anywhere in the open."

Bless her!  Leto thought.  Let our water-shipper chew on that.

"Your interest in water and weather control is obvious," the Duke said.  "I'd advise you to diversify your holdings.  One day, water will not be a precious commodity on Arrakis."

And he thought:  Hawat must redouble his efforts at infiltrating this Bewt's organization.  And we must start on stand-by water facilities at once.  No man is going to hold a club over my head!

Bewt nodded, the smile still on his face.  "A commendable dream, my Lord."  He withdrew a pace.

Leto's attention was caught by the expression on Kynes' face.  The man was staring at Jessica.  He appeared transfigured - like a man in love...or caught in a religious trance.

Kynes' thoughts were overwhelmed at last by the words of prophecy:  "And they shall share your most precious dream."  He spoke directly to Jessica:  "Do you bring the shortening of the way?"

"Ah, Dr. Kynes," the water-shipper said.  "You've come in from tramping around with your mobs of Fremen.  How gracious of you."

Kynes passed an unreadable glance acros Bewt, said:  "It is said in the desert that possession of water in great amount can inflict a man with fatal carelessness."

"They have many strange sayings in the desert," Bewt said, but his voice betrayed uneasiness.

Jessica crossed to Leto, slipped her hand under his arm to gain a moment in which to calm herself.  Kynes had said: "...the shortening of the way."  In the old tongue, the phrase translated as Kwisatz haderach."  The planetologist's odd question seemed to have gone unnoticed by the others, and now Kynes was bending over one of the consort women, listening to a low-voiced coquetry.

Kwisatz Haderach, Jessica thought.  Did our Missionaria Protectiva plant that legend here, too?  The thought fanned her secret hope for Paul.  He could be the Kwisatz Haderach.  He could be. (pp. 130-131)
Obviously, this scene is meant to convey much - Kynes coming to realize the goal of the Atreides, the pointing out of the other source of wealth on Arrakis, Jessica's hopes for her son Paul, and Leto's resistance to manipulation.  However, there just is not much "life" to this passage, nor is there in the majority of similar passages in the novel.  The characters are there, thought overwhelms action overmuch, and the end result is that there is a sense of staticity about the characters; they rarely show plausible character development.  They are little more than the background to the war for the environment.

There are other concerns that cropped up when reading this novel.  It is interesting how 45 years ago, women, even those of societies in the imaginary 200 centuries after our time, are little more than domestic help or are seen as vague, threatening nunneries that seek to manipulate men.  Jessica and Chani are defined much more by whom they love (Leto, Paul) than by what they themselves accomplish.  While certainly not a topic that would have dominated SF talk as much back in the mid-1960s, Herbert's treatment of women certainly would raise eyebrows in the early 21st century.  His treatment of homosexuality is even more troublesome for the modern reader.  The only homosexual character that appears in this novel is the main villain, Baron Harkonnen and in one chilling passage, he requests that his Mentat, Pietr, send him a male youth that has been drugged, since he hates for him to be thrashing about. Herbert's implied connection between homosexuality and pedophilia certainly is troublesome at best, especially considering that modern studies have shown no correlation between sexual orientation and pedophilia.  Needless to say, popular attitudes about this sensitive topic have changed much in the intervening 45 years, which made that passage all the more odd to me.

However, these concerns only dampen the effect of the novel.  Herbert's Arrakis is one of the more powerful settings that I have read in any fictional work and perhaps is one of the more fully-realized secondary-world creations.  Not just the complex interactions between desert and its organisms, but also how well Herbert mixes in religious faith and tradition with these interactions of humans and environment.  Although there were a few times where the symbiotic relationships seemed a bit too strained and unrealistic, on the whole, the novel as a whole works because of the sense that the "real" story was unfolding around the action involving the human groups. 

On the whole, Dune is a very flawed novel that, despite its many flaws, is a very powerful read, especially for those readers intrigued by the idea of a fiction considering how environments can shape people and their beliefs.  Certainly, it has been a very influential novel.  In many ways, its status as being one of the most influential American SF novels is justified; attention to how the human and environmental elements interact is done to a much larger scale here and perhaps served as a precursor to sweeping SF trilogies such as the Mars novels that Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in the 1990s.  This re-read served not only to strengthen my appreciation for the series, but also to make me more aware of how a novel can contain troubling flaws and yet still be a worthwhile read.  Highly recommended for most, with caveats noted in several paragraphs above.

SF Masterworks #38: H.G. Wells, The First Men in the Moon

As I sit down to write here amidst the shadows of vine-leaves under the blue sky of Southern Italy it comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident.  It might have been anyone.  I fell into these things at a time when I thought myself removed from the slightest possibility of disturbing experiences.  I had gone to Lympne because I had imagined it the most uneventful place in the world.  "Here at any rare," said I, "I shall find peace and a chance to work!"

And this book is the sequel.  So utterly at variance is Destiny with all the little plans of men.

I may perhaps mention here that very recently I had come an ugly cropper in certain business enterprises.  At the present moment, surrounded by all the circumstances of wealth, there is a luxury in admitting my extremity.  I can even admit that to a certain extent my disasters were conceivably of my own making.  It may be there are directions in which I have some capacity; the conduct of business operations is not among these.  But in those days I was young, and my youth, among other objectionable forms, took that of a pride in my capacity for affairs.  I am young still in years, but the things that have happened to me have rubbed something of the youth from my mind.  Whether they have brought any wisdom to light below it, is a more doubtful matter. (p. 1)

Ask most readers to identify works that H.G. Wells, and almost all will respond with The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds.  Quite a few might also respond with The Island of Dr. Moreau or perhaps even The Food of the Gods, but chances are slim that among the first books named would be his 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon.  There are likely several reasons for this.  First, it may be that this novel doesn't quite have the gravitas of his more well-renowned works, although this belief is belied by several passages in this short novel.  Second, there might not quite be the memorable scenes on par with those in his more famous works, although some might argue that the scenes with the heroes among the Selenites are certainly vivid.  If anything may account for The First Men in the Moon's relative anonymity, it may be simply that it was conceived as a satire and while Wells added elements of an adventure story to it, the tale's heart is a satire of 19th century SF and of certain dominant social attitudes at the time.

The First Men in the Moon reads like a pastiche of two of Jules Vernes' most famous works, From the Earth to the Moon and Journey to the Center of the Earth.  From the rather elevated language employed to introduce the work and to create a sense that this is a retrospective account rather than anything that would contain anything "threatening" to the characters to the mixture of the plausible and the ridiculous to explain how the protagonists manage to reach such fantastical places, there is certainly an echo of Verne's fiction in this book.  If anything, Wells takes such qualities and ramps up the pseudo-scientific elements to nearly ridiculous levels.  For much of the novel, the story borders on slipping from a satire of these late 19th century adventure/SF novels into the realm of a parody, or rather a weak attempt at a parody.  Bedford (the narrator) and Cavor (the scientist-leader) really do not come into their own until they come in contact with the underground Selenite population.

The Selenites, whose insectoid bodies and alien cultures are so baffling to the intrepid explorers, signal the shift of the story toward something a bit more serious, as he begins to focus much more on people, their dreams and aspirations, as well as how easily their fears and superstitions can poison attempts to understand foreign ideas and cultures.  Written during the worst part of the Boer War in South Africa, much of the conflict that dominates the latter half of the novel references conflicts such as that while spoofing and undermining the concepts found in the first Edisonaides and other such thinly-disguised attempts to glorify the imperialist ambitions of that era.  Toward the end of the novel, all of this is summarized in a dialogue between Bedford and Phi-oo, the leader of the Selenites:

'You mean to say,' he asked, seeking confirmation, 'that you run about over the surface of your world - this world, whose riches you have scarcely begun to scrape - killing one another for beasts to eat?'

"I told him that was perfectly correct.

"He asked for particulars to assist his imagination.  'But do not your ships and your poor little cities get injured?' he asked and I found the waste of property and conveniences seemed to impress upon him almost as much as the killing.  'Tell me more,' said the Grand Lunar; 'make me see pictures.  I cannot conceive these things.'

"And so, for a space, though something loth, I told him the story of earthly War.

"I told him of the first orders and ceremonies of war, of warnings and ultimatums, and the marshalling and marching of troops.  I gave him an idea of manœuvres and positions and battle joined.  I told him of sieges and assaults, of starvation and hardship in trenches, and of sentinels freezing in the snow.  I told him of routs and surprises, and desperate last stands and faint hopes, and the pitiless pursuit of fugitives and the dead upon the field.  I told, too, of the past, of invasions and massacres, of the Huns and Tartars, and the wars of Mahomet and the Caliphs and the Crusades.  And as I went on, and Phi-oo translated, the Selenites cooed and murmured in a steadily intensified emotion.

"I told them an ironclad could fire a shot of a ton twelve miles, and go through twenty feet of iron =- and how we could steer torpedoes under water.  I went on to describe a Maxim gun in action and what I could imagine of the Battle of Colenso.  The Grand Lunar was so incredulous that he interrupted the translation of what I had said in order to have my verification of my account.  They particularly doubted my description of the men cheering and rejoicing as they went into battle.

"'But surely they do not like it!' translated Phi-oo.

"I assured them men of my race considered battle the most glorious experience of life, at which the whole assembly was stricken with amazement.

"'But what good is this war?' asked the Grand Lunar, sticking to his theme.

"'Oh!  as for good!', said I, 'it thins the population!'

"'But why should there be a need -?'

"There came a pause, the cooling sprays impinged upon his brow, and then he spoken again." (p. 158)

It is Wells' treatment of these scenes, not just in this particular moment but elsewhere as well, that elevates this novel from being just a parody and into a satire that not only has pointed things to say about early 20th century goals and aspirations, but something for us a century later, as sometimes we dream more of acquiring and seizing, by violence if necessary, than we do about learning how to live in brotherhood.  Although this sort of message is not an easy one to read (some may lament that it is "too preachy" or "too hippy-drippy"), it is one that Wells executes fairly well in this novel.  But social satires, particularly of beloved classics, as Verne's novels had already become by 1901, are not as well-liked as straight-up adventure tales and it is perhaps for this reason alone that The First Men in the Moon is not as well-known as many of Wells' other novels. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011

SF Masterworks #16: Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

The New Wave of SF broke like a tidal wave over the shores of American and British SF.  Where the "Golden Age" stories tended to focus on individuals striving against the forces of nature or on how scientific advancement would improve the lot of humanity (or see a Communist allegory threaten to swamp certain cherished institutions), the New Wave writers utilized other tools.  More oriented toward the "social sciences" than the "hard sciences" favored by several Golden Age writers, New Wave authors such as J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, Samuel Delany, and Ursula Le Guin explored the human condition more than they ever focused on issues of development and advancement (today, such terms seem almost quaint to us who have grown up in the past forty years).  Whereas the British New Wave tended to reflect upon the decline of Empire, American New Wave is characterized more by the utilization of anthropological methods in order to probe and vivisect American culture.

Le Guin herself is heavily influenced by cultural anthropological methodology (her father founded the University of California's Anthropology department, only the second in the United States at the time) and this shows up repeatedly in her fiction.  Le Guin's characters are most often non-white characters who in some key way stand outside of the society being represented in her fiction.  Her earlier novels set in the Hainish Cycle maintain throughout a sense of observation and social commentary on a whole host of issues, ranging from environmental degradation (Le Guin being one of the first SF writers to focus on the consequences of global pollution), societal violence, xenophobia, to the malleability of gender roles.  The characters themselves are keen observers who play small but vital roles in the development of the themes and plots.

This is not the case in her 1974 masterpiece, The Dispossessed.  Shevek, the physicist who leaves the purportedly anarchist moon settlement of Anarres for the fractious mother world of Urras, plays a much more central role in the story.  He is the embodiment of the anarchism of his home world, yet he is as much of an outsider to them as he is to the people he encounters on Urras.  Le Guin alternates chapters, dealing with Shevek both before and after his departure for Urras and how he influences those around him.

No discussion of The Dispossessed would be complete without a keen look at the central theme, that of a single person's embracing of a political philosophy that at its heart confounds and frightens those who favor more regimented societies.  Le Guin is careful to portray Anarrean society as being pacifist; much of this is due to the deliberate changes made to their very language, verbal and non-verbal alike.  Based in large part on the Sapir-Whorf theory on language acquisition and symbolic encoding, the Anarreans lack even the rudiments of possessive language.  All is shared, whether it be one's bed (male or female, it only matters if both prefer to couple), one's work details, or even one's computer-generated name.  It is a seemingly utopic society, yet Le Guin, through the eyes of Shevik, reveals the ambiguities present in swapping out traditional governmental forms for a radically new way of organization.

Time and time again we see the little conflicts that arise.  Jealousies emerge and nascent power structures begin to emerge a century and a half after the Anarreans have left Urras to found their utopic anarchistic society.  Le Guin does not skimp on analyzing these shortcoming; rather, she uses them as a contrast to what Shevik experiences in his travels on Urras.  There, we encounter the insidious effects of plutocratic society, of a Cold War analogue, and of the way patriarchal societies influence societal expectations of women.  Shevik is that stranger in a strange land, yet for us, what he witnesses we understand all to well.  Even thirty-seven years after its initial publication, we still witness daily the power inequalities that so many of us suffer at the hands of others and ourselves.

Yet is anarchism the golden key that will lock all those troubles away?  Based on what we see unfold in The Dispossessed, one might say that its subtitle, "An Ambiguous Utopia," serves as a stark reminder of the insidiousness of these human plagues.  Can a person be free or become free of these social evils?  Perhaps, but how in turn are these rare humans treated by their fellow citizens?  That question haunts the pages of this novel.

Related to this is the meanings of "dispossessed."  Depending upon the context upon which one draws her conclusions, the dispossessed could be the Anarreans who remove themselves from Urras and wipe out possession itself.  Or it could refer to Shevik and his encounters during his life and travels.  Perhaps it references the downtrodden people on Urras who are moved by Shevik's very presence among them.  Or maybe it is all of these and more.  That is the beauty of Le Guin's story.  In roughly 400 pages, she weaves so many elements together that we cannot make a firm conclusion of "this is how it was and what it means."  Rather, we interpret and reinterpret the events upon each rereading, finding possible answers and disturbing truths each time we dare to plumb the depths of this novel.  It is this that makes The Dispossessed an enduring "masterwork" that is one of the finest novels of the second half of the twentieth century.