Monday, December 27, 2010

SF Masterworks #18: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

"Sirens of Titan" was first published in 1959 and since then has been nominated for a Hugo Award and hailed as a beloved classic. "Sirens of Titan" cuts with satirical wit at humanity's follies, the belief of a divine hand guiding the individual, while at the same time cherish free will. Throughout the whole novel, Vonnegut takes a stab at omniscience and religion, the purpose of humanity and the deconstruction of the family unit.

At its core "Sirens of Titan" is a concept novel with its primary mission being to force the reader in personal re-examination. Telling the story is second to the theme. Perhaps why both plot and characters are sacrificed as means for Vonnegut to get his point across. It's a strength and a weakness, when re-evaluating "Sirens of Titan" and its status as a classic.

Vonnegut establishes the plot right from the get-go. As a result from the collision with a "chrono-synclastic infundibulum" astronaut Winston Niles Rumfoord and his dog have become a waveform phenomenon with knowledge of the future. Possessing capabilities of a deity, Rumfoord quickly predicts a space Odyssey for Malachi Constant, richest man in the world, a future marriage and a future son.

Everything is predestined. The reader only has to witness how it will happen. This works against the novel in current context. I think modern readers, myself included, have been taught to rely on the unpredictability of plot twists, expect mysteries, flip pages and look for the clues. In Scalzi's "Old Man's War" the recruitments wonder how they'll be transformed into soldiers, when they are all well above sixty years old. This sort of wonder is absent here.

What remains to be discovered is how Rumfoord's predictions will come to pass, but even then readers face unsympathetic and purposefully two-dimensional characters. I couldn't connect with Malachi or Rumford or Rumford's ex-wife, because they function on a symbolic level. Malachi endures humiliations and tortures, hand-picked by Rumfoord to be humanity's martyr, punished for his sins. On a symbolical level Malachi represents human decadence and therefore suffers for all of humanity's sins. A sinner Jesus.

Rumfoord is merciless in his machinations and effortless in lies. He sacrifices lives to save humanity, but the same time he’s indifferent towards everything. His omniscience and potency to alter on a massive scale are traditionally traits of the storyteller. Rumfoord has become God and the Devil, but is also lesser when compared to the alien Solo. Clear indication that no matter how much power a man accumulates he’s insignificant when facing space.

Vonnegut has chosen Rumfoord as his personal weapon and he punishes Rumfoord's wife for her arrogance, for her pride and her desire to remain untouched. In this analogy Rumfoord's wife is Virgin Mary, but her purity has been reversed into a sin.

Thematically, "Sirens of Titan" exceeds all its limitations imposed by its length. Vonnegut ridicules humanity's self-obsession with a merciful, divine creator and a grand plan for all through Rumfoord's actions and the creation of Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. In a parody of a rescue mission involving a replacement part, Vonnegut dispels all delusions about a higher purpose for humanity. The conclusion: nobody’s truly in control of anything. Through Malachi, Rumfoord's ex-wife and their son Chrono, a cruel child, Vonnegut depicts a dysfunctional family of damaged individuals in a time, when the nuclear family unit transformed into an American icon.

I'm torn as to whether "Sirens of Titan" remains as a classic or not. It's true that Vonnegut offers food for thought. But while the examination of humanity's purpose and the issue of free will still resonate within us, I think Christianity and religion as a whole now play a diminished role in our current society on a global scale than they did, say, fifty years ago. Since then agnosticism and atheism have grown popular and at the same time people have grown less religious. The same can be said about deconstructing the family unit. Right now, the dysfunctional family has become the new normal.

This coupled with modern readers' demand for more plot and character driven stories is likely to turn off readers before giving it a chance. Do I think "Sirens of Titan" is a good novel? Yes. Do I think it's still a classic? Barely. Do I think it will remain a classic? It all depends on further developments in storytelling. If the emphasis remains on plot twists and compelling characters, for whom you'd want to root for, then probably not.

Monday, October 4, 2010

SF Masterworks II: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

How does one review a true masterpiece? Clearly when reading and reviewing a series of books that calls itself ‘Masterworks’, this is in an important question. Ask someone who knows what they are talking about to name the 10 best classic science fiction works. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is a good candidate for that list. Ask someone to name the 10 best classic science fiction works by a woman author and The Left Hand of Darkness is probably number one.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a true classic of science fiction and an important piece of literature. Classes are taught about this book, a simple Google search will reveal hundreds of articles of true criticism of the book, essays that discuss its place in history, study guides, book discussion outlines, etc. Where does this leave me – should I attempt to say what other people, people who know way more than I do, have already said? Should this review become a simple book report? I say no – do the Google search. You will find great, interesting and important information about The Left Hand of Darkness and Ursula K. Le Guin. What I will discuss is its relevance today, over 40 years after it was replaced. I will discuss why the young(er) fan of SFF books should read this classic that was published before they were born.

On its surface, The Left Hand of Darkness is a first contact book. The Ekumen, a seemingly utopic alliance of planets all populated by human species that have evolved or been engineered from an earlier civilization, sends a single envoy to the planet known as Winter. The story is told from multiple points of view in a journal style as the Envoy negotiates with two different nations and eventually sets out on a defining journey with one of the natives.

The key element of The Left Hand of Darkness is that the humans of the planet Winter are asexual – or perhaps more correctly hermaphrodites – both male and female. They only enter breeding cycle one a month, where one of the two partners becomes the female equivalent and one the male equivalent – and who plays what role can vary from cycle to cycle. The key is that there are no genders among the people. Le Guin explores what a society without gender roles would be like through and apart from the perspective of the Envoy, who is male and from a gendered society and species. There is no war on Winter, but there is violence, death, murder, etc. The politics can be just a Machiavellian, but they are different, foreign to the Envoy in a very fundamental way.

Le Guin’s exploration of a genderless society while writing in the late 1960s is an excellent piece of feminist literature. However, these explorations are subtle and not didactic. While it’s often argued that The Left Hand of Darkness is not Le Guin’s most lyrical writing, this subtle style is distinct and left me with the feeling of ‘they don’t write ‘em like they used to’ – and this is a good thing. There is a strange duality where the Envoy comes from the more utopic society, yet the genderless society of Winter has its own sense of utopia. The sense of it all is hope – hope for the future. Wrapped up in this is the equally interesting presentation of a Cold War between two nations on the planet of Winter, a Cold War on a planet where true war is unknown. Themes run deeper than feminism, hope, and the balance of superpowers and I encourage you to follow that link above to learn more.

The story itself is quite worthwhile even without the thematic prowess. By today’s standards, it’s short and to the point. Le Guin creates an exotic world in the planet Winter that is equally familiar and alien to our senses, like the people who inhabit it. The interplay of trust and perception with politics and an epic adventure across glacial wasteland makes for powerful moments.

So, does The Left Hand of Darkness stand up 40+ years later – emphatically, YES! This novel has a timeless feel about it and a wonderful subtly wrapped in important thoughts that are inherent to our society and species. We will always be a gendered society, but just what do these gender roles mean? And the dichotomies within can apply where they weren’t necessarily aimed – the Cold War of the planet Winter now reads much more like an interesting take on the differences between Democrats and Republicans in the US – and I’m sure that those from other places will find their own modern analogs if they wish. This book earns its write to be at or near the top of any ‘best of’ list and easily belongs in a series of Masterworks.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

SF Masterwork #5 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

The subject of classics and SF seems to come up a lot. In fact the reason I'm contributing to the blog is to expand my own classical education. So I'm reading this not only as a good story but also wondering if it deserves the Masterworks title.

I'll put you out of your misery before we start it definitely deserves that title. Lots of people have been commenting whilst I've been reading that it's one of their favourite SF novels and I can see why.

It hasn't dated for a start and the SF elements are vague enough that the reader can see them as either some futuristic invention or an extension of currently available technology. Though the central element is scientific but not technological.

The central concept is that humans have discovered they can Jaunte. That is they can disappear from one place to arrive in another in moments. There are limitations jaunting. Without knowing the co-ordinates of your destination jaunting usually leads to death plus there is are limits to distances with each person having their own range in which they can travel.

Bester does a strong job of leading the reader into the concept of jaunting from its discovery to its mass use. He also introduces us to Gully Folye who manages to survive in deep space, alone, for 170 days. When he finally manages to escape he brings with him a grudge and a secret that could change the world.

I say grudge but that really does understate the feelings that Gully has. He has nothing left apart from revenge. And through his quest we get to see and meet a future that has a potential war between inner and outer planets, a place where where you live doesn't have to be even close to where you work, where there are still people of obscene wealth and power, and you see that we can still be as base as we are now.

I am impressed with Bester after reading The Stars My Destination though in order to justify my feelings towards Gully I really did need to think of him of having a really big screw loose. Even after all the challenges and changes he goes though in order to enact his revenge fantasy he doesn't alter course even when he seems to have everything else going for him.

But he's forgiven for his behaviour and his methods. Drifting alone in space is going to drive you mad.

The thing that impressed me is that Bester manages to keep a few cards close to his chest which really do change the game when he puts them into play and it makes you wonder if Gully knew at the beginning what he does at the end if he'd actually take the same journey.

Saying that I don't see Gully as a sympathetic character and many of his actions made me uncomfortable but how much of Gully reflects to the attitudes of the time of writing and how much is unique to Gully I'm not willing to bet.

The Stars My Destination has stood the test of time and Gully Foyle is a character who has a journey and a tale to tell. He's also a good example of what you can do when you can focus. You can literally change yourself.

Well worth reading.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

SF Masterworks #80: Brian Aldiss, Helliconia

Life is at once both fragile and durable.  As the seasons change, various species wax and wane in response to the conditions.  The smallest shifts in climate can wreak havoc on complex ecosystems.  Historians in recent decades have begun to place more emphasis on climatic change as being a major contributive cause to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, as the Earth experienced six centuries of cooling that correspond almost exactly to the Age of Migration (400-1000 CE).  In addition, the spread of pathogens borne by fleas infesting rats have been responsible for plague outbreaks from the 6th to 17th centuries CE that weakened empires and changed the course of historical events.

British author Brian Aldiss in his three Helliconia novels - Helliconia Spring (1982), Helliconia Summer (1983), and Helliconia Winter (1985) - explores this complex series of relationships between environments and human societies over a span of several thousand years on the distant planet Helliconia.  Helliconia is the fourth planet orbiting the junior partner in a double star system.  The entire premise of Aldiss' trilogy revolves around the seasonal changes on this inhabited planet, as Helliconia experiences two "years," one a "small year" of a little over 400 days where it completes its rotation around its star and a "great" year of nearly 2500 years where it and its star complete a circuit around the dominant stellar partner.  With a perihelion that is three times closer to the dominant "A" star than at aphelion, there are centuries (roughly 600 or so Earth centuries) where the planet is in "summer" and the climate causes the glaciers to retreat and permits humanoid life to flourish.  But with winter comes a shrinking of habitat and the increased danger of domination from the sentient phagors, who are better adapted for Helliconia's cold season.

Over the course of these three volumes, bound together into a massive 1300 page paperback edition, Aldiss charts a history of life, not just on Helliconia, but on a Terran space station and Terran colony on the aptly-named sister planet of Avernus, over the course of Helliconia's spring, summer, and winter seasons.  In his taking of a longue durée approach, Aldiss borrows elements of Olaf Stapledon's manner of covering thousands of years of imagined history.  However, this approach of covering decades and centuries in each of these three volumes is fraught with risks that the narrative structure would crumble under the weight of its vast history and the corresponding lack of unifying human characters.  For the most part, Aldiss manages to avoid this, although there are occasions in the third volume where the narrative creaks and groans under the weight of its accumulated detail.

Helliconia Spring begins with the planet only starting to emerge from its wintry hibernation.  The human-like population has begun to shake off the shackles of phagor domination, just as Earth colonists have begun to settle the more harsh environment of Avernus.  Aldiss keeps the story more focused on the characters here, as he introduces several sets of characters who have begun the long, slow process of reestablishing human civilizations on Helliconia.  On several occasions, he references past cycles of human-phagor domination, such as in this passage early in the first novel:

Lord Wall Ein replied with his usual authority.  "It was not always thus, or you and your men would have met a different reception, you with your poor weapons.  Many centuries ago, the Land of Embruddock was great, stretching north to the Quzints and south almost as far as the sea.  Then Great King Denniss ruled, but the cold came and destroyed what he had wrought.  Now we are fewer than ever we were, for only last year, in the first quarter, we were raided by the white phagors riding like the wind on their giant mounts.  Many of our best warriors, including my son, were killed defending Embruddock, and now sink towards the original boulder."

He sighed, and added, "Perhaps you read the legend carved on this building, if you can read.  It says, "First phagors, then men."  It was for that legend and other matters that our priesthood was slain, two generations ago.  Men must be first, always.  Yet some days I wonder if the prophecy will not come true." (pp. 126-127)

It is this referencing of a larger history within the context of the characters' (and by extension, their civilizations') interactions with their changing environments and their attempt to prevent another wintry cycle of decline occurring that makes for a major overarching plot throughout the three novels.  Aldiss demonstrates that a lot of thought has been put into how best to explore the possible connections between humans and their environments; we see, throughout the trilogy, numerous asides, usually a paragraph or two in length, if that, on the Helliconians attempts to "master" their environment and to stem the cycle of rise/fall that has plagued them over the past few great years.  Yet despite these best efforts at foreplanning, so many other internal and external factors (ranging from greed to ecological changes) combine to affect these plans to preserve civilization during the decline after summer's end.

Aldiss appears to endorse a sort of Gaia view of the relationships between beings and their environments, or at least he explores what type of story would emerge if such a hypothesis were in fact real.  He does not rely on a single set of occurrences to prove or disprove this belief in a quasi-aware biosphere; he shows how actions, such as those on the Earth station and on Avernus, can affect the course of events and that not all responses to environments will be identical or as (non)effective as prior events.  This culminates in the middle volume, where the balance between the individual Hellconian (and to a lesser extent, Earthling) histories and the greater history of the zeniths of competing civilizations is almost pitch-perfect.

However, there are some problems with the structure.  By the final volume, Helliconia Winter, the repeated cycle of events has led to a staleness in the narrative; the action is not as crisp and the narrative becomes bogged down in explaining the declines not just on Helliconia, but also on the Terran stations and even with Earth itself.  These explanations become a bit too much and they threaten at times to overwhelm the narrative itself.  The conclusion is interesting, not just because it ties in directly with the themes explored over the course of the trilogy, but how it leaves individual threads within this concluding volume open-ended for interpretation.  This is not to imply that there is a surprising or even a strong finale here, but rather that Aldiss has brought this fictional environmental history as far as it could go and it just halts as another cycle is beginning.

Helliconia is one of those insanely ambitious projects that is doomed to never achieve its full goals and yet it is that failure itself that makes this a worthy book to read.  Aldiss' attempt to display both a large, vivid macrohistory of Helliconia's environment and its denizens, as well as a microhistory of individuals caught up in their civilizations' rise and fall (and rise again, seemingly ad infinitum) is intriguing because of the sheer complexity involved in balancing the two.  The fact that he was able to largely navigate the Scylla and Charybdis-like shoals between focusing more on the macrohistory and concentrating more on the microhistories for the majority of this series is impressive.  It is very easy to forgive him for the narrative structural faults that begin to emerge late in the trilogy simply because of how much of his vision he was able to accomplish despite the limitations involved with this sort of story being told.  Yet this does not mean that the trilogy deserves a complete pass on its faults.  After a while, some readers (and I am one of them) want much more than an impressive setting or "world"; we want to see a vivid story that fully realizes an impressive setting and makes it not just an impressive jewel in an otherwise plain circlet, but rather a harmonic ordering of setting, prose, theme, and characterization to create a moving story.  Helliconia has the promise of several interesting stories, but by the trilogy's end, much of that promise was left unfulfilled.  But despite these flaws, Helliconia certainly stands as one of the "masterworks" of the past quarter-century, especially for how often it does succeed in the majority of its ambitious goals.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #40: Poul Anderson, Three Hearts & Three Lions

There was a man who had to be gotten out of Denmark.  The Allies needed his information and abilities rather badly.  The Germans held him under close watch, for they also knew what he was.  Nevertheless, the underground spirited him from his home and conveyed him down to the Sound.  A boat lay ready to take him to Sweden, whence he could be flown into England.

We will probably never know whether the Gestapo was on his trail or whether a German patrol simply happened to spot men on the shore long after curfew.  Someone cried out, someone else fired, and the battle started.  The beach was open and stony, with just enough light to see by from the stars and the illuminated Swedish coast.  No way of retreat.  The boat got going, and the underground band settled down to hold off the enemy till it had reached the opposite shore.

Their hope even of that was not large.  The boat was slow.  Their very defense had betrayed its importance.  In a few minutes, when the Danes were killed, one of the Germans would break into the nearest house and telephone occupation headquarters in Elsinore, which was not far off.  A high-powered motorcraft would intercept the fugitive before he reached neutral territory.  However, the underground men did their best.

Holger Carlsen fully expected to die, but he lacked time to be afraid.  A part of him remembered other days here, sunlit stillness and gulls overhead, his foster parents, a house full of small dear objects; yes, and Kronborg castle, red brick and slim towers, patinaed copper roofs above bright waters, why should he suddenly think of Kronborg?  He crouched on the shingle, the Luger hot in his fingers, and fired at shadowy leaping forms.  Bullets whined by his ears.  A man screamed.  Holger took aim and shot.

Then all his world blew up in flame and darkness.  (pp. 5-6)

Poul Anderson's 1953 novella (later expanded into the present novel form in 1961), Three Hearts & Three Lions is one of the more influential fantasy stories.  The creator of Dungeons & Dragons based his original schema around Anderson's Law/Chaos division and this may have been an influence on Michael Moorcock's Elric stories and Gene Wolfe's The Knight and The Wizard, which contains an allusion to Anderson's story.  Three Hearts & Three Lions is also one of the earlier examples of a portal fantasy (Mark Twain's satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court being perhaps the oldest of this form of fantasy story), a fact that actually can hinder some readers' enjoyment of this novel due to the plethora of imitators in the fifty-seven years since the original novella was published.

The quote above sets up the transfer of Dane resistance fighter/engineer Holger Carlsen from our world to a parallel Europe divided by the aggressive, Christian Holy Roman Empire-analogue and the wild, chaotic lands of Faery, which contain some malevolent spirits bound and determined to extinguish their western neighbor's holy powers.  Accompanied by a dwarf who speaks with a Scottish brogue and a shapeshifting woman with whom Carlsen falls in love, he slowly comes to realize that he is the long-prophesized knight of Three Hearts and Three Lions, the legendary Ogier the Dane of the chansons regarding Charlemagne's paladins.  Today, this is not a very novel concept, but a half-century ago, it certainly was influential enough on the D&D-related stories that followed.

Being influential does not equate to being a great story.  Anderson's novel reads in places like the fix-up it was, as some of the traveling scenes and adventures feel as though they were bolted onto the original narrative.  Anderson does introduce certain concepts here that he developed to greater effect in his 1954 Norse-influenced fantasy, The Broken Sword, including the power of Christianity and its relics and holy water to negate any magical use, but here it feels underdeveloped.  It certainly does not help that the prose is mediocre at best and at times really poor, as evidenced in that quote at the beginning of this review.  Three Hearts & Three Lions reads as if it were a good story off on a quest to find a decent prose medium by which it could be told, only to discover tragedy along the way.

Three Hearts & Three Lions may be viewed as a "masterwork" because of its influence on latter writers, but when a lot of its influences involve the inclusion of such incredibly cheesy tropes such as having a pugnacious dwarf that speaks as though it had wandered out drunk from a Scottish pub and with an ultra-noble paladin whose very hair and eyes might have been cast from Nordic Central, it is difficult to see much in the way of merit about this tale when its worst elements have begotten scads of horribly-derivative hack-and-slash fantasy in the fifty years or so since its initial publication.  Maybe I am not the ideal reader for this type of story, maybe Anderson is just too hit-or-miss with his narratives (as I did find The Broken Sword to be a much more realized fantasy story than this one), but I just could not help but to find Three Hearts & Three Lions to be one of his poorer efforts, one that I certainly would not raise up as being an exemplary fantasy quest novel.

Fantasy Masterworks #48: Patricia A. McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

The Wizard Heald coupled with a poor woman once, in the king's city of Mondor, and she bore a son with one green eye and one black eye.  Heald, who had two eyes black as the black marshes of Fyrbolg, came and went like a wind out of the woman's life, but the child Myk stayed in Mondor until he was fifteen.  Big-shouldered and strong, he was apprenticed to a smith, and men who came to have their carts mended or horses shod were inclined to curse his slowness and his sullenness, until something would stir in him, sluggish as a marsh beast waking beneath murk.  Then he would turn his head and look at them out of his black eye, and they would fall silent, shift away from him.  There was a streak of wizardry in him, like the streak of fire in damp, smoldering wood.  He spoke rarely to men with his brief, rough voice, but when he touched a horse, a hungry dog, or a dove in a cage on market days, the fire would surface in his black eye and his voice would run sweet as a daydreaming voice of the Slinoon River.

One day he left Mondor and went to Eld Mountain.  Eld was the highest mountain in Eldwold, rising behind Mondor and casting its black shadow over the city at twilight when the sun slipped, lost, into its mists.  From the fringe of the mists, shepherds or young boys hunting could see beyond Mondor, west to the flat Plain of Terbrec, land of the Sirle Lords, north to Fallow Field, where the third King of Eldwold's ghost brooded still on his last battle, and where no living thing grew beneath his restless, silent steps.  There, in the rich, dark forests of Eld Mountain, in the white silence, Myk began a collection of wondrous, legendary animals. (pp. 1-2)

Patricia A. McKillip's 1974 short novel, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, opens with the quote provided above.  In just two paragraphs, she has created a vivid backdrop and history around which she frames this story of love, desire, despair, and redemption.  It is a fable of sorts and it certainly contains elements of this ancient storytelling mode:  a vague past, rich characterizations, a temptatious moment around which the story revolves, and a stirring conclusion.  Such stories revel more in the atmosphere of the setting than in character development (since the use of archetypes is common in these tales and it is the interactions of these archetypes with the fully-realized backdrop that often appeals most to readers) and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld certainly will remind its readers fondly of the best fantastical fables of the past few centuries.

The story begins with one of Myk's descendents, Sybel, a sixteen year-old orphan, caring for her deceased wizard-father's fantastical beasts.  She is alone on Eld Mountain, undesirous of contact with the populace below in Mondor, until one day the Sirle Coren comes bearing an infant, an infant who through her deceased mother's side is a relative of hers.  This infant, which she names Tamlorn, is to be raised alone by her and away from his dread father, the aptly-named Drede.

Twelve years pass.  Coren returns to reclaim Tamlorn, but is rebuffed by Sybel, who worries that the youth will be used as a pawn in the Sirles' struggles against Drede.   However, Drede himself soon comes to claim his child and Sybel reluctantly parts from Tamlorn, although she sends a guardian bird, a Ter, to protect Tamlorn.  Sybel soon sinks into a depression and in her attempt to draw a mythical beast, the Liralen, she instead conjures forward the Blammor, a dark creature of shadow that induces fear.  Drede soon sends a minion to destroy Sybel, fearing her power and angry that she had possessed his son for twelve years.  This leads to an ending that is at once both literal and metaphorical at the same time.

Although the above description may seem at first glance to "spoil" the story, I would argue that it doesn't even hint at the beauty found within it.  McKillip draws upon various Celtic legends and their storytelling methods to hint at a dark, terrible tragedy that lies within the pursuit of hidden knowledge with darkness possessing one's soul.  Sybel's dark descent into depression and a desire to wreak havoc on Drede for his attempts to destroy her are reflected in the changes in her fantastical creatures.  Their anger, their hostility, and ultimately their violent acts are reflected in Sybel's mood swing.  Although some perhaps might find this story to be rather "simple" on the surface, McKillip layers this text with levels of metaphorical significance that have an impact far greater than might be expected from a novel that is roughly 200 pages.

In his review of McKillip's later series, Riddle-Master,  Neth argues that McKillip's work shows a clear influence from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth series.  I would argue that McKillip's writing is not dependent on what Tolkien accomplished, but rather that it, like some of Tolkien's tales, draws from the wealth of folklore and legends from Irish, Scots, and perhaps Welsh tales.  I am far from an expert on insular Celtic folklore, but I seem to recall there being stories revolving around different-eyed magicians, the connection between animals and mood, and the dangers of emotional responses to magical occurrences being hinted at in some Irish legends.   However, I do know that the way the story is constructed feels more in tune with stories that I've heard of Irish mythical heroes than anything I remember appearing in Germanic tales. 

Regardless of its ultimate source material, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a lyrical, evocative piece.  McKillip's prose invigorates the plot, making it feel fresh and important.  As stated above, her adroit use of metaphors to signify not just actual plot occurrences but also to denote the meanings behind those acts adds depth to the story, making it a far more complex story than it might appear at first glance.  The archetypical characters fulfill their roles almost perfectly and the end result is a short "masterwork" that hints at what the maturing McKillip later accomplished in her Riddle-Master trilogy and subsequent novels.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #22: Michael Moorcock, Gloriana; or the Unfulfill'd Queen

Even after four centuries, the Elizabethan Age still carries magical memories for Anglo-Americans.  It was the age of Spenser (The Faerie Queene), Shakespeare (among others, A Midsummer Night's Dream), and Sidney (Astrophel and Stella).  In fact, it was Spenser's The Faerie Queene that gave Elizabeth I her nickname of Gloriana and it is Spenser's mixture of fairy tales, intrigue, and the golden age of the English Renaissance that has strongly influenced Michael Moorcock's 1978 novel, Gloriana; or the Unfulfill'd Queen.

Originally published in 1978 and revised in 2004, Gloriana perhaps may best be considered as a novel that was written to be a sort of dialogue with Spenser's epic poem.  Both Spenser and Moorcock present idealized forms of Queen Elizabeth I, but whereas Spenser's work primarily reads as a paean to the peace and prosperity of 1590s England, Moorcock's work is much more complex, both with its titular character and with its depiction of life in an alt-world Earth.

Gloriana opens with the Queen Gloriana ruling the vast empire of Albion, which stretches across most of Eurasia and is now expanding into the newly-discovered lands of Virginia, named after her.  Despite having had several lovers and illegitimate children, she is, like the real Queen Elizabeth I, unmarried and it is this and the matter of controlling her vast empire around which the action of the novel revolves.  The ruler of Arabia wants Gloriana to become his, so he in turn can plunge that pacific realm into a cleansing bout of war and destruction.  A courtier of his solicits the aid of Captain Arturus Quire to help him subvert Gloriana to this end.  Quire in turn is locked in a political battle with the old councilor Montfallcon, who had earlier served Gloriana's father Hern and who seeks to preserve her from becoming the despotic ruler Hern had become by the end of his reign. 

Although at first glance the central plot seems to be that of political machinations, Gloriana is much more than the summation of its plot.  Moorcock here perhaps has written his best prose, with Quire in particular standing out.  Some readers familiar with Mervyn Peake's villainous Steerpike (Moorcock did dedicate this novel to the late Peake and his wife Maeve, both of whom Moorcock had befriended in his youth) will see traces of that ambitious character and his thirst for power and prestige in how Quire comports himself around Gloriana's other courtiers, especially Montfallcon.  But there is another trait in common with Peake's Gormenghast novels, that of utilizing atmospheric effects to intensify what is occurring in several important scenes.  Passages such as the one below, taken from Quire's first meeting with the Arabian courtier, are representative of how Moorcock imbues his scenes with vivid descriptions:

Quire nods.  He clears his throat.  Along the gallery now comes a scrawny, snag-tooth villain wearing leggings of rabbit fur, a torn quilted doublet, a horsehide cap pulled down about his ears.  He wears a sword from the guard of which some of the rust has been inexpertly scratched.  His gait is unsteady not so much form drink as, it would seem, from some natural indisposition.  His skin is blue, showing that he has just come in from the night, but his eyes burn.  "Captain Quire?"  It is as if he has been summoned, as if he anticipates some epiurean wickedness. (p. 18)

It is this combination of memorable description with intriguing characters such as the aforementioned Quire and Montfallcon, among others, that make Gloriana a gripping novel.  However, there is much more to this novel than just memorable characters and detailed, interesting descriptions.  It is Gloriana herself and her um, "interesting" situation that makes this novel worthy of debate thirty-two years after its initial publication.  Moorcock is not content to have Gloriana reign contentedly over her vast, peaceful realm.  Rather, he introduces questions of sexual politics to this story that are controversial for many.  Gloriana has a sexual dysfunction; she cannot orgasm, no matter how hard she tries with both clandestine lovers and with inanimate objects.  This sexual dysfunction plays a major role in the book, as it is the flaw through which Quire manages to arrange his machinations and against which Montfallcon rails, increasingly strident, throughout the novel.  The original ending (printed as an "alternate" Ch. 34 in my 2004 edition) is very disturbing for some, who saw it as a glorification of a heinous act, while Moorcock insists that it is more symbolic of a larger issue of sexualization of Self and of Gloriana's politics around which the novel revolves.  It certainly is a provocative scene, one that forces the reader to reconsider what she may have thought the novel to be about, but it certainly does not make it easy for the reviewer to discuss without straying from the realm of reviewing and into the world of literary critique.  Speaking solely for myself, the revised scene works better, as it clarifies Moorcock's intents without lessening the shocking realization contained within that concluding chapter.

Gloriana is much more than a simple fairy-tale rendition of an idealized Queen Elizabeth I and her court and world.  It is a well-written, engaging tale that will remind some readers of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.  Quire, Montfallcon, and Gloriana's characters are vivid, well-drawn, and they serve to drive the novel forward at a quick yet not too rapid pace.  Gloriana is much more than what it appears on the surface, as Moorcock's exploration of sexual politics and how intimately connected a ruler's personality can be with his/her realm make this a novel that will linger in the reader's thoughts long after the book is closed.  It is not without its controversies, as certain events could easily be read as a glorification of certain atrocities; ironic, considering the efforts Moorcock has done to combat those interpretations of the novel.  It certainly is one of Moorcock's best-written efforts and its depth is much greater than the norm for novels of this sort.  Gloriana is a "masterwork" in its prose, characterization, and thematic content and it will continue to be a moving work decades from now.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

SF Masterworks #70: Walter Tevis, Mockingbird

Dystopias come in many shapes and sizes.  Some, such as George Orwell's 1984 or Animal Farm, revolve around totalitarian regimes.  Others, such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, concern themselves more with a near-total abdication of personal responsibility by human societies themselves.  And some, such as Walter Tevis' 1980 novel, Mockingbird, explore the idea of a humanity too numb to care about its own joys, pleasures, and hopes.  Although each of these three main streams of dystopic writing have their merits, it easily could be argued that the third, represented by Mockingbird, in many respects most resembles our own societies, or at least an idealized version of them in the thirty years since Tevis' most famous novel was published.

Mockingbird opens in New York sometime in the future.  Human life has begun to fade into a tedious, numb existence under the dominion of the robots they have created.  There is no creativity; humans are "programmed" to be uninquisitive, unthinking beings who have no art and no literature.  Their lives are empty, devoid of the pleasures associated with creation.  It is a sort of hellish existence, where even the enjoyment found in sexual intercourse has largely been stripped away.  The human population has dwindled, with no new births during the last few years before the story begins.  Even among the robots, there is no contentment, no analogue to pleasure.  The most advanced class of robots, the android Make Nines, have all, with the one notable exception of Robert Spofforth, have committed suicide due to their all-too human-like awareness of the unbearable tedium of existence.  As the story begins, Spofforth reveals just why he still exists:

The door opened and Spofforth walked in and headed across the dark lobby toward the stairway.  He muted the pain circuits in his legs and lungs, and began to climb.  He was no longer whistling; his elaborate mind had become fixed narrowly now upon his annual intent.

When he reached the edge of the platform, as high above the city as one could stand, Spofforth sent the command to the nerves in his legs and the pain surged into them.  He wobbled slightly form it, high and alone in the black night, with no moon above him and the stars dim.  The surface underfoot was smooth, polished; once years before Spofforth had almost slipped.  Immediately he had thought, in disappointment, If only that would happen again, at the edge.  But it did not.

He walked to within two feet of the platform's limit, and with no mental signal, no volition, no wish for it to happen, his legs stopped moving and he found himself, as always, immobilized, facing Fifth Avenue uptown, over a thousand dark feet above its hard and welcome surface.  Then he urged his body forward in sad and grim desperation, focusing his will upon the desire to fall forward, merely to lean his strong and heavy body, his factory-made body, out, away from the building, away from life.  Inwardly he began to scream for movement, picturing himself tumbling in slow motion, gracefully and surely, to the street below.  Yearning for that. (p. 2)

Spofforth's sad existence, that of a hyper-intelligent, self-aware being in a world where both robots and humans alike have sunk into a morass of apathetic lethargy, is one of three main plot threads in this novel.  There are two humans, Bentley and Mary Lou, who have managed to escape the sort of dreary automation-like fate that had enveloped humans in this dreary future:

He had no conscious feelings about them, of the usually vacant-eyed, slow-moving and silent groups of them, going quietly from class to class or sitting alone in the Privacy rooms smoking dope and watching abstract patterns on their wall-sized television sets and listening to mindless, hypnotic music from speakers.  But in his mind there was almost always the image of one; the girl in the red coat.  She had worn that ancient coat all winter and still wore it on spring nights.  It was not the only thing different about her.  There was sometimes a look on her face, flirtatious, narcissistic, vain, that was different from the rest of them.  They were all told to develop themselves 'individually' but they all looked the same and acted the same, with their quiet voices and their expressionless faces.  She swung her hips when she walked, and sometimes she laughed, loudly, when everyone else was quiet, absorbed in herself.  Her skin was as white as milk and her hair coal black. (p. 9)

Mockingbird alternates between Spofforth, Bentley, and Mary Lou's viewpoints as they wander through a New York City and an United States that was listless to the point of death.  Each of them experiences iterations of this bland, nearly-lifeless existence that has grasped virtually all of humanity.  Tevis reveals the full horrors of this type of existence, where there are no hopes, no dreams; only the desire for existence to end.  Mockingbird moves swiftly, with few lags in the action of the novel.  Tevis has created here a setting that is so dark, so dreary that ironically it feels more "alive" as the situations that the three PoV characters experience become all the more dark and depressing.

Mockingbird is a powerful story, one that can be read as a metaphor for human life over the past half-century or so.  Nanny TV, or "my children were raised by TV and grew up under the computer," is a very real concern among educators and others who bemoan the declining interest in the fine arts and literature.  Those who have beheld those Ritalin-induced comatose schoolchildren will recognize something of that vacuous, absent look in the description given above.  It is not a pleasant subject to consider, one that often leads to recriminations rather than anything constructive to combat these developments.  Although life today is nowhere near as bad as it is depicted in Tevis' futuristic New York City, there are enough elements in common with contemporary society to make most readers pause and to reflect, perhaps rather loudly with a sigh, on certain trends in post-industrial societies.  Tevis' almost-prescient story contains a power today thirty years after its initial publication that makes it a true "masterwork" of dystopic fiction, one that deserves a place at the table beside 1984 and Brave New World.

SF Masterworks #69: Walter M. Miller, Jr., Dark Benediction

American writer Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s best known work is his classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, but in the 1950s, his novelettes and novellas earned him high praise and acclaim for his treatment of matters of religion and morality in worlds, present and future alike, that often contain dark undertones to them.  Before discussing the stories found in this reprint anthology, Dark Benediction, a little bit should be said about its author, as Miller's experiences influenced his stories much more than virtually all of the other authors found in the Gollancz Masterworks lists.

Miller served in the US Army during World War II in the Italian campaign and he participated in perhaps one of the saddest episodes of that campaign, the bombing of the ancient Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino.  From that moment in 1944, when a horrified Miller learned that instead of Monte Cassino being a German stronghold but rather a place of refuge for Italian women and children displaced by the conflicts between the Partisans, the Fascist Italian/German forces, and the Allied invaders, everything changed for Miller.  He converted to Catholicism in 1945, apparently due to his struggle to understand the world around him and the evils that humans commit, sometimes in the name of good.  Although Miller had a prior interest in SF, it was only during a period of time from 1951 to 1957 that he ever had any of his works published.  While three closely-linked novellas from 1955-1957, originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction, formed A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller wrote almost another three dozen stories during this period, fourteen of which are collected in Dark Benediction (the American edition, The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr., was originally published in 1980).

Readers of A Canticle for Leibowitz will recognize the tone present in most of these stories, even though the settings are often vastly different.  Often there are characters thrust into nearly unbearable situations, facing moral crises of some sort or another.  In the first story, "You Triflin' Skunk!," Miller tells the story of a mother and her son, who has come into contact with a shape-shifting alien race who seeks to establish contact by forming bonds with the natives.  However, in choosing a family whose father/husband had deserted the family, things go awry.  Miller's almost laconic conclusion serves to underscore the emotional conflicts stirred up with this failed infiltration attempt.

This sort of story pattern is explored in several other stories in this collection.  In the second story, "The Will," Miller tells a story of a boy's faith and of time traveling gone wrong.  Near the end of this story, the boy Kenny's plight is summed up succinctly in this paragraph:

There was more to the note, but the gist of it was that Kenny had made an act of faith, faith in tomorrow.  He had buried it, and then he had gone back to dig it up and change the rendezvous time from four months away to the night of his disappearance.  He knew that he wouldn't have lived that long.

I put it all back in the box, and sealed the box with solder and set it in concrete at the foot of a sixfoot hole.  With this manuscript. (p. 29)

Although some might think at first that this gives away the story, this is far from the truth.  In "The Will" and also in latter stories such as the eponymous "Dark Benediction," Miller's ability to tell mini-morality stories that contain elements of personal apocalypses may remind certain readers of Flannery O'Connor's best fictions.  Both writers combine elements of Catholicism with Southern Gothic themes (although Miller's stories are never set in the South, the way he executes his stories and the tone several convey are reminiscent of this literary subgenre) to create disturbing stories that linger on well after the last page is turned.

Christianity factors heavily into these stories, with priests and other religious figures appearing, not always in beneficent roles.  The Devil also lurks deep in the recesses of several of these tales, or at least those personal demons (depression, desire, despair) that afflict so many of us from time to time.  Miller's stories work as they do because they recognize these dark forces within those, those forces that may lead us astray from our goals and aspirations, and they explore the ramifications of these conflicts within the conflict of stories that are set in possible futures or then-presents.

Miller's stories are rarely graceful.  The writing is direct and perhaps too blunt at times for readers who may not be accustomed to such straightforward treatment of themes revolving around thanatos and the dream of salvation.  But where the stories may lack in technical prowess, the raw power contained within them are more than sufficient to grab the reader's attention and to cause that reader to pause and to consider just what was read.  Many claim that SF is the literature of ideas and certainly that is the case of Miller's work, especially here in Dark Benediction.  This collection is perhaps one of the better examples of how SF writers in the 1950s questioned the world around them and how they provided their own spin on how technology and war influenced ways humans examined their environment.  A true "masterwork" of haunting, provocative stories, Dark Benediction still contains the power to move readers a half-century after Miller published his last work during his lifetime.

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.