Saturday, July 23, 2011

SF Masterworks #22: Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man

Our Father which art in heaven...

He had been brought up, like most of his schoolfellows, paying a certain lip-service to the Christian religion.  Prayers in the mornings at school.  He had taken to saying two prayers at night.  One was the Lord's Prayer and the other went God bless Mummy, God bless Daddy, God bless my sisters and brothers and all the dear people that surround me, and God bless me.  Amen.  That had been taught to him by a woman who looked after him for a while when his mother was at work.  He had added to this a list of 'thank-yous' ('Thank you for a lovely day, thank you for getting the history questions right...') and 'sorrys' ('Sorry I was rude to Molly Turner, sorry I didn't own up to Mr Matson...').  He had been seventeen years old before he had been able to get to sleep without saying the ritual prayers and even then it had been his impatience to masturbate that had finally broken the habit.

Our Father which art in heaven... (p. 9)

Regardless of how one feels about the issue, the image of the Passion of the Christ strikes at the hearts of those who behold it in art, cinema, poetry, or even prose.  A Man (God?) hanging from the crossbeams, arms lashed in place with nails through the hands (wrists) and feet.  The agony on his face contrasted with the taunting or mournful crowd.  How could such a person endure that pain?  Why would he choose such a punishment, if such a thing could ever be "chosen" in the first place?  The Passion has left an indelible mark on European and some Asian and African cultures.  Ecce homo – behold the man, indeed.

Michael Moorcock in his 1969 short novel, Behold the Man, explores the psychological rationale that could lead to the imitation of the Passion.  Karl Glogauer, who time travels back to the Palestine of the Christ's ministry and execution, is beset with a range of issues ranging from his parents' divorce to the near-pathological association of his faults and desires with the symbolism of the cross.  Moorcock alternates between showing Glogauer in the "present" of Palestine and the "past" of mid-20th century England.  We experience his trials and tribulations, his struggles with women, his sinking into a sort of messiah-complex where he sees himself as reliving the agonies of the Passion, all in flashbacks that occur around the events in Palestine.

It would be easy to view this story as a simple denunciation of the faith people put in their religions.  After all, the Jesus of this story is not the Christ of Catholic/Orthodox Masses or Protestant worship services.  Glogauer is weak and possibly demented – could this be seen as a commentary on those who are devout?  While some might think this is so, evidence from the novel indicates something else is occurring.  Glogauer is a sympathetically-drawn character; one cannot help but to feel at least some pity on him as he struggles to deal with the neuroses that afflict him.  He is a dynamic character whose ultimate transformation causes the reader to consider not just him but the entire origins of the Christian faith.

Moorcock's story would not work without Jungian psychology being utilized to develop Glogauer's character.  He feels "real" because his foibles, his little triumphs, and his despairs are described so well that readers may find themselves being reminded of their own histories.  Add to this a narrative that flows almost seamlessly from the "past" and "present" and the story works because it does not get bogged down in the mechanics of the time travel or the nature of the conflicts within Glogauer.  While some perhaps would have loved more elaboration, such would only serve to weaken the story with unnecessary digressions; the story works toward an iconic moment and that moment is largely realized because there is no extraneous detail or explanation.

Yet this is not to say that there are times where things seem to be left unsaid a bit too much.  Glogauer's failed relationships with women seem at times to flow into one another without much differentiation between them.  While there is character development, at times, especially toward the end, he shifts too much toward his ultimate role without much in the way of plausible development.  Although it would, as I state above, weaken the narrative to develop the backstory much beyond what is presented here, the occasional transitionary stage during the Palestine scenes might have made the whole even stronger than what was achieved.

Despite these faults, Behold the Man ends with a powerful scene that is easily among Moorcock's best.  It is not a pathetic, wretched event that we witness, but rather a transformative one that serves to unite Glogauer's fears and obsessions into a moving commentary that makes this book a true masterwork of science fiction.  It does not matter if you believe in the Passion or whether you are skeptical that there was even a human named Jesus in the first place.  Behold the Man asks the reader to do precisely that and in the act of beholding, something occurs that makes this conclusion one of the more memorable ones.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

SF Masterworks #90: Clifford D. Simak, City

"Not a park, exactly," explained Henry Adams.  "A memorial, rather.  A memorial to an era of communal life that will be forgotten in another hundred years.  A preservation of a number of peculiar types of construction that arose to suit certain conditions and each man's particular tastes.  No slavery to any conditions and each man's particular tastes.  No slavery to any architectural concepts, but an effort made to achieve better living.  In another hundred years men will walk through those houses down there with the same feeling of respect and awe they have when they go into a museum today.  It will be to them something out of what amounts to a primeval age, a stepping-stone on the way to the better, fuller life.  Artists will spend their lives transferring those old houses to their canvases.  Writers of historical novels will come here for the breath of authenticity." (p. 35)

American writer Clifford D. Simak's City is a notable example of the "fix-up novel":  a series of formerly independent, although similar in some aspects to the others, narratives that are meshed together by some sort of framing element to make a quasi-novel out of short fictions.  At times, these "fix-ups" work well:  Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz perhaps is one of the best-known and loved examples of this.  However, there can be weaknesses that crop up when forcing short fictions into a larger whole.  Sometimes, narrative energy is dispersed and the creaky edges of each individual story segment reveal quite clearly the spot welding applied to the narrative seams.  City unfortunately is less than the sum of its part.

City is divided into eight stories woven together with short framing sections.  Stretching over 12,000 years, from the then-near future (the 1990s) to a distant future in which sentient, speaking dogs have replaced humans as the dominant mammalian species, these stories explore issues of longing for peaceful interaction.  Humans fade away over the course of these stories.  They leave their earthly burdens for a transfigured life as Lopers on Jupiter.  It is a quietly depressing theme, one that is borne out over the course of these stories.

There is a museum-like quality to these narratives.  Oh, not the purposeful type, as is quoted above, but rather there is a sense of withdrawing, a placing of human achievement off to the side, at first to be admired by progeny that have left the crumbling tumult of cities for a simpler, more pastoral life.  One such family, the Websters, are seen at various points over the course of these stories, along with a near-immortal mutant and a robotic servant.  As the stories progress, a quiet sense of despair becomes apparent.  Here, escape is idealized - humans leave Earth for a paradise, at the cost of their own humanity.  The dogs are left to battle with sentient ants, with a further increase in a sort of entropic torpor that persists until the final epilogue appears to sputter like a dampened roman candle.

For some, these stories build up one another to create a rather damning commentary on human life and our propensity for dreaming even as we obliterate all that we supposedly hold dear.  There is something to that, as there is that growing disillusionment with the waking world that is present throughout the generations of Websters and those associated with them.  Yet many, and I am one of them, will find themselves dissatisfied with it.  The stories feel muted, robbed of potential narrative power because there is no conflict when one side just surrenders and fades away into oblivion. 

This is only compounded by the herky-jerky nature of this particular fix-up.  With only a few recurring characters, there is little connecting these stories.  By the time one reads 25-30 pages, one story has faded and one gets to experience another iteration of Simak's theme of disillusioning escapism, only with other characters.  There is no sense of depth here, likely due to the lack of apparent conflict or narrative tension.  The simplicity of the narrative/societal fade to black has as its downside the lack of narrative energy; what's the point of caring about any of this when it is clear from the very beginning that there is so little to do other than to shrug one's shoulders?

City may have held an appeal for those readers from the 1940s-1980 that read these tales, but today it is hard to laud a work in which the theme is rather stark, the characters mere ciphers, and prose that is merely serviceable.  There is little to recommend it to those who want something more challenging than a simple capitulation to extinction.  It is a work that may intrigue some, but it lacks anything in the way of narrative energy that would leave readers pondering its message long after the final page is turned.  City is merely a competent work, not anything worthy of being preserved for future generations of SF readers.  It is one of the weakest choices in the SF Masterworks series.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

SF Masterworks #83: Joanna Russ, The Female Man

When Janet Evason returned to the New Forest and the experimenters at the Pole Station were laughing their heads off (for it was not a dream) I sat in a cocktail party in mid-Manhattan.  I had just changed into a man, me, Joanna.  I mean a female man, of course; my body and soul were exactly the same.

So there's me also. (p. 5)

Joanna Russ' 1975 novel, The Female Man, still contains the power to provoke reflective thoughts and, in many cases, strong emotional responses thirty-six years after its initial release.  Even today, many of the gender issues which she raises in this highly influential novel spark debates (as witnessed in the recent round of debates over the role of female authors in SF and the perceived need for greater visibility; one such response leading to the creation of the "Russ Pledge" to discuss female SF writers more frequently) over female participation in fields that may formerly (or currently?) be seen as male domains.  It is a touchy topic for some to approach the discussion of second-wave feminist critiques, particularly if the reviewer is male, but it is much worse for anyone, regardless of gender, to shy away from exploring a work that explodes discriminatory myths in a complex, wide-ranging narrative.

The Female Man fragments its narrative among four female narrators from parallel worlds:  Janet, who comes from the all-female world of Whileaway (a portentous name) where men died from a plague 800 years prior to the events of the novel; Jeannie, a librarian who lives in an alt-US society where the Great Depression has never ended and where women are defined by their marriageability rather than by their talents; Joanna, a 1970s feminist who emulates certain "masculine" qualities in order to succeed in a chauvinist world as the titular "female man;" and Jael, a warrior in a world where men and women openly war with one another.  As the story expands from Janet's initial visit to Jeannine's world and then Joanna's, there begins to emerge a mosaic representation of the struggles that women have had to endure:  from the catcalls to engrained views of "feminine" and "masculine" roles to subconscious reactions to certain triggers found in quotidian life.  Each character gives voice to these issues, sometimes in a direct fashion, such as the one Joanna gives in Part Six:

I live between worlds.  Half the time I like doing housework.  I care a lot about how I look, I warm up to men and flirt beautifully (I mean I really admire them, though I'd die before I took the initiative; that's men's business), I don't press my point in conversations, and I enjoy cooking.  I like to do things for other people, especially male people.  I sleep well, wake up on the dot, and dont dream.  There's only one thing wrong with me.

I'm frigid.

In my other incarnation I live out such a plethora of conflict that you wouldn't think I'd survive, would you, but I do; I wake up enraged, go to sleep in numbed despair, face what I know perfectly well is condescension and abstract contempt, get into quarrels, shout, fret about people I don't even know, live as if I were the only woman in the world trying to buck it all, work like a pig, strew my whole apartment with notes, articles, manuscripts, books, get frowsty, don't care, become stridently contentious, sometimes laugh and weep within five minutes together out of pure frustration.  It takes me two hours to get to sleep and an hour to wake up.  I dream at my desk.  I dream all over the place.  I'm very badly dressed.

But O how I relish my victuals!  And O how I fuck! (p. 110)

This quote, along with the first one, represents much of the conflict found within the novel.  The Female Man works not only as an excellent SF novel of exploring female identity, but also it serves as an influential work of social commentary that takes as its base a fundamentally Marxist view of society, replete with superstructures and class conflict, and fuses it with second-wave feminist concerns about representation and social equality.  It is not a cheery novel; fights rarely are graceful or polite.  No, The Female Man stridently argues its points in short, sharp, angry bursts that shake readers' preconceptions of gender roles.

This can generate confusion and awkwardness, as each gender group struggles to reconfigure their group views on what is "proper."  A male holding a door open for a woman might not be polite (unless he does this for fellow males, perhaps), but instead someone who is subconsciously reinforcing social views that hold women in an inferior, "delicate" role in which the males are to be the chivalrous protectors of feminine dignity.  As the four narrators traverse their worlds and see the insidiousness of sexism in a variety of guides, a commonality begins to emerge that links their disparate roles and actions into a thematic whole.

The Female Man is not without its weak points, however.  The stridency that makes its points vividly can also be construed as being too full of anger to reflect fully the range of social interactions between males and females and female responses to the world around them.  Many readers, male and female alike, may find Russ' approach to be too stark, too black-and-white for the early 21st century (indeed, third-wave feminism has moved away from several of the approaches championed by second-wave activists).  This is said not to gainsay what Russ has created, but rather to note that powerful works often do create reactions against the work as well as those in favor of it.  If anything, this is a greater testimony to the influence that The Female Man still possesses over people, female and male alike, and this makes The Female Man one of the most essential fictions ever produced in the late 20th century.

SF Masterworks #93: Karel Čapek, R.U.R. and War with the Newts


Say the word "robot" today and people are most likely to envision a metallic entity, maybe humanoid in shape but not necessarily so, that may be programmed to protect human life or, conversely, to destroy it.  But if you had said the word "roboti" in say 1920 in what is now the Czech Republic, very different images would be conjured.  It would not be of an entity, but rather verbiage denoting drudgery and slave labor.  It is due to Czech writer Karel Čapek's 1920 play, R.U.R. that the descriptor "roboti" morphed into the noun "robot" and spread far and wide from its Czech roots, altering in meaning along the way.

Čapek was one of the leading Central European writers in the aftermath of World War I.  His fiction, the most prominent of which were R.U.R. and the 1936 novel The War with the Newts, often employed allegories to address issues such as the treatment of the workers, the rise of fascism, and the dangers of violent proletarian revolution.  Although The War with the Newts. may be the technically better work of the two, R.U.R. contains a power of its own that can still move readers (and even more, play viewers) ninety years after its initial release.

The story is divided into three acts and a short epilogue, spanning ten years in length.  At some indeterminate time in the twentieth century, the scientist Rossum (whose name appears to be taken from a Czech word for "reason") has experimented with biological material to create sentient beings who lack the demands that cause human labor to be so high.  Here, Harry Domin, General Manager of Rossum's Universal Robots, explains to Helena Glory (his future wife) how the robots came to be:

Domin:  Well, any one who has looked into human anatomy will have seen at once that man is too complicated, and that a good engineer could make him more simply.  So young Rossum began to overhaul anatomy and tried to see what could be left out or simplified.  In short - but this isn't boring you, Miss Glory?

Helena:  No indeed.  You're - it's awfully interesting.

Domin:  So young Rossum said to himself:  "A man is something that feels happy, plays the piano, likes going for a walk, and in fact, wants to do a whole lot of things that are really unnecessary."

Helena:  Oh.

Domin:  That are unnecessary when he wants, let us say, to weave or count.  Do you play the piano?

Helena:  Yes.

Domin:  That's good.  But a working machine must not play the piano, must not feel happy, must not do a whole lot of other things.  A gasoline motor must not have tassels or ornaments, Miss Glory.  And to manufacture artificial workers is the same thing as to manufacture gasoline motors.  The process must be of the simplest, and the product of the best from a practical point of view.  What sort of worker do you think is the best from a practical point of view?

Helena:  What?

Domin:  What sort of worker do you think is the best from a practical point of view?

Helena:  Perhaps the one who is most honest and hardworking.

Domin:  No; the one that is the cheapest.  The one whose requirements are the smallest.  Young Rossum invented a worker with the minimum amount of requirements.  He had to simplify him.  He rejected everything that did not contribute directly to the progress of work - everything that makes man more expensive.  In fact, he rejected man and made the Robot.  My dear Miss Glory, the Robots are not people.  Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul. (pp. 5-6)

Consider this exchange in light of the immediate post-World War I years.  Mass production has come to dominate matters, requiring workers who can do repetitive tasks quickly and efficiently.  Economies of scale are beginning to emerge, with "overhead" needing to be eliminated whenever possible in order to lower costs, both production and retail alike.  Workers do not want to work for low wages; general strikes had begun to emerge a generation before.  And looming like a black cloud is the self-proclaimed proletarian state that the Bolsheviks were in the midst of establishing in Russia in 1920.  In many senses, the "robots" of this story, produced from biological material and designed to be docile, work-oriented bio-machines, are but an analogue for the envisioned "perfect" worker, one that would do the drudgery docilely and not demand too much in exchange.

But these robots are too alien for the likes of Domin.  Over a span of ten years, he tinkers with Rossum's formula in an attempt to create a robot more akin to humans.  What he unleashes is a maelstrom, as the engineered robots come to see humans not as masters, but as imperfect mechanisms that must be destroyed.  The Robots rise up in their own form of a proletarian revolt:

Dr. Gall:  What happened?

Domin:  Damnation!

Fabry:  Bear in mind that the Amelia brought whole bales of these leaflets.  No other cargo at all.

Hallemeier:  What?  But it arrived on the minute.

Fabry:  The Robots are great on punctuality.  Read it, Domin.

Domin: {Reads handbill}  "Robots throughout the world:  We, the first international organization of Rossum's Universal Robots, proclaim man as our enemy, and an outlaw in the universe."  Good heavens, who taught them these phrases?

Dr. Gall:  Go on.

Domin:  They say they are more highly developed than man, stronger and more intelligent.  That man's their parasite.  Why, it's absurd.

Fabry:  Read the third paragraph.

Domin:  "Robots throughout the world, we command you to kill all mankind.  Spare no men.  Spare no women.  Save factories, railways, machinery, mines, and raw materials.  Destroy the rest.  Then return to work.  Work must not be stopped."  (p. 34)

This development parallels that of the newts in The War with the Newts.  Humans think they can master and control other sentient life, only to discover that resentment builds to the point of violent revolt against human rule.  Viewed in light of the events transpiring between 1917 and 1939, Čapek's works could be viewed as an indictment of the industrial capitalist system.  But Čapek is not a socialist sympathizer.  In both works and especially here in R.U.R., he takes great pains to show the follies of the revolting side.  The robots do "triumph," and all but one menial laborer, Alquist, are killed.  There are no more humans.  However, the robots cannot replicate themselves and they try and force Alquist to recreate Rossum's success in vat-producing biological robots.  He fails, but in the midst of these experiments of dissection and testing, it is discovered that two robots, Primus and the robot copy of Helena, have evolved the ability to love, an extraneous feature in robots, but essential in human beings. The play ends with the hope that these two will be the new Adam and Eve for a self-replicating humano-robot species.

Čapek's works are often fraught with this mixture of the dark and the vaguely hopeful.  It is perhaps part of the esprit du temps, to be horror-stricken at the massive changes and devastation wrought by the Great War, but Čapek's works still resonate strongly today because we can easily sense our own faults, follies, and hopes within his characters and their situations.  Although R.U.R. does not contain the layers of meaning that The War with the Newts possesses, it certainly is a major achievement in interwar theater, one that still possesses vitality even today.

War with the Newts

More than any other century, the 20th century (and particularly its first half) is known for its dystopic novels. In an age of great upheaval brought about first by the calamitous Great War/World War I, which gave rise to the Bolshevik Revolution, Fascism, National Socialism, and the conflicts these three daughter movements caused, so much faith in the almost holy notion of "progress" was lost.  Whether one looks at Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, or Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, the effects of this disillusionment are widely evident.  Technology is treacherous, at least as prone to betrayal as the humans surrounding the books' protagonists.  There is a vague menace in each of these books, as if "progress" was the Edenic apple being offered by the totalitarian ruler/serpent.  The palpable sense of fear and worry that radiates throughout these texts makes for exciting, troublesome reads.

Czech writer Karel Čapek wrote in 1936 an allegorical/SF novel that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the classics noted above.  His War with the Newts is in many senses an even more dystopic novel than the four novels listed above.  Instead of rooting the problems in a rapacious and/or uncaring society or government, Čapek goes further, attempting to bare the sordid shared human past and how horribly we have treated ourselves and others in the past and present.  Despite being written nearly 75 years ago, War with the Newts still has the power to unsettle us, since so few of the issues referenced there have ever really been resolved.

The story begins with the discovery of a rare, humanoid-shaped species of newts in the South Indian Ocean near Indonesia.  The discoverers quickly discover that this hitherto unknown newt species is extremely intelligent and is capable of learning and speaking human languages.  Just before discovery, the captain of the merchant ship in the area is incredulous when a native tells him of the "tapas" who inhabit this area.  The dialogue is rather revealing, as it mirrors what happens later when a "tapa" is taken into captivity:

Captain J. van Toch turned crimson.  "What?" he bawled.  "You dirty Cuban, you think that I shall be frightened of your devils?  We'll see about that," he cried, rising with all the greatness of his honest fourteen stones.  "I'm not going to waste my time here with you when I have my business to look after.  But remember there aren't any devils in Dutch colonies; if there are any anywhere, then they're in the French ones.  There might be some there.  And now fetch me the mayor of this damned kampong here." (p. 17)
Note the casual dismissal of a native's account.  Pay close attention to the dehumanizing "devils."  The unknown or rumor of the unknown often brings forth charges of the object/entity being non-human, often vaguely threatening to any sense of propriety that the holder of these opinions may have.  But what happens after first contact?  Well, what would you think people would do with a verified sentient being that has been captured?

Some time later Sir Charles was sitting beside Professor Petrov and discussing the so-called animal intelligence, conditioned reflexes, and how popular ideas overrate the reasoning powers of animals.  Professor Petrov expressed his doubts about the Elberfeld horses which, it was said, could not only count, but also raise a number to a higher power and find the square root of a number; "for not even a normal, intelligent man can extract the square root of a number, can he?" said the great scientist.  Sir Charles remembered Gregg's talking salamander.  "I have a salamander here," he began with hesitation, "it's that one known as Andrias Scheuchzeri, and it's learned to talk like a cockatoo." (pp. 114-115)

From demon to being treated like an animal.  It is really surprising that Čapek's narrative follows closely the treatment of indigenous groups at the hands of an invading, "colonizing" power?  For the first first or so of the novel, the newts are shown to be very adaptable, intelligent creatures; the humans around them are boorish, self-satisfied, rather bigoted individuals who deign to believe that the newts are suffering from this malign treatment.  A whole host of social issues, ranging from slavery to the exploitation of the proletariat by the leisure classes, underlies this first part of the novel.

But Čapek is not content to make just an allegory for human mistreatment of other humans.  Instead, he goes further, referencing World War I and the militarism of the German, Italian, Polish, and Russian governments of the 1930s.  While the newts have managed to gain some half-hearted recognition that they are not to be enslaved, the menial drudgery that they undertake in the coastal regions is supplemented by secretive arming plans by the Great Powers that are supplying "their" newts with undersea-adapted weapons.  Yet despite this arms race, the Great Powers fail to grasp the demographic pressures facing the newts as their population swells to several times that of the human populations.  Here, the echoes of Lebensraum are found in the increasingly strident demands of the hidden, secretive "Chief Salamander."  When his demands are unmet, the newts unleash destructive explosive devices that cause massive earthquakes and the creation of new coastal plains for the newts to live.  The humans go to war with them, but they are threatened with destruction by an enemy that has surpassed them without any ever realizing beforehand just how dangerous they had become.

War with the Newts is a powerful allegorical tale of how easy it is for people to ignore the needs and desires of others, how quick people can be to subjugate another group, just because of slight differences in appearance and customs.  These themes are not rooted in any one time (despite Čapek's references to "Nordic Salamanders" and other plays on Nazi racial laws), but instead are universal human concerns that have plagued societies for millennia.  Čapek addresses these issues in a way that makes for a fast-paced yet instructive read that leaves the reader with much to consider.  As a dystopia, War with the Newts is scary in just how plausible its thematic elements (e.g. of how casual dismissal of one group could lead to that group rising up to overthrow the established order)  still can be in this age and time.  It is a novel that survives the test of time precisely because of how "current" its concerns are even now in the early 21st century.  Highly recommended.  

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.

Monday, May 30, 2011

SF Masterworks #28: Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human

What am I doing?  What am I doing?  he thought wildly.  Trying and trying like this to find out what I am and what I belong to...Is this another aspect of being outcast, monstrous, different?

"Ask Baby what kind of people are all the time trying to find out what they are and what they belong to."

"He says, every kind."

"What kind," Lone whispered, "am I, then?"

A full minute later he yelled, "What kind?"

"Shut up a while.  He doesn't have a way to say it...uh...Here.  He says he is a figure-outer brain and I am a body and the twins are arms and legs and you are the head.  He says the 'I' is all of us."

"I belong.  I belong.  Part of you, part of you and you too."

"The head, silly."

Lone thought his heart was going to burst.  He looked at them all, every one:  arms to flex and reach, a body to care and repair, a brainless but faultless computer and - the head to direct it.

"And we'll grow, Baby.  We just got born!"

"He says not on your life.  He says not with a head like that.  We can do practically anything but we most likely won't.  He says we're a thing, all right, but the thing is an idiot." (pp. 75-76)

Today, American writer Theodore Sturgeon is known more for his aphoristic "Sturgeon's Law" (90% of everything written is crud, reiterated in various fashions) than he is for his own fiction, but his 1953 fix-up novel, More Than Human was an influential short novel from the Golden Age of SF that incorporated then-en vogue psychiatric elements with a look at a possible world where a diverse group of socially outcast humans with telepathic/telekinetic abilities might find themselves as being part of a greater group-whole, or gestalt.  It is a story that intrigues and yet feels incomplete as well.

The origins of this story lie in the novella "Baby is Three" that appeared in Galaxy magazine.  Here comprising the middle third of the expanded story, it is the core of the story of a band of misfits who don't fit in with normal human society because their own abilities, when taken separately, leave them disconnected from others, often to the point of being viewed as dull or mentally retarded.  The first part introduces four of the six core characters that appear here:  Lone, or the Idiot, a telepath; Janie, an eight year-old with the power of telekinesis; the nearly-mute twins Bonnie and Beanie, who possess the power of teleportation, and the "Mongoloid" Baby, with computer-like processing power.  Separate, each of these four are nigh useless, but as the first part, "The Fabulous Idiot," progresses, the four come to know each other and to realize that each is both complementary and supplementary to the others, creating a new self-consciousness that is greater than the sum of the four.

"Baby is Three" explores the human gestalt's expanding awareness, even as it introduces a new character, Gerry, who possesses his own telepathic powers as well as a sense of ruthlessness that was not previously present.  This section is devoted heavily to psychological themes, such as belonging and the division of the conscious and subconscious.  However, there is some plot and a little character development in this middle section.

The final third, "Morality," is concerned with the gestalt's development of a conscience.  This is seen through the integration of the sixth member, Hip, into the group after initial conflict with Gerry.  This section typifies many of the strengths as well as weaknesses of Sturgeon's work.  The idea of a group consciousness developing a conscience intrigues, but ultimately, the failing of the three sections in regards to developing complex characterizations (or perhaps super-characterization in the case of the gestalt?) dampens the potential power of this story.  The characters rarely are more than sketchy ciphers who serve to fulfill the plot necessities; they do not feel "human," much less "more than human" due to this neglect to develop compelling personalities who are more than just plot vehicles.

In addition, while Sturgeon's prose is never obtuse or opaque, its limpidity is more that of a broad-stroked painting than a carefully crafted work.  The conflicts contained within the three sections rarely excite the desired interest because everything is explicated or brushed over in such a fashion as to leave little room for contemplation of the subtleties of the work.  There are some nuances to the story, but Sturgeon largely fails to develop them adequately, instead leaving a work that promises much that is eventually left unfulfilled.