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.