books

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

image source: NPR

image source: NPR

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

As soon as I heard about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, released September 2nd, I bought a copy on the strength of two of his previous novels, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. He’s got a few more books out there, but those were the two I’d read, and both of them are in my personal top 50. Cloud Atlas consists of six nested stories all intimately connected to each other and spanning a cycle of reincarnation that stretches from an 1850s sea voyage to a far-future post-apocalypse society. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet plays like an exhaustively researched and excellently penned historical novel about Dejima, a Dutch trading post in 1800s Japan, but it takes a really weird and delicious turn about three-fourths of the way through. Mitchell’s ability to move in established literary circles while cultivating and applying his high-octane imagination makes him one of my favorite authors. He releases books with prose like cut gems and imaginative mythos like the sea in storm, and the juxtaposition is sumptuous and rewarding.

Cloud atlas

The Bone Clocks is organized similarly to Cloud Atlas, in that it consists of six interconnected novellas as opposed to one homogeneous narrative. The first one is the story of 15-year-old Holly Sykes, living in Gravesend in 1984. Holly is the key character in the book. She is at least a supporting character in each section, and she is the POV character in the beginning 1984 section and the final 2043 section. Mitchell sets her up as an extremely identifiable and appealing character from the get-go by tapping into an emotion and life-situation with which everyone is intimately familiar: helpless teenage angst. Holly is dating a skeezy older boyfriend, Vinny, her mom finds out, and the massive fight between the two leads to Holly running away. She runs to her boyfriend’s house and finds him in bed with her best friend, the poor girl. Really freaked out by this point, she sets off on a walking tour of all of bloody Kent. She ends up picking strawberries at a farm to make enough money to extend her time away from home enough to really make sure her mom feels bad, but then one of her friends finds her at the farm and tells her her little brother is missing, so she comes home. This section introduces Holly as a naive young girl and gets the reader to identify with her, but it also starts setting up some of the weirdness of the novel. Mitchell’s modus operandi is to write a completely standard narrative that could stand all on its own, then fill it with the bizarre. Holly, while internally monologuing, talks about hearing voices, which she refers to as “The Radio People,” while she was young. She is taken to a doctor who touches her forehead and appears to cure her. Before she was cured, she was hallucinating a woman named Miss Constantin, who would visit her in her bedroom. Other weird stuff happens in this section, but I do not want to spoil the mythos for you. This part introduces Holly, shows her making a dumb mistake, and explores her heartbreak deeply enough to get the reader to root for her throughout the remaining 60 years of her life that this book covers. In each future section, Holly is powerful, no-nonsense, and able to detect bullshit from a distance of about one AU, probably due to her earlier experience with the lying, smarmy Vinny. The next section follows the charming, driven, and borderline sociopathic Cambridge scholarship student Hugo Lamb as he poses, lies, and cheats his way through the 1990s to make sure he gets to where he wants in life. He meets Holly during a ski trip to Switzerland, during which they spend one night together. The third section follows Ed Brubeck, a war reporter addicted to adrenaline who has to choose between risking his life reporting on the Iraq War in 2004 and dedicating himself to his young daughter Aoife, the mother of whom is Holly Sykes. The fourth section, set in 2015, follows a past-his-prime English novelist as he deals with various failures in his personal and professional life. He becomes friends with Holly because she has published a book about her paranormal experiences, and they run into each other on various book tours. The fifth section gets its own paragraph — I’ll come back to it. In the sixth section, 2043, the narrative follows a very aged Holly Sykes as she putters about her farm on Sheep’s Head Ireland and attempts to survive and raise her granddaughter and an orphan in a post-Fall society. Some unnamed cataclysm occurred, electricity is hard to come by, the internet is falling apart, and since we relied on it so heavily, so is civilization.

What's up pussy cat? Whoa-oh-oh!

Wikipedia and cat pictures are the lifeblood of civilization.

My two favorite sections are with Ed Brubeck in 2004, because it flawlessly interweaves the conflict and tragedy of the Iraq War with the trials and travails of satisfying the people you love. I also very much liked the final section, with Holly scraping together a living in a post-apocalyptic setting, which allowed Mitchell to bring his full extrapolative powers to bear. Section five gets its own analysis because it is paradoxically the coolest and least successful section. The Bone Clocks is a fantasy novel, but for most of the book, the fantasy lives on the margins. Inexplicable events which range from terrifyingly violent to mildly head-scratching occur to each and every main character, but they are not the main focus and they come off with a subtle touch. I avoided talking about it mostly because I did not want to spoil any big reveals for you, and if you do not want to be spoiled, skip the rest of this paragraph. So, here’s the framing narrative that links all six sections: immortality is real, and there are two main types: the type people who reincarnate naturally enjoy (very rare), and the type people who use artifacts to eat the souls of others enjoy (yep, soul vampires). Miss Constantin from the first section is a member of The Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar. Said chapel has a painting of the Blind Cathar in it who, if its devotees bring a psychically gifted child before it, will distill that child’s soul into Black Wine, the life-extending elixir of the soul vampires. They also have magic powers — they study the Shaded Way, which gives them the ability to fire psychic bolts and control matter with funny hand gestures. On the “Good Guys” side of the field, we have the Horologists, who naturally reincarnate, also have psychic powers (from studying the Deep Stream, none of that nasty Shaded Way magic thank you very much), and some of whom have been around since pretty much the start of civilization. The protagonist of this section is Marinus, one of the Horologists. He is living as Dr. Iris Fenby at the time of his section, but was child psychologist Dr. Yu Leon Marinus when he “cured” Holly of the Radio People (going back a bit, Constantin was appearing to Holly in order to harvest her psychically powerful soul, and Marinus stopped this by closing her third eye by touching her forehead).  This name struck a bell, and I had to think for a while before I realized that one of the main characters from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was this immortal bastard, then going by Lucas Marinus. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that happens in de Zoet which indicates Marinus is in any way supernatural. He is a doctor who befriends the main character. He dies late in the book, and he refers to his passing as a snake shedding his skin. The reader assumes he is just being a stoic 19th-century scientist trying to comfort his friend, but nope, he really was just shedding one body for another. All of Mitchell’s books are interconnected, but a b-character from another novel actually being a member of a secret society of immortals is a joyful Mitchellian flourish. The sixth section serves as a coda to the narrative streams of the other parts of the novel, but the fifth section is where the main conflict is resolved. All the little hints and strangenesses of the previous sections, that prowled outside the main narrative like hungry wolves outside the city walls, end up front and center in this here. The horologists launch a plan to invade the Dark Chapel, engage in psychovoltaic (Mitchell’s neologism) battles, and end the reign of these carnivores. This section is full of people beating each other up with their brains, casting psychic shields and throwing bolts from their hands. The fight itself, the final maneuver of the Horologists against the Anchorites, is the main focus, and the book suffers from the shift from realistic, character-driven plotting tinged with the supernatural to all-out fantasy warfare. Mitchell’s gift is in fusing the fantastic with the real, and he leans too far over into fantasy here. It is still rewarding and fun to read, but this section seems somehow cheap compared with the others. It also suffers because it serves as an info-dump – after the delicious anticipation of the previous sections as the reader wonders what the hell is going on, the reader is strapped to a chair with their eyes taped open and bombarded with all the answers at once.

clockwork orange

I mean, it was extremely satisfying getting all the answers, but this is how it happened.

This novel is triumphant and amazing. It is not flawless, but who cares? First-rate imagination melded with first-rate character building and prose results in a product anyone and everyone should read. It gets a little ridiculous in the final battle of section five, but that type of failing is a lot better than being subjected to a novelist whose books all “deal with contemporary Londoners whose upper-middle-class lives have their organs ripped out by catastrophe or scandal” (quote from the past-his-prime English novelist). At this point, Mitchell has more than proven himself, and I will continue reading whatever he continues writing.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

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Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: On the Importance of Pulp Fiction

astounding science fiction cover

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Remember the pulps? The old science fiction, mystery, and fantasy magazines published on cheap paper and read in the Golden Age of SF on trains, on buses, and by flashlight under blankets after bedtime? Well, they are still alive, well, and thriving. At the very least, dozens (link takes some scrolling down) are still publishing stories and paying authors. It is a vibrant, vital part of SF, but many superfans who have read every book Asimov ever wrote or won costume contests at ‘cons overlook them. There are tons of them, but two of the most famous are Analog and Clarkesworld. There are many benefits to reading these magazines.

First off, these rough, newspapery pages contain plenty of variety. Each magazine is usually filled with (shortest to longest) short stories, novelettes, and novellas, so the reader can choose how much time they want to invest and pick up the magazine for ten minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour. They are also full of informational articles that range from editorial commentary, to the state of the field today, to straight scientific fact to supplement the fiction. An article I just read in Analog explained some of the risks of climate change, and the factoid that stuck with me was that, if Greenland’s glaciers melt, the inundation of freshwater into the ocean might stop the North Atlantic Current, which currently brings warm air to Great Britain and keeps it relatively warm. Without this current, it would have a climate comparable to the Yukon. In addition to the variety of features, the collection of stories itself is extremely diverse. Just glancing at the table of contents of the November 2014 issue of Analog, there is a story about a Venusian colonist’s transport breaking and her having to survive in the high-pressure, acid-rich cloud layers of Venus while avoiding falling to the certain-death lower levels, another story about a convict with a life sentence appealing that sentence due to new immortality treatments rendering it a cruel and unusual punishment, and another whose plot concerns an AI who went on an apparent spree murdering dozens of his fellow AIs. Within that small sample, three of the eight stories on offer in the magazine, there is a story that deals with space colonization, one that deals with the social impact of longevity treatments, and one that touches on the dangers and nature of AI. That’s a broad range, and no matter what your interests, you’ll find something that interests you.

asimov

The next major reason that getting a subscription to a few of these is worthwhile is that the publishing environment fostered by the editors of these magazines fights off the bloat of success. Everyone who has read serial fantasy especially has run across this phenomenon: an author writes an amazing first novel that sells on a galactic scale. It is entertaining, the plot is tightly woven, and the characters are identifiable. The second and third entries are similar, but then the quality nosedives, and all of the sudden you are reading about characters you don’t care about in locations that bore you to tears while learning about the finer points of societal etiquette, which makes you feel like you’ve fallen into cotillion class as opposed to the rough-and-tumble who-dares-wins environment of the first book. This, friends, is because the author’s name is now more important than their work. The publisher knows that, whatever is written, it will sell a gazillion copies, so the editor backs off and the book bloats and bloats and bloats. Not so in the magazines. First, the stories average around 5,000 words, so the author has very little time in which to communicate what they need to. Characters, setting, and conflict are all usually extremely clear in the first two pages, after which the action goes gallivanting off towards resolution with nary a hesitation. Second, the editors make choices based entirely on what they think will give the readers who buy their magazine reason to buy it again: stories that entertain. If the characters are hard to identify with, if the ideas and technology explored in the story are not interesting, and if there is no satisfying plot, the editor will not buy the story and the magazine will not subject you to it. It is a hardscrabble environment where only the leanest, fittest stories survive.

clarkesworld

Let’s assume I have you convinced, and you’re raring to subscribe to a magazine or three. Where should you go? Analog Science Fiction and Fact is probably the most storied. It started life as Astounding Stories in the 1930s, and a few name changes later stands as the longest-running continuously published magazine in the genre. Its most famous editor is John W. Campbell, who is to Heinlein and Asimov what Max Perkins is to Hemingway and Fitzgerald. It is old, it is established, and it is a must-have for anyone starting down this path. For a shot of the new, check out Clarkesworld Magazine. Started in 2006, it has grown quickly. It and its authors have been nominated for and won the Hugo multiple times. It has achieved a huge profile in a relatively short time mostly due to the quality of its stories, but also because of its distribution method. It exists almost entirely as an online entity, with all of its stories available for free online in text and podcast form. A physical anthology is published each year, and ebook subscriptions are available, but the free podcast is the best way to experience the magazine. I listen to podcast stories relatively frequently, but so many readers have either a voice not suited to hold attention or one made so goofy by putting on a radio announcer style that I have trouble getting into the story. Not so with Kate Baker, the reader for every Clarkesworld podcast. Her voice is clear, normal, with enough variety to hold attention but not so much you feel you’re listening to a circus impresario. I recently listened to her read “Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik, one of the most satisfying world-building stories I’ve seen this year. It’s quality, it’s free, it’s multiformat, and you can check it out now with no commitment.

The magazine market is vital to the science fiction community at large. There are the monuments of the genre, the Neuromancers, the Stranger in a Strange Lands, and the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?s, but the beating heart of SF is in these magazines, where the work of old pros and new blood meet and keep the body of SF as a whole vigorous and alive. Do your part to keep SF healthy and subscribe.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Book You’ve Ever Read All Of?

question-mark

Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read all of?

Rules are simple: how’s your judgement? When did you last dedicate a significant amount of your precious, fleeting life to something you didn’t want to finish in the first place? This week we’re talking dedication for dedication’s sake. Let’s get to it, because wasting time in a thing about wasted time is just too much.

Alex Russell

I once got State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America as a gift. Look at this damned list of some of the contributors: Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchett, Anthony Bourdain, William T. Vollmann, S.E. Hinton, Dave Eggers, Myla Goldberg, Rick Moody, and Alexander Payne. Those people can’t make a bad book, can they? They didn’t, but they all certainly wrote some essays that appeared in a bad book. State by State is a series of 50 essays, each written by someone with a connection to that specific state. Some of them are great. Some of them are not. I was going to put in my least favorite one here but it makes me way too angry. The precious, scientific ways people write about their own states in this tome can be the worst. They are the opposite of love letters. That said, “Kansas” by Jim Lewis is fantastic, though if you Google it the first thing that comes up is an article from my college town’s newspaper about how bad it is. No one likes anything.

Gardner Mounce

I generally have a strict 50-page policy. Life is too short to read bad books and if a book can’t impress me in fifty pages then I have no qualms about ditching it. However, I did stick with all of The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. It was awful, but interesting in the awful choices it made.

Mike Hannemann

The easy direction to go is to name something forced upon you in high school, but All the King’s Men takes the cake. The book before I read was Grapes of Wrath and it was followed by Invisible Man. Both of those novels are some of my favorites of all time. Wedged in the middle was a political drama which played out exactly how you’d expect. I compare it to Dances With Wolves. You know exactly where the plot is going the minute you start reading the book. There are a few twists here and there, but it lacks originality. When the most fascinating character is a simple Irish guy who eats sugar cubes, there’s something wrong with your story. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it, but “noble politician becomes corrupt” isn’t exactly groundbreaking storytelling. That said, I do sympathize with the Irish. And sugar cubes.

Jonathan May

There are so many contenders for this question. The worst book I’ve ever read in its entirety must be The Book of Mormon, which Mark Twain called “chloroform in print.” Not to anger any Mormons out there, but damn if it isn’t the most boring thing I’ve ever read. Compared to other religious texts, the battles are lame and the language stilted. The Bhagavad-Gita this ain’t. Mostly centered in language borrowed from the Masonic texts and translations of The Bible available at the time, this product of the early American 19th century could really lose a lot of clunky verbiage and focus rather on its chronologically-challenged plot. While religious adherents may find it to be divinely inspired, I find more inspiration from even the most unreadable of Dickens’: The Tale of Two Cities, my close second-place choice. If you disagree (and I assume many will), please do yourself a favor and read The Bible, The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Heart Sutra, or almost any other religious text and get back to me.

Andrew Findlay

This is difficult. For most of the past decade, if a book was terrible or even just not what I wanted to read right then and there, I just didn’t finish it. Any truly terrible books that I finished before that time are terrible enough to be supremely forgetful. It was probably one of the ranked masses of Star Wars Expanded Universe books I read in middle school, before I knew enough to be like, “This dialogue is laughable. Han wouldn’t say that. Besides, it’s nerf herder, not nerftender.” You know what, I’m willing to bet $100 that it was The Phantom Menace, released alongside the movie so George Lucas could squeeze even more blood out of his gasping, mangled franchise.

Brent Hopkins

This is assuredly not the worst book I have ever read cover to cover, but I will say it left the most vivid disappointment in me in recent years. George R.R. Martin’s 4th novel in The Song of Ice and Fire series A Feast for Crows takes the prize for me.  As has been mentioned by many other reviewers and general readers alike, this book is the equivalent of a fluff episode. Most of the characters focused on feel like the B-list of the tale, and after the massive cliffhanger at the end of the previous book you will read these pages and feel teased. The concept of splitting the books into regions as opposed to chronological order is cool and all, but it works a lot worse when all the cool kids are in one place and the wallflowers are in another. This also led to a bit of a muddling of the 5th book because many of the references are things the reader already knows, so it isn’t entirely as new as you’d hope. Knowing the answer to characters questions works sometimes, but not constantly.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

image credit: NPR

image credit: NPR

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Normally, this feature has me rooting around in the dust heap of the 70s, 80s, 90s, and aughties to find something to review. I write here based on what I’ve finished reading in the past month or so, and since there is a lot more written in the past 50 years than the past one, more often than not there are a couple decades between publication of the book and the posting of the article on it. I’m excited to say that today, I bring you Ancillary Justice, published less than a year ago. I ran across it a little while ago, but the title seemed like something that would have David Caruso de-sunglassing on the cover, so I passed it by. It won the Hugo on August 17th, and the Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, and Nebula awards are all telling me I made a mistake. Any single one of those awards is enough to get me trust a book, and this one got all four of them. Another tidbit – at the Hugos, the entire Wheel of Time series was also on the shortlist. This beat out the Wheel of Time – not one of the books, all of them. On the one hand, that’s not surprising – I tried to read them. The first one was not that bad, but I had to put it down halfway through the second one, asking myself how many words were really necessary to describe the tapestries hanging on the chill stone of the castle hallways through which our protagonist was running for his life. Still, even if Wheel of Time is kind of bad, it occupies a gigantic cultural niche, and the power the entire series should hold over Hugo voters is impressive, but Ancillary Justice beat it, stupid name and all.

1280px-Tapisserie_de_l'apocalypse

image source: wiki

Yes Robert, it’s beautiful. Isn’t the world in peril or something?

First off, in the context of the book, the name is not that stupid. The premise of the book is as follows: a galactic empire called the Radch is a vast and expanding power, and it conquers through the use of ships and ancillaries. Ancillaries are ex-humans, drawn from the conquered populace, who are heavily modified and slaved to the ship AI, becoming appendages of the ship itself. It is effective (AI brain running targeting, hunting, thinking), it is cheap (feed them water and the minimum, no-frills nutrition, freeze them in the ship hold when they are not in use), and it is good propaganda (they are terrifying in much the same way zombies are – “that could be us” – and the enemies of the Radch call them corpse soldiers). There is a lot more going on in the plot, but to avoid spoiling it for you, I’ll just say that one of the ships, The Justice of Toren, is destroyed, and only a single ancillary escapes. Since she basically is the ship, albeit heavily reduced, she launches on a mission of vengeance (hence Ancillary Justice, slow clap).

Fairly basic plot, so what makes this such a darling of all the most famous SF awards? First off, the entire concept of ancillaries is really cool (and horrifying). The book chapters alternate between the vengeance-mission present and the pre-Toren destruction past, so we get to see the main character function as a distinct entity and as an ancillary. As an ancillary, there are 20 of her, all connected to and by the ship. A single ship possesses thousands (possibly millions) of ancillaries stored in its holds, but the active ones seem to be organized into action groups of 20. The author does a good job of recreating what it would feel like to be a 20-bodied hyperconsciousness, jumping back and forth among all the tasks (guard, administrator, detective, etc.) this group is performing simultaneously, all of them with a constant awareness in the backs of their minds of being in orbit overhead. All ancillaries are heavily modified, each implanted with advanced communications and optic suites, forcefield generators, and other technical goodies. They have, while connected, access to all the processing power and judgment of a ship AI – they are the AI. This creates an interesting problem for the main character when she is left alone – she constantly compares herself to “what [she] was,” that is, compares her existence in one tiny meatbrain to her much more powerful existence as a linked and devastating machine of war.

One thing that makes ancillaries so compelling is their believability. Sure, it seems completely out there right now, but this is the far-future. Let’s think about progress in terms of mere decades and centuries. 1914, one hundred years ago, was the first time anyone successfully completed an indirect blood transfusion, meaning that before that, for a transfusion to work, the donor had to be strapped in the hospital bed next to the recipient. Over the past century, we have developed the ability to transplant hearts, kidneys, eyes, and other organs, and in March of this year, scientists reported that they could use a blood sample from any human to create stem cells. We went, in 100 years, from just barely being able to move blood from one person to another to being able to use blood cells to regenerate any type of damaged cell in the human body. The terrifying thing is, we’re getting faster – just think of where technology was even in 2004 versus now.

The most advanced piece of consumer communications technology available in 2004.

In February, a man received a prosthetic hand that gave a sense of touch. Right now, I have a friend pursuing a biomedical engineering Ph.D, and his main job in the lab is studying monkeys who are hooked up to mechanical arms which they control with their neuronal impulses. Right now, we have man-made hands that transmit directly to nerves and mechanical arms that monkeys can control with their minds. Where will we be in 100 years? 500? 2000? Now, there is the problem of AI, which, like expedient interstellar travel, is kind of a holy grail for science. Accepting AI, it becomes completely feasible that machines and humans could be linked, and that the machine could be programmed as the dominant partner in the relationship. The possibilities are terrifying.

This is a little bit scary to watch. How much damage could that arm do?

Another point of interest in the book is that Radch society makes no real distinction between genders. Every Radch character uses “she” as the third person singular, and this creates a sense of ambiguity that emulates the ambiguity of gender in the Radch itself. It is an interesting choice, and it requires you to form your own opinions about the gender of the characters, which, in Radch society, doesn’t really matter anyway.

There are some weak points in the book. First off, the characters are a little bit flat. They are not unforgivably thin, but they could be more fleshed-out and believable. One of the main characters goes from a disloyal waste of space to an effective and dedicated companion through the mediation of one key event, and the switch was too fast for plausibility. The main character is simple, which could be forgiven due to her being the amputated consciousness of a machine, but the other characters are even less complex. They are by no means inadequate, but by comparison, I’m reading Light in August right now, in which each character has about three pages describing their life story before they actually do anything. The plotting could also be tighter. The book rides on a well put-together mystery plot which drives the reader forward, but it drags in some places, gets lost in exposition or description here and there.

Up to this point, Ann Leckie has built her career on writing and editing short stories. This is her first novel, and it is a great one. In an article of around 1400 words, I dedicate just 158 to weak points in the book. There is a lot more good here than bad. It explores the concept of identity and loss through the ancillary and the contradictions and problems inherent in empire through the history of the Radch. There are some issues, but they tumble away insignificantly in the face of the gale-force imagination with which Leckie infuses her work.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: On Failing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren

 Dhalgren cover

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Dhalgren is a 1975 novel by Samuel R. Delany, arguably his most successful critically and most likely his most successful commercially, with over one million copies sold. It took me a while, even devouring SF like I do, to find Delany. This is a shame, as the man really knows his way around a sentence. He’s also fucking insane, or at least wrote a fucking insane novel. To give you an idea of the strangeness inherent in the book, one of the very first events is a guy (the main character) walking down a highway, seeing a naked woman running across a field, going to her, having sex with her, then later approaching her in a meadow as she metamorphoses into a tree. Freaked out by this, he sprints back out to the highway to hitch a ride and talks with a long-haul trucker about artichokes. The trucker drops him off at his destination, Bellona, and it does not get less strange.

A_lone_tree_at_Caulside_-_geograph.org.uk_-_947847

Yup.

Bellona is a midwestern U.S. city that has undergone a vague cataclysm. No one really understands what happened, but a lot of the city burned down, and a lot of people moved away. What’s left is an anarchic-in-the-bad-way-unless-you-are-kind-of-an-asshole type social structure where people are just trying to get by and don’t really understand the place in which they live, but are powerfully drawn to it. Weird things keep happening. Our amnesic protagonist, who ends up taking the name Kidd, sleeps on a rooftop a few blocks away from the river the first night, then wakes up and cannot see the river. He enters a building by one door and leaves by the same door, only it exits in a different place. The city is constantly encased in a roiling dome of ash, smoke, and cloud. The one time this really clears away, there are two moons in the sky. The place is just weird, and the evocation of this strangeness is what this novel does best: it is huge on atmosphere. Reading it, you are as wandering and confused as the main character. The grimness and foreboding of the place flows underneath every word, like dark water through the sewers underneath a city. Also, strangeness never stops.

Chicago_in_Ruins_after_the_Fire_of_1871,_New_York_Times

Bellona is kind of like this, with less sunlight.

Our fearless protagonist finds a notebook in the city, one in which all the right-hand pages are filled in as someone’s journal. Paper is at a premium, so he uses the left-hand pages to write poems as he moves through the city, but he also glances at what has been written, and these pages sometimes reveal a written version of thoughts Kidd has already had. For example, one of the narrator’s thoughts (assumed to be the internal thoughts of Kidd, but who knows) is him reflecting upon his amnesia:

It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.

First off, look at that writing. Secondly, when he starts reading the journal, he finds this written in it:

It is not that I have no future. Rather it continually fragments on the insubstantial and indistinct ephemera of now.

He is amnesic, so he knows even less than the reader if he is the original writer of the journal, and other than tenuous speculation, there is nothing to indicate a final answer. This novel builds mystery and leaves it there, strong and swirling in mist. William Gibson referred to the novel as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Good, because I am nowhere close. (While we’re talking about SF author reactions to Dhalgren, Philip K. Dick called it trash, and Harlan Ellison threw it across the room, never to return, at page 361. I am on page 349. Because it is so weird, it is very divisive in the community – some think it is incomprehensible pap, others think it is the best thing science fiction has ever done).

While we’re quoting, below is the first dozen or so lines of the book, to give you an idea if the style is something that appeals to you or not:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

So, I quit. Well, not really. This book is too much of a landmark, and there is way too much exciting stuff going on in it for me never to finish. It is really good, I just need some time. In the words of Led Zeppelin, “I can’t quit you babe, so I’m gonna put you down for a while.”

There’s a reason 73% of American high-school males go through a Led Zeppelin phase. Led Zeppelin is fucking great.

The problem is not that it’s a bad book. It is amazing. The problem is, it’s fudge. Fudge is good. Fudge is an impressive and rewarding concoction. Eating fudge is better than eating, say, a ham sandwich. But if you eat nothing but fudge, it becomes hard to chew, sensorially overwhelming, and the culprit behind severe digestive problems. I need to eat a few ham sandwiches before returning to my 879-page platter of fudge. Delany crafted a highly experimental novel with a lot of innovative features, but digestibility was not one of his goals.

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The worst/best dinner you’ll ever have.

Quitting a book is the sovereign right of any reader. As I get older, I do it more and more. As a youth, it always seemed like it was my failure if I put down a book. This attitude had me finishing a lot of really terrible, highly acclaimed stuff. Now, it’s clearer that it is more the author’s failure than mine. If the author is not delivering, you owe them nothing, and buckling to the social pressure of what a “good” book is and reading it even when you don’t like it gives you misery you don’t need and wastes time you don’t have. I love reading the Big Books, the ones in The Canon, and it’s fine to have social opinion be one of the determining factors of whether you finish a book, but it cannot serve as the sole support of a bad book (Obligatory: The Corrections was super terrible. “I am a well-educated, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, my life is so hard, won’t you follow me as I explain my psychological hangups? Also, I’m a giant asshole and made all my problems for myself.”). So my hatred of The Corrections is sloshing over the rim of parenthetical address. In it, the main character’s life is messed up because, as a tenure-track professor, he had sex with one of his students and got fired. He broke the rules and regulations of his workplace and got canned. He’s super bitter about it, but what the hell did he expect? Can you imagine reading Crime and Punishment if, instead of going through the psychological anguish of nihilism versus meaning, despair versus hope, and anxiety versus acceptance, all Raskolnikov did was bitch about how that dumb old lady he murdered ruined his life and how unfair it all was? That’s The Corrections.

Okay, back on track. Yes, I am taking a break, but Dhalgren is amazing. Hopefully, I will read the remaining 530 pages, and there will be a companion piece up here in a few months titled “On Finishing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren,” but there doesn’t have to be. Read good books, don’t read bad ones, regardless of the opinions of others. When people read books based solely on reputation, bad writers profit and good readers suffer.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Alternate histories are a strong subgenre within SF. They have been around forever. If you really want to stretch it, technically Livy wrote a hypothetical consideration of what would have happened if Alexander the Great had moved West towards Rome instead of conquering the East. He says Rome would have won, but I mean, his name was Titus Livius Patavinus, so. In 1490, the chivalric novel Tirant lo Blanch postulated a history in which the Turks never took Constantinople. 1953’s Bring the Jubilee told a story in which the Confederacy won the Civil War. There is an absurd amount of alt-history books out there, but few are as famous as The Man in the High Castle.

This type of fiction starts out by finding a historical pressure point one, two, ten decades ago, flipping what happened, then exploring the ramifications of the strange new world thus created. Here, the pressure point is Giussepe Zangara’s attempt to assassinate President-elect FDR. In The Man in the High Castle, he is successful. His VP takes over, does a bad job, and is replaced by a Republican president who fails to surmount the Great Depression and maintains the USA’s isolationist policies. The end result of all this is that Russia is conquered in ’41, England cannot stand alone against Germany and falls, and then the complete destruction of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor makes America easy pickings. At the start of the novel, Germany controls the east of the United States, Japan controls the west, and the mountain and southwestern states form an autonomous American buffer zone between the two.

Touching a pressure point in history, like touching a pressure point in the body, sets off reactions far from the initial point of contact. The Nazis, their ideology unchecked by defeat, continue in their insane belief in a master race. This obscene self-confidence coupled with German technological prowess leads to the colonization of other planets. It also leads to Nazis hunting Jewish people all over the world and shipping them back to Berlin, and Nazi scientists spearheading a vaguely-referenced experiment in Africa that leads to the extermination of most of its populace. Again – the center of SF is extrapolation, and PKD extrapolates the Nazi dynamic of world-changing scientific progress built on human misery and their inhumanity to their fellow man. Same pattern, wider oscillation. As a brief aside on German technological prowess, NASA probably would not be what it is today without Wernher von Braun, who created the rocket booster system that put Neil and Buzz on the moon. He did the same kind of rocketry work for the Nazis, only it was weaponized as the V-2 rocket. Von Braun has always maintained he just wanted to work on rockets and had to join the Nazis to do so, and is reported as saying, upon hearing the news of the first successful V-2 bombing of London, “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” This self-serving attitude and the avoidance of responsibility by wrapping himself in idealism (these rockets were built with slave labor) is beautifully satirized by Mort Sahl, the first modern stand-up comedian. The following joke is pretty much the whole reason for this aside, as it is one of the best I’ve ever heard: “I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London.”

Out west, the Japanese are comparatively benevolent colonizers. Throughout the Pacific states, the Japanese run things, but tend to be more lenient than their Nazi counterparts. Western Americans absorb much of the culture of their colonizers, including using the I Ching and adapting to Japanese systems of social advancement and behavior.

The first major plot concerns an intrigue between German and Japanese representatives to one-up each other. The Germans want to be the sole superpower in the world, and are covertly maneuvering against Japan. The Japanese are covertly maneuvering against Germany to defend themselves. The second major plot thread is that an author who lives in a fortress in the Rocky Mountain States (the High Castle) has written a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which is a piece of alternate history fiction that explores what might have happened if America had entered the war and the Nazis had been crushed. This book is very popular underground, and a couple of the characters decide to take a road trip to meet the man behind it.

Speaking of characters, most of these are cardboard-flat. In many of his books, PKD puts just enough in his characters to make them move around realistically, then lets them go. I still can’t decide if this means PKD is a master of simplicity, or if characterization is just not his strong suit.

There is a reason this is arguably PKD’s most acclaimed book. Sure, the characters might be stick figures, but the world they move around in is unsettlingly plausible and well-built. Americans grow up with “we are the greatest/we’re number one” hammered into their heads. Our President is regularly referred to (by us, anyway) as the leader of the free world. Even if you take Eddie Izzard’s joke about there being a lot of countries, none of whose mottos are “We’re #2!”, to heart, the USA still has an unparalleled level of power and influence in the modern world. Therefore, reading a book in which America is weak, colonized, subjugated by and dependent upon foreign powers creates a deeply personal sense of horror in the American psyche. The adeptness with which PKD constructs and directs this sense of horror makes this book well worth your time.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

The title of this article is Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, but the book is actually the work of 32 different authors. Harlan Ellison serves as both contributor and editor. At the time, and in many ways still now, this was a New and Important book. Ellison put out a call for new, experimental, push-the-boundaries-of-the-genre type fiction, fiction that, due either to editorial opinion or censorship, could not get published in the contemporary market. What he collected is 33 stories, most of which are very good, a third of which are truly impressive, and a handful of which are kinda crappy. It is the distillation of a lot of ideas floating about in the heads of new SF writers at the time. In the 60s environment of general rebellion, experimentation, and radicalization, many SF writers wanted to push the limits of the form, aspire to the quality of general literature, and break with the aliens-and-robots standards of the past. While the ideas behind the movement had been circulating for a few years, Harlan Ellison gave them all a place to roost.

Harlan himself is a very interesting character. He is an important, genre-influencing author, with short stories like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which you can read here, and which is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever found. He also spent a lot of time writing SF for television, and his “City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the most highly acclaimed Star Trek: TOS episodes ever. His accomplishments as an author have been slightly overshadowed by his accomplishments as an editor and SF personality, but that is only because he edited such an important anthology and he has such a unique personality. One word to describe that personality would be abrasive, and I probably don’t have to tell you any more than that he has a section in his Wikipedia article entitled “Controversies and disputes,” and that it takes up nearly half his entry, for you to get an idea of just how abrasive. This is the man behind one of the most important science fiction books ever written.

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Harlan Ellison in the 80s. Possibly my favorite picture on Wikipedia. Why is there a pipe?

So what’s so great about this book he put together? It largely lives up to its ambitions, presenting stories that are highly experimental, that break social taboos, and that aspire to literary quality. “Evensong” explores a future where God is on the run from his chosen people, who have transcended his guidance, which would be controversial if published today, 47 years on. Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” is a horrifying portrait of a time when the incarcerated are cut into bits for their organs and body parts, thus conferring immortality on the unimprisoned. Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of our Fathers” explores a totalitarian world where the protagonist is dosed with anti-hallucinogens, and when he looks at the benevolent leader when sober, it isn’t human. In “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” God shows up with his angels, all raring to blow their horns and start the Apocalypse, but all they see is dust and ashes. The angel responsible for turning the seas to blood can’t find the seas. Eventually, they find inscribed on the wall of a bunker, “We were here. Where were You?” In the amazingly named “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” the happiest and most productive planet in the galaxy is so healthy because it actively practices incest, which, even as a thought experiment, is highly uncomfortable to read. I could keep on listing and describing the great stories in this book. I made a list of about twelve of them, but it would be better for you to just read it for yourself.

As groundbreaking as this book is, it is not without problems. It is open-minded about sex, taboo, and stylistic experimentation, but it strongly maintains some taboos while transgressing others. One example of this is when, in a story about gambling, the protagonist Joe finds himself playing craps with someone sinister. Fine, games of chance against the devil that don’t go so well for the other player are ingrained in our storytelling tradition. The problem is, when Joe starts getting worried about it, he “[finds] himself wondering if he’d got into a game with a [racial slur], maybe a witchcraft-drenched Voodoo man whose white make-up was wearing off.” What? In addition to the slur being a problem, the author decided to use blackness as shorthand for the hidden, threatening Other. Before, it was a game between compatriots, and as it turns sinister, the main character wonders if maybe he’s not playing against someone of his own race. That’s fucked up. Another example of backwards thinking is in a story called “Ersatz,” which is a pretty standard future-war post-atomic apocalypse story. A soldier finds his way to a care station and starts eating and drinking a bunch of ersatz stuff, because with the world basically over, they can’t get the real thing. He eats a steak made of bark, smokes tobacco made of not tobacco. The post-apocalyptic world is not a nice place, and so far this story is pretty standard. The ending of the story is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read. It turns out that, in addition to the other ersatz comforts, the woman that works at the care station and who had attracted the attention of the soldier (there were descriptions of curves) turns out to be wearing a wig and a stuffed bra, and surprise, she wasn’t born a woman. The reason this is the stupidest ending I’ve ever read is that the soldier’s response to this is hitting Eleanora (that’s her name) and running back out into the wasteland, without armor or weapons, to certain death. First off, really? A hardened soldier is so terrified of a penis that he runs in terror to certain death? Secondly, this is a really disgusting portrayal of trans women. This is a story about how everything humanity used to enjoy is fake. The big reveal was supposed to be, oh no! even sexytimes with women are now fake! What it really communicates is the author’s ignorance, and what it states is that trans women are fake women, which is actively reactionary, not ground-breaking. Let me quote part of the ending for you: “He struck the creature with all the strength in his fist, and it fell to the floor, weeping bitterly, its skirt hoisted high on the muscular, hairy legs.” So if you are surprised by a trans woman, who is a fake woman, the correct response is physical violence towards “the creature.” That is the moral of this disgusting little polyp of a story.

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A nice picture of a sea polyp, as you probably don’t want to see a picture of the type of polyp I have in mind.

The editor of this anthology also has problematic attitudes towards homosexuality. In one introduction to a story, he communicates that families with weak fathers often end up raising homosexual children. In another intro, he discusses the old aphorism that you should never meet the person behind the art you love, which, yes, but one of the examples he uses is “the writer of swashbuckling adventures [turns out to be] a pathetic little homosexual who still lives with his invalid mother.” What? Is Ellison implying that he is pathetic because he is gay? Is there something wrong with living with and caring for your sick mom? It’s just weird, and it’s an indication that, however progressive they were then (Ellison participated in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery), you knock one piece of backwards, reactionary thought garbage down, and there’s more bullshit to take its place. There’s also a story, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” wherein a man’s girlfriend says yes, let’s have unprotected sex to have a baby. She changes her mind afterwards and goes to her bathroom to use spermicide. This future contraceptive method is a bottle of some sort that you can insert into the relevant orifice, push the relevant button, and spray the relevant area with spermicide. Since this is the future, one bottle is good for 40,000 sprays. The boyfriend (the fucking protagonist) becomes so enraged at this that he superglues the contraceptive bottle inside of his girlfriend and makes the button stuck, thus continuously and painfully injecting spermicide into her. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be comical or what, but it comes off as horrifying. Hi, you don’t want to do with your body what I want you to do with your body, I will therefore practice violence upon you and cause you great and humiliating physical harm.

Aside from the repugnant stance on some social issues, some of the stories are just not that great. There’s one that is told from the POV of a three-year-old as he thinks about how square his parents are. There’s another, “The Man Who Went to the Moon Twice,” wherein a kid in a small town lies about going to the moon and becomes a local sensation because everyone is too bored to check facts, and then he does it again as an old man because he is sad that no one cares about him (big twist: it’s noteworthy that he’s been to the moon as an old man because at that time, Mars is the main colony). The whole story is just really boring and saccharine. Also, one of the most celebrated stories in the anthology, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” of violence-against-women fame, gets credit all the time for being “Joycean.” Man, there are about two pages at the beginning of this story that are lyrically inventive and that require some exertion to figure out, and then it falls back into pretty standard narrative technique. Ulysses is “Joycean” because it is inexhaustibly inventive, and nearly every single chapter showcases a new, different, and innovative style. This guy writes confusingly for two pages and gets credited as “Joycean?” No.

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This man’s work was Joycean. Not sure anyone else’s ever was.

This book is rife with problems. Let me restate that. This book is not rife with problems, but whenever a problem rears its head, it’s a huge one. As a book that purports to be on the cutting-edge of social advancement and fearless in its striking down of taboos, the reactionary attitudes of some of these authors towards many aspects of social justice are highly incongruous. It might have been impressively open-minded for 1967, but not so much for 2014. You should still read it, though. One reason is that it is a monolith in the field of SF’s past and helped set the stylistic tone for a generation of writers. Another is that, as truly repugnant as some of these stories are, the grand majority of them are not, and the anthologized nature of it means that even if Henry Slesar writes like an asshole, you can still enjoy the weird, mind-bending visions of Lester del Rey or Philip K. Dick contained in the same book. In addition, it is important to read and understand even the repugnant stories, as their presence in a book lauded as taboo-breaking in the 1960s underline the nature of social progress – there is no finish line, and we must always move forward.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article mentioned that Philip K. Dick took a lot of LSD and wrote solely genre fiction. They’re both only partially true, and the article has been updated as a result.

Philip K. Dick is the ultimate psychedelic writer. His explorations of the mutability of reality and the fragility of the human psyche are vivid, incisive, and hallucinogenic. Roberto Bolaño described him as “a kind of Kafka steeped in LSD and rage.” However much altered states influenced his writing, PKD did not actually do that much LSD – it gave him unpleasant experiences. Yup, he was just your run-of-the-mill, square, SoCal writer, ingesting massive quantities of amphetamines as he wrote feverishly, and as he wrote this book, he hadn’t even tried LSD for the first time. As I explain the concept of this book, it is very important to remember that Dick had not yet ingested lysergic acid. He was this crazy beforehand. I’m assuming every single novel PKD ever wrote deals with the nature of reality, its uncertainty and unknowability. I can definitely declare that each one I’ve read by him has always had someone losing their goddamn mind. In this 1965 novel, Dick explores the ramifications of self-medication when the medicine you use is powerful enough to make the universe drunk.

This book starts out in the far future, with many of the trappings of futuristic societies. Due to climate change, it is now too hot to be safely outside, and people have to wear special AC suits to prevent combusting while walking to work. The rich and powerful of the world vacation in Antarctica, which is nice and balmy. Most of the moons and planets of the solar system are colonized, but not happily. The UN runs the world, and in order to preserve humanity from the crumbling, condemned planet Earth, they instituted a draft for emigration. A certain percentage of Earthlings have to be induced to go to space colonies. They have to be induced because colonization sucks. On Mars, there’s nothing to do but tend your dying farm and hang out in your subterranean bunker. Well, that and taking powerful psychoactive drugs. Most of the action of the novel centers around the use of Can-D, a “translation” drug. Can-D is useless without Perky Pat Layouts, a company that makes miniature versions of all the stuff that can be found on Earth (this company also illicitly manufactures the drug). Think Polly Pocket, but extremely realistic.

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Your new backyard, colonist!

It is so realistic because Can-D “translates” its users into the world of the layout. Therefore, if you take Can-D, some type of fungal hallucinogen, while sitting in front of a layout with a beach and a convertible, you get to spend a set amount of time living the life of either Pat, the woman, or Walt, her boyfriend, as they enjoy a seaside holiday. For some reason, the hallucination is dependent upon the layout – if you want to take a beach vacation, you better buy miniaturized beach towels and sun umbrellas. A feature that further complicates this already strange experience is that there are only two possible surrogates for the drug-user’s consciousness: either mini-Pat or mini-Walt. Women become Pat, and men become Walt. This means that if three male/female couples trip together in front of the same layout, all three women will be in Pat, and all three men will be in Walt, directing each as one member of a group conscious. Supremely weird, but honestly, if you were exiled to a barren sandscape where, if you’re lucky and terraforming is advanced enough, you might be able to go outside, wouldn’t you indulge in powerful psychotropics? Everyone in this book does, and that is the most plausible part of it – the human reaction to complete loss and mental stultification is to take stimulation wherever it can be found.

The conflict in the book starts when Palmer Eldritch, a kind of insane, spacefaring Richard Branson, returns from a ten-year voyage to Proxima Centauri with another fungus – Chew-Z. He begins marketing it immediately, and the Perky Pat people react with professional terror, because Chew-Z is a reality-altering drug that requires no layout, which means it is perfectly poised to put them out of business. Chew-Z is similar to Can-D in that it creates an alternate mode of existence for whoever takes it. However, it is much more powerful than Can-D. It can translate you into whichever existence you most want to be in – it is chewable wish-fulfillment. The problem is that, whatever new universe you make for yourself, Palmer Eldritch is there, and he exerts some type of control over your personal reality. If that sounds creepy, wait till you hear what his stigmata are: giant metal teeth, robotic eyes, and a metal arm. These are the three indicating marks you see on the people in your hallucination if Eldritch is taking control of them. Worst. Trip. Ever.

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If I could hallucinate my very own universe, it would be the one in which the Nic Cage Superman movie happened.

A lot of the framework of this novel is pretty generic SF – spaceships that move fast and zip between planets, strange genetic therapies, and space colonization, but the social analysis and the ontological questions raised by drug use in this book make it interesting. First off, it is absolutely believable that the disaffected and depressed legions of press-ganged colonists would escape their bleak existence through whatever means necessary. The implications of their method of escape is also terrifying – if this creates a vivid surrogate reality, how do you tell when the high is over? Do you ever get out? Is this reality any less real than the one you experienced pre-dosing? Does it matter if it is or isn’t? These questions are hammered home again and again, and their lack of resolution strengthens the sense of loss and uncertainty and creepiness that permeate the book.

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I love this man.

Philip K. Dick is fast carving out a very special place in my brain. I went on an expedition through his work after rewatching Blade Runner a couple of weeks ago. I have moved through three of his novels in the past couple of weeks, and each one is extraordinary. He went through a lot of his life very poor because, despite his prodigious output, he had trouble making money because critics relegated him to the genre fiction backwater. His catalog is overwhelmingly genre fiction, undoubtedly and unapologetically. What is important though is that this man always, always swung for the fences. It’s like he couldn’t help it. The characters might be lopsided, the plot might have pacing issues, and the setting might be overly lurid or unbalanced, but every one of his novels ends with you questioning existence, reality, and your conception of yourself. I have been a committed atheist for half my life, and one of his books had me (briefly) seriously considering the benefits of Gnostic Christianity. His writing is that powerful – while other books might explore what the problem is, his has you worrying over what “what” even signifies. I will take a sloppy book that asks what existence is any day over a perfectly-balanced artifact of a book that explores the problems of one neurotic family whose daddy didn’t give out enough love (I will never stop hating you, The Corrections).

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Images: Lit Reactor and IGN

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

This one is a bit of a stretch. There are no spaceships, no wars over nascent technology, no deadly viruses, and no door-opening dinosaurs. There are a whole bunch of drunks, smog, and Oldsmobile convertibles. Yessir, this book takes place in 1950s L.A., the world of doctor-endorsed cigarettes, movie stars, mansions, and extensive highway systems. It still fits here because this book and almost everything after it owes its existence to the pulps, a medium that infused SF with the life it needed to become the powerhouse it is today, where it seems half of all new TV shows and movies have at least some type of speculative element.

Pulps were magazines published on cheap, rough-looking wood pulp paper. They were about half the price of the more prestigious magazines, and they published detective stories, horror fiction, adventure fiction, and science fiction. It was something cheap to read on the train and then throw away. A lot of writers who went on to publish their own novels ate on the checks they won from these magazines. Raymond Chandler wrote for Black Mask, which specialized in mysteries. Chandler has a weird story, as far as writing goes. He was a top oil executive pre-Depression, but lost his job and decided to try his hand at writing. His first short story was accepted at 45, his first novel published at 51. It is an impressively late start for someone who created such an enduring legacy in American fiction. He took what James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett started and forged it into one of the most recognizable subgenres out there: the hard-boiled detective story. Their protagonists are hard-fighting, hard-drinking men with a cynical outlook on life and a questionable relationship with the rest of the human race. Their style is one of spare, densely descriptive prose. The atmosphere of the books (at least The Long Goodbye) is more oppressive and fully-built than most other novels – this type of fiction lives on style. A lot of that style is created by the cynical, fast-talking wisecracking of the main character, Philip Marlowe. Basically, Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart together created the American cultural memory of how men spoke in the 40s and 50s. In fact, Bogart delivered the defining film interpretation of Philip Marlowe in the movie version of Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep.

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If you have not seen Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart acting together, you do not know what American cinema is.

The words and delivery of the main character form so much of the atmosphere of this book that the analysis of the few choice quotes that follow is necessary for an understanding of the book.

I. Intro

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

This is the first paragraph of the novel. It introduces the principal mystery-driving character of a mystery story, so it is pretty important. This uses really simple language to convey a lot of information. First, the description of the character: young face, white hair, drunk as hell. A lot of descriptions work this way – Marlowe’s inner monologue always gives details about every new person in the story, and it is always a handful of key details that then leave you with more than enough to construct a full character. Hard-boiled detective fiction is the spiritual successor of of Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing. Also, the stylistic flourishes like “as if he had forgotten he had one” and “plastered to the hairline” are beautiful examples of Bogart talk, which, again, Chandler played a key role in inventing.

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The Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. There’s a line in the book saying that this is more attractive than women, so… different times, I guess?

II. Bogart Talk (BT henceforward)

These quotations are collected from all over the book, and the BT is strong in all of them.

And the next time I saw a polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, I would depart rapidly in several directions. There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

Notice the information-dense recall of Terry Lennox (who has since caused Marlowe a heap of trouble): the “polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith,” followed by the darkly, impossibly humorous “depart rapidly in several directions,” capped off by the cynical and truthful commentary: “there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”

They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs.

This second quotation is less complex, but still a great distillation of BT. Cynical, removed, semi-humorous view of the world tinged by disgust at what is being observed, summed up by a weird simile. The jarring quality of the strange simile stretches it almost to tearing, but it doesn’t tear, and the result is stronger than a more measured comparison would be.

The fellow who decorated that room was not a man to let colors scare him.

Not much to say here, just perfect dismissiveness and darkly humorous cynicism

I kissed her some more. It was light, pleasant work.

Again, cynicism and humorous dismissal, the humor arising in large part from the extent of the dismissiveness. Sure, Marlowe’s pretty excited, he’s kissing a beautiful woman, but all he reports is the hilariously understated “It was light, pleasant work.”

III. Social Commentary

Sheriff Petersen just went right on getting re-elected, a living testimonial to the fact that you can hold an important public office forever in our country with no qualifications for it but a clean nose, a photogenic face, and a closed mouth. If on top of that you look good on a horse, you are unbeatable.

So, The Long Goodbye gets a lot of credit for being a vehicle for social commentary. Here is just the barest snippet, a beautiful dismemberment of the political process. Winning elections is all, all appearance, and no content. If you think Chandler or Marlowe is excessively cynical, just know that handsomeness has had a ridiculous influence on election results ever since Nixon and Kennedy. As a more recent example, I voted for Obama both times (it’s turned out kind of meh, but his stated platform was not explicitly evil, so). I remember being a lot more worried about Romney v. Obama than I was about McCain v. Obama. What created this dynamic? Obama is energetic and attractive, and McCain came off as an angry, wrinkled old man. Romney, on the other hand, was in roughly the same spot as Obama on the attractiveness spectrum. Policies aside, the man’s face is so chiselled it looks like he is currently on Mt. Rushmore. He ended up losing, but especially after that first debate, I was concerned he wouldn’t. Against an incumbent president. Because he was so pretty. Chandler knew and dismantled this failing of the American political system more than half a century ago, and it is only one of the smallest pieces of social commentary he weaves into this book.

President_and_Mrs._Reagan_pose_in_the_Blue_Room_for_their_official_portrait_1981

Walter Mondale didn’t stand a fucking chance.

IV. Philip Marlowe is a badass

A basic requirement of a hard-boiled protagonist is that he know his way with his gun, with his fists, with a chair, or with whatever blunt objects happen to be within reach. The assumed badassery of the character is key. That being said, Marlowe is not some two-bit punk. He does actually try to avoid violence as much as possible, and he shows quite a bit of sentimentality whenever events break through his wisecracking exterior. Anyway, observe:

I started to get up. I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner. I sat down hard and shook my head.

So, this is describing when Marlowe was being questioned by police and made one angry on purpose to get him to hit him so he could gauge his threat level. The data gathered from this experiment indicated that this cop was more a boxer than a fighter, and that Marlowe would be able to take him to pieces if he hit him again. First off, inciting a punch to the face as a fact-finding mission is amazing. Secondly, the BT involved in “Bells rang, but not for dinner” to indicate that it was a hard hit, but only hard enough to make him shake his head, is a perfect incarnation of the form.

You’re a piker, Marlowe. You’re a peanut grifter. You’re so little it takes a magnifying glass to see you. I didn’t say anything at all.

Marlowe is being directly insulted here, but is cool and collected enough to take no offense, let the man keep talking, and say nothing at all. A key feature of the hard-boiled hero is self-control and a certain superiority to emotion-driven idiots. He controls his emotions. Until the man is done talking, that is.  At the end of the conversation, this guy who has been flaunting his wealth and calling Marlowe a nobody left his valuable cigarette case behind. Marlowe moves to return it, and then:

“I got a half dozen of them,” [the rich asshole] sneered.

When I was near enough to him I held it out. His hand reached for it casually. “How about half a dozen of these?” I asked him and hit him as hard as I could in the middle of his belly.

A lot happened here. Saying nothing, taking it with equanimity at first. After the exchange has taken place, being taken over the edge by a final snide comment. Then, Marlowe accomplishes two things: flooring a man who has been shitting all over him and inserting a wonderful piece of BT as he does it, “How about a half a dozen of these?” Someone has been served here, and it ain’t Marlowe.

litreactor-marlowe

I don’t always smoke, but when I do, it’s after watching a Humphrey Bogart movie.

Chandler has been called a hack by some and a thief by others (he has a lot in common with earlier crime writer Dashiell Hammett). Those calling him a hack are hacks themselves, and those calling him a thief should realize that he did not steal a style, he polished and perfected it. He gave to American crime fiction a literary element it didn’t quite have before. His densely-packed, evocative prose created a legion of admirers, from Paul Auster to Joyce Carol Oates. Again, he almost single-handedly invented an entire style of dialogue.

The overarching plot of the book is a little crazy. Marlowe happens to meet a drunk at a club and finds out he has a beautiful wife. About ten pages later, the beautiful wife is dead and the drunk is at Marlowe’s house with a gun asking for a ride to Mexico. The drunk is a bit nervous, so Marlowe pours him a big shot of Old Grand-Dad (which I have been drinking steadily while writing this article). He takes him out of the country, returns, and spends the rest of the book navigating a world of shit as he attempts to find out what happened. By the denouement, there are so many twists and turns and moving parts that the whole thing almost comes crashing down. Almost. That being said, I hit the last 200 pages of this book and could not stop, meaning that I read until five a.m. and went in to work on just under three hours of sleep. Sometimes crazy is good. In addition, the solid, vivid atmosphere put together by Chandler alongside the snappy dialogue means that if it had been a story about the night shift at Pizza Hut, I still would have read it.

American crime fiction started its life in the literary backwater of pulp fiction, and a lot like SF, has since migrated into the mainstream. Raymond Chandler’s cynical style, sparse prose, and satisfying plotting laid a lot of the groundwork for that. He considered The Long Goodbye his greatest work, and you should too. Read it right now.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Images: IMDB, Amazon, and Litreactor

Book Review: Oryx and Crake/The Year of the Flood/MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Trilogy

Awtood trilogy

Jonathan May

I read Oryx and Crake when it came out in 2003, certainly never anticipating two follow-up novels. I was given the next two books as gifts over the years as they came out, but would set them gently next to the first, like glass miniatures on a shelf. Facebook was blowing up recently with news of Darren Aronofsky adapting the three books into an HBO miniseries, so I decided it was time. I read all three books over the course of a week and a half, finishing just fifteen minutes prior to the composition of this piece. As always, I aim for brevity when I write for this site, so pardon my simplifications.

Oryx and Crake is Atwood’s only novel featuring a male, first-person protagonist (named Snowman); the other two novels vacillate between voices, with the third in the series having the most variety of narrators. I mention this only because it seems obvious that we need Snowman to contrast with one of the more prominent narrators in the latter two, Toby, a female Gardener. The whole world of the novels is a future wherein biological manufacturing is the norm and companies serve as the main units of life, housing families in compounds. Eco-groups like God’s Gardeners rise in reaction to the companies and their lapse of morality, maintaining “older” ways of life (keeping bees, gardening, etc.) Since all this doesn’t seem far off at all, the novels maintain a sharp sense of realism, even in the more absurd parts. Being grounded in a future that seems not only plausible but also eventual tethers the novel firmly to the ground, imbuing it with a prescience that I love about Atwood. Her characters and plots always surprise me in how true to life they are. So when you have pigs that think like people and invented bacteria that dissolve people into goo, it’s nice to be able to believe in them.

It’s obvious that Atwood favors Toby as a narrator; she is so true to Atwood’s other narrators, women who see the world as a series of mutable paintings. The only time I cried during the course of the trilogy was when Toby had to tell the bees of the death of a fellow Gardener who had taken care of the hive. The addition of things like talking with the bees and the word smile coming from the Greek for scalpel are classic Atwood (thank you to my Dad for help with the Greek there [see picture below]); I learn more from her books than almost any other author (except Cormac McCarthy, whom I read with a dictionary on hand). Just so you know, lambent means glowing or radiant.

Oryx and Crake, smile, Greek lexicon

All together, the novels function quite beautifully, weaving in and out of the chronology, fashioning from the whole a triptych of corporate dominance, human desire, and the ability to play God. Atwood’s world, before and after the Apocalypse, is so eerily close to our own that I felt an immediate desire to plant a garden and learn how to take care of an apiary, lest the grid fail tomorrow. It’s weird, but the novels most closely resemble morality tales than anything else. In other words, I feel only improved after finishing them.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com