Monday, March 28, 2016

GOOD BEYOND HOPE

Franz Kafka:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

C.S. Lewis:

 Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realised. To them a review need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Saccharine Symphony

The new Disney cartoon "Bambi" is interesting because it's the first one that's been entirely unpleasant. The robust irrationality of the mouse comedies has been squelched completely by the syrup that has been gradually flowing over the Disney way. In an attempt to ape the trumped-up realism of flesh and blood movies, he has given up fantasy, which was pretty much the magic element. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck lived in a beautiful escape land, where they flew through the air, swam under water, died a thousand deaths and lived to see the end of each picture. These comedies were perfectly suited to a moving camera; held down by nothing human, they had terrific pace and action. It was a wonderful movie shambles.

But not "Bambi." The animals here behave just as Hollywood thinks we do, and behaving that way it's old stuff and boring because of it. Everything is straight-faced, with feet flat on the ground. The animals give birth, grow up, fall in love, get shot at and killed. Besides, it is moral, starched heavy. The hero is a deer named Bambi, whose mother is killed by the villain, Mr. Man, whose sweetheart is attacked by Mr. Man's dogs, whose terrestrial paradise is destroyed by Mr. Man's fire. There's no harm in Disney's being righteous, unless, as in this picture, the accent is on the cute and pretty rather than on the comedy invention which produced the righteous Donald. Only so much amusement can come from fairylike naivete, after that it's just one long squirm. Along the way "Bambi" has all the stereotyped mechanisms of the formula movie--the heavy side to the love triangle, the fight for the doe's ("Faline") affections, the wise old king deer whose place Bambi wins over in the closing shots.

In keeping with this new spirit, "Bambi" talks itself dizzy to the exclusion of movement and action. The animals are horribly equipped with human voices, not the neuter piping of Mickey or the incoherent gabbling of Donald, which were so perfectly right, but the cuddly or waspish voices of ladies and gentlemen. Like their counterparts in the regular movies, the animals here gather round and trade chitchat, very sweet, and it is grotesque. And there are songs everywhere, coming out of the mountains, from under the trees, flooding you with the most maudlin sounds a director ever let happen. Example: "Drip, Drip, Drop, Little April Shower."

The bogus art which has been creeping into the Disney pictures is really hammered at you in this one. Again, it is an affectation of reality, like a Maxfield Parrish painting. No more the flat house-paint colors of the early comedies, in which there were no half-tones or dull intensities, with every red the same hot, pure scarlet, every black like coal, and nothing flimsily grayed. The films are now doused in sweet sugary tints, flowery violets, fancy-pants pinks, and he'll waste ten minutes if he can end up with a gold-splashed sunset. Whereas the early color was fresh, simple and in the comedy spirit, this new development is a synthetic reveling in vulgarity. The worst effect of all this artiness is the preference now for cheap painting, the Vanishing American kind you buy in Kress's, in place of the movement which was the main thing before. No longer do the trees and flowers carry on like mad: they are there for pretty; and as the camera moves slowly over them and you drink up all this tinseled loveliness, there is the lone deer on the distant hilltop, a gold aura around him.

Mickey wouldn't be caught dead in this.

-Manny Farber
June 29, 1942

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Fantasy & Science Fiction

Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction 2014 Top 5

1) "A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide" by Sarah Pinsker
2) "In Her Eyes" by Seth Chambers
3) "The Museum of Error" by Oliver Buckram
4) "A Struggle Between Rivals Ends Surprisingly" by Oliver Buckram
5) "Feral Frolics" by Scott Baker

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Clarkesworld & Lightspeed

Clarkesworld 2014 Top 5

1) "The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye" by Matthew Kressel
2) "Passage of Earth" by Michael Swanwick
3) "The Clockwork Soldier" by Ken Liu
4) "The Cuckoo" by Sean Williams
5) "Cameron Rhyder's Legs" by Matthew Kressel

Lightspeed 2014 Top 5 

1) The Kaslo Chronicles by Matthew Hughes
"His Elbow, Unkissed"
"Phalloon the Illimitable"
"The Ba of Phalloon"
"A Hole in the World"
"Under the Scab"
"Enter Saunterance"
2) "The Herd" by Steve Hockensmith
3) "No Lonely Seafarer" by Sarah Pinsker
4) "Coma Kings" by Jessica Barber
5) "In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape" by Jeremiah Tolbert

Sunday, September 28, 2014

TAKEN OVER BY ANOTHER MIND

By setting myself the task of reincarnating someone, I was inspired by John Milton, who has a line in an essay he wrote where he says that books are not absolutely dead things but do contain the essence of the living intellect that bred them. In other words, that books are alive and that they've got the quintessence of the author inside them.

And I think that everyone who loves books has experienced the feeling of being taken over by another mind. And I suppose one of the things I wanted to do in the book was celebrate the act of reading, which is such a mysterious and not sufficiently remarked upon transaction between two consciousnesses, only one of which needs to be alive.

-Marcel Theroux, http://www.npr.org/2014/02/08/272661891/genre-bending-novel-uses-body-swap-as-a-metaphor-for-reading

Monday, September 1, 2014

UNREAL ESTATES

ALDISS: One thing that the three of us have in common is that we have all had stories published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, some of them pretty far-flung stories. I take it we would all agree that one of the attractions of SF is that it takes us to unknown places.

AMIS: Swift, if he were writing today, would have to take us out to the planets, wouldn’t he? Now that most of our terra incognita is--er, real estate.

ALDISS: There is a lot of the eighteenth-century equivalent of SF which is placed in Australia or similar unreal estates.

LEWIS: Exactly: Peter Wilkins and all that. By the way, is anyone ever going to do a translation of Kepler s Somnium?

AMIS: Groff Conklin told me he had read the book; I think it must exist in translation. But may we talk about the worlds you created? You chose the science fiction medium because you wanted to go to strange places? I remember with respectful and amused admiration your account of the space drive in Out of the Silent Planet. When Ransome and his friend get into the spaceship he says "How does this ship work?" and the man says "It operates by using some of the lesser known properties of--" what was it?

LEWIS: Solar radiation. Ransome was reporting words without a meaning to him, which is what a layman gets when he asks for a scientific explanation. Obviously it was vague, because I’m no scientist and not interested in the purely technical side of it.

ALDISS: It’s almost a quarter of a century since you wrote that first novel of the trilogy.

LEWIS: Have I been a prophet?

ALDISS: You have to a certain extent; at least, the idea of vessels propelled by solar radiation is back in favour again. Cordwainer Smith used it poetically, Blish tried to use it technically in The Star Dwellers.

LEWIS: In my case it was pure mumbo-jumbo, and perhaps meant primarily to convince me.

AMIS: Obviously when one deals with isolated planets or isolated islands one does this for a certain purpose. A setting in contemporary London or a London of the future couldn’t provide one with the same isolation and the heightening of consciousness it engenders.

LEWIS: The starting point of the second novel, Perelandra, was my mental picture of the floatng islands. The whole of the rest of my labours in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist. And then of course the story about an averted fall developed. This is because, as you know, having got your people to this exciting country, something must happen.

AMIS: That frequently taxes people very much.

ALDISS: But I am surprised that you put it this way round. I would have thought that you constructed Perelandra for the didactic purpose.

LEWIS: Yes, everyone thinks that. They are quite wrong.

AMIS: If I may say a word on Professor Lewis’s side, there was a didactic purpose of course; a lot of very interesting profound things were said, but--correct me if I’m wrong--I’d have thought a simple sense of wonder, extraordinary things going on, were the motive forces behind the creation.

LEWIS: Quite, but something has got to happen. The story of this averted fall came in very conveniently. Of course it wouldn’t have been that particular story if I wasn’t interested in those particular ideas on other grounds. But that isn’t what I started from. I’ve never started from a message or a moral, have you?

AMIS: No, never. You get interested in the situation.

LEWIS: The story itself should force its moral upon you. You find out what the moral is by writing the story.

AMIS: Exactly: I think that sort of thing is true of all kinds of fiction.

ALDISS: But a lot of science fiction has been written from the other point of view: those dreary sociological dramas that appear from time to time, started with a didactic purpose-- to make a preconceived point--and they’ve got no further.

LEWIS: I suppose Gulliver started from a straight point of view? Or did it really start because he wanted to write about a lot of big and little men?

AMIS: Possibly both, as Fielding’s parody of Richardson turned into Joseph Andrews. A lot of science fiction loses much of the impact it could have by saying "Well, here we are on Mars, we all know where we are, and we’re living in these pressure domes or whatever it is, and life is really very much like it is on earth, except there is a certain climatic difference .... " They accept other men's inventions rather than forge their own.

LEWIS: It’s only the first journey to a new planet that is of any interest to imaginative people.

AMIS: In your reading of science fiction have you ever come across a writer who’s done this properly?

LEWIS: Well, the one you probably disapprove of because he’s so very unscientific is David Lindsay, in Voyage to Arcturus. It’s a remarkable thing, because scientifically it’s nonsense, the style is appalling, and yet this ghastly vision comes through.

ALDISS: It didn’t come through to me.

AMIS: Nor me. Still ... Victor Gollancz told me a very interesting remark of Lindsay’s about Arcturus; he said, "I shall never appeal to a large public at all, but I think that as long as our civilisation lasts one person a year will read me." I respect that attitude.

LEWIS: Quite so. Modest and becoming. I also agree with something you said in a preface, I believe it was, that some science fiction really does deal with issues far more serious than those realistic fiction deals with; real problems about human destiny and so on. Do you remember that story about the man who meets a female monster landed from another planet with all its cubs hanging round it? It’s obviously starving, and he offers them thing after thing to eat; they immediately vomit it up, until one of the young fastens on him, begins sucking his blood, and immediately begins to revive. This female creature is utterly unhuman, horrible in form; there’s a long moment when it looks at the man--they’re in a lonely place--and then very sadly it packs up its young, and goes back into its spaceship and goes away. Well now, you could not have a more serious theme than that. What is a footling story about some pair of human lovers compared with that?

AMIS: On the debit side, you often have these marvellous large themes tackled by people who haven’t got the mental or moral or stylistic equipment to take them on. A reading of more recent SF shows that writers are getting more capable of tackling them. Have you read Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz? Have you any comments on that?

LEWIS: I thought it was pretty good. I only read it once; mind you, a book's no good to me until I’ve read it two or three times--I’m going to read it again. It was a major work, certainly.

AMIS: What did you think about its religious feeling?

LEWIS: It came across very well. There were bits of the actual writing which one could quarrel with, but on the whole it was well imagined and well executed.

AMIS: Have you seen James Blish’s novel A Case of Conscience? Would you agree that to write a religious novel that isn’t concerned with details of ecclesiastical practice and the numbing minutiae of history and so on, science fiction would be the natural outlet for this?

LEWIS: If you have a religion it must be cosmic; therefore it seems to me odd that this genre was so late in arriving.

ALDISS: It’s been around without attracting critical attention for a long time; the magazines themselves have been going since 1926, although in the beginning they appealed mainly to the technical side. As Kingsley says, people have come along who can write, as well as think up engineering ideas.

LEWIS: We ought to have said earlier that that’s quite a different species of science fiction, about which I say nothing at all; those who were really interested in the technical side of it. It’s obviously perfectly legitimate if it’s well done...

AMIS: The purely technical and the purely imaginative overlap, don’t they?

ALDISS: There are certainly the two streams, and they often overlap, for instance in Arthur Clarke’s writings. It can be a rich mixture. Then there’s the type of story that’s not theological, but it makes a moral point. An instance--it sounds like a Sheckley story--is the one about Earth being blasted by radioactivity. The survivors of the human race have gone away to another planet for about a thousand years; they come back to reclaim Earth and find it full of all sorts of gaudy armour-plated creatures, vegetation, etc. One of the party say, "We’ll clear this lot out, make it habitable for man again." But in the end the decision is ’Well, we made a mess of the place when it was ours, let’s get out and leave it to them." This story was written about ’49, when most people hadn’t starting thinking round the subject at all.

LEWIS: Yes, most of the earlier stories start from the opposite assumption that we, the human race, are in the right, and everything else is ogres; I may have done a little towards altering that, but the new point of view has come very much in. We’ve lost our confidence, so to speak.

AMIS: It’s all terribly self-critical and self-contemplatory nowadays.

LEWIS: This is surely an enormous gain--a humane gain, that people should be thinking that way.

AMIS: The prejudice of supposedly educated persons towards this type of fiction is fantastic. If you pick up a good science fiction magazine, the range of interests appealed to and I.Q.s employed is pretty amazing. It’s time more people caught on. We’ve been telling them about it for some while.

LEWIS: Quite true. The world of serious fiction is very narrow.

AMIS: Too narrow if you want to deal with a broad theme. For instance, Philip Wylie in The Disappearance wants to deal with the difference between men and women in a general way, in twentieth-century society, unencumbered by local and temporary considerations; his point, as I understand it, is that men and women, shorn of their social roles, are really very much the same. Science fiction, which can presuppose a major change in our environment, is the natural medium for discussing a subject of that kind. Look at the job of dissecting human nastiness carried out in Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

LEWIS: That can’t be science fiction.

AMIS: I would attack you on this. It starts off with a characteristic bit of SF situation: that World War III has begun, bombs dropped and all that...

LEWIS: Ah, well, you’re now taking the German view that any romance about the future is science fiction. I’m not sure that this is a useful classification.

AMIS: "Science fiction" is such a hopelessly vague label.

LEWIS: And of course a great deal of it isn’t science fiction. Really it’s only a negative criterion: anything which is not naturalistic, which is not about what we call the real world.

ALDISS: I think we oughtn’t to try to define it, because it’s a self-defining thing in a way. We know where we are. You’re right, though, about Lord of the Flies. The atmosphere is a science fiction atmosphere.

LEWIS: It was a very terrestrial island; the best island, almost, in fiction. Its actual sensuous effect on you is terrific.

ALDISS: Indeed. But it’s a laboratory case.

AMIS: The business of isolating certain human characteristics, to see how they would work out...

LEWIS: The only trouble is that Golding writes so well. In one of his other novels, The Inheritors, the detail of every sensuous impression, the light on the leaves and so on, was so good that you couldn’t find out what was happening. I’d say it was almost too well done. All these little details you only notice in real life if you’ve got a high temperature. You couldn’t see the wood for the leaves.

ALDISS: You had this in Pincher Martin; every feeling in the rocks, when he’s washed ashore, is done with a hallucinatory vividness.

AMIS: It is, that’s exactly the phrase. I think thirty years ago if you wanted to discuss a general theme you would go to the historical novel; now you would go to what I might describe in a prejudiced way as science fiction. In science fiction you can isolate the factors you want to examine. If you wanted to deal with the theme of colonialism, for instance, as Poul Anderson has done, you don’t do it by writing a novel about Ghana or Pakistan...

ALDISS: Which involves you in such a mass of detail that you don’t want to go into...

AMIS: You set up worlds in space which incorporate the characteristics you need.

LEWIS: Would you describe Abbot’s Flatland as science fiction? There’s so little effort to bring it into any sensuous--well, you couldn’t do it, and it remains an intellectual theorem .... But probably the great work in science fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

AMIS: We’re getting the prolegomena.

LEWIS: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously ...

AMIS: Do you think they ever can?

LEWIS: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

ALDISS: Splendid!

AMIS: What’s holding them up, do you think?

LEWIS: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics. All literature becomes a sacred text. A sacred text is always exposed to the most monstrous exegesis; hence we have the spectacle of some wretched scholar taking a pure divertissement written in the seventeenth century and getting the most profound ambiguities and social criticisms out of it, which of course aren’t there at all .... It’s the discovery of the mare’s nest by the pursuit of the red herring. (Laughter.) This is going to go on long after my lifetime. You may be able to see the end of it, I shan’t.

AMIS: You think this is so integral a part of the Establishment that people can’t overcome--

LEWIS: It’s an industry, you see. What would all the people be writing D.Phil theses on if this prop were removed?

AMIS: An instance of this mentality the other day: somebody referred to "Mr. Amis’s I suspect rather affected enthusiasm for science fiction .... "

LEWIS: Isn’t that maddening!

AMIS: You can’t really like it.

LEWIS: You must be pretending to be a plain man or something ... I’ve met the attitude again and again. You’ve probably reached the stage too of having theses written on yourself. I received a letter from an American examiner asking "Is it true that you meant this and this and this?" A writer of a thesis was attributing to me views which I have explicitly contradicted in the plainest possible English. They’d be much wiser to write about the dead, who can’t answer.

ALDISS: In America, I think science fiction is accepted on a more responsible level.

AMIS: I’m not so sure about that, because when Spectrum I came out in the States we had less friendly and less understanding treatment from "serious" reviewers than we did over here.

LEWIS: I’m surprised at that, because in general all American reviewing is more friendly and generous than in England.

AMIS: People were patting themselves on the back for not understanding what we meant.

LEWIS: This extraordinary pride in being exempt from temptation that you have not yet risen to the level of! Eunuchs boasting of their chastity! (Laughter.)

AMIS: One of my pet theories is that serious writers as yet unborn or still at school will soon regard science fiction as a natural way of writing.

LEWIS: By the way, has any science fiction writer yet succeeded in inventing a third sex? Apart from the third sex we all know.

AMIS: Clifford Simak invented a set-up where there were seven sexes.

LEWIS: How rare happy marriages must have been then!

ALDISS: Rather worth striving for perhaps.

LEWIS: Obviously when achieved they'd be wonderful. (Laughter.)

ALDISS: I find I would much rather write science fiction than anything else. The dead weight is so much less there than in the field of the ordinary novel. There’s a sense in which you’re conquering a fresh country.

AMIS: Speaking as a supposedly realistic novelist, I’ve written little bits of science fiction and this is such a tremendous liberation.

LEWIS: Well, you’re a very ill-used man; you wrote a farce and everyone thought it a damning indictment of Redbrick. I’ve always had great sympathy for you. They will not understand that a joke is a joke. Everything must be serious.

AMIS (quoting): "A fever chart of society."

LEWIS: One thing in science fiction that weighs against us very heavily is the horrible shadow of the comics.

ALDISS: I don’t know about that. Titbits Romantic Library doesn’t really weigh against the serious writer.

LEWIS: That’s a fair analogy. All the novelettes didn’t kill the ordinary legitimate novel of courtship and love.
ALDISS: There might have been a time when SF and comics were weighed together and found wanting, but that at least we’ve got past.

AMIS: I see the comic books that my sons read, and you have there a terribly vulgar reworking of the themes that science fiction goes in for.

LEWIS: Quite harmless, mind you. This chatter about the moral danger of the comics is absolute nonsense. The real objection is against the appalling draughtsmanship. Yet you’ll find the same boy who reads them also reads Shakespeare or Spenser. Children are so terribly catholic. That’s my experience with my step- children.

ALDISS: This is an English habit, to categorise: that if you read Shakespeare you can’t read comics, that if you read science fiction you can’t be serious.

AMIS: That’s the thing that annoys me.

LEWIS: Oughtn’t the word "serious" to have an embargo slapped on it? "Serious" ought to mean simply the opposite of comic, whereas now it means "good" or "Literature" with a capital L.

ALDISS: You can be serious without being earnest.

LEWIS: Leavis demands moral earnestness; I prefer morality.

AMIS: I’m with you every time on that one.

LEWIS: I mean I’d sooner live among people who don’t cheat at cards than among people who are earnest about not cheating at cards. (Laughter.) Look, you want to borrow Abbot’s Flatland, don’t you? I must go to dinner I’m afraid. (Hands over Flatland.) The original manuscript of the Iliad could not be more precious. It’s only the ungodly who borroweth and payeth not again.

AMIS (reading): By A. Square.

LEWIS: But of course the word "square" hadn’t the same sense then.

ALDISS: It’s like the poem by Francis Thompson that ends "She gave me tokens three, a look, a word of her winsome mouth, and a sweet wild raspberry"; there again the meaning has changed. It really was a wild raspberry in Thompson's day. (Laughter.)

LEWIS: Or the lovely one about the Bishop of Exeter, who was giving the prizes at a girls’ school. They did a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the poor man stood up afterwards and made a speech and said (piping voice) "I was very interested in your delightful performance, and among other things I was very interested in seeing for the first time in my life a female Bottom .... "

Magdalene College,
Cambridge.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

SOME DRAMA AS YET UNDEFINABLE

"If I am correct, the signs of the past thirty years or more indicate that man's relations with nature are changing. Nature is no longer experienced wondrously as a rich source bestowing harmony on all things, as wisely ordered of itself, as benevolent with its favors. Man today distrusts nature, he cannot speak of "Mother Nature." Nature has become alien and dangerous to man. The religious sentiments expressed calmly and clearly by Goethe as he stood before nature are not the sentiments of man today. Nor are those expressed by the Romantics or those expressed dithrambically by Holderlin. Man has been sobered, perhaps by the disappearance of the modern sense of the infinite. Although science continues to measure distances ever more enormous in scope or more minute in detail, these measurements are always finite. And man is aware of their finiteness. The "infinity" of Giordano Bruno and of German idealism was more than a concept to express measure; it was preeminently a concept for expressing quality. It signified the godhead of the world whose being was inexhaustible, triumphant, the very origin of all things. This experience of infinity declined as the modern age drew toward its end. Today man experiences his world as finite, but a finite world cannot inspire the devotion which was inspired by the limitless cosmos of the recent past. The new sense of the finite refers not only to a limitation in expanse but also to a limitation in the core of being, at the heart of matter. Since the world is finite, it is fragile; since the cosmos is expanding, its very being is a venture. It is menaced and endangered on every side and becomes the more glorious and precious. Man now feels responsible for his universe; man must now take care of being. We feel that man has taken the universe into his own heart; we know that this act spells mystery. It seems as though some powerless force in being were groping for the hand of man. It seems as though some drama as yet undefinable were being prepared at the heart of the world, a drama which needs the heart of man."

Guardini, Romano. The End of the Modern World.