I keep this blog live because I do still plan on getting back to science fiction reviews here. In the meantime, please check out this video of me trying to explain a bit about my forthcoming PhD on R. A. Lafferty and Cormac McCarthy, and please consider giving our Indiegogo campaign a wee visit to see the lovely perks my family have made available for contributors: www.indiegogo.com/projects/ecomonstrous-phd.
Still planning to get back to this blog with science fiction reviews. In the meantime, I've been very busy over at my Lafferty blog. The Guardian recently called Lafferty a 'secret sci-fi genius', so he's a relevant author to this blog too. You can see a round up of news about him at my Lafferty blog. But more important and poignant to me at the moment is that his centenary was yesterday. I wrote a tribute to him on the Lafferty blog, called 'The Door Into A Dozen Or A Hundred Planet-Falls A Day'. He's truly my favourite author and he's worthy of your attention, I assure you.
To be honest, if it weren't for the fact that the 19-year-old who wrote this novel went on to become an icon of New Wave science fiction, I'm not sure the book would still be remembered. The Jewels of Aptor (1962) shows promise, but I'm not sure how truly distinguished it is in the mountains of 'skiffy' (or 'Ski-Ffy' or 'PorPor') out there. Don't get me wrong, though: I thoroughly enjoyed aspects of this novel and it truly shines in some respects.
The little prologue before chapter 1 is emblematic of the New Wave of science fiction that was starting to get under way about this time. It feels to me that it could have as easily been written by Roger Zelazny or Harlan Ellison as Delany. It sets up an explicitly philosophical and theological discourse the rest of the novel will try (unsuccessfully in my opinion) to embody. As someone who is obsessed with theological SF, I was pretty amazed to see Delany explicitly evoke the Crucifixion of Christ and deliberately juxtapose that image with the Yin-Yang symbol of Chinese philosophy, asking the reader to consider the relation between the two. The opening also sets up in swift strokes the science-fictional premise: a post-nuclear holocaust Earth where super-technology and more ancient ways of seeing the world co-exist exotically. It's a nicely written vignette that makes what follows a little disappointing.
The first few chapters seemed to take a little too long setting the scene of the novel's 'quest' sort of rationale. And, strangely, much of this was by means of the penny detective novel protagonist-putting-clues-together-through-improbable-dialogue trope. (There's lots of painfully bad dialogue and goofy character interaction throughout, I'm afraid, but you almost root for this obviously young author in his infectious enthusiasm for his subject and genre.)
But when the sailors (a decently drawn little motley group of misfits, if pretty thoroughly cardboard) get on the island of Aptor, things take off brilliantly. This all-too-short segment of the novel was out and out, no-apologies, pulp fun. I relished it. Monsters and bloody adventure galore! And the wonderfully poetic language that describes sword-wielding winged-and-furred warriors, menacing shapeshifters, and carnivorous apes makes the grotesqueries leap off the page with pictorial zeal. It's like Ray Bradbury if he'd written a Sword and Planet novel. And there's some freshly inventive monstrosity here too with a freakish 'super-amoeba' (all the fabulous creatures I think are given a blanket 'radioactive fallout' sort of justification) which instantaneously forms and operates groups of human-like figures that melt away just as quickly. Not just descriptions of appearances but the action too partakes in the poetry. For example:
Fire leaped from the boy's hands in a double bolt that converged among the dark bodies. Red light cast a jagged wing in silhouette. A high shriek, a stench of burnt fur. Another bolt of fire fell in the dark horde. A wing flamed, waved flame about it. The beast tried to fly, but fell, splashing fire. Sparks sharp on a brown face chiseled it with shadow, caught the terrified red bead of an eye, and laid light along a pair of fangs. Wings afire withered on the ground; dead leaves sparked now, and whips of flame ran in the clearing. The beasts retreated, and the three men stood against the wall, panting. The last two shadows suddenly dropped from the air toward Snake [...] Snake looked up as wings fell at him, tented him, hid him momentarily. Red flared beneath, and suddenly they fell away, sweeping the leaves - moved by wind or life, Geo couldn't tell. Wings rose on the moon, circled further away, were gone.
Man! How can you not thrill to that? For my money, that's just simple imaginative pleasure. It's the stuff of pulp book and magazine covers, but lyrically narrated, and I have zero problem with that.
(Part of the fun here is the 'cheapness' with which Delany parades one monster and marvel after another before our eyes. But both this aspect as well as the far-future lost-technology SF premise reminded me how utterly masterful Gene Wolfe is at these same sorts of elements in his Solar Cycle series. While Delany here handles these things deftly enough, Wolfe truly elevates such pulp staples to the stature of deep and abiding 'literature'. But I know too that Delany himself will transcend and transmute such pulpisms in his later writing.)
Halfway through the book, however, this fun diminished drastically and what was meant, I think, to be a fairly trippy and profound pilgrimage of sorts just seemed a bit bland and aimless to me. Toward the end we are at least introduced to the only character of the book that seemed like something slightly more than one-and-a-half-dimensional: the teenage girl Argo.
In the last ten or so pages the action returns for a moment to something more engaging and then the theological discourse of the opening pages becomes explicitly articulated again, which was very welcome and very interesting at the level of ideas. It seemed to me that Delany was, roughly, appropriating the Cross of Christian theology as a stepping stone to something more Dualist or Monist (I couldn't quite tell which). He proposes that enduring or witnessing horrors like crosses and holocausts are prerequisites to the personal enlightenment of perceiving and experiencing the underlying unity of existence. The view borders on what is pretty wishy-washy New Age-ism to me, but hints at possibly being something a little more rigorous and genuine and insightful. All this is even discussed in terms of blatant 'religious experience', with full acceptance of such a category as real and meaningful.
This kind of all-unifying enlightenment is what Delany preaches for and what he preaches specifically against is experiencing any kind of 'concrete God' with the attendant desire to 'convert' others with 'evangelical fury' (all these terms are direct quotes from Delany's text). You can see his allegiances on his sleeve, which is fine. But it's interesting to see how this contrasts with the explicit theology expressed in R. A. Lafferty's post-apocalyptic short story 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire'. Take the following scathingly sardonic passage, for example, where one of the demonic social engineers of Lafferty's tale is fondly recalling how they won the war of ideas in the minds of a generation:
One smiles to recall that phrase that our fathers accidentally stumbled on and which later came back to us a hundredfold like bread cast upon the waters: "I am all for relevant religion that is free and alive and where the action is, but institutional religion turns me off." Incredible? Yes. A hog, if he could speak, wouldn't make so silly a statement: a blind mole wouldn't. And yet this statement was spoken many millions of times by young human persons of all ages. How lucky that it had been contrived, how mind boggling that it was accepted. It gave us victory without battle and success beyond our dreams. It was like saying "I love animals, all animals, every part of them: it is only their flesh and their bones that I object to; it is only their living substance that turns me off." For it is essential that religion (that old abomination) if it is to be religion at all (the total psychic experience) must be institutionalized and articulated in organization and service and liturgy and art. That is what religion is. And everything of a structured world, housing and furniture and art and production and transportation and organization and communication and continuity and mutuality is the institutional part of religion. That is what culture is. There can no more be noninstitutional religion than there can be a bodiless body. We abjure the whole business. We're well quit of the old nightmare. [...] To us, there is nothing wrong with the term Son of God. There is not even anything wrong with the term God, so long as it is understood to be meaningless, so long as we take him to be an unstructured God. Our own splendor would have been less if there had not been some huge thing there which we unstructured. This unstructuring of God, which we have accomplished, was the greatest masterwork of man.
Published in a 1973 anthology (alongside the likes of Philip José Farmer and Robert Silverberg), one can't help but wonder if Lafferty had Delany, and others sympathetic to his religious views, directly in his satirical sights. It would be tempting to see Delany as the magnanimous sage here while seeing Lafferty as the narrow crank. But that just assumes Lafferty's critique has no force and gives default preference to Delany's views. Furthermore, Delany seems to be denouncing and 'other-ing' here every bit as much as Lafferty. And it is only fair to note that Lafferty also includes very poignant constructive and hopeful passages in this same story as well as a subtle and powerful overall worldview across his highly unique body of work. Delany was a big fan of Lafferty in the 60s, as were Zelazny and Ellison, but I don't know if Lafferty could honestly proclaim the admiration mutual with any of them, not least because of these philosophical and theological antipathies. It's a rich underlying dialogue of that era that needs to be brought to the surface by historians of SF.
At any rate, I look very forward to eventually getting into Delany's more mature and seminal output, novels like Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Nova, Dhalgren, and Triton.
Up next: The Dead Lady of Clown Town (1963) by Cordwainer Smith.
Other women hate me.
Men never touch me.
I am too much me.
I'll be a witch!
Mama never towelled me,
Daddy never growled me.
Little kiddies grate me.
I'll be a bitch!
People never named me.
Dogs never shamed me.
Oh, I am a such me!
I'll be a witch.
I'll make them shun me.
They'll never run me.
Could they even stun me?
I'll be a witch.
Let them all attack me.
They can only rack me.
Me—I can hack me.
I'll be a witch.
Other women hate me.
Men never touch me.
I am too much me.
I'll be a witch.
Madness is always better than X, and X to each patient is individual, personal, secret and overwhelmingly important... Madness was much kinder than the realization that she was not herself, should not have lived, and amounted at the most to a mistake committed between a trembling ruby and a young, careless man with a guitar.
-excerpts from The Dead Lady of Clown Town by Cordwainer Smith
In the 1960s and 1970s a certain sort of anthropological science fiction came to prominence. It is one of my favourite kinds of SF. Three authors I've seen grouped together as seminal practitioners of this movement are Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon), and Michael Bishop. It was a development of SF from its Gernsbackian pulp roots in more technological and physical 'hard sciences' into new explorations of more sociological and cultural 'soft sciences'.
In light of this shift, it's fascinating to see that the term 'astrogation' (navigation in outer space) is shared by the books of my previous and present reviews. But whereas in Saberhagen's book (Berserker, 1967) such a skill and profession was central to the action of the plot, here in Bishop's tale it is a reference to something off stage. In fact, the protagonist of Bishop's short novel is indeed an astrogator, but one who has been suspended for insubordination and is serving out a punitive post on a colony planet in which he has no interest, barred from the 'slip-fix' moment of interstellar space travel that he has come to love (and is perhaps addicted to). Lucian Yeardance (a shift to more indigenous-sounding names is often a feature of the movement) is performing an obscure role in a position he is in no way qualified for. In this way, the very setting and situation of the story serve to disorient SF from earlier expectations. There are brief references to time spent on starships, plying the galaxies, but all the present action of the novel takes place in one season spent confronting an alien culture up close. And the results are gruesome. Stolen Faces in this sense serves as an emblematic example of a mutation SF was experiencing during this era, a perhaps painful deepening of engagement with the complexities of multiculturalism and the Other.
This inherently bewildering and difficult confrontation and deepening was inevitable given SF's whole modus operandi - to extrapolate and explore the alien, be it a future version of ourselves (on this planet or among the stars) or 'contact' with extraterrestrial forms of life (sentient and otherwise). If the genre was to mature at all, rather than merely pastiche itself indefinitely, it would have to endure this transmogrification, no matter how agonising, and emerge stronger. Authors like Ray Bradbury in his Martian Chronicles telegraphed birth pangs of this shift and authors like Le Guin and Tiptree helped midwife the actual birth. Bishop comes just a bit later to nurse this new thing into its first stages of growth.
I like Bishop's novel for being a meaty hybrid of 'proper SF' and the American New Wave SF of the likes of Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany. These latter authors tended to mute the sense of actuality or 'realism' about space travel and colonisation of planets and the like in favour of sheer literary experimentation of style and form and in favour of philosophical speculation. Their stuff is good fun. I've loved that kind of SF since I first encountered it and have a natural tendency to prefer it over all others. But Bishop's novel, written in a rich but economical prose style, weaves such 'literary' concerns with the older (and abiding) concerns in SF of 'worldbuilding': making a solid planetary place that can really be inhabited by the imagination long-term. Bishop goes into almost no details as to the 'how' of the technology or physics or biology of the world of this novel, but he assumes these things so firmly that the reader can feel the solidity of the premise. It's a freaking nifty and impressive trick (and I think Gene Wolfe is its main and most profound practitioner - and, for the record, it's precisely where I felt Le Guin fell down in her celebrated SF novel The Dispossessed, which is why, so far, I find her science fiction writing disappointing compared to her far more satisfying and powerful Earthsea fantasy series).
The 'alien' people of Bishop's story are fellow humans, but from a civilisation on a planet previously unknown to the protagonist. There is an effectively creepy specimen of the fauna of the planet whose ubiquitous presence serves as the main visual metaphor for this impenetrable alienness: roving land mammals called Pequia that are horse-like but with 'oddly segmented bodies', giving them an unnerving giant spiderish quality, and which are disturbingly strange-eyed (having 'narrow octopus eyes').
The big-city society (on the edge of which Yeardance and his interns live, in a medical camp beside the quarantined reserve of a diseased community made up of a small freakishly disfigured population) is self-consciously modelled on ancient Aztec culture, a conceit of the city's founder. This pleasantly baroque milieu (surely inspired by previous eras of pulp) could have been more fully evoked to enriching effect, I think. But Bishop still uses it to original, telling, and ultimately chilling purposes. The city's Aztec theme is really a thing of style and pageantry to the sophisticated urban community that sublimates dark undercurrents of their collective psyche and by which they maintain their strange and unjust relationship to the outcasts on their borders. A grotesquely outré dinner performance during Yeardance's one visit to the city, narrated at some length, provides a horrifying glimpse into this. It's one of the best scenes I've ever read.
This is a slow-build of a novel, but it's also a short one and it delivers a denouement worthy of the unease it induces from its earliest pages. Bishop is not afraid to write a downbeat ending if his story requires it. The gruesome climax was somewhat expected in its general terms, but its specific impact on the protagonist came as a shock and, for me, couldn't but help evoke associations with Flannery O'Connor's own novel of the cultural grotesque, Wise Blood (1952). This is especially troubling since Yeardance (unlike O'Connor's Hazel Motes) is one of the more noble characters I've encountered in fiction, in that very fallible and flawed sense that makes him believable and likeable. He has a principled compassion and sense of justice that motivates him despite personal failings. (Yeardance very much reminded me of the protagonist Silk in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun tetralogy.) And still he, even in his admirable intentions, is skewered on mysteries and corruptions he has no power to truly resist in the final analysis.
(Interestingly, writers of post-Lovecraftian New Weird fiction often cite New Wave SF, Michael Moorcock and M. John Harrison in particular, as part of their root system. I've never heard anyone mention Bishop in this connection, but this novel's dark grotesquery and downbeat outcome show he could easily be considered a certain sort of prototype to New Weird fiction as well.)
Theological underpinnings to the novel come very subtly in as the impulse toward charity is put to the test of a self-destructive cult which itself is engendered by systemic societal injustice. The outcome is ambiguous at the very least, if not outright negative. I don't think we are meant to perceive such charity and justice as categorically defeated or relativised. But we are meant to be humbled in the face of human darkness and frailty and (as, incidentally, I think is ultimately the case with Cormac McCarthy's work, too easily misunderstood as sheer nihilism), we come to realise that if there is an answer, it must come from beyond us. And this is where theology is more explicit in the novel too: the dysfunctional community of self-loathing pariahs express their need for worship and sacred ritual in truly awful perversions. And in their own words they express a longing for a priest who will confer to them actual forgiveness of real sins in addition to medical aid. They try to make Yeardance such, calling him 'maybe-priest' and his medical facility a 'maybe-church'. It is because he is not that mediator or messenger of divine absolution (again calling to my mind O'Connor's novel) that he must fail and fail so horrifically (thus also serving as a bleak counterpoint to the more effective and liberating priestly service of Patera Silk mentioned above).
I suspect this is a minor novel in Michael Bishop's canon and in SF's canon in general. Yet it was one I found very worth my while. Indeed, more so than some canonical SF works (such as the aforementioned The Dispossessed or, to take an example from the earlier era these works mutate from, Robert Heinlein's The Door Into Summer). I look greatly forward to familiarising myself with the rest of Bishop's oeuvre.
Up next: The Jewels of Aptor (1962) by Samuel R. Delany.
As I mentioned a few posts ago, reading this book has gotten me back into science fiction proper - or really, into it for the first time. It's not because this book in particular is some remarkable and life-changing specimen of the genre but simply because it happens to be the SF book I persevered reading all the way through and thereby finally began to reap the benefits that only SF gives. I love the literary and experimental stuff (from C. S. Lewis and Ray Bradbury to R. A. Lafferty and Gene Wolfe), but have struggled with more 'straight' or 'hard' SF. I'm happy to say that with Saberhagen I'm on my way to rectifying that.
Berserker (1967) is a collection of linked stories that were first published in the pulp magazine Galaxy in the mid 1960s. The stories' common theme is the drama of humanity's galaxy-spanning war with the titular machines, which are programmed to destroy all organic matter, especially human life. Some of the force of this trope is felt in the fierce intelligence and ingenuity these self-perpetuating machines employ to accomplish their task. This moves the conflict at times into the uncanny - which is all to the good in my opinion.
One of the best of these moments to me was in 'Patron of the Arts' where a captive painter is observed by the machine-unit he is painting. The Beserkers are always sending out individual units that try to take on a human shape they don't really comprehend. Hence, they are grotesque to the human eye. The painter, however, was 'trying to catch not the outward shape he had never seen, but what he felt of its inwardness' and thus employed 'brutal and discordant lines'. I suspect it was this story that at least partly inspired the wonderful cover of the Penguin edition of this book by the Italian artist Franco Grignani. (It's the copy I have I'm glad to say. You can see Grignani's series for Penguin HERE and you can see all of Penguin's wonderful SF covers through the years HERE.)
It seems that no one knows who made these killing machines to begin with or for what purpose exactly, but it is surmised they were some ultimate weapon of war that became all too effective, wiping out their own creators and taking their mission beyond whatever original scope it had to encompass the whole universe. One individual Berserker is gobsmackingly huge, described as being larger than the largest of cities such as New York and of a shape totally alien to any human thinking. To see these freakish behemoths approaching in space was unnerving to the bravest. Furthermore, the Beserkers had been ingeniously designed to carry out their methods of destruction in accord with an atomic isotope deep in their interior that randomly selects new strategies of attack and warfare. I confess I don't readily understand the scientific idea here, but it is sufficient to convey effectively to me that the machines are innately unpredictable and all the fiercer of an enemy for it.
One of the tales is called 'Masque of the Red Shift', which I have to say is one of my very favourite story titles ever. It, along with some of the others, contained moments of gory horror (hence the Poe shout out), which make this a fairly dark SF series, even though the writing and perspective are generally fairly upbeat. 'Sign of the Wolf' moves pleasantly into the realm of seeming science fantasy (where technology is understood as divinity and magic by primitive peoples) and the closing story 'The Face of the Deep' attempts some poetry in trying to convey an edge-of-the-galaxy scenario that bends and blends space-time itself into hard-to-describe colours and shapes. The writing is fairly plain and serviceable, not generally literary or poetic, but the net effect of spending time in this fictional world definitely puts one in touch with a feel for the intergalactic and super-technological.
I wanted to check out Saberhagen because he was yet another honoured SF author I only recently discovered was a Catholic. My passion for theological fiction always brings me to investigate such authors sooner or later. I'm not sure I'd call this work outright theological SF, but Saberhagen's Christian worldview was certainly evident and relevant to the plots and scenarios. There were several debates between human characters as well as between humans and machines as to whether biological life is evidence of metaphysical meaning in the universe or whether we are alone and without ultimate purpose. Saberhagen wisely left these discussions unresolved. The faith of various characters was often mentioned, many of them turning to prayer in the conflicts and at least one of them, after inward wrestling, exercising the forgiveness of his political enemies in accord with his Christian principles. This charity is shown to aid victory over the machines as well. But none of this is intrusive. Many readers will no doubt have not noticed such details much or at all. Saberhagen is out to spin yarns, not preach sermons, and his worldview simply informs his work as any good craftsman's should.
Saberhagen has a science fantasy series as well as a pseudo-horror series (a revisionist Dracula saga where ol' Drac is the good guy apparently - sounds great!), both of which I look forward to sampling in addition to more of the long Berserker series I've begun.