Friday, March 23, 2012

Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives
By John Sutherland
Yale University Press

The novel arose with the literate middle class that it was designed to please and ultimately to reflect. From its beginnings in the 17th and 18th century it was the most egalitarian of literary forms, mashing up everything from the high art of epic poetry and the high aspirations of religious texts to the common trade of letters, journals, folk tales, political pamphlets and popular accounts of exploration and adventure. Through the years it became the most elastic and universal form, linking the world in story.

One way to tell the novel’s history could be through the lives of novelists. British professor, columnist and critic on radio and TV John Sutherland writes two to four breezy pages about 294 of his favorites. Historically they range from John Bunyan and Samuel Richardson in the 1800s to Paul Auster’s latest in 2008.

As for accuracy and judgment, I can only spot-check by what I already knew. Jacqueline Susann’s novels were indeed assembled by hired pens (I met one), but I’m not sure I would call Kurt Vonnegut’s architect father “successful,” and even a brief bio of John Barth seems incomplete without mentioning the novel that made him famous, Giles Goat-Boy. The life I know the most about—H.G. Wells—suffers seriously from this summary. But these are personal essays, not Wikipedia refereed entries. Astringent, ironic, breezy, cynical and lyrical in turns, individually they are not boring or unbiased.

Collectively, the question is do they tell the story of the novel? The early entries are promising, as the novel form is unintentionally assembled from individual obsessions and reactions to them, often expressed in parody. The 19th century was the novel’s high point as popular entertainment as well as literature, and here Sutherland especially hits his stride in combining individual biography, its echoes in the writer’s work, and the social and cultural context. His Dickens entry is excellent.

When he gets to the 20th century however, the portraits seem more sensational and less literary. Gossip can be made into literature, but gossip is not literature, nor much of a key on how literature is made. Sutherland restricts himself to English language writers and so huge influences like Kafka and Marquez are absent, as well as English-writing innovators like Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Pynchon and Doris Lessing.

Still, the inclusion of writers unknown today (many of whom were popular in their time, especially women) and genre novelists (westerns, crime, romance, science fiction) add crucially to the historical narrative. They help demonstrate the vitality of the novel form in all its wildness as well as its polish. That wildness not only reflects life but also helps the novel (the word simply means “new”) continue to surprise.  

Friday, March 09, 2012

Searching for Utopia: The History of An Idea
by Gregory Claeys
Thames & Hudson

When I saw this book displayed at Northtown Books here in Arcata, it reminded me that while the once promising field of Future Studies has waned, there’s a curious new interest in Utopia Studies. In this era of dire predictions and popular fictions of apocalyptic futures it seems counter-intuitive, but it is precisely in dark times that utopian visions flourish.

This volume is one in a series of illustrated histories, but the pictures are less impressive than the prose. Claeys debunks several persistent mischaracterizations about the literature of utopia, first and foremost, that “utopia” necessarily means a perfect world. Most utopian stories are about a “radically improved” society. Like the story that gave the idea its name—Thomas More’s Utopia—it often responds to what we might call the tyranny of the 1%, and depicts a more egalitarian society.

But utopian stories vastly predate More’s 16th century work, and appear around the world, from indigenous cultures to Chinese, Hindu and Muslim civilizations.  Many have religious roots and hark back to a mythical Golden Age. That changes with H.G. Wells and other modern writers who begin locating utopia in the future, now the dominant notion.

Utopia was often located on an island or a hidden place, like Shangri-la. In Thomas More’s time, America was the hoped for place where utopia could happen, and utopian ideals drove many actual political and social experiments, from the founding documents of the United States to hundreds of communities organized on utopian lines in the 19th century.

Some utopias turned very dark, especially when linked with scientific pseudo-theories (like eugenics) and technology. When attempted by murderous dictatorships, the catastrophic results poisoned the very idea of utopia. And so psychology as well as politics enters the utopian story. External change is not enough; self-knowledge becomes a utopian endeavor.   This survey of course can't include everything, but it should be noted that among psychologist writers who addressed this matter of approaching a better society through individual self-knowledge were Carl Jung and his American successor, James Hillman.  From another point of view, the Dalai Lama has spoken and written about this subject specifically.

Claeys’ survey of science fiction—the chief generator of utopian fictions in modern times—is cursory and not particularly insightful.  It brushes by the particular contributions of Ursula LeGuin, George Zebrowski, Greg Bear, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and other contemporary science fiction and fantasy writers, but in particular Kim Stanley Robinson, who is especially known for his utopian concerns, and who edited a volume of utopian stories.  But worst of all, the world’s most widely known utopian saga of the past half century isn't even mentioned: Star Trek. This is a glaring omission, even for a Brit.  Then again, he ignores the most recent incarnation of Doctor Who, which confronted this topic in a number of stories, including one which involved the quest for a mythical planet called Utopia.

The eloquent final chapter examines the present, when the response to onrushing ecological disaster caused by our civilization is to shop harder. He concludes: “The old ideal worlds can lend us hope, inspiration, a sense of what to aspire for as well as what to avoid. But our ideal world must be very much our own creation, and a serious reckoning with the fate we face if we fail to create it.”

Utopia, like hope, is an activity of the present.  Zebrowski and Kim Stanley Robinson are particularly insistent on utopia as a process, which is an analogue to President Obama's goal of a perfecting what can never be perfect, that "more perfect union."  Utopia is a process of imagination and effort, motivated by basic human impulses, including love for future generations and our planet.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Distrust That Particular Flavor
By William Gibson

William Gibson is the first-generation cyberpunk fictionist (Neuromancer, “Johnny Mnemonic”) who coined the term “cyberspace” in a short story, first used “the matrix” to describe the web, and is credited with inventing the concept of virtual sex, all before any of this was realizable, and a decade or so before he even had a computer or an email address.

This is a collection of nonfiction pieces: short articles for big and little magazines, book prefaces and talks. At least one article (his 1993 portrait of Singapore for Wired Magazine titled “Disneyland With the Death Penalty”) is pretty famous, but since the newest piece is from 2008 (though there are brief contemporary notes added), they say more about their time than the future. But Gibson doesn’t believe in the future. “The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive postnuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely...more stuff.”

Gibson is an American baby boomer who has lived in Canada since the 60s. That’s my generation, and we’re used to finding the Future in science fiction (even though, as Gibson rightly says, sci-fi is mostly about the present, unless it’s about the past.) Gibson is undoubtedly perceptive and provocative on many subjects, including the relationship of technology to culture, from the most powerful interests to ordinary life. But the technological web requires a stable infrastructure and lots of electricity. The now inevitable Climate Crisis future calls those preconditions into question. Ahead of us there may be more than merely...less stuff.

Gibson makes a lot of sense about one aspect of the future, though: the prospects for humans becoming machines. On the one hand, he sensibly asserts that “our hardware is likely to turn into something like us a lot faster than we are likely to turn into something like our hardware.” On the other hand, he suggests that we are already the Borg, and have been since at least the advent of television. He also has a fascinating take on why Japan is still the future (“more stuff.”)

Cumulatively, these pieces add vivid historical context (from the 19th century through the TV age) to our sudden Internet/Iphone revolution. They also testify to the perceptive powers of the imagination, inherent in storytelling.  Otherwise, this is an entertaining and enlightening book in the ways that the best collections of its kind are: it provides texture to the writer’s worlds on the page (and screen), it takes us places we’ll never get to, and shows us features of familiar places we missed. It suggests stuff we might want to check out, like Greg Girard’s photos, or a 1940 film serial called The Mysterious Dr. Satan.  Best of all, we get his voice.  That and the subject matter make it fun to read.