Friday, November 28, 2014

For Pleasure, Fall 2014

My reading for pleasure in the past few months included some very different kinds of science fiction.  Kim Stanley Robinson writes science fiction of the future and of the past.  His latest book Shaman is set in the deep past.  It follows the fortunes of a young man some 30,000 years ago, when glaciers still formed a northern border and some Neanderthals (the Old Ones) were still around.

The story follows a boy (named Loon) beginning with his "wander" or initiation.  This is something of a hunter-gatherer era of small tribes, with specific skills and knowledge of the natural world that supports and endangers them, which calls upon KSR's skills as a preeminent nature writer.

Reviews tell me the place is Europe, for the cave paintings described are based on some found in recent years in France.  But because KSR is also a preeminent California writer, I kept imagining it as a proto-CA, perhaps encouraged by the feeling that these people would not be too unfamiliar to the folks in Pacific Edge, one of the futures he created in his "Three Californias" books. Less unfamiliar to them than to us.

KSR always astonishes me in finding a language for people in the past, even this deep past.  How does he do it?  He doesn't use "primitive" talk (grunts, monosyllables or stiff sentence constructions) nor does he make them sound unbelievably contemporary.  But he gives them a pretty large vocabulary, with a little silliness (I like the various exclamations of "Mama mia!"  Maybe it means they're really in Italy.)

His books set in the past usually have another dimension--the futuristic subplot of Galileo's Dream, the spiritual dimension (the bardo, reincarnation) of Days of Rice and Salt.  Here he has a kind of narrator called the Third Wind, an animating spirit that shows up when needed, but seems also to be always watching.  So it's another triumph, a book that was a pleasure to read, and worth revisiting.    

I also went back to the future--way back, to an early series that pioneers the galactic civilizations/space opera form.  I read nearly the entire Lensmen series of novels by E.E. "Doc" Smith, considered classic texts in the science fiction field.   The only novels I didn't read were Triplanetary (the first) and Galactic Patrol (the third).  But I read First Lensmen in paperback, and the hardback "Chronicles Vol. 2" (a county library discard) which contains Gray Lensman, Second Stage Lensman and Children of the Lens.  That adds up to around a thousand pages.

The core idea of the series is that an extremely advanced planetary civilization provides the "lens" that allows its wearers to communicate telepathically and confers other powers, because this wise but old civilization foresees the need for younger civilizations in an epic battle with an evil civilization from another galaxy that is almost its equal.

But the content of the series is an escalating series of immense space battles, punctuated by intrigues, undercover espionage, sabotage etc.  as the earth-centered galactic forces battle one enemy after another, trying to get to the ultimate power behind them.  These stories were written before, during and after World War II--and the organization of information to manage a space fleet in battle was actually modeled by the US Navy to defeat Japan. They were then published in book form in the early 1950s, as the Soviet Union became the immense new enemy in the Cold War.

There were several sections, some absurd battles and especially when extolling the need for utter ruthlessness in killing enemies, that almost stopped me.  But the narrative drive was enough to keep me going.  I knew I was reading one of the pioneer science fiction series, and one in which the aliens are really alien, and imaginatively drawn.  Also it posits that the ultimate power in the universe is the power of mind, which both the good and bad super-civilizations understand and use.  There's also some questionable genetic theory bordering on eugenics in the mix.

Even older than this series are the Captain Future novels by Edmond Hamilton.  I read a couple more of these, in particular Planets In Peril, easily the most impressive so far.  It is skillfully done, with a nice if not unfamiliar twist, and does its best with the physics of the time, though it does fudge some of it in a pretty essential way (namely that a human civilization could survive the collapse of the universe before it expands again.)  And of course there is still atomic everything.

  Hamilton later said that he was paid so little for the first several Captain Future novels that they were essentially first drafts, and he began taking more care with later ones as his rates went up.  This has to be one of the later ones (1942.)

Beyond science fiction,which is also a kind of research project, I did a re-reading that was remarkable and yet not unprecedented.  It turns out to be for me a kind of advertisement for re-reading, for several reasons.

In a chain that probably began with an old episode of Foyle'War on DVD and a resulting conversation on the seemingly odd absence of poison gas in the Second when it was so often used in the First,  I recalled that my aunt once told me that my grandfather had been gassed in the Great War, and suffered effects from it for some years.  This was contrary to my grandmother's stories about his army experience in Italy, which tended towards the reassuring.  I never heard him talk about it at all.

During this conversation I realized that I'd never researched this warfare.  I knew in general he was posted in the north, and indeed, this is where the fighting was--in the mountains, principally with Austria and later with German troops.  I found an expansive description on the net, which was eye-opening.  Hundreds of thousands of Italians died in years of fighting, either directly or from illnesses.  It could not have been the quiet my grandmother implied, even if (as she said) he was kept back from the lines because he tailored the officers' uniforms.

This reminded me that this warfare was the setting for Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.  It was where Hemingway served as an ambulance driver and was wounded and hospitalized, and where he fell in love with a nurse, who he lost.  All of this happens to his protagonist.

I hadn't re-read this novel in more than 30 years, and so the first thing is that it's a different novel, almost completely from the one I first read.  The basic story is the same of course, and I remember being enthralled by the tone of it, but so much of it came to me as new.  Much of that effect comes from intervening experience, not only of "the world," but of a few of the actual places he writes about, in Milan.  I hadn't been there when I first read it.  In a general way of course--the Cathedral, the Galleria area, not the specific places, but enough to give me a sense of it I didn't have the first time I read it.  (I find that in audience reaction after readings by fiction writers I've attended, this impresses people--that they recognize places.)

Re-reading can be dangerous.  Books you loved can fall apart, or not be there anymore the way you felt them.  But this time I admired it again but in a different way, for different reasons. Which is even better than confirming those long-ago impressions.

Part of the difference is suggested by scholar Robert Weeks in his introduction to the Prentice-Hall volume on Hemingway (this lit crit series was a favorite of the English department in my college years, and it's the only commentary on Hemingway I still have.  Most of it is too academic for me now, but I read this introduction after re-reading the novel.)  He mentions the effect of vital, life-changing things (often tragic things) happening to the protagonist, that few if any others note, or even notice.  In life, I've noticed this is quite true.

But what I noticed when I re-read this book is the apparently random happenings, the particularity of subsidiary characters that don't necessarily "pay off" for the main story.  Hemingway is so famous for his pared-back prose, his terseness and economy.  Yet he can crowd the story with unpredictable people and events, until major and minor moments collide, as they do in life.  Everybody's in their own story.  So it becomes of a piece that they don't notice the protagonist's heroism (in other books) or their worlds don't end or even tremble when his does.

Then there was one of those weird serendipitious things.  I had just finished re-reading this book when I looked online at the middle film in David Hare 's Worrwicker triology on PBS.  There in the opening scene was Bill Nighy as Worrwicker on the beach, reading A Farewell to Arms.  Later we see his former (and future) lover (played by Helena Bonham Carter) on the London tubes reading a different Hemingway paperback, but presumably the same title.

Say, maybe Shaman takes place in northern Italy!  Okay, too much symmetry for one post.

I will bookend this books chronicle with a book I've begun, though I'm not sure pleasure would be an apt description for either my reason for reading it or its effect.  To be sure, the first chapters of Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth by Craig Childs are excellently written, among the best chapters of any book I've read in years.  But the subject is framed by the apocalyptic future of the climate crisis.  It must be faced, but it is not a pleasure.

I'm sure I'll have more to say about this book, though it may take me some time to finish it as I am reading it in small doses.  But it occurred to me as I started it that, first of all, its first-person treatment of the natural world is akin to KSR's.  And if Shaman is the alpha of our civilization, then Apocalyptic Planet is in some senses the omega.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Larger Reality

Ursula LeGuin made two different but related points, both vital, in accepting an award from National Book Awards.

 The first has to do with the literary legitimacy of science fiction and fantasy writers, and the importance of future visions to the future itself:

 "And I rejoice at accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction—writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists. 

 I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality." 

 The second point is the restraint on the freedom to write and on true authorship that's been growing a long while and has now reached nearly impossible proportions, not because of some fascist or even national security state, but because of the takeover by the institutionalized greed of market capitalism:

 "Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

 Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. 

Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words." 

 This is almost her complete speech--it's under six minutes in the video above, and the complete transcript is here.