Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dreamsnake's distancing

Vonda N. McIntyre's Dreamsnake is, as Joanna Russ points out in a quote on the back cover of the copy I read, "that rare thing, a tender and compassionate adventure story." Tender and compassionate, yes: it is about care, for self and others; about the formation of a family of choice (there must be a name for this genre, but I don't know what it is); about the attempt to be a good person and to lead a worthwhile life in a future world both more and less conducive to this attempt than our contemporary one. An adventure story, yes: it tells, after all, of the journey of a woman across deserts and mountains in search of a treasure of a very personal sort--where the personal is, as feminists say, the political.

And here is a problem, potentially an enormous one: how to resolve the conflict between the adventure story on the one hand, and the radically political on the other? For the conflict is real, and enormous.

Samuel R. Delany (it is difficult for me to get through a post without citing Delany and/or Russ), in the essay titled "Quarks" in its Jewel-Hinged Jaw reprint (where it has been cobbled together from editorial notes in various volumes of his and Marilyn Hacker's anthology series, Quark), considers the fact that the sf of the 1950s, written off as "lunatic and not to be taken seriously," was one of the very few places in the culture in which serious critique of the prevailing power structure was allowed (and, indeed, flourished), acknowledging that despite this political commitment the "rather cavalier insult" is to a certain extent justified:

Within the aesthetic structure laid out by "the adventure story" it is impossibe to produce a politically dangerous fiction, no matter how revolutionary the proposed world is, no matter what evils the hero is faced with, nor how congruent they are to the present ones.

The efficacy of "political" fiction, from the point of view of the body politic, is measured precisely in terms of real action it can cause . . . and presumably becomes dangerous when somebody notices this action. The adventure, with its building tensions suddenly relieved, its preoccupation with the physical rather than the psychological, its linearity, simply doesn't leave enough residue of discomfort in the mind to precipitate action. This is what dooms a social criticism set in this form to political inconsequence....

One's only objections to science fiction "of value as social criticism" is precisely that it failed to be dangerous, because of an aesthetic choice by the authors deferring to "popular entertainment."

Delany concludes his essay with a passionate argument for literary experimentation in sf as not only an aesthetic necessity but a political one as well. This, I find, resonates. (I do have my disagreements with some of what he says here, but that is probably best left for some hypothetical future time.)

His primary intention regarding the adventure story is to advise against it, but a restructuring of the adventure story, perhaps in the hands of someone more dedicated to the task than Delany feels able to be,* might answer his complaints just as well as a departure from it. This, it seems to me, is what McIntyre did in Dreamsnake.

*For his may be a more self-directed critique than he realized; in 1969, as he wrote, his rapid-fire string of always (and increasingly) strange but nevertheless recognizable adventure novels--nine published between 1962 and 1968--had come to a stop and he was clearly in a creative crisis; aside from his first venture into pornography (Equinox, aka The Tides of Lust, which I have not yet read and so cannot comment on) he would publish no more long fiction until 1975's sudden Dhalgren and Triton--both definitive rejections of the adventure story structure.

In fact as she avoids the pitfalls of the adventure structure, she also (for the most part) avoids those of the "tenderness" Russ notes. For "tenderness" can easily slide over into that terrible thing, "sentimentality"--a word which, if I can attempt to rescue it from its general use as a boo-word by which men can dismiss women's writing they otherwise can find nothing wrong with, I might define as indicating writing which encourages the reader to identify uncomplicatedly with the emotions of the characters it describes, forgetting that, in that great Modernist phrase, "it's just a book," which in turn leads right back to...all the problems Delany discusses with the adventure story--which is, finally, for all the attempts to genderize the word, an extremely sentimental genre.

So McIntyre writes tenderly of adventure, but without* aesthetically and ethically dangerous sentimentality--but how? Well, the title of the post gives away how I would answer that question--or rather a part of how I would answer the question, because this is a complex novel, one which does not simply do any one thing. But this narrative distance that I am going to discuss is one method by which McIntyre maintains the very delicate, but very real, integrity of her work.

*Again, for the most part. The concluding pages of the novel slide over into an unfortunate simplicity, one which for me contradicts all that comes before them; one has the feeling that McIntyre found herself without a solid conclusion to her novel and, at this still relatively early stage in her writing career, could not find it in herself to give in fully to inconclusiveness.

Those who have read the novel may find it odd to hear me talking about narrative distance in it. Dreamsnake is incredibly intimate, emotional; it is both Romantic and romantic, in many ways. Its central figure, the healer Snake, is the kind of character one would not be surprised to hear readers talking about as though she were a personal friend. Young people could do far worse than to choose her as a role model. She is a textbook "well rounded" and "likable" character, admirable and brave, kind and goodhearted and so forth, but flawed enough to remain believable; creative writing workshops would be very pleased with her. All this is not a bad thing (and is very difficult to do in itself), but again it does skirt all the problems discussed above, and all good Modernists would do well to be skeptical.

There is another view of Snake, one which, were it ours, would be equally problematic. For most of the other characters in the novel, she is a figure of mystery, reverence, fear, and/or longing: an image, an ideal, rather than a person. We are given a more human look at her than this, one that does not allow or encourage us to feel this way about her, and yet we see these other characters reacting to her this way over and over again, which for me at least creates one of those Russ-ian moments of being simultaneously pulled in and pushed out, suspension of disbelief fluctuating, subjunctivity wavering: we are distanced from the world through which we are being led, but perhaps brought closer to the woman we are following through it.

But--and this is for me the essential point--never too close. For even in McIntyre's chosen narrative voice, the third person omniscient which places us very intimately, and for the most part only, within Snake's thoughts, we are never actually allowed to fully "enter" her--and yes, I am aware of the potential creepy sexual implications of using that word.

As so often, I seem to have gotten to a point in my essay where I just want to say QED, but I know nothing's been demonstrated. But all that's left, really, is a list of examples of the ways in which McIntyre does all this: how on very rare occasions we'll suddenly pop over to another character's storyline (always Arevin's) for a brief portion of a chapter; how we in fact first see Snake's home with Arevin rather than with Snake herself; how generic expectations (the Wizard of Oz quest, the man-coming-to-the-woman's-rescue, etc.) are continually raised and frustrated; how, very tellingly, Snake's arthritis comes as something of a surprise more than halfway through the book.

I say "very tellingly" on this last because it is an indication of the extreme degree to which we are not allowed into Snake's body, which considering that another of the things that Dreamsnake is "about" is a very feminist perspective on responsible personal autonomy within society is not insignificant. And perhaps one reason why the sentimental genres discussed above are so antithetical to true radicalism, one reason why they cannot lead to any "real action" (or more to the point, why the "real action" they do lead to might not be so great) is that they present in their very structure the notion that we can, and should, feel free to enter into the bodies of the characters depicted in them, without questioning this ability or this right, and without creating awareness of the difference between characters and people.

Uh, QED?

P.S. Whenever I feel up to it--and I will have to feel up to it, because it is a massive and extremely important subject--I will be writing a "how to suppress women's writing"-style post about the explosion of feminist and other women's sf in the 1970s, and the male backlash against it starting in the early 1980s. When I do so, I may be examining Dreamsnake again, as it is a text central to both parts of the story. I say this partly to disclaim again that I by no means think that I have come close to a comprehensive discussion of this novel. I don't want to give the appearance of being--and, more so!, don't want to be--one of those dudes who elides the feminism from feminist works.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A brief observation

Having just read a recent novella of Lucius Shepard's ("Halloweentown," in the October/November 2009 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction) and just this morning begun reading Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief, and also having memories of some less-pleasant aspects of Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change trilogy: I can report that the exotification of Asian women is alive and well in contemporary sf. So alive and well, in fact, that it can be used in passing: Her beauty had a fragile, almost Asian cast to it, you all know what I mean, right?...

(Looking over my examples, isn't it also nice what a international and intergenerational consensus it is?)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Elizabeth Willis is

Elizabeth Willis's name comes very close to containing the word "is" twice, but just barely does not contain it at all: once, the pronunciation is there but not the spelling; and once, the spelling is there but not the pronunciation. This, I think, is appropriate.

Early on in The Human Abstract (in "Between the Acts," which is the second section of "A Maiden," which is itself the first section of the book itself), we find this:

A breath "drawn" or taken, meaning
even to be is to use up
When she says "to be" here, it is apparent that we are meant to interpret the infinitive according to its usual meaning: that is, we are meant to understand her as saying "simply by existing, we use something up." But I don't think I'll be suggesting anything too radical if I say I think there's a double meaning here: that we're meant to apprehend "to be" both in its "meaning" and as a word in itself: that is, that Willis is saying that even to say "to be," even to say that something is (or, worse, that something is something else), is "to use up/ something."

The combination of this skepticism toward the copular in combination with the notion of breath reminds me of a fascinating account of the surprisingly varied etymologies of the irregular forms of to be in its English conjugation, which I encountered in (of all places) Julian Jaynes's batty The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Discussing the pervasiveness of metaphor in language, Jaynes writes (irregular quotation-mark practices and all):

Even such an unmetaphorical-sounding word as the verb 'to be' was generated from a metaphor. It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, "to grow, or make grow," while the English forms 'am' and 'is' have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi, "to breathe." It is something of a lovely surprise that the irregular conjugation of our most nondescript verb is thus a record of a time when man [sic] had no independent word for 'existence' and could only say that something 'grows' or that it "breathes." Of course we are not conscious that the concept of being is thus generated from a metaphor about growing and breathing. Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.
At the risk of sounding like I'm making fun of Jaynes (who I actually find to be a fascinating and often vital thinker who is onto something in general, unhinged though he may be in certain areas), I must note that he seems unclear--and conveniently, inconsistently so--on the relation between Sanskrit and English: first English words "come from" Sanskrit ones, then they evolve from the same roots, then these separate products of evolution seem suddenly to have a causal link again. Jaynes sources his account to Philip Wheelwright's The Burning Fountain, which I have not read, know nothing about, and cannot vouch for; I can say that the Oxford English Dictionary seems somewhat to agree with Jaynes on "be" (saying it comes from an Indo-European root shared with Greek phuein, "to bring forth, cause to grow"), and does say that "am" and "is" both come from the same I-E root but says nothing about what it might have meant. So the crux of why I'm bringing this all up (the link between "to breathe" and "to be") is, to be sure, questionable and vague, but the association remains, for me at least, interesting; and the fundamental point stands: that even so innocuous a word as "to be" and its various conjugations (the OED also mentions that "was" and "were" come from an I-E root meaning "remain" and that the origin of "are" is unknown) conceals a complexity of meaning, metaphor, and history that we seldom become aware of.

It is difficult to know why I'm talking about these things.* I dislike the too-common use of etymology as a sort of "secret code" that promises to unlock the mysteries of the work at hand, as though literature were identical with cryptography,** but I understand and share in what I hope are the better aspects of the impulse: the recognition in etymology of a history of thought, open equally to the writer and to the reader (and to the critic). Indeed, this history of thought and of ideas seems to be a major interest of Willis's in this work, strewn as it is with references to fairy tales, various mythologies and religions, scientific discourse, and so on, not to mention the transfigured-without-alteration Blake reference in the title.

*I suppose that sentence might make a good motto for this blog as a whole.
**Though I must note, as I will not have occasion to otherwise, that Willis does occasionally act as though her poem is a cryptogram: see much of the third section, "The Relation of the Lion to the Book Is the Number 5."

My point, before I strayed so far from it, is that we have here in this book, and very early on at that, a significant and explicit problematization of "to be." In this context, it is interesting to note that right around this same point (even at the exact same moment, to a certain extent), equally explicit "political statement" begins to appear in the poem--though it tends to remain, for the moment, firmly and willfully planted in the realm of language metaphorical, poetic, lyric (that is to say that while any statement in any work of literature is nothing but language, these statements of Willis's make sure to couch themselves in very ornamented "literary" terms). Just a few lines down from being told that to be is to use up:

At will we show bones through skin
or flounce the word "rumpus" to mean
the trouble one causes on one's own, plane from which

bombs scatter like Havana cigars

On the next page Havana cigars in turn become both winters and antelopes. And then just one more page on,
we have opened the box
shelled buildings with our insatiable hands
fallen forward and against
the stolen meals and borrowed clothes
There is no way we can forget that these bombs she has suddenly brought up and begun stewing over are not real bombs, only metaphor: that is to say, we are safe, both from the bombs' violence and from the guilt of helping to drop them.

I think it not coincidence that these two moments, the problematization of "to be" and the metaphor-as-political-statement-as-metaphor, coincide.

The Human Abstract is, I think, technically a collection (the acknowledgments page certainly refers to it as such, and lists places where portions of it have been previously published as standalone poems). It seems, though, to encourage one to read it as a continuous work, a sort of epic, both through its metaphoric/linguistic systems and its physical layout as a book. And as one does, in fact, read through it continuously, one finds an increasingly overwhelming sense of indeterminacy, of the shifting of linguistic space until it is impossible anymore to say that anything "is" anything--that, as Jaynes would have it, the concrete images on the coin have worn away in the busy give-and-take of talk. For most of the book's length, outside of the context we've already encountered it in, "to be" and its various (etymologically diverse!) forms are used almost always as auxiliaries in progressive or passive-voice constructions ("Night is going 200 miles an hr"; "we are suddenly altered"), in the conditional or subjunctive ("Though my heart were a pear tree"), and in the asking of questions ("Who am I to stop this flowing")--rarely if ever in any declarative statements of existence or equivalence.

Perhaps more to the point regarding the linguistic shifting I am talking about, the work begins relatively coherently--"A Maiden," the first part of the section of the same title which opens the poem, itself opens with this stanza:

When I found your face on a pillow of leaves
you had already erased it. A nest so heavy
can stay in the heavens only by reversal.
which is a bit odd, to be sure, but nothing too difficult--but very soon this coherence dissolves into near-indecipherability. A mere two lines later (both of which are whole stanzas to themselves, as are many individual lines here) we are given the line "I said to the young man", without there being any certain way of knowing what part of the four lines so far was said, if any, or who the young man is, or for that matter who I is. I said to the young man is treated as a complete sentence, as though the transitivity of "to say" has suddenly changed: as though one could "say to" without saying anything.

And that's just the beginning, and benign compared to what we're soon faced with as we get to passages (as in the second section, "Jordan (H-YRDN)") in which whole pages seem to be missing half of themselves. This is a page from that section in its entirety:

who but you)

captive by the face of the fire

ash came//    ash-sham
a kingdom

-verted in the midst

the woundedness

buoyant in (a world /
the dream in Rabbah:

walls grew up like flames.

(One is reminded, incidentally, that much of what "survives"--remains? continues to breathe?--of Sappho is in the form of papyrus torn into strips and used to wrap mummies, on which can be read only a word or two from each line--and one is glad to see that Ezra Pound is not the only poet who can be inspired--caused to grow? and of course "inspired" itself means "to breathe into"--by this awful but fascinating destruction.)

Much of the book will oscillate between the more "coherent" or seemingly "lyrical" passages and these disrupted fragments (one of which, even, reads "first half of the sentence is lost"), which for me far more effectively uproots one's certainty in the faculties of language than a whole book of nothing but fragments would.

After all this, it is very startling to come across, in the last section (titled, like the book itself, "The Human Abstract") a number of very certain-seeming statements--almost slogans, even--using forms of "to be" (or, occasionally, other verbs just as definitive). The effect is very bizarre and hard to explain, even to oneself; these statements become somehow simultaneously more emphatic and far more uncertain than they would be were there a more conventional work behind them. One wonders, how can she say these things, after all we've experienced? And yet she is saying them!

Property is a form of hearing


Human understanding is a savage construction
of dilation and resistance


Existing means dressing up


I am standing up


The egg is not by nature
better than the full crow

I am every kind of stone
but one

Perhaps most startling is this, which makes up the entirety of one page, and which it is easy to imagine Jenny Holzer projecting on the side of a building:
Emotions are my daily actions.

Each seed has a gender.

The love of fertile ground can be a kind of phobia.

The mustard thrown to stony soil was saved.

All is fair.

Even the periods feel unprecedented in this so sparsely punctuated work.

Please bear with me as I continue to throw chunks of quotes at you; we, like the book, are almost finished. For by now we are indeed very close to the end--and we encounter this page, which seems still to want to make these ringing statements, but seems now, somehow, again unable to:

What I know was divided

by the weather of others

There's a kind of electricity

a fire in the first snow

A mine from the perspective of an owner

a mine as labor

After this only two more pages remain, and they are filled with isolated, sometimes tragicomic lines* like "(deeper, more mountainous)// the continent submerges at a distance// Death wrote a poem and I lost it" and, the last line of the entire book, "I'm late and come adrift".

*Speaking of comedy, I have no legitimate place to put this but I just really want to point out the funniest line in the whole book, which comes much earlier than what I'm talking about now. That line is: "Clue: I'M GOING TO BUY A BAT."

After all this explication, I have to admit I'm not quite sure what to make of all this (let alone what to make of the book as a whole!). It could all be seen as "cheating," as Willis wanting to acknowledge the impossibility anymore of declaration, and yet wanting to declare anyway...but if cheating it is, how then to account for the powerful experience I at least find reading it to be? In seeing these so certain statements, particularly the more "politically" oriented ones, I am struck forcefully both by the "message" itself and by the pathos in their presentation, struggling towards certainty in surroundings that admit nothing of the sort. But have I simply been duped?

I prefer to think not. And it could be that what makes it so powerful is that, for me, to be responsible in the world today is to walk just this line: to acknowledge the impossibility of declaration and yet to feel its necessity; to know the need of action and the hesitance of uncertainty.


By way of a surprise ending.

In my list of the "slogan"-like statements I deliberately and somewhat mendaciously left out one very important one: in fact, it was the very first one that struck me in the way I've described. It is this:

"you" is a man
"you" writes my book
If there has ever been a better demonstration of the way a writer, in the midst of doubt and uncertainty and on ever-shifting ground, can still somehow punch both herself and the reader--who we might call "me"--in the stomach, with accuracy, I have not seen it.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Unexpected worlds in 20th century Modernism

One thing that is always very difficult--and fascinating--for me in apprehending history is the coexistence of various strands simultaneously. That is to say, knowing that certain events "happened at the same time" is not necessarily the same thing as understanding that they happened at the same time. Sometimes (as with, say, everything concurrent with the creation of capitalism: the emergence of what we now think of as science, the persecution of the witches, the creation of the concept of race and the slave trade, the expulsion of the Jews, the Reformation, the trials of the heretics, the genocides in the Americas...) understanding that multiple things were going on concurrently is vital to understand the nature of all of them, because they are intertwined, interdependent. Sometimes it just gives a momentary and fairly meaningless--but enjoyable--frisson (as with, I don't know, noticing that Star Wars and David Bowie's Low were originally released in the same year).

I'm not sure which category this falls in, but I've recently had two startling experiences of encountering, as I say in the title, unexpected worlds in 20th century Modernist poetry. I don't know how shared this experience is, but it seems to me that there can be a bizarre incongruity in encountering things that strike the contemporary reader as OLD, as period pieces, in what is "supposed to" (and does) still feel "new."

I recently read through, fairly superficially, the poems in T.S. Eliot's first book, Prufrock and Other Observations, for the first time. (I had of course encountered "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" before, but I'm not certain I had ever read it in its entirety.) And I was struck by the famous conceit in that titular poem (a poem which I am not at the moment equipped to discuss in any real depth), that of the fog as being like a cat:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
For I realized what I never had before, despite how obvious it is: that this is not referring to just any old fog. It is specifically describing a London "pea souper": a phenomenon tied to a specific era of London's industrial life: a phenomenon which no longer occurs.

Reading on, there was more. Take the imagery of horse-drawn carriages and, particularly, the lighting of the gas lamps that dramatically concludes the first section of "Preludes":

The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.
All this, the pea soupers, the cab-horses, the lamp-lighting, even to a lesser extent the "broken blinds and chimney-pots," are things that we, or at least I, associate more with Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper (or at least the general pop-cultural sense of them) than with "modernity."* Obviously I have not completed this thought, but allow me to move on for a moment before I continue.

*Though I suppose we could take Alan Moore's view that Jack the Ripper, at least, ushered in the world we live in today.

Another similar encounter, though on different ground and across the Atlantic, was in Hart Crane. In "Atlantis," the closing poem/section of The Bridge, there are two oddly pastoral moments thrown in to the imagery of New York City. The first is easy to pass over in the general surface-level "incoherence" surrounding it:

We left the haven hanging in the night--
Sheened harbor lanterns backward fled the keel.
Pacific here at time's end, bearing corn,--
Eyes stammer through the pangs of dust and steel.
The second such moment, a stanza or two later, is more definitive:
Sustained in tears the cities are endowed
And justified conclamant with ripe fields
Revolving through their harvests in sweet torment.
As so often with Crane we pull out the dictionary (or, OK, I do); this time, we learn that conclamant means "calling out together," and again we are reminded that for Crane the world, and everything in it, is animate, is vocal, possesses language: the city and the fields are crying out together. But what does he mean, together?

On my first pass through The Bridge, overwhelmed, I did not take particular note of either of these moments, but to the extent that I did I think I chalked them up as a sort of high Modernist wit: modernity gesturing ironically in the direction of a no longer possible pastoral. And, well, that is to be sure part of what's going on in these lines, but there is something else--something quite literal--going on as well. My guide (or at least my first guide) through The Bridge, as so often, was Samuel R. Delany: this time his excellent essay on Crane (focusing--to the extent that any Delany essay can be said to have a "focus"--largely on his homosexuality and the meaningfully absent signs of it in his poetry). "Atlantis Rose...: Some Notes on Hart Crane," is available in Longer Views. At the end of the essay, we find this:

This study grew--as did, indeed, my novel--out of an observation my father several times made to me while I was a teenager: As late as 1924, just after he first came from Raleigh, North Carolina, to New York City--and shortly thereafter took his first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge--Brooklyn was nowhere near as built up as it is today. Though, indeed, there were clusters of houses here and there, especially toward the water, my then-seventeen-year-old father was surprised, even somewhat appalled, that the road leading from the Bridge in those days decanted among meadows and by a cornfield: he was both surprised and appalled enough to mention it to me, with a self-deprecating laugh at his own astonishment at the time, some thirty-five years later.

The fields--and the corn--are both there (in the seventh and ninth stanzas) in Crane's "Atlantis."

(The novel to which Delany refers is his Atlantis: Model 1924, which I have not read but am given to understand is about a fictional-but-possible meeting between Delany's father and Crane on the Brooklyn Bridge. The seventh and ninth stanzas of "Atlantis," in part, are of course the sections I quoted above.)

The usual narratives of Modernism, I think, can't quite explain these Victorian or pastoral presences--not just references--in Crane and Eliot. I mean, I don't know how literally we're meant to take the plainly ahistorical accounts which claim that the disintegration (the usual term used) of World War I led to (as 1+1 leads to 2) the disintegration of the arts, but for Eliot, whose "Preludes" was written in 1910 and 1911 and whose "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was begun around the same time, the still essentially Victorian world in which he lived was enough to prompt his disintegrations.

This "usual narrative" to which I refer was concisely--and unskeptically--summarized by Eliot Weisenberger in his cluelessly negative New York Review of Books review of Gabriel Josipovici's essential What Ever Happened to Modernism?, in which says that

it is astonishing that [Josipovici's] is a Modernism without the rise of the city, with its factories, crowds, and anonymity; without the devastation of the Napoleonic and First World Wars; without the ideological ardors of communism and fascism, the thrill of speed, the new symbolic language of the telegraph, the international voices of radio, mass migrations, the representational “reality” of photographs and the collapse of time in film montage, anthropological investigations of tribal cultures, or the beauties and terrors of industrial products.
(The NYRB article is subscriber-only; I quote this from Stephen Mitchelmore's response.)

Beyond (or really going off of) Mitchelmore's response to this,* the steadfast, simplistic adherence to these narratives--and the knee-jerk rejection of anything which disputes or even adds to them--strikes me as a way of denying the multiplicity of these works, not to mention that of history and the "real world." It reduces the artist and the artistic process to stimulus, response, stimulus, response. And, again, much like what Delany observes about the "utopian/dystopian" lens through which so many critics view all sf (and what I said about Brian W. Aldiss's view of Kim Stanley Robinson), it leaves one unable to read what is in front of one.

*And my own, which is to think, "My god, you want another book like that? Don't we have enough already?"

Actually, these glimpses of "old" worlds in Modernist poetry remind me quite a bit of what Delany says about sf's possessing "much more potentially complex a template" than the simplistic utopian/dystopian divide. If we are to think that Modernism "is," say, a response to "the rise of the city," we must at least remember that "the city" is a very complicated place--and not just because of "its factories, crowds, and anonymity," but also because in it you can be moving along seemingly uncomplicatedly through one world, then take a turn, or open a door, and find yourself in a completely different one--one newer or older, richer or poorer, what have you.

And not only this! We must also, again at least, remember that "the city" has not always been the same as it is now: that it once included horses as an integral element rather than a nostalgic novelty; that it once included corn fields next to gay cruising grounds made of steel and concrete. And this memory must lead us to the question: at what point does the city reach the levels of complexity and pressure required to prompt the "disintegrations" so characteristic of Modernism? Cities, after all, have been with us as long as civilization itself has. (This is one of those cases where etymology comes in handy.) Is this point the same for all writers (who are, after all, individuals)? Is it, on its own, "enough"? What else might go along with it?

I think what I'm trying to get at--beyond the simple, oddly vertiginous pleasure I get when I see these sudden portals, if you will, to other, unexpected worlds, which was all I had originally intended to write about in this essay--is the danger of rubrics. If we give a list of what we think are the "causes" of Modernism, as Weisenberger and so many others seem so attached to doing, we won't necessarily be wrong, per se, but if we think that by so doing we have "explained" the phenomenon, that we now "understand" it, then we will be woefully mistaken; and the mistake may be far greater than simply not noticing what Eliot's yellow fog, what Crane's ripening corn, really are.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Noted: Roland Barthes on reading, production, desire

I'm in the midst of my first attempts at reading Barthes, and am finding myself ambivalent--partly because despite his insight he often relies heavily on constructs that seem troublesome to me, such as the sillier ends of Freudian thought, and partly because I experience what Richard has referred to as a "vertiginous feeling" on reading some of these complex European thinkers, particularly in translation.

Anyway, I'm reading Richard Howard's translation of Barthes's essays as collected in The Rustle of Language, and in the 1976 essay "On Reading," Barthes quotes Roger Laporte (about whom I know absolutely nothing):

A pure reading which does not call for another writing is incomprehensible to me...Reading Proust, Blanchot, Kafka, Artaud gave me no desire to write on these authors (not even, I might add, like them), but to write.
Which: yes, yes, yes. I know this feeling so well. My list would be different (simply because I have not [yet] read Proust or Blanchot, have hardly read Kafka, and...well, actually, I have had exactly this experience with Artaud, so leave him on there), probably including Hart Crane, Adrienne Rich, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Alfred Bester...but the point itself, my god yes. Immediately after this quote, Barthes comments:
In this perspective, reading is a veritable production: no longer of interior images, of projections, of hallucinations, but literally of work: the (consumed) product is reversed into production, into promise, into desire for production, and the chain of desires begins to unroll, each reading being worth the writing it engenders, into infinity. Is this pleasure of production an elitist pleasure, reserved only to potential writers? In our society, a society of consumption and not of production, a society of reading, seeing, and hearing, and not a society of writing, looking, and listening, everything is done to block the answer: lovers of writing are scattered, clandestine, crushed by a thousand--even internal--constraints.

This is a problem of civilization: but, for me, my profound and constant conviction is that it will never be possible to liberate reading if, in the same impulse, we do not liberate writing.

At the moment I have no comment on this, and I have no idea if it will be "useful" for me in the future, but it seems important and "true" enough to demand noting. I am tagging this with both "science fiction" and "poetry" despite its dealing directly with neither, because it is applicable to my thinking on both.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Areotopia '99 (part three)

Aldiss, in the postscript, "How It All Began," which concludes White Mars:
Planets are environments with their own integrity.... The end result [of a terraforming project] could only be to turn Mars into a dreary suburb.... Mars must become a UN protectorate, and be treated as a 'planet for science', much as the Antarctic has been preserved--at least to a great extent--as unspoilt white wilderness. We are for a WHITE MARS!
Aldiss, in an interview with SFcrowsnest [all sic]:
"White Mars" was written because I felt the world needed a utopia whether they liked it or not.

In essence, it had been an ambition for years - nothing to do with Kim Robinson's trilogy. Setting it on a remote island had been done: see Thomas More and Aldous Huxley. I wanted a utopia to burst forth in the midst of Europe.

I tried Norway, which seemed a likely spot. But I feared that someone might nuke Norway if they tried it on. So Mars it had to be, There my utopia can be established: it's cooperate or perish on Mars.

The first thing to say is that his denial that his Mars is a response to Robinson's is simply unbelievable. I certainly believe that writing a utopia "had been an ambition for years"; anyone who has read Billion Year Spree knows that Aldiss worships that genre (it is amusing to note, incidentally, that for him "I wanted to write it" and "the world needed it" seem to be the same thing). But to issue a pamphlet stretching metaphors beyond the breaking point to allow for the use of the phrase "White Mars" one year after the conclusion of Robinson's "three colors" Mars trilogy, and then two years later to title the book that, is simply too provocative a move to be unmeaningful, particularly as the two main strands of Aldiss's novel--the question of whether or not to terraform, and the attempt to create a utopian society--are also the two main strands of Robinson's trilogy. If he is telling the truth, that his book has "nothing to do with Kim Robinson's trilogy"--or if he expected that people would not connect the two--then he is far more oblivious to the world outside of his own head than even I gave him credit for. As is, I think him merely disingenuous, or perhaps--and this would be to his credit--embarrassed.

To move on: I ask you to look at these two quotes, to compare them. I would not want to argue that a writer can have only one motivation in writing a particular book. But there is a huge contradiction here between, on the one hand, this apparent urge to defend Mars as a sovereign place, with a right to continue to exist as it is, against an imaginary version of Kim Stanley Robinson those who would try to change it, whoever they may be, and, on the other hand, this feeling that "the world needed a utopia," and, well, islands have been done, Norway's too close to stuff, I guess Mars'll do.

As far as Aldiss is concerned, if not for some logistical problems it might as well have been Norway. This book that takes place on Mars was written out of a desire to see a utopia "in the midst of Europe." Mars, as Mars, matters not a bit.

In fictional terms,* we can see that Aldiss's relationship to Mars is just as exploitative, just as disrespectful of its right to its Marsness, as that of the hypothetical terraformers--with the addition of the hypocrisy embodied in his issuing manifestos claiming precisely the contrary. Mind you, again speaking purely in fictional terms: exploitative urges, disrespect, and hypocrisy--and, especially, contradiction--are not necessarily bad things to serve as a foundation for writing. But they need to be acknowledged, explored. And Aldiss, as always, runs from contradiction, refuses to acknowledge negative aspects of himself, and tries to smooth everything over into homogeneity (itself a central part of the utopian urge, perhaps).

*The only ones, frankly, that can really mean anything when it comes to this kind of discussion--though when/if these fictions turn into reality, the attitudes laid out in fiction may well have an influence on how things go. Certainly it seems Aldiss thinks so.

A responsible writer, I think, would--must--explore this contradiction when faced with it. In fact, I don't think it's too far off to suggest that this is just what Robinson does in his "areotopia." It is at this point that Delany's comments on utopia may be illuminating, for it is precisely this fundamental aspect of sf which Aldiss does not seem to understand, which leaves him unable to read Robinson.

In the conflict between Robinson's Sax Russell, "green," and Ann Clayborne, "red," we can of course see the conflict between the believers in New Jerusalem (and, conversely, The Land of the Flies) and the believers in Arcadia (and, conversely, Brave New World)--sort of. On Mars, of course, The Land of the Flies (and Arcadia) is more properly The Land of the Thin, Cold, Poisonous Atmosphere, which complicates things immensely. Robinson, too, unlike Delany (or Auden), brings in ecological issues, which are of course of paramount concern; beyond that, the character of Hiroko Ai--so frequently off-stage, in hiding, missing, possibly dead--signals some of the ways in which Delany's four "mythic views of the world" play into one another, desiring as she does to usher in Arcadia by way of New Jerusalem.

It is not my desire to mechanically assign the four points of Delany's Audenian compass to elements of Robinson's trilogy.* Such assignments would be boring and pointless, and would ultimately fail in the face of the ever-increasing disjunctiveness of Robinson's symbolic structure.** For now, suffices to say that one of the values of Robinson's trilogy is that it is aware of the multiplex nature of reality and of experience, the multiplicity of perspectives, and of truths. As such, what political statements it includes (and it includes many) are infinitely more powerful, and infinitely more wise, than any of Aldiss's one-sided, top-down proclamations. One gets the sense that the issuing of such is not exactly what Aldiss intends to do, but his stodginess and elitism is such that he does not allow himself to complicate his narrative, or his own opinions, enough to allow for anything else.

*Though now it occurs to me to wonder what Robinson's character Michel Duval, so fond of his interlocking alchemical squares as ways of explaining the world and its people, might do with this particular framework.
**This particularly sfnal technique, so brilliantly utilized in the trilogy, of using characters with highly schematic symbolic aspects in extraordinarily disjunctive combination, will most definitely be a subject of later posts.

There is much more that could be said about these two works. I have not touched much on the role of women in either; neither is perfect, though Robinson (apart from his deeply problematic, near-sadistic treatment of the character Zo in Blue Mars) is vastly preferable, as he at least recognizes that the equality of women would result in an utterly transformed society (or perhaps, in certain very specific cases, vice versa). An almost hilariously telling passage in Aldiss is the one where he omits the phenomenology of pregnancy even more thoroughly than he omits the phenomenology of space, or of Mars:

I went to the hospital, where I had myself injected with some of Tom Jefferies's DNA. My womb was grateful for the benevolent gravity and I delivered my beautiful daughter Alpha without pain one day in 2067.
The entire experience of pregnancy takes place here in the space between a period and a capital M. After this, baby Alpha is simply on the scene, having no impact whatsoever on how Cang Hai leads her life--despite the absence of any system for raising children communally.

Meanwhile, a bizarre scene of near-rape is far more disturbing than Aldiss, who treats it almost as a digestif to conclude thirty straight pages of expository dialogue,* thinks it is.

*Another topic on which there will surely be more coming: massive unbroken sections of exposition are usually, to me, among the most thrilling parts of sf novels, and are indeed one of the wonderful things that the genre allows (or even encourages) which other genres do not: a sort of lyrical didacticism. Meanwhile, Aldiss, who spent a large portion of Billion Year Spree pooh-pooing the very notion of didacticism and ridiculing classic sf for its clunky exposition, engages here in some of the worst-handled, most utterly uninteresting, slogging, page-after-page-after-goddamn-page exposition I have ever read.

There is much more, much more: the treatment of race (again far from perfect in either, again much more palatable in Robinson who, despite his occasional lapses in the direction of stereotypes such as the inscrutable Asian, at least doesn't include imagery playing on the threat of white women's defilement in a "How It All Began" statement); the treatment of capitalism (ideologically fairly sound, as far as I'm concerned, in both, though deeply naïve in Aldiss); of metaphysics and religion; of expansionism. But I'm sure I'm not the only one who's getting tired of this essay (unless of course I'm the only one reading it!), and anyway despite appearances it really is not my goal to just make an itemized list and check off "Robinson better, Robinson better" on each one.

Because while in fact Robinson's Mars trilogy is enormously better than White Mars on any axis along which you could care to compare them, the significance of this is not limited to a battle between two works. What we have here is a dramatic representation of many of the central problems of sfnal practice.

To be sure, vast swathes of contemporary sf refuses even to come anywhere near these issues, content to twaddle itself into big-selling irrelevance with Sexy Lady Space Cop Book #17 or the ongoing saga of a quirky cast of begoggled characters banging gears together in an all-white version of Victorian England in which women magically have never been oppressed (but sure are sexy!), but for that portion of the genre that is not content to do so, the problems which Robinson engages with, which Aldiss largely fails to engage with, must be acknowledged.

It's been so long now, and I'm writing this late enough at night, that I have no idea if I've succeeded in elucidating any of these problems. But hell, I've got a whole blog ahead of me if I haven't, right? If nothing else I hope these thousands of words have at least raised some points for later discussion.

P.S. Don't read White Mars.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Areotopia '99 (part two)

Last time, before I got sidetracked, I was talking about how the original impulse behind his wretched White Mars was supposedly a concern over the desire, fictional or not, to terraform Mars. He tells us directly that the pamphlet announcing his presidency of the cute little club APIUM (Association for the Protection and Integrity of an Unspoilt Mars) was "How It All Began."

But despite this supposedly foundational concern for Mars as a place--as an "environment with its own integrity"*--in his novel as actually written Aldiss does not treat it as such. Kim Stanley Robinson, you will remember, concludes his introduction to Red Mars by saying that, with the arrival of humans on that planet, it ceased to be an idea merely: "now it became a place." And as I examined cursorily in the last post, he takes this very seriously, dealing heavily in the fundamentally different nature of this place and in the consequences on it of human habitation and actions. Aldiss, however, true to the utopian tradition announced in his novel's second subtitle--but not true to the way that tradition has changed and expanded under the influence of genre sf--treats Mars as, precisely, "no place."

*In this quote I have changed the plural to the singular to fit the syntax.

An early indication of this (mis)treatment of Mars is Aldiss's complete and deliberate omission of what I call, perhaps goofily, "the phenomenology of space." Despite the intriguing move of having his future-science replace the term "space" with "matrix," acknowledging the important and wondrous fact that what we think of as empty vacuum is actually teeming with bizarre activity on the quantum-physical scale, Aldiss slaps his characters into cryosleep for the duration of the journey between the planets. This is not in itself a problem, and indeed he gestures toward some of the interesting possibilities raised by such a technique when he has his sometime-narrator Cang Hai go into psychiatric treatment for her overwhelming fear of going back into cryosleep, a state so near to death, as well as wondering if she is still in any meaningful way the same person now as the person who went into cryosleep. This is precisely the kind of powerful disjuncture sf is so adept at dealing with. We realize soon, however, that Aldiss is entirely uninterested in dealing with the consequences of his ideas, for just as he has used cryosleep as a convenience enabling him to ignore the experience of space travel, he uses Cang Hai's phobia not to explore the experience of cryosleep itself, but rather as a clumsy device for exposition, rushing us through the methodology (but again not the experience) of transit and introducing us to the psychological techniques of Aldiss's 21st century.

Lest I seem as dictatorial as Aldiss regarding what are suitable sfnal topics,* let me say that I raise these issues as problems only because Aldiss uses them to cheat: he is trying to chastise others for their insufficient respect for Mars as place while at the same time covering up some of the most significant features of it as a place: in this case, its distance from the Earth and all that is involved in reaching it. By having his characters go to sleep and wake up on Mars, he is no more dealing with its reality than Edgar Rice Burroughs did; no more treating it as a real place as opposed to a magical fairyland than L. Frank Baum did with Oz (this is not to criticize either Baum or Burroughs, both of whose goals lay elsewhere). He is in fact doing exactly what the writers of utopias have done for centuries: choosing a convenient place, far from England home and supposedly empty, and then filling it with his own prescriptions for what should be.

*One of the many aggravating moments in Billion Year Spree is when he proclaims that "the Frankenstein theme is more contemporary and more interesting than interstellar travel tales, since it takes us nearer the enigma of man [sic] and thus [sic] of life; just as interstellar travel can yield more interest than such power-fantasy themes as telepathy." This hierarchy, like most such absolutist statements, elides the difference between topic and treatment, and as a critical lens leaves us unable to see differences between works. Is Joanna Russ's And Chaos Died a power fantasy? Does Ben Bova's "Stars, Won't You Hide Me?" not take us near "the enigma of man"? Not to mention that the "themes" he discusses need not be either/ors (both of the works I have just named feature interstellar travel and telepathy, in different combination), or that "the Frankenstein theme" itself is in fact (among other things) a complex treatment of a power fantasy**--i.e., the ancient male desire to reproduce without the involvement of women, or that perhaps "the enigma of man" need not be the sole topic of every single word ever committed to paper.
**My footnotes tend to metastasize. I wish only to note that the term "power fantasy" is a common one in sf criticism, and that though I use it in the above in responding to Aldiss's use of it, I myself find it an almost entirely valueless term, one which tends to be used thoughtlessly to dismiss and conceal complexities that may be uncomfortable for the critic.

To be sure, I am simplifying Aldiss's work a bit: for he does not treat Mars as entirely empty, and his condescension sarcasm irony leaves it questionable whether his prescriptions presented here are all really "his" prescriptions. Nevertheless, even these two counters to the tendency I am describing are explored no more thoroughly than the issues Aldiss raises, and abandons, with his "matrix" travel and cryosleep. No, though he nods from time to time in the direction of a more interesting novel, one likely far beyond his capability, the real novel he has written remains stuck tediously not on Mars qua Mars, but in any conveniently open location that can semi-plausibly be made to be isolated.

Perhaps its seems I am making too much of the omission of the interval between Earth and Mars. Fine, then: once we are on Mars, regardless of how we got there, what then?

The single most telling detail I can give you is that Aldiss presents us with colonists who have spent years on Mars returning to Earth and experiencing no difficulty with gravity--more, he presents us with people born on Mars traveling to Earth as adults with no such difficulty. (Compare Robinson, whose character Nirgal--an extraordinarily healthy endurance runner--is nearly killed by his trip to Earth.) This is no mere oversight; for the whole time we are on Mars, with the exception of a few moments that feel like afterthoughts, we are never made to feel the planet.

Obviously no book, being after all no more than a series of words laid on a series of pages, could literally make us "feel" Mars. And one could argue that Aldiss, by not even pretending to try to trick us into thinking we feel it, might be seen as in some ways less naïve than Robinson, perhaps contemporary sf's greatest poet of unusual kinesthetics, who goes to great lengths to achieve a Martian "reality effect." Were we not dealing with sf, I would likely agree. Sf is, however (in Darko Suvin's terms*), a literature of "cognitive estrangement." That is to say that in sf, unlike in for example the realist novel, when all is going well (which, admittedly, it often is not!) we are made to recognize consciously the fictional and metafictional processes which are going on, simply by their very nature; as Russ points out, in sf the most "real" elements become "the most bizarre and the least believable."

*I have my problems with Suvin, but they are a matter for a different essay. For the moment this framework of his is serviceable enough, so long as we remember that it is not a comprehensive definition of the field.

So it is that Robinson, by evoking so insistently the phenomenology of Martian existence, creates a more powerful and self-aware literary experience than Aldiss, so intent on evading this phenomenology (and others, as we saw before with space and will see again later) in favor of what he thinks are more "literary" effects. Thus, when Aldiss gives us his "Martian marathon" scene, it is sketched out cursorily on one page:

They had set an ingenious 6-kilometre course through the domes, parts of which involved them leaping from the roofs of four-storey buildings, equipped with wings to provide semi-flight in the light gravity...

Over 700 young people, men and women, together with a smattering of oldsters, were entered in the race...

Everyone not in the race turned out to watch. The music played. It proved an exciting occasion. First prize was a multi-legged dragon trophy, created in stone and painted by our sculptor, Benazir Bahudur, with less elaborate versions for runners who came in second and third.

The winner was the particle physicist Jimmy Gonzales Dust. He finished in 1,154 seconds. He was young and good-looking, with a rather cheeky air about him; he was very quick with his answers. At a modest banquet held in his honour, he was reported to have made a remarkable speech.

The elision of events in Aldiss's novel is a frequent enough device that it surely was a deliberate choice. Again, in a non-sfnal context replacing the event with the sentences "The music played. It proved an exciting occasion" might be in itself an exciting artistic choice, denying the usual fictional pleasures of action with flat, affectless* non-action that forcibly reminds us that we are reading a fiction, not witnessing an event. But this is sf. We are given the wings and told of the semi-flight, yes, but by not giving us these wings in action all Aldiss has done is taken what would have been a scene of powerful estrangement and domesticated it, allowing us--and, one feels, himself--to pretend there is nothing unusual about it: we have, in our lives, heard music play; we have experienced exciting occasions; nothing more is happening here.

*And it is possible too that Aldiss here intends to convey the affectless nature of his narrator, at this moment the utopian Tom Jeffries. I cannot be certain, though, because I was unable to tell if he was in fact meant to be affectless; nor, indeed, was I able to discern any significant stylistic or other substantial difference between the sections narrated by him and those narrated by Cang Hai. I often had to flip back to the table of contents, which tells you who narrates which chapters, to remind myself of whose section I was reading.

Again, compare Robinson, who also gives us a sort of Martian Olympics (though unlike Aldiss's one-time event, Robinson's are ongoing--and, again unlike Aldiss's, not competitive in any significant or permanent sense):

The pole vault was Maya's favorite, it amazed her...the bounding yet controlled sprint, the precise planting of the extremely long pole as it jounced forward, the leap, the pull, the vault itself, feet pointing at the sky; then the catapulted flight into space, body upside down as the jumper shot above the flexing pole, and up, and up; then the neat twist over the bar (or not), and the long fall onto an airgel pad...

Shot puts still looked heavy, their throwing awkward. Javelins flew forever. High jumpers were only able to clear four meters, to Maya and Michel's surprise. Long jumpers, twenty meters; which was a most amazing sight, the jumpers flailing their limbs through a leap that lasted four or five seconds, and crossed a big part of the field.

Elsewhere, multiple places, Robinson describes, stunningly, the different movement of water, whether in a pool splashed by swimmers or in an ocean whipped by wind, under significantly lesser gravity than that to which we are accustomed. All of this powerfully evocative description (and much more like it) of things that simply, in Delany's terms, have not happened (no human has ever long-jumped twenty meters on Mars or anywhere else!) contributes to what might be described as a sort of sense of wonder, that classic but so widely misunderstood sfnal effect, on a quotidian scale. There will surely be essays here in the future on just what it is that I think sense of wonder consists in and of, but for now it is enough to say that all of this deals in precisely that fluctuating suspension of disbelief Russ describes, pulling us in and distancing us both alternately and simultaneously in a way that Aldiss's omissions never could.

When I continue, it will be to discuss why it is that Mars is, despite Aldiss's insistence to the contrary, so much not a place, so much not itself, in White Mars. It will hopefully also be the last part of this essay, which I never intended to spend so much time on.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Areotopia '99: White Mars by Brian W. Aldiss via Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (part one)

Kim Stanley Robinson begins his remarkable Mars trilogy with that favorite sfnal device, the all-italics passage which places itself somewhere, undefined, outside the story proper. Such italicized passages will recur, covering drastically varied ground, at regular intervals throughout the entire trilogy, but this first one functions distinctly as an introduction.

It covers "the history of Mars in the human mind" (greatly compressed, naturally, and just as naturally including and eliding based on easily-deducible conceptual prejudices), from its likely prehistoric significance as one of the brightest lights in the sky (and one of those with the oddest behavior, periodically reversing direction), to Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell's canals, to the Martian civilizations of early sf, to the thrilling but lifeless revelations of Mariner and Viking, through all of which

...Mars has never ceased to be what it was to us from our very beginning--a great sign, a great symbol, a great power.

And so we came here. It had been a power; now it became a place.

With this one deft move, Robinson places himself dually in the tradition of sf--beyond even the immediate familiarity to the sf reader of the typographical convention. First, he invokes, if not by name, a great bulk of that tradition by referring to "the story we all know, of a dying world and a heroic people, desperately building canals to hold off the final deadly encroachment of the desert," which naturally calls to mind everyone from H.G. Wells to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Stanley G. Weinbaum to Leigh Brackett to Ray Bradbury...some of whose names, among others, we have just seen if we have examined the map of Mars in the early stages of its settlement which occupies the pages before this introduction. Second, with that statement, "it became a place," Robinson engages explicitly with an aspect of sf noted in some of the more perceptive comments from sf criticism (with which Robinson, himself an occasional critic, is surely familiar). I'm thinking now particularly of those of Joanna Russ:
Mundane, realistic fiction often carries its meaning behind the action, underneath the action, underneath the ostensible action. Science fiction cancels this process by making what is usually a literary metaphor into a literal identity.
and Mark Rose:
In realistic fiction, setting tends to be primarily a context for the portrayal of character... The phenomenon of landscape as hero is particularly common in science fiction, where the truly active element of the story is frequently neither character nor plot but the world the writer creates.
By engaging with these ideas so directly, Robinson is signalling his awareness of both the traditions and the metatraditions in which he is working.

(The Russ quote is from her introduction to To Write Like a Woman; she has written about this issue elsewhere but I chose this for its brevity. The Rose is from his introduction to Science Fiction: A Collection of Essays, a volume he edited and which has value beyond its intended introductory purpose by virtue of Rose's interesting comments in his introduction.)

If by his "now it became a place" Robinson both places himself within the sf tradition and pretends to remove himself from it (by claiming to be telling the real, i.e. non-sfnal, story of Mars), then this is just all the more exciting--and he knows that, though we are already with him, we simultaneously don't buy it for a moment (which situation is itself reminiscent of Russ's observations about the shifting suspension of disbelief we encounter in reading sf). What we are reading is new and exciting, yes, but it knows what sf is, it knows that sf is literature, but of a different kind than most of what that word usually describes, and it knows that it is, itself, sf.

The case is different with Brian W. Aldiss, whose exhaustingly-betitled White Mars or, The Mind Set Free: A 21st Century Utopia (written "in collaboration with Roger Penrose") was published in 1999--three years after Blue Mars--and was surely intended to be read in the context of, as a response to, the prominence of Robinson's trilogy in the sfnal landscape of the 1990s (though Aldiss has weakly denied this, as we shall see later; I don't buy it for a second). In his usual fashion,* he has gone out of his way to make the dialogue in which he enters himself seem grudging, beneath him--and so despite responding directly to a work in the main line of the genre, Aldiss as always goes out of his way to place himself not in the tradition of sf but rather in the stodgy depths of what Russ has described** as "some 'respectable' tradition...whatever makes SF look harmless, ancient, respectable--and not itself."

*This and other similar judgments are largely based on my reading of the opinions Aldiss puts forward in his "history," which is not a history, of "science fiction," which is not science fiction, Billion Year Spree: a dreadful book, though with some useful concepts; it at least has the virtue of introducing the idea of Mary Shelley as a foundational influence on sf--a move Aldiss himself described later (alas, I cannot remember where, and I paraphrase) as "striking an unintentional blow for women's lib." Clearly.
**Not, to be clear, in reference to Aldiss. The quote is from a pithily damning letter to
Science-Fiction Studies, published in 1973 under the title "Four Complaints."

Aldiss's novel, search engines suggest, was not well received, and it is perhaps uncharitable of me to add, more than a decade later, to the abuse. However, I do think that a consideration of the goals of these two works, Aldiss's and Robinson's, can perhaps be revelatory of some of the struggles of the genre, particularly in its contemporary aspect. I don't know if I'll be able to do any of this revealing, but I will try.

I don't feel it necessary to give synopses of these books. Both deal with the colonization of Mars in the relatively near future, and with the struggle of the settlers to establish--or not to establish--a just society on that planet. Both works, or at least their characters, are nakedly didactic. Beyond that, I will bring up details as they become relevant.

The last page of White Mars, which follows an utterly unnecessary "Appendix by Dr Laurence Lustgarten" (for real), laying out the fictional "United Nationalities Charter for the Settlement of Mars" that we've already seen essentially all of anyway, is another appendix, headed "How It All Began," with the subheading "APIUM: Association for the Protection and Integrity of an Unspoilt Mars." It is signed at the bottom

Brian W. Aldiss
President, APIUM
Pamphlet distributed January 1997
Green College, Oxford, England
"Plans are already afoot," it begins, enraptured with its own collegiate Britishness,* "to send human beings to Mars." This is in itself manifestly wonderful, Aldiss goes on to say, but there is "an assumption that the Red Planet can be turned into something resembling a colony, an inferior Earth." He goes on to argue against the terraforming of Mars, using lovely rape metaphors and following them up immediately by saying that the planet must "be treated as a 'planet for science', much as the Antarctic has been preserved--at least to a great extent--as unspoilt white wilderness. We are for a WHITE MARS!"** (Exclamation point, capitals, and racist implications original).

*Have I mentioned yet that White Mars is "Dedicated to the Warden and Fellows of Green College, Oxford"? No, really, it is.
**In case you are wondering: no, Aldiss does not seem to be aware that while an unspoiled Antarctica is indeed primarily white, an unspoiled Mars is, well, not.

Please don't mistake me: I agree, to the extent that it is possible to agree with writing as grotesquely muddled in its form and premises as this. I think that, in the unlikely event that humans ever get to Mars, it would be a travesty to try to change it, to try to terraform it. When Aldiss says that "Planets are environments with their own integrity" and that the "end result" of terraforming "could only be to turn Mars into a dreary suburb, imitating the less attractive features of terrestrial cities," I think he's right, though my conception of what these "less attractive features" are is likely different from his.

Apart from Aldiss's genteel racism and misogyny, though, there is still much that bothers me about this pamphlet. The larger issue (larger than what follows in my essay, not larger than racism and misogyny) is that by implicitly positioning it as a blueprint for what he seems to think is the only responsible path, not just for the "real" future but for all sfnal futures, Aldiss seeks (as he has sought for all the six decades of his career) to severely impoverish the field in which he ostensibly works. This can perhaps be made more clear by focusing on the "smaller issue," the more specific one of Aldiss's obfuscated but nevertheless clear use of this pamphlet, and from there the whole novel, as a "response" to Robinson's trilogy (APIUM certainly couldn't have been a response to immediate real-world concerns; did anyone in 1997 seriously believe colonization of Mars was imminent?)--it was after all distributed one year after the publication of the last volume of the trilogy, and you can feel the moisture of Aldiss's sense of his own cleverness dripping of the page when he answers Robinson's Red Mars and Green Mars and Blue Mars with his own "WHITE MARS!".*

*Because of the way my life is arranged I do a lot of my reading in public, and let me tell you it was extremely embarrassing to be seen holding a book with those words plastered across the cover--far more embarrassing than to be seen with, say, this.

But the thing is, or one thing is anyway, that this idea he seems to have--that Robinson in his trilogy advocates for terraforming every bit as uncomplicatedly and every bit as irresponsibly as, say, Robert A. Heinlein advocates for war in Starship Troopers--is just utterly bizarre and, well, wrong. Beyond the fact that real-life terraforming, unlike war, is at best a vague long-distance possibility, this simply is not what Robinson has done. The debate and struggle between the "Greens," who want to terraform Mars and are led in different ways by the physicist Sax Russell and the environmental systems designer and mystic Hiroko Ai, and the "Reds," who think that Mars itself has a sovereign right to stay untouched and are led, unwillingly at first, by the geologist (or rather areologist) Ann Clayborne, is perhaps the animating force of the entire trilogy; a substantial chunk, perhaps the majority, of Blue Mars consists of Sax's attempts to understand Ann's perspective and then to apologize to her for what he's done to the planet--and then their combined attempts to reconcile what's been done, what can't be undone, to what would be ideal.

To be sure, Robinson devotes quite a lot of loving detail to the process of terraforming, to the changing landscapes: some of the most breathtaking passages in the trilogy deal with emerging beaches formed by the new oceans, or with the stages of the developing plant ecosystems (Sax, and I, were particularly taken with Martian krummholz), or with the way the colors of the sky change over time as the atmosphere thickens and its composition changes. Words associated with this process (subliming, katabatic wind, polynya...) become in the narration almost as much a magical incantation as the multilingual chant of the names of Mars in the Areophany, a central part of the Martian spirituality that grows up over the course of the novels, is for some of the characters. But, too, as perhaps indicated by the Areophany (which is shared in by many of the Greens and the Reds), he devotes similar loving attention to the alienness of Mars, its coldness, its lifelessness, its Marsness. Ann's trip to the pole with the engineer Nadia Cherneshevsky in the early days, say, and Nadia's horror on returning to the settlement, seeing for the first time the ugliness of what she had helped build, had considered neutral, is taken every bit as seriously as any of Sax's work:

"...plumes of smoke...billowing into a flat-topped mushroom cloud...the litter of frames, crates, tractors, cranes, spare-part dumps, garbage dumps...the big mounds of raw regolith next to the cement factory...It had the disordered, functional, ugly look of Vanino or Usman or any of the Stalinist heavy-industry cities in the Urals, or the oil camps of Yakut. They rolled through a good five kilometers of this devastation...Nadia too was shocked...this had all seemed perfectly normal before the trip, indeed had pleased her very much. Now she was slightly nauseated..."
The inevitable progression of the titles themselves, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, could be taken as a sort of triumphal manifest-destiny march of progress...or it could be taken as an inexorable descent into the ruination of the planet-as-it-was...or it could be taken simply as a value-free statement of what, sfnally speaking, happened. If we take the fact that the terraformers "win in the end" as a sign that Robinson wants to convince us that this is the way, we have read only one of the many stories Robinson has written us. The key is that Robinson, to the extent that he presents a judgment of the terraforming project at all, presents a judgment that is ambivalent.

But there is no room in Aldiss's black and white world for ambivalence.

He truly seems not to understand that books can do anything other than mechanically endorse their contents. Well, actually, that's not entirely true--Aldiss himself, if no one else ever, is allowed irony. Of course in his clumsy hands irony always turns into sarcasm, and even sarcasm turns out to be too refined and winds up as condescension. Aldiss does not write books: he deigns to write books. Consider the tiresome metacomments he relishes putting in the mouths of the characters in this work of utopian sf: "Predictions are for amusement only." "There we venture into the realms of science fiction. I can't comment on that." "All utopias have their sell-by dates, you know."

Anyway, the point is that if he interprets the Mars trilogy, as he seems to, as propagandistically agitating for the headlong colonization and terraforming of Mars, he has catastrophically misread Robinson's work. The problem is actually much more severe than that: for he has in fact catastrophically misread science fiction as a whole.

More on that, and other issues, surely to come.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Noted: Joanna Russ on frames, subjunctivity, and disbelief in sf

Here is a passage from Joanna Russ's "Speculations: The Subjunctivity of Science Fiction," an article following on Samuel R. Delany's discussion of that subjunctivity (Russ's elision of which I have quoted before) which was originally published in Extrapolation in 1973; I quote it as collected in To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. As implied in the title, Russ's article is largely made up of a series of "speculations" set off by Delany's notion of sf's subjunctivity.
Science fiction usually begins in medias res; we are plunged instantly into a strange world and we never return from it. A common pattern in science fiction is The Dislocated Protagonist--that is, the protagonist who finds himself in a strange place or a strange world at the beginning of the story with no knowledge of how he got there. He usually does find out how he got there, but he also stays there. An even commoner pattern is The Dislocated Reader--that is, the story begins as if it were a naturalistic story, and the reader must find his own way through the strange world: to the characters in the story, of course, it’s not a strange world at all....

In science fiction the frame is sometimes in evidence but more often not. A reader judges the science-ficitonal-ness of what happens by what he himself knows of the actual world; that is, the reader carries his frame with him. What, in naturalism, would be the frame--the most “real” part of the story (future histories, quotations from encyclopedias, newspaper reports, and so on)--becomes the most bizarre and the least believable. Such elements are pure Brechtian alienation: they are not so and they pretend extra-hard to be so. Furthermore, they are science-fictionally not-so; that is, they are not related to actuality by negative subjunctivity, but by some other kind of subjunctivity. Like satire, science fiction proposes a dialectical relation between the model and the fictional exaggeration/extrapolation/whatever. Consider, for example, the effect of referring to “the barbarism of the twentieth century”; or more drastically still, “the pastoral peacefulness of the twentieth century.” The little shock such a phrase gives a reader comes from the reader’s own knowledge of the twentieth century and from nowhere else...

In science fiction the relation between the “secondary universe” of fiction and the actual universe is both implicit and intermittently more or less perceivable. It consists not of what is on the page but in the relation between that and the reader’s knowledge of actuality. It is always shifting.

One does not suspend one’s disbelief in reading science fiction – the suspension of disbelief (complex to begin with, as it is with satire) fluctuates constantly. That is, the relation with actuality – what Delany would call the subjunctivity of the story – fluctuates constantly.

Noted: Samuel R. Delany on sf and utopia

What follows is an essential passage from Samuel R. Delany's "Critical Methods/Speculative Fiction," originally published in 1971 in Quark/1, the first in a series of four anthologies edited by Delany and Marilyn Hacker. I quote it as it appears in the Wesleyan University Press edition of The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction.

I will no doubt be referring back to this regularly. As is so often the case with Delany, brief but useful excerpt or summary is made impossible by the extended interweaving of his arguments, and so I present this section of the essay very nearly unelided so that those who wish can refer back to it when I allude to it in the future, so that all of its resonances can be cast over my own arguments. (I am not at all averse to this kind of stealing!)

The entire essay is valuable and provocative, tracing unexpected paths of influence on the formation of the genre,* discussing the mutability of "human nature," and setting forth the most explicit and full account of Delany's view that sf and poetry are very similar enterprises (another topic I surely will be revisiting). All three of these strands then lead into this extended consideration of sf's relationship to utopian literature, which concludes the piece.

*In the process I think unfairly demoting the importance of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, both of whom after all were regularly reprinted in early issues of Amazing; the then-available English translations of the latter in particular I think were probably vital to the formation of sf's early style as distinct from other pulp modes. I would say that, rather than Wells and Verne having had little influence on genre sf, they had a type of influence which was not what either of them would have expected, nor was it what most people claim it was.

The primary accomplishment of this passage is of course the liberation of sf criticism from utopian standards and history (a liberation which has only intermittently been recognized in the forty years since), which is key to a deeper understanding of the genre. And it is no contradiction to be fascinated, as I am, by the application of this passage to the astounding body of sf-influenced but nevertheless still utopian literature that began appearing in the second half of the twentieth century (many but not all of which came from the feminist movement): Delany's own Triton (aka Trouble on Triton), Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, the works of Mack Reynolds, Margaret Atwood's science fiction, many of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels, and so forth--all of which, despite their steadfastly utopian aspects, participate in the complex interplay Delany describes here and thus, in their very different ways, become something more than utopian literature.

Please apply [sic]s as necessary to examples of the "universal" man and he. Very soon after writing this essay Delany was to stop following that sexist practice.

...SF became able to reflect, focus, and diffract the relations between man and his universe, as it included other men, as it included all that man could create, all he could conceive.

Already, how much more potentially complex a template we have than the one left us by Victorian Utopian fiction. The Utopian fictions of Butler, Bellamy, Wells, as well as the later Huxley and Orwell, exhaust themselves by taking sides in the terribly limiting argument: "Regard this new society. You say it's good, but I say it's bad." Or, "You say it's bad, but I say it's good."

Auden has pointed out in his collection of essays The Dyer's Hand and then gone on to examine in his cycle of poems Horae Cononicae that this argument is essentially a split in temperaments...

There are, and always will be, those people who see hope in progress. Auden calls their perfect world New Jerusalem. In New Jerusalem hunger and disease have been abolished through science, man is free of drudgery and pain, and from it he can explore any aspect of the physical world in any way he wishes, assured that he has the power to best it should nature demand a contest. There are, and always will be, people who wish, in Auden's words, to return to Eden. He calls their perfect world Arcadia. In Arcadia, food is grown by individual farmers, and technology never progresses beyond what one man can make with his own hands. Man is at one with nature, who strengthens him for his explorations of the inner life; thus all that he creates will be in natural good taste; and good will and camaraderie govern his relation with his fellows.

To the man who yearns after Arcadia, any movement to establish New Jerusalem will always look like a step toward Brave New World, that mechanized, dehumanized, and standardized environment, where the gaudy and meretricious alternate with the insufferably dull; where, if physical hardship is reduced, it is at the price of the most humiliating spiritual brutalization.

In the same way, the man or woman who dreams of New Jerusalem sees any serious attempt to establish an Arcadia as a retreat to the Land of the Flies, that place of provincial ignorance, fear, disease, and death, where humans are prey to the untrammeled demons of our own superstitions as well as any caprice of nature: fire, flood, storm, or earthquake...

Modern SF has gone beyond this irreconcilable Utopian/Dystopian conflict to produce a more fruitful model against which to compare human development.

The SF writers working under [John W.] Campbell, and even more so with Horace Gold, began to cluster their new and wonderful objects into the same story, or novel. And whole new systems and syndromes of behavior began to emerge. Damon Knight, in In Search of Wonder, notes Charles Harness's The Paradox Man as the first really successful "reduplicated" novel--where an ordered sarabande of wonders refract and complement each other till they have produced a completely new world, in which the technological relation to ours is minimal. Now the writers began to explore these infinitely multiplicated worlds, filled with wondrous things, where the roads and the paintings moved, where religion took the place of government, and advertising took the place of religion, where travel could be instantaneous between anywhere and anywhere else, where the sky was metal, and women wore live goldfish in the heels of their shoes. Within these worlds, the impossible relieves the probable, and the possible illuminates the improbable. And the author's aim is neither to condemn nor to condone, but to explore both the worlds and their behaviors for the sake of the exploration, again an aim far closer to poetry than to any sociological brand of fiction.

As soon as the Wellsian parameters are put aside, far more protean ones emerge from modern SF almost at once:

In the most truly Utopian of New Jerusalems, sometime you will find yourself in front of an innocuous-looking door; go through it, and you will find yourself, aghast, before some remnant of the Land of the Flies; in the most dehumanized Brave New World, one evening as you wander through the dreary public park, sunset bronzing fallen leaves will momentarily usher you into the most marvelous autumn evening in Arcadia. Similarly, in either Arcadia or the Land of the Flies, plans can be begun for either Brave New World or New Jerusalem.

SF has been called a romantic and affirmative literature. J.G. Ballard has gone so far as to point out, quite justly, that the bulk of it is rendered trivial by its naively boundless optimism. But we do not judge the novel by the plethora of sloppy romances or boneheaded adventures that make up the statistically vast majority of examples; if we did, it might lead us to say the same of all areas of literature, novel, poetry, or drama; with no selection by merit, I'm afraid in a statistical listing, expressions of the vapidly happy far outnumber expressions of the tragic on whatever level. As any other area of art is judged by its finest examples, and not by the oceans of mediocrity that those high points rise above, so SF must be judged. There are threads of tragedy running through the works of Sturgeon and Bester (they can even be unraveled from Heinlein), not to mention Disch, Zelazny, and Russ, as well as Ballard's own tales of ruined worlds, decadent resortists, and the more recent fragmented visions of stasis and violence. And one would be hard-pressed to call the comic visions of Malzberg, Sladek, and Lafferty "naively optimistic."

If SF is affirmative, it is not through any obligatory happy ending, but rather through the breadth of vision it affords, through the complex interweave of these multiple visions of human origins and destinations. Certainly such breadth of vision does not abolish tragedy. But it does make a little rarer the particular needless tragedy that comes from a certain type of narrow-mindedness.

Academic SF criticism, fixed in the historical approach, wastes a great deal of time trying to approach modern SF in Utopian/Dystopian terms--works whose value is precisely in that they are a reaction to such one-sided thinking. It is much more fruitful if modern works are examined in terms of what they contain of all these mythic views of the world...

It is absurd to argue whether Asimov's Foundation series represents a Utopian or a Dystopian view of society; its theme is the way in which a group of interrelated societies, over a historical period, force each other at different times back and forth from Utopian to Dystopian phases.

In The Stars My Destination, the Jaunt Re-education program is clearly a product of New Jerusalem. Equally clearly, the Presteign Clan, with its four hundred ninety-seven surgically identical Mr. Prestos, is from Brave New World. And they exist side by side in the same work. Gully, though he has been uniformed by Brave New World, begins as an unformed lump of elemental violence, ignorance, and endurance from the Land of the Flies. Robin Wednesbury's home in the re-established forests of Greenbay, insulated from its neighbors, with her collection of books and records, exists in Arcadia. Gully/Caliban implodes into it with violence and rape; and Robin and Arcadia survive to both help and hinder him as the novel goes on. This sort of optimism, emblematically as it is handled, is far more true to life than the Victorian convention that equates "dishonor" with death...

Because all four visions are offered in the best modern SF, no single one is allowed to paralyze us with terror or lull us into muddle-headed euphoria.

In serious SF criticism that insists upon the thematic, I would like to see an examination of how all four of these visions sit in concert in given works. And I would like to see an end to the lauding (or dismissal) of works because they do (or do not) reflect only one.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Denise Levertov, "The Flight"

In its entirety:
          'The will is given us that
               we may know the
delights of surrender.' Blake with
tense mouth, crouched small (great forehead,
somber eye) amid a crowd's tallness in a narrow room.
                                            The same night
a bird caught in my room, battered
from wall to wall, missing the window over & over
                                                      (till it gave up and
                                     huddled half-dead on a shelf, and I
                                     put up the sash against the cold)

and waking at dawn I again
pushed the window violently down, open
                        and the bird gathered itself and flew
                        straight out
                        quick and calm (over the radiant chimneys—

(Levertov appends a note: "The quoted words were spoken by Blake in my dream. This was London, 1945.—D.L.")

This is, I suppose, a fairly straightforward poem--in the sense that it is not "difficult," that its basic concerns are fairly on the surface. The connection between the words William Blake speaks to Levertov in her dream* and the action with the bird is very direct. This is not a complaint; indeed, "The Flight" is, at this early stage of my acquaintance with her, probably my favorite of Levertov's poems. A poem need not be difficult to be powerful, nor to be complex.

*And she does tell us, at least in the note, that it is her dream, not that of an anonymous speaker. Interestingly, the note also places the action in a specific place and time, one that carries a plethora of potentially banal associations with the subject of the poem--which banality the poem escapes by leaving them as associations only.

What puzzles me here is the impact the last line--particularly, the punctuation in the last line--has on me. For the impact is extreme: what is it about that open parenthesis and that em-dash that is so powerful?

One normally thinks of parenthetical statements as ones that are not quite essential, that could be removed without substantially altering the information conveyed by what remains. This is the case with the first and last of the three parentheses in the poem, where what is set off by them--"great forehead,/somber eye" and "over the radiant chimneys"--is essential to the system of imagery and feeling Levertov sets up but not to the literal "action" she is relating: without them we still have Blake, we still have the bird flying away. The middle parenthetical statement, though, is absolutely essential to this action: without it none of the rest can be understood even on a literal what-happened level. The presentation of this important information--that the bird gave up--set off not only by its enclosure in parentheses but also by its being gathered up off to the far right side of the text column, casts doubt on our understanding of the previous and following parentheses and assists in the creation of the paradoxical effect of making these parenthetical statements seem more important than they would were they not so set off. For me the symbols ( and ) here take on almost the significance of line breaks, or even stanza breaks, no matter where they appear in the lines or stanzas as given.

And so that last parenthesis already has the effect of sort of propelling us into the final words of the poem, as we begin to fly over the radiant chimneys* along with the bird...but then we stop short at the em-dash, which seems to indicate that there is more to follow, more action. We find that rather than being propelled into a conclusion to the poem, we have been propelled out of the poem entirely.

*The image of the bird over the chimneys, too, mirrors in strange-beyond-reversed form the image of Blake "crouched small...amid a crowd's tallness," reinforcing the odd, suddenly peaceful (after Levertov's self-ascribed violence) but still victorious feel of the final three lines--the bird really does fly where somber Blake, stuck to the ground, can only, and no doubt does, long to**--as well as accentuating the bird's symmetrical treatment of Blake's asymmetrical words: will, surrender, then will again.
**Pardon the inelegance of a note within a note, but I can think of nowhere else to place this observation: that as we are, I think, encouraged to attribute desires to Blake, we are simultaneously forced to remember that he is a fiction: not only a poetic representation of Blake rather than the poet himself, but a poetic representation of a
dream of Blake. And it is an ironic and rather daring move to attempt to capture a dream-vision of a poet so noted for capturing his own dream-visions.

The absence of words after the dash, the absence of poem (emphasized by the ungrammatical absence of a closing parenthesis), reminds us that we are not the bird, that the poem has not given us the bird, nor has it limited the bird: it is off soaring, not just over but now beyond the radiant chimneys, out of Levertov's sight and therefore out of ours--and yet it still lives, it continues, with its own life and its own perspective that is not ours, to which we will never be privy: somewhere in London, sometime in 1945, there is in fact, as Jorge Luis Borges said of a different animal, "The other [bird], that which is not in verse." And so we are left feeling pain for ourselves, crouched small on the ground, but joy for the bird, who is free, who has escaped Levertov's two attempts to restrain it: the first attempt perhaps more out of tiredness than volition, which the bird simply waits out; the second out of an urge to create, using the bird not as bird but as raw material: an act with which we as readers are complicit, a will which we with Levertov must surrender, and by doing so replace our pain with delight.