Tuesday, April 22, 2014

reading Russ: The early poetry (1954-1957)

reading Russ table of contents

I am not, perhaps, the best person to discuss Joanna Russ's early poems. My knowledge of and ability to write about poetry are limited at best, and certainly I am not competent to talk about these works in the context of their time and place, as I have next to no idea of what that context was. What poetry were people writing and reading in America's mid-1950s? I know there were the beats; I think Black Mountain and Denise Levertov's move to the United States were about this time; but that's about it, and at any rate would the teenage Russ have been familiar with this work? I don't really know. But context or no, I've read these poems, out of a general interest in Russ-the-writer, and I'd like to talk about them.

When I speak of the "early poems," I'm referring to a body of work consisting, to the best of my knowledge, only of fifteen short poems published between 1954 and 1957 (when Russ was between the ages of 17 and 20) — twelve in the student-run Cornell Writer and three in Cornell's more official literary journal Epoch.* I have these poems, thanks to the intrepid ILL efforts of a certain lezbrarian without whom I shudder to think, on a number of photocopied sheets stapled together. Some of these pages — all from The Cornell Writer — include other poems from some of Russ's classmates, none of whose names are familiar to me (no surprise Thomas Pynchon juvenilia, say, though he did work on the journal for part of the time Russ was at Cornell and might well have some work elsewhere in it), and judging from these her poetry was largely of a piece with that of her cohort. It's mainly free verse tending to the formally conservative, with self-consciously elevated and historical (if not pretentious) vocabulary and imagery; in all one gets much more of a sense of "I want to be a poet" than of poetry actually occurring in these pages. Which is, of course, fine; I hate to think what anyone might make of anything I wrote between 17 and 20, and I can hardly claim to have reached the level Russ would attain even just a few years later!

*I know there are a few other poems from this period theoretically available, but I have limited myself to published works for this read-through (not that I wouldn't be interested in reading unpublished works! — but travel to archives is not, alas, always feasible). Several of her later works could also be considered poems — "It's Important to Believe" and "A Short and Happy Life" come to mind — but these are so far as I know the last of her readily recognizable verse poems.

Brit Mandelo, in the only study of these poems that I know to exist, points out that "[t]heir significance as poetry is tied inextricably to their significance as early works of a major writer." This is true, but I must say that at least at this early stage of my familiarity with these poems I do not see the bulk of them as being particularly significant even in these terms. Stilted poems like 1954's "Autumn" — as uninspired a bit of seasonal description as any wannabe poet ever wrote — are perhaps mildly interesting in the sense that it can be heartening to see that even the best writers have also written awkward trivialities, but for me, at least so far, they provide essentially no insight into those of Russ's works that matter.

However! I agree with Mandelo that a small handful of these poems show the young Russ to be a writer with something going on; indeed there are some moments here that I think rise above specialist-only interest. Surprisingly, one of these is the first — to my knowledge the very first work Russ ever published anywhere: 1954's "Some Day Again." After a somewhat embarrassing excited-to-be-at-college opening ("this ivied corner"), the first stanza deals nicely with an imagined reappearance of Saint Francis in the modern world. He, "Perhaps some day again,"

Trembling with wings and bright eyes,
Will walk into the sunlight and the gray stone
Bearing silently the silent wound of hard beaks on calloused hands,
Bearing corn in his saint's hands, corn and a slower time.
The language here interests me, particularly the "Bearing silently the silent wound," with its interplay of different but overlapping silences (which then feeds into the further interplay created by the repetition in slightly different contexts of the words "bearing" and "hands"). And the portrayal of Francis as sort of uncomfortable and frightening — wounded by his birds, his being surrounded by them not idyllic but strange, "trembling" — is intriguing. I admit I don't actually know enough about the saint to judge whether he's being deployed to any meaningful advantage here, but the difference between the sort of vaguely soft and nice received image of him I usually have and the much more worrisome picture called up here reminds me, perhaps idiosyncratically, of Buffy Sainte-Marie's astonishing "Mary," in which the listener is made by both word and sound to consider not the joy or the tranquility but the terror that also comes with knowing that one must become the mother of God.

The second stanza shifts to a consideration of what Mandelo describes as "the dangers of the well-lit empty rooms of a home," while the third and last stanza, which even visually is startlingly brief in comparison with the first two, shifts again to speak of the seasonal changes implicit even in a tree dormant in winter. The connection between the stanzas at first seems tenuous at best. Mandelo criticizes the disjunction, but for me it is useful to focus on the last word of the first stanza, "time," to see what, I believe, Russ is going for here. For the entire poem is concerned with time, and not just time as a singular thing but the different kinds of time, and different motions within them. The first stanza begins by bringing the past (Francis) into the present, or more particularly into a hypothetical future ("some day"), and closes with the invocation of "a slower time"; indeed it is the figure of the past that comes "bearing" this slower time, along with corn — which, as I read, suggests that the "slower time" is that cyclical time in which there is not onrushing linear progress but return ("some day again"), the seasonal time in which crops like corn are sown, grown, harvested, and sown again. But then the opening of the second stanza brings into play a second meaning of the phrase "a slower time" — that is, the commonly-held notion of a past time in which life was slower, a time we have lost in exchange for Progress (a time, of course, in which people's lives were more bound up in the other sense I have ascribed to "a slower time"). That stanza in its entirety, coming immediately after the phrase ("bearing...a slower time") that I have singled out as the poem's hinge:

Oh we are wiser now, or know at least
Not to look for witches in the outside wind
Or in the massy midnight under trees
But in a lit and empty room, unshadowed,
Knowing well the heart-land where the Black Sabbath lies.
We are wiser now, perhaps; but what has progress gained us? We may know better where to look for them, but there are still witches (on which more in a moment) — the techno-scientific eradication of shadows has not eradicated the "Black Sabbath" of the heart. But perhaps even progress is not so all-consuming as that ambiguously lamenting "Oh" might suggest — for just as some day again Francis might return, so will the spring:
Still reaches (not quite to the sky
Not quite past a quiet wall)
Willow yellow willow in January,
A premonition of flowers.
Much is going on here, from the way the parenthesis interferes with the completion of the thought begun with "Still reaches" (so that grammatically the willow ends up reaching neither "to" nor "past" anything, but simply reaches; of course as we read all three of these overlap) to the way the word "premonition" casts us back over the entire poem, nearly every line of which resonates with it in one way or another. I am fond too of the way the "not quite"s of the parenthesis seem to be echoed by the poem's (I think deliberate) refusal to conclude with anything, well, conclusive.

To be sure, Russ does not yet seem to know quite what to do with all of this play with time, with the cycle of the seasons and with linear progression — but that she knows, this early on, that it is important to summon these things up is remarkable.

One thing I must remark on, that I so far have obscured by speaking only in the terms set up by the poem itself, is the figure of the witch. Here that figure seems to stand simply for evil, especially in opposition to the Christian goodness of Saint Francis (though of course, just as that goodness is shown in a complex and uncomfortable way, so too is the evil). To begin with, this heavily Christian-moralistic figural system is somewhat surprising coming from a writer with so secular-Jewish a background as Russ's (which makes me suspect that, as good as the poem is in many ways, it comes not so much from a place of artistic need as of received notions of what a poem can be about). More than that, though, it is a reminder that we are here reading work that predates Russ's awareness of and engagement with a feminism capable of reclaiming the witches, interpreting them not as evils (real or imaginary) but as a lineage of wise women whose knowledge and power had to be destroyed to make way for the further entrenchment of patriarchal power that came with the advent of capitalism. Those witches we are too clever to look for in the dark of nature knew things that the young Russ could have benefited from knowing, had there not been such a wholesale destruction of that knowledge.

Interestingly, though Russ did not yet know about the erasure of these traditions and knowledges, she nevertheless seems to feel the lack, as we see in 1955's "To R.L.". (Full disclosure: I don't know who "R.L." is, and I also don't know if I'm supposed to or not.) It begins with what I have not been able to resolve into anything other than a muddle, a sort of canned-"exotic" midcentury colonialist fantasy ("You were a captive prince, an African"), but then, a little before the halfway point, there is a startling moment where either Russ or the poem's speaker identifies herself with an ancient, forgotten (indeed forcibly erased) "evil", and it is in this moment that the poem really begins for me:

I felt like an ice-born saint, not one of heaven's.
One of the devil's, maybe, I never knew.
I have no soul; I never was a Christian.
I had a God once, but they broke off both his horns
And shut him in a tapestry. So he died.
The death of the speaker's god is an interruption in the transmission of the tradition, the ways of knowing that would have enabled the speaker to know her own nature ("I have tried to raise an image of myself/In vain out of the cloudy, northern sky.") — and yet, in the face of impossibility, the speaker nevertheless declares herself to be something, even if only "something": "I am something left from a much earlier time./I am one of earth's saints."

But even if we don't stop to wonder if the earth can have saints at all and what this might mean, this declaration is not so solid as it may seem — for at the word "earth" the poem immediately pivots again, mid-line: "I am one of earth's saints. The earth is running down/But it never ends; the universe unreels/Forever...". The speaker had a past, but that past died in the permanence of a tapestry; she thought to forge an identity out of the earth, but the earth, though it never ends, has no permanence and so no future: these are the two sides of a tragic paradox. As with "Some Day Again," there is a sense of the poem pulling past and future around itself in the present, but this time the history is not one of life but of death, the premonitions not of flowers but of ice — a sort of romantic stand-in for the heat death, prefiguring the more ironically bathetic-but-sublime deployment of similar images at the climax of the soon-to-come "Nor Custom Stale," the story that marks the real beginning of the Russ we know. The poem ends:

Each flake will be a century of time
And time will slide beneath our feet like snow
And still we ride and still the snow comes down
And still we never reach the line of trees,
The pine-tree woods where nothing living stirs.
Now is left us only what there was
And the world is running down. The snowflakes fall
Slower and slower in frozen time. So we.
And speaking of prefiguring Russ's entry into sf proper, the last of the poems that I find merits serious consideration on its own terms (though it again suffers from the immaturity of its writer), 1957's "The Queen at Ur," wouldn't be at all out of place in a current edition of, say, Strange Horizons, or any of the other poetry-oriented sf magazines. For better or worse, I should add — because when I say it would not be out of place, I mean that it really would fit right in; for me, in my admittedly limited exposure to it, there is a great deal of sameness to contemporary sf poetry, and "The Queen at Ur" feels just like it in everything from its sometimes dime-a-dozen lyrical loveliness-and-melancholy to its body-as-universe images. I don't mean to be entirely negative. I am interested in this poem — I largely agree with what Mandelo writes about it toward the end of her study, and have little to add to that, except to say that I find the poem much less extraordinary than she evidently does.

But at any rate this is full-fledged sf ("I feel with fleshless hands the rigid pattern/Of stars, order, law"), and in its unexpectedly sharp (or blunt?) last lines even seems to point to some of the uses the mature Russ would find for sf.

She speaks:
Daughter, train your soul for the gracious amenities
That come finally with death. Emulate my corpse.

The rest of the poetry is, or at least thus far strikes me as, fairly trivial,* though there are intermittent moments of interest. The poem beginning "Beautiful naked bodies walk across", after its, ahem, unconvincing adolescent-fantasy eroticizing of the men of ancient poetry (much more believable when Pier Paolo Pasolini does it early on in his "The Religion of My Time") moves quickly to a genuinely disquieting finish — all the more disquieting because it is so inconclusive — with a distinctly unappealing Pan (or satyr?), "half in rut," nervously crying "Madam!...Madam!" in his "rusty squeak." "Death and the Gentleman," one of Mandelo's favorites but not one of mine, is at times quite effectively funny in its way ("When I am dust — /More's the pity — /The worms that eat me/Will all turn witty."). "The School Teacher's Daughter Speaks", with its closing scene of (what on the surface reads as) explicitly homoerotic male beauty (much more convincing here!), is reminiscent-in-advance (preminiscent?) of Russ's much later non-fiction writing on a similar subject, in her classic essay on K/S. And the last two poems, "Family Snapshot — Botanical Gardens" and "A la mode" (published together in a 1957 Epoch) are a major departure from the other poems, freer and more formally odd, if still not too unusual; they strike me as semi-successful attempts at the kind of dark levity now associated with Sylvia Plath, pointing at the horror in the quotidian with fractured humor (they're either that or they just completely miss me).

*I always feel the need to make this sort of disclaimer when writing about those of Russ's works I don't care for, as she like no other sf writer I know resists the reader's easy grasp. Are these poems trivial or do I just not know how to read them? In this specific case the first possibility seems the more likely, but better perhaps to play it safe.

These flashes aside, though, the rest of the early poetry for the most part is a collection of awkward juvenilia, hardly even illuminating when considered as the early work of a great writer. Even the three poems I have singled out as worth more consideration, despite what I would insist are their intrinsic strengths and interest, are far from major works. As I mentioned before, this is not at all unexpected; there are not many people whose teenage writings would stand much scrutiny — not everyone can be a Rimbaud, and I doubt we'd want it that way. What is startling, though, is to realize that only two years (and no published writings) separate the publication of the last of these poems and the first of Russ's main body of work, the aforementioned "Nor Custom Stale," which is a fully-realized, mature work. To be sure, there are three short prose works I have yet to read that were published during the same period as the poetry (also in The Cornell Writer), and perhaps I'll find a clearer preparation there for the leap into "Nor Custom Stale," but it is nevertheless remarkable to read these tentative, bumbling efforts, and know that it is not long at all before something entirely different will emerge.

Chronologically reading Joanna Russ

I'm planning on doing it! Based on the bibliography I made! And hopefully I will periodically be writing about it. I'll be tagging these posts "reading Russ," and this post here, which I will link back to in each post, will also serve as a table of contents. BEHOLD:


1. The early poetry (1954-1957)
2. "Innocence" (1955)
3. "The Wise Man" and "Martyr" (1955, 1957)
4. "Nor Custom Stale" (1959)
5. "Come Closer" (1965)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Adventures in Time and Space: Robert A. Heinlein's "Requiem"

Adventures in Time and Space post series introduction and table of contents

This definitive (or maybe better: defining) collection of "golden age" science fiction stories begins with one by Robert A. Heinlein and contains two more by him (only two other writers are represented three times: A.E. van Vogt and "Lewis Padgett"). In the introduction to my edition the superlative-crazed philistines Healy and McComas call him "possibly the greatest of the giants of those days" — those days being "that best of all possible times in science fiction." Heinlein, we can safely say, was important in the 1940s, and Healy and McComas were determined that he stay that way.

His importance to sf is still contentious, as witness the recent, utterly stupid, "you're not a fan if you haven't read him" kerfuffle.* Before that, more personally, Jonathan McCalmont's response to a pathetic attempt at canon-ossification by Gary Westfahl (today's heir to the superlative-crazed philistine throne) was the impetus behind the post that really got this blog going for me (though at this point I half want to repudiate that post, half want to extend it). But salutary as I find polemics like McCalmont's, and though I would never stand in their way, I can't really agree. Heinlein is central to this thing we call science fiction even today; from where I stand to insist otherwise, though it may be useful or even essential to an attempt to take sf in a different direction and therefore quite justified, is nevertheless simply counterfactual.

*About which I am considering writing a post being cranky at "both" sides, but we'll see. There's only so much thinking about Heinlein and the minds of sf people that I can take.

Funnily enough, I tend to see the ghost of Heinlein most strongly in those areas of sf that would most seek to evade him. The writers who find sf's tendencies toward didacticism distasteful or embarrassing, who wish to bring sf stylistically more in line with "the mainstream", and who (erroneously) think they can do this by valuing "incluing" (as I identified it in that above-linked early post, stealing the term from Jo Walton) over infodumping are using techniques that Heinlein played a (maybe the) major role in developing — this despite Heinlein's well-earned reputation for didacticism. Sf poetry's major award, the Rhysling, is named after a Heinlein character (without whom I wonder if the young Samuel R. Delany would have had the courage to write his early poet protagonists). And those writers who find the term "science fiction" inadequate, inaccurate, or too laden with negative connotations to describe what they do and so call themselves writers of "speculative fiction" — these writers being by and large as far from the pro-Heinlein camp as can be imagined — are, whether they know it or not, quoting Heinlein (who coined the term for these precise reasons) almost verbatim.

For me Heinlein's importance is unquestionable — but my god, how I hate him. I put off starting Adventures in Time and Space, which I am otherwise eager to read and write about, for months simply because the first story in it is by him. Of all the writers that I for whatever reason feel a need to read, he is by far the one I dread reading the most. As such, despite everything that I've said about his importance, I have actually read very little of his work. I pushed my way through his collection The Past Through Tomorrow last year, though I more sort of held it pinched between two fingers at arm's length and stared at it in nose-wrinkled distaste than actually "read" it; I yawned my way through Farmer in the Sky when I was about eleven (when almost any sf excited me); I have started and quickly stopped reading any number of his other stories and novels; and I think that's it for me and the man Delany names as one of his favorite novelists.

I've been trying for a long time to figure out why I dislike him so strongly. There are a number of obvious possibilities, but for me they all seem insufficient. It could be his politics, which are repellent; but then again I can read and find great beauty and illumination in countless other writers, both in and out of sf (e.g., Lovecraft, Heidegger), whose politics I find just as or even more unpalatable (indeed if vile politics were on their own enough to put me off a work or a writer I wouldn't be able to find the value in any "golden age" sf that I do). It could be the "traveling-salesman banter" (as James Blish incredibly accurately described it) that passes for dialogue in his stories, but no, I'm able to pass lightly over similar problems in writers like Asimov or McCaffrey to get at what's important. It could be the bizarre quotidianness of his imagination, where he so often seems to be spanning galaxies and millennia and introducing us to wondrous worlds and aliens and technologies merely to say "but nothing has changed, everything is just everyday, everything is boring", which often is a problem in other writers — but no, this is one of the things that, for me, Heinlein actually, occasionally, pulls off well and makes intriguing.* And it can't be the didacticism, since that's a big part of why I am drawn to sf in the first place! Reading "Requiem", though, I think I finally figured it out, or at least came upon the beginnings of understanding it. Let's take it slow.

*In this connection I'm reminded indirectly of Stanisław Lem's comment on the Strugatskys' Roadside Picnic, that though "earth is incapable of coming to grips with the consequences" of alien intrusion, "at the same time, the little world of humanity continues as before." There is also something of a connection here to what I find so endlessly fascinating about the stories of Cordwainer Smith, though the methods and the feeling there are utterly different.

The events of the story are as follows: an old man, Delos D. Harriman, who has devoted most of his life and his (conveniently) considerable fortune to making the dream of space travel come true, but has never gone himself, wants nothing more than to go to the moon; but because of his age and infirmity he is legally barred from doing so (there is much nonsense about how the very rich are oppressed because others seek to tell them how to spend their money). He finds some sympathetic pilots with their own ship and no class analysis who agree to take him. They go and he experiences the reality of space flight for the first time; they land on the moon and he steps onto its surface. After taking it in for a moment he dies, his body worn out by the strain of the trip, and one of the pilots buries him.

These events are simple, but structurally the story is quite complex. Delany compared the rhetorical variety of Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line" — which "embeds...a collection of newspaper headlines, telegrams, and court transcripts within its narrative in order to tell its tale" — to Dos Passos*, and "Requiem" behaves similarly. It begins with a poem (by Robert Louis Stevenson; if Heinlein is to be believed, it appears on Stevenson's gravestone in Samoa; me, I don't know these things) given not as an epigraph but just barely within the story proper; later on there is a sign advertising a fair attraction and a portion of a newspaper article, not to mention an extended series of flashbacks. The temporal structure, the play with time both within and without the story, is also complex and potentially interesting: Heinlein writes in "the present" about a man in "the future" who has accomplished x, y, and z in "the past" (from the character's point of view), but wants to do a, b, and c in "the future" (the future of the future, that is, which by the story's end is the present), and as he seeks to achieve this goal his mind plays over various other incidents in "the past", which is of course our future. In part this is merely the seldom-examined play of time created by sf's routine gesture of setting stories in "the future," but Heinlein seems to me anyway to be particularly interested in heightening the complexity.

*Yet another nail in the coffin, incidentally, of the many silly narratives told and re-told about the so-called "new wave", which is when most people say such techniques from the non-sf "avant garde" entered sf. John Brunner may have done it better, but if we're supposed to care who did it first — well, he didn't. The evaluation of the use of such techniques in sf as automatically good or automatically bad, well, that's a whole nother silly story.

As he does so, it quickly becomes apparent that he is also interested in making a metatextual commentary on sf itself. Harriman, a man living in an sfnal future, feels that he played an important role in causing this future to be sfnal, but nevertheless has been denied access to the sfnal aspect of this future. He looks back nostalgically at his life, dedicated to ushering in this sfnal future, as he plots his entrance into it — which he gains, and then dies. It does not take much to see Harriman as a (thinly-veiled) stand-in for the figure of the sf writer in the heroic Heinleinian mode, working tirelessly to bring about a techno-future he knows he will not live to see realized, looking back over his career and cursing a death that will come too soon. And here is where the problems come in, for me. Because Heinlein/Harriman always knows he's right. Others might think that dreams of space travel are silly or misguided, but he knows better. Others might try to convince him to devote what he no doubt thinks of as his capital to more prosaic pursuits, but he knows better.

Delany again, this time discussing the much later novel Farnham's Freehold:

Suffice it to say that what distresses one about the Heinlein argument in general, when it is presented in narrative form, is that it so frequently takes the form of the gentlemanly assertion: "Just suppose the situation around X (war, race, what-have-you) were P, Q, and R; now under those conditions, wouldn't behavior Y be logical and justified?" — where behavior Y just happens to be an extreme version of the most conservative, if not fascistic, program. Our argument is never with the truth value of Heinlein's syllogism: Yes, if P, Q, and R were the case, then behavior Y would be pragmatically justifiable. Our argument is rather with the premises: Since P, Q, and R are not the situation of the real world, why continually pick fictional situations, bolstered by science-fictional distortions, to justify behavior that is patently inappropriate for the real world? And Heinlein's unerring ability to see precisely how the real world would have to be changed to make such conservative behavior appropriate begins to suggest that his repeated use of science fiction to this end represents what existentialist critics used to call "bad faith."
Delany's concerns here are explicitly and specifically in the realm we call "political," and from what I understand about Farnham's Freehold the political stakes in that particular case are extremely high. But the general Heinleinian pattern he identifies* holds even when the stakes are significantly lower — even when they are not (so explicitly, so directly) political.

*Which, incidentally, is probably Heinlein's single most damaging literary legacy; whole schools of sf have built up around reproducing it.

So it is in "Requiem" that Heinlein has set up an elaborate structure on which to hang a contemplation of the nature and role of the sf writer (because, again, though Harriman is not literally an sf writer, he is so very plainly a stand-in for one), and he uses it only to brag about how heroic it is to be one. If it were the case that one had spent one's life advocating for a particular kind of future, and if it were the case that because of one's advocacy that future came to pass, and if it were the case that that future turned out to be every bit as great as one said it would be, and if it were the case that various small-minded fools tried to prevent one from...but no doubt you get the idea.

And the bad faith extends even further. For me it reaches its height at the moment when Harriman finally makes it to space — not yet to the moon, but en route, and he looks out the viewport for the first time. Indeed this was the moment when all of this crystallized for me:

There it was, all as he had imagined it so many times. The Moon swung majestically past the viewport, twice as wide as he had ever seen it before, all of her familiar features cameo-clear. She gave way to the Earth as the ship continued its slow swing, the Earth itself, as he had envisioned her, appearing like a noble moon....
And so on. "All as he had imagined it." "As he had envisioned her." Even "her familiar features," though factually more justified, is just the wrong tone. Harriman knew what it would be like to be in space all along. This is nothing other than Heinlein asserting that he is incontrovertibly and transcendently right about his projection of an experience he has never had — indeed at the time he is writing an experience that no one has ever had. "Science fiction was right — look, it says so in this science fiction story!" It is this blandly confident triumphalism that I dislike — no, more than than that; it is this triumphalism, this self-congratulatory certainty, that I find a fundamental betrayal of the science fictional (or, to give Heinlein his own word, the speculative) enterprise itself. From the perspective of 1940, the defining characteristic of space travel is that, though it is possible to make some technical statements about it with a fair degree of certainty and a number of other reasonable but less certain speculations, nevertheless no one has ever done it, and no one knows what, experientially, it will really be like. But for Heinlein, there is no "no one knows." Someone always knows, and that someone is always Heinlein.

All this considered, can it be any surprise that the supposedly hard-headed Heinlein here runs so counter to his reputation (but not, I suspect, his actual nature) and creates one of the most shmoopily sentimental stories I have ever read? From the moment we begin with some heinously colonialist and straight-up bad poetry (how embarrassing for Stevenson if it really is on his grave) to the moment we meet Harriman's "shrewish" wife*, from the lawyer's rousing speech arguing for the rich man's right to spend his money to the ending that all but unfurls the Delos D. Harriman flag on the surface of the moon to the accompaniment of the Delos D. Harriman National Anthem, the deck is comprehensively stacked. Oscar Wilde said that sentimentality is "the luxury of an emotion without paying for it," and we all know how capitalists hate to pay for their luxuries. For me the greatest of these unpaid-for emotions by far is what I earlier described as "cursing a death that will come too soon." Here we see the most basic of all of sf's bad faith, its original sin even, laid bare: the desire to know, with certainty, a world beyond the death of the — one's own — body.

* "I feel a headache coming on. Please try to be a little quiet when you come to bed," she says when he presents his having put all of their money into the development of space travel as a fait accompli and refuses to budge. Women! Can't make heads nor tails of 'em!

Perhaps it is for the best after all that Adventures in Time and Space starts with this story. I still insist that there is much beauty in sf's "golden age," and that it still speaks to us, but for such a, again, defining and definitive volume to begin with a story that declares so openly all of the bad faith, all of the lapses, all of the self-importance to which this era of sf was so prone — indeed that it built itself upon — and that at the time and still to this date threaten to submerge entirely what was good about this writing...well, it's only honest. With this fair warning, I, we, can be on the lookout. We know what dangers lie ahead.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Finally, he lifted his ship and went away

One of the several anthologies I'm currently reading slowly, a story here and there, is Pamela Sargent's Women of Wonder, the landmark collection of sf short stories "by women about women," the concept of which was so radical in 1974 that even most of the participants in the Khatru symposium on women in science fiction were palpably uncomfortable with its even existing (similar projects today are not much less radical, but at least sf's feminist vanguard has come to terms with them). Yesterday afternoon I picked it up, turned to Marion Zimmer Bradley's 1958 "The Wind People" — my first Bradley — and began reading.

The story is immediately enjoyable; right away it establishes for itself that particular atmosphere common to many 1950s sf stories about odd things happening to the crews of spaceships exploring far from Earth.* But the first paragraph could have been written by any midcentury sf writer, even an asshole like Heinlein in one of his rare charming moments. It even seems at first like it's going to be sort of gently swaggering, with its "Captain Merrihew" encountering a "unique problem." But once we learn what this problem is — one of his crew members has given birth to a baby while the crew was on planetary leave, and babies cannot live through the "shift into hyperspace drive" — it quickly becomes obvious that we won't be spending very much time with the Captain, that this will instead be the story of Helen, who will be staying alone on the planet with her baby, Robin, in order to save his life and to raise him.** Whether this would have been felt as a jarring shift to readers of If in 1958, I cannot say; for me, it was not particularly. The story I was constructing in my mind in response to the words on the page adjusted itself and carried on smoothly.

*Always a common theme in sf, of course, but there is something in the feel of the ones written in the 1950s, something I don't think I could put my finger on, that I particularly love. Incidentally, speaking of the 50s and since I won't have a chance to mention it later on: this story, with its assertively competent woman protagonist who is not ruined by (socially normative) casual sex even when it results in pregnancy, seems like it must have been downright scandalous when it first appeared, and also further puts the lie to the concept that "the" "new wave" introduced sex into sf.
**For those who have not read the story and will no doubt be wondering: yes, there is a hint of sexist maternal instinct protective mother bear nonsense in these opening pages, but it is amply counteracted later on in the story. From Robin's conception to his birth, to their remaining on the planet and her methods of raising him, Helen makes a series of choices, each of which pain her; though she does not necessarily understand her reasons for making these choices any better than any of us do our own, neither is she beholden to instinct.

But then, four pages into the story, we do leave the planet with Merrihew and crew, with this isolated gruesome fragment:

        Ten days after the Starholm took off, young Colin Reynolds, technician, committed suicide by the messy procedure of slicing his jugular vein, which — in zero gravity — distributed several quarts of blood in big round globules all over his cabin. He left an incoherent note.
        Merrihew put the note in the disposal and [ship's doctor] Chao Lin put the blood in the ship's blood bank for surgery, and they hushed it up as an accident; but Merrihew had the unpleasant feeling that the layover on the green and windy planet was going to become a legend, spread in whispers by the crew. And it did, but that is another story.
And then there's a section break (the story's first), after which we rejoin Helen and Robin on the green and windy planet, where we will stay until (almost) the very end. This "that is another story" is a small thing, perhaps, and not even all that out of the ordinary, but for whatever reason — perhaps it was the preparation behind it, first the slight realignment we must make from Merrihew's story to Helen's and then the larger oddness of the momentary glimpse of the rest of the crew's journey; perhaps it was just the mood I was in yesterday — as I say for whatever reason it hit me just right. It opened the story up to contingency, indeed to openness; it did what we're always meant to believe, for some ungodly reason I've never been able to decipher, is the worst thing a work of fiction can do: it took me out of the story. Quite literally in fact, for Bradley is quite right: the whispered legends, the death of Colin Reynolds: this is another story, one — more than one — that she has chosen not to tell but obviously feels a need to stray into long enough to remind us could be told, that the space in which these untold stories can be imagined has been opened up by the story she has chosen to tell.

And this is not the only way in which I was taken out of the story. The feeling I felt on reading those words required me to look away from the page and reflect, and as I did I was shaken out of the story (all of these stories) and, for a moment, into real life. I had gotten home from work about an hour earlier, and my legs, though not tired per se, could still feel the effort of having biked eight miles — which I'm just getting back to now that the snow has melted, after a few months of taking the bus and losing some of the leg muscle and stamina I'd built up last season. I was not in the far future of the story's setting, nor in the late 50s in which it was written, but in the (then) present moment of a Thursday afternoon early in April of 2014; neither was I in space or on an idyllic alien planet, but on Earth, in Rhode Island, in a moderately uncomfortable chair in my apartment. I was sitting by the window and as I looked up I looked out; it was sunny, there were squirrels digging in the ground outside and birds in the bare trees; beyond them were the neighbors' house and the suburban street. None of this was unexpected, it was all utterly quotidian (though pleasant and refreshing; spring has been a long time coming), but it was transformed somehow by the experience I had just had reading Bradley's story.

This transformation by its very nature cannot be described — for it is experience, which is precisely not description. Peter Handke touches on it in the moment when Andreas Loser, narrator of Across, looks up from the Georgics of Virgil as "a car from somewhere turned onto the canal bridge and, thanks to Virgil's verses, gleamed a special blue." This is the power literature can have. But for Handke's Andreas what lies behind the special blue is a bit different from what, for me, is at play with science fiction stories like "The Wind People". For him, what "I really care about" is to be gleaned from Virgil's

enthusiasm (never uncontrolled) for the things that still matter: the sun, the earth, rivers, woods, trees and shrubs, domestic animals, fruits (along with jars and baskets), utensils and tools. In these objects, justice, before vanishing from the world, left its trace; thus, far from the weapons that divide man from man (the usual word for "weapon" stands here for peaceable implements), every single thing in the poem, removed once and for all from history, distanced from other things and at the same time held in free association with them, gives me access to a very different story — usually invoked with an epithet...that does justice to the thing.... And since poetry should above all be congruent with things, these verses never cease to revive for me, the reader, the existence of the things they sing of.
A breathtaking passage; perhaps I am being selfish when, coming across elements in it I find troubling, I remind myself that Andreas Loser, however sensitive a thinker, is also a murderer. At any rate, though, if poetry should above all be congruent with things, what are we to make of science fiction, where such congruency is in almost every case a failure of artistic integrity, where the interest of the work lies precisely in the things of the story that are incongruent with the things of this world? The fascination Virgil exerts upon Andreas has to do in part with the contrast between the antiquity — extreme to the point of alienness — of the work and its continued relevance, its dealing with "the things that still matter." But Bradley's story, and good science fiction in general, for me? I suppose that it is all about difference, about encountering the attempt to convey the nonexistent, or the existent twisted into unreal form, and then returning to the world to find it, in my perception, changed — and when things go really well, not just changed but laid bare and renewed.

All of this happened yesterday afternoon. But it did not last forever; I am a reader, and I returned to the story I had been taken out of. And when I did, I found a marvelously strange story that resists being returned to even as its functional and straightforward prose pulls the reader through it. Indeed there is much more to be said about even the part I had read already. This Colin Reynolds — we are not, here or anywhere else in the story, given enough information to know whether he kills himself because of the events with Helen; though we are told that she slept with him at about the right time and that she (mostly) believes that he is the father, which makes it likely that he believes so as well, we don't even know for certain if he does. But the presence in the story at all of the information that he did kill himself — which neither Helen nor Robin will ever know — suggests the idea strongly; and it is only ever a suggestion, it never becomes the subject of any story (it is another story), there is no suggestion of what specifically — guilt? grief? over Helen or Robin or both? — prompted his action even if he is the father, and indeed for all we know it could be completely unrelated (or does he know something that Helen does not believe until the end?); by contemplating this, the reader is forced to contemplate the ways in which story, form, all on its own, generates meaning. Later on, halfway through the story, Helen tells the now-adolescent Robin about his origins, skipping over her doubts to tell him that Colin Reynolds is his father.

        He asked at last, "Why didn't my father stay with you?"
        "I don't suppose it entered his head," Helen said. "He was needed on the ship. Losing me was bad enough."
        Robin said passionately, "I'd have stayed!"
        The woman found herself laughing. "Well — you did stay, Robin."
        He asked, "Am I like my father?"
        Helen looked gravely at her son, trying to see the half-forgotten features of young Reynolds in the boy's face. No, Robin did not look like Colin Reynolds, nor like Helen herself.
Maybe it's just me, but "I don't suppose it entered his head" carries just enough slightly-off resonance with the manner of Reynolds's death to come across as a grisly, dramatic-ironic pun; our awareness of his death too puts an interesting spin on "He was needed on the ship", since we know the ship does well enough without him. The gendered implications of all of this are probably obvious. What interests me on top of this though is that, primed by the openness of the story preceding, I at least in reading this passage can't help but notice all the alternate stories spinning off of practically every sentence. "Why didn't my father stay with you?" Robin asks, and an unwritten story in which he did is conjured up; "I don't suppose it entered his head," and a story in which it didn't — which is probably not this one, though Helen's story would be the same regardless — appears. Then too Helen and Robin are both telling each other, and themselves, different stories, though neither of them are aware of the other's, or to a certain extent their own, at this point. Some of these stories (the verging-on-Freud incestuous romance, say) only appear clearly to the reader on a re-read, but some are immediately plain: for Robin, this previously unheard-of person who apparently played a role in his creation has a newly central importance, but for Helen he can only be someone whose life briefly and superficially entangled with hers fourteen years ago ("Am I like my father"/"the half-forgotten features"); "I'd have stayed," Robin says, casting himself as the hero in some fantasy narrative (and a rather patriarchal one at that — where did he learn that from?), to which Helen, rationalist on an irrational world, can only reply with a narrative of biographical fact.

There are many such moments in this story in which it opens up into the possibility of other stories. Some of these stories remain untold because they are "not what happened" — early on, it is suggested that Helen and Robin easily could have died many times over in their first year on the planet, before she figured out what was necessary for survival and dealt, to the extent that is possible, with the immediate shock of isolation; but though a story could be told about these deaths (one, perhaps, not too unlike Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To), they did not occur in the story we are reading — and some remain untold because Bradley has chosen not to look at them (the hardships of that first year, even if Helen and Robin both survived, could easily fill a very different kind of story). Each of these moments is a powerful dual reminder of the nature of story (in which everything is selected by someone who could just as well have selected otherwise) and of life (in which everything depends on contingency, and through which we simply make our way as best as we can, lacking the external perspective that both the writer and the reader of a story possess). Think about Helen as a character in a story, Bradley seems to be saying, and remember that I could have chosen to have her die early had that been the story I wanted to tell; think about real life projected through my portrait of Helen and remember that a woman speaking to her teenage son is only alive to do so because she did not die when he was a baby.

All of this is going on in the telling of a story that is fundamentally ambiguous, open to interpretation. Are there aliens on the planet that the human eye can't quite detect, or are Helen and Robin in their isolation succumbing to a sort of folie à deux? If there are aliens, what, if anything, do they want? Is Robin quite human, is Reynolds his father? (For that matter, is Helen his mother in a genetic sense?) What happens to either of them in the end? The story does not supply any external information sufficient for us to know "what really happened." At the end of the story, after Robin vanishes into what Helen interprets as the society of these aliens, and after she chases after him, going, probably, to her death, we get one last section break and a final paragraph in which, "many years later", a now-old Captain Merrihew manages to return to the planet where he had left Helen so many years before and search it from orbit.

The old buildings [constructed by the crew during its time on the planet] had fallen into rotted timbers, and Merrihew quartered the little world for two months from pole to pole but found nothing. Nothing but shadows and whispers and the unending voices of the wind. Finally, he lifted his ship and went away.
It is easy to read this as confirming that, with Helen's death, Robin has become one of the undetectable aliens (an odd sort of twisting of Freudian theories, that, as are many other elements of the story, in many different ways); to a reader with a different sense of "what happened," it could be equally easy to read it as suggesting that Helen and Robin, both fully human, both died by mishap that night. But I can't help but find it suggestive that Merrihew only searches from orbit (though even this is ambiguous, as the sensory description in the penultimate sentence and the word "lifted" in the last seem vaguely to suggest that he was on the surface), that he searches an entire planet for only two months, and that we have no idea what methods he uses to search or how thorough they could be. Bradley has not told us what kind of relevant technology this future has, and we are left unable even to determine whether or not Merrihew's search is inconclusive! As for me, I found myself much like Merrihew, at the end: after orbiting the story once, then twice, not ever really entering it no matter how hard I searched for something concrete, I lifted my eyes and went away changed — however slightly —, and returned to a world that now looked different. And all of this happened through the elements in the story that pointed out, not in. (And maybe someday I'll figure out how to do something with all this other than turn it into more written words.)