Jan 042016

Some weeks ago, I took my granddaughter to the ‘pumpkinfest’ thrown by her school’s PTA. No pumpkin chuckin’, alas, but they did hire a balloon twister. So what did the kids stand in line for? Swords and guns. The gym was soon full of balloon mayhem. Observing them whale away at each another, I thought, “The eschaton isn’t going to get immanetized tonight.” Yeah, I really did. Sorry about that.

The great Gene Wolfe had a novel out in October. A Borrowed Man is set in a near future North America. It’s a technologically proficient society. Environmental concerns have been mitigated – the sky is clear, the air and water pure, population drastically reduced, human cloning is common, and some sort of deep brain scan allows memories to be downloaded into clones. The narrator  is such a clone, a ‘copy’ of a writer of mysteries and science fiction from an earlier time. At a guess, the original lived maybe a century from our own time, and died maybe 50 years before the time of the story. This is the story of his adventures.

The air may be breathable, the water drinkable, yet the world is unpleasant. The police are brutal. The countryside is littered with wrecked towns inhabited by near-feral packs of poor people. These poor are not fed. The clones, although fully human, are considered property, and may be disposed of willy-nilly. “Library clones,” such as the narrator, maybe disposed of if they are not “checked out” often enough, and the disposal process is cruel. Though Wolfe doesn’t state it clearly, the behavior of the narrator, the actions he does not take, his ready assent to the rules of being a library clone, suggest that they are to some degree conditioned, their freedom of will shackled. This is dystopia. Technology masks the evil and patches the cracked surface, no more. The world of A Borrowed Man is similar to those of Home Fires and An Evil Guest. Human evil persists.

A Borrowed Man shares a bit of the background to William Gibson’s The Peripheral from last year. A catastrophe has nearly exterminated humankind, but high technology emerged that allowed just in time to allow “1 percenters” and wealthy nation-states to survive and accumulate immense power. The surviving 1 percenters are mostly horrible. Their horribleness is barely constrained by governments that are themselves complicit with these horrible people. Through yet another mysterious technological marvel (The Peripheral is full of McGuffins and Alien Space Bats), some of the more minimally decent people gain access to an alternate time line that exists just before the tipping point into catastrophe (it should be pointed out that there are multiple such time lines, most of them kept as private playgrounds by very bad people). They place high technology into the hands of ordinary but clever people who may be able to prevent or divert the catastrophe. It’s deus ex machina stuff. Gibson asks us to believe that a technologically enabled underclass can bring about a better outcome; a bit Marxist, that. I think that the human record is that our normative state is to seek the unconstrained exercise of our will, so I doubt things would actually work out so happily. Gibson tends to work in loosely-bound trilogies, so we will have to await the eventual outcome of the alternate time line until Gibson himself observes it.

Gibson builds up his world through detailed descriptions of things and people and their relationships. In his later style, Wolfe hints, but does not tell. Anything may become significant, even a color, and maybe not until a fourth or fifth reading.

I find it intriguing that, in The Peripheral, much of the action of the protagonists in the earlier, alternate, timeline, is directed to making room for family life: this is a bit similar to the efforts of the protagonist-characters in his previous group, beginning with Pattern Recognition. Similarly, the clone narrator of A Borrowed Man makes arrangements that he hopes will prolong his existence a bit, and make his life bearable.

One could go on. Utopias and dystopias are staples of fiction. We write them and read them out of a sense of human bent-ness. It’s all around us, visible and stark, but we tend to close our eyes, or concentrate on only a part of it. Wolfe’s dystopia seems somewhat more dire: both give us depopulated worlds. Gibson’s is the result of a concatenation of errors, some preventable. I fear that Wolfe’s depopulation was a  deliberate, a Stalinist,  act.  Humankind has shown itself capable of all varieties of horrors; technology seems to magnify but not improve our natures.

 Posted by at 9:21 am
Oct 192015

I am, for Gene Wolfe’s novel available tomorrow.

I’m rereading Castleview, one of Wolfe’s more complexly indirect fictions, in preparation.  Like batting practice, I suppose.  Here’s a small example of his subtlety, in which a bit of dialog tells us all we need to know about the character of one of the cast.  A woman’s husband has died suddenly, on the eve of a promotion that would have required them to sell their home.  It’s listed for sale, and a man has come to make an offer.  There are a number of Wolfe-y clues to him, but this exchange tells us a lot.  In her own home, she offers him coffee or tea.  The weather is foul, and getting colder.

“Tea, please.  My cigarette doesn’t offend you?  If it does I can open a window.”

This is an exquisite example of how every word matters .

From the advance description, this novel shares a bit of the setting of William Gibson’s The Peripheral, from just about a year ago.  This will be fascinating.

 Posted by at 1:20 pm
Aug 242015

Were it discovered that cats or dogs, lions or horses, rhinos or tigers, were bred so their offspring could be extracted and their component parts harvested, celebrities would trample one another in their rush to the microphone, and PETA would be in the streets.  How is it that we have come to this point?

Aug 192015

Take a little time to get the granddaughter set up for kindergarten, and all Arkham breaks loose, doesn’t it?

This summer became an inadvertent Gene Wolfe/Tim Powers immersion event, which is another story and another discussion.  I promised myself a C. S. Lewis immersion in turn. I’ll begin that in earnest as soon as I find all my books WHICH SOMEONE HAS MOVED AROUND.  Hmph.  I have begun with The Abolition of Man, which I DID MANAGE TO FIND UNDER A PILE OF OTHER STUFF (ahem) and found this gem of a footnote (from chapter 2)

It will be seen that comfort and security, as known to a suburban street in peace-time, are the ultimate values; those things which can alone produce or spiritualize comfort and security are mocked.  Man lives by bread alone, and the ultimate source of bread is the baker’s van:  peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.

A great load of acute observation lies within this. CSL was a perceptive social observer and critic.


Jul 092015

I’m in the midst of a kind of disorderly Gene Wolfe and Tim Powers immersion.  In the case of Gene Wolfe, I’m going through his more recent novels for a second, sometimes third time.  Wolfe’s novels are infinite puzzle boxes, exhausting and exhilarating to read.

An Evil Guest  (2009) is set in the relatively near future: we have a “warp drive” enabling interstellar exploration, but the culture hasn’t changed a lot (or has it – Wolfe is rarely explicit).  I found this little bit in a scene in which the narrator is trying to get news about an attack on another character:

In an unrelated story, the Supreme Court has extended the period for post-parturition terminations to one year.  Civil rights organizations continue to press for five for defectives.

Mayor Houlihan has declared the city’s streets safer than ever as a result of the previously announced decline in police violence.  Many citizens seem to agree.”

And one of those citizens is described:

A young man with acne and a nascent beard shrugged. “I go out whenever.  Everything’s chief.” His shirt, open to the waist, revealed an obscene symbol worked in gold and suspended from his neck by a heavy gold chain.

The Land Across and Home Fires contain similar, side-eye glances at the path we may be on; but Wolfe never clobbers you over the head.  He’s sly, sardonic, and elusive.

Dec 142013

And I shall, and avoid the next part of Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit.  Jackson’s sensibility, never very harmonious with Tolkien’s, has been set free by box office success to run amok.  Tolkien’s modest children’s book was little more than a draft or plot summary for Part I. So I shall not contribute to the box office numbers of this round. I won’t be missed, and I don’t need the popcorn.

It is interesting to speculate (and perhaps someone has done this work. If so, and if my reader knows of it, leave a comment) the differing perceptions of those whose first encounter with Tolkien’s work has been through the texts, and those whose first encounter has been through the lens of Jackson’s work. How do movie-first readers perceive the books? What do they find difficult or unsatisfying? What do they find more interesting than the movie version? If our culture is ever more visually dominated, what is lost when text becomes secondary to image? Those who for decades had only the text, were free to create their own images, and change them at will; Jackson’s work collapses the probability function, as it were, crystallizing Legolas into Orlando Bloom.  Can that mold be broken?  Hm.

 Posted by at 6:38 am
Nov 292013

Of all Christian groups, liturgically conservative Anglicans who regularly employ Morning or Evening Prayer in their worship should be best equipped to resist the mercantile foolishness of The Season (™ the Father of Lies), since we regularly acknowledge that we follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts – and acquiring devices and following our desires is what The Season is all about.

Nov 222013

On this day, we seem to have decided it’s appropriate to recall one’s first exposure to C. S. Lewis.  For me, it was somewhere around 1966, not that long after his death, in a brief and laudatory article somewhere – I’ve forgotten. I was bookish, a little sickly with asthma, so any new object of reading was a Good Thing. Every Friday evening brought a trip to our town library, after getting an injection to desensitize me to my various allergens, an injection loaded up with antihistamines to prevent serious reactions (treatments then were brute force, if in my case effective). The antihistamines served to knock me out for the weekend.

If I recall, by this time I had already discovered Dorothy Sayers and Peter Wimsey in the “mystery section,” and had already consumed in a state of ecstatic wonder The Lord of the Rings. I don’t believe that the article that piqued my interest in Lewis mentioned that he had any connection with these writers.

My first run at Lewis in the library misfired. For the life of me I could not remember his name, due to the antihistamines maybe, and picked up something by C. P. Snow instead. Probably The Two Cultures. There was, shall we say, a certain disharmony between the praise in the article I had read and the book at hand, so I went back to the article, returned Snow’s book, and picked up, I think, The Case for Christianity, and maybe Out of the Silent Planet.  And that was that.

Over the next two years I devoured as much as I could find of Lewis’s work, which was rather a lot. Most of his work was in print, and I still have most of the editions I bought then ($1.95?!).  I was not particularly religiously inclined at the time; I had gone through a fairly typical Episcopalian Sunday School education for the mid to late 1950s and early 1960s, but by some oversight of my parents I had been neither baptized nor confirmed. Six months with Lewis determined me to remedy that.

Now, fifty years after his death and not quite fifty years from my first reading of his work, I suppose that the great gift he gave me was an intellectual framework of sorts. Poorly used, no doubt at all, and probably abused sometimes, but nonetheless present; the clarity of his thought and his writing seem to have stood as barriers against sloppiness (and ours is a sloppy age). He set me off on the journey that I’ve followed, by fits and starts, inconsistently, sinfully, erratically, sullenly, resentfully, happily, ever since.

Jun 272013

DOMA was never a very good law, nor adequate response to the attack on marriage. Justice Kennedy needn’t have loaded his opinion with so much animus toward Congress, and Justice Scalia was right to be scandalized by that animus, and the majority opinion will be a problem for the future. But as law, DOMA was poor. Prior to DOMA, the rule of thumb for all of us bureaucratic pencil pushers (chorus of right wing boos and hisses) was that a marriage legally contracted in the jurisdiction of origin was legal wherever else the couple might go. This usually meant thinking through the more typical situation of a couple, one or both underage in their home, who cross state lines to marry in a jurisdiction with a lower legal age of consent. And that meant looking at the state law on that sort of subject. It wasn’t hard, though it did get amusingly convoluted from time to time. The situation altered when the SSM movement got off the ground. DOMA was simply not a good response to it, but there wasn’t the political force of will to federalize the matter via a constitutional amendment.
Proposition 8 is a somewhat more challenging matter. In terms of media response, one need only make a simple thought experiment: supposing the good people of California became weary of armed gangs in their cities, and by popular initiative overwhelmingly passed a well-crafted gun control Proposition, one that successfully targeted gangs, illegal gun transactions, and the like, while leaving undisturbed the right of innocent citizens to self defense or hunting or other appropriate use. Let us assume that the elected officials of California loathed this Proposition, refused to enforce it, and actively encouraged litigation to overturn it. After wending its way through the court system, the Supremes state, as they did in Proposition 8, that the rank and file citizenry have no standing to seek enforcement of a validly passed Proposition. The media firestorm would be immediate, though the matter of standing would be identical.
More generally, our culture generally has swallowed a lot of whoppers. The Father of Lies managed to persuade a couple of generations that a child in utero was not human. Once you get that one down, SSM is just dessert.
It also seems that our institutions are failing us, from the once beautiful program of public education through the court system. Right-wingers of a certain type will (not incorrectly, but maybe assuming too much intentionality) refer to “the long march through institutions.”  I myself suspect that a great wind is coming, one that will prune away a great many fruitless branches. Here and there you can see the stirring of that wind in the grass and tree tops. We’ll see.
So what do Christians do? Be very fundamental, preach and teach Christ, crucified, risen, and Lord. If Jesus is at the center, the lies wither and vanish.
And, lastly, if we insist on electing scoundrels and incompetents to high office, we must assume that they will act as scoundrels and incompetents. I’ve said before and will say again, that Terry Pratchett’s finest bit of satire may have been when he located the office of the Prime Minister of The Last Continent in jail.

Nov 162012

The town where I mostly grew up was bounded on its south by forest.  We moved there when I was about three.  My parents first rented a townhouse, later bought two small houses.  All three homes were close to the forest.  The two houses were mere steps from it.

Kids’ time was less structured then, and parents maybe less fearful, maybe more naive.  I spent a lot of time in that forest, alone or in amorphous gangs.  We dug for arrowheads in muddy tussocks that we were certain were burial mounds (they weren’t).  Someone always knew another someone who had found an arrowhead there – none of us ever did.  We hurled our sleds down Suicide Hill, which probably could have been just that – it was steep enough and high enough, with a wicked upward recurve at the bottom that overhung a creek – but no one was ever hurt.  The creek was shallow and meandering, crossed by fallen-log bridges.  The old trees were slippery in every season, and someone was always likely to all off and soak their boots.  That could be unpleasant in winter.  The creek did not reliably freeze.  We longed for the bridges to be the work of beavers, but they were just fallen trees.

The forest grew on “rolling” land, small hills maybe 25 to 30 feet high, with wide boggy places in between them. The trees on the hills were mostly maple and oak.  One hill was crowned with a large house, a ranch, and most of its hill was fenced in a casual, half hearted way.  No one knew who lived there, so of course we made up stories of varying degrees of gruesomeness.  I recall that there was supposed to have been a daughter, with a tragedy, but can’t retrieve the details.

At some point, influenced by some book or other, I fell in love with the idea of woodcraft, tried to learn to move silently in the forest, anticipating every noise I might make, trying to read the trees and the trails for signs of – what?  Despite being a flagrantly incompetent Cub Scout, I got moderately good at silent movement.  Never fooled an animal, though.

My solitary, rambling walks there in all seasons gave me a sense of, well, not liveliness, nor any Coleridgian theophanies, but a sense of the forest as a living thing, with purposes and sensations, I suppose, utterly unlike anything human.  Writing this, I recall that I still visit this forest from time to time in my dreams.  In dreams, not nightmares.

So when I at 14 or 15 picked up The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I felt entirely at home.  Everyone reads with a certain lens or (to use a fancier word) sensibility.  Once I recommended LeGuin’s Malafrena (a favorite) to a friend.  She saw a certain event as central which seemed to me far less so, nor did on rereading did I recognize my error.  For me, a sensibility shaped by a living forest, a moderately wild living forest, and early reading of Greek and Norse myth prepared me to Jump right in to LoR.  Woody End, the Old Forest and to a lesser degree Fanghorn were much like the forest I knew, it seemed to me, while the Land of the Valley of Singing Gold was my forest, glorified and transformed.  It was a part of Tolkien’s sensibility in which I was at home.  As in Malafrena, place is nearly a character in LoR.
Now we are on the eve of the release of the first bit of Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit.  I still haven’t decided if I will see it; probably, with trepidation.  I understand that Peter Jackson’s first came to LoR via Bakshi’s cartoon version.  The merits of that effort aside, this means that Jackson’s initial approach to LoR is second hand, and maybe that explains his willingness to play with the material a bit too much.  Nor is his own sensibility quite at home with Tolkien’s.  In adapting The Lord of the Rings, he did many good things, but also introduced some oddities.  His love of the grotesque took over a couple of times (and if you don’t think Jackson has a fondness for the grotesque, see his earlier film, The Frighteners) – in his portrayal of Bree and the Prancing Pony, happy places in the original, in the portrayal of Lord Denethor, a few others.  LoR is a very big story, so big that for Jackson to have ruined it he would have had to make an entirely different movie.  What he did was good in many, many places, especially visually.  The Hobbit is a smaller work and less resistant to transmogrification.   The effect of Jackson’s changes (Evangeline Lilly?) will be greater.   I am also a bit concerned that this bloated rendition may be a way of sneaking First Age material onto the screen: if so, the intellectual property folks are going to have lots of fun.  The scope of Jackson & Company’s additions seems likely to be greater, and give me plenty to be sceptical about.  The visual story-telling will probably be fine.