Alec Nevala-Lee

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The Order of St. John’s

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When I think back on my personal experience with the great books, as I did here the other day, I have to start with the six weeks that I spent as a high school junior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. As I’ve discussed in greater detail before, I had applied to the Telluride Associate Summer Program on the advice of my guidance counselor. It was an impulsive decision, but I was accepted, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it one of the three or four most significant turning points in my entire life. I was more than primed for a program like this—I had just bought my own set of the Great Books of the Western World at a church book sale—and I left with my head full of the values embodied by the college, which still structures its curriculum around a similar notion of the Western Canon. Throughout the summer, I attended seminars with seventeen other bright teenagers, and as we worked our way from Plato’s Cratylus through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, it all seemed somehow normal. I more or less assumed that this was how college would be, which wasn’t entirely true, although I did my best to replicate the experience. Looking back, in fact, I suspect that my time at St. John’s was more responsible than any other factor for allowing me to attend the college of my choice, and it certainly played a role in my decision to major in classics. But it’s only now that I can fully appreciate how much privilege went into each stage in that process. It came down to a series of choices, which I was able to make freely, and while I don’t think I always acted correctly, I’m amazed at how lucky I was, and how the elements of a liberal education itself managed to obscure that crucial point.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times, who paid a visit to the sister campus of St. John’s College in Santa Fe. He opens with a description that certainly would have appealed to my adolescent self, although probably not to most other teenagers:

Have I got a college for you. For your first two years, your regimen includes ancient Greek. And I do mean Greek, the language, not Greece, the civilization, though you’ll also hang with Aristotle, Aeschylus, Thucydides and the rest of the gang. There’s no choice in the matter. There’s little choice, period…You have no major, only “the program,” an exploration of the Western canon that was implemented in 1937 and has barely changed…It’s an increasingly exotic and important holdout against so many developments in higher education—the stress on vocational training, the treatment of students as fickle consumers, the elevation of individualism over a shared heritage—that have gone too far. It’s a necessary tug back in the other direction.

More than twenty years after I spent the summer there, the basic pitch for the college doesn’t seem to have changed. Its fans still draw a pointed comparison between the curriculum at St. John’s and the supposedly more “consumerist” approach of most undergraduate programs, and it tends to define itself in sharp contrast to the touchy-feely world around it. “Let your collegiate peers elsewhere design their own majors and frolic with Kerouac,” Bruni writes. “For you it’s Kant.”

Yet it isn’t hard to turn this argument on its head, or to recognize that there’s a real sense in which St. John’s might be one of the most individualistic and consumerist colleges in the entire country. (The article itself is headlined “The Most Contrarian College in America,” while Bruni writes that he was drawn to it “out of respect for its orneriness.” And a school for ornery contrarians sounds pretty individualistic to me.) We can start with the obvious point that “the stress on vocational training” at other colleges is the result of economic anxiety at a time of rising tuitions and crippling student loans. There’s tremendous pressure to turn students away from the humanities, and it isn’t completely unjustified. The ability to major in classics or philosophy reflects a kind of privilege in itself, at least in the form of the absence of some of those pressures, and it isn’t always about money. For better or worse, reading the great books is just about the most individualistic gesture imaginable, and its supposed benefits—what the dean of the Santa Fe campus characterizes as the creation of “a more thoughtful, reflective, self-possessed and authentic citizen, lover, partner, parent and member of the global economy”—are obsessively focused on the self. The students at St. John’s may not have the chance to shop around for classes once they get there, but they made a vastly more important choice as a consumer long before they even arrived. A choice of college amounts to a lot of things, but it’s certainly an act with financial consequences. In many cases, it’s the largest purchase that any of us will ever make. The option of spending one’s college years reading Hobbes and Spinoza at considerable cost doesn’t even factor into the practical or economic universe of most families, and it would be ridiculous to claim otherwise.

In other words, every student at St. John’s exercised his or her power in the academic marketplace when it mattered most. By comparison, the ability to tailor one’s class schedule seems like a fairly minor form of consumerism—which doesn’t detract from the quality of the product, which is excellent, as it should be at such prices. (Bruni notes approvingly that the college recently cut its annual tuition from $52,000 to $35,000, which I applaud, although it doesn’t change my underlying point.) But it’s difficult to separate the value of such an education from the existing qualities required for a high schooler to choose it in the first place. It’s hard for me to imagine a freshman at St. John’s who wasn’t intelligent, motivated, and individualistic, none of which would suffer from four years of immersion in the classics. They’re already lucky, which is a lesson that the great books won’t teach on their own. The Great Conversation tends to take place within a circle of authors who have been chosen for their resemblance to one another, or for how well they fit into a cultural narrative imposed on them after the fact, as Robert Maynard Hutchins writes in the introduction to Great Books of the Western World: “The set is almost self-selected, in the sense that one book leads to another, amplifying, modifying, or contradicting it.” And that’s fine. But it means that you rarely see these authors marveling over their own special status, which they take for granted. For a canon that consists entirely of books written by white men, there’s remarkably little discussion of privilege, because they live in it like fish in water—which is as good an argument for diversity as any I can imagine. The students at St. John’s may ask these hard questions about themselves, but if they do, it’s despite what they read, not because of it. Believe me, I should know.

Written by nevalalee

September 20, 2018 at 9:02 am

Reading the rocks

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“[Our] ignorance of planetary history undermines any claims we may make to modernity,” the geologist Marcia Bjornerud writes in her new book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. In an excerpt that appeared last week on Nautilus, Bjornerud makes a case for geology as a way of seeing that I find poetic and compelling:

Early in an introductory geology course, one begins to understand that rocks are not nouns but verbs—visible evidence of processes: a volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt. Everywhere one looks, rocks bear witness to events that unfolded over long stretches of time. Little by little, over more than two centuries, the local stories told by rocks in all parts of the world have been stitched together into a great global tapestry—the geologic timescale. This “map” of Deep Time represents one of the great intellectual achievements of humanity, arduously constructed by stratigraphers, paleontologists, geochemists, and geochronologists from many cultures and faiths. It is still a work in progress to which details are constantly being added and finer and finer calibrations being made.

This is a lovely passage in itself, but I was equally struck by how it resembles the arguments that are often advanced in defense of the great books. One of that movement’s favorite talking points is the notion of “The Great Conversation,” or the idea that canonical books and authors aren’t dead or antiquated, but engaged in a vital dialogue between themselves and the present. And its defenders frequently make their case in terms much like those that Bjornerud employs. In the book The Great Conversation, which serves as the opening volume of Great Books of the Western World, the educator Robert Maynard Hutchins writes: “This set of books is offered in no antiquarian spirit. We have not seen our task as that of taking tourists on a visit to ancient ruins or to the quaint productions of primitive peoples.” And the justifications presented for the two fields are similar as well. As Bjornerud’s subtitle indicates, she suggests that a greater awareness of geologic timescales can serve as a way for us to address the problems of our own era, while Hutchins uses language that has a contemporary ring:

We are as concerned as anybody else at the headlong plunge into the abyss that Western civilization seems to be taking. We believe that the voices that may recall the West to sanity are those which have taken part in the Great Conversation. We want them to be heard again not because we want to go back to antiquity, or the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Eighteenth Century. We are quite aware that we do not live in any time but the present, and, distressing as the present is, we would not care to live in any other time if we could.

“We want the voices of the Great Conversation to be heard again because we think they may help us to learn to live better now,” Hutchins concludes. Bjornerud sounds much the same when she speaks on behalf of geology, sounding a dire warning against “temporal illiteracy,” which leads us to ignore our own impact on environmental processes in the present. In both cases, a seemingly static body of knowledge is reimagined as timely and urgent. I’ve spent much of my life in service to this notion, in one way or another, and I badly want to believe it. Yet I sometimes have my doubts. The great books have been central to my thinking for decades, and their proponents tend to praise their role in building cultural and civic awareness, but the truth isn’t quite that simple. As Harold Bloom memorably points out in The Western Canon: “Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens.” And a few pages later, he makes a case that strikes me as more convincing than anything that Hutchins says:

The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up our supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue…The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own…If we read the Western Canon in order to form our social, political, or personal moral values, I firmly believe we will become monsters of selfishness and exploitation. To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.

And while I’m certainly sympathetic to Bjornerud’s argument, I suspect that the same might hold true if we turn to geology for lessons about time. Good science, like great literature, is morally neutral, and we run into trouble when we ask it to stand for anything but itself. (Bjornerud notes in passing that many geologists are employed by petroleum companies, which doesn’t help her case that access to knowledge about the “deep, rich, grand geologic story” of our planet will lead to a better sense of environmental stewardship.) And this line of argument has a way of highlighting a field’s supposed relevance at the moments when it seems most endangered. The humanities have long fought against the possibility, as Bloom dryly puts it, that “our English and other literature departments [will] shrink to the dimensions of our current Classics departments,” and Bjornerud is equally concerned for geology:

Lowly geology has never achieved the glossy prestige of the other sciences. It has no Nobel Prize, no high school Advanced Placement courses, and a public persona that is musty and dull. This of course rankles geologists, but it also has serious consequences for society…The perceived value of a science profoundly influences the funding it receives.

When a field seems threatened, it’s tempting to make it seem urgently necessary. I’ve done plenty of this sort of thing myself, and I hope that it works. In the end, though, I have a feeling that Bjornerud’s “timefulness” has exactly the same practical value as the virtue that Bloom attributes to books, which is priceless enough: “All that the Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confrontation with one’s own mortality.”

Crumb and Dick in Disneyland

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In 1986, the cartoonist Robert Crumb published an eight-page story, “The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick,” in the underground comic book Weirdo. The combination of these two singular personalities seems both appropriate and somehow incongruous, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Crumb wasn’t a fan of Dick, or of science fiction in general, as we read in the new companion book to an exhibition of his work in Paris: “Crumb is known to have no interest in science fiction and no acquaintance with Philip K. Dick’s novels, but what seems to have interested him here is the undecidable nature of the writer’s experience: was this a schizophrenic episode or the authentic mystical experience of a spirit touched by divine grace?” (His primary source appears to have been Dick’s famous speech “How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” along with the interview with Gregg Rickman reprinted as The Last Testament.) Crumb was fifteen years younger than Dick, and they never seem to have met, but they had a number of surprising affinities. Both spent much of their lives in the Bay Area; both were major artists who first made their mark in vaguely disreputable genres; and both were indelibly linked with psychedelic culture, although they developed the most distinctive elements of their styles long before their earliest encounters with drugs. They were both obsessive record collectors who must have haunted some of the same music shops a decade apart, although their tastes, with one possible exception, were different—Dick preferred classical, Crumb the jazz and blues of the twenties and thirties.

Yet it isn’t surprising that Crumb would be drawn to Dick’s story, which would have been common knowledge in the circles in which he was moving. His comic adaptation opens with an account of Dick’s mystical vision in March 1974, when he had a wisdom tooth removed under sodium pentothal and received a prescription for painkillers. When a woman came to his house to deliver the medication, he was struck by the fish necklace she was wearing, which she explained was a symbol used by the early Christians. At that moment, Dick was hit by a sudden revelation, as freely adapted by Crumb:

I remembered who I was and where I was. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it all came back to me. And not only could I remember it but I could see it. The girl was a secret Christian and so was I. We lived in fear of detection by the Romans. We had to communicate in cryptic signs. She had just told me all this, and it was true. I saw the world as the world of the apostolic Christian times of ancient Rome, when the fish sign was in use.

Dick was never able to explain to his own satisfaction what the experience truly signified, apart from what it implied about the unreality of time itself. But it left him with a sense that the Rome of the early Christian era somehow underlay the visible world, leading to a series of equally odd events, including a truly inexplicable incident in which he correctly diagnosed his young son with an inguinal hernia, after falling into a trance while listening to “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Crumb renders these incidents with his usual exquisite technical skill, without any apparent effort at editorial commentary, much as he would later illustrate the entirety of The Book of Genesis. For a hint of his attitude toward the material, we can turn to an interview with Jean-Pierre Mercier printed in R. Crumb: Conversations, in which he discusses the biographical comics that he was producing at the time:

The idea was to do classic comics like the old American “Classic Comics” that were out in the fifties when I was a kid…In all those literary things that I did, I saw something comic in the characters that was probably not intended there in the original. Even Sartre, there was something comical…The same thing with Philip K. Dick and his religious experiences. There’s something absurd and comical about his paranoia and his religious visions and how he interpreted them.

There’s something undeniably humorous in his presentation of Dick’s testament in the “Classic Comics” style, but he doesn’t condescend to the subject, either. In the interview, Crumb speaks of the difficulty in paring a dense biographical narrative down to ten pages, and it’s revealing that he chose one particular passage from Dick, who speaks with a howl of messianic anger: “The Lord of Darkness is very powerful. We have powerful adversaries. They don’t give up their interest in power voluntarily, their power must be taken from them. We are in a crisis situation of the like this planet has never seen before. We have lunatics in power with the capacity of blowing up the planet. Therefore, if we are delivered from these people, the planet survives; the ecosphere is not destroyed.”

Crumb never would have used these words himself, but he might have identified with their indignation, as well as with the fine line between artistry and madness—a relationship that he knew well from his own family life. (His other great work along these lines, “Jelly Roll Morton’s Voodoo Curse,” appeared a year earlier in Raw, and Dick, interestingly, mentions Morton by name in his novel Dr. Futurity.) And their deepest connection might have been as close as Disneyland. While Dick was shaped by his childhood encounters with Astounding, Crumb’s earliest influences were Disney comics and movies, including Carl Barks’s Donald Duck and the movie adaptation of Treasure Island, as filtered through the skewed perspective of his older brother Charles. He spent much of his career working through his memories of these works, which “profoundly enthralled” him, much as Dick broke apart and reassembled the conventions of the golden age. And he must have noticed how Dick opens “How To Build A Universe” with greetings from Disneyland, presenting himself as an official spokesperson of the theme park, and he offers a fantasy that seems curiously close to Crumb:

In Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feet when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces.

And Dick closes with perhaps the single most prophetic line in all his work: “When time ends, the birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.”

Note: The Chicago Public Library announced yesterday that this year’s selection for the One Book, One Chicago program will be Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I’ll be discussing Dick’s place in the history of science fiction with Gary K. Wolfe at an event at the Sulzer Regional Branch on November 15.

The end of flexibility

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A few days ago, I picked up my old paperback copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which collects the major papers of the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson. I’ve been browsing through this dense little volume since I was in my teens, but I’ve never managed to work through it all from beginning to end, and I turned to it recently out of a vague instinct that it was somehow what I needed. (Among other things, I’m hoping to put together a collection of my short stories, and I’m starting to see that many of Bateson’s ideas are relevant to the themes that I’ve explored as a science fiction writer.) I owe my introduction to his work, as with so many other authors, to Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog, who advised in one edition:

[Bateson] wandered thornily in and out of various disciplines—biology, ethnology, linguistics, epistemology, psychotherapy—and left each of them altered with his passage. Steps to an Ecology of Mind chronicles that journey…In recommending the book I’ve learned to suggest that it be read backwards. Read the broad analyses of mind and ecology at the end of the book and then work back to see where the premises come from.

This always seemed reasonable to me, so when I returned to it last week, I flipped immediately to the final paper, “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,” which was first presented in 1970. I must have read it at some point—I’ve quoted from it several times on this blog before—but as I looked over it again, I found that it suddenly seemed remarkably urgent. As I had suspected, it was exactly what I needed to read right now. And its message is far from reassuring.

Bateson’s central point, which seems hard to deny, revolves around the concept of flexibility, or “uncommitted potentiality for change,” which he identifies as a fundamental quality of any healthy civilization. In order to survive, a society has to be able to evolve in response to changing conditions, to the point of rethinking even its most basic values and assumptions. Bateson proposes that any kind of planning for the future include a budget for flexibility itself, which is what enables the system to change in response to pressures that can’t be anticipated in advance. He uses the analogy of an acrobat who moves his arms between different positions of temporary instability in order to remain on the wire, and he notes that a viable civilization organizes itself in ways that allow it to draw on such reserves of flexibility when needed. (One of his prescriptions, incidentally, serves as a powerful argument for diversity as a positive good in its own right: “There shall be diversity in the civilization, not only to accommodate the genetic and experiential diversity of persons, but also to provide the flexibility and ‘preadaptation’ necessary for unpredictable change.”) The trouble is that a system tends to eat up its own flexibility whenever a single variable becomes inflexible, or “uptight,” compared to the rest:

Because the variables are interlinked, to be uptight in respect to one variable commonly means that other variables cannot be changed without pushing the uptight variable. The loss of flexibility spreads throughout the system. In extreme cases, the system will only accept those changes which change the tolerance limits for the uptight variable. For example, an overpopulated society looks for those changes (increased food, new roads, more houses, etc.) which will make the pathological and pathogenic conditions of overpopulation more comfortable. But these ad hoc changes are precisely those which in longer time can lead to more fundamental ecological pathology.

When I consider these lines now, it’s hard for me not to feel deeply unsettled. Writing in the early seventies, Bateson saw overpopulation as the most dangerous source of stress in the global system, and these days, we’re more likely to speak of global warming, resource depletion, and income inequality. Change a few phrases here and there, however, and the situation seems largely the same: “The pathologies of our time may broadly be said to be the accumulated results of this process—the eating up of flexibility in response to stresses of one sort or another…and the refusal to bear with those byproducts of stress…which are the age-old correctives.” Bateson observes, crucially, that the inflexible variables don’t need to be fundamental in themselves—they just need to resist change long enough to become a habit. Once we find it impossible to imagine life without fossil fuels, for example, we become willing to condone all kinds of other disruptions to keep that one hard-programmed variable in place. A civilization naturally tends to expand into any available pocket of flexibility, blowing through the budget that it should have been holding in reserve. The result is a society structured along lines that are manifestly rigid, irrational, indefensible, and seemingly unchangeable. As Bateson puts it grimly:

Civilizations have risen and fallen. A new technology for the exploitation of nature or a new technique for the exploitation of other men permits the rise of a civilization. But each civilization, as it reaches the limits of what can be exploited in that particular way, must eventually fall. The new invention gives elbow room or flexibility, but the using up of that flexibility is death.

And it’s difficult for me to read this today without thinking of all the aspects of our present predicament—political, environmental, social, and economic. Since Bateson sounded his warning half a century ago, we’ve consumed our entire budget of flexibility, largely in response to a single hard-programmed variable that undermined all the other factors that it was meant to sustain. At its best, the free market can be the best imaginable mechanism for ensuring flexibility, by allocating resources more efficiently than any system of central planning ever could. (As one prominent politician recently said to The Atlantic: “I love competition. I want to see every start-up business, everybody who’s got a good idea, have a chance to get in the market and try…Really what excites me about markets is competition. I want to make sure we’ve got a set of rules that lets everybody who’s got a good, competitive idea get in the game.” It was Elizabeth Warren.) When capital is concentrated beyond reason, however, and solely for its own sake, it becomes a weapon that can be used to freeze other cultural variables into place, no matter how much pain it causes. As the anonymous opinion writer indicated in the New York Times last week, it will tolerate a president who demeans the very idea of democracy itself, as long as it gets “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” because it no longer sees any other alternative. And this is where it gets us. For most of my life, I was ready to defend capitalism as the best system available, as long as its worst excesses were kept in check by measures that Bateson dismissively describes as “legally slapping the wrists of encroaching authority.” I know now that these norms were far more fragile than I wanted to acknowledge, and it may be too late to recover. Bateson writes: “Either man is too clever, in which case we are doomed, or he was not clever enough to limit his greed to courses which would not destroy the ongoing total system. I prefer the second hypothesis.” And I do, too. But I no longer really believe it.

The frankly bad

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“You should only read what is truly good or what is frankly bad,” Gertrude Stein once told the young Ernest Hemingway. It was Paris in the early twenties, and Hemingway had just confessed that he had been reading Aldous Huxley, whom Stein contemptuously described as “a dead man.” (In fact, Huxley was still alive, and he would go on living for decades, surviving Hemingway himself by more than two years.) But it isn’t hard to guess what she meant by this. In his memoir A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recalls that he had been reading Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and other writers “to keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked.” When Stein asked why he even bothered, his reply was a simple one: “I said that his books amused me and kept me from thinking.” And her response—that he should read only the truly good or frankly bad—strikes me as genuinely useful. On the one hand, we can’t subsist entirely on a diet of great books, and there are times when we justifiably read to avoid thinking, or to keep our minds off the possibility of writing for ourselves. Anything else would destroy us. On the other hand, the danger of reading what Stein called “inflated trash” is that we’ll lose the ability to distinguish between fake value and the real thing. When we don’t have the time or energy to fully engage with a book, it might be better to stick with something that we know is frankly bad, so we don’t waste time trying to make the distinction.

Personally, I’ve learned a lot from works of literature that occupy the middle ground between mediocrity and greatness, but I’ve also found myself unapologetically seeking out books that are frankly bad. They aren’t even great trash, as Pauline Kael might have put it, but trash of the most routine, ordinary kind. The most obvious example is my fascination with the novels of Arthur Hailey and Irving Wallace, two men who were among the bestselling writers of the sixties and seventies, only to be almost entirely forgotten now. Yet I keep reading them, and I can rarely resist picking up their books whenever I see one at a thrift store, which is where most of them seem to have ended up. (As I type this, I’m looking at the back cover of Wallace’s The Prize, which is described by its jacket copy as “one of the most compelling bestselling novels of all times.” As far as I can tell, it’s long out of print, along with all of Wallace’s other novels.) I particularly like them on long plane rides, when I’m too tired or distracted to focus on anything at all, and I can skim dozens of pages without any fear of missing anything important. On a recent trip to Europe, I carried so many of these books in my bag that it set off some kind of special alarm at security—the sensors evidently detected an unusual amount of “organic material,” in the form of yellowing mass market paperbacks. And when the security agent pulled out my flaking copies of The Prize and Hailey’s Overload, I felt like a confused time traveler with very bad taste.

This isn’t the place for a full consideration of either writer, but I feel obliged to share a few passages that might help to explain what they mean to me. Here’s my favorite line from Hailey’s Airport:

In the Cloud Captain’s Coffee Shop, Captain Vernon Demerest ordered tea for Gwen, black coffee for himself. Coffee—as it was supposed to do—helped keep him alert; he would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome.

As I’ve noted here before, another writer might have written, “He would probably down a dozen more cups between here and Rome,” trusting that the average reader would know that people sometimes drink coffee to stay awake. An author who wanted to be perfectly clear might have added, “Coffee helped keep him alert.” But only Hailey would have written “as it was supposed to do.” As for Wallace, take the moment in The Prize when a distinguished scientist contemplates cheating on her husband with a younger colleague:

Lindblom discoursed with nervous enthusiasm about the work in progress. His love for algae strains and soybean nodules and Rhodophyceae and Chlorella dinned on her eardrums…Trailing Lindblom, she peered at her watch. She had arrived at 11:05. It was now 11:55. The zero hour that she had set herself loomed close. The ultimate decision. Question One: Should she do it? There were two courses open: (a) mild flirtation, a holding of hands, an embrace, a kiss, romantic whispering, to be followed by similar meetings devoted to the same and no more; or (b) sexual intercourse.

That’s a big load of organic material. Yet it also wouldn’t be quite right to say that I’m reading these writers “ironically.” I view them totally without affection, and I don’t gain any cultural cachet by being seen with them on an airplane. You could even argue that I’m guilty of a weird reverse snobbism by reading books that aren’t beloved by anyone, but I prefer to think of it as a neat act of triangulation. The real risk of spending time with “frankly bad” books is that you’ll either dull your own taste or turn your default mode as a reader into one of easy condescension. I’ve found that Hailey and Wallace allow me to indulge my need for bad books in the least harmful way possible. Both authors are long dead, so their feelings can no longer be hurt. They were smart men who made enormous amounts of money by aiming squarely at the mainstream, and they clearly knew what they were doing. These weren’t cult books, but novels that millions of readers bought and promptly forgot. Neither left a devoted following, and they’ve dated so badly that they can barely be endured even as period pieces. But they’re still readable in their own way, and they can hardly be mistaken for anything except what they are. For all their attempts to inject sex and scandal into their Parade magazine view of the world, they’re the most complacent books imaginable, and I could even argue that they tell us something valuable about the complacency of their original readers. But that would be taking it too far. They amuse me and keep me from thinking—as they were supposed to do.

Written by nevalalee

September 5, 2018 at 8:13 am

The short of it

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When I was thirteen, I picked up a used paperback copy of the anthology 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander, which was first published in 1978. A quarter of a century later, it’s still on my bookshelf, and I’ve just finished reading through it again, solely for my own pleasure. I’ve spoken here before of how my taste in fiction, movies, television, music, and just about everything else in life was shaped by what I happened to stumble across in seventh grade, and this little book may turn out to be as influential as any of the others. It was the first science fiction collection that I ever owned, and with a few caveats, it’s still the one that I’d recommend to anyone who was looking to get into the genre for the first time. None of the selections are longer than five pages or so, and some are a less than a page. A few are little more than shaggy dog stories that hinge on a bad pun at the end—“A niche in time saves Stein”—but others are genuinely funny, scary, or haunting. The best serve as a perfect illustration of the Borges test, which states that many stories should only be as long as it takes to verbally explain the idea to an intelligent listener. And the range of voices presented here still catches me by surprise. When I first read this book, I hadn’t heard of any of them, apart from Asimov, and I didn’t pay much attention to the names of the authors. As a result, when I skim the table of contents, I’m amazed to find that I was reading stories in my early teens by Cyril M. Kornbluth, Joanna Russ, Larry Niven, Damon Knight, Barry N. Malzberg, Alfred Bester, Gregory Benford, and even George R.R. Martin.

And I didn’t read these stories out of obligation, but out of sheer joy. They don’t demand anything from the reader except for a few minutes of his or her attention, but the return on investment is considerable. There are ideas here that I’ve never forgotten, which makes a good case for the power of speculative fiction itself, especially when compared to other genres. I have another anthology on my shelf titled This Week’s Short Short Stories, which collects fifty examples from the Sunday supplement magazine This Week, which at the time—and this isn’t a typo—had a circulation of ten and a half million. Given the size of the audience, none of the stories could be particularly strange or challenging, and few of them have stuck in my mind. The genius of the science fiction short short, by contrast, is that it uses its modest length as an opportunity to go to darker, weirder places than a conventional narrative could sustain. It has often been used as an entry point for new writers, most famously in Astounding’s Probability Zero department, but it also requires a fair amount of skill to pull off, as Asimov points out in his introduction:

As a story grows shorter and shorter, all the fancy embroidery that length makes possible must go. In the short story, there can be no subplots; there is no time for philosophy; what description and character delineation there is must be accomplished with concision…Everything is eliminated but the point. The short short story reduces itself to the point alone and presents that to you like a bare needle fired from a blowgun; a needle that can tickle or sting or leave its effect buried within you for a long time.

And the best way to get a sense of the form’s possibilities is to pick up a copy of a collection like 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories and dive right in. (For some reason, I was never quite as entranced by its companion volume, 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories, maybe because it seemed too much like playing tennis without the net. There’s also an earlier anthology, Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales, edited by Asimov and Groff Conklin, which is equally worthwhile, and some of the stories that I recommend here appear there instead.) My personal favorites include “The Figure” by Edward Grendon, a time travel story that saves an unforgettably sick twist for the very last word; “Tiger by the Tail” by Alan E. Nourse, about a mysterious pocketbook that leads to a parallel universe; “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” by Damon Knight, which first appeared in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions; and “Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim, which was loosely adapted into the Guillermo del Toro movie of the same name. Other strong selections from the Asimov/Greenberg/Olander anthology, plucked essentially at random, include “Punch” by Frederik Pohl, “Upstart” by Steven Utley, “Safe at Any Speed” by Larry Niven, “Innocence” by Joanna Russ, and “Synchronicity” by James E. Thompson. Many of them end at the moment that a more conventional work might begin, with the core premise turned into a closing twist rather than an inciting incident, and when I look back, I see that many of my earliest attempts at writing fiction grew from a seed that one of these stories had planted.

Of course, not every short short story is worth reading. As Asimov points out, the form leaves the writer with nowhere to hide, and the whole effort stands or falls on the originality of its core idea. That’s part of the reason why I’ve never tried it myself, although I’m currently working on a story—an adaptation of my audio script “Retention”—that might technically qualify. And the low barriers to entry imply that there’s more forgettable work produced in this form than any other. As Stewart Beach, the fiction editor of This Week, writes in the anthology that I mentioned above: “Nothing loses interest quite as quickly a short-short which isn’t going anywhere except to a so-called surprise ending with ‘surprise, surprise’ telegraphed so hard through a lifeless middle that the reader either throws the story aside in disgust or skips forward to the ‘surprise’ he has been warned to expect.” That’s as true of science fiction as anything else, and my praise of the form is skewed by the fact that I know it best from anthologies of published stories, which have already gone through two levels of selection. (These days, we’re more likely to use the term flash fiction, which carries the unfortunate implication, at least to me, that they should be written quickly.) But even when you come across a clunker, you’ve only wasted a few minutes of your time, and I can’t think of a better way to rapidly familiarize yourself with the style and themes of a wide range of writers. An ambitious anthology by a good editor, covering the forty years since 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories was released, is a book that I would buy in a second. And I don’t think I’m alone.

The electric dream

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There’s no doubt who got me off originally and that was A.E. van Vogt…The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared.

—Philip K. Dick, in an interview with Vertex

I recently finished reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead, the French author Emmanuel Carrère’s novelistic biography of Philip K. Dick. In an article last year about Carrère’s work, James Wood of The New Yorker called it “fantastically engaging,” noting: “There are no references and very few named sources, yet the material appears to rely on the established record, and is clearly built from the same archival labor that a conventional biographer would perform.” It’s very readable, and it’s one of the few such biographies—along with James Tiptree, Jr. by Julie Phillips and a certain upcoming book—aimed at intelligent audience outside the fan community. Dick’s life also feels relevant now in ways that we might not have anticipated two decades ago, when the book was first published in France. He’s never been as central to me as he has for many other readers, mostly because of the accidents of my reading life, and I’ve only read a handful of his novels and stories. I’m frankly more drawn to his acquaintance and occasional correspondent Robert Anton Wilson, who ventured into some of the same dark places and returned with his sanity more or less intact. (One notable difference between the two is that Wilson was a more prolific experimenter with psychedelic drugs, which Dick, apart from one experience with LSD, appears to have avoided.) But no other writer, with one notable exception that I’ll mention below, has done a better job of forcing us to confront the possibility that our understanding of the world might be fatally flawed. And it’s quite possible that he serves as a better guide to the future than any of the more rational writers who populated the pages of Astounding.

What deserves to be remembered about Dick, though, is that he loved the science fiction of the golden age, and he’s part of an unbroken chain of influence that goes back to the earliest days of the pulps. In I Am Alive and You Are Dead, Carrère writes of Dick as a young boy: “He collected illustrated magazines with titles like Astounding and Amazing and Unknown, and these periodicals, in the guise of serious scientific discussion, introduced him to lost continents, haunted pyramids, ships that vanished mysteriously in the Sargasso Sea.” (Carrère, weirdly, puts a superfluous exclamation point at the end of the titles of all these magazines, which I’ve silently removed in these quotations.) Dick continued to collect pulps throughout his life, keeping the most valuable issues in a fireproof safe at his house in San Rafael, California, which was later blown open in a mysterious burglary. Throughout his career, Dick refers casually to classic stories with an easy familiarity that suggests a deep knowledge of the genre, as in a line from his Exegesis, in which he mentions “that C.L. Moore novelette in Astounding about the two alternative futures hinging on which of two girls the guy marries in the present.” But the most revealing connection lies in plain sight. In a section on Dick’s early efforts in science fiction, Carrère writes:

Stories about little green men and flying saucers…were what he was paid to write, and the most they offered in terms of literary recognition was comparison to someone like A.E. van Vogt, a writer with whom Phil had once been photographed at a science fiction convention. The photo appeared in a fanzine above the caption “The Old and the New.”

Carrère persistently dismisses van Vogt as a writer of “space opera,” which might be technically true, though hardly the whole story. Yet he was also the most convincing precursor that Dick ever had. The World of Null-A may be stylistically cruder than Dick at his best, but it also appeared in Astounding in 1945, and it remains so hallucinatory, weird, and undefinable that I still have trouble believing that it was read by twelve-year-olds. (As Dick once said of it in an interview: “All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.”) Once you see the almost apostolic line of succession from van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Dick, the latter seems less like an anomaly within the genre than like an inextricable part of its fabric. Although he only sold one short story, “Impostor,” to John W. Campbell, Dick continued to submit to him for years, before concluding that it wasn’t the best use of his time. As Eric Leif Davin recounts in Partners in Wonder: “[Dick] said he’d rather write several first-draft stories for one cent a word than spend time revising a single story for Campbell, despite the higher pay.” And Dick recalled in his collection The Minority Report:

Horace Gold at Galaxy liked my writing whereas John W. Campbell, Jr. at Astounding considered my writing not only worthless but as he put it, “Nuts.” By and large I liked reading Galaxy because it had the broadest range of ideas, venturing into the soft sciences such as sociology and psychology, at a time when Campbell (as he once wrote me!) considered psionics a necessary premise for science fiction. Also, Campbell said, the psionic character in the story had to be in charge of what was going on.

As a result, the two men never worked closely together, although Dick had surprising affinities with the editor who believed wholeheartedly in psionics, precognition, and genetic memory, and whose magazine never ceased to play a central role in his inner life. In his biography, Carrère provides an embellished version of a recurring dream that Dick had at the age of twelve, “in which he found himself in a bookstore trying to locate an issue of Astounding that would complete his collection.” As Dick describes it in his autobiographical novel VALIS:

In the dream he again was a child, searching dusty used-book stores for rare old science fiction magazines, in particular Astoundings. In the dream he had looked through countless tattered issues, stacks upon stacks, for the priceless serial entitled “The Empire Never Ended.” If he could find it and read it he would know everything; that had been the burden of the dream.

Years later, the phrase “the empire never ended” became central to Dick’s late conviction that we were all living, without our knowledge, in the Rome of the Acts of the Apostles. But the detail that sticks with me the most is that the magazines in the dream were “in particular Astoundings.” The fan Peter Graham famously said that the real golden age of science fiction was twelve, and Dick reached that age at the end of 1940, at the peak of Campbell’s editorship. The timing was perfect for Astounding to rewire his brain forever. When Dick first had his recurring dream, he would have just finished reading a “priceless serial” that had appeared in the previous four issues of the magazine, and I’d like to think that he spent the rest of his life searching for its inconceivable conclusion. It was van Vogt’s Slan.

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