Friday, October 9, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Parish

The Parish
by John Clare

Interest in John Clare seems to be in something of a renaissance. A character in Alan Moore’s novel Voice of the Fire some years ago, he recently figured in (and posthumously contributed the title to) Iain Sinclair’s Edge of the Orison. This may not sound like much, but Clare’s not terribly well known; I took an undergrad course in the Romantic poets, and I don’t think his name ever came up. In later years, I came to know Clare’s nature poetry well enough, but I think this was my first exposure to his more satirical side.

It’s really very good. It’s angry, bitter, mournful, and — crucially — wise. Clare’s unconventional diction recalls Blake in more than just superficial details; there’s a feel here not unlike the Songs of Experience, as though the parish Clare anatomises in the course of over 2000 lines is itself fallen as a whole from the innocence of earlier days. Clare seems to touch on every aspect of parish life, rich and poor, male and female, young and old. And everywhere there’s a fire to his portraiture of life, a sense of outrage which I think holds up well next to Blake and Shelley. Even more than Blake (and quite unlike Shelley), Clare lived on the fringe of society, and turned his anger at what he saw into verse. It’s quite a sustained performance, and it deserves to be better known than it is.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Readings 2K9: A Man For All Seasons

A Man For All Seasons
by Robert Bolt

I have not seen this play, nor even the film based on it. So my reaction here is, as is necessarily the case with a reaction to a theatre script, a reaction to a blueprint. That being said, it strikes me as something peculiar.

It’s the story of Thomas More, and More is definitely the hero of the piece. Not only is he the most moral and most intelligent character in the play, none of the other characters really seem to be able, on some profound level, to even understand him. He is a great man, and nobody else in the play demonstrates a greatness kin to his. As written, the text seems to me to be trying to make clear to the audience wherein More’s greatness lies while at the same time hiding it from the other characters.

More’s downfall, if downfall it is, comes not from any weakness in himself; Bolt’s preface to the play makes it quite clear, in fact, that he sees (or has treated) More as “a hero of selfhood”. But this is not a typical tragic hero — he lacks a flaw. He is in fact much more like John Proctor in The Crucible; a moral man in a society that is afflicted by the immoral, who eventually is thrown in prison and sentenced to death for being, in essence, incorruptible in a corrupted world. The interest comes perhaps in empathising with a (morally) superior being, who is brought down, mocked, and destroyed by the world; which means, these are passion plays.

As such, this play is quite strong, or so it seems to me (and obviously this is a work that has been quite celebrated over the years). I’m interested enough to want to see the movie (or play, if I get the chance) to see what a director can do with the material. Bolt talks in his preface about trying to use Brecht’s alienation techniques; on the page, they don’t seem particularly likely to alienate, and I wonder what the effect is in production. Certain things one can imagine; other things one can’t, and that is why one must see it for oneself.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Readings 2K9: Captain of the Andes

Captain of the Andes
by Margaret Harrison

This is an English-language biography from the 1940s of José de San Martín, liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. It’s narrative in focus, to say the least. More precisely, it’s intensely romantic. San Martín is cast as an absolute hero; and while there’s no doubt his actions were heroic on a grand scale (raising an army and leading it across the Andes mountains to capture Chile from the Spanish, then leading them by sea up the coast to besiege Lima), you tend to wonder at the enthusiasm Harrison brings to her subject. As noted, the book was published in 1943, and it comes off as a rewrite of Bartolomé Mitre’s The Emancipation of South America — or at least of the chapters to do with San Martín. Mitre’s book is more restrained, and even then it’s been criticised for romanticising San Martín. It may be that the man’s accomplishment lends itself to such approaches. At any rate, Harrison’s book tends to be good at giving background, but occasionally difficult to follow when it comes to the exact chronology of San Martín’s actions. A bit of a mixed bag, but an easy read.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Disinheritance Party/Appleseed

The Disinheritance Party
by John Clute

Clute’s two novels, published twenty-four years apart, are very different books. Both attend strongly to language, pushing syntax and diction in new and strange ways. In both cases, structure shines through the language; there’s the sense of archetypes in action. Of mysteries of sex and death being played out. But the connections between language and those deeper structures are dissimilar, and the feel of the books completely different.

The Disinheritance Party is nominally more realistic; a late modernist novel in the style of Pynchon, it follows an odd family group through madness, incest, and castration to a blow-out ending. Identity shifts, and one becomes other; history is mutable. It begins with a young man named Abraham Zuken (A to Z, Biblical echoes) and more-or-less ends with him as well; in between is a parabola of dysfunction and improbability, of hallucination, and of rebellion against a Cronos-like patriarch. The more extreme the book gets, the less real it feels; it becomes a modernist farce. It becomes an open question how much of what we're reading is 'taking place' in any kind of objective world, and how much is inside the head of (at least) one character. It’s an interesting performance, but it’s a burlesque of a story.

Appleseed is nominally a space opera, with a heroic roguish starship captain, evil aliens, traitorous AIs, and vast space stations. It completely inhabits the world of its future, such that exposition is effectively nonexistent, and we must piece together on the run the nature of its extrahuman species and also of the human culture that has evolved in this future, as well as technology and other elements of the setting. It moves toward a hieros gamos, a sacred and healing marriage. On one level a simpler book than The Disinheritance Party, it is on another level more complex; more human.

Both books seem to begin with simple family dramas, and both in their different ways play that drama out on cosmic scales. The Disinheritance Party hints at a fantasy of history, making the tragedies or black farce of its story the story of the human race, an inevitable Oedipal clash of generations and genders. Appleseed moves to the future, to transcendence. It is serious and comic. Not only longer, it is the greater and more sustained work.

Both books can be seen to lack something; the texture of character which is associated with the traditional novel. The sense of a society against which individual characters can be discerned. These books tell simpler tales (yet also more complex, particularly in The Disinheritance Party, where the individual players take multiple roles), almost play-like. They’re both successes at what they do. But they are in a sense unforgiving, or unyielding; by their abstraction of character, they are two very different approaches to the inhuman.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Readings 2K9: Camp Concentration

Camp Concentration
by Thomas Disch

A slim, ambitious, ecstatic book, Disch pulls off the difficult trick here of not only presenting a literary genius, but presenting the work of said genius, and making us accept the genius as a genius. Louis Sacchetti is a poet in a near-future US who is also a conscientious objector; arrested, he becomes part of a military experiment to enhance human intelligence, experiments which succeed but result inevitably in death. He’s locked up with a group of other test-subjects, and much toing and froing and playing about with minds follows. In the end the plot is worked out in accordance with symbol and image, a deft dovetailing of the novel’s concerns.

It’s a genuinely intelligent book, a concerned and human book. It draws from some surprising wells; medieval scholastic philosophy, alchemy, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Mann, Wagner, Lautréamont ... it plays freely with Western culture, but maintains a shape to its narrative. Not an intense shape; it’s not really a plot-centric text, though the story is consistent and engaging. It’s more to do with the matrix of Sacchetti’s mind, how it plays with his experiences, how he tries to ascend to revelation, how he balances heaven and earth and hell. Sacchetti’s underground prison inevitably takes on symbolic overtones; he's caught between the cruel and vulgar commander of the camp and the elliptical genius of the prisoners who have been in the experiment longer than he, with a consequent greater heightening of their intelligence.

It’s a powerful book, and Disch captures the tone of Sacchetti’s voice beautifully. He’s a poet, and so has a way with language; he is a prisoner and a martyr — but he is also aware that he is a prisoner and a martyr, and increasingly a genius, and his consciousness of these things is there in Disch’s language. This is not a book that an ungifted mind could have conceived of, or executed. Now, there are weaknesses; character is not particularly profound, for example. In some ways one could argue that it has the feel of a minor novel. But if so, it is the minor novel of potentially a major writer.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Readings 2K9: Little Brother

Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow

Your ability to appreciate this book — alternately frustrating and engaging — will vary depending on how much you believe Doctorow’s aware of his effects. I think he knows what he’s doing, and I quite liked the book as a result.

It’s the story of a teen hacker, Marcus, wrongfully arrested following a terrorist attack. He’s mistreated, but eventually released; a friend, arrested with him, is not released. So Marcus dedicates himself to bringing down the government in revenge, and to fighting to keep the US a free society even as increasingly draconian laws are enacted to prevent more terrorism.

Marcus is a bit of a jerk. To say the least. He tells himself he’s acting on behalf of his friend, but his actions don’t follow — he lets his friend’s dad think his son’s dead, for example. And he doesn’t really think about the inconvenience he causes to other people in the course of his civil disobedience crusade (it has been argued that he’s also irresponsible in discounting the harm he’s doing to valid anti-terrorism efforts; I can’t agree, as I think the point of the book is that no anti-terrorism initiative that interferes with a free society is legitimate).

I think Doctorow’s aware of this, because the reality is that Winston’s activities in the book as an outlaw hacker don’t really have any effect. He helps organise a rock concert that gets shut down. He forms a group of disaffected youth which is instantly infiltrated. In no way does anything he does actually initiate change — until he starts working with society, in the form of going to a newspaper and getting his story out to the world at large. This leads to him being arrested again, and tortured; and ultimately to a nicely ambiguous ending, which strikes me as entirely realistic.

In the end, the moral of the story isn’t that Winston is right. He frequently isn’t. The point of the story, what we’re left with, is the importance of paying attention to stories like his. The understanding not only that things like the suspension of habeas corpus are wrong, but that it is in part up to us to pay attention to the world around us and to act to prevent these wrongs, whether by voting or by volunteering or by financially supporting organisations we believe in. It’s a book about the importance of activism; about its frustrations, about how it can be done wrong, and also about how it can be done right.

It is also, incidentally, an sf book about a small group of outcasts fighting an evil empire, which, as I’ve previously observed, is a recurrent trope in genre literature. These things often test my suspension of disbelief because they tend to assume that the small group is smarter than the evil empire — leaving aside the number of smart people there must be within the empire. Here, though, Doctorow challenges that easy assumption. Winston thinks he’s smarter than the government and the adults around him. The book conclusively shows that he isn’t. The government does stupid things; they also do smart things. Winston does smart things; he also does stupid things, and often rationalises them to himself as being smart things. It’s that willingness to have smart characters be stupid that makes the book work, and that helps convince me Doctorow knew what he was doing all along.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Status Civilization/Anarchaos

The Status Civilization
by Robert Sheckley
by Curt Clark (Donald Westlake)

I read these two back-to-back, and it makes sense to me to talk about them together. In The Status Civilization, Sheckley follows a man condemned to a prison planet from which he must escape; on this planet the inmates have formed a society based on an inversion of values, where wickedness (as defined by society circa 1960) is celebrated — you go to church to worship the spirit of Evil, for example, and taking drugs is mandated by law. Anarchaos follows a man who travels to the titular planet seeking the man who killed his brother, a colonist there; on Anarchaos, there are no laws, and life is a struggle of all against all. So a pair of books with real similarities, though they play out in different ways.

Sheckley's is a more direct satire, as I take it, of nineteen-fifties life (it was published in 1960). It’s a solid adventure story, with nice action scenes, and an unexpected ending. It tries to have a character-based conclusion, but isn’t really as profound as it needs to be to pull it off. Still, it’s a clever extrapolation from the premise. It moves fast, has some nice set-pieces, and has a few ideas in its head.

Curt Clark — actually a pseudonym for Donald Westlake — goes a completely different direction. One of the things you find out quickly about Anarchaos is that corporations are effectively in charge, exploiting the lawless brigands who populate the planet. It’s basically a realistic depiction of libertarian fantasies; without laws, the strong exploit the weak. The strong and smart triumph — but only up to a point. An individual can't stand against a group. Malone, the main character, can kill a taxi driver easily enough; but when two or three people join together, he gets taken down easily. And that small gang is nothing compared to the corporations, who operate slave labour camps because there aren’t any laws to stop them. What's interesting about the book is that instead of following Malone as he cuts a bloody swathe through the planet, he gets captured early on and sent to one of those camps. He breaks free, eventually, but he's never the same after. It's a nice swerve, making for a vastly different book than you'd anticipate.

Both of these are good books, frankly better than I expected. They take a similar premise, but explore it in different ways. You laugh at the social satire of the Sheckley at the same time as you’re led through the highs and lows of an action story. The Westlake wrong-foots you completely, and you never know what to expect after. Stylistically they’re not dissimilar — neither of them are brilliantly written, but both of them are competent enough to accomplish what they’re trying to do. Together, they’re a good example of how a similar premise (one man against a wild planet) can be twisted in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Centauri Device

The Centauri Device
by M. John Harrison

First published in 1974, this book is in some ways curiously sedate. Harrison’s strongly associated with the New Wave of science fiction in England, but there’s little of the formal play that’s so often identified with the New Wave. It’s a fairly direct story, set in a human-populated galaxy hundreds of years in the future, about an alien super-weapon and the variety of rogues, scoundrels, and thugs who try to take control of it. In a lot of ways, it’s not that distant from classic golden-age sf.

Except, and it’s a crucial exception, in terms of sensibility. There’s a greater cynicism, a greater distrust of governments and militarism. A greater willingness to play with anti-heroes. The very end of the book seems to call in question much of what came before, especially the ending, explicitly declaring itself “a dramatized account” of history (it’s an imaginary story; aren’t they all?). So it’s bleaker; but there’s still a considerable romanticism at play here, and the anti-heroes are still notably effective, still sympathetic.

In a lot of ways, the book’s reminiscent of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. There’s a similar density of imagination, a similar use of sf adventure tropes along with a subtle questioning of those tropes, a similar downbeat ending that misses being apocalyptic only due its scale. Even a similar whimsy in its starship names: Intestinal Revelation, Les Fleurs du Mal, Atalanta in Calydon. It’s shorter than the Culture novels I’ve read, though, and I think the length does it a favour. I think Banks, although consistently imaginative, tends to fall into a rhythm in his inventions and conceits. That’s something Harrison adroitly avoids. This is a solid, tautly-written story. Maybe it’s no more than that; it’s certainly no less.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: September summation

I read eleven books this past month, but my birthday was in there early on so I also added eight new books to the household. And three of the books I read were library books. Thus a net gain of zero; still just 39 fewer unread books in the apartment. 101 books read so far this year. And this month ... the McGill book fair.

Readings 2K9: Orsinian Tales

Orsinian Tales
by Ursula Le Guin

This is an intriguing and strong collection of stories. They’re set in a fictional central or eastern European country, and range from the middle ages through to the mid-twentieth century. There’s no overt sf or fantasy element to them, though the way they’re presented has a visionary quality, a hint of something beyond the real. Yet most of the stories are what might be called bourgeois dramas; stories of young people in love, men and women trying to build lives for themselves, a man trying to find a way to escape into art. There are few stories in the collection about wars or treaties or the place of the country in the greater European context. But just by its existence, it situates itself as fantasy.

These paradoxes aside, the stories are largely excellent. Le Guin’s writing is understated and controlled. There’s a kind of impersonal perfection to many of them. Le Guin knows how to use implication, how and when to underwrite, to allow the reader to fill in the blanks. So her fictional lands come alive, her unreal cities have a life and an internal logic and culture to them. Although, that being said, there isn’t much of a sense of how the country interacts with the larger European context; of where its own traditions influence and are influenced by the ideas and arts around it.

Mind you, these stories wouldn’t work at all unless Le Guin had a strong grasp of her country, and of the times through which it lived. She’s able to evoke an era clearly, and create a convincing sense of the times in each story. In a way, this book is a good example of what I would call true post-modernism; an acceptance and revision of the past, a re-writing of what has gone before, suggesting new possibilities, new ways of looking at old accomplishments. And it is, in the final analysis, a considerable accomplishment in itself.