Archives for category: Ultrafiction — F & SF
Some fantasy literature near at hand, with sf at left: bedside reading.

It’s been said before: science fiction is a conjecture culture. Well, said before, if not in those precise words.

Science fiction is not science. It’s not often scientific even in spirit, for there is no experimentation, public testing, refutation, or even knowledge at the end of it! It is often little more than what cheerleaders are to sports: the rah-rah squad. But there is more to it. Science fiction writers look behind the obvious and offer up a wide series of alternative theories — conjectures — about reality, and then play with them in interesting ways (some more interesting than others), usually focusing on the human results, or on the transcendent.

As such, science fiction has what I think of as a generally salutary effect on the mind.

Except when it doesn’t, as in the case of the inspiration Paul Krugman’s took from Asimov’s Foundation series, to double down on his technocracy. That’s like taking the Bible as an excuse to kill witches or Jews.

And it shows the great danger of science fiction: scientism. That is the misuse of certain outward forms of science to replace religion and influence politics. It is often the worship of science as technique to make a better world — but actually making the world much worse.

Thankfully, this also is a central theme of science fiction: the opposition to scientism. It can be found in a wide diversity of dystopian nightmares and comedies and melodramas, the most obvious being Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and even in space opera, such as C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.

So, science fiction can serve as the cure for the disease of which it is also, too often, the most obvious symptom.

twv

Nelson Bond, a bookseller who specialized in the work of James Branch Cabell — and from whom I may have purchased a Cabell volume back in the 1980s or ’90s — was also a writer. In 2002, a few years before he died, Arkham House published a collection of his stories, The Far Side of Nowhere. I just read its first story, “Command Performance,” first published in a pulp in 1951.

It is a tale of madness and psychological treatment. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this science fiction story is that the science which provides the backbone of it is “dianetics.” Which is a technique developed by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who would build on it to make a religion, Scientology.

Dianetics is treated most matter-of-factly. There is no gosh-wow or super-science, and though the author insists that the technique is not hypnosis, it sure seems like hypnosis.

The story is no masterwork, but it has its charms. And it ends with a twist. A very pulpy, science-fiction-y twist. A twist with the word “twist” in it, for “The Twisted Ones” is a key concept.

It would make a good hour-long episode of The Twilight Zone.

twv

I always think that life is like a fairytale. What should I do to come out from this assumption?

…as answered on Quora….

You could do worse. Fairy tales are folk horror stories so concisely told that usually their morals are fairly easy to discern. In fairy tales dangers abound. Magic is not the power of wish, but potency at great cost. Sometimes good triumphs, but only after a huge setback. Sometimes fairy stories are very sad. Even frightening.

Read the Grimms, Hans Christian Andersen, and Italo Calvino’s collection of Italian Folktales. I do not think you will come away from them with a need to purge them from your imagination, but with some wisdom you can apply their lessons to your life.

You will notice differences between them and your life. The dangers in the woods in the old European fairy tales can at best serve as metaphors for today’s dangers, and the malign and delusive magics in those stories need to be translated to somewhat more mundane if still quite potent dangers, such as fraud, ideology, and so much else of word work and imaging.

My favorite American writer is James Branch Cabell. In his The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck: A Comedy of Limitations (1915), Cabell synopsizes a sad little Hans Christian Andersen story and then tells a romance set in Virginia (or “Sil.”) in the early 20th century. There you will see a master take a fairy story and apply it to life. After reading that book, I trust you will see a way to transcend superficial “fairy tale” mentality, and grow beyond naïvety. And in “The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome” (it can be found in The Witch-Woman: A Trilogy about Her [1948] and elsewhere) you may conclude that a fairy-tale vision is in no way enviable, but also, perhaps, not evitable. The themes in fairy tales are the stuff of life.

If you “always think of life as a fairy tale,” my suggestion is: study fairy tales.

For what I think you really mean is that you tend to think of life as offering up temptations as the magic in fairy tales tempts those that encounter it. If you look at the literature of fairy tales, you will see that in story as in life the magic is not what it seems.


https://guides.library.vcu.edu/cabell/cabell_bibliography

Hans Christian Andersen

The kick-ass female action “hero” was a novelty with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But after the millionth iteration, it is wearing thin, to say the least.

To say the most? It is a form of misogyny.

How so? It imputes to women the natural and traditional propensities and roles that men admire in men and aspire towards — and that women have desired in men and want men to be. So women are now routinely being judged by a standard that was naturally-cum-fancifully apt almost only for men. This functions as a performative repudiation of femininity, and a triumph of masculinity. It is a strange twist on “trans.” And for men to admire women chiefly for filling masculine roles strikes me as preciously close to the liking of women for being like men.

So, what men and women who assert the value of “female action heroes” (NOT heroines) are really doing is saying “no one really likes women”; that the feminine is disgusting or pitiable and that women, to be admired, should “be more like men” or, better yet, aspire to be “better than men” as understood by unrealistic standards once held by men for themselves.

Like so much of modern politics, and of course feminism, this strikes me as creepily misogynistic.

I am reminded of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the citizenry is “decanted” not begotten naturally, and where “fatherhood” is a joke and “motherhood” a gross indecency. To the extent that the female superhero theme is not pornography (and that is the source of some of the attraction: watching lithe bodies contorting onscreen for our delectation) it’s a repudiation of the feminine telos.

Which strikes me as misogynistic.

Not hatefully misogynistic. It may not be borne of hate. It is borne of discomfort. Queasiness. Distaste. Discomfort with the natural, the animal reality of our species and our very mammalian success. Our civilization is imagining a new non-animalistic conception of life. It used to be the gods, now it is stefnal superheroes and the looming, all-too-real specter of cyborgian AI.

Decadence, for the most part. But hey: maybe the future is less Brave New World and more Day Million.* But I doubt it.

Of course, we have a choice of dystopias.

* “Day Million” is a terrific short story by Frederik Pohl, as well as a name of a short story collection.

J. Sheridan le Fanu’s short story “Dickon the Devil,” which can be found in the third volume of The Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of J. Sheridan Le Fanu (2010), is a typical spook story of its period, the second half of the 19th century. It has scant drama, and is not dramatically told. The idea, I guess, was realism of presentation, to set the stage for the eldritch element — the indirect method.

The story first saw print in 1872. I cannot say I think much of this one, but
I will try others. Maybe I will even give the humungous novel included in the volume mentioned above, The House by the Churchyard, a go.

Reading Descent of Man (1979; 1987)

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s short stories, from the few I have read so far, are

  1. very good;
  2. often darkly comic; and
  3. close, perhaps kissing cousins, of genre science fiction.

My favorite of his, so far, is “Back in the Eocene,” a story about a father who tries to back up his son’s public school ‘education” about how bad “drugs” are, despite the fact that, “back in the Eocene,” that same father had taken and much enjoyed — and apparently not been harmed by — those now-demonized drugs.

That perspective, of times long gone still casting a shadow on the present, is effectively and humorously communicated by reference to the distant geologic past.

I read that story years ago. Tonight I read “Quetzálcoatl Lite” and “De Rerum Natura,” both to be found in his early collection, now seemingly Pleistocene past (if not Eocene), Descent of Man. The first is a sly tale of the collecting mania, in which a man vies with another, older collector, to find a rare beer can in the jungles of Central America. The second is a stranger tale of a genius inventor, one of whose inventions is a cat that lacks excretory functions. The title references Titus Lucretius Carus’s classic Epicurean poem (see George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets).

That second story could have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. While not standard genre fiction, F&SF regularly publishes material in the same vein.

I consider authors like Boyle and, say, Will Self, to be ultra-fiction writers, engaged in a literary emprise that exists alongside popular traditions of fantasy and science fiction. Both are quite good, no doubt. But I do not consider them light years beyond many who inhabit the genre industry.

It is only by convention and bigotry that they exist in literary worlds utterly apart.

twv

N.B. “Back in the Eocene” and “De Rerum Natura” can be found in T.C. Boyle’s 1998 mega-collection, Stories.

I picked up a paperback in town yesterday, Weird Tales #3, edited by Lin Carter. As is my habit, when obtaining a new anthology, I immediately try one story. This time it’s the title story by Robert E. Howard & Gerald W. Page. Howard is known for his Conan tales, primarily, and this is not one of them. The narrator explains up front what is going on:

The conceit of a first-person account of a buried-in-deep-antiquity tale established, the story proceeds. It is simply and effectively written. And it goes on to advance a familiar idea, of a race of giants — ferocious quasi-human demigods or some such:

The extent to which this is familiar to today’s readers not through Sword & Sorcery fantasy tales, but from the speculations of “alternative archaeology,” is . . . interesting.

We are not far from Burroughsian territory, I guess, in terms of premise and conceit, but the prose is much more elegantly rugged and effectively paced.

As I have confessed before, this is a genre I have not read much. This is indeed my first reading of a Howard story. And, because the writing credit is shared with another, one could argue I still cannot mark the kill on my readerly coup stick.

I will give Howard another chance.

By Gorm.

twv

Jane Yolen’s “The Uncorking of Uncle Finn” is a droll tale cleverly told. Inhabiting six pages of The Year’s Best Fantasy Stories 13 (Arthur W. Saha, ed., Daw 1987), it is not high fantasy, sword & sorcery, urban fantasy, horror, or any of the more familiar genres included in the generic term, “fantasy.” It is, I guess, a yarn. And very funny.

Opening of Jane Yolen, “The Uncorking of Uncle Finn” (F&SF, v 71 #5, November 1986).

I am not sure I have read anything else by this author, though I have two paperbacks of her fantasies, one of them being the respected Briar Rose (1992). After reading her 1986 short story, I may have to give Briar Rose a try.

Now, I read a lot of short stories and essays, from books in my library. But I almost never record my thoughts, so I of course forget what I have read, no matter how good these shorter pieces are. Perhaps this blog will include little notices of my readings, not by popular demand, but as part of my normal journal writing.

twv


N.B. The image at the top of the page is a detail of the anthology’s cover. It has nothing to do with Yolen’s story.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” Hermann Wögel (1884)

A number of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories were first published without the honest frame of fiction, and therefore count as hoax literature. This element of American journalism deserves serious study, especially now that journalism has returned to its roots.

I just watched a roomful of men with cigars (one of them being Senator Ted Cruz) talk about the ending to HBO’s Game of Thrones, and though there is much good criticism about what went wrong and why, not one of them gets to what I think of as the weirdest and most astounding error: the fizzle of the Winter, which was all build-up and no pay-off.

Winter should have, by the penultimate episode, put King’s Landing under many feet of snow, and the show’s last scene should have been a montage of people all over Westeros tunneling under strata of snow, eking out the barest holds on existence after the stores of food had been depleted by war after war. In this context the dragon and the Night King would have had their final haunting presences.

An album titled after the first cut, a piece by the great Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen.

High fantasy lives and dies by what Lawrence Durrell called a Sense of Place. Or, to put it in different terms, high fantasy works by conjuring up Faërie. Which is a place as well as a state of mind. In addition to archetypes instantiated, high fantasy gives us weird and strange worlds that are themselves characters of over-arching importance. William Morris in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, The Well at the World’s End and The Sundering Flood; Lord Dunsany in “The Sword of Welleran” and “Charon” and The King of Elfland’s Daughter; J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; Mervyn Peake in Titus Groan and Gormenghast; Peter S. Beagle in The Last Unicorn — all of these succeed by making place as important as plot and character.

In the end, it is the place that is Westeros that was betrayed in the final season of Game of Thrones. The showrunners and writers got too caught up in plot and (to a lesser extent, character) to not realize that their great mission was to be true to an imagined world. A world that George R. R, Martin imagined, in his as-yet-unfinished series of books, and as he built into the very structure of his story.

And the great truth about his world was uttered often, and which served as the motto of House Stark: “Winter Is Coming.”

It barely arrived at all. In the final scene Jon Snow and his wildlings head north of the Wall with barely a flake falling from the sky and a mere dusting on the ground.

No wonder the ending lacked fire. It had too little ice.

twv

William Morris’s last romance, and probably his best.