Archives for category: Ultrafiction — F & SF

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Explaining religion is not necessarily a simple matter.

I grew up taught to believe that the stories of my religion were true. But as I grew older, certain inconsistencies and antinomies weighed upon my mind, and I found myself incredulous about the whole matter, so I gave up on the beliefs and the rites.

But, if not literally true, is religion — or all religions, or some — figuratively true? Supremely useful? Something else?

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.

Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Ch. II

I was taught to regard the religion I was born into as true, literally so, and all others as false, with a faint chance that shadow meaning sometimes figuratively refracting the truth — but more likely “of the Devil.” Converting out of the religion, it was easy to treat my youthful theological stance as Atheism With One Exception, making actual atheism merely a final step.

But I did understand a discordant note to this secular triumphalism: henotheism. It was clear that Judaism began with a polytheism-in-fact but monotheism-in-practice: “thou shalt have no other gods before Me” more than implied a multiplicity of deities. Yahweh was good, all others were bad — or, even less strong a position: Yahweh was ours and all others were theirs. The Chosen People idea seemed to imply one of many gods choosing and nurturing a bloodline of people to serve His agenda. But this idea, while clear in my head, I somehow never took all that seriously.

What did I take seriously? The “ghost theory” and exaptation. These ideas can be found in the sociology of Herbert Spencer, and the latter has been greatly expanded by contemporary evolutionary psychology. Beliefs in the gods arose from memories of dead leaders echoing in human brains and showing up in dreams. And hallucinations. That is the irritant that starts the pearl that is religion. But then something else happens: religious belief and practice is discovered to be useful.

To all sorts of people. For good and ill.

But one use we fell into. It turns out that when we less-than-well-tempered hominids — Hominoids — even contemplate a putatively divine being or concept, or even any “transcendent object” or priniple, we think and behave less like selfish, short-sighted apes. We begin to behave morally.

And thus the transcendent notion, whatever it is, can serve as a social signal that can encourage others to see our intent to coöperate, not engage in harm. Whatever religious idea we hold can gain a lot of traction when folks come to rely on such signalling.

Thus, the gods.

A simple story, this secular account, and it can be filed under the heading Exaptation — a thing that originated for one reason surviving for other reasons. It was as if adapted for a new purpose, but as naturally selected, sort of adapting itself.

A meme — a replicable habit — spread for reasons independent of its explicit rationale.

Great story.

It may even be true.

Almost certainly it is true.

But it is not the whole story: we still have that initial irritant. The “ghosts.” Which though inconvenient after the religion becomes a memetic hit, still persist.

And there is an outside possibility that some of those irritants in the oyster of our imaginations are, themselves, Not What They Seem.

They may be neither dreams nor hallucinations nor memories.

They might be aliens.

In a fascinating dcumentary about a man who paints his alleged encounters with aliens, some of whom with which he engages in sexual acts, Love and Saucers, we learn about an odd variety of religious experience, the sexual extraterrestrial encounter. Philosopher Jeffrey Kripal, quoted in the movie, tells us that religious experiences with a sexual component are common in the literature. He also sees alien encounter and abduction stories as not dissimilar from past religious tales. What they interpreted as angels we, in a more scientific age, interpret as extraterrestrials.

And such experiences are not uncommon.

So, do we have these experiences because of some quirk of our psychologies, as evolved from the distant past?

Or is it something more direct?

I do not know.

I have never had an encounter as described by the painter in Love and Saucers. It would be easy to mock him. That is something I am sure my “skeptic” friends online would be inclined to do.

But I no longer do such things. If David Huggins, the subject of the documentary, is conjuring these “memories” by confabulation, that is almost as astounding as the events he describes.

And then there is the wider context. Do we have certainty that encounters with “aliens” do not happen? I do not have that certainty of conviction, of dismissive incredulity. I do not have enough faith to dismiss out of hand the UFO context.

Now, I understand, that wider context and the evidence for it may be peculiar in the extreme, sure — but it is vast. The number of documents leaked from governments, and the hundreds — the thousands — of seemingly earnest testimonies from military personnel and government contractors, airline passengers, and workers about encounters with bizarre flying and submersible crafts is huge. And these crafts — in government documents and reports as well as in reams of testimony, apparently run according to principles nothing like the technology we know, which is based on aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, and on the many types of internal combustion engines . . . well, the number and weight of the testimony is almost disturbing.

Further, there appears to be an ongoing government disclosure of information about these encounters, around the world, and even — belatedly, with a great lag — from the biggest, most UFOey government of them all, the United States of Military Industrial Complex.

I do not know what to make of all this. Not with anything approaching certainty. And were it not for the Cato Institute, I might not be thinking about it at all.

A number of years ago the libertaran think tank fired one of its consulting scholars, economist Dom Armentano — removed him from their honor roll, so to speak. Why? Because he had come out for UFO disclosure.

Think about this. The retired professor merely expressed a support for transparency in government on an issue of public interest. But the “heroic” Cato management could not even be associated with something as tame as that.

When I heard this, I experienced something like shock. I had thought I understood the cultism of the cultural center, its proneness to shaming and shunning and marginalization . . . perpetrated to keep the hierarchy of the in-group secure against all comers. But Cato is libertarian. Do Cato-ites think their propinquity to power, geographically, makes them in the in-group? If any tribe on the planet has reason to understand the corrosive nature of in-group intellectual regimentation, it would be libertarians. And if any group should be prone to resist such nonsense, then it must be libertarians, right?

Apparently not. Cato was so eager for respectability, and so unimaginative that an illustrious economist had to be purged.

This is when I realized the astounding extent of ideological cultism in America, and its corrupting powers. And, once you realize how powerful that propensity is, then you can see how it could be manipulated.

By a conspiracy. At a power center.

For, alas, it seems likely that some conspiracy is involved. Either a cabal within the Deep State is conspiring to keep some dread secret from the world and from the citizens that the government putatively serves, or a big if ragtag group of military personel, domestic pilots, seamen, and a great number of civilians are perpetrating and perhaps coördinating a huge fraud.

About two years ago, I began to think the latter the less likely.

Further, I surmise, if I were in the Deep State and saw all these rumors swirl around me, I would regard them as a destabilizing force, as undermining governance by decreasing trust in basic institutions. I would earnestly support public research into and educational efforts about the phenomena, the better to thoroughly explain and debunk paranormal accounts and tall tales about UFOs and “aliens.” But, on the other hand, had I a secret to keep, a big one, letting the testimonies and photographs and rumors and urban legends spread while giving lukewarm and even preposterous counter-explanations might just work — to keep the secret. After all, I could count on all the little Catos out there, doing my work for me, keeping “the nuts” marginalized.

This does not mean that painter David Huggins is not some kind of a nut. There is room for psychological confabulation along the margins. But it sure looks like something strange is going on. The planet and its history may be stranger than we thought.

Indeed, “the gods” at the start of religions may not have been mere mirages and dreams and “visions.” Perhaps the Anunnaki and Quinametzin and Viracocha and that crowd really did help start our civilization, and that they seemed “gods” to us barely higher apes. And maybe they had some connection to the phenomena that we call “religious” — and maybe they have something to do with “aliens.”

In any case, Love and Saucers is a fascinating documentary.

And religion remains something of a mystery.

twv

spoiler alert!

In the movie Black Panther, we are introduced to a superheroic country hidden in the snowy mountains of Africa — this is very much an H. Rider Haggard/Edgar Rice Burroughs sort of utopia. The country, called Wakanda, is technologically advanced and has been for eons, but has kept out of world affairs on the grounds that its treasure, a philosopher’s lode of a supermetal, if transported out of the region, would destabilize the world and ruin the country. So it is isolationist. Yet technocratic.

Now, much has been made of the movie’s racial politics, and it has been lauded — and prodded into the limelight — for its social justice-y elements. But what struck me about the movie was that the baseline mythos could best be described as “Wakandan exceptionalism” of an almost Trumpian sort. The antagonist of the film is a bitter, resentful African-American criminal bent on world revolution (with a special attention paid on killing “oppressors”). In fact, he talks like a “Black Panther” of days of yore (racial solidarity, revolution) and it is he who must be destroyed so the country can grow into its new role as world benefactor. So the moral arc of the story is from isolationist exceptionalism to globalist benefactor — essentially moving from Trumpism back to standard-brand 20th century American globalism, where foreign aid is parlayed as the prime diplomatic value, above revolution, militarism and trade — the latter not even getting any mention. The real-world “Black Panther” type must be put down so the mythic “Black Panther” may triumph.

There is nothing radical here. It is essentially a JFK “liberal” movie.

It also contains a quite a bit of tribalistic mysticism, and rituals of a primitive, ooga-booga type. Rather embarrassing. We are really not far from Hollywood Tarzan tropes here.

As a Marvel movie, it is of course expertly made, a technical marvel; and if, like me, you enjoy watching scantily clad bald black women kicking ass, you will find some thrills. Andy Serkis has a fun role as a mad Russian criminal mastermind.

I saw it in Astoria, Oregon, in a theater half-filled with white Americans … and no one else. (Astoria has a sizable Mexican population, but is otherwise lily-white.) I did not feel a whole lot of excitement coming from the audience — not like in the Iron Man and Captain America flicks — but no hatred, either. I have no idea how it fares elsewhere, but in this neck of the woods it does not appear to be a hit.

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N.B. The popular meme of Wakandan exceptionalism being “alt-right” is accurate, for the most part, insofar as the country is portrayed at the beginning of the movie. It is 4C6A88CB-B755-4E6B-815C-786D49F5BA10also not inaccurate to describe the country at the end of the movie, though the kingdom’s new “black man’s burden” policy would surely undermine the stalwart atavisms of its traditionalist nationalism. As with most comic-book world-building scenarios, it does not bear close examination — just as the amazon-warrior theme does not. And alt-right dreamers might note that American exceptionalism came from open borders and trade — not anything like Wakandan autarky. There is a disturbing cargo cult element to much current political fantasizing. The wealth redistributed by any real or fantasied State entity has to come from somewhere. In Black Panther, it came from outer space and lies in the ground in the form of a metal that the Wakandans mine.

I forget the name of the metal, but it is really just a McGuffin, as in the goofy, embarrassing “unobtainium” of the horrible science fiction film Atavism, I mean Avatar. I could look up the name of this fantasy material, but memory tells me that it starts with a “v,” so I just think of it as “virkkalanium.”

Philip K. Dick’s 1952 short story “Human Is” is clever. Not great. Just clever. (You can find it in the collection We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.) It is not unlike, say, a Fredric Brown story, but not as well written.* It does not present an elegiac mood, or aim for anything like the sublime. It is a rather cynical sf tale about marital discord and unhappiness. And betrayal.

But it was taken as the inspiration for Amazon Prime’s new series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, appearing as the third episode. And was it changed! Only the ending of the short story remained untampered with, quoting (adopting) about two lines verbatim.

Yes, friends, there are spoiler ahead. . . .

The short story’s basic premise — of a mean, cold bastard of a husband (Lester) going off to an alien planet, Rexor IV, and coming back changed, turned into a nice, easy-to-live with loving man — that is the same. But instead of a literalist, a scientific researcher, the show features a callous warrior (renamed Silas, played by Bryan Cranston), bent on exploiting and killing an alien race for the good of “Terra.”

The short story’s subplot about the wife’s brother and nephew, that is gone. And all the dreck of everyday life? Gone too. The change of scenery and alteration of tone from the original make the show different. Very. Instead of reading about an unloved wife whose uncharitable husband will not help an inlaw out, we see an unfulfilled and tyrannized wife — emotionally abused and domestically oppressed despite her elevation to a major official role in the futuristic sealed-off society.

Yes, in the TV show she has been turned into a professional — a government official, even. And instead of suffering neglect from the man who won’t serve as foster father, we see our heroine suffer from coldness, indifference, and even envy from her husband. Actually, he is much worse, because minatory. Yes, he threatens violence.

The show’s penultimate scene takes place in a court room, in a trial that spells the issues out very clearly, cleverly. The written story is nowhere nearly so thematically tight.

But the big change? The whole story has become politicized. The husband in the show is portrayed almost exactly as leftists see “right wingers” — eager to kill and exploit foreigners (aliens), and as being emotionally withdrawn and cruel. And since the woman is now a career woman, a leader, this makes her a feminist heroine rather than the pathetic character that Dick imagined. With the child gone, it is just the microsocial antagonism of a childless couple, not a family drama — and the show carefully evades any issue of parental feeling from her husband to his brother-in-law’s son. This excision allows our feminist heroine to be portrayed as romantically and sexually unfulfilled. The very model of a modern Ms. obsession.

Indeed, in the show, because of her husband’s lack of interest in intimacy, early on she seeks out some sad satisfaction in a far-flung-future orgy in the sterile city’s underground (yes, the teleplay writers made sure to hit every possible mythic beat). When her husband comes back transformed, changed into a cheerful, sympathetic, and very sensual sexual partner (we “get” to see Cranston’s full-rear view nude form in a lovemaking session), she defends him — chooses him — even though it has been proved that he is not her husband.

Who is he? Well, her husband’s body, possessed by an alien metamorph. Invasion of the body snatcher!

The alien is from Rexor IV — as in the original PKD story. But where in the original the husband had been a careless innocent, his soul stolen by surprise while on a solo vacation, in the show there is war, and he was the aggressor and he became a casualty. At the beginning of the show, our heroine had politically opposed her husband’s plan to kill Rexorians and steal their atmosphere (or something like that). At the end of the show, she lets the enemy, the Rexorian, not only into her society but also into her bed, ostensibly because her human husband had not been nice enough to her. Not appreciative enough.

And was a bad guy anyway.

All this is standard left-right archetypes and stock figures and bigotries. Let me spell it out:

  • The husband? The very cliché of a left winger’s idea of a conservative.
  • The wife? The leftist self-image of a feminist heroine, ill-treated by her conservative partner.
  • The Rexorian? An exploited alien (foreigner) just “fighting for its life” and perhaps justifiably attacking our military and Silas, the Cranston character.

It would be hard to imagine a clearer allegory to today’s conflict with the Muslim world. The feminist women betray conservative men because those evil conservatives are bent on defending their nation by exploiting and killing foreigners (Muslims/Rexorians); further, those feminists replace the murderous conservatives with the foreigners, going so far to bedding them . . . because the frustrated, unfulfilled feminist women will be more sexually fulfilled by the foreigners/aliens than by their fellow nationalists/Terrans.

Also present is the “right wing” fear that the enemy will infiltrate and pretend to be “one of us” but then betray us completely, taking our place — this “paranoid” fear is exactly mirrored in the television story. And, going another step even further, the right wing suspicion that the leftists will betray us, preferring the other to their own, and making cuckolds of the West’s men . . . that is very close, too — for the woman does betray Terra, and just because the alien treats her better as wife and lover.

So, the fantasies and fears of both rightists and leftists are played to. Both sides could view the story with a kind of . . . indecent? . . . pleasure. And, because the Amazon version is so artfully done, it turns out to be a beautiful, sublime story, too. Much more powerful than the original.

It is now a philosophical horror story, not just a clever little domestic drama with a cynical sci-fi surprise ending.

The wonder of it is how brazen it is, how timely. The perpetrators — I mean, writers and actors and producers — of the new drama surely know what they are up to. But why? Why do it this way? I assume that these are all left-leaning Hollywood types. The story, though with all the biases of your standard-brand Hollywood Left Coast cosmopolitan written deep into the story’s premise, and played out as the drama unfolds, in the end gives away much of the game to the right wingers. What could be worse than the Left shown as the betrayer and the enemy shown as capable of using elaborate deception? And all because the leftist woman demands love she is not getting at home.

First world problems leading to the conquest of that world by the Third.

She even goes as far as cuckolding the Right in the end. In a sort of Gertrude-and-Claudius way.

A cautionary tale — an apocalypse! — indeed.

Ah, the culture wars. All-too-human, is.

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* Dick’s science fiction short stories, at least the early ones, are not very artful on the sentence level — his realistic novels were far more carefully crafted. The short stories are also rather tawdry, as are many of the science fiction novels, filled with the dreck of everyday domestic conflict.

N.B. I wrote the above before reading anyone else’s criticism. And now, as I clean this up, I flit around the net and find appraisals that do not go very far. And not a few just show the insipid shallowness of modern feminism.