misce stultitiam consiliis brevem


When I was encouraged to read Ruthanna Emrys’s Winter Tide, which jumpstarts from the “Deep Ones” part of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology and is intended as the beginning of an “Innsmouth Legacy” series (Tor’s got some previews from the months before the book was released), it was fairly popular in my library systems. While waiting my turn I got myself a better Lovecraft grounding: specifically, The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, which as a hardcover volume feels really impressive. (One of my math friends at Harvard demonstrated his thesis’s, er, gravity by dropping it on the floor for me. You’ve all heard the one about a class’s grades starting from “A to the person whose paper falls farthest down a staircase,” right? This guy seemed actually to be aiming for that—proudly.)

The source for the Winter Tide recommendation asked, upon hearing of my progress, “Do you think Lovecraft as an original author is worth reading?” That’s the sort of question I like to respond to publicly.

Do I feel honor-bound to have my Lovecraft “grounding” before I attempt a spin-off/re-imagining like Winter Tide or Lovecraft Country? Not at all. Do I think it’s likely useful background to enhance my experience not only of those books, but of a host of other cultural experiences up to and including overhearing “de-briefs” of Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror at HRSFen Summer Party? Oh, yeah. Heck, I hadn’t even known until the other month the reference inherent in Batman Begins‘s “Arkham Asylum.” “Lovecraftian horror” is one of those terms thrown around enough that it’s worth having a primary-source experience for it.

Lovecraft’s well-acknowledged real-life racism and other prejudices are, indeed, off-putting to say the least. Some people recoil at his very likeness. To me, though, it can’t be any significant factor in my appreciation for his fiction. Fiction must speak for itself. I feel insulted, and sometimes literally pained, when I feel an author is insulting the audience—and this is partly because it’s a misuse of the medium. Characters with unsavory personal views, in contrast, are often a perfectly valid element in the author’s story-telling. And that’s how the racism in Lovecraft’s actual stories feels to my reading. His stories assume certain bizarre fears and ‘ick’ factors about certain heritages (long-term small-village insulation being even more off-putting to the characters than ethnic background). This assumption from story to story is consistent enough that one isn’t surprised to hear it comes directly from the author. However, the stories propound equally–or more–consistently and markedly the fear that “people around me might be in contact with or even worshiping arcane powers that it’s Better We Know Not Of”—that’s exactly the atmosphere people like in “Lovecraftian horror,” isn’t it?

Besides, it’s truly charming to skim over the annotations in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. There’s how many biographies and critical works and cross-referencing and maps and genealogies and other secondary literature? It’s just sweet that so many people have cared so much for the worlds he created. It reminds me of Tolkien.

C.S. Lewis might very well have agreed with me that Lovecraft and Tolkien have a legitimate kinship here. In An Experiment in Criticism, one of the greatest literary critics suggests very gently and very persuasively that the value of a book may lie less in how it is written, and more in how it is read. The chapter “On Myth,” though not the center of Lewis’s argument, is my favorite part of the volume, and the part applicable here:

There is … a particular kind of story which has a value in itself—a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work. …

The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable. And the first hearing is chiefly valuable in introducing to us a permanent object of contemplation….

The degree to which a story is any story is a myth depends very largely on the person who hears or reads it. … Where one finds only danger for the heroes, the other may feel the ‘aweful.’ Where one races ahead in curiosity, the other may pause in wonder. … The myth-loving boy, if he is also literary, will soon discover that [John]  Buchan is by far the better writer; but he will still be aware of reaching through [H. Rider] Haggard something which is quite incommensurate with mere excitement. Reading Buchan, he asks ‘Will the hero escape?’ Reading Haggard, he feels ‘I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.’

Over the course of almost a century, H.P. Lovecraft has inspired readers gleefully to dig into, mine out, crack open, polish, display, and send to the stars every little nugget of the strange, fearsome world his characters live and (mostly) die in. A discovery whether some version of that world strikes roots, too, in you is worthwhile irrespective of the quality or morals of the writing.

Oh, and about the writing: yes, I, too, get the impression from At the Mountains of Madness that you could cut out a full third of the text just by culling adjectives synonymous with “eldritch.” But it’s like with Philip K. Dick, or George Lucas: these men have ideas that can light fires in so many imaginations. That’s worth appreciating.

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Challenge me!

Not actually to a duel, please – I’m unlikely to stand a chance at anything except, maybe, a Clue or Babylon 5 reference-off—and even on those, I wouldn’t rate my chances highly. Just give me good reasons otherwise, or—even better, if appropriate—good reasons for and against:

Star Wars isn’t science fiction.

I need challenging because this came out of my mouth without me really thinking it through first, and in a context where it wasn’t likely to be challenged (right before a staff meeting starting, and I work for a regulatory body). I dredged up some justifications after (in proper Douglas Adams fan fashion; for that matter, in proper human fashion), so I think it’d be fun to argue.

So, Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It’s mythology. Science fiction uses technology as a vehicle for exploring aspects of humanity: “Given people being people, …”

  • “… what would actors do if reincarnation were proven?” (Nancy Kress’s With the Original Cast!)
  • “… what would people seeking meaning do if life on other planets were conclusively disproven?” (Philip K. Dick’s The Trouble with Bubbles)
  • “… what would strong people do if another intelligent species wanted to take ‘the best’ of humanity and integrate it into some other form of life?” (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis, aka Lilith’s Brood, Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms, &c. &c.)”

Star Wars uses technology to look cool while telling a story that would, and indeed does, unfold exactly the same in any context. It’s is such a classic hero journey that

  • it’s literally used to illustrate the hero journey paradigm in at least one high school class I recently heard of;
  • It’s been awesomely translated into Icelandic saga;
  • I instinctively mapped onto Star Wars characters about half a dozen of the major characters of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death? the second time I read it (whereas on the first reading, exactly the foreignness of the book’s culture had impressed me most).

But, then, note that I linked no sources for parts of my claim like definitions of “science fiction” or even “hero journey.” So what am I missing? And what’ll be fun to pick apart even if I didn’t really miss it?

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Tolkien academia for a popular audience

This Washington Post article discusses the story of a Tolkien scholar whose strategy of producing podcasts about Tolkien’s novels for public consumption seems to have won him some success in academia, not to mention a large online following.

The hub of his online activities is a website called The Tolkien Professor, which includes the aforementioned podcast lectures, links to both primary sources and criticism, and information about skype-in office hours.

Aside from the content of his work, Corey Olsen’s career trajectory strikes me as interesting in several respects. It reflects a more-or-less successful bid to make a career of studying genre literature in the academy. It reflects what I view as a commendable effort to reach out of the academy and engage a popular audience with academic research–I would love to see this happen more often, and to be rewarded rather than (at best) tolerated. Finally, of course, it raises the question of college classes being made available free and online–a trend which is extremely exciting, but which is not uncomplicated by questions about the future of academic institutions in a world where higher education costs are skyrocketing. Are universities going to go the way of the newspaper? How should we feel about that if they do?

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Who’s the medium now? Part II


Nur - Enemy of darkness and illuminator of consciousness


Xyn - Bringer of sleep, keeper of secrets and guardian of Mysteries

Earlier this fall I encountered an pair of goddesses to enthrall me, part of a larger pantheon on display in a coffee shop. More recently I found contact information for the artist, Jonah Kamphorst, and asked for their stories; he has been kind enough to send some preliminary pointers prepared for an earlier show.

I had earlier on the evening I wrote to Jonah re-read my other recent post on fiction, reality, and communication by/through artists. This pretty clearly influenced the particular questions I posed of this artist:

Are they from a world of yours? If so, to what degree are they yet fleshed out in your consciousness?  If not, where else can I look for more?

Jonah’s response is that he created the goddesses (note the direction of the agency) for himself, but has hoped others might find them illustrative or more. Also that he has an “extensive narrative … which is nowhere near complete” regarding them.

I haven’t checked yet, but my first guess is that Jonah has less than extensive experience writing narrative fiction so far. Again, as I noted last month, many writers seem to find themselves less than entirely in control of their narrative worlds. Also, I would describe none of my favorite fictional worlds as “complete”—or at least not as “completely described.” Wholeness in a world, whether this in which we live or those into which we follow storytellers’ great tales, is to my senses crucially dependent on there being always more to discover. One should always sense that one does not yet know everything that’s going on. Even, I expect, as a world’s creator.

Certainly that’s how I maintain my self-respect as a proper Dune fanatic: by insisting that it is not a universe belonging to and best understood by Frank Herbert. Herbert was merely the first to show it to us.

Likewise, I quite without remorse discarded Farscape barely into Season 3 and Six Feet Under part-way through Season 2, feeling the writers had lost track of their characters. And, despite my continued absorption in and deep respect for the character creation from Martha Cooley in The Archivist, I feel she mistakes her plot at the end.

Nur and Xyn here, from Jonah Kamphorst’s pantheon, remind me visually somewhat of “The two sisters,” from Margaret Mahy‘s The Door in the Air, and Other Stories, although these two are not actually complements as Jennifer and Jessica are. The obvious visual influences of Indian, Celtic, and cyberpunk cultures are quite striking and super-fun in combination. The image of Xyn linked here, though, does not quite feel the same as when I first saw it; it may be a different image, or possibly I feel different enough looking at it through the computer screen. In either case, I don’t have quite as forceful a feeling today as I did earlier this fall that there is more to discover—but it’s forceful enough.

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Let’s talk about Great Sci Fi II

Today’s topic being Roger Zelazny‘s Lord of Light.

I’m going according to my own personal order of precedence: Lord of Light is in my opinion perhaps not the best, but certainly the coolest, thing next to Dune.  It’s by far the best of the few Zelazny works I have read (although “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” is similar enough), and top-drawer among far-reaching, ambitious science fiction.

Lord of Light takes place on a colony world that has all but forgotten the existence of “vanished Urath”–but much of culture we would recognize does persist. Specifically, the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism. The technology that (long before the era of the story) has set the plot in motion is a “reincarnation” device that allows rich or powerful enough people to transfer to new bodies, but as a technology this barely plays a part. The real kick-start to the story is that those who control this technology have by now lived long enough to have discovered and developed within themselves certain psychic abilities … and that they declare themselves the gods of the planet, based on the Hindu pantheon. They are opposed by an original settler of the world, Sam, who plays out the Buddha’s role, speaking for the oppressed against the status quo.

I read Lord of Light long before I knew anything significant about Eastern religions, and it blew my mind. I have since studied Hinduism academically, and Lord of Light loses nothing with increased familiarity. I referred earlier to this book as being simply cool. Read this:

Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe….

It’s all the better when I tell you that this, my favorite speech in the novel, comes from Yama, the Deathgod. But then it’s better still when you reflect that this is not inconsistent with the teachings of all sorts of religious cosmologies. There is a natural law, which one can access by digging deep enough within oneself. Or, in slightly more Hindu terms, the universe is one. It gives me courage.

Courage, however, is not why I read Lord of Light. There’s a couple of awesomely written scenes. There’s some wry characters. There’s some to be learned, and far more to consider. And, as in many of my favorites, there are no easy answers.

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Let’s talk about Great Sci Fi

Because, well, why not?

Personally, I am a proper Dune fanatic. Dune is the War and Peace of speculative fiction, and, yes, I say that believing War and Peace is the greatest novel yet written. Dune, too, encompasses everything:

  • War
  • Peace
  • Guerrilla tactics
  • Religion
  • Fanaticism
  • Time
  • Space (tesseracts)
  • Love
  • Death
  • Psychology
  • Compromise
  • Ecology
  • Legend
  • &c…

The plot is intricate and deeply thought out, several of the characters can break a reader’s heart, and the world-creation is quite simply complete.

I first encountered the Dune world at age 13, through the David Lynch movie adaptation.  I read the novel immediately afterwards, and since then have owned somewhere on the order of a dozen copies, most of which I have given away (indeed, the purpose of having extra copies on hand).  I generally try to start reading the book slowly with lots of processing time; this works with many books I love, but in the case of Dune I am inevitably absorbed, and I career through the last 150 pages in a short evening.  I am left feeling somewhat heartsick each time, for Dune ends but does not resolve: the story is wide-ranging and messy, and even the “right” solution to the crises involve lots of death and–worse–soul-destruction and the breaking of barriers that protect people, like self-preservation.  None of which will be forgotten or forgiven, the ending makes clear.  I love the story for its truth to life that way. 

I have seen a friend become a creature.

In my family, I should note, “proper Dune fanatic” means that we attempt to forget the existence of all series books subsequent to Dune itself.  Or at least to spare ourselves any interaction with them.  Dune ends openly, and so theoretically open to sequel, but Herbert was quite evidently utterly unable to keep up the intensity of engagement that any true succeeding volume would have required.  I don’t necessarily hold this against the author; I have been told that many of the subsequent books were written to make money for Mrs. Herbert’s medical bills, and I tend to imagine that Dune as a universe is something powerful enough that it existed (somehow) prior to the books, while Herbert merely (somehow) saw it and tapped into it.  Which is a great accomplishment in and of itself, and should be enough.

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Needing absorbing reading … and thoughts on it

I am thisclose to agreeing to teach again for the MIT student-run summer program for high school and middle school students, HSSP. If you’d like to do the same, or to do it with me, great!

And if you’d like to advise me on the course I am thinking of putting together, also great. I set up a Google Groups page for discussion on my curriculum. I’d love input!

The basic idea will be explorations into the process of reading and the experience of stories. I came to this idea through a recent penchant for philosophizing on reading. Speculative fiction often provides excellent metaphors for the reading experience–Narnia being an obvious example, and David Brin’s Kiln People one of my favorites. I’d like to take that as one day’s theme, and also expand/expound (or, better yet, lead discussions) on different literary forms, how we experience them and how we’re meant to experience them.

Help much appreciated! Respond here, by email, or through my Google Groups page (which I might like best because then my other friends who are willing to help can weigh in).

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To read, to live; to live, perhaps to dream

I stared at the computer for some time before beginning to write this.  Decompression time.  Sometimes coming out of a book really is like rising out of deep water, isn’t it—bends and all.

Today the book is Orson Scott Card‘s The Worthing Saga. Other days it may be Anne Perry‘s Tathea, or David Brin‘s Kiln People, or Guy Gavriel Kay‘s Fionavar Tapestry.

And there’s no need even to get me started on Martha Cooley‘s The Archivist–I am quite sure I have already written more about it than anyone else wants to know.

Part of the agreement I made in beginning to post to this weblog was to write about what I’m reading. I suppose I’ll start by writing about how I read.

I read many works in parallel, because my tastes change with mercurial alacrity (okay, so I just wanted to use the word “alacrity”), and more importantly because I frequently want time to digest a chapter or scene in a story. (This makes me the perfect kind of reader to adore the Amazon Kindle, and indeed I do. Mine is named “The Guide, Mark II.”) My philosophy of reading holds that I owe nothing to a book merely because I begin to read it. I will quite happily discard a book after 3 pages, 100, or 300, rarely looking back. However, if I do intend to finish a book, I shoulder the (occasionally awesome) responsibility of learning the characters on their own terms, of allowing them their full measure of existence.

I loaned The Archivist to a friend who reads entirely differently from me (who once as an escape read half of War and Peace in two days, and feels compelled to finish every book he starts). The next morning he handed it back with a simple, “It was good. Let’s talk later.” His major critique of the book was that Ms. Cooley should have let the ideas percolate another 20 years or so before writing the book: it seemed a “green” undertaking to him. Although he may have a point, I still feel I too had a point when I responded, “Who are you to say that? You didn’t even give her two days.”

I have a friend who for several intense months at age 11 or so went around murmuring scenes from Lord of the Rings under her breath, imagining herself tromping along as a tenth member of the Fellowship. Another who has spoken of planning lighting schemes and camera angles as if to stage and film favorite scenes from stories. My imagination works differently. I rarely see the characters of whom I read, though I sometimes see through their eyes. I hear them speak, but it always sounds like my own voice. I feel my body move their gestures. I suppose I try personally to experience the story.

Which is more or less how, in the world of The Worthing Saga, telepathy works. If they “look into the minds” of others, the telepaths experience those others’ memories as their own. This can cause all sorts of philosophical/psychological quandaries if the “viewee” is a very different sort of person from the telepath, who has done very different things, had (to the telepath) inconceivable reactions to the stimuli of life. Twice so far in Worthing there have been conversations where one character says to another, “Your life is more real to me than mine. How did you take my life from me?” But it’s not that anyone’s life is erased—just that the overwhelming force of someone else’s strongest memories may seem more evocative than one’s own “normal” life.

The more I read, especially in good speculative fiction, the more metaphors I find for the reading experience. I think this one, from Card, will last me for a while. And of course Card is the author who wrote, in a 1991 introduction to Ender’s Game, “The ‘true’ story is not the one that exists in my mind; it is certainly not the written words on the bound paper that you hold in your hands. … The story is the one that you and I will construct together in your memory.” I hope all my favorite authors have such faith in me. I hope I may live up to that faith.

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