The Sad Horse, 1959 by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern (1892-1982)
The Sad Horse, 1959 by Friedrich Schroder-Sonnenstern (1892-1982)
I returned to classes on Monday after 10 humid, uncomfortable, and often scary days “off” due to Hurricane Irma. In the slim hour and change between my last lecture and my kids’ school dismissal, I swung by my favorite used bookshop. I was worried that it might have flooded, but the waters didn’t get to the inventory (well over a million books).
I picked up a a PKD Daw edition, a mass market paperback, Deus Irae, co-authored with Roger Zelazny. I’ve been picking up pretty much any early PKD mass market ppbk; new editions of his stuff tend to be pretty boring. I had to pick between two editions:
I also picked up Eddie Campbell’s Alec: How to Be an Artist, which I gobbled up the other day in two sittings. There’s a pretty neat canon of graphic novels at the end, which I’ll share later this week. The cover looks like an illustration of Roberto Bolaño to me.
I also picked up two Roald Dahl books we didn’t have, Esio Trot and Danny the Champion of the World, which my kids read immediately and greedily.
Above an Irish Sea, 2012 by F. Scott Hess (b. 1955)
Endymion, c. 1872 by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904)
I will define science fiction, first, by saying what sf is not. It cannot be defined as “a story (or novel or play) set in the future,” since there exists such a thing as space adventure, which is set in the future but is not sf: it is just that: adventures, fights and wars in the future in space involving super-advanced technology. Why, then, is it not science fiction? It would seem to be, and Doris Lessing (e.g.) supposes that it is. However, space adventure lacks the distinct new idea that is the essential ingredient. Also, there can be science fiction set in the present: the alternate world story or novel. So if we separate sf from the future and also from ultra-advanced technology, what then do we have that can be called sf?
We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: it is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society; that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate world story or novel. It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society—or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one—this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world that he is reading about.
Now, to separate science fiction from fantasy. This is impossible to do, and a moment’s thought will show why. Take psionics; take mutants such as we find in Ted Sturgeon’s wonderful MORE THAN HUMAN. If the reader believes that such mutants could exist, then he will view Sturgeon’s novel as science fiction. If, however, he believes that such mutants are, like wizards and dragons, not possible, nor will ever be possible, then he is reading a fantasy novel. Fantasy involves that which general opinion regards as impossible; science fiction involves that which general opinion regards as possible under the right circumstances. This is in essence a judgment-call, since what is possible and what is not possible is not objectively known but is, rather, a subjective belief on the part of the author and of the reader.
Now to define good science fiction. The conceptual dislocation—the new idea, in other words—must be truly new (or a new variation on an old one) and it must be intellectually stimulating to the reader; it must invade his mind and wake it up to the possibility of something he had not up to then thought of. Thus “good science fiction” is a value term, not an objective thing, and yet, I think, there really is such a thing, objectively, as good science fiction.
I think Dr. Willis McNelly at the California State University at Fullerton put it best when he said that the true protagonist of an sf story or novel is an idea and not a person. If it is good sf the idea is new, it is stimulating, and, probably most important of all, it sets off a chain-reaction of ramification-ideas in the mind of the reader; it so-to-speak unlocks the reader’s mind so that that mind, like the author’s, begins to create. Thus sf is creative and it inspires creativity, which mainstream fiction by-and-large does not do. We who read sf (I am speaking as a reader now, not a writer) read it because we love to experience this chain-reaction of ideas being set off in our minds by something we read, something with a new idea in it; hence the very best science fiction ultimately winds up being a collaboration between author and reader, in which both create—and enjoy doing it: joy is the essential and final ingredient of science fiction, the joy of discovery of newness.
(in a letter) May 14,1981
From a letter by Philip K. Dick, used as the preface to The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 1.
The Temptation of St. Anthony by Otto Dix (1891-1969)
thunderIt was like…
like a wild animal
ribs like fishbones
like thin red leeches
they drank like dogs
It was like a sermon
true as a spirit level
like a string in a maze
He was bald as a stone
like rival bands of apes
silently as a bird alighting
mute as a tailor’s dummy
men or creatures like them
they buried their stool like cats
like effigies for to frighten birds
Yonder sun is like the eye of God
They rode either side like escorts
dark falls here like a thunderclap
The men looked like mud effigies.
like an army asleep on the march
their chins in the sand like lizards
like some naked species of lemur
something like a pound of powder
like a man beset with bees or madness
black waters all alight like cities adrift
like beings for whom the sun hungered
great steady sucking sounds like a cow
fingers spiderlike among the bolls of cotton
the fires on the plain faded like an evil dream
abdomens like the tracks of gigantic millipedes
leather wings like dark satanic hummingbirds
us behind him like the disciples of a new faith
he come along and raised me up like Lazarus.
jerking and lurching like a deputation of spastics
holding the coins cupped in her hands like a bird
the mules clambering along the ledges like goats
they labored on sideways over the sand like crabs
shambling past the fires like a balden groundsloth
whores call to him from the dark like souls in want
Men whose speech sounds like the grunting of apes
A hardlooking woman with a wiry body like a man’s.
They were shambling along the road like dumb things
our mother the earth as he said was round like an egg
The watchers looked like forms excavated from a bog.
is voice passed from him like a gift that was also needed
the old man sitting in the shrubbery solitary as a gnome
the parasol dipping in the wind like a great black flower
in his sleep he struggled and muttered like a dreaming dog
dragging themselves across the lot like seals or other things
an old anchorite nested away in the sod like a groundsloth
blackened and shriveled in the mud like an enormous spider
the kid behind him on the mule like something he’d captured
he had codified his threats to the one word kill like a crazed chant
the squatting houses were made of hides ranged like curious dorys
little cloven hoof-prints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going
a watered figure like the markings of some alien and antique serpent
The shadows of the smallest stones lay like pencil lines across the sand
the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus
the tent began to sway and buckle and like a huge and wounded medusa
he comes down at night like some fairybook beast to fight with the sailors
the blackened rings of the burnedout fires lay in the road like bomb-craters
Buzzards shuffled off through the chaff and plaster like enormous yardfowl
he naked bodies with their wounds like the victims of surgical experimentation
a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise
Then he waded out into the river like some wholly wretched baptismal candidate.
the barman labored over the floor toward him like a man on his way to some chore
He looked like a great clay voodoo doll made animate and the kid looked like another.
the burnt tree stood vertically in the still dawn like a slender stylus marking the hour
he looks like a raggedyman wandered from some garden where he’d used to frighten birds
the bloody stump of the shaft jutted from his thigh like a peg for hanging implements upon
The wagons drew so dry they slouched from side to side like dogs and the sand was grinding them
They crossed a vast dry lake with rows of dead volcanoes ranged beyond it like the works of enormous insects. Continue reading “(Probably not) All of the similes in Blood Meridian”
Dream of St.Ursula, 1495 by Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1465-c. 1526)
“Editorial. By the President of the Therolinguistics Association”
Ursula K. Le Guin
What is Language?
This question, central to the science of therolinguistics, has been answered—heuristically—by the very existence of the science. Language is communication. That is the axiom on which all our theory and research rest, and from which all our discoveries derive; and the success of the discoveries testifies to the validity of the axiom. But to the related, yet not identical question, What is Art? we have not yet given a satisfactory answer.
Tolstoy, in the book whose title is that very question, answered it firmly and clearly: Art, too, is communication. This answer has, I believe, been accepted without examination or criticism by therolinguists. For example: Why do therolinguists study only animals?
Why, because plants do not communicate.
Plants do not communicate; that is a fact. Therefore plants have no language; very well; that follows from our basic axiom. Therefore, also, plants have no art. But stay! That does not follow from the basic axiom, but only from the unexamined Tolstoyan corollary.
What if art is not communicative?
Or, what if some art is communicative, and some art is not?
Ourselves animals, active, predators, we look (naturally enough) for an active, predatory, communicative art; and when we find it, we recognise it. The development of this power of recognition and the skills of appreciation is a recent and glorious achievement.
But I submit that, for all the tremendous advances made by therolinguistics during the last decades, we are only at the beginning of our age of discovery. We must not become slaves to our own axioms. We have not yet lifted our eyes to the vaster horizons before us. We have not faced the almost terrifying challenge of the Plant.
If a non-communicative, vegetative art exists, we must rethink the very elements of our science, and learn a whole new set of techniques.
For it is simply not possible to bring the critical and technical skills appropriate to the study of Weasel murder mysteries, or Batrachian erotica, or the tunnel sagas of the earthworm, to bear on the art of the redwood or the zucchini.
This is proved conclusively by the failure—a noble failure—of the efforts of Dr. Srivas, in Calcutta, using time-lapse photography, to produce a lexicon of Sunflower. His attempt was daring, but doomed to failure. For his approach was kinetic—a method appropriate to the communicative arts of the tortoise, the oyster, and the sloth. He saw the extreme slowness of the kinesis of plants, and only that, as the problem to be solved.
But the problem was far greater. The art he sought, if it exists, is a non-communicative art: and probably a non-kinetic one. It is possible that Time, the essential element, matrix, and measure of all known animal art, does not enter into vegetable art at all. The plants may use the meter of eternity. We do not know.
We do not know. All we can guess is that the putative Art of the Plant is entirely different from the Art of the Animal. What it is, we cannot say; we have not yet discovered it. Yet I predict with some certainty that it exists, and that when it is found it will prove to be, not an action, but a reaction: not a communication, but a reception. It will be exactly the opposite of the art we know and recognise. It will be the first passive art known to us.
Can we in fact know it? Can we ever understand it?
It will be immensely difficult. That is clear. But we should not despair. Remember that so late as the mid-twentieth century, most scientists, and many artists, did not believe that Dolphin would ever be comprehensible to the human brain—or worth comprehending! Let another century pass, and we may seem equally laughable. “Do you realise,” the phytolinguist will say to the aesthetic critic, “that they couldn’t even read Eggplant?” And they will smile at our ignorance, as they pick up their rucksacks and hike on up to read the newly deciphered lyrics of the lichen on the north face of Pike’s Peak.
And with them, or after them, may there not come that even bolder adventurer—the first geolinguist, who, ignoring the delicate, transient lyrics of the lichen, will read beneath it the still less communicative, still more passive, wholly atemporal, cold, volcanic poetry of the rocks: each one a word spoken, how long ago, by the earth itself, in the immense solitude, the immenser community, of space.
“Pull Back and Reload: Barry Hannah in Hollywood,” a wonderful article by Will Stephenson, is new this week in Oxford American. The article focuses on Hannah’s time in Hollywood in the early 1980s, trying to develop a movie script called Power and Light with Robert Altman. Altman, (not-so-)fresh from making cult jam Popeye, was enchanted by Hannah’s 1980 novel Ray. The director invited Hannah to stay in his Malibu home to work on a script:
Hannah had driven out to Hollywood proudly on his Triumph motorcycle, he and Altman having settled on a meeting place, whereupon Altman was to guide him the rest of the way to his home in Malibu. But when Altman arrived, Hannah hadn’t showed. The filmmaker waited for an hour, increasingly frustrated, until he noticed, across the street, a peep show and adult video store. As Rapp remembers him putting it, Altman thought to himself, “That fucker would be just crazy enough . . .” He wandered inside the adult emporium and there found Hannah, deeply absorbed.
The article is pretty great, larded with nuggets from Hannah’s correspondence and not a few wild anecdotes. Check it out.
RIP the great Harry Dean Stanton, 1926-2017
…Kelly’s Heroes, Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Cockfighter, Renaldo and Clara, Alien, Wise Blood, Escape from New York, Christine, Repo Man, Paris, Texas, Red Dawn, Pretty in Pink, The Last Temptation of Christ, Wild at Heart, Fire Walk with Me, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Straight Story, The Green Mile, Big Love, Inland Empire, Twin Peaks: The Return, and so many, many more.
Harry Dean Stanton elevated any film he was in, adding strange depth and soul to characters who may have otherwise been flat. Stanton was what people who write about film call a character actor, a subtly bizarre term, really, if you think about it, one that we use to easily distinguish between leading actors—“stars”—and the folks around them who are far more interesting. The greatest character actors are true artists, and Harry Dean Stanton was the greatest character actor. He did play the lead, occasionally though, as in Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders), a cult film that look let me stop here and say, See Paris, Texas already if you haven’t, it’s amazing. And while he’s not exactly the lead in Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox), he’s certainly the weird bouncing gravity that both anchors the film and propels it forward. (I assume that Repo Man is still required cult film viewing for young folks?). It was a joy to see Stanton one last time this year in Twin Peaks: The Return, where his performance of “Red River Valley” was a standout scene in a show full of standout scenes. While I’ll miss seeing him in new films, Stanton’s long list of roles insures that we’ll still be able to wonder into a film or show and excitedly declare, Oh shit! Harry Dean Stanton is in this!