Small Beer Press had a warehouse sale last month, so I ordered two by the late avant-garde sci-fi writer Carol Emshwiller. I ordered Carmen Dog, which is what I take to be her most lauded novel, based on this blurb from Ursula Le Guin:
Carol is the most unappreciated great writer we’ve got. Carmen Dog ought to be a classic in the colleges by now . . . It’s so funny, and it’s so keen.
The pub’s blurb:
The debut title in our Peapod Classics line, Carol Emshwiller’s genre-jumping debut novel is a dangerous, sharp-eyed look at men, women, and the world we live in.
Everything is changing: women are turning into animals, and animals are turning into women. Pooch, a golden setter, is turning into a beautiful woman–although she still has some of her canine traits: she just can’t shuck that loyalty thing–and her former owner has turned into a snapping turtle. When the turtle tries to take a bite of her own baby, Pooch snatches the baby and runs. Meanwhile, there’s a dangerous wolverine on the loose, men are desperately trying to figure out what’s going on, and Pooch discovers what she really wants: to sing Carmen.
I also ordered a story collection, Report to the Men’s Club. Small Beer’s blurb:
What if the world ended on your birthday — and no one came? What if your grandmother was a superhero? What if the orphan you were raising was a top-secret weapon, looked like Godzilla, and loved singing nursery rhymes? What if poet laureates fought to the death, in stadiums?
A day or two before they showed up, I found a copy of Emshwiller’s 2005 novel Mister Boots in the YA section of my local bookshop. I launched into it and I don’t think it necessarily reads as YA-as-genre, but it’s the kind of weird shit I would’ve loved to get a hold of as a sixteen year old. Blurb:
Bobby Lassiter has some important secrets—but it’s not as if anyone’s paying attention. It’s the middle of the Depression, and while Bobby’s mother and older sister knit all day to make money, Bobby explores the California desert around their home. That’s how Bobby finds Boots. He’s under their one half-dead tree, halfdead himself. Right away he’s a secret, too—a secret to be fed and clothed and taken care of, and even more of a secret because of what he can do. Sometimes Boots is a man. Sometimes he’s (really, truly) a horse. He and Bobby both know something about magic—and those who read this book will,
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”
As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!
Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”
The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”
“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”
“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”
“And what were you before you became a plant?”
“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”
There was silence. Doctor Harris took up his pen and scratched a few lines, but nothing of importance came. A plant? And such a healthy-looking lad! Harris removed his steel-rimmed glasses and polished them with his handkerchief. He put them on again and leaned back in his chair. “Care for a cigarette, Corporal?”
The Doctor lit one himself, resting his arm on the edge of the chair. “Corporal, you must realize that there are very few men who become plants, especially on such short notice. I have to admit you are the first person who has ever told me such a thing.”
“Yes, sir, I realize it’s quite rare.”
“You can understand why I’m interested, then. When you say you’re a plant, you mean you’re not capable of mobility? Or do you mean you’re a vegetable, as opposed to an animal? Or just what?”
The Corporal looked away. “I can’t tell you any more,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Well, would you mind telling me how you became a plant?”
Corporal Westerburg hesitated. He stared down at the floor, then out the window at the spaceport, then at a fly on the desk. At last he stood up, getting slowly to his feet. “I can’t even tell you that, sir,” he said.
“Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” (1976) / “The Index” (1977)
By the end of the sixties, Ballard had found a style and rhetoric to match his weird futurism. His output of stories slowed down considerably in the ’70s, as he found financial comfort and some measure of fame as a writer. If 1969’s collection The Atrocity Exhibition didn’t cement Ballard as a voice at the forefront of avant-garde fiction, then Crash (1973) surely did. Ballard published four novels in the seventies, and as usual, the stories he composed around the same time often feel like sketches or dress rehearsals for bigger ideas.
The two strongest stories here—or maybe, I should just admit, the stories I like best—are “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” and “The Index.” Ballard’s repetitions can often be draining, especially if you read all these stories back to back, but “Notes” and “Index” feel vital, necessary—essential. Yes, of course they belong in that ideal collection I’ve been imagining, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard. Both stories condense Ballard’s obsessions into short, strange, experiments.
“Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” reads as a playful but sinister parody of what a fictionalized autobiography of Ballard might look like. The story consists of a single sentence: “A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown,’ recalling his wife’s murder, his trial and exoneration.” Each subsequent paragraph is a numbered footnote, which complicates and disrupts the levels of fictionality and reality that we might expect to inhere in the plot. With its missing mental patients, psycholinguistics, dead, adulterous wife, surrealism, airplanes, etc., “Notes” encapsulates so many of Ballard’s stories to date, yet makes the reader encounter them with fresh perspective. Sample paragraph:
A vital role seems to have been played during these last days by the series of paintings by Max Ernst entitled Garden Airplane Traps, pictures of low walls, like the brick–courses of an uncompleted maze, across which long wings have crashed, from whose joints visceral growths are blossoming. In the last entry of his diary, the day before his wife’s death, 27 March 1975, Loughlin wrote with deceptive calm: ‘Ernst said it all in his comment on these paintings, the model for everything I’ve tried to do… “Voracious gardens in turn devoured by a vegetation which springs from the debris of trapped airplanes… Everything is astonishing, beart–breaking and possible… with my eyes I see the nymph Echo…” Shortly before writing out these lines he had returned to his Hendon apartment to find that his wife had set off for Gatwick Airport with Dr Douglas, intending to catch the 3.15 p.m. flight to Geneva the following day. After calling Richard Northrop, Loughlin drove straight to Elstree Flying Club.
“The Index” tells the story of HRH—
Physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion, Henry Rhodes Hamilton was evidently the intimate of the greatest men and women of our age. After World War II he founded a new movement of spiritual regeneration, but private scandal and public concern at his growing megalomania, culminating in his proclamation of himself as a new divinity, seem to have led to his downfall.
After a very short introductory note (which I yanked the above from), “The Index” takes the form of “the index to the unpublished and perhaps suppressed autobiography of a man who may well have been one of the most remarkable figures of the twentieth century.” Ballard crams an analysis of the entire 20th century into the index, with bizarre humor and grand results. Forced to read between the lines, HRH (his royal highness) seems to be present at every single meaningful event of the last century, whether he’s advising Churchill:
Churchill, Winston, conversations with HRH, 221; at Chequers with HRH, 235; spinal tap performed by HRH, 247; at Yalta with HRH, 298, ‘iron curtain’ speech, Fulton, Missouri, suggested by HRH, 312; attacks HRH in Commons debate, 367
Ghandi, Mahatma, visited in prison by HRH, 251; discussesBhagavadgita with HRH, 253; has dhoti washed by HRH, 254; denounces HRH, 256
Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgaden, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181
I have to share this entry too:
Hemingway, Ernest, first African safari with HRH, 234; at Battle of the Ebro with HRH, 244; introduces HRH to James Joyce, 256; portrays HRH in The Old Man and the Sea, 453
Ballard is at his best when he makes the reader work the hardest (think of “The Beach Murders,” “The Drowned Giant,” or “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”), and “The Index” and “Notes” are no exception.
“The Greatest Television Show on Earth” (1972) / “The Life and Death of God” (1976)
“The Greatest Television Show on Earth” and “The Life and Death of God” are both composed in a detached, slightly ironic, and highly-omniscient tone that Ballard rarely employs. Most of the time he uses a free indirect style that floats near the harried, paranoid consciousness of one of his (always male) protagonist, constraining the viewpoint to that character. There’s also the occasional first-person voice. It’s worth noting that Ballard’s omniscient voice, usually reserved for wry fables, is one of his strongest (see also: “The Drowned Giant”). This pair of stories—and I do take them as a pair—are thought experiments that ultimately focus on metaphysics, a subject that is somewhat rare in the Ballardverse.
“The Greatest Television Show on Earth” imagines a future (2001!) in which time travel has been perfected and history itself becomes the history channel as billions become addicted to television broadcasts of historical battles. Over time, however, the producers begin to interfere. They try to make history flashier, more violent (sexier?). The story ends with a metaphysical gesture that might be read ironically, although I find it hard to see the conclusion (which I won’t spoil here) as anything other than Ballard’s moralistic reactionary streak alight.
“The Life and Death of God” takes a cue from Voltaire’s quip that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. In this fable/thought experiment, scientists prove beyond doubt (keyword: doubt) that God is real. Ballard imagines a world relieved of radical doubt—a world without faith:
Within two months of the confirmation of the worldwide rumour of God’s existence came the first indications of government concern over the consequences. Industry and agriculture were already affected, though far less than commerce, politics and advertising. Everywhere the results of this new sense of morality, of the virtues of truth and charity, were becoming clear. A legion of overseers, time–keepers and inspectors found themselves no longer needed. Longestablished advertising agencies became bankrupt. Accepting the public demand for total honesty, and fearful of that supreme client up in the sky, the majority of television commercials now ended with an exhortation not to buy their products.
And then things get worse. “The Life and Death” again shows Ballard’s reactionary, elitist stripe, his lack of faith in the so-called common person to make meaning and organize a life without an anchoring center—illusory or otherwise.
“The Air Disaster'” (1975) / “Low–Flying Aircraft” (1975) /”The 60 Minute Zoom” (1976) / “The Smile” (1976) / “The Intensive Care Unit” (1977) / “Theatre of War” (1977) / “Having a Wonderful Time” (1978) / “One Afternoon at Utah Beach” (1978) /”Motel Architecture” (1978)
In the order they are listed above, with apologies:
Ballard does cargo cult / Ballard explores child-mutation-as-harbinger-of-new-evolutionary-jump / Ballard does Rear Window (the story anticipates Blue Velvet) / Ballard writes about emotional transference and a sex doll / Ballard mashes up his TV obsessions with his displacement obsessions with his Oedipal obsessions / Ballard imagines a contemporary Civil War in Britain, with American aggressors; there’s a gimmick end here that actually works wonderfully / Ballard’s permanent vacation riff / Ballard writes yet another cheating-wife-leads-to-husband’s-attempt-at-revenge, this time with a Nazi motif / Ballard repeats “Intensive Care Unit,” but mixes it up with voyeurism and a kick of Psycho. (The story anticipates what DeLillo will do a decade later).
Sorry to lump all these together. I probably shouldn’t handle the whole decade of stories at once, but I’m almost finished with this enormous, very long book (dear lord I am ready to be finished) and lumping I shall do. Of this set, “The Intensive Care Unit” and “Theatre of War” are the best, and the most mediocre of the bunch (“Low-Flying Aircraft” and “One Afternoon at Utah Beach”) are better than the mediocre stories of the sixties.
“Zodiac 2000” (1978)
Ballard’s most deconstructive, postmodern stories begin with an author’s note, an apologia of sorts, and while I often think these are unnecessary, I’ve also used them to help summarize the stories. So too with “Zodiac 2000”:
An updating, however modest, of the signs of the zodiac seems long overdue. The houses of our psychological sky are no longer tenanted by rams, goats and crabs but by helicopters, cruise missiles and intra–uterine coils, and by all the spectres of the psychiatric ward. A few correspondences are obvious – the clones and the hypodermic syringe conveniently take the place of the twins and the archer. But there remains the problem of all those farmyard animals so important to the Chaldeans. Perhaps our true counterparts of these workaday creatures are the machines which guard and shape our lives in so many ways – above all, the taurean computer, seeding its limitless possibilities. As for the ram, that tireless guardian of the domestic flock, his counterpart in our own homes seems to be the Polaroid camera, shepherding our smallest memories and emotions, our most tender sexual acts. Here, anyway, is an s–f zodiac, which I assume the next real one will be…
If “Zodiac 2000” doesn’t quite work as well as Ballard’s other list-driven/fractured stories, it’s probably because he attempts to screw a plot-driven thriller onto his weird frame. It’s almost as if he has a left-over story that wasn’t quite good enough to sell, and says, hey, I’ve got this idea for a structure, let me mash it all together. In Ballard’s best stuff, frame and content are inseparable; “Zodiac 2000″ is not Ballard’s best” — but it’s still more interesting than his most mediocre.
“The Ultimate City” (1976)
Speaking of mediocre: “The Ultimate City” is a very long short story, a novella really, that I invite anyone reading The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard to feel totally okay about skipping. You’ve read this story before, under several different titles, by this point, or maybe you’ll read it later. It’s another thought experiment dressed up as an essay dressed up as an adventure story. At its best there are some good ideas here infused with a heavy dose of environmentalism. At its worst though, “The Ultimate City” is didactic, ponderous, meandering, overstuffed, and redolent of hoary tropes (there’s even a Magical Negro).
“The Dead Time” (1977)
1977’s “The Dead Time” is, unless I’m mistaken, Ballard’s first attempt to write directly (if still indirectly) about his experiences as a captive ex-patriot in WWII. Ballard, as is well-known, was interred in a prison camp in Shanghai by the Japanese forces, and this traumatic ordeal undoubtedly underwrites so much of his violent, alienated fiction. If we take Ballard’s childhood internment and the subsequent abject horrors he faced to be the cornerstone of the Ballardverse he would later create, then we must also, significantly, recognize that almost all of Ballard’s fiction up to “The Dead Time” is a displacement and revision of those terrors (which Ballard handled most directly in his mainstream breakthrough, 1984’s Empire of the Sun).
“The Dead Time” focuses on a hero who, released from his Shanghai prison in the final days of WWII, wonders hungry and dissociated through a corpse-and-trash-strewn apocalyptic landscape. He’s charged with the bizarre duty of transporting and then burying a truckload of dead bodies. Little else happens. The tale is, without a doubt, Ballard’s most real, and probably most terrifying story to date:
I tried to pick up another of the corpses, but again my hands froze, and again I felt the same presentiment, an enclosing wall that enveloped us like the wire fence around our camp. I watched the flies swarm across my hands and over the faces of the bodies between my feet, relieved now that I would never again be forced to distinguish between us. I hurled the tarpaulin into the canal, so that the air could play over their faces as we sped along. When the engine of the truck had cooled I refilled the radiator with water from the canal, and set off towards the west.
The narrator’s abject trial continues, and we see in the corpses in his charge the grotesque bits and fragments that have fueled the two previous decades of Ballard’s writing:
Under the cover of darkness – for I would not have dared to commit this act by daylight – I returned to the truck and began to remove the bodies one by one, throwing them down on to the road. Clouds of flies festered around me, as if trying to warn me of the insanity of what I was doing. Exhausted, I pulled the bodies down like damp sacks, ruthlessly avoiding the faces of the nuns and the children, the young amputee and the elderly woman.
As we reach the end of the narrative, our hero remarks,
From this time onwards, during the confused days of my journey to my parents’ camp, I was completely identified with my companions. I no longer attempted to escape them.
It’s difficult not to read here some reconciliation here, as if Ballard is finally ready to write through his formative traumas without the intermediary tropes of science fiction or radical paranoia. What we get here is wonderfully, viscerally real. Fantastic stuff, and clearly part of my ideal Essential collection.
On the horizon:
Ballard writes the same story three times in a row! We get one of his best stories, “Answers to a Questionnaire”! And I finish! Yay!
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]
“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)
“The Beach Murders” (1966)
Up until the mid-sixties, Ballard wasn’t able to find a rhetoric to match his ideas. Perhaps this makes sense if we consider that Ballard’s fiction has always been more interested in art, music, film, and biology than literature itself. He still relied on the tropes of magazine pulp fiction and hard-boiled detective stories to frame his tales, and while even the weakest of these tales was better than an episode of The Twilight Zone, they still occupied the same territory. Although Ballard’s earliest stories are distinctly Ballardian–obsessed with time, saturated in surrealism and psychology, shot through with a Cold War era paranoia and its attendant nihilism—it’s not until 1964, in the fragmentary “The Terminal Beach,” and the wry fabulism of “The Drowned Giant,” that Ballard finally merges form and content.
With “The Beach Murders,” Ballard manages to overstuff all of his tropes into a strange burlesque game. Paranoid, breast-obsessed, violent and funny, “The Beach Murders” comprises 26 sections, one for each letter in the English alphabet. And like the alphabet, Ballard’s story can be combined in any number of possibilities. In his introduction to the story, the narrator hints at a solution to the puzzle, before pointing out that any “final answer” will forever remain unclear:
Readers hoping to solve the mystery of the Beach Murders – involving a Romanoff Princess, a CIA agent, two of his Russian counterparts and an American limbo dancer – may care to approach it in the form of the card game with which Quimby, the absconding State Department cipher chief, amused himself in his hideaway on the Costa Blanca. The principal clues have therefore been alphabetized. The correct key might well be a familiar phrase, e. g. PLAYMATE OF THE MONTH, or meaningless, e. g. qwertyuiop… etc. Obviously any number of solutions is possible, and a final answer to the mystery, like the motives and character of Quimby himself, lies forever hidden.
“The Beach Murders” reads like a postmodern update of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories. Its gestures recall the fragmentation of his hero William Burroughs, as well as the techniques of his American contemporary Donald Barthelme–not to mention the emerging wave of continental deconstruction. It’s also very, very fun. Part of my ideal collection, The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
“The Day of Forever” (1966)
It’s tempting to give in to biographical criticism when considering the subtle but significant shift in Ballard’s work after the shocking death of his wife Helen in 1964. While themes of loss, sleeplessness, and despair reverberate through many (if not most) of his early stories, they become sharper, more defined after 1964.
“The Day of Forever” is not exactly a great story, especially if you do what I’m doing—that is, read all of his stories chronologically. The story, about a world that has ceased to rotate, feels like a series of sketches that Ballard is using for something bigger (or has left out of something bigger). Taken in the context of his wife’s death, however, the story seems richer, sadder, more personal in its evocations of dreamlessness and loss.
When the story’s protagonist Halliday raids an abandoned gallery for its surrealist images, it’s hard not to intuit Ballard’s own desire to recover the unrecoverable:
In the students’ gallery hung the fading reproductions of a dozen schools of painting, for the most part images of worlds without meaning. However, grouped together in a small alcove Halliday found the surrealists Delvaux, Chirico and Ernst. These strange landscapes, inspired by dreams that his own could no longer echo, filled Halliday with a profound sense of nostalgia. One above all, Delvaux’s The Echo’, which depicted a naked Junoesque woman walking among immaculate ruins under a midnight sky, reminded him of his own recurrent fantasy. The infinite longing contained in the picture, the synthetic time created by the receding images of the woman, belonged to the landscape of his unseen night.
“The Impossible Man” (1966)
The theme of recovery surfaces again in “The Impossible Man,” where a young man named Conrad (insert observation here that so many of Ballard’s protagonist’s are nakedly named for writers) is given the chance to walk again after a terrible accident—he’ll receive the limbs of a man who died causing the accident. With its fetishizing of scars, auto accidents, and surgery, “The Impossible Man” points directly toward Ballard’s weirdest works, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash.
“Storm–Bird, Storm–Dreamer” (1966)
“Storm-Bird, Storm-Dreamer” evokes a rich, Gothic world, a swampland where humans battle mutant birds. Here, a strange woman in mourning awaits the return of her lost child (there’s that theme again!) through some avian agency. There are skiffs and pergolas and feathers and shotguns. There is a dwarf. Dark and romantic, the tale’s themes—and the delivery of those themes—recall Ballard’s earlier forays into magical realism, “The Drowned Giant” and 1962’s “The Garden of Time.”
“Tomorrow is a Million Years” (1966)
Ballard’s narrator in “Tomorrow is a Million Years” directly invokes Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick and alludes to the myth of the Flying Dutchman. Allusion is a fundamental trope of literature—indeed, most literature seems to take literature as its own subject—but Ballard’s allusions, beyond his character names (he christens a character in 1967’s “Cry Hope, Cry Fury!” Melville) tend to skew toward art and music. The allusions to doomed voyages and shipwreck are appropriate here, and Ballard synthesizes them into a tale of madness and hallucination. And, at the risk of spoiling the tale’s shocking ending, I’ll suggest again that Ballard is writing through/to/around/beneath the death of his wife.
“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966)
Ballard begins “Assassination” with an author’s note:
The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22nd, 1963, raised many questions, not all of which were answered by the Report of the Warren Commission. It is suggested that a less conventional view of the events of that grim day may provide a more satisfactory explanation. In particular Alfred Jarry’s “The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race” gives us a useful lead.
Author of the infamous proto-surrealist play Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s pataphysical conceits undoubtedly influenced and engaged Ballard, offering him new ways of writing beyond the constraints of his earlier pulp fiction. Published almost 60 years after Jarry’s death, “Assassination” is just as shocking as the text it’s modeled on, suggesting that the disruptive powers of language that Ballard was beginning to experiment with retain vitality outside of history. It’s worth sharing the opening paragraphs of “Assassination”:
Oswald was the starter.
From his window above the track he opened the race by firing the starting gun. It is believed that the first shot was not properly heard by all the drivers. In the following confusion Oswald fired the gun two more times, but the race was already under way.
Kennedy got off to a bad start.
There was a governor in his car and its speed remained constant at about fifteen miles an hour. However, shortly afterwards, when the governor had been put out of action, the car accelerated rapidly, and continued at high speed along the remainder of the course.
The visiting teams. As befitting the inauguration of the first production car race through the streets of Dallas, both the President and the Vice–President participated. The Vice–President, Johnson, took up his position behind Kennedy on the starting line. The concealed rivalry between the two men was of keen interest to the crowd. Most of them supported the home driver, Johnson.
If “Kennedy got off to a bad start” doesn’t crack you up then it’s likely this story isn’t for you. Ballard’s humor often rests entirely on a kind of moral irony in his earlier stories (you know, like something from the Twilight Zoneseries), but “Assassination” shows a wry constraint, a trust in the reader that probably originated in Ballard’s growing comfort in his own powers. (Later stories like “The Greatest Television Show on Earth” and “The Life and Death of God” advance Ballard’s control of dark humor).
“The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” was published in The Atrocity Exhibition; for whatever reason, The Complete Short Stories only includes two other stories from that collection (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” and “The Secret History of World War 3,” which wasn’t actually part of the original AE pressing). So maybe Complete is not so complete.
I’m actually almost finished with the book (my Kindle tells me I’m at 72%). I should probably slow down and try to take more notes for these riffs—or just write faster and looser. But the reading becomes far more compelling at this point, as Ballard transcends the limitations of sci-fi pulp and begins to contend with his surrealist forbears. Next time: “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”! Another Vermilion Sands story—this one not so bad! Ballard takes on Vietnam! Etc.
[Ed. note: Biblioklept originally ran a series of posts on The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard between October 2013 and March 2014.]
A note about Vollmer. He no longer describes the earth as a library globe or a map that has come alive, as a cosmic eye staring into deep space. This last was his most ambitious fling at imagery. The war has changed the way he sees the earth. The earth is land and water, the dwelling place of mortal men, in elevated dictionary terms. He doesn’t see it any more (storm-spiralled, sea-bright, breathing heat and haze and colour) as an occasion for picturesque language, for easeful play or speculation.
At two hundred and twenty kilometres we see ship wakes and the larger airports. Icebergs, lightning bolts, sand-dunes. I point out lava flows and cold-core eddies. That silver ribbon off the Irish coast, I tell him, is an oil slick.
This is my third orbital mission, Vollmer’s first. He is an engineering genius, a communications and weapons genius, and maybe other kinds of genius as well. As mission specialist, I’m content to be in charge. (The word specialist, in the standard usage of Colorado Command, refers here to someone who does not specialize.) Our spacecraft is designed primarily to gather intelligence. The refinement of the quantum-burn technique enables us to make frequent adjustments of orbit without firing rockets every time. We swing out into high, wide trajectories, the whole earth as our psychic light, to inspect unmanned and possibly hostile satellites. We orbit tightly, snugly, take intimate looks at surface activities in untravelled places. The banning of nuclear weapons has made the world safe for war.
I try not to think big thoughts or submit to rambling abstractions. But the urge sometimes comes over me. Earth orbit puts men into philosophical temper. How can we help it? We see the planet complete, we have a privileged vista. In our attempts to be equal to the experience, we tend to meditate importantly on subjects like the human condition. It makes a man feel universal, floating over the continents, seeing the rim of the world, a line as clear as a compass arc, knowing it is just a turning of the bend to Atlantic twilight, to sediment plumes and kelp beds, an island chain glowing in the dusky sea.
I tell myself it is only scenery. I want to think of our life here as ordinary, as a housekeeping arrangement, an unlikely but workable setup caused by a housing shortage or spring floods in the valley.
Gene Wolfe was born in New York on May 7, 1931. He studied at Texas A&M for a few years before dropping out and fighting in the Korean War. After his return to the US he finished his degree at the University of Houston. He was an engineer, and worked as the editor of the professional journal Plant Engineering. He was also instrumental in inventing the machine that cooks Pringles potato chips.
…Wolfe went on to write over 30 novels, with his best best-known work, The Book of The New Sun, spanning 1980-1983. The series is a tetralogy set in the Vancian Dying Earth subgenre, and follows the journey of Severian, a member of the Guild of Torturers, after he is exiled for the sin of mercy.
Last night, I fell asleep listening to Chapter 15 of the audiobook version of Gene Wolfe’s 1980 novel The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book in The Book of the New Sun.I have been falling asleep to Chapter 15 of this particular audiobook for about three nights now. Before that, I was falling asleep to Chapter 14. There is nothing particularly boring about the book. I put headphones in my ears take sleeping pills and fall asleep to an audiobook every night. There’s something about plugging into a narrative that’s not my own life that takes me out of all the anxieties that creep out at bedtime. I get through 15, maybe 20 minutes, and I’m out. I restart a few minutes before the last bit I remember. Anyway, I fell asleep to Chapter 15 — “Baldanders” — last night. I might’ve even made it a little bit into Chapter 16. I’ll find out tonight.
I first read The Shadow of the Torturer as a young teen. I was too young for the book—I don’t think I fully appreciated its scope. I read the next book in The Book of the New Sun series, but I don’t remember if I finished it out. In a year or two, I had abandoned fantasy, a mistake that I corrected years later. Youthful indiscretion. I reread a chunk of The Shadow of the Torturer again in my twenties and found it more complex than I remember. Then I mistakenly left the mass market paperback copy I was reading at a beach condo we had conned from someone’s friend’s grandmother for the weekend, and that was that—until this February, when a brief Twitter conversation prompted me to get the audiobook. I’ve been listening to it every night since, and at the rate I’m going through it I’ll probably be done by the end of the summer. I’m digging it.
Will Wolfe now gain a wider audience outside of the sci-fi/fantasy cult audience now that he has died? Maybe. I mean, that happens sometimes, right? His work is challenging though, employing strange diction and proffering only the smallest crumbs of exposition. Ultimately, it’s clear that Gene Wolfe was a writer’s writer, as evidenced by a 2015 profile of him in The New Yorkerwhich proclaimed him “sci-fi’s difficult genius”—
Wolfe has published more than twenty-five novels and more than fifty stories, and has won some of science fiction and fantasy’s most prestigious awards. But he has rarely, if ever, been considered fully within the larger context of literature. His books contain all of the nasty genre tropes—space travel, robots, even dragons—and he hasn’t crossed into the mainstream on the strength of a TV or movie adaptation. Wolfe himself sees the trappings of science fiction and fantasy, the spaceships and so on, as simply “a sketchy outline of the things that can be done.” But even within fantasy fandom, Wolfe’s work presents difficulties. His science fiction is neither operatic nor scientifically accurate; his fantasy works are not full of clanging swords and wizardly knowledge. But ask science-fiction or fantasy authors about Gene Wolfe and they are likely to cite him as a giant in their field. Ursula K. Le Guin once called Wolfe “our Melville.”
Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower imagines what a radical affirmation of life might look like set against a backdrop of impending extinction. Set between 2024 and 2027, Parable of the Sower conjures a crumbling America. Hyperinflation abounds, infrastructure is falling apart, water is scarce, environmental collapse is imminent, and the social institutions that bind the nation have all but frayed.
When we first meet our narrator Lauren Olamina, she is one of the lucky few who has a life of moderate comfort, stability, and security. Lauren lives in a gated community in a sort of compound with her brothers, stepmother, and father, an academic/preacher. Lauren’s father is the ersatz leader of this community, He leads the neighborhood’s shooting practices, trains them in survival skills, and organizes a perimeter watch against the thieves and arsonists that constantly threaten their survival. He is the central role model for Lauren, who takes his lessons to heart. When the community finally fragments under an attack it can’t endure, Lauren is the only one of her family to survive. She even has the presence of mind to grab her bug-out bag.
After this initial staging of events, Parable of the Sower turns into a road novel. Lauren and two other survivors of the compound head north along the California freeways, slowly gathering followers. Lauren’s leadership drives the novel and inspires those around her. She offers her followers an alternative to the predation around them, a predation most strongly figured in the roving bands of arsonists that prey on travelers and communities alike. She offers her followers the prospect of belonging to a We—an interracial, inter-generational collective.
Lauren’s leadership capability derives from two strands. The first strand is the religion she is creating, an idea she calls “Earthseed.” The basic premise of Earthseed (one that the novel repeats ad nauseum) is that “God is Change.” Another tenet is that people are the seeds of the earth (like, uh, Earthseed—get it?). Lauren’s long-term vision is that humanity might seed a new planet. The post-WW2 dream of NASA and the futurity of exploration—a Manifest Destiny of the stars—glows in the background of Sower, and often points to a more interesting conclusion than the novel finally musters.
The second source of Lauren’s drive comes from a condition she suffers called hyperempathy or “sharing,” a mutation that’s the result of her birth-mother’s drug addiction during pregnancy. Simply put, when Lauren witnesses another person’s injury, she feels their pain. This affliction is a devastating weakness in a predatory, violent (non)society: for Lauren, self-defense entails self-harm. At the same time, Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength—it makes her understand, at the most visceral level, the need for a community to work together in order to thrive in a world that seems to be dying.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Butler’s novel is that she shows her readers what Lauren can never quite see—namely that Lauren’s hyperempathy is a strength. Sower assumes the form of a journal, Lauren’s first-person recollections scrawled out in rare moments of respite from the terrors of the road. While her first-person perspective is generously broad (she seems to see a lot), she still never quite realizes that her hyperempathy contributes to her strength as a leader. Lauren’s hyperempathy necessitates imaginative forethought; it also entails a need to act decisively in times of crisis. And Parable of the Sower is all crisis, all the time.
Lauren’s journal style mixes the high with the low. She cribs the poetry of her Earthseed religion from the King James Version of the Bible, with often corny results. (I am pretty sure the corniness is unintentional). She’s also occasionally psychologically introspective, going through thought experiments to better understand those around her.
Despite its Earthseed flights into poetical musings and boldly-declared profundities, most of Lauren’s narrative is strangely mundane in its accounting of a slow apocalypse though. There are seemingly-endless lists of supplies to be bought or scavenged, survival chores to be checked off, and California roads to be traversed (sections of Parable of the Sower often reminded me more of the SNL recurring sketch “The Californians” than, say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The bulk of Butler’s book hovers around disaster prepping, finding temporary shelter, and looting bodies, motifs that won’t seem strange to contemporary audiences reared on cable television and addicted to battle royale video games.
Lauren is 15 at the novel’s outset in 2024, yet she seems fully mature. If this was a coming-of-age novel, I missed it—Lauren, while far from perfect, is generally self-assured in her powers of decision making. At a quite literal level, she commands the narrative, propelling it forward without any of the wishy-washiness we might get from the narrator of, say, The Handmaid’s Tale. If Lauren second-guesses herself, she doesn’t bother to second-guess her second guesses. Butler seems to envision her rather as a hero-model for the coming disaster the novel anticipates. Much of Parable of the Sower reads like a checklist of What To Do After the End of Civilization.
The novel’s biggest weakness is that it can’t quite articulate just how bad things have gotten. Is this actually The End of Civilization? Butler paints a bleak picture. Drought is the new norm. Most Americans are illiterate. Work is hard to find. The roads are too dangerous to travel at night. Packs of feral dogs hunt down humans. Packs of feral children eat humans. Women live with the constant threat of rape. Overt racism is fully normalized. Company towns make a comeback, issuing scrip instead of currency, leading to indentured servitude. Water is a commodity to literally kill for, the police are essentially an organized gang, and a large portion of the population are addicted to a drug that makes setting fires better than sex. Murder is an open business, and there is no recourse to any established justice.
And at the same time that it evokes all of these apocalyptic images and themes, Butler’s novel points to tinges of normalcy—a presidential election carried out sans violence, the sense that a university system is still in play, various notations of different regulatory bodies. Parable of the Sower often reads like The Walking Dead or The Road, but then it might turn a weird corner to uncanny normalcy, where characters shop in a Walmart-like (if hyperbolized) superstore. As one character puts it,
Federal, state, and local governments still exist— in name at least— and sometimes they manage to do something more than collect taxes and send in the military. And the money is still good. That amazes me. However much more you need of it to buy anything these days, it is still accepted. That may be a hopeful sign— or perhaps it’s only more evidence of what I just said: We haven’t hit bottom yet.
Perhaps what I perceive here is simply Butler showing her narrator’s essential naivete, a naivete that doesn’t evince on the surface of the first-person narration. Lauren doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t fully understand how bad things have gotten because she doesn’t fully understand the potential in America that existed before her own life. But she does intuit how bad things are. Despite her intuition, she’s hopeful. This hope, and the despair that foregrounds it, evinces strongly in the final moments of the book. Lauren has finally made it to a kind of promised-land, a frontier-space where she can create a new life with a new love, a much-older man named Bankole. Bankole was a doctor in his old life, but now he’s a survivor. At the end of the novel, he mourns the American dream, the American we, and mourns that Lauren cannot mourn it with him:
He said nothing for a while. Then he stopped and put his hand on my shoulder to stop me. At first he only stood looking at me, almost studying my face. “You’re so young,” he said. “It seems almost criminal that you should be so young in these terrible times. I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”
“It might survive,” I said, “changed, but still itself.”
“No.” He drew me to his side and put one arm around me. “Human beings will survive of course. Some other countries will survive. Maybe they’ll absorb what’s left of us. Or maybe we’ll just break up into a lot of little states quarreling and fighting with each other over whatever crumbs are left. That’s almost happened now with states shutting themselves off from one another, treating state lines as national borders. As bright as you are, I don’t think you understand—I don’t think you can understand what we’ve lost. Perhaps that’s a blessing.”
Banokole’s summary of America in the late 2020s seems like a dire if hyperbolic prognostication of our current trajectory. More than a quarter century ago, Butler knew what was up. Butler also offered an answer to the problem in her mouthpiece Lauren, who replies to her (way-too-much older) lover Bankole, “We’ve got work to do.”
Parable of the Sower is not a particularly fun novel, although of course, it never intends to be. The dour tone is appropriate to its subject matter, I suppose, but that grim tone can become exhausting. The novel’s trajectory and moral vision keep it from falling into an exercise in nihilism or apocalypse porn, like, say, The Walking Dead. But like The Walking Dead, Butler’s novel often plods along. Maybe this is a rhetorical feature—maybe Butler intends her reader to feel just as weary and depressed as Lauren.
Parable of the Sower was published just a year after a superficially-similar novel, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which also presciently envisions a fragmenting America where like-groups seal themselves off from each other. In contrast though, Stephenson’s novel is zany and vibrant, a cartoon world devoid of any hyperempathy that might get in the way of anarchic fun. Over 25 years old now, many of the tropes in both Snow Crash and Parable of the Sower have so fully infiltrated our media—books and video games, films and television shows—that their initial vital strangeness is hard to detect.
The dystopian tropes of Parable of the Sower don’t feel particularly fresh in 2019, but the novel’s prescience still has an alarming bite. (Her sequel, Parable of the Talents, features a right-wing Presidential candidate who runs on the promise to “Make America great again”). Sower works best as an extended thought experiment on what might happen to society—to democracy in particular—when impending ecological collapse threatens our very existence. And Butler proposes a solution to the problems posed in her thought experiment: “We’ve got work to do.”
“We’ve got work to do” not only summarizes Parable of the Sower’s central message, it also describes current zeitgeist. Lauren would have been born in 2009; my daughter was born in 2007 and my son in 2010. She could be one of their classmates; she could be my own daughter. The novel’s vision of hyperempathy in the face of brutality and creeping fascism points back to that phrase — “We’ve got work to do” — which of course, requires a We. The we here is a radical affirmation, an echo even of the We the People that so boldly engendered a U.S. America. But Butler’s vision, conveyed through Lauren, is far more pluralistic and diverse than the We the framers evoked in the Preamble to the Constitution. Butler’s we names the namelessness of a coming society, a society that seems impossible and yet is possible, its possibility instantiated in the simple proof that it can be imagined. Parable of the Sower ultimately points toward the seeds of that imagining.
How is it that our ancient Roman Republic guards itself against those who would destroy it? We Romans, although only mortals like other mortals, draw on the help of beings enormously superior to ourselves. These wise and kind entities, who originate from worlds unknown to us, are ready to assist the Republic when it is in peril. When it is not in peril, they sink back out of sight — to return when we need them.
Take the case of the assassination of Julius Caesar: a case which apparently was closed when those who conspired to murder him were themselves murdered. But how did we Romans determine who had done this foul deed? And, more important, how did we bring these conspirators to justice? We had outside help; we had the assistance of the Cumean Sibyl who knows a thousand years ahead what will happen, and who gives us, in written form, her advice. All Romans are aware of the existence of the Sibylline Books. We open them whenever the need arises.
I myself, Philos Diktos of Tyana, have seen the Sibylline Books. Many leading Roman citizens, members of the Senate especially, have consulted them. But I have seen the Sibyl herself, and I of my own experience know something about her which few men know. Now that I am old — regretfully, but of the necessity which binds all mortal men — I am willing to confess that once, quite by accident I suppose, I in the course of my priestly duties saw how the Sibyl is capable of seeing down the corridors of time; I know what permits her to do this, as she developed out of the prior Greek Sibyl at Delphi, in that so highly venerated land, Greece.
Few men know this, and perhaps the Sibyl, reaching out through time to strike at me for speaking aloud, will silence me forever. It is quite possible, therefore, that before I can finish this scroll I will be found dead, my head split like one of those overripe melons from the Levant which we Romans prize so. In any case, being old, I will boldly say.
I had been quarreling with my wife that morning — I was not old then, and the dreadful murder of Julius Caesar had just taken place. At that time no one was sure who had done it. Treason against the State! Murder most ugly — a thousand knife wounds in the body of the man who had come to stabilize our quaking society. . . with the approval of the Sibyl, in her temple; we had seen the texts she had written to that effect. We knew that she had expected Caesar to bring his army across the river and into Rome, and to accept the crown of Caesar.
“You witless fool,” my wife was saying to me that morning. “If the Sibyl were so wise as you think, she would have anticipated this assassination.”
“Maybe she did,” I answered.
“I think she’s a fake,” my wife Xantippe said to me, grimacing in that way she has, which is so repulsive. She is — I should say was — of a higher social class than I, and always made me conscious of it. “You priests make up those texts; you write them yourselves — you say what you think in such a vague way that any interpretation can be made of it. You’re bilking the citizens, especially the well-to-do.” By that she meant her own family.
I said hotly, leaping up from the breakfast table, “She is inspired; she is a prophetess — she knows the future. Evidently there was no way the assassination of our great leader, whom the people loved so, could be averted.”
“The Sibyl is a hoax,” my wife said, and started buttering yet another roll, in her usual greedy fashion.
“I have seen the great books –”
“How does she know the future?” my wife demanded. At that I had to admit I didn’t know; I was crestfallen — I, a priest at Cumae, an employee of the Roman State. I felt humiliated.
“It’s a money game,” my wife was saying as I strode out the door. Even though it was only dawn — fair Aurora, the goddess of dawn, was showing that white light over the world, the light we regard as sacred, from which many of our inspired visions come — I made my way, on foot, to the lovely temple where I work.
Now I’d reached the second of them, the curving road that runs along the base of the Green Wall. From out of the boundless green ocean beyond the Wall a savage wave of roots, flowers, branches, leaves rushed at me, rose up on its hindquarters, would have swamped me, would have turned me, a man, that most delicate and precise of mechanisms, into …
But fortunately, between me and the wild green ocean was the glass of the Wall. O, mighty, divinely delimited wisdom of walls, boundaries! It is perhaps the most magnificent of all inventions. Man ceased to be a wild animal only when he built that first wall. Man ceased to be a wild man only when we built the Green Wall, only when, by means of that Wall, we isolated our perfect machine world from the irrational, ugly world of trees, birds, and animals….
Through the glass, dim and foggy, the blunt muzzle of some beast looked at me, its yellow eyes insistently repeating one and the same thought, incomprehensible to me. We looked each other in the eye for a long time—through those shafts connecting the surface world to that other beneath the surface. And then a little thought wormed its way into my head: “And what if yellow-eyes, in his stupid, dirty pile of leaves, in his uncalculated life, is happier than us?”
I waved my hand, the yellow eyes blinked, backed off, vanished in the foliage. Pathetic creature! How ridiculous—him happier than us! Happier than me—that could be, all right. But then I’m simply an exception, I’m sick.
From Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We. English translation by Clarence Brown.
I went to the book store this afternoon to pick up a copy of the latest graphic novel in by Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series for my kids, and of course I browsed a while. Looking for a copy of Anne Carson’s Plainwater, I ended up finding Angela Carter’s 1972 novel Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. It’s a British edition, 1985, Penguin, with a lovely Boschian cover by James Marsh. Here’s a detail from the cover:
I’ve wanted to pick up Carter’s novel since I read about it on a silly good dystopian fiction list last year, and I’m thrilled that I was able to get one with a Marsh cover. This particular cover, along with Marsh’s cover for The Bloody Chamber, are included in Phil Baines lovely book Penguin by Design.
Baines’s book doesn’t include any of Marsh’s fantastic covers of J.G. Ballard novels, opting instead to include Dave Pelham’s versions. I love both Pelham and Marsh’s Ballard covers, and would love to get my mitts on one at some point. I always browse for old mass market paperbacks of sci-fi authors I like — Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, the Strugatsky Brothers, J.G. Ballard — hoping to find an interesting cover, something inventive and fun, something from before their works were, under the cloak of awful respectability, given safe, boring literary covers. I didn’t find any Ballard editions with Marsh or Pelham covers, but I did come across this lovely pair of mass market paperback:
They’re US Vintage versions, 1985, with covers by Chris Moore. There’s like a proto-Cherry 2000 thing going on here that I kinda love, but I already own these novels, and I don’t love the covers quite enough. So instead, this post. Here are the covers of my copies of Crash and Concrete Island:
While Henry Sene Yee’s cover design for my copy of Concrete Island (using a photograph by Kevin Laubacher) isn’t terrible, it is a good example of what I mean by boring respectable literary covers. Still, this trade edition (Picador, 2001) is really readable—I mean, it’s easy to read. The pages are nice, the typeset is great, etc. (And the book is killer). I actually like the cover of my copy of Crash, a lot (design by Michael Ian Kaye and Melissa Hayden), but it’s also trying just a little too hard. (Again—very readable version from FS&G’s Noonday Press imprint, 1994).
While I had to pass today on the mass market copies of Crash and Concrete Island today—not because they would have set me back five bucks in store credit, but because I don’t need them, because I hope some kid goes in there and picks them up—while I had to pass on those lurid beauties, I did pick up a mass market 1967 copy of The Crystal World. Publisher Berkley Medallion didn’t bother to name the cover designer/artist, and I haven’t been able to track it down, but it is, I admit, a bit disappointing—an early pulp bid for literary respectability. At least I can be on the look out for a weirder one in the future.
I’ve enjoyed dipping into the first few stories in NYRB’s collection of David R. Bunch’s Moderan stories over the past few days. Bunch’s weird world has meshed nicely with the Strugatsky’s The Snail on the Slope, which I finished today. More to come on Moderan, but here’s NRYB’s blurb for now:
Welcome to Moderan, world of the future. Here perpetual war is waged by furious masters fighting from Strongholds well stocked with “arsenals of fear” and everyone is enamored with hate. The devastated earth is coated by vast sheets of gray plastic, while humans vie to replace more and more of their own “soft parts” with steel. What need is there for nature when trees and flowers can be pushed up through holes in the plastic? Who requires human companionship when new-metal mistresses are waiting? But even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. Wanderers, poets, and his own children pay visits, proving that another world is possible.
“As if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated,” wrote Brian Aldiss of David R. Bunch’s work. Originally published in science-fiction magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, these mordant stories, though passionately sought by collectors, have been unavailable in a single volume for close to half a century. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Bunch coined a mind-bending new vocabulary. He sought not to divert readers from the horror of modernity but to make us face it squarely.
This volume includes eleven previously uncollected Moderan stories.
I have been listening to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1972 novel The Snail on the Slope on audiobook over the last two weeks.
This new English translation is by Olena Bormashenko, who also translated Roadside Picnic and Hard to Be a God. (I listened to Roadside Picnic last year—this fantastic audiobook is read by Robert Forster—and read Bormashenko’s translation of Hard to Be a God after watching Aleksei German’s 2013 film adaptation. All are excellent). Chris Andrew Ciulla narrates the new audiobook of The Snail on the Slope and he does a very good job.
Like I said, I’ve been listening to this new translation of The Snail on the Slope for a few weeks. I should be done (the book is only 9.5 hours), but I’ve listened to most of the chapters twice, and restarted the book once, because The Snail on the Slope is fucking bonkers. The novel is a wild trip, full of bizarre transformations, failed plans, jungle swamps, marching ants, deadlings, mushrooms, foolish bureaucrats, and broken calculators—it’s abject, savage, funny, and just so fucking weird, a bizarre beast tumbling around on its own radical logic. I have about 3 hours left, but I don’t think I’ll muster a review—or a summary, I mean. Or anyway—
I mean, here’s my review: I love it. I love its strange mucky weirdness, its refusal to clearly delineate the contact points of its allegorical satire, its sheer absurdity, its utter alterity. But a summary seems too much to ask so—
Here is publisher Chicago Review Press’s blurb—
The Snail on the Slope is a neglected masterpiece by Russian science fiction greats Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who thought of it as their “most complete and important work.” now, in a stunning translation, this tour de force is ready to be introduced to a new generation of American readers. The novel takes place in two worlds. One is the Administration, an institution run by a surreal, Kafkaesque bureaucracy whose aim is to govern the forest below. The other is the Forest, a place of fear, weird creatures, primitive but garrulous people, and violence. Peretz, who works at the Administration, wants to visit the Forest. Candide crashed in the Forest years ago and wants to return to the Administration. Their journeys are surprising and bizarre, and readers are left to puzzle out the mysteries of these foreign environments. Brilliant, enigmatic, and revelatory, The Snail on the Slope is one of the greatest literary works to come out of Soviet Russia.
The German cover (credited to Ute Osterwalder and Hans Ulrich Osterwalder) is also pretty cool—
But I promised in this blog’s headline to riff on the first paragraph, which isn’t that long, but in some ways reveals the sheer oddity of The Snail on the Slope. So here is that paragraph:
From this height, the forest looked like dappled, fluffy foam; like a gigantic, world-encompassing porous sponge; like an animal that had once lain hidden in wait, then had dozed off, becoming overgrown with coarse moss. Like a shapeless mass, hiding a face no one had ever seen.
The viewer at this height is one of the novel’s two heroes, Peretz, who dangles his feet over the forest that calls to him. I could go on about Peretz’s attraction to the unknowable forest, but let’s look instead at the similes the Strugatskys (and their translator Bormashenko) deploy here:
The forest is like
a dozing, bemossed animal
an indefinite mass with an unseen face
The utter alterity of the forest is announced at the novel’s outset. This shifting series of similes shows that the central space of The Snail on the Slope cannot have a fixed definition—it cannot even have a stable referent of similitude. Rather, the forest is ever-shifting, from the playful guise of a space of “fluffy foam” to the sinister aspect of a “shapeless mass” that hides an unknown (and unknowable) visage. The Strugatskys shuttle us from simile to simile, foregrounding one of the novel’s central themes—language has a limited purchase of reality. Peretz, a surrogate for the reader, cannot settle on a simile, which only entices him more: What is this place? What would it mean to know this place—in language? Significantly, Peretz is a linguist, but he—and the reader–have no training to properly comprehend what enfolds when The Snail on the Slope takes us into the forest. And this is the fucked up joy of the novel—one weird transformation morphs into another, similes unwinding in a stretch toward an ultimate referent that refuses to arrive on time.
The young man sitting at 2° N, 75° W sent a casually venomous glance up at the nonfunctional shoofly ventilador and went on reading his letter. He was sweating heavily, stripped to his shorts in the hotbox of what passed for a hotel room in Cuyapán.
How do other wives do it? I stay busy-busy with the Ann Arbor grant review programs and the seminar, saying brightly, “Oh yes, Alan is in Colombia setting up a biological pest control program, isn’t it wonderful?” But inside I imagine you being surrounded by nineteen-year-old raven-haired cooing beauties, every one panting with social dedication and filthy rich. And forty inches of bosom busting out of her delicate lingerie. I even figured it in centimeters, that’s 101.6 centimeters of busting. Oh, darling, darling, do what you want only come home safe.
Alan grinned fondly, briefly imagining the only body he longed for. His girl, his magic Anne. Then he got up to open the window another cautious notch. A long pale mournful face looked in—a goat. The room opened on the goatpen, the stench was vile. Air, anyway. He picked up the letter.
Everything is just about as you left it, except that the Peedsville horror seems to be getting worse. They’re calling it the Sons of Adam cult now. Why can’t they do something, even if it is a religion? The Red Cross has set up a refugee camp in Ashton, Georgia. Imagine, refugees in the U.S.A. I heard two little girls were carried out all slashed up. Oh, Alan.
Which reminds me, Barney came over with a wad of clippings he wants me to send you. I’m putting them in a separate envelope; I know what happens to very fat letters in foreign POs. He says, in case you don’t get them, what do the following have in common? Peedsville, Sao Paulo, Phoenix, San Diego, Shanghai, New Delhi, Tripoli, Brisbane, Johannesburg, and Lubbock, Texas. He says the hint is, remember where the Intertropical Convergence Zone is now. That makes no sense to me, maybe it will to your superior ecological brain. All I could see about the clippings was that they were fairly horrible accounts of murders or massacres of women. The worst was the New Delhi one, about “rafts of female corpses” in the river. The funniest (!) was the Texas Army officer who shot his wife, three daughters and his aunt, because God told him to clean the place up.
Barney’s such an old dear, he’s coming over Sunday to help me take off the downspout and see what’s blocking it. He’s dancing on air right now, since you left his spruce budworm-moth antipheromone program finally paid off. You know he tested over 2,000 compounds? Well, it seems that good old 2,097 really works. When I asked him what it does he just giggles, you know how shy he is with women. Anyway, it seems that a one-shot spray program will save the forests, without harming a single other thing. Birds and people can eat it all day, he says.
Well sweetheart, that’s all the news except Amy goes back to Chicago to school Sunday. The place will be a tomb, I’ll miss her frightfully in spite of her being at the stage where I’m her worst enemy. The sullen sexy subteens, Angie says. Amy sends love to her Daddy. I send you my whole heart, all that words can’t say.
Alan put the letter safely in his notefile and glanced over the rest of the thin packet of mail, refusing to let himself dream of home and Anne. Barney’s “fat envelope” wasn’t there. He threw himself on the rumpled bed, yanking off the lightcord a minute before the town generator went off for the night. In the darkness the last of places Barney had mentioned spread themselves around a misty globe that turned, troublingly, briefly in his mind. Something …
But then the memory of the hideously parasitized children he had worked with at the clinic that day took possession of his thoughts. He set himself to considering the data he must collect. Look for the vulnerable link in the behavioral chain—how often Barney—Dr. Barnhard Braithwaite—had pounded it into his skull. Where was it, where? In the morning he would start work on bigger canefly cages …
I don’t remember how old I was the first time I saw Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), but I do remember that it had an instant and formative aesthetic impact on me. Blade Runner’s dark atmosphere and noir rhythms were cut from a different cloth than the Star Wars and Spielberg films that were the VHS diet of my 1980’s boyhood. Blade Runner was an utterly perplexing film, a film that I longed to see again and again (we didn’t have it on tape), akin to Dune (dir. David Lynch, 1984), or The Thing (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)—dark, weird sci-fi visions that pushed their own archetypes through plot structures that my young brain couldn’t quite comprehend.
By the time Scott released his director’s cut of the film in 1993, I’d read Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and enough other dystopian fictions to understand the contours and content of Blade Runner in a way previously unavailable to me. And yet if the formal elements and philosophical themes of Blade Runner cohered for me, the central ambiguities, deferrals of meaning, and downright strangeness remained. I’d go on to watch Blade Runner dozens of times, even catching it on the big screen a few times, and riffing on it in pretty much every single film course I took in college. And while scenes and set-pieces remained imprinted in my brain, I still didn’t understand the film. Blade Runner is, after all, a film about not knowing.
Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. Moody, atmospheric, and existentialist, the core questions it pokes at are central to the Philip K. Dick source material from which it originated: What is consciousness? Can consciousness know itself to be real? What does it mean to have–or not have—a soul?
Set three decades after the original, Blade Runner 2049 centers on KD6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling in Drive mode). K is a model Nexus-9, part of a new line of replicants created by Niander Wallace and his nefarious Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto, who chews up scenery with tacky aplomb). K is a blade runner, working for the LAPD to hunt down his own kind. At the outset of the film, K doesn’t recognize the earlier model Nexuses (Nexi?) he “retires” as his “own kind,” but it’s clear that the human inhabitants of BR ’49’s world revile all “skinjobs” as the same: scum, other, less human than human. K, beholden to his human masters, exterminates earlier-model replicants in order to keep the civil order that the corporate police state demands. This government relies on replicant slave labor, both off-world—where the wealthiest classes have escaped to—and back here on earth, which is recovering from a massive ecological collapse. The recovery is due entirely to Niander Wallace’s innovations in synthetic farming—and his reintroduction of the previously prohibited replicants.
Our boy K “retires” a Nexus-8 at the beginning of the film. This event leads to the film’s first clue: a box buried under a dead tree. This (Pandora’s) box is an ossuary, the coffin for a (ta da!) female replicant (a Nexus-7 if you’re counting). Skip the next paragraph if you don’t want any plot spoilers.
I finished Philip K. Dick’s 1970 novel A Maze of Death this afternoon. The end made me tear up a little, unexpectedly. It’s a sad end, profoundly sad in some ways, and the unexpectedness of the sadness, is, like, particularly sad.
Sad because I didn’t quite expect (hence that adverb unexpectedly) Dick to stick any kind of ending, what, after nearly 200 pages of cardboard characters wandering through a pulp fiction death maze, ventriloquized by the author to perform monologues on consciousness and perception and reality and religion and prayer and faith and afterlife and salvation and so on and so on and so on.
A Maze of Death has some strong moments and strong images—one-way space shuttles, organic 3-D printers, riffs on a deity that would necessarily absorb the concept of a non-deity, a cosmic recapitulation of Odin, space sex, etc.—but on the whole A Maze of Death peters out towards the end, its energy sapped as Dick tires of revolving through (and killing off) the cast of characters (and consciousnesses) he’s assembled in his Haunted (Space) House. The thin allegory he’s patched together crumbles. Or perhaps it was only an allegory assembled for its author’s sad delight. In any case, the whole does not cohere. But no matter.
Too, A Maze of Death suffers perhaps in comparison to its twin, Dick’s bouncier 1969 ensemble satire Ubik. Hell, Ubik probably peters out too, but it’s funnier and sharper. Still: A Maze of Death delivers a strong conclusion, a thesis statement that will resonate with anyone who’s ever envied a machine’s “Off” switch.
But book reviews aren’t supposed to start with endings, right?
What is A Maze of Death about? I mean, that’s what a book review is supposed to do, maybe? Give up some of the plot, the gist, right? The short short answer is Death. (And, like, how does consciousness mediate the ultimate promise of a life-maze that leads to Death, the apparent undoing of consciousness?). But wait, that’s not the plot, that’s like, theme, which is just a way of condensing the plot. This paragraph has gotten us nowhere. I’m going to get up off my ass and walk across the room I’m in to pick up Lawrence Sutin’s 1989 biography of PKD, Divine Invasions and crib from the “Chronological Survey and Guide” at its end. Okay, here, from the entry for Maze:
A group of colonists encounter inexplicable doings—including brutal murders—on the supposedly uninhabited planet Delmark-O. They then learn the truth of Milton’s maxim that the mind creates its own heavens and hells. … In his forward to Maze Phil cites the help of William Sarill in creating the “abstract, logical” religion posed in the novel; Sarill, in interview, says he only listened as Phil spun late-night theories.
—Okay, wait—I promise I’ll return to Sutin’s lucid summary—but Damn, that’s it right there— “Phil spun late-night theories” —much of Maze reads like a late night amphetamine rant about consciousness, man—
The plots of Eye [in the Sky], Ubik, and Maze are strikingly similar: A group of individuals find themselves in a perplexing reality state and try to use each other’s individual perceptions (idios kosmos) to make sense of what is happening to them all (koinos kosmos). Only in Eye, written ten years earlier, is the effort successful. In Ubik and Maze, by contrast, individual insight and faith are the only means of piercing the reality puzzle. In Maze, Seth Morley alone escapes the dire fate of his fellow twenty-second-century Delmark-O “colonists” (who are in truth…
—Okay, wait, it looks like Sutin is eager to spoil the ending there—but honestly, the ending that I found so satisfying wasn’t the twist that Sutin goes on to describe in his summary. The ending that Dick gives to his main viewpoint character Seth Morley that I found so moving had nothing to do with plot. Sutin’s line “Morely alone escapes” echoes the actual language of Dick’s novel, which echoes the end of Moby-Dick, where Ishmael alone escapes the wreckage of the Pequod, which in turn echoes the book of Job, where a witness returns from disaster to exclaim, I only am escaped alone to tell thee. This is the core of storytelling, I suppose: witnessing, enduring, and telling again. But Dick’s Morely wants an out, an off switch, a way to break the circuit, to escape the maze. The end of the novel—am I spoiling, after I cut Sutin off for fear of spoiling? Very well, I spoil—the end of the novel posits storytelling as a kind of survival mechanism against the backdrop of the existential horror of endless and apparently meaningless space. And yet the hero Morely still wants out of the story, and Dick lets him out. Out into non-story, out into a kind of plant-like existence—life without consciousness, life without a story.
But what’s the story the others, the rest of the maze’s ensemble, create?—
There is a quaternity of gods in Maze—an admixture of Gnosticism, neo-Platonism, and Christianity; the Mentafacturer, who creates (God); the Intercessor, who through sacrifice lifts the Curse on creation (Christ); the Walker-on-Earth, who gives solace (Holy Spirit); and the Form Destroyer, whose distance from the divine spurs entropy (Satan/Archon/Demiurge)/ The tench, an old inhabitant of Delmark-O, is Phil’s “cypher” for Christ.
The “tench” is originally introduced as a kind of 3-D printer thing and I didn’t read it as a Christ figure at all, but what the hell do I know. In fact, I took the name (and figuration) to be a composite of the tensions between the characters—the allegorical forces at work in Dick’s muddy made-up late-night religion.
Anyway, I suppose you get some of the flavor of the novel there, dear reader—a mishmash of metaphysical mumbo jumbo, filtered through touches (and tenches) of space opera and good old fashioned haunted housery. A Maze of Death is a messy space horror that threatens to leave its readers unsatisfied right up until the final moments wherein it rings its sad coda, a reverberation that nullifies all its previous twists and turns in a soothing wash of emptiness. Not the best starting place for PKD, but I’m very glad I read it.
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.