American SF is a wide field in itself, but I sometimes think that it can be limited by shared sensibilities and reading protocols, by the conversation with how things have been done before. This is changing slightly as ever more novels are produced, and as the Young Adult contribution to science fiction is taking a larger place in the conversation, but I still feel that there is a cultural koine there that elides a universe of experiences.

Liz Bourke
Nnedi Okorafor’s LAGOON

one for the completists

March 25, 2020

Samuel R Delaney has Dhalgren, Vladimir Nabokov had Ada, or Ardor, and James Joyce had Finnegan’s Wake, or simply “the Wake,” as the true fans prefer. (Their funeral). Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin is another dense, late-career doorstop of a book considered in equal parts the summit of a life’s work and “one for the completists.” At 525 pages, including field notes, stories, maps, charts, poems, plays, histories, romances, interviews, and interpolated texts, all of which are housed in the front of the book, as well as a “Back of the Book” section, to house the sheet music, recipes, studies of flora and fauna, “generative metaphors,” the glossary, and a made-up alphabet with a guide to pronunciation, it’s easy to see Le Guin’s study of the Kesh people from the Valley of the Na, once the Napa Valley, as a folly, the work in which she gave into the temptation of all science fiction and fantasy writers — that of pedantic world-building, a sort of “map = territory” madness. Like many a masterwork that came before, the book is a storehouse of the author’s themes. But the one thing you couldn’t accuse it of is that classic combination of authorial self-indulgence and apathy towards the reader. (For one, Le Guin pointed out you don’t have to read her book front to back; approach it however you like.) Always Coming Home isn’t one of those masterworks that heaves through our culture like the spaceship Rama, to be explored but never understood by the puny humans who crawl across its unfeeling surface. With Le Guin, the door home is open, if you know the way.

Mazin Saleem
I never did like smart-ass utopians — on Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

Leda and the Swan

November 18, 2019

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

W. B. Yeats

{The sonnet Leda and the Swan is a traditional fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter. The structure of this sonnet is Petrarchan with a clear separation between the first eight lines (the “octave”) and the final six (the “sestet”), the dividing line being the moment of ejaculation — the “shudder in the loins.” The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFGEFG.}

 

Faith

October 27, 2019

The former synagogue high above the town
bears a plaque
to say here was where
an old faith flourished and faded

and across the town valley
the Methodist Chapel
hangs on by its fingertips, fading in turn

Forget buildings –
Gods are happiest out of doors,
burning bushes,
strolling the tide from St Ives to The Gribben
and back again

I saw The Eye Of The Wind
blown from Southampton to Falmouth,
counting its losses and setting sail again, godly
to Spain

Penelope Shuttle

unusual events

June 15, 2019

High-Rise has a brilliant opening sentence, which is quintessentially Ballardian: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months’. The savagery is displaced to a subordinate clause, yet because it precedes the subject of the sentence it disturbs everything in the bland details that follow. High-Rise is about a slick, ultra-modern 40-storey tower of a thousand living units designed for a middle-class technocracy of surgeons, TV producers and ad executives. It is the modernist dream of the house as ‘a machine for living in’. It is presided over by the enigmatic architect, Anthony Royal, in the penthouse at the top of the building.

Almost as soon as the building reaches capacity, however, the social fabric of the high rise begins to disintegrate. Communal areas become flashpoints as clans from different floors begin to emerge and fight over territory. Social stratification strictly matches floor level. The metaphor of social climbing is rendered literal. The novel is focalised through three main characters, each an emblem of these emerging ‘clans’. Threats and intimidation escalate into violence, theft and raids on rival territories by warring parties. When a body falls from the roof, no one reports the incident, because the residents have now fully entered into a kind of tribal ‘primitivism’, where a murderous logic must be pursued to its end. Residents stop going to work or leaving the building, regressing into hunter-gatherer behaviours, living on the last tins of dog food and water scooped from toilet pans. The book ends once the main narrator, Robert Laing, has pursued his embrace of this perverse trajectory to its illogical conclusion. He comes to rest, ready to return to the outside world, as if his journey up the high rise has finally released all of his neurotic, middle-class repressions. The last paragraph shows the first signs of the same violence beginning to overtake the adjacent tower. The cycle is starting again.

Roger Luckhurst
An introduction to High-Rise

Brackett, wife to SF writer Emond Hamilton, wrote mainly screenplays in the later part of her career. During the 1940’s she made a name for herself writing lush and gaudy adventure stories set mostly on the planet Mars, like those earlier populised by Edgar Rice Burroughs – but much more decadent. These exotic romances, representing the wilder, more extravagant side of the SF imagination, are curiously nostalgic in tone, as though regretting their own implausibility in light of modern astronomical knowledge. Even so, they are magnificent escapist fantasies spiced with a hint of sad cynicism.

The Sword of Rhiannon was originally published as Sea Kings of Mars in 1949 in Thrilling Wonder Stories; Ace Books published the novel in paperback under its new author-approved title in 1953.

The action takes place on Mars – a dusky, dying world of canals and crumbling cities. Matthew Carse, is the Brackett hero. He is a powerful, imposing figure whose physical prowess is matched with a shady morality. Once an archaeologist, he is now a thief and a looter acquainted with the back-alleys of the city of Jekkara.

Engaged in looting an ancient Martian tomb, Carse is shoved by his accomplice into a ‘Great bubble of darkness. A big, brooding sphere of quivering blackness, through which shot little coruscating particles of brilliance like falling stars seen from another world.’

Long story short, Carse is transported way back in time via this bubble. He exits the tomb into a rich world of oceans and magnificent cities: a world of only rudimentary science, a world of sword-fighting sea-warriors whose galleys and kingdoms had clashed on long-lost oceans.’

Unfortunately, Carse did not go back in time alone. He has an unseen companion who is as tentative as a half-felt thought, but, oh, so very dangerous…

Michael Moorcock in his essay, Queen of the Martian Mysteries: an appreciation of Leigh Brackett, had this to say about the author:

‘Brackett has less in common with Mervyn Peake than she has with Graham Greene, Raymond Chandler and other superior writers of popular fiction. Yet common to all these writers is the sense of yearning loss, as of innocence, a nobler, irredeemable past and an uncertain future. Her heroes are often deeply aware of some moral transgression which everyone forgives them for except themselves. At the time these stories were written we had seen our sense of our history, of our progress towards real civilisation, blasted to bits before our eyes. By the time these stories were appearing in the pulps, Germany’s Nazi armies seemed unchallenged in their conquest of Europe. All those idealistic aspirations for world peace and the rule of civil law had collapsed before the cheap rhetoric of a bad journalist like Mussolini or a mediocre painter of postcards like Hitler.’

Send an angel

January 27, 2019

Did you ever notice how in the Bible, when ever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?

Thomas Daggett
The Prophecy

in the rain

The four books of short stories written by Montague Rhodes James, Provost of Eton College, have been collected in a single but not overly bulky volume under the imprint of Longmans, Green & Co. One can heartily recommend the acquisition of this volume to all lovers of the weird and supernatural who are not already familiar with its contents.

James is perhaps unsurpassed in originality by any living writer: and he has made a salient contribution to the technique of the genre as well as to the enriching of its treasury of permanent masterpieces. His work is marked by rare intellectual skill and ingenuity, by power rising at times above the reaches of pure intellection, and by a sheer finesse of writing that will bear almost endless study. It has a peculiar savour, wholly different from the diabolic grimness of Bierce, or the accumulative atmospheric terror and rounded classicism of Machen. Here there is nothing of the feverish but logical hallucinations, the macabre and exotic beauty achieved by Poe; nor is there any kinship to the fine poetic weavings and character nuances of Walter de la Mare, or the far-searching, penetrative psychism of Blackwood, or the frightful antiquities and ultra-terrene menaces of Lovecraft.

The style of these stories is rather casual and succinct. The rhythms of the prose are brisk and pedestrian, and the phrasing is notable for clearness and incisiveness rather than for those vague, reverberative overtones which beguile one’s inner ear in the prose of fiction-writers who are also poets. Usually there is a more or less homely setting, often with a background of folklore and long—past happenings whose dim archaism provides a depth of shadow from which, as from a recessed cavern, the central horror emerges into the noontide of the present. Things and occurrences, sometimes with obvious off-hand relationship, are grouped cunningly, forcing the reader unaware to some frightful deduction; or there is an artful linkage of events seemingly harmless in themselves, that leave him confronted at a sudden turn with some ghoulish spectre or night-demon.

The minutæ of modern life, humour, character—drawing, scenic and archaeological description, are used as a foil to heighten the abnormal, but are never allowed to usurp a disproportionate interest. Always there is an element of supernatural menace, whose value is never impaired by scientific or spiritualistic explanation. Sometimes it is brought forth at the climax into full light; and sometimes, even then, it is merely half-revealed, is left undefined but perhaps all the more alarming. In any case, the presence of some unnatural but objective reality is assumed and established.

The goblins and phantoms devised by James are truly creative and are presented through images often so keen and vivid as to evoke an actual physical shock. Sight, smell, hearing, taction, all are played upon with well-nigh surgical sureness, by impressions calculated to touch the shuddering quick of horror.

Some of the images or similes employed are most extraordinary, and spring surely from the daemonic inspiration of the highest genius. For instance, take the unnamable thing in The Uncommon Prayer Book, which resembles “a great roll of old, shabby, white flannel,” with a kind of face in the upper end, and which falls forward on a man’s shoulder and hides this face in his neck like a ferret attacking a rabbit. Then, in Mr. Humphreys and his Inheritance (one of subtler and more inferential tales) there is the form “with a burnt human face” and “black arms,” that emerges from an inexplicable hole in the paper plan of a garden maze “with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of’ a rotten apple.” In The Tractate Middoth one meets an apparition with thick cobwebs over its eyes—the lich or spectre of a man who, obedient to his own rather eccentric instructions, had been buried sitting at a table in an underground room. And who, upon reading The Diary of Mr. Poynter, can fail to share Denton’s revulsion when he reaches out, thinking that a dog is beside his chair, and touches a crawling figure covered with long, wavy, Absolom-like tresses? Who, too, can shake off the horror of Dennistoun, in Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book, when a demon’s hand appears from beneath on the table, suggesting momentarily a pen-wiper, a rat, and a large spider?

Reading and re-reading these tales, one notes a predilection for certain milieus and motifs. Backgrounds of scholastic or ecclesiastic life are frequent and some of the best tales are laid in cathedral towns. In many of the supernatural entities, there recurs insistently the character of extreme and repulsive hairiness. Often the apparition is connected with, or evoked by, some material object, such as the bronze whistle from the ruins of a Templars’ preceptory in Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad; the old drawing of King Solomon and the night-demon in Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book; the silver Anglo-Saxon crown from an immemorial barrow in A Warning to the Curious; and the strange curtain-pattern in The Diary of Mr. Poynter which had “a subtlety in its drawing.”

In several stories there are hints of bygone Satanism and wizardry whose malign wraiths or conjured spirits linger obscurely in modern time; and in at least one tale, Casting the Runes, the warlock is a living figure. In other tales, the forgetful and vanishing phantasms of old crimes cry out their mindless pain, or peer for an instant from familiar pools and shrubberies. The personnel of James’ Pandemonium is far from monotonous; one finds a satyr dwelling in a cathedral tomb; a carven cat-like monster that comes to life when touched by a murderer’s hand; a mouldy smelling sack-like object in an unlit well, which suddenly puts its arms around the neck of a treasure-seeker; a cloaked and hooded shape with a tentacle in lieu of arms; a lean, hideously taloned terror, with a jaw “shallow as that of a beast”; dolls that repeat crime and tragedy; creatures that are dog-like but are not dogs; a saw fly tall as a man, met in a dim room full of rustling insects; and even a weak, ancient thing, which being wholly bodiless and insubstantial, makes for itself a body out of crumpled bed-linen.

The peculiar genius of M. R. James, and his greatest power, lies in the convincing evocation of weird, malignant and preternatural phenomena such as I have instanced. It is safe to say that few writers, dead or living, have equalled him in this formidable necromancy and perhaps no one has excelled him.

Clark Ashton Smith
The Weird Works of M.R. James
From: The Fantasy Fan February 1934

Egon Schiele - Standing Girl in Blue Dress

A mode of understanding life which wilfully ignores so much can do so only at the peril of thoroughly distorting the rest. A mode of understanding literature which can ignore the private lives of half the human race is not “incomplete”; it is distorted through and through. Feminist criticism of the early 1970s began by pointing out the simplest of these distortions, that is, that the female characters of even our greatest realistic “classics” by male writers are often not individualized portraits of possible women, but creations of fear and desire.

Joanna Russ
How to suppress Women’s Writing

strongly narrative

May 12, 2018

A poet

Bukowski’s poems are best appreciated not as individual verbal artefacts but as ongoing instalments in the tale of his true adventures, like a comic book or a movie serial. They are strongly narrative, drawing from an endless supply of anecdotes that typically involve a bar, a skid-row hotel, a horse race, a girlfriend, or any permutation thereof. Bukowski’s free verse is really a series of declarative sentences broken up into a long, narrow column, the short lines giving an impression of speed and terseness even when the language is sentimental or clichéd.

Adam Kirsch
Smashed: the pulp poetry of Charles Bukowski
New Yorker 14th March 2005