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How to Converse with Silly, Stupid Ladies (Victorian Life Advice 2.0)

8 May

Take note, gentlemen: this might help you on your next date.  Or not.  Probably not.

Our guide to proper 19th-century etiquette, the eminent Cecil B. Hartley, would have been remiss to omit from his 1875 Gentlemen’s  Book of Etiquette advice on the art of conversation.  And lucky for us, almost all of these guidelines have something to do with one’s behavior in “the society of ladies.”

You’d better be reading Godey’s Lady’s Book, Belle. Not that you could understand it any better than the sheep.

This was the era of the “Cult of True Womanhood,”  a pervasive (I suppose a lot of us would say pernicious) set of ideas about how women were supposed to act.  We can sum it up into four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.

Of course, in 1875, “ladies” wasn’t a blanket statement for all human females–more like white middle- and upper-class human females.  But even so, working-class women, African-American women, and others who wouldn’t be called “ladies” or be welcomed in polite society were often held to the same standards of the Cult of True Womanhood.

The point being that these were the cultural assumptions of Hartley’s time, and the things he says about women’s brains and mental faculties (below) would have been quite common.  Hey, women themselves were reading the same things in their own publications, like that money-making machine, the womanly advice manual and fashion handbook “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”

So let’s see what Mr. Hartley was teaching America’s young men about relationships between the sexes:

1. No Controversy Allowed

“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation is to avoid political and religious discussions in general society … [I]n the drawing room, at the dinner table, or in the society of ladies, these are topics best avoided.”

We still say today that it’s impolite to bring up politics, religion, or other contentious subjects at dinner or at any sort of gathering–even among friends and family.  Of course, Hartley mentions three situations in which it’s in particularly bad taste to start a debate: all of them the domestic spheres of a woman.  You get the feeling that Hartley wouldn’t take offense to a group of men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking politics in the library after dinner.

2. Don’t Let a Woman Show You Up

I love this one.  Hartley has just been discoursing on the importance of being knowledgeable about a broad range of topics (art, science, literature, business, music, international affairs) when he throws in this gem about a woman who chimes in with something insightful to say when the man has lost the train of the conversation for wont of a proper education:

“You can speak, even though you’re so clearly my intellectual inferior! It’s remarkable!”

“This facility of comprehension often startles us in some women, whose education we know to have been poor, and whose reading is limited.  If they did not rapidly receive your ideas, they could not, therefore, be fit companions for intellectual men, and it is, perhaps, their consciousness of a deficiency which leads them to pay more attention to what you say.”

By jove, that must be it!  It’s not that she’s a intelligent woman who has by the custom of the country been denied equal education with men (how absurd); it must be that she wants to get married and so tries really hard to prove herself to men!  Well, that makes much more sense.

3. That’s What She Said

You know why I’m glad Steve Carell left The Office this season?  Because I’m pretty sure that Michael Scott did more to popularize “That’s what she said” jokes than anyone else on the planet.  And if puns are the lowest form of humor, than making a double entendre of an innocent person’s inadvertent sexual innuendo has to be the lowest form of pun.

“To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.”

Finally, something Cecil and I can agree on.  Lord knows there’s not much.

* * *

The Awkward Moment When You Insist on 19th-century Etiquette in Daily Life

3 May

Uncomfortable Scenario #1: 

You’re  walking across campus when you spot an acquaintance  a couple yards away, coming towards you down the sidewalk.  You know he/she/it must have seen you too, but you don’t know whether to say hey, just smile, or even make eye contact.  Ultimately one of you ends up pulling your cell phone out and pretending to text.  Don’t lie.  It’s happened to you too.

Worst of all, there seems to be no solution–or at least not one widely agreed upon by society.  Thus, I would like to humbly propose a rule of etiquette for greeting acquaintances, people whose names you don’t remember, and that guy who friended you on Facebook sophomore year after an American Studies club meeting that you never talk to but who keeps liking your status updates and somehow found you on Twitter: that for this matter, we revert to the etiquette of the late-19th century, when there was a rule for everything.  Everything.  Even this.

Scenario #1 Resolved: Do it like a Victorian.

These are the (abridged) guidelines set down by Victorian dancing master Lucien O. Carpenter in 1882 for “Etiquette for the Street.”  My annotations are in italics.

Her: “Your assistance, Mr. Forsyte, please. I’m finding it difficult to breath.”
Him: “Why yes, my rakish good looks and facial hair tend to have that effect on the fairer sex.”
Her: “Yeah? So do corsets.”

1. The lady should be first to recognize an acquaintance, whether intimate or not.  [This one’s on us, female humans.  If you’re friendly acquaintances, I think “hey” or “salutations and good day!” is suitable.  If it’s a rival or a frenemy, nod and raise an eyebrow contemptuously.]

2. The gentleman should raise his hat slightly, inclining and turning toward the lady in saluting. The hat should be raised by the hand farthest form the lady.  [If the male human is not wearing a hat, I suggest briefly raising the hand farthest from the female as a greeting.  Because everyone knows that using the hand closest to the lady is vulgar.  Obv.]

3. One salutation is all that civility requires when passing a person more than once on a public promenade or drive.  [Which is actually kind of useful to know, because how annoying is it when you’re passing someone who says “How are you?” or “What’s up?” when you really don’t have time to engage in a conversation?]

4. Never stare at any one, is a rule with no exceptions.

5. The gentleman should not smoke when driving or walking with ladies.  [Addendum: University of Alabama men, stop spitting on the sidewalk when someone is passing you.  You don’t need to be a Victorian to think that’s disgusting.]

6. If the lady with whom you are walking is saluted by another gentleman, acknowledge the same by removing your hat.  [Oooh, she must be popular.  Or my little sister.  In other words, nod to your rivals, gentlemen.]

7. Should you desire to converse with a lady you should happen to meet, do not detain her, but turn and walk in her direction.  [Perfect!  No more standing around uncomfortably in the middle of the sidewalk!]

Sarah and Angelina Grimké were abolitionists and suffragettes before it was cool to be an abolitionist or a suffragette.  And they could open their own doors JUST FINE.

8. While walking with a lady in a crowded thoroughfare and obliged to proceed singly, the gentleman should precede her to clear the way.  [Unless the lady is more physically imposing, or has a naturally unpleasant face/really intimidating glare that makes her look sour and unhappy in social situations but really comes in handy when staring down solicitors or Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I may or may not know this from personal experience.]

9. While walking with a lady, the gentleman should take the side next the street.  [Because if someone’s going to get run over by a car… I mean… horse and buggy, it’s going to be the man.  The funny thing is that when I was a kid and my little sister and I would go on walks, my mother told me I needed to stand on the street side.  Clearly, an asthmatic 10-year-old is so much more likely to survive a vehicular impact than an 8-year-old.  Makes perfect sense.]

10. Loud conversation should be avoided at all times.  [This one, I can get on board with.  Nobody wants to hear about how you totally don’t remember what happened at that party last night, irresponsible freshman girl.  Nobody.]

I’m Absolutely Serious About This

Okay, so I realize that, the further down the list you get, the more archaically chivalrous the guidelines get.  Personally, I’m in total agreement with the estimable Grimké sisters on chivalry being somewhat condescending and demeaning to women (the worst thing about Alabama has been the tendency of people to hold a door open for me when I’m still really far away, making me run to relieve them).  But for awkward public greeting situations, the first three rules are gold.

Follow this link for more sources on the sometimes-hilarious, sometimes-cringeworthy, and sometimes even a little useful rules of 19th century etiquette.

* * *

Thuvia, Maid (or Murderess) of Mars — because everyone loves a girl with a gun

26 Apr

I’ve been having some serious fun with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s  “John Carter” series of the early 20th century lately (I’m on book three of eleven, and like the pioneers of old, it’s Mars or bust! or something).  But since I’ve already reviewed “A Princess of Mars” and kind of “The Gods of Mars,” it’s time to do something super exciting geared at all you history and art history majors out there: using book covers to reflect on persistent gendered and racialized themes throughout history!*  Yes!

* Disclaimer: Now that I am officially a doctoral student in American history I reserve the right to do textual analysis whenever the hell I want.  So let’s begin.

Before I started seeing lukewarm reviews for Disney’s “John Carter” movie a couple months ago, I didn’t know that the film (such as it is) was based on an early-20th century series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, prolific king of pulp sci-fi in the 19-teens, twenties, and beyond.  It seemed strange to me that Disney would be borrowing from a rather problematic book published in 1912, but hey, I didn’t know that musical, animated “Tarzan” was based on Burroughs either.

In any case, it was Spring Break and, being the kind of person who goes home for spring break to read books and play with her family’s cats, was bored.  Also kind of broke.  So it made sense to download free public domain books onto my kindle, and for laughs, John Carter seems to have potential.

I was very quickly obsessed with it.

Of course, being the kind of person who brings her copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Troubles home with her over Spring Break, I can’t help but share some of the interesting things I’ve noticed about women not just in the books–but especially on the book covers.

This is the cover for the first installment in the series, A Princess of Mars.  As you can see, the princess, being a proper Victorian lady (even if she is a Martian who lays eggs), spends most of her time cowering behind her hero.  And she loves it!  And he loves her!  And no one will ever question their respective femininity and masculinity, because, I mean, just look at them.

Most of the first three books deal with the princess, Dejah Thoris, being kidnapped and help captive–first by green alien monsters, then an enemy group of Martian “red men,” and then by evil black people who live underground in the pit of a volcano or something.  Do we sense a pattern emerging.  This is science fiction’s kind of icky extension of the American captivity narrative, possibly one of the first distinctly American literary genres.

Have you heard of Mary Rowlandson?  In 1676, she was taken captive by Wampanoag Indians for about 3 months.  You really have to feel bad for this woman–she watched her friends and family brutally murdered, and then was thrust into a society completely foreign (dare I say alien?) to her.  But like a good yankee lady, once she got out, she had her eye on the main chance.  Rowlandson published a wildly, spectacularly popular account of her captivity in 1682.

Now, for those who haven’t read it 4 or 5 times over the course of high school and college, Rowlandson’s narrative pretty much gets this point across: It’s all about God’s sovereignty.  Haters gonna hate, but God will do what God does.  And on and on.  Rowlandson was incredibly devout, and even during her captivity chose not to make any escape attempts, deciding that it was God’s will that she was there and she would wait for Him to deliver her.

Funny, then, how the second edition of her book included pictures like this one.  “A Female Soldier”?  With a rifle?  That’s not exactly what happened–actually, that’s not at all what happened–but the idea of a forceful, armed heroine seemed to gain some purchase with contemporary readers.

That pattern continued with the story of Hannah Duston, another colonial American woman taken captive by Native Americans in the late 17th century.  Duston didn’t have a gun, but she got her hands on a hatchet and the rest is history.  Really gruesome, bloody, Native American killing history.

People liked that story too.

And they still liked it when Burroughs was writing his second John Carter book, The Gods of Mars, in which readers were introduced to another woman with a weapon: Thuvia.

Like Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was a prisoner of all sorts of different and abhorrent “others.”  Unlike Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was not content to resign herself to fate and hope that her lover would rescue her.  Thuvia got a gun and shot her captor point-blank.  And then, over the course of the next two books, she saved John Carter’s book like half a dozen times.  Most notable example: when John Carter is condemned to die in a gladiatorial-style fight against a bunch of ravenous lion-like alien beasts, Dejah Thoris attempts to kill herself so that she might die with him.  Thuvia uses her animal mind-control powers to save him.  Again.  And when one of John Carter’s crazed fangirls (no really, this is absolutely true) tries to stab Dejah Thoris and steal John for herself (like that’s going to work), Thuvia saves Dejah Thoris too.

She’s super badass.  And four books in, she gets her own starring role with Thuvia, Maid of Mars.

Let’s note the word “maid.”  Especially in archaic and literary contexts, a “maid” is not just a young, unmarried girl–she’s a virgin.  Thuvia is getting a title treatment that would seem to indicate that she’s as pure and unsullied a princess as Dejah Thoris.  Meanwhile, she looms over the corpse of her victim with a bloody knife.  The entire book cover is made to look like it’s been smeared with blood.  And let’s not forget that her first kill was a man who, it was implied, may have, you know, violated her.

Pure?  That’s questionable.

But we’ve kind of had a literary love affair with women with knives and guns and machetes for a long time.  Since the 1600s at least.  And how American is that?

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman: The Anti-Harry Potter?

7 Sep

In this bleak and empty wasteland of the post-Harry Potter world we live in, it’s inevitable that any book about twenty-somethings at a school for magic will come under the closest scrutiny. That would be daunting for most fantasy writers, but in “The Magicians,” author Lev Grossman relishes in the prospect.

His characters are us—college students who grew up in the pages of Hogwarts, Middle Earth and other classics of fantasy lit (including a Narnia-like universe called Fillory, complete with talking animals and thinly veiled religious allegories). And naturally, just like us, their expectations of what magic should be like are colored by these books. Quickly, they realize that they (and consequently we too) couldn’t have been more wrong.

Click for the original article in the Crimson White, the University of Alabama's campus paper

Quentin Coldwater is a genius. He, unlike a disturbing number of Hogwarts students, has more than a fifth-grade education in the traditional three R’s—which is all for the good at a magical college with a broader curriculum than the Hogwarts’ spell-casting of made-up Latin, wand-waving and jazz hands.

Magic at Brakebills Academy requires calculus, a working knowledge of quantum physics and proficiency in the very necessary languages of Estonian, Bedouin Arabic and Old Church Slavonic (just to name a few). Plus, giant spiders in the woods are nothing compared to the inter-dimensional Beast swimming up from the depths of the multiverse to devour students alive in the middle of class. In other words, practicing magic is actually kind of hard.

And that’s not the only difference. Brakebills, for one, is American. Located in upstate New York, the school caters to the uber-nerds, super-geniuses, hippie Wiccans and hipster intellectuals of the country. People like Quentin, our anti-hero, whose first reaction to the revelation that magic exists and he could be a magician (“wizard,” you know, is so passé) isn’t the wide-eyed wonder of a ten-year-old Harry Potter.

This is a world-weary high school senior we’re talking about, the kind who makes arch allusions to quidditch and the Anglophilia of American prep schools, quotes Borges and Cervantes alongside Star Trek references, whose professors curse often, turn their students into geese for a semester, and sanction a shocking amount of on-campus alcohol use, and whose headmaster tattoos battle demons into his students’ backs the night before graduation.

Not to mention that the central theme of the book is a whole lot more complicated than the clear-cut battle of good and evil we, the Harry Potter generation, have come to expect. Brakebills students are cynical, sarcastic and hardly heroic. They’re college kids, after all, with unlimited power and no small amount of post-traumatic stress disorder from battles with monsters out of H.P. Lovecraft’s worst nightmare. In “The Magicians,” Quentin and his cronies discover, as he says, “the horror” of getting what you wish for.

Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” (2009) is the anti-Harry Potter, a story that riffs on contemporary expectations of fantasy tropes and heroes. In its characters and plot, however, the novel is completely original—a trend that only continues in Grossman’s sequel “The Magician King,” just released last month.

This is a book you will devour, so get excited. But maybe not too excited. In keeping with the spirit of Brakebills and its denizens, try, at least, to affect an air of indifference. Hold your “retro” Kindle 2 casually aloft in one hand with the hip lassitude of the youthful literati, and just pretend you don’t wish that you too could be one of The Magicians.

 

“The Magicians” is available in that old-fashioned pulpy stuff called paper, as well as ebook form on Amazon, for $12.99

 

Readers might also like:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke; A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin; The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross; Johann Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

One Throne to Rule Them All

20 Jul

This month, TIME magazine christened novelist George R. R. Martin, author of the epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the “American Tolkien for a jaded age.” Possibly, it’s the two Rs for middle initials; possibly, it’s the grandiloquent series title; possibly, it’s the fact that both write in the fantasy genre with a cult following dissecting every word and chapter. Personally, I think it’s a facile comparison. Call me a blasphemer, but George R. R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms wipe the floor with Middle Earth, and here’s why.

Read my original column on the Crimson White website, campus news for the University of Alabama

The Tolkien universe has long been the standard against which readers and critics compare any fantasy work. The more mediocre sword-and-sorcery writers think that vomiting dwarves, elves, dark lords and half-baked mythologies onto a computer monitor makes a bestseller – Eru knows there are enough of those on the market. Plots are predictable: an evil menace, a chosen one destined to save the world, a malevolent piece of magical jewelry and a final battle between good and evil (I think I unintentionally described Harry Potter here). It’s boring, plain and simple. The sheer quantity of this kind of hack fantasy drove me into the arms of science fiction long ago, but George R. R. Martin has gradually pulled me back.

“A Song of Ice and Fire,” which begins with “A Game of Thrones,” has no hobbits or orphan boys on a quest to save the world. We have one dwarf, but he doesn’t go around swigging ale and swinging axes – he’s just a man with achondroplasia, and if he drinks a little much, it’s probably because his father tries to get him killed in battle. His sister, the queen, wants him dead too (along with a long list of other powerful people), and his only weapon is the ability to create really smart, funny dialogue. Tyrion might be the most likeable character in the book (he’s my favorite, at least) – and he also happens to be a member of the superficially villainous Lannister family.

Unlike Tolkien, Martin gives us no clear-cut good versus evil. Instead, we get a five-sided civil war (six or seven, counting all the madness across the Narrow Sea) in a world peopled by people best described as anti-heroes, or maybe just human beings. Instead of epic quests, Martin delivers realpolitik and plotlines as complex as his characters. Oh, and by the way, in this fantasy universe, women actually do stuff. And I don’t mean the token Eowyn, or elf princess Arwen who (movies to the contrary) actually spent her time sewing Aragorn a battle standard. For real. For three books.

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh on J. R. R. After all, even the new HBO series “Game of Thrones” cast Sean Bean, alias Boromir, as this season’s lead (and I say this season because, spoiler alert, Sean Bean’s character kind of has an unpleasant encounter with a sword and his neck). Which brings me to another point: the bloody-minded George R. R. Martin will kill, maim, torture or torment any of his characters. No one is safe. Plot twists might leave you crying or leaving profane notes in the virtual margins of your Kindle, but they keep you guessing, and originality is the holy grail of fantasy novels.

There’s only one downside as I see it: fans probably have another five years to wait before book six comes out. Of course, with five books at 1,200 pages each, new readers might just take five years to catch up. I highly encourage it.

 

You might also like… “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan; “The Worm Ouroboros” by E. R. Edison; “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch; “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke.

Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?

8 Jun

Let’s drive some traffic to the good ol’ University of Alabama campus newspaper.  Today, my first-ever print column was published in the Crimson White.  Soon, Tuscaloosa will be the science fiction consumption capital of the world, American Studies profs will be teaching classes on Atlas Shrugged, and everyone will be reading off of Kindles.

It’s nice to be a tastemaker.

Click for the full column: "Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?"

The 12th Planet: I (don’t) want to believe

17 May

I realize that I read more science fiction and fantasy than is probably healthy for an individual, but even so, I think I have yet a modicum of intelligence and reason left in my head–which is why I gaped in shock and horror to find a copy of Zecharia Sitchin’s The 12th Planet in the back seat of my father’s car when we went to breakfast this morning.

For those of you who don’t know, The 12th Planet (1977) is the first installation of Sitchin’s “Earth Chronicles,” a seven-part series in which he attempts to prove that we are not alone in the universe:

Basically, all those Old Testament stories people have passed off as myths are really, literally true.  Fear our celestial overlords!  The Nefilim built the pyramids, and they can tear them down too.  (Note that Sitchin has collected indisputable proof.)

Oy vey.

The book has received some attention recently, probably because the final volume of the Earth Chronicles, The End of Days, was released just a few years ago–and what better to do in our last year of existence (or last week, if you expect to be taken up in the Rapture this Saturday) than read the “nonfiction” ravings of a crackpot writer?

I’m sorry, that’s unfair.  Zecharia Sitchin is a reasearcher, of sorts.  He is proficient in multiple ancient languages, Sumerian cuneiform purportedly among them.  He claims that his assertions in The 12th Planet are based on textual analysis of the original texts–the Hebrew OT, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, those mysterious cuneiform tablets, etc., et al.  Of course, the more *respectable* scientists and academics reject Sitchin’s hypotheses as the work of faulty interpretation of ancient texts and flawed astronomical information.  Personally, I think he simply suffers from an overactive X-Files Mentality.  In other words, he wants to believe.

I don’t.

That back cover blurb alone should be enough to make a reader with the barest amount of sense laugh out loud.  Until she realizes that the book is being sold as nonfiction, and that there are those (including the author) who believe every word.  Then the reading experience just gets sad–and more than a little creepy.

There are a number of problems with The 12th Planet:

1. Not only does Sitchin employ (more than) questionable methodology in fashioning his claims, believing those claims requires us the readers to shunt aside all sorts of scientific explanations of phenomena for which there is actual evidence.  Oh, like human evolution.  Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“The unanswered question is: Why–why did civilization come about at all?  For, as most scholars now admit in frustration, by all data Man should still be without civilization.  There is no obvious reason that we should be any more civilized than the primitive tribes of the Amazon jungles…

But, we are told, these tribesmen still live as if in the Stone Age because they have been isolated.  But isolated from what?  If they have been living on the same Earth as we, why have they not acquired the same knowledge of sciences and technologies on their own as we supposedly have?”

How about we read this instead, okay?

Astonishing!  I don’t think anyone has ever tried to answer that question before.  Except Jared Diamond.  Ever heard of Guns, Germs, and Steel?  Yeah, it’s that one that won the Pulitzer some years back.  Sorry, Zeke.

I won’t even get into that second part, in which Sitchin seems to imply that scientific knowledge is just chillin’ in the aether somewhere, waiting for some “primitive bushman” to pick it out of the air.  That’s for another paragraph.  What’s truly astonishing is where Sitchin goes from here.

One of the plethora of Discovery Channel conspiracy theory programs will attempt to raise questions about the origins of civilization–did space aliens give us knowledge and sink Atlantis in their rage, or something?  Sitchin says yes, the evolution of human civilization is actually extraterrestrial in origin.  And, he adds, modern man did not really evolve from the primordial ooze.  Male and female the aliens created them, because it would take too long to make apes talk.

That seems to me a total non sequitur, but it’s not like I can read cuneiform.  I bet those evolutionary biologists can’t either–so there!

2.  The second major problem I have with the whole “ancient astronauts” thing goes beyond Sitchin’s book.  My question is: Why is it so hard to believe that humans, with their own minds and their own contemporary technology, could have built the pyramids?  Because it’s always about the pyramids.  “They’re so geometrically perfect,” a Sitchinite might exclaim, “and how could they move those big rocks?”  There are a number of construction method hypotheses, all of them more plausible than the one that requires alien overlords cracking the whip.

Perhaps more disturbingly is the underlying racial prejudices inherent in this argument.  I had a professor of archaeology my freshman year who worked on ancient Mesoamerican cultures.  He seemed to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder when it came to the Mayans.  Why does everyone think the Mayans are so mysterious? he asked, multiple times during the semester.  He was a scientist, and had all sorts of perfectly reasonable (and more than that–empirical) explanations for the mysteries of the Maya.  And yet, the dilettantes of pseudoscience and pseudohistory seemed unable to resist groping for the mystical.

Because, of course, indigenous peoples of non-European origin must be primitive bushmen, right?

If it isn’t apparent by now that I’m intensely annoyed by The 12th Planet, let me be clear:

Zecharia Sitchin’s Earth Chronicles Series ranks among the very worst of pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical “nonfiction.”  It may be some people read books like his for entertainment, or because they have a case of the X-Files, but I for one think something like The 12th Planet cannot go without even this meager rebuttal.  Zecharia Sitchin’s books feed into the worst popular conceptions of ancient civilization, and commit an unforgivable crime: they rape history, underestimating and belittling the fully human people who lived before us.

That’s not okay.  And I sincerely hope my father was reading it as a joke.

Welcome to the Ark (Retro SF Review #3)

5 May

In 1996, a novel composed almost of chat logs and journal entries was pretty innovative–especially for me, who read it in 1998 and marveled at the epic future time span (1999 to 2008!) and the novelty of a YA book with kids who grew up by the end.  I’m talking about Stephanie S. Tolan’s Welcome to the Ark.  Does anyone else remember that book?  It was my favorite speculative fiction novel before I knew there was such a thing, and may have been the first place I learned about the Internet.

I realize dredging up fiction of the late-90s and calling it “retro” is kind of pushing things, but let’s just substitute that word for “nostalgic” and everything should work out just fine.

Welcome to the Ark isn’t available on the Kindle (gasp!), but I have a first edition paperback.  It’s worth upwards of $0.01 on Amazon, so…  Anyway, here’s the book description:

Grade 6-9: This story is set in the near future at a facility for troubled youngsters in upstate New York. Two boys and two girls, ranging in age from 8-17, have been selected to take part in an experimental program. Living together as a family with two doctors as parental figures, the four highly intelligent young people are encouraged to learn from one another and reach out globally to other potential geniuses via the Internet. They soon recognize a shared concern about the increasing violence in the world and a compelling desire to halt it.

Shared paranormal powers amplify the bond among the four and give new meaning to the “world wide web.” When the director of the institution discovers the exciting new “paradigm shift” of the experiment, he plans to manipulate it to his own advantage, until he sees it as a liability and rapidly disbands the program.

Years later, three of the four subjects have become functioning adults, still dreaming that psychic networking will save humankind. Tolan’s skill with language, plus the dramatic tension between six sympathetic, if incomplete, characters and their nemesis make the novel readable. Its weaknesses, however, are greater than its strengths. The functional but unaesthetic format is a patchwork of journal entries, memos, e-mail, medical records, etc. A more serious problem is the shape-shifting focus. The ideas and issues raised are interesting and thought-provoking, but quickly dissolve into sentimentality.

The “unaesthetic patchwork” format was what most impressed me back in ninety-eight; it seemed so avante-garde at the time.  I suppose I thought it would catch like a computer virus and all the books of the future would be written this way.  I probably wrote some terrible fiction in that style.  And while mine was, I’m sure, neither functional nor aesthetically pleasing, Tolan did well enough to get a third grader (yeah, I was super ahead of the average reading level) interested in psychic bloggers, or something.

I remember the book 13 years later, don’t I?

I haven’t re-read it since then, and I doubt I will, but Welcome to the Ark is what I’ve been thinking the whole time I’ve been reading Chris Wimpress’s Joe is Online.

Like Tolan’s book, Joe is Online is neither first-person nor third-person limited omniscient, nor that creepy second-person present that people seem to think is so cool and post-postmodern these days.  It is a patchwork of chat logs, IMs, emails, .docs and other Internet ephemera.  It begins with a troubled and computer-savvy kid and spans a period of decades.

Of course, in this case the troubled kid turns into a cyber-terrorist on an epic scale and the result isn’t psychic shape-shifting but lots of bombs and the terrifying Botnet Apocalypse.  So… kind of different.  Still, Joe is Online brought back a wave of nostalgia for what I imagined would be the wave of the future in narrative, way back in the 90s.

Except this time, I don’t think anyone’s going to be questioning Wimpress’s aesthetics.  Joe is Online is fantastic.  Click the red angry face to check out the ebook on Amazon.

The Philip K. Dick Primer*

4 May

Hi Dr. Michelson,

Going through the blog logs, I’ve found that I’ve actually never written a proper review of any Philip K. Dick novel—it seems that I just make hipster-esque references in passing, which may be more embarrassing than having an actual link to send you.  Still, here is my list of PKD books for non-initiates, in my personal (but probably less-than-preferable) reading order:

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968): The movie Blade Runner was adapted from this novel, and as much as everyone loved Harrison Ford, the book is better.  For one thing, it’s something by Philip K. Dick with a discernible plotline (a miracle!).  It’s short, relatively lucid, and all this being said probably the introductory text for a SF 101 course somewhere.

VALIS (1981): Almost universally accepted as his masterpiece, and very much in the style of 1980s PKD (highly mystical, barely coherent, and as one reviewer wrote “known as science fiction only for lack of a better category).  This is probably the one you’d be most interested in, and, interestingly enough, is semi-autobiographical (Horselover Fat is PKD himself, and his Roman Catholic friend David is my former high school English teacher’s brother, apparently).  Essentially, it’s a book about a quest for God, and I have no doubt you’ll be able to make more sense of PKD’s theological treatise than I ever could:

“The proponent of the novel, Horselover Fat, is thrust into a theological quest when he receives communion in a burst of pink laser light. From the cancer ward of a bay area hospital to the ranch of a fraudulent charismatic religious figure who turns out to have a direct com link with God, Dick leads us down the twisted paths of Gnostic belief, mixed with his own bizarre and compelling philosophy. Truly an eye-opening look at the nature of consciousness and divinity.”

The Man in the High Castle (1962): PKD’s most famous counterfactual/alternate history novel, wherein the Allies lost WWII and the United States is a slave-owning outpost of Nazi Germany.  This is the only book by dear Philip that won the Hugo (it was also nominated for the Nebula, but that’s an honor he never won).  Maybe he was one of those artists not fully appreciated during his time. Of course, now, Philip K. Dick has his own award—given to giants of the genre like Richard K. Morgan (Neuromancer, Altered Carbon) and China Mieville (The Scar), and less notable authors like my aforementioned high school English teacher’s brother Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).

Time Out of Joint (1959): If you’re interested in the “reality is a state of mind” aspect of Philip K. Dick’s writing, this is the book to read.  SFsite.com reviewer Martin Lewis commented, aptly: “Ragle Gumm is a perfectly realised example of the classic Dick protagonist; the paranoid man who discovers he has every reason to be paranoid because he inhabits a world where people know more about him than he does and reality itself is fluid.”  That’s pretty much the thematic underpinning of all of his books, but here the idea is central—Ragle Gumm lives in a world where the structure of the universe is, literally, held together by tiny hand-lettered strips of paper.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965):  Everyone with any sense who doesn’t think VALIS deserves the top spot puts this one there—Palmer Eldritch not only wins the award for best SF title ever, but presaged PKD’s more mystical novels like VALIS.  But fair warning—I read this while I had a cold earlier in the semester, and I’m convinced that this book made such a chaotic muddle of my mind that it prolonged my illness.  From Amazon’s book description:

“Not too long from now, when exiles from a blistering Earth huddle miserably in Martian colonies, the only things that make life bearable are the drugs.  Can-D “translates” those who take it into the bodies of Barbie-like dolls.  Now there’s competition–a substance called Chew-Z, marketed under the slogan: “God promises eternal life.  We can deliver it.”  The question is: What kind of eternity?  And who–or what–is the deliverer?”

Philip K. Dick’s other 39 published novels can be found (or at least, synopses and links on where to purchase can be found) at the official website of the PKD estate.

There’s also some “exclusive content” that I haven’t seen before—including a two-page summary of an unwritten novel in which Saul of Tarsus never converts and Christianity is overtaken by Manichaeism.

Maybe this is a book project you can encourage the Syriac portal-ers to take up?

All the best,

Isabela

* Happy Publish Your Private Emails Day everyone!  In honor of this festive occasion, always Cuatro de Mayo, I’m posting an email I sent to my fantastic Digital Humanities professor Dr. David Michelson.  Hey, he asked for a PKD reading list–I generally try very hard to keep my secret life as a second-rate science fiction blogger out of the hallowed halls of academia.  Not really.

Also, it makes me feel like kind of like Erasmus, publishing highly literary letters for the world to see!  Not really.

Macabre, monstrous, gruesome and ghastly Gormenghast: Why aren’t we reading it in the States?

16 Apr

After three years living in Tuscaloosa, I’m beginning to despair that I’m the only person in the state of Alabama who’s read anything by Mervyn Peake.  If I get that Lifestyles columnist gig on the campus paper, the first thing I’m doing is plugging Titus Groan and Gormenghast like crazy.  Mervyn Peake is the grandfather of steampunk, the dedicatee of Perdido Street Station, and the forerunner of PKD’s psychological madness.  In sum:

Why aren’t we reading him in the States?


I realize this is an indie speculative fiction blog, but Mervyn Peake is so little-known in this dear city (and state… and country) of mine that I’m going to give him a well-deserved blog post–for in truth, he deserves a blog of his own.  One that deals in Literature with a capital L.

So, a little background:

Mervyn Peake was a brilliant, badass English artist, illustrator, poet, and writer–today, he’s best-known for his Titus books (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone, and, in a few short months, the posthumous Titus Awakes).  He was the child of medical missionaries in China, a soldier in WWII, a war artist, an author and, tragically, a victim of Parkinson’s Disease.  I’m no fan of C.S. Lewis in general (he reminds me of a smug, Modernist Thomas More), but I can agree with him on this: “[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”

Mystical-sounding?  Definitely.  But it’s about as good a description of Mervyn Peake’s writing as anyone could give.  Peake’s poetry and the Gormenghast books are less about plot, shall I say?, than effect.  It’s often categorized as fantasy, but Peake doesn’t write about elves or magic.  His writing is surrealist, gothic, and something of a social comedy.  And threading through the themes of stagnant tradition and freedom and oppression, there’s that element of madness.  Gormenghast is grotesque, gory, ghastly, mystical, lyrical, monstrous, mind-bending, and inarticulably beautiful.  His characters are strange, sympathetic, and Machiavellian by turn, and he names them with Dickensian flair (Steerpike, Flay, Fuchia and Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan).

I had Titus Groan on my bookshelf since I was eight.  Didn’t pick it up until I was eighteen, of course, but that’s another story.  This story, in fact (hey, you clicked on the link; you get the self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical book reviews):

A very long time ago, my dear beloved mother took me to a used book store.  I wandered around the disorderly stacks of books, sneezing, because unlike many people who love the smell of musty old books (the same people, I might add, who sniff haughtily and turn away when they see my Kindle 2 with the Dharma Initiative decal) stale, yellowing paper just makes my eyes water.  Unless it’s part of a 19th-century historical manuscript collection–then it’s cool.  Anyway–

Seriously--wouldnt this give you nightmares when you were eight?

I came to a straight-backed wooden chair piled with books.  Sliding down the side was a book with a brightly-colored cover, Titus Groan.  My mother was at the check-out, so I grabbed the book, ran back to her, and smiled, as always quite pleased with myself, when she purchased it without a second glance as the clerk bagged up her nth copy of Jane Eyre.  For better or worse, she let me read whatever I wanted from the moment I could.

Of course, when we got home and I looked more closely at the cover, I was a little disturbed.  And the title was a bit frightening too.  So I hid it at the back of the bookshelf and trained my eyes to slide over it every time I looked up there.

Ten years later, college freshman me was packing boxes to ship to the University of Alabama, surreptitiously taking books from the family cache and slipping them into my suitcase with the justification that having read them more than my sisters, they were “mine.”  But Titus Groan really was mine, and I read it my first semester, and praised Palgolak that serendipity had led me to the best series I’d ever (and still have ever) read.

The book shortly fell apart, and is currently held together with scotch tape.  My copy was thirty years old when I got it, and I’ve never worried about breaking spines.

Neither was Steerpike… but that’s another story too.  And how about, instead of me boring you, you read it yourself?  This has the Scattering’s eternal seal of approval.

Here’s the link to Titus Groan on Amazon