Thursday, May 10, 2012

Decadence and Dying Earth, Part 1.5

I'm reading Clark Ashton Smith for the first time, and I'm doing so with no knowledge of the writer's personal life or work outside of Zothique and the two collections in my university's library, Hyperborea and Xiccarph.  Having read a little about the man I now see that my comparison of Smith to Baudelaire was not off the mark.  Smith, who began his writing career as a poet, was an avid reader of Baudelaire and even produced his own translation of Fleurs du Mal.  In this 1952 letter to L. Sprague de Camp, Smith lists Poe and Baudelaire among his principal influences.  In 1923 he published a poem called "On Re-Reading Baudelaire"; I will spare you a close reading, but it is appropriately Baudelarean in form (a sonnet) and content (witness those juxtapositions of beauty and death), though perhaps a little on the nose.

He never met that other master of the weird tale, H.P. Lovecraft, as Smith spent his life in California and Lovecraft in New England and New York, but they frequently corresponded.  Here's Lovecraft, introducing himself to Smith:
What a world of opiate phantasy & horror is here unveiled, & what an unique power & perspective must lie behind it! I speak with especial sincerity & enthusiasm, because my own especial tastes centre almost wholly around the grotesque & the arabesque. I have tried to write short stories & sketches affording glimpses into the unknown abysses of terror which leer beyond the boundaries of the known, but have never succeeded in evoking even a fraction of the stark hideousness conveyed by any one of your ghoulishly potent designs.
He signs the letter "Yr most obedient Servt. / HPLovecraft."  In later letters, Smith addresses HPL as "E'ch-Pi-El" and signs his letters "Klarkash-Ton," an amusing little affectation.

"Cone Shaped Creature," Clark Ashton Smith

I began this "Decadence and Dying Earth" project as both a writer of far-future fiction that blurs the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy and as a student with an interest in Wolfe and Harrison, but I'm finding Smith's Zothique and William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land the most intriguing works of this enigmatic and underappreciated style of speculative fiction.  I'm interested in how these texts foreground the nonhuman elements--the sun, the world, planetary flows across geological time--but I've also come to see the possibility of dying earth as a decadent manifestation of science fiction. Rather than being a set of cultural symptoms or a specific artistic movement, I argue, decadence is something done to art.  In the context of dying earth, it is something done to science fiction.  Everything is pushed outward to a horizon, from the settings of these stories to the syntax and diction to the forms that they take.  There are many stories and novels set in the far future of Earth, during the slow immanent apocalypse of the death-process of the sun, but not all of them have this decadent aspect.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Sublime Arnold

Arnold Schwarzenegger:
It's as satisfying to me as coming is, you know? As having sex with a woman and coming. And so can you believe how much I am in heaven? I am like getting the feeling of coming in a gym, I'm getting the feeling of coming at home, I'm getting the feeling of coming backstage when I pump up, when I pose in front of five thousand people, I get the same feeling, so I am coming day and night. I mean, it's terrific. Right? So you know, I am in heaven.
Jacques Lacan:
Freud tells us repeatedly that sublimation is also satisfaction of the drive, whereas it is zielgehemmt, inhibited as to its aimit does not attain it. Sublimation is nonetheless satisfaction of the drive, without repression.

In other wordsfor the moment, I am not fucking, I am talking to you. Well! I can have exactly the same satisfaction as if I were fucking. That's what it means. Indeed, it raises the question of whether in fact I am not fucking at this moment.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Decadence and Dying Earth, Part I

There is something in the work of Clark Ashton Smith, the Jedi of the Weird Tale (to H.P. Lovecraft’s Sith Lord), that persisted in conjuring in my mind the ghost of Baudelaire, and reading through Zothique I really couldn’t put my finger on what it was exactly until I came to this passage in “Morthylla”:
Dim, lengthened and attenuate, his shadow went before him, like a ghostly guide. In his fantasy it seemed to him that he climbed the gently sloping bosom of a giantess, studded afar with pale gems that were tombstones and mausoleums. He caught himself wondering, amid this poetic whimsy, whether the giantess was dead, or merely slept.
Baudelaire, “La Géante”:

The Giantess

 Of old when Nature, in her verve defiant,
 Conceived each day some birth of monstrous mien,
 I would have lived near some young female giant
 Like a voluptuous cat beside a queen;

 To see her body flowering with her soul
 Freely develop in her mighty games,
 And in the mists that through her gaze would roll
 Guess that her heart was hatching sombre flames;

 To roam her mighty contours as I please,
 Ramp on the cliff of her tremendous knees,
 And in the solstice, when the suns that kill

 Make her stretch out across the land and rest,
 To sleep beneath the shadow of her breast
 Like a hushed village underneath a hill.

In Baudelaire’s poem Nature and the Giantess begin as separate entities but become conflated in the second stanza, the giantess becoming a landscape on which the speaker plays.  The giantess hatches “sombre flames” just as Nature gives births to monsters, but rather than being monstrous or horrific the giantess’s offspring are dark or melancholy. In Smith this melancholy becomes mournful, the giantess becoming a decorated corpse.  This I think speaks to the recurrence of necromancers and necromancy in Zothique: melancholy, an objectless affect, an enveloping shadow, is given a body—I’ll write more about this in a reading of “The Empire of the Necromancers” I hope to post soon.

Smith’s Zothique stories, among the first belonging to what would become the “dying earth” subgenre of science fiction, take place in an unimaginably distant future in which the dying sun is but “a coal-red decadent star, grown old beyond chronicle, beyond legend.”  Stories in this style often overflow the boundaries of both science fiction and fantasy, seeking a liminal space in which one can become the other.  In this pushing the boundaries of form “dying earth” (which really needs a better name) is the decadent style to science fiction’s classical style.  If we contrast the decadent style of Smith to the classic style to, say, H.G. Wells, the distinction becomes clearer.  Théophile Gautier, quoted in Havelock Ellis’s introduction to Huysmans’s Against the Grain, defines decadent art as
nothing else but art arrived at that point of extreme maturity yielded by the slanting suns of aged civilizations: an ingenious complicated style, full of shades and of research, constantly pushing back the boundaries of speech, borrowing from al the technical vocabularies, taking colour from all palettes and notes from all keyboards, struggling to render what is most inexpressible in thought….it admits shadow….rendering modern ideas and things in their infinite complexity and multiple colouration.

This, I think, is what I was getting at on my post on Viriconium that contrasted “volume” to “density”: a classic style has volume, while a decadent style has density, so much so that it overflows its container.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Election 2012: What's Your Position on Vaginas?

a) Icky
b) You said a bad word
c) I'm 60 years old and still think the stork brought me
d) I've never been in any position

The battle to utterly fail to understand contraception, women's bodies, and how many people it takes to make a baby has spread to my hometown! 

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners’ decision not to accept a state grant for family planning would be laughable if it were not so perplexing.  I wish I could respond to individual commissioners’ statements as reported on the Star News website, but they are so incomprehensible I cannot even argue against them.  I am sincerely dumbfounded.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield, for instance, claims to be “one of those abstinence guys.”  While Mr. Barfield’s practice of abstinence is a commendable exercise in self-deprivation, I fail to see what it has to do with the funding of family planning for couples who do not share Mr. Barfield’s unorthodox, though perfectly acceptable, sexual attitudes.  Most people do not practice abstinence; of those people, some have children but do not want any more, some are not in the financial position to have children, and some simply do not want children.  Why should they be denied access to contraception simply because they do not share Mr. Barfield’s attitudes toward sex?  

Chairman Ted Davis is of the opinion that “if these young women were responsible people and didn’t have the sex [sic] to begin with, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”  I take it that Chairman Davis considers any sexual act to be irresponsible, and that the only responsible choice to make is to never have sex.  I will also assume that he is aware that an act of sexual intercourse that can result in a pregnancy takes place between a woman and a man; that is to say, “he” in this instance is as irresponsible as “she.”  Contraception is not the sole purview of women, nor is it something only single women need.  This is, hopefully, pointing out the obvious. 

As in the case of Mr. Barfield, I commend the Chairman’s ostensibly lifelong commitment to abstinence, but again, I fail to see the connection between the sexual practices of our county commissioners and the needs of, say, an uninsured, working married couple with three children taking measures to prevent the conception of a fourth child and the financial burden it would bring.  Far from being an irresponsible waste of taxpayer money (already-allocated grant money at that), seeking contraception, rather than seeking an abortion after conception or relying on much more costly social programs to help pay for their child after birth, is perhaps the most responsible measure a couple could take. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Notes on the Apophenia-Machine

Up there they scrutinize miles of audiotape, some of it fresh from its factory wrap, unused, listening for voices of the dead: EVP freaks, of which Cayce's mother is one from way back.... Apophenia, Win had declared it...the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness in unreleated things...
Apophenia.... What if the sense of nascent meaning they all perceive in the footage is simply that: an illusion of meaningfulness, faulty pattern recognition? She’s been over this with Parkaboy and he’s taken it places (the neuromechanics of hallucination, August Strindberg’s personal account of his psychotic break, and a peak drug experience during his teens in which he, Parkaboy, had felt himself to be ‘channeling some kind of Linear B angelic machine language’), none of which have really helped. 

The footage in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, a series of silent, black and white film clips anonymously produced and distributed via the Internet, contain nothing in them to signify culture, history, or meaning. Cayce is part of an Internet community devoted to making sense out of these clips. There is, however, no meaning to be made out of them--or, perhaps, there is too much meaning to be made out of them. The footage presents itself not a deep text whose meaning can be excavated but as mere surface, a machine to plug into and assemble on, an apophenia-machine, a machine for producing associations. 

Apophenia in this sense is realized as an uncertain state of entry into a text and the act of signaling or semiosmosis, a virus infecting the symbolic from the inside, scrambling semiotic codes. It doesn't seek out a text's meaning; it generates interesting transformations by colliding signs like atoms in a particle accelerator.  The roles of the artist, the critic, and the consumer are blurred as the site of consumption becomes the site of production.  The role of the apopheniac critic is to observe the fallout of this collision, to see what new particles of meaning are produced by these unexpected juxtapositions. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Approaching Fantasy Worlds: Textual Volume and Density

I've been re-reading both Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun and George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and have recently re-read M. John Harrison's Viriconium. I find myself plowing through Martin’s novels, which range in length from 700 to over a thousand pages, in a matter of days, while I dwell on Wolfe’s much shorter novels and Harrison’s novellas for much longer. As a result I've become interested in the question of how to read fantasy. How does a reader’s approach to a massive series of novels like Martin's Song differ from a reader’s approach to a more compact, yet extremely dense, text like Viriconium? I'm sure this is a question that could be expanded to fiction in general, though there are very long novels that maintain a high level of textual intensity throughout (À la recherche du temps perdu, Ulysses) and very short novels written in more prosaic language meant to be consumed quickly (westerns, for instance, which tend to run 40,000-75,000 words, or 150-250 pages). But when it comes to epic fantasy, scale is important, and different authors have different ways of conveying the massive scale of their stories.
Take this passage from A Storm of Swords, the 1100+ page third novel in Martin’s series:
No roads ran through the twisted mountain valleys where they walked now. Between the grey stone peaks lay still blue lakes, long and deep and narrow, and the green gloom of endless piney woods. The russet and gold of autumn leaves grew less common when they left the wolfswood to climb amongst the old flint hills, and vanished by the time those hills had turned to mountains. Giant grey-green sentinels loomed above them now, and spruce and fir and soldier pines in endless profusion. The undergrowth was sparse beneath them, the forest floor carpeted in dark green needles.
There is some lyricism here—“Between the grey stone peaks lay still blue lakes”—and the subordinate clauses and compound sentences hint at a heightened Biblical prose. But it remains just that, a hint. The mountain valleys twist, but the prose only seems to twist with them. For Martin, these kinds of literary excesses are sprinkled in for flavor. His prose does not draw attention to itself.
Compare the above to this passage from A Storm of Wings, a novella by M. John Harrison:
Shrewd sea winds courted us. On our right marched a line of tall cliffs. Originally deposited as a limestone reef front some hundreds of miles long, these had been worked during the earth's long Afternoon into a chain of quarries broken here and there by little steep-sided valleys with crumbling mossy headwalls. In and out of the hidden caves and sinkholes of this region (in effect the lip of a vast plateau, stretching a mile or so back inland before being buried under the culm measures and doomed black soils of the Great Brown Waste) there flowed whitish polluted streams. The trees were grey and dry. Now we moved deeper into it, and into a kind of psychic dislocation, picking a way through the gummy, lifeless tidal pools while mirages came and went over our bowed heads.
Harrison’s world is a world with history, though that history is never made explicit through indulgent exposition (“worldbuilding”). Instead it is etched into the immensity of the landscape, written in geological time. After a one-two punch of short, simple sentences comes a long sentence (in which the word “long” appears twice) packed with information, followed by a long sentence broken by a long parenthetical, until finally we work our way down into the minds of the characters lost in this massive landscape. The sheer mass of the paragraph weighs heavily on the minds of the characters moving underneath it all.
The paragraph from A Storm of Swords does not demand to be luxuriated in the way the paragraph from The Pastel City does. This is an empirical claim and not an evaluative one; it is a rhetorical choice an author makes. A series like A Song of Ice and Fire relies not so much on density of prose but the mass of the physical object in which the story is contained—the book itself—to convey scale. In The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams, protagonist Simon flees from the scene of the murder of his mentor through a secret passage that takes him beyond the walls the castle he had lived his whole life in. It is a physically and psychologically taxing experience, and Williams conveys the scale of the lonely, harrowing journey not through density of prose but through sheer volume, stretching it across an entire 15-page chapter. Williams’s style falls somewhere between Martin’s unassuming prose and Harrison’s baroque extravagances, employing breathless successions of clauses and abrupt parentheticals offset by hyphens throughout the chapter.
In most works of epic fantasy, volume wins out over density, and the texture in fantasy lies not in density or complexity of sentences, syntax, or vocabulary, as it does in the works of Mervyn Peake, Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, or M. John Harrison, but in the physical presence of the 3, 6, even 12 books (in the case of the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series) that make up a series, and in the intricate plots, sprawling casts of characters, and depth of the constructed secondary world. Harrison eschews all of these hallmarks of fantasy and conveys that sense of scale through his weighty, virtuosic prose.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Fantasy: What it is Often Not (Game of Thrones Post)

At one point in an interview with China Miéville (mp3), Ursula K. Le Guin remarks on the ignorance of reviewers of the Harry Potter series. It was obvious these critics had little interest in or knowledge of fantasy, she says, as not one review she read mentioned her novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, which featured a young boy’s trials at a school for wizards, or any of the other novels that influenced or preceded Rowling’s series. Le Guin wasn’t disappointed that she didn’t get a shout out; she was disappointed that people who had no business reviewing fantasy were reviewing fantasy.

I find myself reacting similarly, albeit more apoplectically, to reviews of the new HBO series, Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series of fantasy novels. The majority of these reviews rely on lazy, received notions of what fantasy literature is and who reads it. This LA Times review, for instance, calls the series “an expensive leap into spectacular fantasy for a network whose reputation was built on nuanced, character-driven dramas geared toward adults.” What is Martin’s series if not a “nuanced, character-driven drama geared toward adults”? In the words of Simon Reynolds, whose work I love (he’s my favorite writer on music by far), it is literature “for wee lads and wee lasses...a world without the two key aspects of adulthood: work and sex. Which means that it is a world without class or psychology; Marx or Freud.” Reynolds echoes Michael Moorcock's classic essay on fantasy literature, “Epic Pooh”: “The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced.”

In the aforementioned Reynolds piece he reveals that his “idea of Proper S.F. comes from being a lapsed and then partially reactivated fan whose fandom was determined almost entirely by the New Wave of s.f.” Ironic, then, that he should critique Game of Thrones with the same arguments that were leveled against science fiction before the New Wave legitimized it. Treating Game of Thrones as if it were The Chronicles of Narnia just because they are both fantasy would be like treating Samuel Delany's work as if it were Robert Heinlein's just because they were both writing science fiction. New Wave writers like Moorcock and Delany grew up with science fiction and sought to transform the genre but by incorporating themes rooted in class and psychology, written from feminist, Marxist (or more generally left-wing), queer, minority, and postcolonialist points of view.

This is exactly what I see in Martin’s novels, though not as explicitly as in the work of the New Wave writers. Some of the characters in Game of Thrones think they are epic heroes or fairy tale princesses, but these characters often have their delusions shattered in the most brutal ways. The most recent episode (episode 2, “The Kingsroad”), Prince Joffrey, heir to the throne of Westeros, finds Arya Stark, daughter of Lord Eddard Stark, and a friend of hers, a common butcher’s son, dueling with sticks. Joffrey is outraged to see this commoner pretending to be a knight and tortures the boy, cruelly pressing the blade of his sword into the boy’s face until he draws blood. Joffrey’s bodyguard eventually strikes the boy down as he flees. Joffrey is insufferable, and we can only hope he gets what’s coming to him, but he still comes off as a character and not an archetype. He’s not simply fighting on the side of evil, as he would be in a dualistic Tolkienian allegory; his behavior is the product of a lifetime of deference and unwarranted praise, granted to him by his station in a rigid class society. Without getting too spoilery, Sansa Stark, Viserys Targaryen, and Eddard Stark, among others (those are the first that come to mind) all harbor some delusion—about how others see them, about how others are supposed to act toward them, etc.—that is, they act in the way archetypal fantasy characters in a morally dualistic fantasy world are expected to act—only to find out what they believed about their society and their place in it was disastrously misguided.

In a recent (well, recent-ish) blog post, sf author Charlie Stross asks for a steampunk that moves beyond a fetishization of the neo-Victorian aesthetic into a critique of class society and colonialism. Many of Game of Throne’s critics will say that fantasy needs to move beyond a fetishization of Medieval aristocracy and the ubermensch individualist hero, but it already has. There’s been a shift in the last decade away from the clichéd quest and clearly delineated good/evil dualism toward stories focused on characters at the bottom of the social ladder trying to survive in worlds where such black and white morality is laid bare as ideology. Just as the New Wave of science fiction critiqued the (individualist, elitist, chauvinist, and sometimes racist) politics of Golden Age science fiction, the best fantasy of the last 15 years critiques the same tendencies in its predecessors. Game of Thrones (and the novels the series is based on) is a part of that tradition, a tradition apparently unknown to mainstream audiences and critics.

The list of contemporary fantasy authors who are doing for their genre what the New Wave writers did for science fiction includes but is not limited to China Miéville, KJ Bishop, Scott Lynch, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, and Felix Gilman; they were preceded in the 70s and 80s by Ursula K. Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, Susan Cooper, and Robin McKinley.