You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


It's that time of year. Ten Best Lists appear in magazines ranging from Artforum to Death Metal Monthly. Like most people, I roll my eyes at the sight of them and then stay glued to the page from beginning to end.

So this year I have decided to jump into the fray and do some lists of my own. This is also my opportunity to completely sell out as a writer and "monetize" my blog. The Monetize tab is prominently featured on the blogger editing page. Several roads to riches are offered, but I have decided to become an Amazon Associate. Therefore you will begin to notice links to books and movies I discuss. In the unlikely event that a reader follows that link and purchases said book or movie, I receive --ok, I will come right out and say it -- 4% of the purchase price. I expect to soon be rolling in the extra coinage. (That, by the way, is Mammon himself to the right.)

I began experimenting some weeks ago, just to see how the process works. I went immediately to my heavily visited posting SOFT CORE NUN PORN AVAILABLE NOW, and made each title discussed into a hyperlink to Amazon. With knowledge gained by my years of retail experience, I even added some new box sets to the posting, thinking that would be a good way to raise the transaction value. Imagine my delight the next day! Although there had been no completed purchases, there were seven click throughs. People were at least looking, assuming those seven were not my own created while checking to see that the links worked.

I am not going to do a Ten Best List proper. Rather I am going to list a few authors I read for the first time this year and suggest why, beyond my personal financial gain, you might consider reading them yourself.

Chris Kraus is an art world denizen who has written three novel/memoir/essays, the first of which has the unsurpassable title I Love Dick (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents). Kraus is the wife, or by now possibly the ex-wife, of French theorist, publisher, and MIT professor Sylvere Lotringer. I hate to define some one by whom they are married to, but Lotringer is a major character in Kraus's work. In I Love Dick he is not only privy to her feelings for Dick, the west coast social theorist Dick Hedbridge, who's never fully identified in the book but it's pretty easy to figure out, but Lotringer also helps her compose the letters and emails that comprise their for the most part imaginary affair. What I have written so far does not convey just how funny the book is, and I don't know how to convey that aspect -- there are no incidents to describe or clever lines to quote--and so trust me when I say that is very funny. Also at times excruciating, and always precisely and elegantly written.

Kraus followed up I Love Dick with two more fictional outings, Aliens & Anorexia (Native Agents) (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)and Torpor (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents). Aliens follows her attempts to make a return to the art world as a filmmaker --are you cringing yet? After a very funny opening at a European film festival, the story backtracks to her successfully receiving a grant for travel to New Zealand, her homeland, where she is to make a feature-length, experimental film. For Aliens I can quote a funny line. Cast and crew have been assembled and it is the first day of shooting. Her DP asks Kraus what she has in mind for this scene, and Kraus writes in her book, "I realized that I had never thought of my film in visual terms."

Here's a quick summary of Torpor. Kraus and Lotringer decide that a good way to save their marriage will be to take a road trip through post-Soviet Eastern Europe and adopt a Romanian orphan along the way.

Chris Kraus is hard on herself in these books, which gives her permission to be scathing in her descriptions of the contemporary art scene and of the boys' club that is the world of French Post-structualist criticism. But these are presented as novels, and so maybe Sylvere Lotringer is not the total ass he appears to be.

Kraus is my cerebral pick of the year. For the purely visceral, I recommend David Ohle.

In 1972, Ohle published a short science fiction novel titled Motorman. It reads like an Outer Limits episode written by Samuel Beckett. Make that a really good Outer Limits episode with Beckett in a better than average mood. Its hero, Moldenke, inhabits a small apartment in a dystopian future where he receives threatening phone calls from a man named Bunce and knows that any trip outside his apartment is fraught with such dangers as chance encounters with Jellyheads. Jellyheads are pitiful, unpleasant, and dangerous. Reviews were good, sales ok, and it stayed out-of-print for about thirty years.

During those thirty years, Ohle taught at the University of Kentucky, Lawrence, where he got to know William Burroughs, Sr. Ohle did some editing and transcribed Queer and a couple more Burrough's novels. Burroughs asked Ohle to take a look at the posthumous manuscript left behind by his son, Billy Burroughs. It was a disaster, but Ohle turned it into the novel/memoir Cursed from Birth (2006).

When Ohle got back around to his own writing, he published in quick succession two sequels to Motorman, The Age of Sinatra (Soft Skull ShortLit) (2004) and The Pisstown Chaos: A Novel (2008). Moldenke remains a character, but what Ohle clearly relishes is concocting the outrageous indignities of his dystopian society. Having to help peddle the streetcars is one thing, but occasionally President Ratt institutes a forced Forgetting, which is only the extreme version of the forced relocations that are commonplaces. Society fights a losing battle against parasitic infections, what food there is is disgusting, and then there are the Stinkers. Stinkers aren't quite dead, live mostly underground, but when they surface they must be cared for. They have some sex angle working as well.

Ohle's novels are for connoisseurs of all things dire. When you think about it, they are really just about people getting by on getting by, doing whatever it takes -- even if that calls for tending a corral full of Stinkers or handing over a daily stool sample to the government men. They made me chuckle.

To end on a classier note: Norman Lock.

Definitely one of the best writers you've never heard of. He's written eight books and several works for theater. This year I read two novels, and Land of the Snow Men.

In Shadowplay, a master of the Javanese shadow puppet theater falls in love with a young woman whom he brings back from the dead by having his puppets act out her story. But don't think this is going to work out well. If you look for Land of the Snowmen on Amazon, you find it written by George Beldon, with Lock credited with the introduction. The bulk of the book is Beldon's increasingly hallucinogenic diary of Scott's famous Antarctic expedition, a diary Beldon composed while institutionalized and which Lock supposedly discovered while recovering from his own nervous breakdown.

The books are brief, perfectly told, totally engaging, and at times heartbreaking. I am wary when I read that someone is "a writer's writer." Often that's code for exquisitely crafted boredom. Lock, I'd say, is "a storyteller's storyteller," an altogether more promising moniker.

Here are some other available titles from these same authors.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


...A true saying is, this gluttony kills more than the sword; this all-devouring and murdering gut...And that of Pliny is truer, "Simple diet is the best; heaping up of several meats is pernicious, and sauces worse; many dishes bring many diseases."...Thence, sayeth Fenelius, come crudities, wind, oppilations, cacophymia, plethora, cachexia, bradypepsia, sudden death, etc., and whatnot.

An insatiable paunch is a pernicious sink, and the fountain of all diseases, both of body and mind.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


The world, or at the very least life as we know it, ended nine times for me this past year.

In January I went on a J.G. Ballard reading binge, starting from his first published novels, The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World. The one early Ballard I didn't read was The Wind From Nowhere, but Ballard has disowned that novel and it is both hard to come by and pricey. The fate of planet Earth in the three I did read is more or less self-evident from their titles. In The Drowned World water, set loose by solar flares that change the planet's atmosphere, floods the continents, leaving them to reptiles, fish, a few research scientists, and bands of outlaws. Pollution places a kind of impermeable skin over the ocean, prevents evaporation, and produces The Drought.It does start to rain again after a decade or so, but the first daffodils of spring remain a long way off and there will be only a handful of people, many of whom are not very nice, to enjoy them. The Crystal World is at heart a Graham Greene novel. The setting is Central Africa, the odor of gin and adultery are in the air, and everyone and everything is undergoing a sea change that leaves them encrusted in gorgeous crystals. The crystalized creatures, whether humans or crocodiles, possibly remain sentient in their new, paralyzed state. By the end of the novel we learn the process has begun in Miami Beach. As I said before, I did not read The Wind from Nowhere, but I assume that in Ballard's freshman effort a wind -- from nowhere -- causes a great deal of damage.

My January 2010 involved three apocalypses in as many weeks, and as I continued to read sf I found myself witnessing the end of the world about once a month. (Most sf takes place in distant futures where life is very changed but remains a continuation of the times in which the authors wrote and shows not proclivity towards immediate annihilation.) Here is a list of what does us in.

1) Environmental catastrophe (no fault of our own.) I would put The Drowned World in this group. In the distant future of Brian Aldiss' Hot House, a cooling sun and some other cosmic occurrences leave the earth covered by an enormous baobab tree, all manner of fantastic and fantastically dangerous plants, and bands of plucky, three-foot-tall humanoids. I read some one grousing that the science in Hot House is all hogwash, but its a fun story.

2) Environmental catastrophe (our bad.) The Drought obviously fits this category, but as a plot device, Ballard's thin membrane of pollutants over the surface of the ocean places a poor second to the strain of mutant Bermuda grass that conquers the planet in Ward Miller's Greener Than You Think.

3) Nuclear disaster. There are countless books with this theme, I just happened not to read more than one of them. Brian Aldiss' Greybeard takes place in a world where the unfortunate timing of secret nuclear tests releases radiation that leaves the world sterile. There are lots of old people. Towards the end there are some new young people. But they are very strange and hid out in the bushes or behind rocks.

4) Disease. The hero of George R. Stewart's The Earth Abides, lies in his mountain cabin feverish from a snakebite, and awakens to find that most everybody else has up and died. But there are others who proved immune to the disease, and we become involved in the lives of a community that makes it way into an unknown future. For the children born into this ruined world, it is all a kind of playground, so long as the canned goods hold out. The hero has carefully preserved the UC Berkeley library, so civilization can start again. But he realizes by the end he is witnessing a new society of hunter gatherers, illiterate kids already adept a developing better ways of catching fish and killing mountain lions. This book has really stayed with me, and I have forgiven it for inspiring Stephen King's The Stand.

5) Transfiguration. This is the most hopeful scenario. In Arthur C. Clarke's classic Childhood's End, the children of the earth take the next evolutionary step that propels humankind, if it still is humankind, into the greater consciousness of the cosmos. The Crystal World also fits this category, but putting a positive spin on its climax is only for the glass-half-full crowd.

6) It's bound to happen sooner or later. In Poul Anderson's Tau Zero, colonists headed for a new, earthlike planet find themselves on a ship gone out of control, its speed approaching the speed of light. They have aged only a few years by the time they realize that the Earth is dead. Eventually they are propelled so far into the future that the universes collapses and they ride out the edge of a second big bang. All that's left for them to do is hang around a few weeks until they can find a new planet about 6000 years old and makes themselves at home.

Which of these apocalyptic options still hold serious sway with the 21st century imagination? I don't think transfiguration is really in the running, except among web 2.0 types who await the singularity when our machines think for themselves and we become more or less useless. Maybe I'm naive, but even with North Korea and Iran currently lead by certifiably insane regimes, I don't spend my time worrying about nuclear disaster. The ongoing craze for zombies speaks to the continuing potency of disease metaphors, but the threat of an new superbug is not very high on my list of eschatological fantasies. That leaves environmental catastrophe, but only unpatriotic, lame-assed intellectuals still believe in that crap.

What's left out of this list of books, all published between 1950 and 1970, is the one event that now dominates our thinking about human extinction. Asteroids. Those deadly chunks of nickel and ice hurtling around space, just looking for a place to land. Didn't people know about asteroids back then? Not in the books I've been reading.

Personally, I put my extinction event money on an asteroid, meteor, comet, or some other not-so-heavenly body. It's going to happen sooner or later, maybe in 200 years or 2,ooo,oo0. But I really believe one of them out there has our name on it. And if a meteor was good enough for the dinosaurs, why shouldn't we be the next in line.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Abraham-men, beggars who counterfeited lunacy (named after one of the wards in Bedlam)

amphibological, ambiguous

balloon, a kind of football

Bavarian chin, or poke, goitre

ceruse, white lead used as a cosmetic

cockney-like, effeminate

cushion dance, a lively, romping dance, in which a cushion figured

dizzard, a blockhead

ethnics, heathens, pagans

fox, to intoxicate

fustilugs, "a sluttish woman who smells rank"

gubber-tushed, with irregularly projecting teeth

Indy-bone, ivory

metoposcopy, the art of discovering character from the lines of the face, especially the forehead

morphew, a scurfy eruption

noise, a band (of musicians)

pickitivant, a pointed beard

salvatella, the vein that runs into the little finger

smell-feast, a parasite, sponger

theologaster, a petty or contemptible theologian

trenchmore, a lively, romping dance

urchin, a hedgehog

woolward, wearing wool next to the skin, for penance

by Robert Burton (1577 - 1630)
New York Review Books (2001)

Monday, November 29, 2010


When I renewed my reading of science fiction back in June, I had in mind that Samuel R. Delany was a writer I was particularly interested in. (Astute readers will guess where this is heading.) The only thing I had ever read by Delany were a few scattered pages from his novel Hogg, possibly to this day the most obscene prose I have ever read. More on that later. But what I knew of Delany was intriguing. He was born in 1942, came from a middle-class African American Harlem background, and attended the Dalton School, that progressive Upper East Side Manhattan institution favored by affluent, artistic parents and characters in Woody Allen films. He began publishing sf around the age of nineteen and has always been considered among its more literary, experimental, and taboo-shattering practitioners. He is gay and often addresses questions of gender and sexuality in work that in addition to fiction includes memoirs and critical studies. Although he never completed a university degree himself, he is also an academic with a string of creditable appointments and currently heads the creative writing program at Temple University in Pittsburgh. Wesleyan University Press keeps much of his backlist in print.

What's not to like?

The only Delany book on the Pringle list is Nova (1968), but I bought up a range of his secondhand paperbacks, including his two most highly regarded works in their Wesleyan editions, Dahlgren (1974) and Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand (1984). Now I have to decide what to do with all these things, because reading them no longer seems like a possibility.

Delany was only twenty-five years old when he wrote Nova, which still makes it his fifth published novel. It's a space opera involving a crew of misfits led by a Lorq von Ray, a dashing, though facially disfigured, young captain who comes from a fabulously wealthy family with something of a pirate background. His nemesis, Prince Red -- and that is actually his name not a title -- comes from a rival, equally wealthy family, and has a mechanical arm that is responsible for our hero's scars. If I refrain from retelling anymore of the plot, it is not out of concern for inserting spoilers. I just like to keep these posts a reasonable length.

The book lost me two different ways. It has aged badly. However innovative the plotting and characters may have been in 1968, it reads today like a novelized version of any number of sy-fy network franchises. And when the literary flourishes appear, they come off as glaring attempts at elevating the style to some notion of what a modernist novel should be. The narrative also shows its age by the attention it pays to the tarot and the Holy Grail legend -- I could smell the patchouli oil and see the tie-dyed wall hangings as I read those parts.

So I am not a convert. I also read The Einstein Intersection, a Delany novella that was more fun that Nova but towards the end didn't make much sense. I quit worrying about that when I read elsewhere that ambiguous resolutions are a Delany trademark. But still what to do with Dahlgren, Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, and The Fall of the Towers trilogy. I remember Dahlgren as a million-copy bestseller when it came out that I considered reading at the time although I was already over science fiction. Many critics labeled it a masterpiece, and William Gibson writes the introduction to the Wesleyan reprint. But a Harlan Ellison review of the original publication reported giving up on it less than halfway through its 800 pages. And Philip K. Dick called it "a terrible book..I just started reading it and said this is the worst trash I have ever read. And I threw it away." And I respect Philip K. Dick.

I think the jury is still out on Delany more than I had been led to believe. And then there is the question of Hogg. When I was in the book business, I was offered 100 copies of Hogg from a publisher I had never heard of. He told me it was by Delany but was not sf and was "sexually graphic." I asked for a sample, mostly to make sure that it looked professionally published, and bought them. Since I knew we would be selling it based on Delany's name and its rarity the copy had been on my desk for several days before I even bothered to thumb though it.

I am not easily shocked. Actually I am more appalled that people read books and see movies like Eat, Pray, Love than I have ever been shocked by pornography. But what the hell was Delany thinking? What did he need to get off his chest? I hope he doesn't force it on his students at Temple.

Hogg is now in print from FC2, and reviews on sites like Good Reads and Amazon range from "disgusting filth" to "an important examination of the limits of human ... " We sold the first thirty copies or so for $10, then raised the price to $50. On ABE Books that original edition now ranges from $14 to over $100.

Both my read and unread Delany paperbacks are headed for the public library donation box. They should fetch the library between fifty cents and two dollars apiece.



Monday, November 22, 2010



When I began Potato Weather I had no aspirations to becoming a significant figure in the world of internet porn. But today I humbly accept my role.

Some background:

On April 5, 2010, I wrote a post on nunsploitation films of the 1970's and titled is SOFT CORE NUN PORN AVAILABLE NOW! It drew no comments at the time, although this past September a friend read it and kindly described it as "wonderful." I have always been fond of it myself.

About a month ago I noticed that Blogspot added to the menu of blogger services a tab for "Stats." From the start I had wondered why they didn't provide more information on site use, and initially I was concerned that perhaps the option had been there since I started in January but that I had never noticed it. Judging from conversation on the help forums, another area I had never explored, I determined that it must have started sometime in the summer.

The stats provide information on page views and where they come from. My new posts receive a handful of hits within the first week or two -- thank you -- but as it turns out traffic to Potato Weather is generated largely by international searches for "soft nun porn," with consistent interest originating in Japan and Turkey. (I thought I would prove my point by checking stats for the past twenty-four hours, but for some reason this weekend has been dominated by Canadians looking at the picture of a blueberry I posted on May 5, which come to think of it may imply even kinkier interests than those searches for nun porn.)

Within a month or so of starting the blog, I had moved to the top of the Google list for those searching "Potato Weather," nosing out a government pamphlet from the 1940's on when to plant potatoes. I currently also top the list for those searching "soft nun porn," a fact I contribute largely to the use of capital letters and the exclamation point in the posting's header, and the close-up of Bernini's St. Teresa in Ecstasy I used to illustrate the post tops the image search. Success breeds success.

Imagine the disappointment of those Turkish and Japanese teenagers who have waited for their parents to be out of the house so they can settle back for an evening of sexy nun pictures, only to find themselves on my website. I am surprised I haven't gotten death threats. There are, however, a few diehards using the Google translation service on the site, and so some users may actually be looking for info on nunsploitation films. Those are the ones who stay on the site longer than a minute. I have also seen searches for "anita ekberg porn," "nun horror," and with surprising frequency "nun ponr."

Those searching Google for "nun porn" minus the "soft" caveat get a different list of options, and Potato Weather appears nowhere on the first ten pages I checked. But then again, from what I can tell, those sites from the "nun porn" search mean business. Serious business. Strangely enough, on the "nun porn" image search my profile picture appears in the fourth line of options. Maybe Google knows something I don't.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Science Fiction as a prescient guide to future technology and society has never much interested me. I read recently that Jules Verne kept abreast of all the latest scientific journals just to up his odds on getting something right. But even with his background research he came up mostly with plots that today are absurd given almost any background in science. Occasionally you read that some writer predicted the internet or the types of computers that we now take for granted. And they "predicted" manned spaced flight, but who couldn't see that coming? But we've only gone to the moon, which is a far cry from the type of intergalactic travel on which much of sf depends. Who is holding their breath for travel faster than the speed of light, time machines, or telepathy as the common means of human communication? These are useful plot devices, as are our encounters with alien life forms. If we were to travel to other galaxies and meet up with aliens, they would be nothing like ourselves or else they would zipping around the galaxies as well. They would most likely be below our evolutionary development, anywhere from an early hominid or more likely a bacteria. If aliens came to see little ol' us, they would necessarily be so far advanced technologically that they might consider us lichens.

That said, there are moments in Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1952) where well-heeled advertising executives take off for a round of golf or a game of tennis and appear to be playing something very much like a Wii machine. But I don't think this constitutes a "prediction" of the Wii. It is an natural development from Pohl's and Kornbluth's imagining of a future world where space is so limited and the atmosphere so dangerous that anyone who can afford to stays inside.

If there are predictions in this novel, they are much more disturbing than executive pastimes or even the hint of severe global warming. In The Space Merchants, Earth has been monetized, states have been incorporated into commercial zones, and the government has forgone the fantasy of elected officials and allowed corporations to place their own candidates in the senate and the house. Given the recent Supreme Court ruling on corporations' free speech rights when it comes to political contributions, this development may far outweigh whatever foresight the authors showed when combining physical exercise with video games. The author team has also forecast the replacement of "commies" with "consies," dangerous environmentalists who, possibly because of some genetic defect, do not see the total exploitation of Earth and neighboring planets as a necessarily good thing.

The Space Merchants is a thriller in which Mitchell Courtenay, a Star Class Copysmith for the most prestigious ad agency in the universe, has been assigned the plum job of preparing a campaign for the colonization of Venus. This involves convincing pioneering sorts that it will be patriotic, exciting, and lucrative to make the move while not letting them know the planet is a hellhole. But corporate intrigues find Courtenay drugged and shipped to a Central American industrial plant where the algae used in manufacturing most of earth's food stuff is grown in conditions so degrading they could be confused with those on the banana plantations Dole maintained about the time the book was written. But Courtenay's innate abilities as a copywriter can serve him well even there, as well as in the Consie underground that he sees as his ticket out.

I read a review more or less contemporaneous with the novel that used it as a example of sf's failure as social criticism, an evaluation based on the fact that Madison Avenue types, the target of the satire, became one of the novel's most enthusiastic audiences. But of course they did. Didn't New Jersey and New York mafiosi tune in weekly to The Sopranos? Doesn't Hollywood loves to "expose" itself in films like The Bad and the Beautiful and The Player. Had The Space Merchants come out ten years later, I'm sure the producers of Mad Men would have placed a copy on Don Draper's nightstand. And he would have loved it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


2. Among the ancient Turks, male animals were regarded as the most acceptable form of sacrifice.

5. Kumis is fermented mare's milk. Marco Polo says of the Tartars..."Their drink is mare's milk, prepared in such a way that you would take it for white wine; and a right good drink it is, called by them Kemiz."

15. Neyrek's escape from Bayburt is narrated in the next story, in which the infidel king who imprisoned him is not named but must have been Parasar.

27. It was an ancient Turkish belief that the best horses were those sired by a supernatural stallion which came forth from a mountain, lake, or sea.

43. Red is still the colour of the bride's veil at village weddings in Turkey, though urban girls nowadays prefer white.

57. Among the Kirghiz it is still the practice to make ninefold gifts, and the animals given as bride-price -- camels, horses, or whatever -- are still given in multiples of nine, up to a lavish nine times nine.

63 This does not mean that the enemy will not seek vengeance, but that they are outside the community within which blood money, rather than blood, can be exacted.

71. The sense must be that weeping was far from him but suddenly found him.

74. Azrael is the name Muslims give to the Angel of Death.

78. A fine earthy vignette: the lice were dislodged because the old man was quaking with fear.

91. The Vatican MS reads "I saw a man with six heads."

99. To the Turkish ear, the name of Goggle-eye's lair suggests "slaughterhouse."

131. Perversity seems to be a characteristic of the people of this infidel city, including the young women in the mysterious penultimate line of the passage...

144. The meaning is that the prince should not allow anyone who is not an accredited bard to perform for him, the next sentence being a thinly veiled threat of supernatural retribution if he does so.

159. Noah, like many other Biblical characters, appears in the Koran as a prophet. According to Islamic legend, the ant was the first creature to enter the Ark, the donkey being the last because Ibis was holding its tail. Noah became impatient and cried out, "Come on, even if the Devil is with you!" whereupon the donkey and the Devil came on board together.

Selected from the endnotes to
The Book Of Dede Korkut
Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Geoffrey Lewis
Penguin Edition

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I have over the past months read enough mid-century sf to notice several recurring themes, and to have settled on a favorite. Several novels involve The Next Step in Human Evolution, and possibly as a subset of these novels are those that hinge on the question, Is Mankind Ready to Join Intergalactic Society? There are both novels that describe an Apocalyptic Event and those that concerned with life post-apocalypse. And there are those stories, for the most part zany adventures, set in somewhat dystopian but recognizable future versions of our own society, or rather that which could be imagined by the first generation of Post WW II writers. (Everybody smokes in these stories.)

But my favorite genre centers around Man's Encounter with Alien Intelligence. The best book I've read, make that the best sf book I've read this year is The Cold Dark Years by Brian W. Aldiss. (See NOT A STUNT: SF (7) BRIAN W. ALDISS) This short, dark comedy describes our disastrous, for them at least, encounter with gentle, advanced beings who cover themselves in their own excrement and with whom we cannot communicate. Things do not go well.

The last two books I've read are Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg and A Case of Conscience by James Blish, two very different novels that concern earth's involvement with intelligent life on newly discovered planets.

Silverberg conceived his novel while in Africa in 1969. By this time, most African nations had achieved independence, and Silverberg's novel takes place on the planet Belzagor, formerly Holman's World, a decade or so after relinquishment. This is the policy adopted by earth to return planets with advanced life forms to their original inhabitants, ceasing whatever colonial or industrial activities we had imposed upon them.

Silverberg's hero, Gunderson, was an administrator on Holman's World. Haunted by his experiences of the place, he is determined to understand at last the mysteries of the Nildor, the blue, elephantine creatures that are the planet's dominant life form. He arrives with a small group of well-heeled human tourists, there for a package tour. They are the novel's comic relief. What he finds are the rundown vestiges of the colonial period, and a planet where what few humans stayed behind after relinquishment have in one way or another gone native. (Yes, the spirit of Joesph Conrad hangs over this novel, and Silverberg, after he wrote it, worried that it was nothing more than a pallid Conrad imitation. It's both more than that assessment while not being anywhere near the Conradian model.)

Gunderson is there to witness the rebirthing ceremony central to Nildor culture, a ceremony they had always kept secret from the colonialist settlers. As he journeys from the tropic zone to the misty highlands -- this is all sounding sillier than it reads -- he encounters old acquaintances in their new post-relinquishment incarnations. There's Van Beneker, happy to be a tour guide until things break down completely. A very unfortunate couple at an abandoned outpost who have been invaded by a parasitic organism. It is using their bodies for the several year gestation period of its young. A former lover, once rather finicky about alien life forms, now walks around clothed only in a transparent, clinging amoeba that is both pet and garment. She tends to her husband Kurtz, who has undergone the rebirthing ceremony Gunderson has returned to experience. Kurtz is now a deformity in constant pain.

Gunderson's rebirth, when it occurs, goes rather better. He comes through it with only an inner transformation, a new, spiritual consciousness that gives him a messianic vision and purpose that I don't think readers are supposed to find as creepy as I did. As he leaves the mountains, he sees himself as "the resurrection and the light," and I thought we had already had one of those. With this religious denouement, Silverberg overplays his hand.

Religion is front and center in James Blish's A Matter of Conscience. Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is both a biologist and a Jesuit priest. He is part of a four-man team on Lithia, a planet that earth must classify as either suitable for human interaction or a hands-off zone.

Lithians are ten-foot tall reptiles balanced and their hind legs and with opposable thumbs that have gotten them pretty well advanced as a civilization. They are also an atheist's dream come true. Lithians are moral, peaceful, crime-free, and get along just fine with absolutely no concept of God or the spiritual.

Of the four men there to determine Earth's future relations with the planet, one sees its unusually high levels of lithium as a gold mine for the creation of nuclear weapons. Another thinks that for that same reason our policy should be hands off. One seems to be on the fence, and Father Ramon decides that the planet is the creation of Satan, designed to challenge humanity's faith. Their split vote ties up any final decision in committee where Father Ramon is relieved to assume it will languish for years.

Back on Earth, Father Ramon is excommunicated for heresy, since his theory about Lithia is a form of Manichaeism that grants Satan creative powers. But he has other problems. Just as his team departed the planet, a Lithian gave them an unhatched Lithian egg, which grows up to be a unruly young reptile with his own popular TV program and possibly the ability to muster the discontented youth of Earth into a seditious force. At this point I thought Egtverchi -- Lithians have unfortunate, unpronounceable sf names -- was going to become the Anti-Christ and Blish was prefiguring the Left Behind series. But no, Egtverchi stows away on a ship bound for Lithia, where, with his human concepts of right and wrong, he may prove to be the serpent in the garden of that particular Eden. The climax of the story can be interpreted either as God moving in his mysterious ways or a thermonuclear accident.

I don't go along with those reviews that call these books challenging and thought-provoking. That's the hermetically sealed sf world patting itself on the back for moving away from old-fashioned space operas. But I am beginning to find them irresistible entertainment, particularly when they are short, moderately well written, and feature lots of monsters.

Friday, October 15, 2010

NOT A STUNT: SF(10) Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson's Tau Zero (1970) has been my first encounter with hard sf. But this is not as spicy as it sounds. Hard science fiction is science fiction that takes its science seriously, or uses science as an integral plot element. This would distinguish hard sf from space operas, visionary fiction, social criticism, or those novels that are just zany romps through future worlds. Perhaps a few of the books I've been reading were "hard" to some degree, but I never took any of the science elements seriously. Mr. Anderson, however, is a trained physicist, and he is able to write persuasively about the predicament of his space pioneers.

What he writes about relativity and space travel all seems plausible, but then again I am an easy mark since I know nothing about the serious science at work here. Before reading this book all I knew about "tau" was that it was a letter in the Greek alphabet that appeared in crossword puzzles and came in handy while playing the various Boggle-style games I play online. (The fact you can add an "s" makes it doubly useful ) Apparently it is also a measure of speed when discussing the possibility of spacecraft approaching the speed of light. The lower the tau the faster the craft is traveling. Tau Zero would be the speed of light itself.

The fifty scientists, along with the crew members, have signed on for a trip aboard the Leonora Christine to check out an earth-style planet in a nearby galaxy. What for them will be a five year journey will use up 30 years of earth time. Even if they just go and come back they will find an earth void of most of the acquaintances and changed in God knows how many ways. If the planet is habitable, they are to stay, and eventually more colonists will join them.

Guess what? Something goes wrong. They pass through a previously undetected gassy nebula, and the jolt knocks out their retro rockets. In other words they continue to accelerate but have no means of stopping when they get to where they are going.

But these are smart people, remember. Plans are made to go off course to an empty-enough realm of space that shutting off their radioactive shields will not incinerate the ship, make the needed repairs, and then go on...somewhere...some nice galaxy that may have a habitable planet.

Meanwhile, life aboard the Leonora Christine becmes a soap opera. It is the duty of these brave pioneers to choose up partners they can start procreating with on their new planet. As tension mounts with the various catastrophes, the ship becomes a kind of intergalactic Peyton Place. Who's going to be with whom? Who's restless with their first partner? What clandestine affairs are taking place? Is mutiny brewing?

This all plays out with the level of character development you expect from a TV series like one of the Stargate franchises. And that is how it should play out. Tau Zero is 188 pages long. The last thing I would have wanted while reading it is another 100 or so pages of serious character development, which Mr. Anderson, and I do not mean this in a mean way, would have probably botched.

The cool stuff is the scientific predicament. They make the repairs, but there is no where to go. The ship travels faster and faster. Earth, or at the very least human life, almost certainly no longer exists. They are by now hundreds of millions of years into the future, and as their speed increases so does their mass. The Leonora Christine is not longer a spaceship that goes really fast, it has taken on the mass of a small star, and those little bumps the passengers occasionally feel are the galaxies they burst through, leaving who knows what level of destruction in their wake.

Then guess what happens? (Should I be posting "spoiler alerts:" on these blog posts?) They have traveled so far, so fast, that the universe has begun to shrink, just like scientists always said it would, although I don't think they necessarily say that anymore. The Leonora Christine now has to stay along the edge of this contraction so they can find the sweet spot that will allow them to ride out the next big bang.

Think about it. Riding out the next big bang while trying to get back together with your old girlfriend. That is one hell of a plot device.

There is a happy ending. They survive the big bang, and they are still traveling so fast that all they have to do is find a new galaxy about five billion years old and look for a habitable planet. It may be unrealistic to think they get lucky their first time out, but Mr. Anderson cuts them a break. Tau Zero concludes on a green planet, with twenty-five couples ready to start making babies for a new civilization.

Poul Anderson is an author who takes up several shelves in the sf section of any used bookstore. Although I enjoyed this, I am not inclined to read any further into his oeuvre. I don't mind sf writers with right wing political agendas or the misogynist attitudes of their day. But I cannot forgive Mr. Anderson for being a founding member of The Society for Creative Anachronism.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Language might not have entirely escaped its origins. Since you can be understood even when you are not well-spoken, what is the point of being well-spoken at all? Perhaps speaking well is still, in part, a form of sexual display. By being well spoken I show not only that I am an intelligent, clued-in member of the tribe but also that I am likely to be a successful partner and helpful mate.
Jaron Lanier
You Are Not a Gadget (2010)

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Abd Allah ibn Abi Qilaba the discoverer of the legendary city of Iram

Abu Murra literally, 'the father of bitterness,' meaning the devil

alif the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. It takes the shape of a slender, vertical line.

banj frequently used as a generic name referring to a narcotic or knockout drug, but sometimes the word specifically refers to henbane.

ghul a cannibalistic monster. A ghula is a female ghul.

al-Khidr "The Green Man," features in the Quran as a mysterious guide to Moses as well as appearing in many legends and stories. In some tales, this immortal servant of God is the guardian of the Spring of Life, which gives eternal life to those who drink from it.

Magian A Zoroastrian, a fire worshipper. In the Nights, the Magians invariably feature as sinister figures.

maisir a pre-Islamic game of chance involving arrows and in which the stakes were designated parts of slaughtered camels.

Malik an angel who is the guardian of hell.

Qaf Mount Qaf was a legendary mountain located at the end of the world, or in some versions one that encircles the earth.

rak'a in the Muslim prayer ritual, the bowing of the body followed by two prostrations

Ridwan the angel who is the guardian of the gates of Paradise

Shaddad ibn 'Ad legendary king of the tribe of 'Ad who attempted to build the city of Iram as a rival to Paradise and was punished by God for his presumption.

tagbut a term designating pagan idols or idolatry. By extension, the word was used to refer to soothsayers, sorcerers, and infidels.

'Udhri love this refers to the Banu 'Udhra. Several famous 'Udhri poets were supposed to have died from unconsummated love.

Selected from the Glossary to
The Arabian Nights
trans. by Malcolm C. Lyons
Penguin, 2010

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Dear Mr. Sturgeon,

This letter is something of an apology. I confess I had never considered you a serious writer. It's not as though I had ever read one of your books, but to me you were just another writer with a dozen or more titles in the science fiction section. I could see that you had won both the Nebula and Hugo awards, and that other sf writers frequently blurbed your books using the word "genius," but let's face it. All you guys have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards and you are always calling one another geniuses. Also, you are named after a big ugly fish.

But now I have read one of your books -- More Than Human, to be precise. I may hold off on the genius bit until I read a little more, but I confess I was impressed. The book has an interesting structure that makes for unusual, episodic plotting that comes together nicely in the end.

Congratulations all around.
You new BFF (Best FAN Forever)

I ended up not sending the above letter. I thought the end was a bit cute, and Theodore Sturgeon died in 1985. But I have found much to admire about the man. He does command an enormous amount of respect among fellow writers, and he is the author of Sturgeon's Law:

"Ninety percent of SF is crud, but then ninety percent of everything is crud."

More Than Human is one of those "next step in human evolution" novels, but rather than taking the grand, cosmological vision of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, Sturgeon's novel has a much darker tone. The representatives of Homo Gestalt, those possibly destined to replace us mere homo sapiens, are a motley crew. There is the telekinetic girl from an abusive background, two young African American girls who transport themselves naked wherever they want to go, a baby that appears to have Downs syndrome but is actually the brains behind the whole thing, and an exceptional young boy who kills the woman who I think may have been his mother. These five form a single being who, lacking any social contract with others of its kind, also lacks any sense of morality.

But enough about More Than Human. Theodore Sturgeon shot to the top of my admired author list when I learned he was the author of Killdozer, the 1944 short story that is the basis for the 1974 film of the same name.

Over twenty years ago, I turned on the television one Saturday afternoon and caught all but the first few minutes of the movie that I later learned was called Killdozer. This event had, over the years, taken on a dreamlike quality for me. When I told friends that I had watched a movie that involved a piece of heavy earth-moving equipment possessed by an alien intelligence, I found no one inclined to believe me. When they asked who supposedly starred in this film, things only got worse. Killdozer stars Clint Walker, Carl Betz, and Robert Urich. That's right, an actor most people thought disappeared when they cancelled Cheyenne in 1962, the man who played the father on The Donna Reed Show, and the most uninteresting actor in the world, if you exclude his performance in Invitation to Hell, a made-for-tv movie from 1984 where Urich and Joanne Cassidy move into a suburb and are asked to join a country club that has on its premises an actual doorway to hell. Whereas over the years I have found others who have seen Killdozer, Invitation to Hell appears to have been a movie for my eyes only.

When I saw Killdozer I didn't even know its title until I could find that day's newspaper. And even then I knew only its title. If I stumbled across it now, I would have searched it out on Internet Movie Database by one of its star's names and known all about it within minutes. I would have learned that Theodore Sturgeon not only wrote the short story but was a coauthor of the teleplay. (It was a made-for-tv movie, probably hoping to cash in on the short heyday of mechanized horror prompted by Steven Spielberg's made-for-tv movie Duel. Jerry London, the director of Killdozer did not have a career that followed the same path as Spielberg's. His filmography includes 90 projects, all done for television, including such highlights as eight episodes of The Rockford Files, twenty episodes of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, and two episodes of JAG. )

Killdozer also has its own Wikipedia entry, has provided the name for a rock band, and was once mentioned by both Conan O'Brien and Bevis and Butthead. It is also the title story in volume three of The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon.

So the wonders of technology have once again unwoven the rainbow, and Killdozer is no longer my closely held secret. At least it is not available on video. Amazon lists two out-of-print versions, an American VHS tape and a import DVD titled Killdozer le viol cosmique.

So answer this question, true or false:

Alan Rudolph's first film was titled Barn of the Naked Dead.

You should have the correct answer in about 30 seconds.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Ward Moore (1903 - 1978), one of the writers on the Pringle list, was new to me. And now it turns out that I have gone and read the wrong book.

I think I know how it happened. Since I was not familiar with Moore, I did in depth research on him. I read his entire entry on Wikipedia. His novel on the Pringle list is Bring the Jubilee (1953), an alternative history that imagines modern America if the South had won the Civil War. But while scanning sentence summaries of his other works on Wikipedia I noticed this brief entry:

Greener Than You Think , a novel about unstoppable Bermuda grass.

"Unstoppable Bermuda grass." I liked the sound of that. I honestly forgot the novel I was supposed to be looking for and checked Greener Than You Think out from the library. This is no ordinary Bermuda grass we are talking about.

The novel opens in Los Angeles with a down-on-his-luck salesman named Albert Weener answering, against his better judgment, a newspaper ad promising "$50 or more daily to top producers." It ends, decades later, with Weener, Josephine Spencer Francis, and a few others trying out a new formula of weed killer in a world that has already been consumed by mutant Bermuda grass, grass that grows 100 feet tall and can root not only in soil but in concrete, brick, wood, glass, and I suppose the decomposing humanity left in its wake.

This is a very funny book, with a cast of characters that includes Weener and Miss Francis --she's the kitchen scientist who creates the growth formula that mutates the grass-- along with stock characters such as a constantly fulminating newspaper editor, a drunken ex-Naval officer, and a battalion of inept politicians and scientists. Several reviewers on Good Reads have complained that the characters are unlikable. I can't remember who it was, but I know I recently read an established novelist wondering why Amazon reviewers so often make that complaint. Who says characters have to be likable? Especially in the rarified field of apocalyptic comedy. Miss Francis, at least, keeps working on a solution, right up to the very end. As she insists, these things take time. But Albert Weener is Moore's brilliant creation. He's a self-absorbed hustler who during the course of the novel stumbles into becoming one of the wealthiest men in the world. It is not until those final few days, as the grass consumes Europe and the British Isles, that he begins to think this situation might be getting really serious.

Ward Moore wrote very little. He worked in a bookstore in Chicago, was maybe briefly in the Communist party, moved to California, and wound up the book editor for Frontier, a West Coast magazine along the lines of The Nation. At times Greener Than You Thnk gets a bit long-winded, but it has the distinction, as far as I know, of being the most enjoyable end-of-the-world novel out there.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


...I think it does students of literature good, after hard and serious reading, to relax their minds and invigorate them further for future efforts. It would be suitable recreation for them to occupy themselves with the kind of reading that not only affords simple diversion derived from elegance and wit, but also supplies some intellectual food for thought -- just the qualities I think they will find in this work of mine...I too wanted to leave something for posterity, and didn't want to be the only one denied these flights of fancy, and since I had nothing true to report (having never experienced anything worth recording), I turned to lying. But I am much more honest in this than the others: at least in one respect I shall be truthful, in admitting that I am lying. Thus I think that by admitting that nothing I say is true I can avoid being accused of it by other people. So, I am writing about things I neither saw nor experienced nor heard from others, which moreover do not exist. and in any case could not exist. My readers must therefore entirely disbelieve them.

I started once from the Pillars of Hercules, and with a favourable wind I set sail for the Western Ocean....

Lucian, A True Story
Trans. by C.D. N. Costa
Oxford University Press

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


My two cats get canned food every Sunday, and I only buy them Fancy Feast. When I pick up a month or two supply, I always spend a mesmerized moment in the pet store, overwhelmed by the over fifty varieties on offer. On any single trip, I never buy two of the same kind. I go for a balance of fish, mammal, and poultry and make sure that I mix grilled, flaked, minced, and chunky varieties.

Some of the choices sound like either questionable or poorly translated items on a Chinese menu. Gravy Lovers Salmon Feast in Seared Salmon Flavored Gravy. Sliced Chicken Hears and Liver Feast in Gravy. Flaked Chicken and Tuna Feast. Flaked Tuna and Mackerel Feast.

I had a problem with that last one. The orange cat picked around the mackerel but fortunately the gray cat wolfed it down,

Actually that's not true. They eat any and all of it. They could care less about the ingredients. They like it because its meat and its soft. The only thing I notice that they really do prefer is the gravy. It must be fun to lick.

Those varieties are for me, not the animals. With that in mind, I have submitted some ideas for new, cat-centric entrees for the folks at Fancy Feast.

1) Sparrow Guts and Roach Bits Feast in Gravy.

2) Baby Gecko Feast, Grilled in Gravy

3) Duck Pate Meant for Dinner Guests But Left Unattended on the Counter Feast

4) Compressed Crane Flies with Envelope Glue Feast.

I could go on, but now it's time for you to make up your own. I'm off to collect more crane flies.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


This whole SF thing started because I spent most of last January reading J.G. Ballard novels. Even though I knew they would be science fiction and that I officially neither liked nor read science fiction. I had always made an exception of Ballard and Philp K. Dick. Everything else I had turned my nose up at since around 11th grade.

But when I read a book of Ballard's essays and reviews, I had to come to grips with how seriously he took the field. It was enough to make me take another look, especially once I stumbled across Jim Pringle's 100 Best Science Fiction Novels. Here was list covering the years 1949 - 1985, sprinkled with books I had read as a teenager, and with the added attraction of providing a limited set of titles that did not require my trying to make my way through the current field.

Hence, these to date seven blog posts on specific science fiction writers or novels, and a stack of used paperbacks on my desk that would not be out of place on the shelf of the worlds geekiest ninth grader, circa 1975. (I have had more than one friend, who for some unfathomable reason does not read my blog, take a look at this pile and ask, "What is this about?")

One of Ballard's particular enthusiasms was Brian W. Aldiss, some one I had never read although I knew that he was generally considered "good." I have always had a hard time dealing with the fact that he had written books with the titles Frankenstein Unbound and Dracula Unbound. Without ever having cracked one, I had written them off as quickie pastiche novels of the lowest order. But now I want to read them, because I want to read everything Mr. Aldiss has ever written.

Aldiss has three books on the Pringle list: Non-Stop (1958), Hothouse (1962), and, Greybeard (1964). I read them all and thoroughly enjoyed them. But what really knocked me out was a short book I read for extra credit, The Dark Light Years (1964). If there is anything I dislike more than having someone give me a book to read, it is the impulse I sometimes have to fight back to do the same. The Dark Light Years is that book. Really, you ought to read it. It's great.

The plot, such as it is, goes something like this. After centuries of zipping around the galaxies, humankind has found all manner of extra-terrestrial life, but never of such intelligence that we would hesitate either putting them in earth's new Exozoos or using them as target practice. But then we encounter the Utods, beings with several million years of racial memory, along with the ability to man spacecraft. The only problem is that they look like six-legged hippopotami, except for when they retract their legs and resemble giant, recumbent yams, and their vocal system is so complex we cannot possibly master it, although they have an irritating habit of repeating whatever we say. Oh, and they cover themselves with their own excrement. That's the deal breaker.

Man and Utod is is that trainwreck that has been waiting millennea to happen. . We transport a few specimen to earth, put them in a zoo, study them, puzzle over them, hold scientific debates about them, and since we are convinced, wrongly, that they feel no pain, we vivisect them. Occasionally we hose them down, although they clearly do not like it. They are touched if confused when one of the scientists observing them takes a crap in their cage. None of this really amounts to much since by the end of the novel a "Contained War" between Brazil and England has turned into a true intergalactic conflagration, and they are essentially wiped out, along with most of everything else.

One reviewer on Good Reads called this the most depressing book she had ever read. I don't think she appreciates just how dark comedy can be. In the other Aldiss books I read, people take journeys and learn things. The semi-savages living in "quarters" on the giant spaceship in Non-Stop, struggle their way to "Forward" and discover the mystery of their circumscribed lives. The three-foot-tall arboreal humanoids in Hothouse learn that fending for themselves will involve more than simply following the old ways. (Hothouse is actually pretty silly but fun, and you get to discover the surprising role of the morel mushroom in human evolution.) Greybeard inhabits an post-apocalytic England where he must confront the fact that his world will die out, and that what ever shows signs of surviving is beyond his help or comprehension.

In The Dark Light Years, nobody learns squat. Mankind, very much concerned with both the day-to-day problems of being such superior beings as well as concerned about our own future, continues to spread death through the universe as surely as those first Europeans spread small pox and flu to the New World. But all is not lost. London we learn has been destroyed, but there are plans to rebuild. On a limited scale, of course.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I am pretty good at literary quizzes, and I especially like those where you identify a work based on its first line. I always get this one right: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." That's the opening of 1984 by George Orwell. I have never read 1984.

Orwell's novel is the first on the list of David Pringle's Best 100 Science Fiction Novels, the list I have been choosing from for these blog postings. It is the one book on the list that I can tell most any of my friends that I have never read and expect always the same response, "I can't believe that."

Is it unimaginable that I have never read 1984? I have read a lot of other books. According to my Good Reads list, I have read 84 books since the first of the year. Even though that number may be inflated because so many have been relatively short sf novels, I still consistently rank above the national average for "books read per year," which according to the Washington Post is four It's just that in my case none of them has ever been George Orwell's 1984.

Friends ask, "Didn't you have to read it in high school?" No, I did not. I am a victim of American public school education, 1957 - 1969. We didn't have to read books. We made books reports, choosing I suppose from a list of acceptable titles. (1984 was possibly on these lists.) But never in my English classes were we all assigned the same book for outside reading, and there were certainly no such things as Summer Reading Lists. It was during this time that I read several of the other books on the Pringle list: Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters; several by Ray Bradbury, who was my idol at the time; and, in seventh grade about half of us read Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. (This was only a year after the Cuban missile crisis and we all still thought we might be blown up in the near future. I think Alas, Babylon remains popular on reading lists for early teens. Apocalypse never goes out of style.)

I could blame Aldous Huxley for the fact that I never read 1984. I had around that same time read Brave New World and found it dull. It was a poor introduction to dystopian fiction, as well as probably a denser and more adult novel than a thirteen-year-old needed to read. I have ever since associated the Huxley and the Orwell novel, and never picked up the latter.

So what difference does it make if I go to my grave having never read 1984? As with most rhetorical questions the answer, I think, is obvious. None whatsoever. There are no more pop tests in my future. I don't think I will lose any friends having revealed my dark secret. And I still get that question right on Famous First Line quizzes.

I am feeling brazen. Here are some other things I have never read.

1) Anything by Charles Dickens from beginning to end. (There might be an exception for A Christmas Carol, although it could be that I have seen so many film adaptations so may times that I feel I know it by heart."There is more gravy than grave about you, Marley.")

2) No Faulkner since 9th grade. And then I only had a go at The Sound and the Fury and felt pretty much at sea the whole way through it.

3)Very little that would have been considered "age appropriate" when I was in elementary school and junior high. No Black Beauty or Old Yeller - saw the movies. (Films adaptations of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells made me want to read the originals, which I discovered were long and had few if any of the Ray Harryhausen monsters found on screen. A TV presentation of John Huston's Moby Dick lead to a disastrous encounter with that novel when I was around eleven. I have read it a couple of times since)

4) Nothing by Dostoevsky.

5) None of the following: Tony Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, John Irving, Jack Kerouac, or Stephen King.

I have a copy of 1984 sitting in front of me now. I still don't know if I will read it. For one thing it has the wrong cover. The one pictured above is the proper cover. It also has that ugly, Signet Classic typeface -- so dark it looks like a stain, narrow margins. Whether I ever read it or not will remain my own, dirty little secret.

Friday, August 6, 2010


My disdain for science fiction reached its peak in the mid to late seventies. I was working in a used bookstore, and more and more of what went into the sf section featured dragons or gladiators with leopard heads on the cover. It was the fantasy invasion, and the baleful influence of J.R.R. Tolkien was everywhere. Spaceships gave way to cliff dwellings reached only by young couples in loin cloths riding pteradactyls. Overnight it seemed aliens went from looking like respectable, multi-tentacled, horny invaders from another galaxy to gnomic helpmates. Who could take such crap seriously?

I was egged on in my disdain by a co-worker who shared my feelings. He, too, had read science fiction as a child. (We were now in our ultra-mature mid-twenties.) We noticed that just about every other science fiction paperback we shelved had won a Hugo, a Nebula, or a some kind of award. How hard could it be, we wondered. We decided to have a contest to see which of us could win a Hugo or Nebula award before the other. It could be in any category, although we admitted that Life Time Achievement was setting the bar to high. The only requirement would be that the story, novella, or novel had to end with this sentence:

I never knew kweqwolhs could cry.

The idea probably kept us amused for the better part of an afternoon, but I thought of it again when reading Clifford D. Simak's Way Station. This novel did not win a Hugo or a Nebula, but it is saturated with the kind of writing that had convinced me by the mid seventies that science fiction was a second-rate genre no longer worthy of my attention.

The plot concerns one Enoch Wallace. (Now this sounds like a Twilight Zone introduction.) Enoch is a Civil War veteran who 150 years later continues to maintain his family's home in the backwood of Minnesota. Thanks to a visit by an intergalactic traveler, Enoch runs a way station for other such travelers and also never ages. People in the backwoods of Minnesota keep to themselves, we are made to understand, and so the oddity of Enoch's perpetual youth is noted but never inquired about. (And I thought I left my neighbors alone.)

Way Station does a have a plot, and if it had been written by some one else, say someone with a sense of humor, it could have been pretty good. Of course Enoch is not a sophisticated man, although over a century of contact with species from across the galaxies has given him a perspective on life not likely to be shared by his Minnesota hillbilly neighbors. But there is a deadly earnestness to the prose that expresses this thoughts that would not be out of place in a high school literary magazine.

He stood upon the rock and stared out across the river, watching the lazy hawk and the sweep of water and the green carpeting of trees, and his mind went up and out to those other places until his mind was dizzy with the thought of it. And then he called it home.

Simak's treatment of his very special female character, a mute young lady from an abusive backwoods family who can heal the broken wings of butterflies, is especially cringe-inducing. But she does have her good points, as when she turns out to be the key link between some pissed off aliens and the annihilation of the earth. ("A little child shall lead them.")

Of the mid-century sf I have read over the past month or so, this is the third novel to concern itself with mankind's readiness to enter the galactic fraternity of advanced beings. The topic must have been in the air during the 1950's, a neat fit with threats of atomic annihilation, UFO sightings, and cold war politics in general. Looking ahead to what comes up next on the Pringle list, writers soon seem determined to prove that their dystopian vision of the future could outdo that of their peers.